BOB BONE'S TravelPieces    

 


Yap on the Map

© By Robert W. Bone "This is where I live!" (Map is painted on the outside of his school.)

          Colonia, Yap, Federated States of Micronesia -- Divers know Yap, I found out recently -- at least those ones with the freedom to indulge their sport to the fullest. They've been going there for years.

          "Sure. You just fly from Hawaii to Guam and turn left," one scuba devotee said. "Great place; beautiful fish!"

          "The mantas are awesome," said a younger man. "And the girls aren't bad either," he added with a smile.

          I had touched down at Yap a couple of times in travels through Micronesia, but never left the plane there until recently. I recalled reading in an old National Geographic something about large, heavy stone money with holes in the middle. I vaguely wondered how that would pay for a gin and tonic, and whether the change would come in small perforated pebbles.

          Now in the 21st century, and in contrast to some other places, Yap has definitely not gone all out for tourism, and that low-key approach to the industry is certainly part of its charm. It's a place with strong cultural traditions, however, and an apparent willingness to share this with travelers who take Yap the way they find it.

          Some find it startling right from the outset. You may have read about South Seas islands where travelers are met by smiling young women, dressed only in grass skirts and nothing at all above the waist. In most places in the world, that has now been relegated to the mists of history.

          But not in Yap.

          The Yap Tourist Bureau often sends out a couple of young women to the airport in just that sort of traditional garb. After clearing Customs, tall newcomers bend down to receive the garland of flowers around their necks, and many manage to mumble a heartfelt "thank you" before straightening up again.

          Those colorful skirts are full and thick, by the way.  Right-minded Yapese ladies think it’s disgraceful to show a hint of thigh.

          Not all women in Yap run around bare breasted. Yet do you see them now and then, and not just while in costume. Soon enough, it just becomes an ordinary part of the local scene.

          The men present their own unique picture, when you realize that many seem to be carrying purses. These turn out to be woven baskets, the principal purpose of which is to hold betel nuts and their associated accouterments -- usually powdered lime. Given the opportunity, many Yapese will chew this mildly narcotic mixture all day long, turning their mouths bright red and converting nearby waste baskets or any convenient bushes into colorful spittoons.

          There turns out to be plenty to do in a few days in Yap. Diving, snorkeling, and fishing are tops, of course. The giant mantas are a protected species, and underwater tours will guarantee you will see lots of them. There's a dive site called Manta  Ray Valley, which is a "cleaning station" for hundreds of these large, gentle beasts. Here they present themselves to tiny fish called the cleaner wrasse. It's a classic symbiotic relationship in which the wrasses pick annoying parasites off the skin of the mantas.

          Some mantas fly through the water with wingspans of 12 feet or more, flirting with each other and the divers who invade their domain. In contrast to other places in the world, the mantas of Yap have no season. They can be found here dependably all year long.

          Divers count hundreds of species of other fish in other areas, and debates run among them as to whether they see more varieties or greater overall numbers in Yap as opposed to Palau, an island 250 miles to the south of Yap. Both are now considered among the very top dive sites in the world.

          Sightseeing also includes a few ruins left over from World War II, when Yap was occupied by the Japanese. It was bombed several times, but U.S. invasion plans in 1945 were eventually cancelled. After the war, the entire Seventh Fleet was anchored for a time in the lagoon, near the Yap island of Ulithi.

          The island of Palau figures prominently in the history of Yap, and as a result, so does a colorful American trader who ran things hereabouts for nearly three decades in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A popular book, "His Majesty O'Keefe" published some years ago outlines the story. It was later made into a cinematic potboiler starring Burt Lancaster.

          According to most accounts, David O'Keefe of Baltimore was shipwrecked on Yap, where he was nursed back to health by a local shaman, and then discovered the way to literally make money on Yap.

          For hundreds of years, Yapese sailors had been sailing over the treacherous route to Palau to bring back to their chiefs a tribute from a product which does not exist on Yap -- large pieces of shiny calcite. These they quarried on Palau, and then carved into round pieces, with a hole in the middle to make it easier to carry. In time, these raai, as they are called, came to be thought of as of money.

          The heavy pieces may change ownership from time to time, but they are seldom physically moved. Everyone knows who currently owns a particular raai. For day-to-day expenses today, though, Yapese now use the American dollar.

          O'Keefe discovered that he could persuade the islanders to harvest the lucrative copra (dried coconuts) and then-coveted beche de mer (sea cucumbers) in exchange for his transporting raai on much larger and more reliable ships than the canoes the Yapese were using. A flamboyant character, O'Keefe became rich, and dominated the economy of Yap until he disappeared in a storm at sea in 1901. The ruins of his house on a small island are now a tourist attraction.

          There is talk of buried treasure on O'Keefe's island, but locals in a position to know much about it remain mum on the subject. The remains of O'Keefe's trading post, however, have been turned into a popular bar in the town of Colonia, the seat of the state government. (You can buy a copy of "His Majesty O’Keefe" there.)

And as far as the raai are concerned, they can be seen all over the island today, often lined up in "banks" along stone pathways in the villages throughout Yap.

They’re worth money, all right. But none are for sale.

***

IF YOU GO

Yap, one of four states in the Federated States of Micronesia, can be reached from Hawaii via jet service on Continental Micronesia (known as "Air Mike"), a subsidiary of Continental Airlines, via Guam. Hawaii-Guam flights are daily, 8 hours elapsed time; Guam-Yap service is currently twice a week, one hour elapsed time. (Frequent flyers may notice that the three-letter airport designator for Yap is the only one that spells out the entire name of the place.) A valid passport is required.

There are a half dozen comfortable hotels on the island of Yap (also known as Yap Proper), notably Traders Ridge Resort (http://www.tradersridgeresort.com), the Pathways Hotel (http://www.pathwayshotel.com), the ESA Bay View Hotel (http://www.esayap.com)and the Manta Ray Bay Hotel (http://www.mantaray.com). There is only one hotel on the primitive outer island of Ulithi, the well-managed Ulithi Adventure Resort (Falalop Ulithi, Yap, FSM 96943, email: ulithiadventureresort@hotmail.com). Ulithi is reached from Yap Proper via Pacific Missionary Aviation. It is known as the home of a large turtle sanctuary.

More information on Yap can be had from Continental Micronesia, phone (800) 591-6599, (http://continental.com), Continental Airline Vacations (800) 555, (http://www.coolvacations.com) or from the Yap Visitors Bureau, Colonia, Yap, FSM 96943, phone (691) 350-2298, website http://www.visityap.com.

 

This travel piece appeared in several publications: Information

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