Quin's Progress


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.


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



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 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.



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.)


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.


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.


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.