An exotic island worth its weight in stone

Email|Print| Text size + By Judith Fein
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2007

COLONIA, Micronesia -- It's not easy to get to this volcanic island, which is part of what makes it so appealing.

You fly through the island nation of Palau and the US Territory of Guam and finally touch down on Yap, an island in the Western Carolines, part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Here you are, midway between Hawaii and Indonesia, being greeted by a young, topless girl in a multi hued grass skirt. You have landed in the lap of exotic adventure in a tropical place north of the equator that few people have heard about.

In general, the only tourists who come here are divers. The island (Micronesia has four groups of them, totaling 607) is famous for its manta ray population, but what happens above the water on Yap is just as intriguing.

The Yapese still use stone money, highly valued pieces of hewn limestone that look like huge, gray bagels. For thousands of years, Yapese men in canoes braved 250 miles of open sea to land on Palau, where they quarried the limestone. It could take up to a year to chisel a piece with stone and clam shell tools. Then they would haul the money back on bamboo rafts and often die in the attempt. The difficulty of the voyage and the loss of life determined the value of each piece.

Until the 1870s, most of the stone money pieces were 1 to 2 feet in diameter. Then, a larger-than-life Irish-American adventurer and entrepreneur named David Dean O'Keefe arrived on the island. He had a Chinese junk and worked out a deal where he would provide the Yapese with iron tools and transport the coveted stone pieces from Palau back to Yap on his ship. The pieces became larger and larger -- 10, 12, 18 feet in diameter, and often weighing several tons. An estimated 13,000 of them were transported by O'Keefe, and because of their size and the difficulty of moving them, they were stored by different villages in outdoor areas, where visitors can see them today.

In Kanif Village , Chief Stan Yigin , 84, points out a dirt road about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide that's used as a ceremonial dancing ground. It's lined with several dozen stone money discs, ranging from small to large, all propped upright. This, Yigin explains, is Kanif's Stone Money Bank.

"It's a very recent term," Yigin says. "When the Americans came and found out the money was stored in a certain place . . . they called it a bank . . .. because that's where you collect money. Everyone knows who owns each piece. The ownership can be transferred without the physical stone being moved. The smaller stones can sometimes change hands, like not too long ago, when I gave a piece to a couple that was getting married."

Surprisingly, the earlier, smaller stones are more valuable today than the larger ones quarried by O'Keefe, because they are rarer. Stone money is largely used for ceremonial purposes, as gifts for important life events, and to settle debts. In stores, patrons pay with US dollars and, for now, the two currencies co exist.

But stone money is part of Yap's cultural identity. The island is one of the few locales in the world that still operates according to a caste system. There are rigid laws about who can address whom, which families one can work for, the appropriate colors for native dress, and which areas are off-limits to lower-caste people. Having money does not elevate your caste. In the past, it could be done through war, but today the islanders are peaceful, so their status is unchanging.

The only thing that seems to cut across caste lines is chewing betel nut , a mild narcotic. Mothers, politicians, government workers -- everybody does it. Men carry small woven baskets with betel nut paraphernalia inside; they call their baskets their "second home" and don't venture out without it.

Inside the basket are lime, betel nut, and pepper leaf. First, the betel nut, the seed of the betel palm, is split. Then it is filled with lime powder made from burned coral , wrapped in a leaf, and popped into the mouth. The mixture turns bright red, and then it is spit out in a stream. Anywhere. Any time. "If you are at a meeting and you are going to speak, first you prepare your betel nut. It gives you time to think before you speak; it's a good thing. Betel nut is wisdom in a basket," says Sebastian Falawyoch , a local guide.

If you befriend local Yapese, they may show you a taro patch (the leaves and roots are food staples), take you hunting for crabs among dense, humid mangrove trees, or invite you to their village , where there are remnants of ancient, hewn-stone paths that connect to other villages and to their ceremonial centers. You will visit traditional, sacred men's houses (rectangular, wooden structures with thatched roofs, up to 10 doorways and windows, multiple fireplaces, and hand-painted symbols) and meet large, extended families that practice sharing. Notions of Western-style materialism and ownership are largely unknown on Yap. If someone owns a bike or car, everyone can use it. If a Yapese admires something another person owns, it will be given to him.

If you are lucky, traditional dances will be performed while you are here. The men's dance -- an exuberant, testosterone-laced display -- shows the physical and sexual endurance of the males. Encoded in the dances is what the men learned in their men's houses, about fishing, navigation, house and canoe building, keeping peace with the spirits, and making love to women. Every expression on their faces, every movement , is significant and must be done precisely. Traditionally, women were never allowed to see these dances, and even today, when there is a public performance, the women stay back, behind the audience, and peek through leaves to see what is going on. Then they giggle.

You can find Asian and American food, but it's a real treat to sample the local fare. Yapese sip from coconuts, eat fresh fish, taro, breadfruit, sashimi, papaya, crabs, and tapioca. Traditionally, in the patriarchal culture, the men are served first and, at home, the father's food is prepared in a separate pot from the rest of the family. A banana leaf serves as a plate, and a coconut tree leaf is the placemat.

When you visit a traditional village, it is important to conform to cultural norms. Always carry a green branch as a token of peace and respect. Seek permission before taking photos. Do not ask anyone about his caste status. And, by all means, though it is a marvelous place, don't stare.

Judith Fein, a freelance writer in Santa Fe, can be reached at judith@

If You Go


What to do
Danka Ledgerwood, a Slovakian-born former freelance photojournalist whose husband is assistant attorney general for Yap, offers custom tours for foreigners, inexpensive home stays, bungalows, native cooking lessons, and cultural visits.

Where to stay
Traders' Ridge Resort
Luxurious accommodations, custom tours with local guides, an onsite ethnic arts institute and dive shop, native spa treatments, traditional dances, gourmet dining, and access to the Forbidden Island.

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