The first thing I saw after passing through the customs booth into the open shelter that is the Yap airport, was two smiling girls of about 18 or so, gleaming rosewood skin, tropical flower tiaras, and completely naked but for the rustling raffia skirts, full as a square dancer’s petticoats, barely clinging to their hips. No coconut shell bras or bikini tops here.
They welcomed us to Yap by draping around each of our necks a garland of fresh green, braided reeds, accentuated with delicate, watermelon-pink blossoms. I had read that, in Yap, women are expected to cover their thighs, but not their breasts, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by their attire, but, not having had a chance to acclimate yet, my default social programming compelled me to respectfully avert my eyes from the exposed boobies. Although I really did want to stare (you know what I always say: everyone loves boobs), or at least, get a good photograph to share with y’all, I was just too tired to muster the nerve to ask permission, unsure if that would be considered rude. (I wish I had, though, because except for those beauties at the airport, the only other native folks I saw in that particular state of traditional undress while I was in Yap were more on the elderly side, and as you can imagine, decades of gravity and sun exposure had their venerable chi-chis resembling tanned spaniels’ ears.
Even then, I was rendered a bashful, inwardly giggling idiot, stalking topless grannies in the grocery store with my camera, trying not to get caught photographing them, as it is, especially by the older generation, considered a theft of the soul.)
In the crowd that had turned out to meet the Saturday night plane (Yap only gets flights on Tuesdays and Saturdays, both late at night), I located Al, the owner of the Village View cottages where I would be staying (and, as it happens, the younger brother of one of the Grand Poobah chiefs of Yap).
He had come to fetch me and one other guest, a young Japanese woman who had come for the fantastic diving. There are no lights along the long road to the northeast side of Maap island—one of the main islands that comprise Yap—and the road is not even paved after the turnoff to where Al’s five rustic beach cottages are located.
When we arrived, Al gave us each our keys, pointed out which cottage was assigned to whom, and aimed the truck’s headlights down the dirt trail so we could see where to find the only restaurant on that side of the island—the Moon Rize Restaurant and Dive Center—where we would be taking our meals. He then left us, saying he’d be back the next day.
It was too dark to see when we arrived, but Al’s little cottages are right on the prettiest, most remote beach on Maap, have wrap-around porches, and are appropriately rustic to the locale—no TV, no phones, no cell signal, no internet connection. They do have power and plumbing, and air conditioning, though, which is all I really care about. I threw my bags down and made a beeline for the bathroom, having forgotten to go at the airport before we set out through the jungle. As soon as I was ensconced with my shorts around my ankles, I saw it: the unholiest, most diabolical, hook-legged bulb of arachnoid evil, at least the size of the palm of my hand, giving me the multi-eyed stink-eye, not even a foot away from my knee.
I’m not sure how I managed to levitate my not-insubstantial form off the toilet and onto the sink vanity, still hobbled by my pants around my feet, and scramble crab-wise out of there without ever touching the floor, but I did. You see, spiders are the things I am most terrified of in the world. Call it irrational, I won’t argue, but when I seem them, my thoughts cease to form in words, coming instead in splashes of primary colors and alarm sirens, like the emergency broadcast system on steroids, and the only mental command I can obey is the primal directive to flee. It’s not something I can control or reason my way around. I have, over the years, begrudgingly developed the ability to dispose of smaller ones on my own (though not without hopping up and down and yelping like an overstimulated Pomeranian), but if they are bigger than, say, a dime, all I can do is run screaming. Which is what I did in this instance.
So, there I was, pulling up my pants in the road, evicted from my cottage by a big-ass spider in the middle of the night, with no ability to call Al to come back and save me. The only other lights on in any of the cottages were in the one belonging to the Japanese girl who had come in from the airport with me, and somehow I didn’t think she was going to be much help; she was a shy, dainty little bijou, and didn’t speak any English. I walked down the path toward the closed restaurant, hoping to find someone, anyone, who could help me exorcise the beast. Or, preferably, just do it for me. Thankfully, the heavens smiled on me, and I found a group of drunks smoking and laughing by the beach not far down the road.
A German-accented “Hallo!” greeted me out of the dark, and when I approached, a wild-haired, bare-chested Austrian stepped up to usher me into the circle. “I am Sebastian,” he said, “but everyone calls me ‘Basti,’ or ‘Busty,’ because of my beautiful busen (German for ‘bosom’). You can touch them if you want.” He jutted his fuzzy, sunburned chest out for me to pet. I reached up and gave his left nipple an affectionate tousle, and he recoiled with an expression mixed with surprise and delight. “Ah! You can stay,” he announced, and introduced me around to the group.
In addition to the aforementioned Basti, there was his stunning girlfriend whose birthday they were all celebrating, his adorable, hilarious friend and coworker in a documentary film company from Vienna, who he introduced simply as “Überfloof” (“because he has the softest, fluffiest hair…here, feel it!” He was right, it was very soft), a golden Finnish guy who was a dead ringer for one of my friends from high school (assuming my friend has aged extremely well), and four or five Yapese locals from the village who had provided the “tuba” coconut wine on which all of them were bombed out of their gourds. Well, that and some other things that were being passed around.
When I explained my spider predicament, Basti gallantly jumped up and accompanied me back to my cottage to help. As we walked, he told me about a gargantuan furry, black spider he had encountered while filming a documentary in the rainforest of Brazil, and said that, unless this spider in my bathroom was truly, spectacularly large, he was going to be disappointed. I was actually worried for a moment that my spider wouldn’t measure up. Then he said, “unless it’s a…schwarze witwe…I don’t know how it’s called in English.” He was talking about a black widow. I answered him in German: “Es ist keine schwarze witwe.” He stopped and turned to me in surprise. “Was, du sprichst Deutsch? Das gibt’s doch wohl nicht!” And, just like that, instant kinship. (It always surprises Germans and Austrians to find a German-speaking American, but for some reason, it really blows their wigs up to run across one in a far-flung place, and Yap is about as far-flung as it gets.)
I was so flustered, I accidentally lead him to the wrong cottage at first—the one belonging to the Japanese girl. As I futzed around unsuccessfully with the lock, I heard movement noise inside, and I thought it was the spider, in my mind, trashing the place like a Hell’s Angel in a bar fight. “Oh my god, do you hear it?” I hissed at Basti, who just laughed at me. I don’t know why she didn’t just open the door to see what we wanted. But, then again, it was the middle of the night, and she’s probably sitting in Tokyo right now writing a blog post about how she narrowly avoided an untimely death when some crazy, Teutonic marauders tried to break into her cottage on her first night in Yap, as she cowered under the table, praying for them to go away. Which we did as soon as I realized my error.
Once inside the correct cottage, I pushed the bathroom door open with my foot and jumped back out of the way. Basti went inside and said, “Where is it? I can’t even see it!” I crept to the doorway and saw he was looking up, at the upper part of the wall. “It’s down there!” I squeaked, pointing at the creature perched on the baseboard like it owned the place. When he stepped back and asked if I had a Tupperware or something to put over it, I knew the thing had met his rigorous spider standards. He grabbed a cup next to the sink and went in to capture it, while I uselessly leapt about out in the foyer, shrieking like I’d been run through with a spear.
“Get the camera ready!” he called to me. “Come in now!” But, I couldn’t do it; the trauma of too many mean boys over the years, pushing spiders into my face on their palms after purportedly rescuing me from them, has rendered me permanently distrustful. And if he tried to put that octo-goblin in my face, they were going to have to airlift me to the psychiatric hospital in Guam. “Come on, bring the camera!” he insisted. “It’s safe, I promise!” He said this last part in a reassuring enough tone that I fished my iPhone out of my bag—hands shaking, unsteady ululations of distress streaming nonstop from my constricted throat—and peeped around the doorjamb.
He had the spider trapped under the glass on the wall, with his ear to the bottom, like he was eavesdropping on someone on the other side of the wall. I practically climbed the door, just seeing the thing jerking around frenetically inside the glass, trying to climb inside Basti’s ear. But, he ordered me with enough Austrian authority in his voice to “take some pictures, godammit,” that I managed to compose myself just enough to snap a few shots before my feet involuntarily conveyed me out of the room.
“I need something flat to slide underneath…no, not that, it’s convex…a flyer or something,” he instructed me, the top of his head just visible in the doorway. There was nothing suitable anywhere in the room, and I was starting to panic afresh that the monster might get away in transit to the outdoors. Then, I spotted a package of cookies I had bought earlier, and I started to frantically tear at it, so I could flatten out the box and give it to Basti to slip under the glass. “Oh, good, perfect time to have some cookies,” he drawled at me derisively. “I know you’re stressed out, go ahead, Schatz, have a cookie. Have two!”
That made me laugh, which calmed me down enough to disassemble the cardboard package and reach it through the doorway to him. I listened in a ridiculous, full-body clench from the other room as he cooed and apologized to the spider for pinching its leg, and gingerly, like he was removing a soufflé from the oven, carried it outside and pitched it into the yard. “There. Now, let’s go back to the party. I think you could use a drink,” he said, unaware that what he had just done was, to me, the equivalent of slicing our thumbs open and binding them together in a blood brother ritual.
Now you know what it takes to earn my eternal devotion and gratitude. Basti can now call on me to come bail him out of jail in Chiapas or Burundi or wherever, and I would totally do it. And, after getting to know him a little better over the following week, I think there’s a decent chance that circumstance could actually come about.
There’s also an equal likelihood that, by the time I got there with the bail money, Basti would have already charmed the pants off his jailers, have the keys to his cell on a chain around his own neck, have them in stitches with his vivid accounts of, oh, say, the tiny eels that swim up the bums of unsuspecting sea cucumbers for safety (it’s a real thing, look it up). They’d all be drinking and smoking and laughing in the jailhouse together, making fart jokes and naming their armpits after famous singing duos of the 60s and 70s (arms over his head, “Say ‘hallo’ to Ike and Tina!”).
Oh, it’ll happen.