The Betels and the Stones
coastline sees few tourists
Simon Rowe rolls
with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
Titus Yilus adores the Stones. His
sun-blackened skin and betel-stained teeth might lend him a fierce warrior quality, but
his expression softens when you ask him about his most prized possessions. It's not the
riff-heavy LPs of Jagger et al that you're likely to find around his simple wood and
thatch-roofed house in Cagil Village, but something far heavier. Stone money is the
ancient symbol of Yap, one of Micronesia's most isolated and change-resistant island
nations, and for Yapese like Yilus it remains an acceptable, albeit weighty, form of
Lying roughly halfway between Guam and the Philippines, Yap's 160-odd islands, atolls and
islets are strewn over 400,000 square miles of ocean throughout the West Caroline Islands
group. The day I touched down on its steaming tarmac, Yap's airport was abuzz-literally.
Dragonflies the size of mini-buses clouded the air, dive-bombing the new arrivals and
causing a group of outbound Japanese honeymooners to seek refuge in the terminal's
Yap's customs officers had seen it all before and seemed content to sit back and spit
betel juice at the insects as they winged past. Behind all the commotion, a row of
bare-breasted women sat nursing bags of betel nut-a sight that contrasts spectacularly to
the chic duty-free malls of Guam, 30 minutes by plane to the north.
"Two years ago, both the airport terminal and hospital were
stained so thoroughly with betel juice that authorities decided to paint the floors
red-for the sake of decor continuity!" Tamag claimed
Yapese, you quickly realize,
are fiercely protective of their culture. Neckties are "officially banned" and
traditional dress is encouraged, even mandatory, on the outlying atolls of Fais, Ulithi
and Woleai. In Colonia, the islands' sleepy commercial hub, it's not uncommon to queue for
a cold Coke and ice cream behind groups of bare-breasted teenagers, or to chat with a
loinclothed Chief's Council officer while he types up monthly accounts using Windows95.
"The old ways of star navigation, house building and fishing are gradually being lost
to Kawasaki outboard motors, global positioning systems and Budweiser," says John
Thargnan, coordinator of the Yapese history department in Colonia. Thargnan, whose
sun-bleached clothes and wild gray hairdo make him instantly recognizable on Colonia's
streets, welcomes the new technologies but laments his nation's struggle to preserve its
fragile traditions in the face of changing times.
One aspect of island culture that is unlikely to change is its insatiable appetite for
betel nut. Yap's enormous red-lipped immigration officers were my first contact with
betel-the mild narcotic plant used widely as a social stimulant throughout the
Asia-Pacific region. Its not just the sumo-sized passport controllers who chew it (a small
splotch of red saliva landed on page 13 of my passport); the customs officers, taxi
drivers, supermarket cashiers and restaurant waitresses are all partial to betel.
|A small shelter on Bechiyal's
lagoon in Northern Yap
Once when I was traveling
between villages, an entire busload of 14-year-olds was chewing it. Now and again one
rangy kid would stick his head out the window and dispatch a huge red glob into the
roadside jungle. The nut, whose effect is likened to smoking strong tobacco, gives a warm,
numbing buzz. Outside Colonia's Ocean View Hotel, I watched businessman Joseph Tamag split
open a green nut, smear it with coral lime and wrap it tortilla-like in a pepper leaf. The
combination, as he chewed it thoughtfully, turned slowly from green to blood-red in his
mouth. "Two years ago, both the airport terminal and hospital were stained so
thoroughly with betel juice that authorities decided to paint the floors red-for the sake
of decor continuity!" Tamag claimed.
Colonia itself is a veritable Eden, enveloped by lush rainforest
and private market gardens that thrive in the humid sea air.
In the cool morning half-light, I set out from Colonia to Nimar Village along one of Yap's
ancient stone paths. Wood smoke and laundry soap mingle on the morning breezes, and foot
traffic amounts to three half-naked women carrying pandanus baskets of taro roots. Yap's
stone paths are not easy to find without directions. Chipped smooth by years of local
motion, they wind through groves of breadfruit trees, pandanus palms and plots of taro,
still providing easy travel between villages.
Colonia itself is a veritable Eden, enveloped by lush rainforest and private market
gardens that thrive in the humid sea air. Banana trees strain under the weight of their
fruit, bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers grow like weeds among the vegetable plots, and a
massive banyan tree-the largest I've seen in the Pacific-stands above Yap's post office
like a giant umbrella spanning 50m across its canopy.
For World War II history buffs, the jungle still harbors a rusting relic or two. Like its
neighboring island groups of Chuuk (Truk) and Palau, Yap served as a steppingstone for
advancing Japanese forces, and later, during the closing days of the Pacific War, a
staging point for kamikaze missions against the American task forces. Half-hidden in
speargrass near the new airport, an intact anti-aircraft gun stands sentinel over the
mangled fuselages of two Zero fighter planes, both destroyed on the ground by American
Liberator bombers in 1944.
Outside the Filipino Cafe
in Colonia, two rusted 50-caliber machine guns decorate the steps, while inside hang
copies of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Pittsburgh Sun-Herald announcing the bombing of
Pearl Harbor and the signing of the armistice. "WAR! Oahu bombed by Japanese
planes-six known dead, 21 injured at emergency hospital," read the immortal
headlines. While relic-hunters explore the interior, others can venture into the coastal
villages to seek out its bizarre stone money paths, called "banks." Locating
villages is not difficult, though gaining favor with the local chiefs requires subtle
formalities that are better left to a native guide.
Pushing his old Nissan sedan along the newly built airport highway, Titus Yulus, with me
in tow, tops speeds of 30km/hr-slow enough for Yilus to light one cigarette with another.
It takes us half a packet of Marlboros to reach Balabat Village, the site of a large
stone-money bank. Yapese call their stone money rai and, according to Yilus, the epic
tales of death and heroism involved in bringing it to the islands are still passed down
through the generations.
Each disk, hewn from marblelike calcite, came by canoe and raft across 400km of open sea
from Palau Island in southern Micronesia. The hazards determined the money's final value,
and on some disks found on Gagil island, north of Colonia, you can see the engraved names
of the men who died bringing them to Yap a hundred-odd years ago. These days, quirky
promotions for its most ancient symbol abound. From doughnut-shaped hotel soaps to carved
wood key rings and car number plates, leaving the islands sans souvenirs is the least of
your problems. Just don't try to pocket the small change.
climber- a village boy shinnies on up in search of quick refreshment
Located in the Western Pacific, Yap is roughly south of Guam and north of Palau, in the
Western Caroline Islands. Continental Micronesia flies to Yap twice weekly (Wednesdays and
Sundays) from Guam and Manila. Where to stay Check out the Yap Visitors Bureau site at
www.visityap.com for a full list of hotels available. Recommended is the Pathways Hotel,
PO Box 718, Yap, FM 96943, which has double/single cottages from $115/125 per night that
include airport transfers and continental breakfast. Manta diving packages start at $400
for 3 nights/2 days of diving. For bookings, tel: 691-350-3310, fax: 691-350-2066 or