Tuesday, November 20, 2007

20 Grand Days Out - Yap

This summer we took an epic vacation. A once in a lifetime vacation. We went to Hawaii, Guam and Yap. The main purpose of this trip was to go to Yap, where I lived for a year around 1980. I have already written about our visits to Hawaii and Guam (click on those names to read the first two entries). Here's our experience on Yap.

Our plane left for Yap at 6AM and arrived around 7:30. All flights to Yap take place at very early hours of the morning, something that they are hoping to change. We arrived at the airport and were picked up by Cy. Cy lived with us for a number of years while I was a kid while he went to school in the US. I consider him my brother.

We rented a car at the airport because Cy does not have a vehicle that can accomdate all of us plus luggage. Our car was a Hyundai Santa Fe, with a badge on the back declaring it a "V9" something that I'm sure is truly unique in the world of automotive engine design :-)

We stopped at the store and picked up a few items that we would need during our stay like cabin crackers and bottled water. It's been 27 years, but the stores look exactly the same as I remember them.

Susan, Cy's wife, made lunch for us. She is an excellent cook, but more on that later. Our accommodations were a complete surprise to me. In 1980 when we lived on yap we lived in a wooden house (long since destroyed by a typhoon). We had no running water, so we had to shower in a stream (still there, but very little water flowing) and we had 55 gallon drums that served as water collectors to be used in the house.

Now we stayed in a concrete house with running water. To make things even more deluxe there was hot water, something I never imagined we would have available to us on Yap. The place we were staying was also quite big. It had three bedrooms, a living room/dining room and a kitchen. The house also had four air conditioners, something I found quite remarkable. We did not use them because they didn't work very well and electricity is very, very expensive on Yap.

I did not recognize it, but we were staying at one of the places where I had spent a lot of time as a boy. We also were living right next to where my parent's had their house in 1967. The amazing thing was that the land on Yap is growing rather than shrinking, so the distance to the shore was about three or four times as far as I remember it. Cy confirmed that the beach keeps getting further away from the road.

We spent the day getting familiar with our surroundings. Cy was a wonderful host, cutting down coconuts for us to drink, and they provided us with the most beautiful handmade (by Susan and her family) leis for us. In an era where leis are cranked out en masse, to have one hand made, woven from banana leaf with hundreds of small flowers was amazing. What really stuck out to me was the beautiful fragrance they gave off. Truly a very special treat.

For dinner, Susan made us fish accompanied by soursap and breadfruit. It was excellent, although I didn't care much for the very soft flesh of the soursap. We finished off the night playing Uno, something we would do a lot on this trip.

Our next day was sunny and hot with very little wind. We went into town for lunch at the Mnuw, a restaurant in a boat attached to the Mantaray hotel. The Mantaray is one of the four hotels on Yap. The hotels are small, and focus on serving a tourist crowd of divers, mostly. The food was just ok, but their own microbrew beer (stone money brewing company) was pretty good.

After lunch, we drove to the old airport in search of the japanese zeros that were destroyed there during World War II. We only found one, and that was because someone showed us where it was. There used to be more, I'm not sure if they've been reclaimed by the jungle or if they have been sold off to WWII collectors, sadly something that is becoming more common with WWII relics on islands like Yap.

We also visited the place where I lived when I lived on Yap. It was very overgrown now, but the beach still looked as I remembered it. I took photos, none of which I am very happy with. Still, it was a big deal to me to see this place again. I couldn't manage to capture that one shot that would encompass the beauty as it exists. I also did a little snorkeling this day. I love snorkeling, but I wasn't able to do as much as I had hoped on this trip because we didn't have my parents with us as was originally planned. With Patty and the kids there I felt a little guilty going out to look at the coral, leaving them to sit around and wait for me to return. The reef around Yap is still very pretty, but it isn't like I remember it.

For dinner Susan made us Chicken and rice with breadfuit and bananas. There are lots of varieties of bananas on Yap, and they are always picked fresh making them much better than what we get in the supermarkets at home.

On Friday (the next day) we went into town and did laundry. I had not planned on being able to do laundry on Yap, so this was another nice surprise. This brings up the single biggest difference about Yap now verses Yap in 1980. You can now speak English to everyone on Yap, and they understand you and can converse with you. In 1980 it was very difficult to get by with English. You really needed to learn Yapese if you wanted to talk to people. I never became fluent, but I knew enough to get around. These days my Yapese is consigned to a few phrases and words.

We met Cy at the meeting house in Gagil. This is a very new structure, having been built by the community for the Yap day celebrations last year. We also met the US Ambassador to Micronesia at the meeting house, and then we went down to where the traditional navigation society (of which Cy is the chair) was building traditional yapese canoes. We met Sesario Sewralur, the son of the legendary navigator Mao Piailug who is from one of the outer islands of Yap. One thing I noticed was that Cy spoke to everyone in Yapese, but he talked with Sesario in English. When I asked him why, he told me that Sesario didn't speak Yapese, and Cy didn't speak the language of Satawal. I never realized before that the outer islands spoke different languages. As it turns out, there are four language groups in the Yap Islands.

After seeing the construction of these canoes and chatting with the ambassador, we went back to Cy's house where we took his boat out for a spin. It was nice to be out on the water around Yap again. With a fringing reef it is almost always a nice smooth ride around the island at high tide. At low tide navigation becomes very difficult because of the reef and it is not advisable to travel by boat.

For dinner we had fish, star apple and papaya. I had never had star apple before, and I loved it. I also need to note that the fish we had while on Yap was some of the best fish I have ever had. One variety, Rainbow Runner, was particularly tasty. Susan Mugenbey is an outstanding cook and a very delightful lady. We were constantly amazed at her skill and knowledge of the island fruits and vegetables.

Yapese culture is very different from US culture, and this is the first time Patty has ever been this far "off the grid" as far as amenities and culture. After a few days, it became very overwhelming to her. We were concerned about the kids having lice, nursing a few little injuries etc. On Saturday it all caught up to Patty and she had a bit of a meltdown. Thankfully, it didn't last long and she was able to gather herself back together and have a good attitude about the whole visit. For me being on Yap again was such a joy it was easy to forget that this isn't easy living if you aren't used to it.

The big highlight of Saturday was the opportunity to go to a yapese dance and cultural demonstration. One of the great things that is happening on Yap is the desire to keep ahold of some of their culture before it is lost. These dances are part of that, as one of the villages has the children (elementary and teenagers) put on dances for tourists. While this is an income producing enterprise, it is also valuable to Yap because it teaches the younger generation the traditional dances.

It was really, really cool to see the dances. It was also one of the only times my wife and kids got to see the traditional dress and some of the traditional activities of the yapese. The village that hosts the event does a very nice job of displaying a lot of the traditional yapese crafts, the harvest of betelnut, the fruits that the yapese eat etc.

Sunday we got to do something that was very, very special to me. I have seen Yapese canoes in artwork and I've seen them around the island, but I had never been out in one. Even when we were there in 1980 they were not used very much anymore, and that has not changed. It is the work of the traditional navigation society that is bringing back the traditional yapese canoes. My dad is one of the world's leading authorities on Yap, and he has never been out in a traditional yapese canoe. But this day we got to go out in one.

The problem with wind driven canoes is that the tide and the wind dictate what you can do. We were supposed to go out at high tide, but there was no wind. A couple of hours later there was some wind, although it was a very light breeze. The tide was much lower, requiring us to trudge out through the seaweed to get on the boat (something I hate doing. call me a wuss, but I don't like walking through all the goo). Still, we were able to go out for an hour and a half or so. Sesario was our captain. Not exactly a big challenge of his navigational abilities, but it was still a real treat. The Yapese way of travel is very peaceful.

We had lunch at the village view resort, which is where we sailed out of. This is one of the four hotels, and by far the most unique. It is located in the village of Maap, and has ten bungalows that are right on the beach. This place is a dive hotel that mostly serves Japanese tourists, and the lunch menu reflected that. As usual, Cy knew the owner and several key people, he is extraordinarily well connected.

When we returned we found a rather unique situation. An old woman and her granddaughter had gone out fishing (highly unusual, it's the men who fish) in a boat with no motor. They were poling along when they got out too deep for their pole. Set adrift, they floated all night and ended up in a village quite a long ways from their home. Cy's brother John had towed them back with his boat to his house where they were sleeping until high tide (remember the tides affect everything). At high tide we hooked them up to cy's boat and towed them to Tomil, which was about a 40 minute ride at a pretty good clip. After dropping them off we returned home at full throttle, which the boys loved. It was fun watching their smiles build as we picked up speed.

It was unusual for women to be fishing because Yapese tradition is that the sea gods are all female and the land gods are male. Thus, the women work the land and the men work the sea. Pretty good arrangement if you ask me. You work the taro swamps, I'll go fishing :-) I think the guys definitely got the better end of that deal.

The next day we were supposed to go fishing, but there was a tropical depression that dumped a lot of rain on us. Not a good idea to out past the reef in a small boat in a storm...

We had a couple more slow days where we just enjoyed being on the beach and living the slow Yapese lifestyle. Unfortunatley Jacob got sick, so he had to stay inside quite a bit. I got to go fishing with Cy and I took Grace. Jacob was NOT happy about this development, but we made it up to him by taking him the next day. We were total failures at fishing, which was quite frustrating.

One of the interesting things about Yap is that the water is privately owned. While we were out in the boat John and Cy saw some kids net fishing, and got very agitated. We headed in at full throttle and when we got close, they yelled at the kids in Yapese. As we motored away I asked what happened and they explained that those waters were owned by their family, and those kids did not have permission to fish in the waters. They were very upset.

We had dinner with Cara, an American who lives upstairs where we were staying. She is a lawyer, and she and her husband are on Yap for a few years. We really enjoyed getting to know her, and we had a great time together. Her husband wasn't around because he had gone to the states for a wedding.

The next day was another slow day, and also one in which we had to prepare to leave, as we had to be at the airport at 3 in the morning or something ridiculous like that. That night Cy's family held a huge party for us in which we got to fellowship with the entire extended family. Cy's family is the one that took my parents in and helped them get established in the 60's, and we have always had a bond with them. It was regrettable that my parents weren't able to be there (my grandmother died while we were on Yap, and my parents had anticipated that and stayed home). One of the people who came was Dapoy, who unfortunately died a few weeks later. I didn't realize that he was quite sick, and didn't travel much. I was very grateful that he had made the effort to come see us.

Cy and Susan gave us a very nice sendoff, and we drove back to the airport, dropped off the car and flew back to Guam where Helen and Fred took us to their house for the day so we could relax before our flight to Hawaii (via Tokyo). Unfortunately they took the handmade leis and stuff from us on Guam at the airport, saying they were concerned about bugs and stuff. It was a big bummer because they were _so_ beautiful (Susan had made a second group of them for us to take on the return trip).

After the day with Helen and Fred we flew to Hawaii, where we had a HUGE surprise. My mom and dad were on Hawaii. They were supposed to be in Guam for a conference, but they had flown to Hawaii and about ten steps from the gate to get on the plane my mom collapsed. My dad thought she had died based on the way she looked. After a minute or so she "came to" and asked what had happened. The paramedics came and she was taken to a heart institute on Hawaii where she had a pacemaker installed. My mom is doing well, and my kids enjoyed getting to see grandma and grandpa for the one day we were on Hawaii.

The next day we flew home to Los Angeles and then drove to Oak HIlls. In total, 20 grand days out. The whole adventure was amazing, and we are truly grateful to have been able to go. I have many reflections on Yap that I will save for another entry. I hope you've enjoyed reading about our trip.


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