Quin's Progress


4 Comments

Some Stuff – Pacific Islands Edition

In Batangas, Philippines.

In Batangas, Philippines.

As of today, I have been on the road for exactly six months. I can hardly believe it. Seems like just a few weeks to me, and yet, when I consider how much ground I’ve covered since leaving San Francisco, how far away my life as an office denizen feels, and how many truly lovely people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way, it seems like an awful lot for such a short period of time.

IMGP0621

One of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. Steven, of Yap.

In this edition of Some Stuff, I bid adieu to the islands I’ve visited since New Year’s Day 2014, in Micronesia and the Philippines (I know the Philippines is officially categorized as part of Southeast Asia, but it’s also one of the Pacific island nations, so I’ll cover it here). There are so many wonderful people and amazing things I will remember fondly from my travels around the Pacific. Without repeating things I’ve already written in other posts, here are just a few.

Everything’s Pretty in Saipan

Saipan

Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Saipan is pretty. It’s quiet and lush and the water is so blue it looks fake, like it was dyed with Tidy Bowl toilet cleaner.  But, when I say everything is pretty in Saipan, I mean everything is “Pretty” in Saipan.

Kokoda, Kelaguen & Corndogs

Foodspotting App.

Foodspotting App.

I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings by saying that I don’t think the food is the best reason to travel to Micronesia. The Philippines, yes. But, Micronesia’s culinary offerings are, to me, a bit less of a draw, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh ingredients, other than fish and taro root. That’s just my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone in it. In fact, the Foodspotting app—which uses GPS to direct foodies to delicious dishes in their immediate proximity—recommended popcorn at K-Mart as one of the top lunch options in Guam. This, I don’t understand, when there are corndogs on that island.

IMG_6843Yes, corndogs! There is a Wienerschnitzel inside the airport, and a Hot Dog on a Stick in the Micronesia Mall, where, on weekdays, it’s buy one get one free. IMG_6737I was so happy! By the time I left, the girls at the Hot Dog on a Stick and I were on a first name basis.

As much as I would like to try, one cannot live on corndogs alone, and there are a couple of stand out Micronesian foods that I still crave.

Kokoda

Kokoda

Kokoda is the Marshall Island’s coconutty take on ceviche. It’s a soupy concoction of lime-marinated seafood—squid, fish, clams, whatever is fresh—with chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro and coconut milk. You scoop it up with salty tortilla chips and wash it down with beer. So delicious, so rich, so messy.

Kelaguen is Guam’s culinary crowning glory (if you don’t count barbecued fruit bat, which is illegal now). Saipan’s, too. A Chamorro specialty, it is actually pretty healthy, and would be a huge hit with anyone watching carbs, or looking for a unique dish to bring to a barbecue or potluck. KelaguenEvery local family has its own recipe, and most of it is inexact kitchen science; a little of this, a little of that, spicy or not, as you like. Originally, kelaguen was made of minced raw fish or shrimp, cooked only in the acid of lemon juice. Today, the one I saw most prevalently was made with barbecued chicken, but you see it at the night markets made with any and all types of lean protein, including beef, shrimp, fish or even octopus.   Some add shredded fresh coconut, usually to chicken or fish versions, but I prefer it without. It’s served by itself with “titiya” flatbread, as a salad topping, or as a side dish with barbecue, or grilled fish. Here’s the recipe and instructions I got from Randy, the ATV driver on my jungle safari, after we bonded over a mutual love for kelaguen. It’s his family’s recipe.

Randy’s Chicken Kelaguen

ŸBarbecue a whole chicken, cut into parts, making sure to get it black in places, so the flavor of the smoke and char gets into the chicken meat, without drying it out. (You could use a rotisserie chicken, but Randy says it’s best to barbecue the chicken yourself, so you can make sure it’s good and charred and smoky.) Let cool, and remove skin and bones.

Ÿ Chop the meat very finely. The chopped bits should be about the size of grains of rice. You can use a food processor, or if you have some aggression to get out, a Chinese cleaver works well, too. Transfer chopped chicken to a mixing bowl.

Ÿ Finely chop about six or so scallions, and add to the chicken. You could use a red or a Spanish onion, if you prefer, or a combination, but the classic has scallions.

Ÿ If you like a little spice—and Randy and I both do—finely chop a Serrano, jalapeno, or bird chili—any hot pepper of your choice—and add as much or as little of that as you like. You can take the heat level down and keep the flavor by removing the seeds and ribs before you chop the chili. Add to the chicken and onions.

Ÿ Add the juice of one large lemon, and toss to coat well.

Ÿ Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ÿ If you want to add some coconut (I don’t care for it in this), mix in a handful of FRESHLY grated, unsweetened coconut. Don’t even think about using dried coconut. If you do, the police will spontaneously show up at your door and…pull your hair. I don’t know, just don’t.

Ÿ You can serve it right away, but Randy says it’s better if you let it sit in the fridge, and allow the flavors to marry really well, for a few hours at least.

Enjoy!

Candygram

Dear divemasters of Palau:

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

If there is even a slight possibility that there will be a school of huge sharks circling under the boat, please do your divers a favor and tell them about it before they jump in the water.  It’s just good manners.

Coconut-Eating Chickens & Snorkels the Pig

ChickenutsHere’s something I bet you didn’t know: Chickens love coconut. I learned this in Yap. I know chickens aren’t typically discriminating diners. I had chickens when I was a kid, and ChickensI saw one eat a piece of string so long once, that it started pooping out one end of the string before it had finished swallowing the other end of it. But, they go really bonkers over coconut. It’s like…chicken nip.

Also learned in Yap, vis-à-vis barnyard animals and coconuts: you shouldn’t park your pig under a coconut tree. This is Snorkels. Snorkels was my friend. Snorkels lived under a coconut tree.

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

Gentle friends, may you never hear the sound of a coconut falling on a pig. (Don’t worry, Snorkels was okay.)

Tuba

IMG_6543“Sweet Tuba” is not a really nice brass musical instrument. It’s a milky wine made of the fermented sap of a coconut tree. You see Tuba all over Micronesia and the Philippines.

Bottles of Tuba

Bottles of Tuba

The Tuba Man has to climb up the tree and hack at the base of the fronds every day to make sure the sap continues to run, so he can gather enough to make Tuba.  Tuba comes in sweet, for beginners, or the regular, high-octane variety for the hardened Tubaholic.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

I only had the sweet version, which is not as lethal, but will still give you a hell of a hangover. The morning after I hung out with the Yapese Tuba guys, I felt like Snorkels after the coconut.

Subterranean Flows

On an island in Palawan, in the Philippines, there’s a deep system of limestone caves, through which one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world flows directly to the sea.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

UNESCO put it on the World Heritage list in 1999, and in 2012, it was named one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” by that group in Switzerland that has appointed itself arbiter of such things. I can see why, too, it’s a pristine and eerie Underworld.

He's about to snatch my friend's purse.

He’s about to snatch my friend’s purse.

The mouth of the river is guarded by a band of extremely larcenous monkeys. Underground RiverIts vast caverns are full of bats, stalagmites and stalactites. They said there were tarantulas, too, but thankfully, I didn’t see any, or I would have jumped out of the boat.

Midget Boxing

If you’ve been watching the news about the vanished Malaysia Airlines jet, you may have noticed reports that the USS Pinckney—a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer—was dispatched to assist in the search. IMG_6853It was close by, according to the Pentagon’s official explanation, conducting “training and maritime security operations” in international waters. Well, apparently, by “training and maritime security operations in international waters,” they mean refereeing midget boxing matches over drinks at the Ringside Bar in Manila. Busted!

I want to join that Navy.


14 Comments

Cold Hard Cash

The next door neighbor, who made Tuba coconut wine.

The next door neighbor, who made Tuba coconut wine.

When I told people I was going to Yap—this strange, unheard of land in the Pacific, where women are expected to cover their thighs, but not their breasts, and you have to carry a green stick or leaf around with you so as not to be suspected of looking for trouble—the most common reaction was “Huh,” followed by surreptitious googling it to see if I was making it up.

Our village on Yap.

Our village on Yap.

That is, until an economist friend heard about my trip there.  Economists know about Yap.  Tell an economist you’ve been to Yap, and you’ll have one excited financial analyst on your hands.  I think it’s probably something like telling a lawyer that Helen Palsgraf was your great aunt.  Apparently, econ scholars studying abstract concepts involved in the idea of “money” read a lot about Yap.

License PlateWhy?  Because, Yap is the Island of Stone Money.  We’ve all absorbed knowledge from books, cartoons and movies, that various ancient cultures around the world used shells or beads or pelts or camels or what-have-you for trading, before modern currency, represented by coins and, later, notes, was invented, leaving us with vestigial expressions like “that’s a lotta clams!” to mean something is expensive.

Stone Money

Stone Money

Well, Yap has one of the most intact ancient, native cultures in the world, and they still use stone money.  They don’t walk around with pockets full of pebbles.  On Yap, big, round chunks of limestone with a hole in the center are money.  And I don’t mean they are money as in “that’s so money,” in the parlance of hip hop and, my favorite, the movie Swingers:

(Click here if the video doesn’t show above.)

Or, maybe I do mean it that way, to the extent Vince Vaughn said “money” to mean something that is rare, attractive, desirable and therefore, valuable.  Because Yap stone money is certainly not susceptible to our usual definition of money as fungible currency.

Stone money along the road.

Stone money along the road.

To get to the bottom of the stone money situation, I pestered Al, the owner of the cottage I rented on Maap Island in Yap, and other locals I met, with endless questions about how the stone money is used, how its value is determined, what kind of records are kept about ownership, etc.  Al’s big brother is one of the high chiefs on Yap—responsible for teaching young Yapese the ancient cultural ways, and for keeping track of all his people’s stone money—and Al is apparently next in line, so he was a great source of information.  (He was also super patient with my stupid questions, like “how do you give change in stone money?”)  Here’s what I learned:

The Backstory

Yapese Canoe

Yapese Canoe

The Yapese are great sea voyagers.  They build these amazing, sturdy canoes and go all over the Pacific, navigating by the stars and other mystical means that are still taught and practiced today.  A group of guys from Al’s village went all the way to Japan in one of these canoes.

Old Stone Money

Old Stone Money, scrubbed clean.

Anyhoo, several hundred years ago, some Yapese fishermen got stranded several hundred miles away in Palau, now famous for its limestone rock islands.  There’s no limestone on Yap, and these fellows thought it was super pretty stuff.  So, while they were waiting for the winds to change so they could get home, they hacked out a piece of limestone and used shell tools to carve it into the shape of a whale, or a “rai” in Yapese.  When they got home, they gave the stone rai to the chief, and told the tale of their great adventure, and everyone went ‘ooh…aahhh’ at the pretty rock.  It was exotic and rare in their eyes.  Precious.  Money.

Stone Money by the road near my cottage.

Stone Money by the road near my cottage.

After that, the Yapese would make journeys to Palau to get more of this money.  These were long, perilous voyages.  People died, boats were lost.  Palauans tried to stop them from nibbling away at their island.  The stones were heavy and difficult to transport.  In short, the stones were hard to get, which just made them more valuable.

Pieces of Stone Money outside the grocery store in Colonia, Yap.

Pieces of Stone Money outside the grocery store in Colonia, Yap.

The stone money pieces were called “raay” or “rai” in Yapese, i.e., the word for whale, after the shape of the original one.  But, after that first one, they made them round, in the shape of the full moon, with a hole in the center to facilitate transportation.  (You stick a bamboo pole through the hole and use it to roll the stone money like a wheel—not really feasible if they were still shaped like Shamu.)

Clearly machine-made.

Clearly machine-made.

Then, an American dude showed up in Yap in the late 1800s—David O’Keefe—with big ships and tools and machinery he imported from Hong Kong.  He revolutionized the production and transport of the rai, inflating their numbers on Yap, thus devaluing them, and basically spoiling all the fun.  If there’s lots of them, they aren’t rare and precious anymore.  For this reason, in the early part of the 1900s, they stopped bringing new rai to Yap.

How Much Is It Worth?

Very old, very valuable.

Very old, very valuable.

When you look at the rai with western, industrialized-nation eyes, it seems logical that the nice, smooth, large ones should be the most valuable, and the ugly little, ragged-edged, toads would be the least valuable.  Not so.  The value of a piece of stone money is based on its individual story.  The riskier the voyage to get that particular rai, the more lives lost, the more blood, sweat and tears shed in its creation, the bigger adventure getting it home, the more valuable the rai.

Notice the difference?

Notice the difference?

Accordingly, the bigger, shinier, machine-tooled ones with perfectly cylindrical center bores that O’Keefe zipped up and delivered, lickety split, on his big, fancy ships…not so valuable.  The uneven, hand-hewn little guys that look like those salt licks you put in hamster cages, after the hamsters have been at them a while, are more likely to have a harrowing story behind them, and thus be more valuable.  So, there’s your treasure, right there, in the symbol of the adventure.

Center bore of an old, handmade, very valuable rai.

Center bore of an old, handmade, very valuable rai.

It’s the job of the chief of the village where the stone money is owned or located to know the story of each rai under his supervision.  So, when the owner goes to use the stone money, the chief comes along and imparts that rai’s story so the recipient can understand its value.

Center bore of a machine-tooled, much bigger, but less valuable rai.

Center bore of a machine-tooled, much bigger, but less valuable rai.

So, when I asked Al, “so, how much is that one over there worth?” he furrowed his brow and, after a thoughtful pause, said not to think of it that way.  It’s not like you can say this one over here is worth $500 and that one over there is worth $130.  There is no stone money exchange rate, per se.  They can’t be converted on xe.com. There’s no workers’ comp-like chart that indicates “2 year voyage+8 fatalities+typhoon on the way home = $325.”  It’s much more abstract than that.  Just think of them as “valuable things,” and that they are “worth” as much as the person accepting them is willing to trade for the honor of “owning” the respect due the underlying story.  The value is entirely cultural.  Chew on that.

Spending Stone Money

They kind of look like Flintstone car wheels, don't they?

They kind of look like Flintstone car wheels, don’t they?

Obviously, you don’t roll your stone money down to the grocery store and expect to use it to buy Spam and Folgers crystals (which is pretty much all they have in the stores the week before the monthly supply ship comes).  There’s no stone money ATM to hit on your way to fill up the gas tank or restock your betelnut supply.  For commodities, daily use type stuff, and most modern business transactions, they use regular, fungible currency.  The U.S. Dollar, in fact.

RaiBut stone money is still used today in many ways.  It’s used for apologies, to settle disputes.  The more serious the dispute, the more valuable rai it’s going to take to settle it.  It’s used to request a bride’s hand in marriage, and as dowry.  It’s used as offerings to chiefs, as tribute, and shows of respect.

It’s also used, in combination with modern dollars, to sweeten a proposal on land transactions, or business deals.  If you’re selling a piece of land, and two people offer you the same purchase price, but only one is offering some stone money on top, well, you know who is getting the property.  The deal with the addition of stone money is a better deal, to the Yapese.  It has respect in it.

Stone money is basically a cultural currency.  So, it’s used in transactions that have a cultural aspect or meaning.

Who Owns It?

That's not a "take a pebble, leave a pebble" invitation, that stone money probably belongs to the shopkeeper.

That’s not a “take a pebble, leave a pebble” invitation, that stone money probably belongs to the shopkeeper.

Stone money can be owned by individuals or groups, villages or clans, just like any other tangible thing.  Usually, but not always, if a rai is sitting in front of a house or a store, it belongs to the owner of that home or business.  But, the ownership of the rai you see along the roads, or in front of the village men’s houses, is not determined by its location.

Our village's Men's House.  See the stone money out front?

Our village’s Men’s House. Click to enlarge, so you can see the stone money out front.

Each village in Yap has a “men’s house,” where only men are allowed to enter, for meetings or to socialize with each other, or just to hang out in peace and quiet with no women around.  The more important villages also have women’s houses, but those are less common.

Here is a group of Yapese women rehearsing a traditional dance and song for the 2014 Yap Day festival in front of the Women’s House in a village on Maap Island:

(Click here if video doesn’t show above.)

A "Maraal," or Stone Money Bank.

A “Maraal,” or Stone Money Bank.

Stone money is usually found on the ceremonial grounds around these village men’s and women’s houses.  The collections of stone money at the village houses are called “maraal,” or stone money banks.  The maraal pictured here is one of the larger stone money banks in Yap.  It is the responsibility of the chief of each village to know who owns each rai in the bank, and the owner may or may not live in that village.

Security at the Stone Money Bank is obviously very tight.

Security at the Stone Money Bank is clearly very tight.

Obviously, the bigger the rai, the harder it is to move.  Even the small ones are pretty hefty.  So, often, when ownership of a rai changes hands, it does not have to change location, and usually doesn’t.  But, the ownership transfer is conducted in front of the whole village, so everyone will know that, say, Norman is transferring this particular rai to Betty, or to her clan.  There’s no need to move it to Betty’s house, or to the stone money bank in her village, it can stay in Norman’s village.  Everyone knows it’s Betty’s now.  Indeed, the Yapese take great pride in owning a rai that is located outside their village.

Another kind of giant clams on the bottom of the ocean in Yap.  (Photo credit to Matti Dahlbom, although I was with him when he took this.)

Another kind of giant clams on the bottom of the ocean in Yap. (Photo credit to Matti Dahlbom, although I was with him when he took this.)

In fact, there’s apparently one at the bottom of the ocean that fell off a boat on the way back to Yap during a storm, and the chief over the sailors who lost it decided…close enough.  That’s still good.  Great story, in fact.  So, that submerged rai belongs to someone, and is actually quite valuable, even though the owner has never seen it.  It’s sitting safely on the ocean floor, drawing interest.  Well…interest, as in, that’s interesting, not 0.3% APR.

4I asked Al if there were any records kept, in case a chief died unexpectedly, or to have a way to resolve any disputes over rai ownership, and he said “No.  People just know.”  When I asked what would keep someone from stealing a piece of stone money, and making up his own story so he could inflate its value and trade with it, or manufacturing a claim to ownership of a given rai without basis by just saying “that’s mine!” he said, “People don’t do that.  The chiefs would know.  People would know.  It just  wouldn’t work.”  The chiefs know the story, location and ownership of every rai in their care, and woe betide anyone who tries to scam them.  Transfers are done in public so everyone knows the score.  It’s the Yapese fraud detection program.

That’s so money.


4 Comments

Get Down In Jellytown!

Turn up your speakers and make sure you’re in a place where you can get a little funky without anyone calling security, my friends, because now is ze time on ze QP ven ve dance!

(For my email followers, if the video doesn’t show above, view the post on the main site, or click here: http://youtu.be/yhyf60Spz9o)

Whoo!  All right, ladies and jellyfish, here’s one for all you groovy foxes born before 1975, and yes, it’s an ALL SKATE!  Watch out for the big, fat Disco Jelly who’ll crash into you at 0:06 if you’re not careful!

(Or, click here: http://youtu.be/n0U1rPscYd8)

Ooh yeah, and who can resist a little baby boogie–work it, baby jelly!  Shake that thing!

(Or, click here: http://youtu.be/WZnmJ1uWjd8)

Pibb Right on!  Okay, that was fun.  You know I had to start with the Jellylicious song, for obvious reasons (and if they’re not obvious to you, listen again), but then it all just took a decidedly roller disco turn, because who are we kidding, those jellies were totally doin’ the Hustle and zooming around like roller disco gods.  519672_2All that was missing was the satin jackets.  Anyhoo, let’s get a Mr. Pibb and a box of Ludens Wild Cherry throat lozenges (my standard snack choice at the old Ups ‘N Downs Roller Rink in Escondido, California circa 1974), and I’ll tell you how I came to be shakin’ my groove thang with these far out funkadellyfish.

Rock Islands of Palau

Rock Islands of Palau

Jellyfish Lake is in the southern rock islands of the Republic of Palau.  There are actually three or four jellyfish lakes, but to protect the environment and the jellies from too much stress, they restrict access to one at a time.  The lake is in the center of one of the larger limestone, mangrove-covered islands, and it is completely separated from the surrounding ocean.  Over the centuries, without any ocean predators bothering them, the jellyfish have evolved their stingers off.  So, they’re totally harmless blobs of disco goo.

That hole lets in the bad guys, so the jellies in the lake in this shot are armed with stingers.

That hole in the limestone lets in the bad guys from the ocean, so the jellies in the lake in this shot are armed with nasty stingers…which that snorkel dude on the left is about to find out the hard way.

There are similar lakes on other islands where the limestone separating the lake from the ocean has eroded away enough to let other sea life in, and the jellyfish populations in those lakes have stingers, so you really need to make sure you go to the right one, or you’ll be one unhappy critter (albeit, with some very interesting scars to showcase at cocktail parties).

IMGP1281It’s not easy to get to the Jellyfish Lake.  You have to get a permit, then take a boat about an hour south of Koror, and then, after washing your feet so no tiny sea creatures can come in with you and disrupt the ecosystem, you have to haul your ass up, and then back down, a super steep ridge.  It’s so steep up near the top, they carved steps into the rock, and put a rope next to the path to pull yourself along.

The camera was half in, half out of the water.  Look at those jellies just under the surface!

The camera was half in, half out of the water. Look at those jellies just under the surface! Click to enlarge so you can see!

When you climb back down the other side, there’s a placid, aquamarine lake sunken into the limestone bed.  You can’t see a thing in the water at first, it just looks bottle-glass green.  So, on goes the snorkel gear, and in you go, with instructions to swim toward the middle, and not to touch or grab the jellyfish.

IMGP1389Suddenly…they’re everywhere.  Jellyfish!  Kajillions of them!  Swarming in slow motion like corpulent, flaccid bumble bees.  Big ones, little ones, middle-sized ones, all glorping along, swimming in all directions–up, down, diagonally, sideways–bumping into each other and into you.  Clearly, the jellies don’t get instructions not to touch you.  It’s like jellyfish bumper cars in there.

IMGP1286Having been conditioned my whole life to avoid contact with jellyfish, I did a lot of involuntary flinching and shuddering at first when they bumped into me, slithered along my neck, plowed into my face, and even got caught under my arm or between my legs as I swam (!!!).  It’s impossible to avoid when diving in jellyfish soup.  But, after about five minutes or so, when I hadn’t been stung, I relaxed, and just started laughing and giggling in wonder at it.  Because, it is wonderful in the most literal sense of the word.

IMGP1377I have several hundred pictures, even after I culled out the bad ones.  They all look sort of the same, but not.  (Please click them to enlarge, so you can really see!)  There’s something special and/or hilarious about each one.  I actually felt a sense of relief when the battery on my camera died, because then I was released, free to just gambol about with them, without worrying about missing a good shot.  All I had to worry about was accidentally sucking one up into my snorkel when I dove down deep into the jelly party.

Bonk!  Right in my face!

Bonk! Right in my face!

There were a few other people there at the same time as I was, and they all had on full-body wetsuits.  I saw them suiting up on the edge of the lake before I jumped in, and I asked my guide if a suit was necessary, as I knew the water wouldn’t be cold.  He said no, but a lot of people don’t feel comfortable without it.

The photo is right side up, it's the jelly who's upside down.

Jellyfish Upside-Down Cake.

I understand that, I do, but I also feel sorry for those people now that I’ve had the dizzying experience of being licked all over on my bare skin by scads of jellyfish puppies.  Those suited-up folks missed out on that, and I think it’s one of the most viscerally memorable parts of the experience.

IMGP1342IMGP1358Once you adjust, and realize the jellies are not going to hurt you, swimming amongst them really has a similar kind of playful, silly, childlike energy as rolling around on the ground with puppies jumping all over you.  Well, puppies with freaky, glowing electric coils visible through their transparent skulls.


16 Comments

The Yapese Welcome Wagon

Yap

Yap

Airport Greetresses

Airport Greetresses. Sorry, all I can give you is a shot of side-boob.

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.

Welcome Garland.

Welcome Garland.
(My boobs stayed covered.)

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.  Yapese Granny2Although 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.  Yapese Granny3(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.

It's hard to stalk people from the front, sorry.

It’s hard to stalk people from the front, sorry.

Stealing more souls.

Stealing more souls in downtown Colonia,  Yap.

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).

Village View on Maap Island.

Village View on Maap Island.

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.

My cottage on Yap.

My cottage on Yap.

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.

Village ViewIt 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.  NightShotThey 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.

Our beach.

Our beach.

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.

This is where I found them.

The scene of the birthday party, the next day.

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.

The Moon Rize.

The Moon Rize.

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.

My cottage, from the road.

My cottage, from the road.  In the daytime, obviously.

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.

Some random pictures I took on Yap, because this part of the story takes place at night, and it was too dark to photograph anything.

Some random pictures I took on Yap, because this part of the story takes place at night, and it was too dark to photograph anything.

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.)

This can of Shasta Tiki Punch was bottled in Hayward, California, so it traveled just as far as I did to get to Yap.

This can of Shasta Tiki Punch was bottled in Hayward, California, so it traveled just as far as I did to get to Yap.

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.

EEEEK!!!

EEEEK!!!

“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.

My hair still stands up just at the sight of this.  Yeesh!

My hair still stands up just at the sight of this. Yeesh!

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.

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod!!!!

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod!!!!

“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!”

He's so lucky there wasn't a hole in the bottom of that cup.

He’s so lucky there wasn’t a hole in the bottom of that cup.

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.

He convinced our skipper to hand over the wheel of the boat.

He convinced our skipper to hand over the wheel of the boat.

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.


2 Comments

Picnic on Screensaver Island

islandersIf you research things to do on Majuro, you’ll find that the most recommended activity is to go someplace else.  It’s beautiful, but there isn’t a heck of a lot to do on Majuro, and the few things there are to do are often closed when you get there, notwithstanding the business hours posted at the entrance.  But, Majuro is a great jumping off point to explore the other, more remote islands in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.  You can catch a boat or a seaplane from Majuro to any of the other 29 atolls in the nation, some of which are pretty far flung.

Eneko Island

Eneko Island

Eneko Island is near-flung, relatively speaking, in that it’s day trip distance from Majuro by boat.  I decided to play chicken with Dale and go for the day.

The Ambassadog

The Ambassadog

So, I got up at the crack of ten, had the hotel cook pack me up a sandwich, and set off in a little skiff with a small group that included, as I found out later, the U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands and his dog, who would not stop licking my face.  The dog, not the Ambassador.  Yes, I was face-licked by the Ambassadog.  Such an honor!  And, it distracted me from trying to figure out who on the boat would play Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, the Howells, Ginger and Maryann in the movie I would otherwise have been making in my head of this trip.

Real Island. Not a screensaver.

Real Island. Not a screensaver.

Spiders!

Spiders!

As we skimmed the edge of the coral reef that makes up the Majuro Atoll on our way to Eneko, I couldn’t help but think of those screensaver images of palm trees sprouting out of small, sugar white sand islands in azure seas, taunting me from my computer screen back home.  I think I must have assumed they were photoshopped or something–that something that pristine couldn’t actually exist.  But it does.  It’s in the Marshall Islands.  The screensavers, of course, don’t show you all the SPIDERS!  Ugh, see, this is why we can’t have nice things.

AtollThese little islands, barely sticking up out of the sea, are all the last dabs of the rim of an ancient volcano, on which the coral reefs have developed.  The sometimes narrow separations between the islands are just the places where the rock and coral has eroded or descended into the sea more quickly.  From the air, you can see the coral connection between the islands just under the surface of the water.  If the sea level rises even a teensy bit, this country is going to disappear.  In the meantime, it’s a great place for a snorkel picnic!

Look at that water!

Look at that water!

The clarity of the water is peerless, and as I mentioned in my last post, the coral is among the healthiest in the world, teeming with life.  It has a perfect, sort of Disney-like quality to it that makes it seem not quite real.

(Click to enlarge the images below.)

See the little pipefish?  Look at his seahorsey nose.

See the little pipefish? Click to enlarge, and have a look at his seahorsey nose.

On Eneko Island, the sand shelf is limited, so the beach is powder soft, but you can’t walk out into the water very far before you hit coral.  The water over the reef is quite shallow, too, so for once, being fluffy and buoyant was a huge advantage, as it allowed me to hover easily over the coral in just a couple feet of water and see the abundant sea life up close and personal.  Like this little guy.  I thought he was a seahorse at first, because of his nose, but, apparently, he’s a pipefish.  It’s a cousin to the seahorse, but the body isn’t curled and paunchy.  He’s the supermodel of seahorses.  No curves.

I found Nemo!

I found Nemo!

Unlike at more traveled spots, where the fish are accustomed to being fed by tourists and swim right up to your snorkel mask and wag their tails, waiting for a treat, these guys were skittish and wary of human company.

Pretty Fiddy!

Pretty Fiddy!

Or, perhaps it was the fact that I had a tunafish sandwich for lunch, and to them, my approach was heralded by the stench of death and mayonnaise.  I’m not sure.  In any event, when they would allow me into any kind of close proximity, it was an even greater honor than being licked by the Ambassadog.

Why wasn’t I scuba diving with the rest of the group, you ask?

I should have had these breadfruit for lunch instead of a tunafish sandwich.

I should have had these breadfruit for lunch instead of a tunafish sandwich.

Well, I am certified to scuba dive, but not only did I not feel like putting on a wetsuit and lugging all the necessary gear, I had to fly the next day, and I didn’t want to risk the bends.  From what the others reported after their dive, I think I had the better day snorkeling in the shallows in my tutu-tutu anyway (“tutu” is the Marshallese word for swimming, and my swimsuit has a little skirt thingy on it; hence, tutu-tutu).

Speaking of flying the next day, travelers take note:  there’s a $20 per head departure tax in the Marshall Islands, and it has to be paid in cash, in U.S. dollars, and there’s no ATM at the airport.  Ignorant of this, I managed to run myself down to just three dollars by the day I left, and they wouldn’t take a credit card for the departure tax.  I tried to pay in banana bread and Snickers bars, but the guy wouldn’t go for it.  I still had 1,200 Macanese Patacas (about $150 USD) in my wallet from when I was in Macau, but the guy wasn’t having any of that either.

MAJ airportThere’s a little branch of the Bank of the Marshall Islands at the airport that purports to be a licensed foreign exchange bank, so I went there and tried to exchange the Patacas for US dollars.  The bank teller looked at the bills and was, like, “you git on outta here with yer funny, make-believe ‘Patacas’ before I call for the sheriff!”  Or, whatever the Marshallese version of that general sentiment would be.  They wouldn’t even let me do a cash advance on my credit card, although, I have to wonder if they would have permitted it if I had lead with that.  Who knows?

Gettin' my departure tax cash at the bar.

Gettin’ my departure tax cash at the bar.

Finally, the bartender in the airport bar took pity on me/took the opportunity to exploit my stupidity, and after I bought a shot of Jack—which I sorely needed by that point—and agreed to an extortionate 25% “convenience fee,” allowed me to get $20 cash back on my credit card so I could leave the place.  Good thing he didn’t know I had fresh banana bread to bargain with, or I’d have lost my inflight snack, too!


6 Comments

Taxicab Compressions

MarshalleseIokwe, gentle friends!  That’s hello in Marshallese, the language of the Marshall Islands.  It’s also their word for welcome, goodbye, and love.  It translates directly to English as “you are a rainbow.”  As a Marshall, although admittedly not a Marshall Islander, I feel obligated to speak a little Marshallese, so, from now on, I am going to use “you are a rainbow” as my all-purpose salutation.  God help me next time I have to go to court.  “You are a rainbow, Your Honor.  Quin Marshall for the defense.”

The view from my hotel room.

The view from my hotel room.

Before I came to the Marshall Islands, I was joking around with my friends that I was hoping for a royal reception when I land, with a parade or something, but that my Marshall name never seems to carry much weight at Marshalls the store, so I wasn’t going to get my hopes up.  Fernando said that if they did receive me as the Grand Marshall, as it were, that the parade would be followed by a tour of all the things in the islands that need fixing, so I’d better hope to pass unnoticed instead.

This was right outside my front door.

This was right outside my front door.

As it turned out, everyone I introduced myself to just looked at me kind of funny—kind of like you’d imagine people would look at you in the States if you introduced yourself with “Hi, I’m Trudy United States.”  Either that, or they’d say “Oh, are you related to that guy who sailed past our islands two hundred years ago and named them after himself?”  Uh…no.  So much for my parade.

That's one of the snappy new ones, right out in front of the airport.

That’s one of the snappy new ones, right out in front of the airport.

Actually, I take that back.  There was a parade every day.  A parade of taxicabs, trawling slowly up and down the only road on Majuro, the main island of the Majuro Atoll—the capital, and one of 29 coral atolls, including the Bikini Islands, that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Bikini Atoll Town Hall.  I really wanted to see the Mayor's car, but his parking spot was empty the whole time I was there.

Bikini Atoll Town Hall. I really wanted to see the Mayor’s car, but his parking spot was empty the whole time I was there.

Majuro is a long, skinny, boomerang-shaped island that is barely wider than the plane I flew in on, no exaggeration, and hardly sticking up out of the ocean at all.  Maybe that’s where the word atoll comes from?  Anyhoo…there’s one road, from one end to the other, no way to get lost.  If you stand in the middle of the road, there’s water within spitting distance on both sides of you; the ocean on one side, and the lagoon sheltered by the atoll on the other.  (I was seriously tempted, for some reason, to measure the distance across the island in cartwheels.  It would be a double-digit number, for sure.)

They really do wear muumuus and play ukuleles under the palms.

They really do wear muumuus and play ukuleles under the palms.

The way most folks get around Majuro, if they don’t have a car of their own, is by the plentiful taxis that run slowly back and forth between the airport and Rita Weto, the village on the northern tip of the island.  A few are nice, late model economy cars, but most of them are rattletrap jalopies just a bit of twine and some duct tape away from collapsing in a wheezing heap.

My first morning on Majuro, I was told to just flag one down on the road to get to town; you can’t call for one to come for you.  Being the city girl I am, I stood on the edge of the road and politely waited for an empty cab to approach before I waved.

Marshallese lady gettin' in my cab.

Marshallese lady gettin’ in my cab.

So, imagine my surprise when, a couple hundred yards down the road, the driver pulled over and two more people got in.  No one seemed to think this required any explanation to me, so I just went with it.  Sure enough, half a mile later, we stopped and picked up another person.

So expensive!

So expensive!

Then, we stopped for gas, and the driver made us all pay our fares up front so he could afford some gas.  When he stuck his hand out to me, I didn’t know how much to give him, so I handed over three dollars.  He gave me back 75 cents.

BBQ'd chicken and pork with rice, slaw and macaroni salad for $3.  I ate here almost every day.  If they decided to be open.

BBQ’d chicken and pork with rice, slaw and macaroni salad for $3. I ate here almost every day. That is, IF they decided to be open.

Between there and town, we stopped and let people out, picked up others—sometimes up to six people at a time were crammed into that little Reagan-era Toyota Tercel—stopped at the BBQ shack for chicken, then dropped off the food at the driver’s mom’s house, and then finally made our way to town.

More taxi mates.  The little one is Gigi.

More taxi mates. The little one is Gigi.

It took 45 minutes to go about seven miles.  But, it was a sure ’nuff local experience.  And, I learned my lesson after that, not to wait for an empty cab to flag them down.

The driver and another passenger in front, me and three other people in back.

The driver and another passenger in front, me and three other people in back.

By the end of the week, I was an old pro at it.  I knew that, although the fare from my hotel to downtown was two dollars, if all I had was a five-dollar bill, the fare was five dollars.  Still, nothing to complain about, relatively speaking.  Plus, I had also learned that the drivers have to pay 35 dollars a day to rent the taxi, and that whatever they make over and above that is theirs to keep.  But, when the average fare is 25 to 50 cents, and tipping is not customary, it’s a long, hard day to make 35 dollars, not to mention exceed it.  So, I never groused about being held up for an extra buck or so when I didn’t think in advance to get small bills for the fare.

She just got out of my cab.  The driver was flirting with her something fierce, and you can see why, with that smile.

She just got out of my cab, after giggling and flirting with the handsome young driver to the point he almost crashed into a Noni tree.

I noticed that no one ever announced their destination to the driver when they got into the cab, like I did.  It’s what I’m used to from home, but on Majuro, they just get in the cab and say nothing.  Maybe “Iokwe,” but that’s about it.  No chitchat, no nothing, unless it was obvious that the passenger was related to or closely befriended with the driver.  So, I tried it.  Flagged down a taxi, got in, and said nothing.  No driver ever asked me my destination.

Beautiful downtown Majuro

Beautiful downtown Majuro

One guy drove me all the way to the northern end of the road at Rita Weto (Rita Village), and just turned the car around and started driving the other way, without asking me why I hadn’t gotten out anywhere.  So, the system is, apparently, just like riding a bus; when you want off, you let him know.  There’s only one route, and as long as you’re happy to pay the accumulating fare, cheap as it is, you can ride back and forth all day if you want.

No AlcoholI saw a lot of these signs along the side of the road at the edges of various villages on the island, that say, in Marshallese on one side and English on the other, that consumption of alcohol in the village is prohibited.  P1070324I asked a waitress in a restaurant why that prohibition existed, thinking it might be a religious thing, like I had seen in some villages in India.  But no, she said it was “because, plenty people make trouble when they drink, so the landowners, they don’t want to allow the drinking.”  I asked who enforced the rule, and she said “if someone makes too much trouble, they send him to the outer islands.”  So, I take it this is not an official, but probably more effective, form of local justice, administered by the Marshallese “iroji,” or tribal chiefs.  Get out of line, and get banished until you can behave.  I like it.

Iokwe!

Iokwe!

I should put in a complaint to the iroji about the driver of the last taxi I took, who seemed to think his solitary tooth and emphysematous cough were as intoxicating to me as the information that I was traveling alone and leaving the country soon was to him.  He was NOT a rainbow.