by lyle e davis
There are those of us who have dreamed of Paradise . . . there are some of us who have traveled there. One such guy who lives the life most of us have just dreamed about is a fella by the name of Bill Williams.
Bill was a school teacher in the Oceanside School District. During his vacations and after he retired, he decided he wanted to take his strong yearning for travel and combine that with his considerable skills as a photographer and then just travel the world, seeking out fascinating sites and record them on film or, more recently, in electronic format, to show to people back here at home.
He’s done that.
Most recently, Bill traveled to Yap, one of the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. He brings back to us this photo essay of a simpler, slower world. Some would call it Paradise.
Yap is a cluster of islands that stretch for 600 miles in the vast Pacific Ocean. Yap proper, a group of four main islands within a barrier reef, is approximately 500 miles southwest of Guam, 300 miles northeast of Palau, and 800 miles due east of Cebu, Philippines. The other islands that comprise the state of Yap extend eastward towards Chuuk. Yap lies just nine degrees north of the Equator.
Yap's indigenous cultures and traditions are still strong compared to other neighboring islands. The "island" of Yap actually consists of four continental islands (hence the alternative name of the Yap Islands). The four are very close together and joined within a common coral reef. The land is mostly rolling hills densely covered with vegetation. Mangrove swamps line much of the shore. An outer barrier reef surrounds the islands, enclosing a lagoon between the fringing barrier reef.
It’s not a big place. The population is around 6,300 in both Colonia, the capitol of Yap, and ten other municipalities. The state has a total land area of 38.7 sq mi.
Skin and scuba divers know Yap rather well. The reefs surrounding the islands of Yap are home to a rich diversity of tropical marine life. The most popular natural resource is the resident population of manta rays, which divers and snorkelers have a good chance of seeing on an almost daily basis. Usually found inside the lagoons, the dive guides in Yap are expert at finding the mantas, plus a host of other animals to keep visiting divers and snorkelers entertained. Yap also boasts lively colorful coral reefs and walls teeming with sharks, nudibranchs and another favorite, mandarinfish. Most of the operators offer dive classes from introductory snorkeling and scuba lessons through advanced levels of instruction. Crystal clear and warm waters, all combine to make it a diver’s paradise.
Beginning in the 19th century, Yap was colonized by the Spanish, Germans, and Japanese in succession. Yap was a major German naval communications center before the First World War. It was occupied by Japanese troops in September, 1914, and passed to the Japanese under the Versailles Treaty in 1919.
In World War II, Japanese-held Yap was one of the islands bypassed in the U.S. "island-hopping" strategy, although it was regularly bombed by U.S. ships and aircraft, and Yap-based Japanese bombers did some damage in return. At the end of World War II, Yap was occupied by the U.S. military victors.
The U.S. held it and the rest of the Caroline Islands as a trusteeship under a United Nations mandate (the "Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands") until 1986. In that year, Yap, Truk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae formed the independent nation of the Federated States of Micronesia. Under a Compact of Free Association with the United States, Micronesian citizens and goods are allowed entry into the U.S. with few restrictions.
Today, there are still remnants of WWII, mostly shot up aircraft that litter the forest floor and some of the lagoons. At one time the Japanese had their aircraft parked on the airstrip and were preparing for a strike on American held position. American Intelligence learned of it, dispatched some Navy fighters and they tore up the Japanese aircraft while still parked on the tarmac. Remnants of those Japanese aircraft can still be found.
Yap Proper (known as Wa'ab or Waqab) was initially settled by ancient migrants from the Malay Peninsula, the Indonesian Archipelago, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. The Yapese language is related to the Malay languages of Southeast Asia, though with strong New Guinean influences.
The Yapese and outer island Yapese were some of the most renowned navigators in the Pacific. Yapese sailors travelled phenomenal distances in outrigger canoes, without the aid of a compass, navigating by the stars and the patterns of ocean waves. During pre-colonial times, the people of Yap Proper established an island empire and dominion over what are now the outer islands of Yap State.
American Peace Corps Volunteers have an ongoing presence on both Yap Proper and its Outer Islands, aimed at reducing educational disparities and inequalities in access to effective classroom instruction.
You can sail . . . or you can fly. Sailing might be cheaper. The airfare per person, round trip, from San Diego to YAP International Airport runs from between $2529 and $3450 and will take, at a minimum, 16 hours and 15 minutes in the air!
Yap International Airport receives service from Continental Micronesia, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines.
U.S. citizens are allowed to stay indefinitely, provided they have a valid passport. Most other nationals are allowed between 14 and 30 days.
What should I bring?
Yap's year round climate is sub-tropical, with average temperatures in the high 80's (F) to low 90's during the day, and low 80's in the evenings. Loose cotton clothing, shorts, t-shirts, sarongs, and sandals for the day, and light slacks/polo shirts for the evening. There is no formal dress in Yap, so dress casual and be comfortable.
How do I get around
There are several taxi companies. Typical fares are one dollar anywhere in Colonia and about twelve dollars to the furthest point of the island. It will be a good idea to ask your hotel or service operator to make an arrangement for a taxi because there are no taxis looking for customers on the street and no taxi with a fare meter.
There are public buses for one dollar that operate each morning and evening only, bringing people to work and back home again at the end of the day. Rental cars vary in price from about $38.00-$60.00 / day.
I have heard about Yap's intact culture, and I don't want to offend anyone. What should I wear or do when visiting the villages?
Women should cover their thighs when in public places. Long shorts (down to the knee) or sarongs are fine, as are jeans or slacks. Men should also not wear shorts that are "too short." Bathing suits should be used for swimming or on the boat or poolside.
Is Yap a place to bring the whole family?
Sure. Bringing a family to Yap is a wonderful experience for children and parents alike.
US currency is used. Credit cards are accepted by most hotels and some shops but travelers checks are recommended for purchases at restaurants and for shopping.
What kind of hotels are there on Yap?
Remarkably, there is a wide variety of different hotels on Yap. Every hotel on Yap has its own niche that is clearly defined, such as Diving, Eco-tourism, Business, Historic Inn, Resort, Beach, and Economical Hotel.
Always ask for permission before entering private property or taking a picture of people. Please note that 99% of Yap is privately owned.
Drive slowly in residential areas, especially in villages.
Feel free to try out local practices and/or attire, after asking for permission. It helps when Yapese know you’re genuinely interested.
Sit properly. For women, don’t squat in public. It’s improper and disrespectful.
Learn how to say “Sirow” and “Kammagar” meaning “Excuse me” and “Thank you” respectively.
Walk around in public in transparent or skimpy attire. Yapese culture requires women to cover their thighs. Women can wear clothing with hemlines reaching to just above the knees.
Step or walk over people or their baskets when they are sitting down. It’s disrespectful.
Cause too much noise in residential areas, especially when in a village.
Walk around villages empty handed. It shows you’re visiting an area without a purpose and therefore are likely to cause trouble. A small branch (Muteelpaaq) would do if you don’t have a handbag.
Walk around at night without carrying a light, especially in the village. It means you are looking to cause trouble.
If you whisper, people will strain their ears to listen but if you shout people will shut their ears in annoyance … meaning: Don’t be loud and obnoxious but humble and modest… people will respond better to you that way.
Yap was an island of villages that fought wars against each other. After each war, the stronger village ruled the weaker village. As a result an elaborate caste system developed.
In 1871 David Dean O'Keefe, an American sailor on a pearl diving expedition aboard the Belvedere, is shipwrecked on Yap and rescued by the Yapese people. He was later taken to Hong Kong on a German trading ship.
In 1872 O'Keefe returns as skipper of a Chinese junk named Catherine, after his American wife, and begins his famous trade of stone money for copra and bech-de-mer.
Yap is notable for its stone money, known as Rai: large doughnut-shaped, carved disks of (usually) calcite, up to 12 ft in diameter (most are much smaller). The smallest can be as little as 1.4 in in diameter. Many of them were brought from other islands, as far as New Guinea, but most came in ancient times from Palau. Their value is based on both the stone's size and its history. Historically the Yapese valued the disks because the material looks like quartz, and these were the shiniest objects around. Eventually the stones became legal tender and were even mandatory in some payments.
The stones' value was kept high due to the difficulty and hazards involved in obtaining them. To quarry the stones, Yapese adventurers had to sail to distant islands and deal with local inhabitants who were sometimes hostile. Once quarried, the disks had to be transported back to Yap on rafts towed behind wind-powered canoes. The scarcity of the disks, and the effort and peril required to get them, made them valuable to the Yapese. However, in 1874, our enterprising Irishman, David O'Keefe, hit upon the idea of employing the Yapese to import more "money" in the form of shiploads of large stones, also from Palau. O'Keefe then traded these stones with the Yapese for other commodities such as sea cucumbers and copra. Although some of the O'Keefe stones are larger than the canoe-transported stones, they are less valuable than the earlier stones due to the comparative ease in which they were obtained. Approximately 6,800 of them are scattered around the island.
As no more disks are being produced or imported, this money supply is fixed. The islanders know who owns which piece but do not necessarily move them when ownership changes. Their size and weight (the largest ones require 20 adult men to carry) make them very difficult to move around. Although today the United States dollar is the currency used for everyday transactions in Yap, the stone disks are still used for more traditional or ceremonial exchange. The stone disks may change ownership during marriages, transfers of land title, or as compensation for damages suffered by an aggrieved party.
O’Keefe, clever rascal that he was, came up with his idea and became very wealthy as a result. He was not to enjoy that wealth, however, as he disappeared at sea in 1901.
In 1922, the occupying Japanese banned tattoos . . . part of the Yap culture. This was not popular.
Yap has one of the last remaining Micronesian cultures and no visit to Yap is complete without experiencing the old ways up close and personal. There are many different island tours available.
You can, for example, go kayaking. Glide through mangrove forests or through a narrow canal excavated in the early 1900s. Kayaking offers peace and tranquility as the kayak slices through the clear, warm waters early in the morning.
Deep Sea Fishing
Fishing in the deep, clear waters of Yap produce yellowfin and skipjack tuna, wahoo, mahi-mahi (also know as dorado or dolphin--the fish, not the mammal), rainbow runner, barracuda, red snapper, grouper and trevally. Local fishing charter companies, as well as some of the hotels, offer half and full day charters. Equipment and tackle varies.
Hiking / Biking
Breathtaking views of Yap can be seen while hiking and biking. Tamilyog Trail bisects the island and as the trail winds down through the forest and up through the grassy highlands, hikers can get down to nature in this natural outdoor classroom. Local flora and fauna abound on this two hour hike. Although it's not a difficult hike, it can be strenuous in parts and might not be for everyone. Other hikes around Colonia feature ancient stone paths and can easily be completed in less than an hour. Biking is an option for an afternoon. Yap's roads are well maintained and the major roads are paved, however there are no bike paths and bikers must use caution when biking along the main roads.
Traditional Canoe Sailing
Visitors can arrange for a ride on a traditional sailing canoe. Some of the hotels offer this service and one can explore the calm seas of the inner lagoon aboard these ancient craft. Or visit the Yap Traditional Navigation Society for a hands-on training experience. Traditional sailing canoes traversed the Pacific Ocean over the centuries, and this method of transportation is still practiced today.
The Pathways Hotel
Built with eco-travelers in mind, the Pathways Hotel has eight thatched cottages on a hillside overlooking Chammoro Bay. Guests can view the local craftsmanship in their own cottages. Our daily island tours and our restaurant and bar round out the Pathways experience. Free airport shuttle.
How Wa'ab Became Yap
When the first ship to anchor at the central islands arrived, a canoe of local warriors from the remaining islands went out to greet the ship and through sign language communicated their desire to have the captain come ashore for discussions. As they boarded the warrior's canoe, the ship's captain pointed towards the shore and asked the name of the nearby landmasses. Thinking that the Captain was pointing at a canoe paddle held by a navigator in the bow, the warriors responded proudly – “Yap.” The name was duly recorded by the Captain and it stuck, so to this day the islands of Wa'ab are known to the outside world as Yap, - (canoe paddle)!"
Men's Comb "Roway" Roway
The Roway is made from very thin slices of a mangrove root. A sharpened piece of shell is used for cutting and shaping the pieces to be used. The pieces are then tied together with twine made from either coconut or hibiscus fibers. It takes special skill with a shell to shave the curls to the end of the two main strips. Chiefs, Magicians, Warriors and the dancers of the high clans are the only men allowed by custom to wear a Roway. For a dance the Roway is worn on the right side of the head, with the comb‘s teeth slipped into the headdress and the adorned end toward the front. For day to day use the teeth are slipped into the hair knot at the top of the man’s head in the same fashion.
In Yap, growing old is anticipated with a positive attitude. Respect and honor are acknowledged with age. Gray hair and fewer teeth are not a bad thing in Yap. In preparation for aging a tuguw is given. A tuguw, a small mortar and a tapered pestle approximately 6-8” long provides for continuing pleasure of the betel nut even when you have fewer or no teeth to chew it.
In Yap, the adz was a very handy cutting tool used daily. The handle is made from wood and its blade is made out of clam shell or giant clam shell. Pieces of pumice are used to sharpen the blades. An Adz can be made in different sizes. Generally, small adz are used for cutting and carving small objects and big adz are used for cutting trees, carving stone money, carving canoes, etc. Many Adz are still in use today but the cutting edge has been mainly replaced by steel.
Village View Hotel
The Village View Hotel is in the middle of a Yapese village, leaving you the perfect opportunity to get to know the locals, if you choose to venture out of your quiet solitude. The village is a thirty-minute drive from Colonia, the main town. The hotel and dive shop are both nestled on the beautiful and private Sunrise Beach. You can wake up each morning while watching the sunrise right from your deck, or from the boat if you are leaving for an early morning dive.
Single & Double occupation $80+tax
Triple Occupation $90+tax
So, it would appear that all that air fare money you spent in getting here . . . you make up for, at least in part, by getting very reasonable hotel rates and taxi fares.
Note: Bill Williams’ Photos on both Yap and Palau will be on display at the Main Frame and Art Gallery, 430 N. Andreasen Drive, Escondido, Ca. 92029, beginning July 1st and running through August. Call 760.432.8995.