Monday, January 05, 2009

Yap!

Words can’t possibly capture what a wonderful time I had in Yap. It was on of the most beautiful islands with overwhelmingly friendly and kind people (both Yapese and foreigners). I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there and would love to go back someday. It was my fourth destination of the trip, and because I spent so much time trying to figure out the first three, I didn’t really have any expectations or notions about it. On my flight I read about Yap in my 15-years-outdated Micronesia guidebook and it didn’t seem all that special or different from other islands in Micronesia. Boy was I happily mistaken!! As I approached Yap, I was a little nervous about accommodations because my flight arrived at 10:30pm and the apartment I had emailed had given me a quote but not a confirmation. I was unsure about landing in an unfamiliar country without a confirmed place to stay, but I was excited to explore and really didn’t know what to expect.

The reception I received at the airport was wonderful. I knew no one there, yet everyone was extraordinarily warm and friendly. As soon as I cleared the immigration desk (one of only two), two Yapese young people in traditional attire welcomed me to Yap with a lei. It’s a courtesy they extend to all visitors of their country, not only the ones staying in 5 star hotels. As is typical in Micronesia, there was a throng of locals come to the airport to greet arriving passengers (or perhaps just to check out who’s coming and going because it’s the most exciting social opportunity on a Saturday night). I spotted a senior missionary couple and was excited to be able to find out from them where and when the church was meeting the next day. When I was unable to find anyone representing the apartment I had previously tried to reserve, they (the Millers) introduced me to their landlord, Joe, who just happened to be at the airport in case someone like me needed a place to stay in Colonia. Not only was his place affordable and impeccably clean, but it was just up the hill from town and 2 blocks walk from church. Yap is comprised of Yap proper (4 solid islands close enough together to be linked by bridges or causeways, as well as two outer atolls (Ulithi and Wolea). Many outer-island families who had migrated to Yap proper were staying in Joe’s place and across the street. It was great to be among local people rather than isolated with other tourists in a large hotel. It was just my style! I was quite pleased at the serendipitous way the evening unfolded.

Church the next day was great. Since Yap is considered the most traditional state of FSM, I expected the service to be completely in Yapese (like in Majuro). I was quite surprised to find that the members spoke a combination of Yapese and English, and most of them spoke impeccable English. I came to realize that this is because the people of Yap proper speak a completely different language than the Ulithian and Wolean outer islanders, and English is the only common language they can use to understand each other. Imagine that! Three completely different languages spoken in just one state of the country! It’s comparable to Northern Californians speaking one language, Southern Californians speaking a completely different one, and those living in the Central Valley yet another language. To communicate, we would all have to speak French to each other. Bizarre, eh? I made many new friends, including Faltinag, who is a teacher also. She told me that she would like to stop by and visit me after church and I happily agreed. When she came, she invited me to come with her family (husband, three kids and three cousins plus a rooster) for a Sunday ride in the back of their family’s pickup truck out to visit her home village on the west side of Yap proper. It was such a wonderful chance to get to know her, her family, and the island.

Yap has done an absolutely wonderful job of encouraging tourism while ensuring that it does not exploit or have a negative impact on traditional life in Yap, as has happened in so many places like Hawaii and Guam. It was a brilliant idea and as a result they do tourism extremely well and show tourists a wonderful time, and yet still live as they have for many hundreds of years. For example, many Yapese women (especially outer islanders) still wear only a traditional lava-lava and nothing on top. It’s natural and traditional and not offensive in the least. Villages in Yap are manicured meticulously. It is famous for the stone pathways that have been constructed between all the villages as well as stone money (large circular stones with a hole in the middle which are still used
for land purchases even today), and for their beautiful craftsmanship of traditional village meeting houses (some for men only, others for everyone). Not only this, but the landscape is kept immaculately trimmed and tidy. Rows of plants are carefully placed along the roadsides. I told Faltinag in amazement that this looked just like the jungle land at Disneyland, except it was the real thing, which she found amusing. We saw the school where she works, her parent’s house, and walked the stone pathway between her home village and her husband’s. It was amazingly beautiful, and I was so thankful for their generosity because I got to see parts of Yap that I could not have just wandered through by myself (everything is private property in Yap and it’s considered inappropriate for foreigners to just start wandering through uninvited, although permission will almost always be granted if requested.) The Millers told me later that one of the reasons that Yap is so very clean and pristine is that each village has an old lady who goes around and inspects everyone’s place and fines (actually writes tickets) people who are not in compliance with high standards of cleanliness. They told me that recently a member of their branch was fined $5 for “tying his pig to close to the road!” Well it’s a strict system, but the result is that not one speck of garbage lies around on the island and everything is ship-shape 24/7.

As Faltinag dropped me off back at my apartment that evening, she told me about the dreams that she has for her kids to get a good education. Her oldest daughter Maxine attended University of Guam, but it was a huge financial burden on the family and Maxine had
not really found something she was passionate about. But recently she had gotten a job at the front desk of a posh hotel in town and was really showing interest in hospitality and tourism. I told Faltinag of a couple of tourism programs I know about in the region (including a new one starting on Majuro) and told her that if Maxine was interested, she’s welcome to stay with me while she studies. Maxine is bright and friendly and tourism is definitely something that she could utilize after returning to Yap.

The next day I rented a scooter from an American ex-pat who has lived in Micronesia for almost 20 years. It was the perfect way to get around the island and explore a little. I saw beautiful villages lined with stone money banks, remains of Japanese zero aircraft still scattered around the old Japanese runway since WW2. I headed north where things are a bit more rural and got stuck in some thick red mud. It took a while to free up the tire and get the bike going again. I then proceeded to get lost and find lots of dead ends in beautiful places. Each time, friendly local people helped me figure out where I was this time and how to backtrack to the main road. By the time I got back to Colonia it was after dark and I met the Miller’s for dinner. They are originally from Idaho and have been in Yap for 15 months now. They have such a wonderful, respectful, willing-to-learn attitude toward the Islanders that is instantly recognizable and the local people love them so much. It’s going to be a really a. They are incredibly generous toward both locals and me! I’m so grateful that I met them, I learned so much and felt really well taken care of while I was living upstairs from them.

My last day in Yap I arranged to spend snorkeling the reef which surrounds the island. Unlike Majuro, you have to take a boat to get to the reef, so I signed up with a local dive operation to go out on their boat. There were two really great local guides who drove the other three of us (me and a very friendly Australian couple who are both teachers also) to the reef and we snorkeled for about 4 hours. We didn’t get deep enough to see any Manta Rays (which Yap is famous for), but we saw tons of magnificent creatures including pipefish, spadefish, parrotfish, giant blue starfish and many other colorful, wonderful creatures! During the trip I discovered that Lynn and David (my new Australian friends) had traveled to the exact same islands I had, stayed in the same hotels (either just before or after) and met many of the same people including Salik from Kosrae and a taxi driver we both met in Pohnpei. It was really uncanny and we hit it off and compared notes. They invited me for “tea” afterward at Pathways hotel,
where they were staying. It has charming thatched cottages that look like Swiss Family Robinson tucked in a hillside. We exchanged emails, compared photos (mostly of the same things from each island) and promised to keep in touch and perhaps meet up again. Meeting them was wonderful. I was just really so blessed to meet up with so many fantastic, kind people in Yap. It really made that stop on my trip extra special.

That night I went to the airport for a 10pm departure and one hour later landed in Palau.

3 comments:

Elizabeth Downie said...

Britt, I really enjoyed reading about your trip to Yap! I can't even tell you how jealous I am. It looks like you lead quite an adventurous life! I wish I could join you on one of your trips :) I hope you can come back to Michigan at some point!

Jeannie said...

Hello Dear, These photos are exquisite and your journaling makes us feel like we have been there with your. Such an adventuress!

andrew schmidt said...

Thank you for bringing back great memories of my time teaching at Yap High School in the 90's