Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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Back in the early 1980's I remember seeing a picture in my middle school social studies textbook of a few loincloth-clad dudes posing next to large stone discs with holes in the middle. It turns out that photo was taken on the island of Yap and those stones are the largest coins in the world. This "big money" is what put Yap on the map of anthropologists and economists everywhere and is what the island is best known for (it even appears on their license plates). In fact, for a number of years I've been using the example of Yapese stone money in my high school economics classes when teaching my students about inflation and monetary policy. More than just to see the "coins" though, I wanted to visit Yap to learn a bit about its unique culture as well as do some SCUBA diving, so when we had the rare opportunity to come here I jumped at the chance!
Yap is a state in a nation called the Federated States of Micronesia. After the defeat of the occupying Japanese forces in WWII, the islands of Micronesia became (like Palau) a Trust Territory administered by the USA until they gained full independence in 1986. Although there are a few modern hotels, a handful of convenience stores, one Internet cafe, plenty of cars, and most people dressing in clothing you and I would wear, Yap still remains a traditional society amidst the modern conveniences. Towns are still connected by ancient stone footpaths, village chiefs wield as much political power as elected government officials, village business is discussed and most decisions made in men-only traditional meeting houses (known as "faeluw") and once in a while you will see guys sporting diaper-like loincloths and women going topless in woven hibiscus skirts (while at the same time talking on a cell phone!) Yap has the distinction of being the first place I have ever spotted a topless woman in an international airport, and our cab driver to the hotel was wearing nothing but a small sarong! Pretty much everyone here constantly chews the nuts from areca palm trees (known as betel nuts). These large seeds are consumed much like chewing tobacco, give a mild buzz, stain your teeth and saliva red, and seem to be rather habit-forming. So despite the invasion of the modern world, Yap manages to hold onto some elements of its traditional ways
The Yapese stone money (known as "rai") can be as large as twelve feet in diameter and weigh up to five tons
One of the highlights of our time on the island was doing two SCUBA dives yesterday. Yap is legendary in the international dive community for the colossal (up to 13' wingspan) manta rays that inhabit the waters around the island. There are a number of "cleaning stations" dotted around the reefs of the island where mantas regularly glide up to have smaller reef fish pick the parasites and dead skin off their body...how's that for symbiosis! This provides a year-round opportunity to view these graceful and elusive leviathans really close up. In our dives we saw a number of rays (the largest having a wingspan of around ten feet) that just feet away right over the top of us! There was plenty of other life to see underwater as well
Overall, Yap is a really interesting and genuine place that seems quite far off the beaten tourist path. The Yapese people we've encountered have been universally open as well as authentically friendly and welcoming. It is so refreshing to go to a place that has not yet been "spoiled" by mass tourism while at the same time is so logistically easy.
Yap is REALLY untouched by tourism and is by far the most remote place we have visited. I read in the guidebook that lots of people still maintain traditional dress in which shirts don't exist and exposed thighs are considered rude. Go figure on that one. True to the book, the first local we laid eyes on upon deplaning was a rather large shirtless woman sitting on a nearby bench with her naked floppy boobs resting on her lap. Then a fat, shirtless man in a loincloth (butt cheeks exposed) picked us up at the airport (if you can call it that)
Every single person on the island over the age of 5 (excluding tourists) obsessively chews betel nut. It is a very elaborate process. People have little purses made of out palm leaves that they carry all the necessary accessories in. Apparently it isn't enough of a buzz to just suck on the nut anymore. Now people break the nut in half , put it in a leaf like a taco, sprinkle tobacco taken from cigarettes that are unwrapped, and powdered lime (as in from limestone, not lime the fruit) usually stored in a empty Tabasco bottle, then cram the package in the bottom of their cheek. It looks like most people are walking around with a golf ball in their mouth. All this sucking creates a lot of red salvia, and people spit it out every thirty seconds or so, so as you can imagine, there is a lot of spitting going on here. Betel nut isn't exactly kind to the teeth (or perhaps it is the lime), as most people have little teeth nubs and the remaining teeth are stained various shades of red and black
Now the diving was really amazing and worth the 70+ hours that it took us to actually get here. Everyone on our boat was a really hardcore diver, each with more than 300 dives, all using Nitrox instead of air. We were the odd people out as we did not have our Nitrox certification, and it just reinforced to us that the main/only reason the few tourists who come here is to scuba dive. I was a bit nervous since the waters have lots of sharks and hundreds of manta rays, and it just seemed like a lot of big stuff to run into 50+ feet below. Anyway, the mantas were enormous, and each time they open their mouths it seems like you could get sucked into it. Several of them swam within a few feet of our heads, at which point I had to look away to prevent myself from freaking out. About 45 minutes into our second dive, somehow Todd and I got separated from the rest of the group and ended up on the other side of the reef in a pretty strong current. We hung on to a large piece of coral for a while trying to mime to each other what we should do, which didn't really go very well (seems like we should have agreed on some hand signals before hand!). A large shark was circling about 30 feet away, and I pressed myself into to coral trying to look like part of the reef. It eventually went away, and we decided to surface. Luckily, the boat driver was aware of the currents, and he spotted us as soon as we got to the surface! Phew! Todd claims that the situation was under control the whole time, and that he wasn't worried for a second. Yeah, right!!
Yap was a great place to visit, but doesn't really have much to offer non-scuba divers and people who don't like to eat tuna for every meal
Although we only got a small taste of these Pacific islands, we do have a few travel tips in case you might consider coming to Guam, Palau, or Micronesia.
Since there is not much competition, flights in this region are expensive and schedules are irregular! So be prepared to shell out the cash or try to use frequent flyer miles.
If you do not SCUBA dive or snorkel, you might not want to come to this region since much of the appeal of these islands comes from the remarkable underwater life, although the natural beauty of Palau is well worth seeing even if you never get in the water
Being isolated islands, food and accommodation can be somewhat expensive, on par with Hawaii or the Caribbean. There is very little public transport but rental cars and taxis are widely available.
In all three of these territories, the US Dollar is the legal currency, pretty much everybody speaks English, and crime ranges between very low and nonexistent. I guess it is hard to steal when everyone knows your name and your family.