Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Very Mangrove Xmas Present

Mike here, with another post trying to beat our record of only having 2 new blog entries per month. This time, it’s the story of a unique and unexpected early Christmas present we received.

Last Thursday, I came back to work after lunch to find our office administrator, Genevieve, sitting and chatting with a distinguished looking, silver haired lady that I had never seen before. Genevieve introduced her as the wife of the current Yap State Court Chief Justice.

Many months ago, I was at a celebration with several other members of State government and had struck up a conversation with the Chief Judge about unusual local foods. He mentioned that locals eat not only turtle and fruit bat, but also mangrove crabs. I expressed some interest, mentioning that crab was one of the few kinds of seafood I actually enjoy. As we kept talking, he said that if he ever got a hold of a mangrove crab he would send one over to me. Of course, I said that would be delightful.

DSCN1256I basically forgot about it until last week, when Genevieve handed me a large package tightly wrapped in banana leaves and tied together with a rope made of local fibers. When she told me to be careful because “It’s still alive”, I thought she was joking and said so. Genevieve replied that she wasn’t, and told me the package contained one giant mangrove crab. I was a little shocked at the thought of what to do with the thing, but nevertheless thanked the Chief Judges’ wife profusely, and let her know we would be enjoying the crab for dinner tonight. The instructions for cooking were simple enough: just put in a pot of boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes.

At the end of the day, I drove home with the banana leaf package secured in the rear compartment of my scooter. It was so big, it barely fit. I’m sure the crab didn’t enjoy the bumpy ride home either. Miranda was pretty surprised when I announced that I had brought us something for dinner. When I handed over the package, she peeked inside the wrapping and saw the crabs’ little eye poking out. The crab looked at her and I, then at the large pot of water boiling away on the stove directly across the kitchen, and likely resigned itself to its fate. Immediately, Miranda announced that she didn’t want the job of having to put the poor creature in the pot! DSCN1258So, I was left with the task of removing the creature from its wrapper and giving it its last swim, in lightly salted boiling water.

DSCN1259Here’s a picture of yours truly, hesitantly cutting away the dried leaf cords holding the package together. At any moment, I expected a mammoth claw to whip out and attack me, or even worse, that the crab would jump off the counter and make a dash towards the front door and freedom.

DSCN1262 Thankfully, whoever wrapped the crab had the foresight to securely tie each of its giant claws. I’m sure that was not an easy job, as these claws looked like they could easily chop off a finger! It’s difficult to accurately describe how big this thing was. It was certainly the largest crab I had ever seen. If I had to guess, the body of the crab alone was at least 15 inches from end to end. 

DSCN1263Since it was tied up, it couldn’t scuttle away, so I worked up the nerve, and finally dropped it in the pot. It was so large, it had to go in sideways. The unsubmerged half twitched and thrashed wildly at first, but stopped after a few seconds. I was able to pry it’s little legs off the rim of the pot, and push the whole thing in there. Just like Genevieve had said, about 10 minutes later the crab was done. 

Editor’s Note: Sure, Mike looks calm and completely at ease in these photos. Not shown is the picture, taken a split-second after the one seen above, of Mike recoiling in shock and horror as the crab dangled precariously on the rim of the pot, threatening to tip over. That one will remain only for in-person viewing upon request. 

After cooking, the crab was bright red like a lobster and smelled delicious.

DSCN1269The legs and claws popped off easily, and would have made a complete meal by themselves. We split the body in half, and removed massive amounts of crab meat from the inside cavity. While the meat wasn’t white, like on Alaska Snow Crab legs, there was so much more of it.

DSCN1273The claws were were nearly bigger than Miranda’s hand (as seen here). Once cracked open, the claws contained more meat than in an entire lobster tail. Eaten with ample amounts of garlic butter, it was truly one of the best things I’ve eaten on-island so far. Possibly ever. It tasted like snow crab meat, but perhaps a little sweeter and more strongly  flavored.

Of course, like any other crab, getting to the meat took a little bit of effort. Since we didn’t bring any ‘claw crackers’ with us, we settled on using our trusty hammer to break the shell. This was easier said than done. The claws were so big, and the shell so thick, it really took a forceful whack with the hammer to even dent the thing! I’m sure our neighbors were annoyed with the sporadic hammering coming from our living room. They must have thought we were building a bookcase in there. It was worth it though, because without a doubt, I’ve never gotten more full on crab meat there was just so much of it.

So, many thanks to the family of the Chief Judge, and their holiday season generosity. I’m hoping this will not be my last time sampling this local delicacy, but who knows, maybe the next time we’ll have occasion to cook up some fruit bat!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Curing the Common Cold, Yap Style

Even though we’ve had mostly sunny weather in the mid-80’s this December, just like anywhere else, winter flu season is here. Miranda and I have been remarkably lucky to have avoided any serious medical issues during our time on Yap (knock on wood), but we still occasionally get sick. It must have been my turn, because this week I’ve suffered a debilitating head cold that wasn’t helped at all by the warm weather and sunshine. In fact, I remarked it was too “hot and bright” out.

After making a sizable dent in our dwindling supply of Tylenol and sinus medication, and facing the reality that we can’t just run down to the nearest drug store and pick up some more, I thought a discussion of the available medical resources here on Yap would be timely.

The Yap State Hospital, located about a 2-minute drive outside of downtown Colonia, is a sprawling complex of single-story buildings connected by open-sided covered walkways built back in the late 1980’s. On any given day, you can go to the hospital and see dozens of people, most in local attire, lounging in the main courtyard area between the intake window and the Pharmacy dispensary, waiting their turn for medical care. Usually there are also many little children roaming around, crying, and generally not wanting to be there for their annual check-ups. The hospitals grounds are very clean, thanks to frequent radio announcements and signs posted everywhere warning people to not spit their betel nut juice all over the place, and the floors seem to be in the never-ending process of being swept and mopped.

Given our surprisingly good health, we’ve actually seen only a few areas of the hospital. There is a dental section where I got a routine teeth cleaning. I was relieved when the dental office looked similar to every other dental office I’d been to in the States, including whimsical posters of cats reminding me to “Hang in there!” All the equipment looked modern, and the actual cleaning was done with a pressurized water-pick that apparently was brand new. Although I was tempted to ask about a little handwritten sign posted on the wall saying “Be sure to wipe blood off of equipment when finished”, my dental exam was completed without incident. Considering that constant betel nut chewing is very bad for dental hygiene, I imagine that for many island residents, a trip to the dentist is a painful and much-avoided ordeal. Thankfully, I had no cavities requiring further visits in order to validate my hypothesis. While I was disappointed I didn’t get the standard new toothbrush and sample-sized dental floss, I was quite happy with the price of the service. What would have cost me (with insurance) at least $20 in co-pay back in the States, was only $10 without insurance!

Our next occasion to visit the hospital was due to a persistent rash on Miranda’s chest and stomach areas. She had unsuccessfully tried several creams and ointments before deciding to seek the advice of our local medical professionals. So, she set up an appointment and went and spoke to the Doctor, a middle-aged gentleman trained in the Philippines. After Miranda described her symptoms, he said not to worry, prescribed a gel to apply (only $4 at the Pharmacy!), and advised her to wait a week to see if it got better. Unfortunately, that week came and went without any noticeable change. If anything, the rash spread even further. So, back down to the hospital she went. This time, another Doctor was on call, which required explaining the situation again since detailed chart notes apparently weren’t made for this non-life threatening issue. Since the Other Doctor was unable to get the First Doctor on the phone for a ‘consult’, and was unable to identify the cause of the rash or a course of treatment, he relied on the trusty help of the internet medical site WebMD. After plugging in all of Miranda’s symptoms, and some leading questions by Miranda suggesting that the cause was heat rash (as Miranda’s own WebMD searches told her prior to even going to the hospital), the Other Doctor sagely concurred that the cause was Miliaria, otherwise known as heat rash. Truthfully, it would have been somewhat comforting if he actually used the medical term. He really just said, “Probably heat rash.” Not quite as comforting. Anyway, some other medication was prescribed (strangely enough, WebMD specifically warned against using what the First Doctor recommended), followed by the standard advice to “wait and see if it gets better.” This time, thankfully, the rash did get better, but we learned that next time, a little research of our own could have avoided the trial-and-error approach.

The other, more frequently used medical resource is “local medicine”. Many Yapese people praise “local medicine” as remedying everything from the common cold to more serious ailments. The medicine usually consists of mixtures of various local plants, using time-tested recipes handed down from generation to generation. You frequently see people around town wearing garlands of strong-smelling leaves and other herbs that are supposed to be good for the constitution and overall health. When I asked one of my Yapese co-workers whether he knew of any local remedies for my cold, he told me not to worry, and that he would bring something by for me. He also told me to never, ever go to the hospital, but I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. Later that evening, he showed up on my doorstep carrying a large plastic bag filled with leaves. He explained this medicine is called “faitzen” (roughly translated: steam bath) and is taken by boiling down the assortment of various local ferns, vines, pepper plant leaves, and lime plants, and inhaling the vapors. Willing to try anything at this point, I thanked him and kept my fingers crossed.

Covering my head with a towel, and leaning over a large pot filled with the plants and boiling water, I tried not to choke on the herb-infused steam. Almost immediately, my sinuses opened up, and I could breathe much easier. I thought that if this plant mixture was widely marketed and used, Vick’s vap-o-rub might have a run for their money! It was really pretty amazing. In the future, I plan to rely on other local medicines, if they work just as well. Even after a single 30 minute session of inhaling the steam (I declined the suggested, but optional, alternative of drinking some of the greenish boiled water), I feel much better.

Hopefully, with a little luck, I’ll have kicked this cold shortly!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Turkey Time and the Return of Television

Unlike in the U.S., November 25th on Yap was just another Thursday. If it wasn’t for Mike’s co-worker greeting him with a “Happy Thanksgiving” in the morning, the holiday might have gone by completely unnoticed. After this reminder, Mike decided to wish the locals he came across that day a Happy Thanksgiving. About half of the people smiled and replied, while the other half just looked at him with a puzzled expression.

For dinner that night, to get into the spirit of things, Miranda cooked an excellent Cornish game hen (a surprising and unexpected find at our local grocery store), with stuffing and mashed potatoes. Even though it wasn’t a turkey, it was still pretty good.

On the following Saturday, one of the longtime ex-pat residents of Yap invited the entire American ex-pat community on the island over to his house for a big, potluck Thanksgiving dinner. In addition to the many local food options like taro and breadfruit, there was a huge spread of all the typical American Thanksgiving dinner entrees. There were two giant imported turkeys, homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, local yam dishes, cranberry sauce (which was a big hit, thanks to Miranda’s Mom who shipped us several cans in a recent care package!) and several different kinds of stuffing. We both ate more than our fair share of food, which was absolutely delicious. After dinner, we sat around and chatted, resting our appetites before digging into a variety of desert options.

Even though Miranda and I were not able to spend the day with our families this year, it was nice to get together with so many of our island friends who make up a very close-knit, family-like group themselves. Considering how important local customs and traditions are here, it was an enjoyable change for us to celebrate our own Thanksgiving Day traditions of expressing thanks, eating good food, and sharing good company.

Speaking of things we’re thankful for… we finally decided to get cable television! Now for the average reader back home I’m sure this mustn’t seem like a big deal at all, but for us, after nearly a year without television, it was a momentous occasion.

You see, when we first arrived on Yap, we made the conscious decision not to get cable. We would watch far too much of it in Seattle. We thought now that we’re on a beautiful tropical island, we won’t need it. Moreover, people we knew who had gotten the service complained about the lack of channels and overall poor reception. There was also the issue of needing to buy a 10 to 15 foot pole and somehow attach it to the side of the house in order to elevate the antenna above the jungle canopy!

Recently though, FSM Telecom rolled out a brand new digital television service that seemed promising. It only cost $25 dollars a month for 26 channels, and the technology had advanced beyond needing to jury-rig an antenna pole/lightning rod to our house. So, after much debate on the topic, we decided to go for it. After a few weeks reacquainting ourselves with the magic of television, we couldn’t be happier.

For the most part, we have a choice of three different viewing genres. #1: Old Television. We can watch the major US network feeds (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) out of Honolulu, Hawaii. The catch is that these channels are about two weeks and 8 hours old, meaning that in the evening here, we can watch what normally would be shown in the afternoon in Hawaii, like soap operas and infomercials. #2: News. We can watch an astounding array of news channels. CNN and BBC are our favorites, because they’re played live, allowing us to stay up to date on all the world events. We also get English language news channels from Russia and Korea, and the middle eastern news network Aljazeera. #3: Nature Documentaries. We can watch two National Geographic channels and the Discovery Channel (though the audio is about one second out of sync). Back in the States, we’d watch a fair amount of 'animals eating other animals’ shows, so having these channels available was a welcome surprise.

We’re still getting readjusted to the convenience of instant-on entertainment, even with all its Yap Island quirks. Like shows that play one day, and are mysteriously on again two days later. Our theory is that once the tape ends, they just play it again until the next one arrives by mail from someone sitting in Hawaii diligently recording everything with their overworked VCR. Also, shows don’t start at any regular time. One night, they’re on at 5:00 pm, and the next night at 5:22 pm. Also, previews for upcoming shows tell us to “tune in this Sunday” that never seems to arrive. The random, haphazard scheduling makes every time we turn on the TV something of an adventure, like back in the day, before Tivo and DVR’s. Of course, if all else fails, we can always turn on TMC for a selection of black and white movies, or the Lotus network, an Asian channel that plays decent American movies, just with Cantonese subtitles.

After almost an entire year without TV, or turkey, we’ve learned to really appreciate and be thankful for all the luxuries that life has to offer. Sometimes, it’s the little things that provide the most comfort because of their familiarity to us in this often strange environment.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Yap Traditional Canoe Festival 2010

From Friday November 12th through the 14th the Yap Canoe Fest was held, an annual event featuring various boat races, dancing, and demonstrations of traditional navigation and canoe building skills.

Since the opening ceremonies began at 9:00 a.m., Miranda and I woke up at the usual time as if to go to work. Thankfully, due to Veteran’s Day it was a government holiday for both of us. We packed up our cameras and brought a few bottles of water in preparation for a long day out under the sun. Even though it was still early, it was already getting hot, and the sky was bright blue and cloudless. Ready to head out, we made it almost to the front door, when suddenly down came a torrential rain storm! As typical with these freak tropical weather systems, it stopped after only a few minutes and was gone as quickly as it arrived.

Now with rain gear stowed in the car just in case, we drove into downtown Colonia. Groups of people walked along the roadsides, all heading to the same destination. It seemed like the entire island would turn out for the festivities.       

We decided to stop at “Colonia’s Best Coffee”, a recently opened cafe offering fresh fruit smoothies and a variety of drinks made with fresh ground coffee. Large bags of instantly familiar Starbucks coffee beans sat in the glass fronted counter, alongside local favorites like Ramen noodles and canned meats. We sat on the couches and drank our mocha lattes under a large map of the word (that negligently did not include Micronesia!). This fellow eyed us suspiciously and made various faces at us until retreating behind the glass counter, where he peeked at us over a tin of Spam.

kid in coffee shop (1 of 1) 

Beverages in hand, we headed towards the Community Center, a tin-roof covered basketball court with bleachers at the edge of town along the waterfront. It provided a great view of the bay created by the reef surrounding the island, and the ocean beyond it. Dotting the horizon were five or six triangular sails that grew steadily larger.

sailing canoe (1 of 1)

A cool, strong breeze brought the canoes in surprisingly quickly as they glided into the harbor. They were so close, we could hear the shouts in Yapese as the half-dozen crewmembers brought down the sails for the final approach.

 sailing canoe in action (1 of 1)

Apparently each canoe is hand-made with local materials and crewed by a different village community on the island. It’s amazing to think that little boats like these, held together with rope traditionally made of woven plant fibers, ferried the giant stone money across hundreds of miles of open ocean from Palau. No wonder the rai money pieces are so highly prized! These modern sailors must feel a particular pride in keeping the skills of their ancestors alive for future generations.

guys on boat (1 of 1)

After the canoes docked, we found a shady spot on the bleachers next to the “VIP” section. Apparently, the Australian ambassador was in attendance along with representatives from the other FSM states. The day before, a huge megayacht had pulled in, it’s helicopter pad (with a carefully covered helicopter) and double radar towers poking out high above the other boats in port. A few nonchalant phone calls to people-in-the-know revealed the yacht belonged to Seattle billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen! Unfortunately, no one in the VIP crowd appeared conspicuously wealthy, wearing monocles or top hats. In fact, most of these VIP’s looked suspiciously like the average, everyday tourist.

Consistent with island time, a bit later than the stated start time, the event kicked off with opening remarks given by the Director of the State Youth and Civic Affairs Department (on the left below) and the Governor (on the right below). Next, a traditional voyaging chant was so powerful, and given with such conviction, that the entire crowd was silent. It was quite moving, even though we had no idea what was being said.

chant intro (1 of 1)

After the elder concluded, the crowd broke into thunderous applause, that continued as the crewmembers of the sailing canoes entered the building. Each wore traditional attire of thu’s, the colored wrapped loincloth, nuw nuws and wreaths of local turmeric leaves. The village chiefs came in first, followed by the younger sailors.

chiefs walk in (1 of 1)

Next came a traditional bamboo dance, performed by the youth of Fanif Municipality, an area to the north of Rull Municipality where we live. The dancers wore grass skirts of different varieties. Some of them were made with red and yellow dyed hibiscus strips, others were typical grass skirts, while others used the same palm fronds that Yapese baskets are made from.

dancing (1 of 1)

Many of the dancers decorated their upper bodies with yellow turmeric paste. A trio of girls started singing a rhythmic song, while the two rows of opposing dancers shouted along with the singing as they struck their bamboo poles together in time to the beat.

kids dancing (1 of 1)

dancing portrait (1 of 1)Each swordfight-like routine would get more intense than the last, with the dancers really clashing the bamboo and swishing their skirts to the rhythm. It was a remarkable display of local culture!

 

 

After these ceremonies, we walked around, bought a couple of T-shirts, and looked at the different demonstration booths that had been set up. There were carvers making canoe paddles, and another featuring a collection of ‘toy’ canoes.

boat making (1 of 1)

At another booth was a demonstration of how the hull of a paddling canoe is hewn from a solid tree trunk.

Carving boat (1 of 1)

There were also food vendors offering local delicacies like pork cooked in banana leaves, and even stranger dishes like turtle and something made mostly with pig blood. Even though we didn’t sample any of these, we did get an excellent BBQ chicken sandwich made with fresh baked baguette rolls and some locally brewed beer for lunch.   

YCS (1 of 1)

canoe n thu (1 of 1)People were everywhere. Some sat in groups on the stone embankment above the water, while others walked around looking at the canoes getting ready to set sail again. People lined the bridge across the bay, claiming the choice spots to view the festivities.

 

The races began with several young boys piloting bamboo rafts, followed by paddling events featuring incredibly long canoes making laps around buoys in the water.

kids on raft (1 of 1)

We stayed for a while, but as it was getting late in the day, with ominous looking clouds bearing down on us in the distance, we headed home. It rained off an on for the rest of the weekend, turning many of the open fields around the booths into slippery, muddy bogs. As it turned out, even at our house, we could follow along with the progress of the races as the announcer’s voice boomed out across the island from the stadium speakers. We went back the next day, but it seemed like the entire high school was in attendance, with Miranda not being able to walk five paces without running into one of her students!

Even though we didn’t see all we would have liked to see, we had a great time. We’re already looking forward to next years’ 3rd annual Yap Traditional Canoe Festival!

miranda and sign (1 of 1)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Halloween 2010

Mike here, finally getting around to posting this much-delayed entry.

As the month of October wound down, both Miranda and I were uncertain whether Halloween would be celebrated on the island. Given that Yap has no costume stores, very little candy for sale, and is strongly influenced by many active and vocal churches, we thought that few locals would be dressing up and going trick-or-treating door to door. As it turned out, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

On the Friday before Halloween, Miranda had the honor of being selected as one of the teachers to judge the tenth grader’s costume contest during lunchtime.  Before lunch many students in her class used some spare time to get ready. Before her eyes she watched her students transform into zombies, a hunchback, witches, and even Sponge Bob Square Pants- made out of cardboard boxes and banana leaves! They used water colors and markers in place of face paint. She cringed at the idea of them returning to school on Monday still covered in their permanent marker masks, but luckily this did not happen. Along with a fellow expat teacher, and a local teacher,  they had the tough job of deciding who had the best store bought, and the best homemade costume. Sponge Bob won for homemade, as the effort and creativity that went into the costume could not go unnoticed.  The store bought prize went to a student who used a sheet, a store bought mask and his backpack to become an old hunchback (as seen below). What did it was how well he played the part. He also used a bamboo pole as a staff, and hobbled and wobbled his way toward the judges. DSCN0040

Miranda thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to have some fun with her students, and always feels good when they include her in such activities.

DSCN0064Later that night we we went to a party at the Village View hotel, a quaint beachfront establishment in the northern part of the island. Considering the 45 minute drive, along a bumpy dirt road that is treacherous even under ideal conditions, we decided to play it safe, rent a room (shown here), and stay the night there.

As far as what costumes we could put together, at first we were at a total loss. Thankfully, I had brought along a T-shirt that looked like a Star Trek uniform, which I had ordered on a whim from the back of a cereal box back in Seattle, and had completely forgotten about. DSCN0052With a pair of black shorts, it made a passable, if not overtly geeky costume.  Miranda researched various possible homemade Halloween costumes on the internet until she found the perfect one. Carrying plastic pom-poms and a home-made cardboard “foam” finger, and wearing a T-shirt carefully stenciled with the words “Go Ceiling!!!” on it, she transformed herself into a “Ceiling Fan”. After some explanation, the costume was a big hit.

We arrived at Village View late in the afternoon. Several of our friends were already there, lounging on the deck of one of the rented bungalows built right next to the beach. The sun was still shining, and a breeze blew off the ocean, keeping us both relatively cool and mosquito free. We chatted for a while, until out of nowhere, a large flatbed truck pulled up, carrying a very heavy-looking, solid wood ping-pong table.

After the table was unloaded, we were instructed in the rules of the game of “Beer Pong”. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Cups filled with the aforementioned beverage were set up like bowling pins on either end of the table.  Each team of two would then try to toss a ping-pong ball into their opponents’ cups. Whenever the ball landed in a cup, that team would drink down that cup of beer, which continued until all of their cups were empty. Mike at Bat 1 - CopyThe loser of any given round was also required to finish whatever cups remained in front of the winning team. I had actually played a similar game back in the dorm rooms of my college years, but learned quickly that in the decade since then, neither my dexterity nor drinking stamina had improved much. As you can imagine, after several rounds of this game, everyone was in quite the celebratory mood.

As the evening wore on, people started putting on their costumes. Of course, Miranda and I had not considered this option, and instead drove the entire way to the hotel in our Halloween gear! I’m sure we got some very amused, or confused, stares from the other motorists we passed along the way. As for our fellow American’s costumes, I was impressed at the creativity and ingenuity of them. The assortment included several basketball players, a pirate, a gypsy, a redneck, a gym coach, a Power Ranger, and Mahatma Gandhi!

The next morning, we woke up only a bit worse for wear. We sat for a while on the deck of our bungalow, watched the tide slowly come in, and chatted with some other early-morning risers. The view was incredible, as always. DSCN0063 Probably the best part about the whole weekend was the pleasant surprise we received when we turned on the shower and discovered hot running water! After almost a year of bathing in often ice-cold water (or at least that’s the way it feels at 7:30 a.m.), this simple amenity seemed like such a luxury. After our decadently long showers, we went to the nearby Moon Rize CafĂ©, and had a delicious and much needed breakfast of bacon, pancakes, and scrambled eggs. As a side note, the eggs were indeed scrambled, but then fried crepe thin on a griddle like a pancake. While it’s unclear if this is a typical Japanese style of egg cooking (Village View primarily caters to Pacific Rim diving tourists), or something particular to that restaurant, it tasted great and had a not unpleasant texture. After our meal, we packed up and headed back home, having had a thoroughly enjoyable Halloween celebration.

On October 31st, we mainly spent the afternoon relaxing and recuperating from our weekend festivities. We debated for a long while whether there would actually be kids doing any trick-or-treating, and after much discussion on the subject, decided it would be rather unlikely. As dusk darkened into evening, there was no sign of costumed kids around, and we felt sure we were in the clear. We locked up the house, and retired into our evening clothes (read: pajamas) and settled in to watch a scary movie on our television. Occasionally, we would hear the sound of scurrying around in the front yard, and we’d nervously peek out the window only to see a random neighborhood dog nosing through leaves. After the sun went down and no kids had arrived, we joked about how silly we were to think that children here would dress up and go door to door with their candy bags in hand. We remarked it was a classic example of the American mentality of simply assuming that our customs and traditions would be adopted by the Yapese, who have their own valued and fiercely protected traditions.

That’s when the kids showed up. We actually heard them long before we saw them, as what sounded like an army of laughing and loudly talking kids (who each must have been calling one another, from the weird cacophony of cell phone ringtones) grew steadily closer. We stared out the window, and to our shock and amazement, it looked like our entire dirt road was filled with every kid on the island! Also, everyone was wearing a costume. There were many witches and zombies, little girls in princess dresses, teens in a variety of professional sports jerseys, and many more elaborately costumed kids. Since we were caught totally unprepared, with no candy to spare, we made the decision to take the cowardly curmudgeon route. We turned off our lights, closed and locked the door, and tried to stay as quiet as possible. This however did not discourage the mass of candy-seekers in the slightest. Small groups of kids would come into our pitch black yard, stand there for a moment pondering whether anyone was home, yell out “Trick or Treat!”, and after a while would then dejectedly walk to the next house. At one point, we were certain that there were kids walking around our house, and looking in our windows, which was especially creepy. Sometime later, we heard our screen door open, and then some extremely loud local pop music blared for a few seconds, followed by the sound of giggling and kids running away. Our theory was this was some of Miranda’s students playing a prank on her. Thankfully, the kids here hadn’t adopted the time-honored American schoolyard tradition of throwing rolls of toilet paper in their teachers’ trees! Then, again, with toilet paper being so expensive here, we’re not surprised.

All in all, our first Halloween on the island was a good one. We plan on buying some candy to give out to the kids next year though, just in case the price of toilet paper goes down. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It’s gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight… FIRE FIRE FIRE!!!

It is time for another Girl Scout update! (The title of the post is from a fun Girl Scout song) I have been meeting regularly with a group of girls for about four months or so now. Since taking the job at the high school I have had to reduce Girl Scouts to twice a month (first and third Wednesdays) in order to preserve my sanity, but I promised the girls that I would work very hard to make sure our time together is great! Last time I arranged a field trip to the fire station to check out the truck, and talk with Colin, the department’s lieutenant, about fire safety on Yap.

I met Colin, another American expat who came to Yap after we did, through Mike, who met Colin through his work duties. When I met him, I immediately asked if I could bring the girls by for a tour and a fire safety talk. None of the girls had ever seen the truck up close, though we all pass by it at the station regularly. They were excited to see how it works, and of course to turn on the sirens. 

When I arrived with myDSCN0020 six girls (and two boys) and a mom in tow we were shocked and saddened that the trucks weren’t there! It turns out Colin hadn’t been informed of a “live fire” practice drill that took place that day, where they set fires and extinguished them.  He assured us that the trucks were just getting water, and would hopefully return soon. Colin took us into his office and showed us around, showed us fire fighting gear, and talked about stop, drop, roll, (and newly added) cover (your face).  I was also impressed how he encouraged the girls by telling them girls can be fire fighters too! We all hoped that the trucks would soon arrive.

He gave the kids a tour of the station, explaining what different tools were for and how fire extinguishers work. He offered, that if they ever need to shoot off expired extinguishers to refill them, that he would invite us to come and learn how to actually use one! I have always wanted to do that! The kids were in awe, and listened intently to everything Colin had to say.  They asked very good questions and seemed genuinely interested in the answers. I smiled from ear to ear the entire time.

I don’t remember going to a fire station at a young age, but I am sure I did. I do remember going on my dad’s submarine and how amazed I was by that. These kids were impressed, and the trucks hadn’t even arrived yet!

Colin killed time by showing them all sorts of things such as hoses,DSCN0023 folding ladders, axes, and the like, while he and I kept looking over our shoulders for the trucks. We had pretty much exhausted all topics, and were about to call it an evening, when low and behold Andrew, our 6 year old troop mascot (and little brother or cousin to half the troop) yelled, “HERE COME THE TRUCKS!!” Their eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning! They waited as patiently as possible as the trucks were parked in the station before the kids could explore them.

Colin was amazing. DSCN0029He piled all 8 kids (Zoya and Andrew pictured here) into the cab of the truck and let them play with the sirens, horns and lights. Oh to be young again! What an exciting thing for the kids to do, and apparently a rare treat on Yap. Colin talked with me some, and mentioned that he goes to the schools and talks, but this was the first time any kids had come to see the trucks since he got here shortly after we did. Colin explained all sorts of things about the trucks, and answered the incessant questions the kids threw his way, mostly of the “what’s this? what does it do?” variety.

He talked about being a firefighter and told a story DSCN0030about how once his oxygen tank ran out of air and his mask suctioned to his face. I could tell there was more to the story, but maybe it wasn’t appropriate for such a young audience, another time perhaps. He did make the warning siren on the tank go off so we could hear it. Fire fighters have such a noisy job!

I was impressed that the kids attention was held for a little over two hours. They were so excited! I sat back with the mom who attended, Erica, my co-worker and Mike’s boss’s wife, who is the mother or aunt to all the girls (and Andrew) who regularly attend Girl Scouts, and we giggled at how impressed they were by this field trip. She has become more involved, to my relief. She even offered to arrange the activity for the next meeting.  I may have found a co-leader!

After checking out every inch of the truck, including the turret hose on the top of the truck that can shoot water 75-100 feet, we said our good-bye’s and a big unison “thank you” to Colin and his crew. But of course, we needed one last picture to remind us of our trip to the fire station! 

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventures in Lawyering

Since starting this blog, we’ve written about many aspects of our life in Yap, on everything from the weather, to trips to the local grocery store. However, aside from the last post, we previously hadn’t discussed one of the main reasons we’re here in the first place; namely, for work. [Note: Truth be told, work is the main reason Mike is here. Miranda just got dragged along for the ride.]

Maybe it’s just that this Island, with all its natural beauty and uniqueness, provides more interesting topics to discuss than the daily grind of employment. More likely though, after a long day, writing a work-related entry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, as it may be of interest to some, here it goes.

Mike (who is writing this post) works as an Assistant Attorney General for Yap State. I’m one of only a handful of lawyers in the entire country, brought over from the U.S. because of the severe lack of locally available attorneys. While the FSM became an independent nation in 1986, the country had been a Trust Territory of the US Government since 1947. As a result of those decades of direct American control, the government and legal framework here is modeled closely on what is found in the United States. To say the least, this makes for a straightforward adjustment to practicing under Yap State or FSM law.

One major difference from the US is that the legal system here operates in conjunction with Yapese traditional and customary views of justice. These customs and traditions have been handed down from generation to generation over hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and are specifically given consideration in the State and National Constitutions. The most evident of these customs is the practice of the ‘traditional apology’ or ‘bayul’. While the specific details of this custom are still not entirely clear to me, generally if someone offends someone else (by say… getting drunk and hitting their neighbor over the head with a blunt object), they must go through a formal apology for the act which can include payment of compensation and other methods of punishment. The closest Western analogy would be a form of mediation where the parties themselves come up with a plan to compensate a victim. While the traditional justice process happens concurrently with, but separately from, any legal action, judges will usually ask whether a traditional apology has been offered and accepted as part of the sentencing process. As stated in a recently published civics handbook for high school students, the purpose of the traditional apology process is to “maintain respect, peace, and harmony within the village.”

In a nutshell, the job of Asst. AG involves providing legal advice to various State agencies and the executive branch of government, representing the State anytime they are sued, drafting proposed legislation, and serving as prosecutor in criminal matters. Included in the day-to-day tasks are criminal prosecutions and drafting or reviewing contracts of every size and kind. Just to name a few, the State generates massive amounts of employment contracts, construction contracts, procurement contracts, and services contracts. Most of these usually wind up in Mike’s In-Box on a daily basis. Since a vast majority of the financing for these purchases comes in the form of subsidies provided by the U.S., there are not only compliance requirements under Yap State law, but also controls by the U.S. to ensure their money is being spent wisely and for the greatest benefit. It’s the job of the Office of the Attorney General to make certain that all the requirements are met.

Even for a small office, and a comparatively small government, there is a surprising amount of work to be done. Just this year, many interesting legal issues have arisen. To go into detail would likely result in a book-length blog post, and due to confidentiality, the sensitive nature of the work, and that this blog may be viewed by any number of unknown readers, only generalities will be discussed.

One of the more critical problems facing the FSM is the increasing number of incidents of illegal fishing. You’d be surprised to know that these days; a majority of the worlds’ tuna population comes from the FSM. Unlike many nearby industrial nations who have exhausted the tuna stocks in their own waters, Micronesia has historically been protective of their limited natural resources. This has resulted in the FSM being one of the last refuges on the planet for tuna fish. Since scarcity has driven up prices, tuna fishing has become a very profitable enterprise. Some foreign fishing organizations, instead of bothering with the relatively simple and inexpensive requirements for obtaining a valid fishing license, reason that it’s a much better plan to simply get in your boat, and fill your holds with as much fish as possible from the tuna-clogged expanses of FSM waters. Even though the available resources for monitoring these illegal fishing operations are minimal, and catching a boat in the act is difficult, every year there seem to be at least a couple of culprits that are caught red-handed. Working in conjunction with the national government, each State is tasked with prosecution of illegal fishing vessel apprehended within its waters, which can result in the imposition of fines and penalties as well as forfeiture of the offending vessels and their catch.

Another common issue results from the explosive combination of one part boredom with three parts alcohol. Often times, the increase in criminal cases following a weekend after a government pay-day is very noticeable. Many cases involve people simply getting too drunk and making poor choices, just like anywhere else. It’s part of the job of the AG’s office to make sure there are consequences as a result of those choices, with the hope of reducing future incidents.

To say the least, each day brings its own challenges and rewards. The work is certainly never dull, and offers the opportunity to practice in a variety of different areas. The questions that arise always unique and require solutions that are not only legally enforceable but also tailored to the circumstances and limitations of a life on a fairly remote tropical island.

One of the real benefits of the job is the ability to see the effect of your work in everyday life. Back home, it could take many months if not years for a new law or modification of an existing law to navigate through the many-layered bureaucracy of State government. Here, the process is relatively short, even taking into account the slower than usual ‘island time’ pace of things. Some legislation is put into effect within days or week of being signed into law. Since the A.G.’s office is involved with enforcement of those laws, it’s exciting to be involved in a process that has such a direct impact on peoples’ lives, hopefully for the better.

To say the least, it’s been a unique opportunity and a privilege to be able to work here, and one I’m grateful for on a daily basis. Hopefully, in some small way, my work here can be a ‘thank you’ to the people and the State for their continuing kindness and hospitality during our time here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Adventures in Teaching

Without a job, the days become long and all blur together into an insipid pile of days, weeks, and even months.  After several months of working as the Girl Scout coordinator, I was ready for something with a little more of the 9-5 routine. I had heard that the high school was interested in hiring me as a classroom teacher. They are always looking for teachers and are eager to hire anyone willing to put up with Yap’s teenagers.  I attended the graduation ceremony in June and met the principal.  A few weeks later I went to the high school and met with him, for what can only be described as the world's easiest and shortest job interview.

“You have a bachelor’s degree?”

“Yes, in psychology.”

“We would love to have you work here! You are a Godsend. Fill out this application and we will get a contract written.”

Yes, he used the word Godsend! A few weeks later a contract was dropped off at the house. On August 2nd,  I began lesson planning and prepping for school to start on August 23rd. Luckily, a fellow expat that we know had been teaching the class I was assigned, tenth grade English, and gave me many of his materials from last year to get me started. 

Classes began on August 30th, after a week postponement due to a teacher shortage, with the first week being half days. At the beginning of the year we were down eight teachers. They have since filled a few of the vacancies, and have several volunteers filling the remaining positions. The half days provided just enough time to do some orientation (for both me and the students) activities.  Being a novice teacher, I needed as much orientation time as possible!

I had one day during the first week where a lesson plan I had written about study habits, test and note taking tips, and a self procrastination quiz filled the time perfectly. The lesson flowed, and while I wrote things on the board I smiled to myself.  So far, this has been the pinnacle of my teaching experience and it gave me the ardor I needed to feel confident enough to teach. I kept wondering if I had just accidentally added another possible career choice/grad school area of study to the growing list. 

Just as with my previous job, there is no typical day. Yes there is a bell schedule, I see the same 145 students each day, and I do teach English in some form or another. But each day the class order is different. I am not sure for the purpose of this, but I do have a few observations. Each day begins with home room, period 1.  On Mondays the classes go in numerical order 1-6. On Tuesday I have my homeroom class, but then I have class #3, 4, 5, 6, and then 2. Each day the second class gets dropped to the end of the next day.  Besides sometimes causing confusion on my part, it changes things up a bit.  The kids get to see me at different times of the day, when I, and they, are more alert, or more relaxed and just ready for the day to be over.  It also helps because the same poor kids don’t get stuck in my classroom in the mid-day heat each day.  I have conceded that I will never get this down, and will always have to refer to the schedule to know who is coming through the door next!

My classroom gets extremely hot starting around 10am. It sits low at the bottom of a small hill, and up against a greenbelt.  The building that my classroom is in is a row of four classrooms, ala strip mall style.  DSCN1043 It is a cinder block structure with slatted windows similar to the ones in our house, a cement floor, and has a tin roof. My room in this picture, is the one with the open door (room #7). There is no breeze in the room. Ever. At the beginning of the year I had four (and a half) functioning fans in the room. I claimed one for myself.  My argument is I’m stuck in there all day, they get to leave after 45 minutes! I positioned the other fans around the room as diplomatically as I could.  One fan was only considered a half, becauseDSCN1041 even on full power it barely kept itself turning.  My classroom is rather pallid, but I have discovered that the kids will write on or destroy anything they can get their hands on! I did put up a quote board on the back wall that contains some of my favorite and somewhat inspirational quotes.

One day I didn’t feel like giving them the reading assignment I had planned (read: didn’t feel like grading yet another round of papers that week), so instead I decided to give them a study period for the following day’s quiz.  They all were very grateful to hear that they could “rest” and study, or hang out as long as they behaved. I have discovered that these hang out days are crucial to their and my sanity alike. I chatted with the kids, graded papers, and just kept an eye on the kids. Many wondered outside to spit out their betel nut, and occasionally strayed to another classroom where other kids were doing the same. I would go outside to herd them all back towards my class, and when I returned, a fan would be taken apart.

It started with the outer shells of the fans being removed, as many of the kids claimed they were too dirty to keep the fans working properly. This action in itself made the fans stop working correctly, which gave the kids the opportunity to play with them. I do have some very handy kids, who at one point had fixed one of the fans. This time they just dismantled them.  I then had to spend the rest of the class collecting fan parts from kids. Cut electrical cord, fan blades, the metal pole that is the stand for the fan…. You name the fan part, I hid it in the corner by my desk. By the end of the day the only fan standing was mine. And they complained it was hot in there before! I might see if one of the maintenance men can reconstruct one or two from the scattered parts one day, but for now, the kids suffer!

I have been given a basic curriculum, and a few old text books to use as reference, but the day-to-day lesson planning is up to me. I recently ran out of my pre-done plans that I created during August, and now rush everyday to create a relevant lesson plan with the meager resources I have. Most days I enjoy the challenge and freedom this allows, but some days I wish I had pre-established lesson plans to use, or even a textbook for the kids!  I do have a “class set” (62 books) of a reader full of short stories, poetry, and a play. I find that the kids have a hard time fathoming how these stories relate to their lives, and sometimes are angered by how they are American textbooks, written for American kids.

Everyday the limits of my patience, kindness, and sanity are tested. I both dread and look forward to each day. I know I am growing as a person with each day I teach teenagers, but I think it will take me a long time to get used to the daily incessant clamor they create that is now my life.

Signed one exhausted teacher,

Miranda

P.S. The red words are a selection of the vocabulary words I am using in my class, created from a book filled with words used on the SAT. Each week I assign them ten words to learn. I have tried to incorporate these words into my daily conversation as much as possible. Consider these YOUR vocab words for the week! Look the words up and use them to impress your friends! Do as your Sensei says! Thanks to the Japanese, the Yapese word for teacher is sensei.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Good Morning, Micronesia!

Mike here, with another report from The Island.

A common thread in most fictional, stranded-on-an-island stories is the need to keep your morale up by staying active and occupied. Whether it’s the Robinson Family building their elaborate tree houses and racing ostriches, Tom Hanks conversing with Volleyball Wilson, or Hurley and the ‘Lost’ gang playing rounds of golf in between visits from the smoke monster, they all need to be doing something fun while waiting for their eventual rescue. While there is no rescue for us here on Yap (and little chance of constructing a homemade raft to float away on), I’ve found that having a few extra-curricular activities really does help pass the time.

To that end, about two months ago, I decided to volunteer as a news reader at the biggest, most popular (read: the only) radio station on island: KUTE 88.1 FM (and it’s corresponding AM channel, V6AI). 

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I got the idea one day while listening to the daily news report, and noticed how the local anchors would say the word “fiscal”  as “physical”, for a somewhat different meaning. After hearing about the “physical year” one too many times, I thought, “This can’t be too hard. Why don’t I give it a try?” As it turned out, I was in the right place at the right time. Since my job required me to have regular contact with the government agency that manages the radio station, I learned that there was vacant position. A couple of phone calls later I was the new news reader.

So now, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:00 p.m., I’m the voice of all the news that’s fit to be heard on Yap. It goes a little like this: About an hour before the broadcast, I’ll receive a news bulletin from the Media Division, featuring local news from around the island, as well as reports from across the FSM and the Pacific region. Since most of the articles are either from government press releases or newspaper articles, I usually skim through it a few times, and make grammatical changes and other edits to improve readability. I try to proof-read the reports as best I can, but considering that I’m just a volunteer, sometimes the finished product can still read a little awkwardly. Of course, I can use the excuse that I only read the news, DSCN1137I don’t write it. After work, I head over to the radio station.  It’s convenient, considering the station is a two minute walk from home. The recording booth itself is about the size of a large closet, and is crammed with recording equipment, a computer, and a microphone. That’s about it. Here’s a picture of one of the Media Division employees, queuing up songs for the playlist in the studio.  For days when I’m reading the news, the first broadcast goes out live, but it’s also recorded (with any of my verbal stumbling edited out) and replayed several times throughout the day.

I’ve learned that reading the news is more difficult than it sounds. This came as a surprise, since it’s just speaking the words written on a page. Easy, right? Problem #1: Yapese and Pacific Island names generally are very hard to pronounce. Having heard every possible variation of an easily mispronounced name like my own, I try my best to not butcher the Yapese names too badly. That, and these are the people I live with after all! I’m certain I don’t always succeed, but at least I make the effort. Problem #2: The names of cities and countries in and around the Pacific can be a nightmare. One example, is the little island nation of the Republic of Kiribati, which is actually pronounced “key-ree-bass”. Who knew? Another example, while I’m sure it’s a nice place to live (in fact, it’s one of 2010’s top twenty Most Livable Cities), I nevertheless have a hard time saying the name of Japan’s most populous city on Kyushu Island with a straight face. I mean, really, who wouldn’t chuckle just a little bit when the report includes at least a dozen mentions of “Fukuoaka, Japan”? Say it slowly, or say it fast, it still sounds like an expletive to me.

On particularly rough days, some news bulletins coincidentally consist of little more than compounding Problem #1 with Problem #2 by having whole paragraphs full of people’s names and the places they’re from. I look at those pages, and laugh, thinking someone in the Media Division must be playing a joke on me. To say the least, it can be tongue-twisting at times!

Nevertheless, while I have neither the aptitude for nor interest in a career in broadcasting, it’s still pretty fun. Occasionally, I’ll even be asked by random people I meet around town whether I’m “that guy from the radio”. It’s a nice bit of recognition, so long as it’s not someone telling me I mispronounced their name! At least I could report that everyone should get a physical exam every fiscal year.

If anyone in the States’ is interested in listening to my melodious voice rambling on about Pacific Island issues, feel free to tune in. The radio station broadcasts a live Internet feed at the following location: mms://yap-radio.telecom.fm/v6ai

So, as I sign off all my news bulletins, have a safe… and happy day!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Time Flies When You’re Getting Older

On Yap, the perception of the passage of time expands and contracts in unusual ways.

Particularly hot afternoons can feel like an entire sweaty summer, while the cooler evenings often come and go in the blink of an eye. Most weekdays, we come home from work, eat some dinner, and before we know it, its bedtime (which also probably contributes to our infrequent blogging). Some hours of sleep later, the cycle repeats. On weekends, even when our plans consist of little more than planting ourselves in front of the steady oscillations of our living room fan with a good book or movie, those precious hours are expended all too soon. Sunday afternoons, with its steadily ticking countdown timer to the start of another week, seem to end as soon as it’s begun.

Strangely enough, while the days are slow, months pass by mostly unnoticed except for the changing of the picture on our calendar. This month, it’s a nostalgia-inducing picture of the Fremont Bridge in Seattle, only a few short blocks from our old apartment. Even with the molasses-slow afternoons, it still amazes us that we’re fast approaching the mid-way point of our adventure. We’re not close enough yet to start counting down to the end, but some days it feels like it.

Perhaps this preoccupation with time has to do with our recent birthdays. Miranda turned 29 on August 29th and is ready to enjoy the last year of her 20’s. A week later, Mike turned 33, and continued his inevitable advance towards middle age.

For Miranda’s special day, we drove up north to Maap and had lunch at the Village View restaurant. Because it offers a rare chance to simply enjoy a sandy beach and swim in the ocean, it seems like Maap has become our old-standby destination. DSCN1067The weather  thankfully cooperated, and the food was great as always. One substitution was fried strips of breadfruit instead of the usual French Fries. If not for a slightly orange color to the fries, you wouldn’t know it’s not potato!

For the rest of the afternoon, we sat on the beach and watched the waves crash against the reef far out from shore. Since the tide was in, we waded into the water easily, without having to trudge across expanses of slippery sea grass, slimy sea cucumbers, and the eels that make their home there. After cooling ourselves off in the ocean, DSCN1064 we returned to the mostly empty beach. Aside from us, the only other person was an Asian tourist, likely staying at the Village View resort, which caters to visitors from the Pacific Rim. He was dressed in what could be generously described as a man-thong, and was doing various calisthenics and quite possibly dance moves all by himself halfway down the shore. Resisting the urge to giggle uncontrollably, we decided to give the gentleman his privacy, and returned home in good spirits.

A week later, Mike celebrated his birthday. He spent most of the day alternately counting the increasing number of gray hairs on his head. Just kidding. Mike slept in a little later than usual, and had a completely enjoyable, mostly unproductive day. Later in the evening, we went and had one of our best restaurant dinners since arriving on Yap. We ate at the Manta Ray Bay restaurant onboard the Mnuw (see our June 1st entry), an old sailing ship converted into a bar/eatery. Mike was curious about the recent update to the menu there. Previously, the restaurant featured decent, but expensive, entrees that seemed to add “Manta Ray” to the name for a few bucks more. Manta Ray Chicken and Pasta, is still just spaghetti with chicken. No mantas are included.

However, a few weeks ago the menu dramatically changed for the better, moving away from faux fine dining to focus on simple, bar food made with local ingredients. Gordon Ramsay would likely approve. There are three varieties of fish taco (including an outstanding Cajun spiced flavor) using fresh caught tuna, and a selection of burgers that are so close to what you’d find at a Chili’s or Red Robin, you’re tempted to order a blooming onion or a tower of onion rings. Hint, hint Manta Ray proprietors.

We both enjoyed our birthdays, even if it was a reminder of the passing of time. Looking back at our respective anniversaries of life last year, it seems like we’ve come so far, both literally and figuratively. We can only look ahead, to the future, and to where we’ll be when the next round of “Happy Birthday” is sung.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Times, they are a-changin’

We are currently in a time of transition on our island, with old friends leaving and new ones arriving.

Firstly, there is our jungle “pet” situation. Over a month ago our pal Lippy disappeared. She abruptly vanished for a few days, which was very unusual for her. She did return for our last sighting of her one night. She came into the yard, as she often did, but went straight to her water bowl and proceeded to gulp down water for well over a minute. I had figured she had been gone a few days and maybe didn’t find a good water source. I had also been worried that she was pregnant and wondered if she was dehydrated because she was about to give birth. She drank and drank and drank, and then walked away again, down the street. Never to be seen again. I figured she had gone into the jungle to give birth in privacy and quiet. But then days turned into weeks with no sightings by us or any of our friends who were also on the look out for her.

We waited patiently, hoping she would return with at most one puppy on her heels. We didn’t think much of it, as Lippy often did her own thing. But as time passed and she did not return we began to fear the worst. Did she get hit by a car? Attacked by a drunk local with a machete? Attacked by another dog? Did she have complications during delivery? Or was she just old and wandered into the woods to die peacefully. This we shall never know.

We feel better knowing that her last days were spent well fed and looked after by us. I still, out of habit, look to her spot sometimes when I leave the house, half expecting to see her laying up against the house in her nest. The saddest day was when I had to finally toss all the leftovers I had been saving in anticipation of her return, possibly with little mouths to feed.

But as one door closes a window opens, and this time a cat jumped through it!

Once Lippy was gone, our yard became fair game to all animals willing to try to claim it as their own. We have had several dogs, including some of Lippy’s suitors, trying to camp out here. We have shooed them all away, not wanting any of them to stay for too long, especially since they all have homes already! But one night a tiny little gray and white tabby cat appeared out of the thick jungle behind our house. He laid on our carport soaking up the leftover warmth from that DSCN1037day’s sun. He rolled around, cleaned himself and seemed pretty content. He appeared again the next day, this time sticking around long enough to get some leftovers. For the next six days he returned, including while Mike was on his business trip to a neighboring island. Every night, right around dusk he would appear in our backyard and sit at the spot I had fed him at the previous nights. I continued to feed him, and he continued to grace me with his presence.

It has now been over two weeks that Jungle Cat (originally Kitty Friend) or JC for short, has DSCN1028been hanging around our house. Some days he arrives in the morning, and hangs out all day. Some days he appears at dusk. He loves to hide under our awning on rainy days. He occasionally meows at me, but almost always gives me a kitty smile. Did you know that a very slow blink or squinting eyes from a cat means it is smiling at you? Really its true. I read it somewhere.

We also have had some people we know leave island for good, leaving a void that is impossible to fill. We knew when coming here that the people we would meet would eventually leave Yap, most likely before us. But when your social circle is so small, any loss is magnified. It is a difficult thing to describe, like having a friend move away when you are little, knowing you may never see them again. We will miss everyone as one by one, or two by two, they either return to the states, or move onto another amazing place. In any case, we wish them well on their next adventure!

The flip side of people leaving, is it often means new people coming in. We recently welcomed our new neighbors to this rock. It has really given us some perspective on how well we have adapted, and how much we have learned about Yap. Showing our new neighbors around has given us the opportunity to see Yap with fresh eyes, and has renewed a little of the excitement of living on an island in the Western Pacific. We look forward to getting to know them better, and seeing what they think about living here!

All in all things on Yap are good. There are always the rough days, but then we catch an amazing sunset, watch an impressive rain storm, or a good day at work that remind us why we chose to live as expats. One day at a time!

From a fake leather couch in the jungle,

Miranda

Friday, August 20, 2010

Trip to Pohnpei Island

Mike here, finally getting around to doing some blogging.

After eight months on-island, I got to take my first business trip. From August 4th through 7th, I was in the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia (“FSM”), on the island of Pohnpei, for a trade policy and legal drafting conference sponsored by the European Union. Since no one else in the office wanted to go, I was given the opportunity to volunteer as legal counsel for the representatives from Yap. With all expenses paid (ticket, hotel, and per diem included), they could have sent me anywhere as far as I’m concerned.

The conference organizers booked the notoriously early, red-eye flight out of Yap at 4am. Since check in began at 2 a.m., Miranda just stayed up and drove me to the airport. There, we stood in line for a half hour with a half-dozen tired looking Japanese divers and one elderly Yapese man with a giant cooler. Eventually, some Continental workers appeared, and started the lengthy process of security screening. As luck would have it, the Japanese group brought two full trolleys of boxes and bags of diving equipment, that each needed to be opened and painstakingly searched in the interests of ‘security’. Next, they moved on to the Yapese man and weighed his cooler, which turned out to be 10 pounds overweight. Opening it to investigate, they were surprised to find an extremely large, extremely frozen fish! The man suggested he just chop off the head and take it as a carry-on, to everyone’s amusement.

Eventually, I got my ticket and flew to Guam for a two-hour stopover before continuing on to Pohnpei. After clearing immigration and customs as quickly as possible, I nearly ran through the terminal in order to reach the food court with its Burger King kiosk. To say the least, after seven months without fast food, the breakfast croissant meal tasted heavenly.

After a particularly bumpy plane ride, the Yap State ‘trade delegation’ consisting of myself, a State legislator, and three division heads of State government, arrived on Pohnpei in the early afternoon. Y'Vonnes Hotel in KoloniaOur hotel, Y’Vonnes, was located in the center of Kolonia, Pohnpei’s largest town (not to be confused with Colonia, Yap’s largest town), and was very clean.  Luckily, I was able to snag a room all to myself, complete with a stove, fridge, and cooking utensils. As an added treat, there was a television with as many as 10 channels! The remote may have been broken, and the picture fuzzy, but it still felt like such a luxury.

Generally, Pohnpei is like a bigger, more developed version of Yap. It’s another jungle covered island, but since it gets more rain than anywhere else in Micronesia, the jungles are much denser.  Downtown KoloniaThe roads are remarkably flat and pothole free, unlike those in Yap that are usually well worn and pocked with many craters. The stores and shops in Kolonia come in all shapes and sizes, but most have that typical appearance of fighting the constant battle between decay and repair.

On the first night, our group wound up being invited to a barbeque at the house of friend of one of our group. We bought some beverages at one of the local grocery stores; near the Spanish Wall, Wall-Mart!which is all that remains of a fort built there in the 1880’s. Appropriately, the store was named “Wall Mart”.  It’s well organized shelves stocked with row upon row of mostly recognizable products was both shocking and comforting. There was ample, fresh produce and a large refrigerated section filled with all manner of steaks, sausage, and cheese. It really made me wish I had brought a cooler of my own to fill with all these goodies unavailable on Yap!

The barbeque turned out to be very enjoyable. We all sat underneath a “nahs” (pronounced ‘nass’), the Pohnpeian version of the Yapese koyeng, or palm frond thatched open-walled hut, and drank and chatted. Since the language native to Pohnpei is different from what is spoken in Yap, thankfully everyone spoke in English. Later in the evening, everyone moved into the house, where a huge feast was waiting for us. There was an assortment of pasta salads, local foods like breadfruit and taro cooked in a variety of styles, and a giant mound of barbecued ribs and chicken legs. The meat was very tasty. I was told the marinade included the famous Pohnpei pepper, a particularly spicy locally grown black pepper. Our host told stories about Pohnpei and gossiped about recent happenings in the FSM until late in the evening.

While chatting, I asked about a small greenhouse filled with flowers built close to the main house. I learned that is customary in Pohnpei for families to bury deceased relatives on the property of their home, and regularly place flowers at the grave. Driving through town, it was common to see these little household mausoleums all over the place.

The trade conference was interesting enough, but I won’t bore you with all the tedious details. Basically, the purpose was to look at ways for the FSM to increase exports and invest in infrastructure in order to survive after the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., which annually funnels over $97 million dollars into the country, ends in about a decade. That’s right, U.S. readers, those are your tax dollars hard at work in Micronesia, building schools, providing health care, keeping government afloat, and paying my salary.

FSM Govt Campus

The conference was held at the national government complex in the Covered Walkwaynearby town of Palikir.  About a dozen various government buildings, including the office of the President, the legislature, and the Supreme Court, were scattered around an acre of well-manicured lawns literally carved out of the dense jungle.  Since it rains so much, covered walkways connected each of the buildings. If it wasn’t for the many flags and FSM Supreme Court Buildingthe official seal of the FSM posted conspicuously at every entrance, you might think you’d wandered only the campus of a small-town community college. The buildings were fairly new, included a number of clever architectural details reflecting the uniqueness of each of the FSM’s member states. For example, in front of all the buildings were faux-stone pillars representing the “rock” of Pohnpei, along with other parts of the buildings that featured replicas of Yap’s famous stone money.

Probably one of the best things about the Pohnpei trip was the manta ray figurenumber of very unique and reasonably priced handicrafts available for purchase. On Yap, unless you know someone in the village who make them, you’ll wind up paying outrageous prices for handicrafts at hotel gift god of pohnpeishops and art galleries that primarily  caters to the absurdly wealthy tourists that occasionally stop at the island in their mega-yachts. Scattered all around Kolonia were little shops lined with all manner of wood carvings (including the manta ray and a depiction of one of the gods of the outer islands of Pohnpei  shown here), jewelry made from turtle shell, and an assortment of woven wall hangings both large and small. Since this might have been my first and only trip to Pohnpei, I bought back a lot of wood carvings souvenirs to give our house in Yap a decidedly Micronesian atmosphere, as well as a traditional skirt that Miranda had asked for.

No trip to Pohnpei is complete without trying the local beverage, called sakau, which is made from the root of the kava plant. The root is pounded into powder in large stone bowls, then wrapped in a particular bark grown only on Pohnpei, which is then used like a tea bag to infuse water with the essence of kava. Bottles of the stuff are sold all over the island, but I was warned that I should buy from a known reputable vendor. Thankfully, one member of our delegation had friends or relatives living there, who were able to provide us a few safe bottles. It looked innocuous enough, having the exact whitish color of a pina colada. The smell was very strong and not particularly pleasant, and it had a powerfully medicinal taste and the texture of a mouthful of silt. By the time we neared the bottom of the first bottle, there was an intense debate as to who would drink the sludge-like dregs that remained. I was duped into believing that thisLocals Drinking Sakau was the ‘best part’, but was thankfully able to keep the slurry of powdered root down. Unlike alcohol, sakau has no obvious mental effects, aside from a general feeling of calm. If you were drinking it sitting down, you might think that it’s “not working” or that you got a “bad batch”, that is, until you tried to stand up and wound up falling on your face. You see, in addition to an initially shocking numbness in the mouth that leaves you feeling like you just left the dentist after a particularly rough root canal, you still get all the physical symptoms of being drunk. The effect of sakau was described as causing your left leg to go straight and your right leg to go left. However, being ever mindful of moderation, I was able to get the full experience without going overboard. To say the least, I slept soundly that night. Pohnpei from Cupids Restauraunt-12

On our last night in Pohnpei, the conference  organizers held a Mike on Last Dayreception at a great restaurant with an amazing view of the harbor and the largest mountain on the island. The food was excellent, including a large platter of beef ribs that was a real treat considering the lack of cows on Yap. Afterwards, we retired to the hotel. The next morning, after doing some last minute souvenir shopping, we headed back to the airport for our departing flight. We again transited through Guam, where I over-indulged on my last chance of  eating at Burger King for a while, and eventually arrived back on Yap Island safe and sound.

In short, I fully enjoyed my time on the island of Pohnpei. It was a memorable experience, and I sincerely hope my first time there was not also my last.