Quin's Progress


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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.


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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.