May 2008: I was seeking an island in Oceania that still clung to its old way of life. In a world of globalization and rapid change, I have always felt that seeking out the world’s last traditional cultures was a race against time. This is especially true with all of the missionary activity on these islands, which I am not opposed to, but I am opposed to the transformation of a culture by missionaries. I don’t think that God requires all of the world’s cultures to become westernized in order to be saved. My quest to find such a place led me to the island of Yap in Micronesia. Sure, Micronesia like all places was changing but it and its outer islands maintain more traditional elements of its culture than most Pacific islands. This is the story of the 4 days I spent  in Yap. 

 

About Yap

Location of Yap

Yap, an island archipelago where the Yapese people live, is one of the many islands that form the vast island archipelago nation of Micronesia. Due to its geographical isolation and its determination to resist change, Yap has stubbornly held on to its traditions. Another reason for this is because it is so hard to reach Yap. There were few flights flying there when I went and the only one, a Continental Airlines Island hopper flights, was far too expensive for most tourists to every visit. I was fortunate and had collected enough airline miles to get me there, so I didn’t have to buy a flight. Yap is also unique because of its use of stone money-donut shaped stones as big as 12′ across that are still used for ancestorial transactions when land is exchanged or between families in marriage. Traditional structures, meeting halls are still commonplace, and villages are connected via ancient stone paths.  Many of the people have Yap continue to wear traditional clothes, thu-a kind of lion cloth for men, and sarong with beaded necklaces and no covering over the breasts for women. Also, many superstitions of ghosts, magical underwater cities are still embraced.

 

Getting There

I flew to Yap from Palau in the Continental Airlines Boeing 737, arriving in the middle of the night. There are only a few flights to Yap every week and no direct flights from Asia or North America. The airport was small, and all passengers disembarked via stairs directly from the plane and walked across the tarmac into the airport immigration hall. As the passengers exited the plane, mostly Micronesian people but also a few foreigners in Yap to scuba dive, a group of topless teenage girls dancing and singing in sarong skirts greeted us. most of the girls were so young that I figured this activity would be illegal if it were to occur in the USA. I would have taken a photo, but I was caught completely un-prepared by the event and my camera was too packed away and it seemed a little embarrassing to break out my camera at that moment.

 

My Bungalow Guesthouse

There aren’t many places to stay on the island and I didn’t want to stay in a sterile diving hotel in Colonia, the capitol. Instead, I found a small bungalow-called the DJ Bungalow made in traditional thatch that juts out over the water at high tide. A Yapese family that owns the land built a few burets and hopes to earn some extra income from tourism. The bungalows are in a remote end of the island located down a series of dirt roads and within walking distances to traditional villages. For meals, the family that runs the bungalow will cook traditional meals with fresh fish caught from their ancestral reef, fresh fruit, coconut and taro. This was exactly the kind of place I was looking for.

 

Where I stayed in my bungalow

Where I stayed in my bungalow

The beach along the village where I stayed

Outside of my bungalow, I walked the series of dirt roads through coconut palms, jungle and lush family-owned gardens growing all kinds of tropical fruits. During a walk, I noticed a small jeep lying upside down with a woman inside. There was no one else around and I couldn’t believe that a car on this lonely road could end up upside down. The woman was flailing her arms around and I ended up pulling her out through the window. She was in a state of shock and as I sat with her another person walked by and immediately went to get help and a few villagers soon showed up to escort the lady to get medical treatment. She thanked me and I later discovered she was the wife of the village chief, and it became big news around the area that a foreigner helped the chief’s wife and people would thank me and I was even presented with a dinner of gratitude from the chief’s family.

 

Interisland roads

Scuba Diving with Manta Rays

Manta Rays

Yap is well known for its large giant manta ray populations, and they are easily seen not far from the shore. I went out about 100 yards from the shore not far from my bungalow and I scuba dived all afternoon with a group of giant manta rays. These gentle giants with long tails that unlike sting rays do not have stingers, are harmless and almost inquisitive swimming by me at times very closely. The dive was only about 30′ deep and the current strong, so I held on to reef at the floor of the ocean to keep from floating away with the current. I sat in place in between corals as giant mantas as big as 10′ across hovered over me while cleaning fish pecked away at parasites on their skin. Their huge alien like bodies gracefully swam by me only 5-10′ away from me. I watched for the mantas for an hour as they passed back and forth over my head.

 

Exploring the Island on Foot

I absolutely loved getting purposedly lost on the small trails and roads connecting villages. most of the people in Yap live in small rural villages connected by small jungle trails or dirt roads. From my bungalow I walked endlessly, meeting friendly Yapese people, seeing the traditional thatched architecture of many homes. many homes had an open room with no walls specifically for families to spend time together. There were also elaborately made meeting houses in each village for the community and others only for men to meet where customary affairs are decided. Yap still maintains many traditions and some customs are still strictly adhered to. There were many customs associated with meeting houses and as tempting as it was, I didn’t dare try to enter one without permission to avoid offending one of these customs. Superstitions are also still strong. One interesting village I came across was completely abandoned and overgrown by the jungle. I followed a few walking trails there and found a few crumbling houses. Later on, I asked a few Yapese people why the village was abandoned, and I was told that the village is full of ghosts, and no one can live there anymore. Yap is still home to many superstitions and on an island where land is scarce, I was amazed that this valuable patch of land had been discarded due to ghosts.

 

Customary thatched home

Meeting house

An open room in a traditional Yapese home for family’s to gather with a tradtional fabric weave

Interisland roads

Little girl

Yapese man with the tradtional flower band on his head

Kids in thules playing in the road with a tire

A man wearing a thu in Colonia

A village known for having the largest stone money-although US dollars are used for everyday transactions, stone money once mined from far away islands and carried across long distances in dangerous seas by daring sailors to Yap, is still used for ancestral transactions for land and marriages. The stone money possesses a strong importance to the cultural identity of the people of Yap. Prior to WWII there were thousands of these huge rock slabs of money across Yap, but when the Japanese came, they used a lot of it for construction, and anchors. Despite this, it is still easy to find stone money in villages usually located next to the mens house or next to village homes.

Airplane Wrecks

Yap has many wrecked airplanes of varying ages that are interesting to explore by the airport. Some date back to World War II when intense fighting between Japanese and American forces occurred in the area and some from more recent times such as a 1980 Boeing 727 crash that had no fatalities.

 

Random jungle wreck

Me under the 1980 Boeing 727 wreck-no fatalities

WWII Wreck-many of the Japanese planes that crashed were on suicide missions to attack American aircraft carriers in the region with no intention to return alive

Japanese WWII Tunnels

Yap was occupied by the Japanese during WWII and did see some aerial combat but no major ground battles like other islands in the region. The Japanese left deeply dig tunnels that are scattered about and easily explored. There are also Shinto shrines left by Japanese descendants to help their relatives that died on the island find their way to the afterlife.

 

Shinto Shrine

Japanese WWII Tunnel 

Rumung Island-the Forbidden Island

I spend 1/2 a day in Rumung Island, that until recently was forbidden to outsiders. It is an isolated island with no phone service or electricity, other than a few small generators. The residents maintain many of the Yapese traditional customs and the island can only be visited with permission from the chief and by boat.  The 100 or so residents of the island are fiercely traditional. Occasionally customary dances/ceremonies are conducted with deep spiritual meaning that are forbidden to record or photograph. The people of Rumung believe that they are the guardians of a lost island of ancestors (sorcerers) submerged beneath the sea, like the Lost City of Atlantis, living in some kind of magical realm.  According to the chief, this island of sorcerers deliberately chose to disappear under the ocean in order to protect themselves and their traditions when the first Europeans started to appear in Yap. The chief explained to me that only the people of Rumung Island are still able to communicate with those in the sunken island through their ceremonies. I didn’t ask how the communication occurred but, in my mind, I imagined the chief speaking to the sorcerers through a giant seashell.

When we landed on the island, there were no people in sight just empty houses and jungle. We walked along ancient stone paths-built generations ago to connect villages to reach the chiefs village. The chief seemed to be surprised to see us but was happy to receive us. He showed me around a few spots-stone money, traditional men’s house, stone graveyard and some of the houses but there weren’t many people on the island. According to the chief, few residents remain, and many are moving away to the main island because there are jobs and schools, and the island is dying.

 

My Boatman who took me to Rumung island chewing beetle nut- the equivalent to cigarettes on the island. The betelnut is a stimulant that when chewed releases a kind of high but it is extremely damaging to teeth and throat and can cause health ailments such as cancer. The red globules of spit out berries all over public streets and in places where people congregate are also a common annoyance and there are many signs posted-no chewing beetle nut. 

Beetle nut

To show respect I wore the traditional yapese dress when visiting Rumnung Island

Boat ride

Japanese WWII Plane Wreck

Me Drinking coconuts on Rumnung island

Ancient stone paths connecting villages on Rumnung Island

Me and the chief at Rumnung island

The chief in front of his house. We seemed to catch him by surprise

Mens meeting house

Mens meeting house

Stone Money

Graves of ancestors

Stone money

Mad Man with a Machete

My departure flight on the Continental Airlines Island hopper to Guam was at 2am and this meant only getting a few hours of sleep in my bungalow before being driven to the airport by the Yapese man that owned my bungalow. Getting to the airport is normally a routine event but the sleepy little village where all lights go out after 8pm had other plans for me. When I set my alarm to wake up at some unholy hour of the night, I grabbed my pack and walked out of my bungalow and was about to walk over to the nearby house of the owner to meet him and be driven to the airport, but I encountered a foreign couple who were staying in the 2nd family-owned bungalow on the property. They were frantic and explained to me that they had to flee their bungalow because a crazed man with a machete tried to break into their bungalow and was waving his machete at them and threatening violence towards them. The flimsy bungalow wasn’t really built for security so they thought it would be safer to flee. Knowing that the machete wielding man was still on the loose, it made the hike through the dark jungle along the beach a little more daunting. Together we walked over to the owner’s house vigilant for the crazed man. When we told the owner about what happened he apologized and admitted there has been a family property dispute and that the other man was not in agreement with the current arrangement. Since I was leaving to the airport, the foreign couple were given my bungalow, which the owner claimed was not being disputed and we headed off to the airport. Hopefully there were no more machete attacks.

 

A Yap Villager Reporting in the US Military

The departure lounge at the airport was humid and hot. There was no A/C just a few fans running. It was uncomfortably hot, and I sat in a chair watching families saying their goodbyes to loved ones. There was mix of people in western clothing and Yapese wearing Thule’s and some women were topless, which is traditional in Yap. One heartbreaking scene that I very badly wanted to document with a few photos but didn’t because I didn’t want to interrupt was appeared to be a very emotion moment for the family. Micronesia has a special pact with the USA that allows Micronesians, in this case Yapese men/women to join the US military and they are able to pursue citizenship in exchange. I was told many young men who have never left their small sleepy island yearn for adventure and joining the United States military provides not only this adventure but also a higher status among the village. This in addition to the economic opportunities and citizenship. During the time of my visit the United States military was involved in two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq and some young Yapese men who had never left their island were suddenly thrust into a war in the middle east. Before me at the airport, was one such young man, a young Yapese man probably about 18 years old wearing his full US Army uniform despite the extreme heat in the departure lounge. He wore his uniform proudly and was very well polished. In all likelihood he was going to end up in one of the two wars and may never return to his homeland. His family was at the airport to see him off. His mother was there, an obese middle-aged woman wearing a Thule and topless, and his dad also in a Thule with no shirt with a giant belly hugged him and cried. I could tell the son was touched by the display of affection, but he did his best to remain stoic and strong. I would have loved to follow the story of the young man because I could only imagine how exotic it must have been for him to leave Yap and go to war in the middle east and in the end, I can only hope that he survived.

Yap airport scene

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