The Betels and the Stones
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Yap's northern 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 currency.

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 toilets.
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.

Going nuts
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.

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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.

Hard currency
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.

Coconut climber- a village boy shinnies on up in search of quick refreshment

Getting there
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 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 email: 


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391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
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ISSUES 349-