Posts Tagged ‘yapese’

The Mystery of Yap

Do you know of any destination in the world where the airport code is the same as the name of the place? Welcome to Yap! Situated between Guam and Palau in the Federated States of Micronesia, this tiny island paradise is unknown to many…

If you want to learn more about the Yapese culture but you can’t afford an exotic trip to the Western Pacific, don’t worry! This blog will introduce you to this magical place of stone money, flying fish, fruit bat soup, and topless islanders with betel-stained teeth who never stop smiling… It’s the true island feeling you’ve always dreamed of.  So “Mogethin”! You already know how to say “Hello” in Yapese .



We often hear the phrase “Money is just paper”. It is light and colored, and looks almost the same in all countries. But what if money is made out of stone, it is heavy and costs more if someone died because of it? That’s exactly the case on Yap.

Yapese money, also known as “rai” was first invented on the island of Palau when a man tried to carve a stone in such a way that it would resemble the shape of the moon. In order for him to carry it, he had to carve a hole in the middle of the disk. The Yapese embraced the idea and soon it became their official currency.

According to the article  “The Stone Money of Yap: A Numismatic Survey” , the money ranges from a foot in diameter to about ten feet or even more. The value is determined by how the disk got transported to the island. The more difficult and hazardous it was, the higher the value.

The supply is now fixed since no more rai are being carved or imported from the neighbor islands. What matters to the Yapese is not the quality of the disk’s carving but who the owner is and how they got it.

Even though the US dollar is their de facto currency, one can still buy property on the island using rai that has a high value to the Yapese. There are around 6,800 rai scattered on the island and its inhabitants know the owner of every single disk. They don’t move the money because every inch of Yap is private property and that accounts for a certain etiquette among the islanders. More about that fascinating code of behavior, coming up in the next post.

The Betel Nut (Buu)

If you do some research on the title of this post, you would find that the way most people describe this part of Yapese island life is wrong. Because betel is a leaf that grows on a betel vine. This special leaf is then chewed along with the Areca nut which is the seed of the Areca palm tree found in tropical areas such as Yap.

The reason why this betel nut combination is so interesting is not only because of its symbolic meaning in Yapese rituals but also because it is a psychoactive drug. In small quantities, it has the effect a cup of coffee would normally have. But since the Yapese may mix in tobacco with the betel leaves, it quickly becomes addictive.

According to Wikipedia, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regards the chewing of betel and areca nut to be a known human carcinogen. And it has indeed proven to be cancerous. Another powerful quality that the nut has is that it can stain your teeth for life should you become a heavy user. The Yapese start chewing betel and areca at a very early age and thus their teeth are permanently colored red or orange which in ancient civilizations was considered attractive.  But the nut is also believed to be a good remedy for bad breath and cavities as well as a natural stimulant and a medicinal source.

Even after reading what the betel nut combo can do to you, there is one thing you should know: If you are lucky enough to visit Yap, and the hospitable islanders offer you the nut, you should take it, relax and have a chew. This is how you will be welcome to the island, it will show you that you are accepted and esteemed.

The Habele Outer Island Education Fund explains that since the buu is hard to grow, it is cherished by the Yapese as treasure. The same source also tells that most people keep it hidden, because there is an obligation to share it if you have it so people stash some of it in their homes. So if someone asks “fang halai buu” (give me betel nut to eat) or “fang haluch buu” which means give us betel nut, you should think fast! The one who is not willing to share it is called a “moegloech” or stingy person, “while those who give away their buu too readily, are labeled “hachperang” for their efforts to win favor or approval by showing off.”

Yapese people chew betel nut as a way to socialize or when they need to focus and think before speaking at meetings. They offer betel nut as a sign of goodwill to guests and the core message is to slow down. Your best bet as a newcomer is to share what you have and enjoy the buzz which is an essential part of the true island experience.

Dress Code and Best Behavior

Yapese culture is indeed intact. Even though the island is open to tourists, all visitors are expected to respect the traditions and norms of Yap.

For example, all Yapese women are required to always cover their thighs when they are in public. They are bare breasted which is as fine as men wearing no shirts. But when it comes to showing your legs in public, it is very inappropriate and disrespectful.

Therefore the Yap Visitors Bureau recommends that bathing suits are only worn for swimming, on a boat or by the pool. They say long shorts or sarongs are fine, as are jeans or slacks but men should not wear shorts that are “too short”. Walking around town in skimpy or transparent attire will put you on the radar and you will not feel welcome on the island.

Women are also expected to sit properly. Squatting in public is considered improper and disrespectful.

If you decide to take a stroll at night, make sure you have a light with you, especially if you plan to enter a village. Walking with no light in the dark is a sign that you are looking to cause trouble.

Last but not least, do not walk around villages empty handed. The Yapese would think you are visiting the area with no purpose but to cause trouble. The Visitors Bureau advises that  a small branch (Muteelpaaq) would do if you don’t have a handbag to walk around with.