Wednesday, 4 March 2009


It was Magellan who discovered Yap. According to local legend the word Yap actually means 'oar' in the local dialect (in Yapese the island is known as 'Waw'). Magellan, it appears, was holding an oar up when trying to work out the name of the place, and the confusion has stuck with it ever since. Or so our cab driver tells us as he spits the betel nut he's chewing out of his open window and starts the tricky preparation procedure for his next one, taking his hands off the steering wheel to pour ground up coral onto the betel nut, and wrapping the whole thing up in a leaf. We drift ominously towards a pack of stray dogs in the middle of the dirt road, and I grab my seat instinctively as he pops the nut into his mouth, takes control of the car again and releases a long red stream of spit out of the window. Noticing my concern he gives me a toothy grin, revealing his blood red teeth, stained and whittled down by the habit that's as addictive as smoking and so common on Yap that the airport floor has been painted red, so the spit stains won't show.

"You want one?" he offers.

I take one, as does Alex in the back seat. We prepare the mixture carefully, and I bite into the sour, bitter nut. My mouth fills with fluid, and I start to gurgle red liquid into my hands, like a helpless horror movie victim. The driver laughs and pulls over to the side of the road so I can spit out the juice and the chunks of leaf that are swimming between my teeth. The path is stained red where others have spat before me. I continue chewing, confused as to why people would put themselves through such an unpleasant experience, when I suddenly realise I've been cut off, I'm floating in my seat, a heat spreading around my shoulders and head that I've never felt. Take the first hit of a cigarette after a long abstinence and multiply it by ten, the feeling of release all the stronger but also warming you, and not just in your shoulders and the back of your neck but all over your body. That's what betel nut is like.

It's exceptionally popular on Yap, an island that accomodates modernity into it's traditions, and not the other way round. It is an island of wooden 'men's huts', stone money and bare-breasted women. Much of this is on display during Yap day, an annual celebration which combines ancient tribal traditions, arts and crafts and school sports day. Here you can see local dancing, where a village's women, all dressed in vibrant grass skirts (and topless except for loose decorative necklaces) sit in a line, with the youngest at the ends and the oldest in the middle, and chant ancient stories in a language only they are taught, ornamenting their words with claps, waves and other gestures.

Or you can see the master shipbuilder discuss the history of his craft on the island, and explain how one of the more popular designs came about, created by a boatbuilder to entice his son, who had gone into the woods out of shame about the poorness of his family's boat, back home. Or see schoolchildren compete in games like coconut husking, or mat weaving. Or, most impressively, see the carrying of the stone money, six strong men hulking an enormous round lump of rock along, supporting it on their shoulders with a trunk that's passed through a hole in the middle, like ants supporting a polo with a toothpick.

Then there's the scuba diving, which is what brings most tourists to Yap, and the manta rays. After completing our open water and nitrox training yesterday, we set out for our first proper dive today. Descending into the murky depths we were brought to a cleaning station, where smaller fish clean the manta's large, sleek bodies, and where male mantas come to scope out the females. We find a sandy patch on the ocean floor, so deep we can't see the surface any more, and stare out into the gloom. We don't have to wait long. With the tinkle of a little bell our guide alerts us to the manta's presence. I stare into the green fog, and gradually a dark shape appears, takes on elegant, streamlined contours and emerges gracefully, 10 foot long and smooth as a movie starship gliding through space, stroking its way through the water towards in us. It circled us for a while whilst we admired its contours and smoothness and then, all of a sudden, it was gone, scared off by the arrival of a new batch of divers.

In all we're spending a week on Yap, the longest stop on Alex and my trip together. With its tropical beauty, (so far) perfect weather, amazing wildlife and idiosyncratic culture, that was definitely a good decision.


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