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)