Micronesia: from Proust to Stone Money

5/17/17: The scent of flowers and foliage along a village path, the taste of tiny bananas and of sashimi in soy and wasabi, the weight of muggy air on my skin are enough to reduce me to a five-year-old stranger in a strange land again. It’s a state of mind I can only rediscover here.

A traditional stone path in Kaday village

5/17/17: In case anyone was wondering whether our village accomodations are a grass shack, here’s a photo of our apartment building. There are two units. The other is taken by a couple of Mormon missionaries, one of whom has a British (or possibly Southern) accent. Our unit has A/C and two — TWO — bathroooms.

The apartment in Kaday

5/18/17: This is the house where we lived back in the ’60s. It was newer and fresher-looking then, and Dad soon had a thriving garden of bananas and papayas filling the yard. The old Government Compound, which was a mostly white enclave at the time, has been returned to the Yapese. I did see the old mango tree behind what was then the Nelsons” house still growing after fifty years. We didn’t look for the old tree fort.

The old grey house, she ain’t what she used to be

This is what our house looked like at the end of our stay in the ’60s. Most of that garden is now gone, although Lonnie thought he spotted some banana plants that may have been descendants of what Dad planted.

5/18/17: The various colonial powers that have controlled Micronesia over the years have left their imprint here. The Spanish left the Catholic mission and, if I remember correctly, a few words. (For example, “gato” for cat.) The Japanese left sashimi and the word sensei for teacher. The Germans left the German Channel, which connects Tomil harbor to Miil Channel in the north. They also left these radio towers, which transoceanic communication expert Bill Burns was able to discover were the physical anchors for giant radio mast that was shot down during WWI. As a kid I thought they were pretty cool, so tall and overgrown with plants, and while they look smaller to me now, the purpose Bill revealed to me makes them even cooler.

German Radio tower

5/18/17: I finally gave snorkeling a try for the first time this trip. For reasons yet to be determined my mask was leaky, so I got salt water up my noise, which as Terry put it acted like a Yapese Neti pot. I didn’t know I had so much mucous in me. Because of the equipment malfunction, I didn’t get out to the best part of the reef, but I still saw an assortment of butterfly fish, clown fish, trigger fish, wrasses, and a cloud of sand that was probably the defecation of a parrot fish.

5/19/17: Taro was the staple food on Yap at least until they started importing rice. Theo told us a Yapese joke that started out like a story, with an introduction asking us if we were familiar with the TV show about gold prospecting in Alaska. (He was impressed to learn that the show’s star, Jack Hoffman, is an old friend of our father’s, and that Dad gold-mined in Alaska with him in 1983.) Anyway, Theo told us a man once came to Yap to look for gold. He found a woman working in a taro batch in nothing but her underskirt. He told her he was looking for gold, and she said the Yapese equivalent of, “I’ve got your gold right here,” and lifted up her skirt. We’ve never heard him laugh so long and hard as he did after that punchline. As Cody said,” I didn’t put *that* much vodka in his drink.” But Theo’s laughter was infectious, and we all roared along with him.

Theo told us something else about women that was quite interesting. He said that traditional women’s tattoos were far up the leg, maybe on the inner thigh, and when a woman showed you her tattoos, you knew she was sexually interested. These day, women get tattoos all over the place, and the mystery is gone. It was only yesterday, as I thought about this conversation again that I thought of how on Yap, women’s thighs are considered highly erotic, because traditionally they were covered by the grass skirt. Breast were bare, so they weren’t considered erotic. Even in ’98 Terry and Jolie were warned about showing their thighs in the village. That didn’t seem to be as big a deal this time. The times they are a-changing. The only women you see going bare-breasted in public anymore are Outer Islander, although that may have been true in 1998 too. They are less exposed to Western ideas about propriety, I’d guess.

Terry helps Antonia and friends work in a taro patch. According to Yapese standards of kosher, not only are there separate taro patches for women and men, but only post-menopausal women are allowed to even set foot in a man’s taro patch. (There was perhaps more of a guideline than a rule.)

5/20/17: One of the things that I don’t remember from even fifteen years ago is the World War II memorials scattered around the island. We were driving around the municipality of Fanif the other day when we followed signs down a bumpy dirt road that eventually, without warning, became a single lane on a raised coral bed in a mangrove swamp. There we found these remains of a Corsair flown by Marine Major William Clay Jr as part of a squadron coming from Peleliu to strafe and bomb the Japanese airstrip on Yap. After they completed their mission Maj Gray looked for boats to strafe, but was shot down by anti-aircraft guns. Local villagers recovered his remains, and they were eventually repatriated and reburied in Arlington. The shot-to-hell Zeroes on the bombed-to-hell Japanese airstrip was a favorite childhood playground.

Boarwalk to a WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial Marker

5/20/17: With Mom’s old co-worker (and LaVelle’s old boss at the post office), Carmen Chigiy. She says people don’t call her Carmen any more, they call her Old. Old Chigiy. She’s a spry 78, and she was delighted to see us. A blast from the past on a hot Sunday afternoon puttering around in her yard. As Lonnie said, once we left she probably wondered if it had all been a dream.

Old Chigiy and Me

Here’s Mom and Young Chigiy in the ’60s, along with Chigiy’s children of whom I only know Pnin on the left side of the picture. They must have been performing in a traditional dance that day.

5/20/17: We received a bountiful gift of fresh reef fish from a friend of Theo’s. On top of the cooked taro he gave us last night and the previous gifts of bananas and papayas, we won’t be starving anytime soon.

5/21/17: Sunset Park, at the end of our road, is famous for its fiery sunsets, but I like the subtler colors of this one. The slimy boat ramp is a dangerous way for swimmers to get out of the water. Terry and Cody have both lost skin in falls there, and Theo’s older brother, Stan, recently hit his head in a fall and was in a coma for three days and unable to smell for some time after that.

Subtle sunset at Sunset Park.

5/21/17: This traditional canoe is under construction to be sailed to Guam next year. First they lay down the keel, then they glue on the hulls, then the bow and prow, then they add the outrigger, then the ball-and-socket mast, and finally the sail. The Caroline islanders, which includes the Yapese, were great sailors who developed star maps to guide them, in addition to reading the currents, bird paths, weather patterns, and other signs that land was near. Theo said the navigator for the trip is from Satawal, the Outer Island where the traditional practice of navigation has been preserved into modern times, as memorialized in the book The Last Navigator.

Traditional canoe under construction. We mostly saw men sitting around, chewing betel nut, and talking. Theo said it takes a lot of talking to build a canoe.

5/22/17: Okay, kids, I know you’ve been waiting breathlessly for the money shot, so here it finally is. Most foreigners who have heard of Yap have probably heard of it because of the stone money. The pieces were quarried on another island, Belau, that’s a couple hundred miles away, and then hauled back at great peril on bamboo rafts. If people died on the expeditions, the money was more valuable. It was used for ceremonial things like bridal dowries and tribute. The larger pieces, like this one wouldn’t be moved when they were exchanged, and most villages had big pieces lining the path by the comnunity house or men’s house. Theo took one look at this picture and immediately spotted (because of the crisp edge on the hole) that it was cut with metal tools, not a traditional Yapese adze, which means it would have been quarried on one of the American trader  O’Keefe’s expeditions and therefore not very valuable by traditional measures.

The famous Stone Money of Yap. The hole was to put a pole through in case you wanted to move the piece, but in practice the bigger pieces were never moved, for fear that they would break.

The Yapese like to joke that these collections of stone money in the village are their banks.



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