Friday, December 23, 2011

X-mas Island

The week leading up to Christmas was predictably hot and sunny, broken only by long stretches of rain. I’d sometimes look out the window at the blue sky and everything baking in the heat under it, and have to remind myself that, oh yeah, it’s December. Far from the winter wonderland back in the States, on Yap the most I could hope for was the relief from an early return of the cool trade winds.

Even though the weather felt like summer, all across the island were visible signs of Christmas cheer.

The first hint of Christmas I noticed was several weeks back, in the little area behind the administration building where people often eat lunch.These little woven pyramids mysteriously appeared every so often, hung on the ends of a palm tree.

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One day, I went back there and found a gentleman carefully weaving strips of palm fronds around his closed fist. He lashed the strips together in an easy, practiced manner, and in a few short minutes, popped the completed pyramid off his fist. As he tied it to the end of the tree, I asked him whether those were traditional Christmas ornaments. He laughed when he told me that they were for cooking rice! He said that people fill them about halfway with rice, and then boil the entire thing. The rice expands as it cooks, and once the wrapping is removed, you’re left with a pyramid-shaped portion of rice. Before he left, he also mentioned they make nice decorations. I absolutely agreed.

I took a drive around the lagoon one night, and saw that many businesses and even some private homes were decorated with Christmas lights.

While none of the homes matched the insanity of Chevy Chases’ elaborate display in my second-favorite Christmas movie, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (my favorite being “A Christmas Story”), the owners of this place surely tried. You could see this blinking, twinkling lighthouse of Christmas cheer from all the way across the lagoon!

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I seriously thought about buying lights for the house this year. I wasn’t surprised when all the lights at the store sold out within a day or two. I went to “Aces Mart”, a typical multi-purpose housewares store, because I’d heard they maybe still had some. They were sold out too, but as I was leaving, I noticed possibly why. The entire front of the store was covered in Christmas lights, and not just the small twinkling variety, but the old-style kind with actual bulbs! I tried to take a picture for the blog, but it was so glaringly bright, every one turned out too blurry.

photo 1Many government workers also got into the spirit of the season by putting up all sorts of decorations around their offices. In the administration building, some people put up a Christmas tree, fully decked out with lights and ornaments. Even though there are no lots with people selling imported, overpriced trees, there is a type of evergreen tree that grows on Yap. The branches strong enough to hold even the biggest ornaments. I was told that the tree pictured here was cut in the northern part of the island, and trucked  down just for the occasion.

 

As you can see, everyone in the office was very proud of their decorating skills!

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Here’s another Christmas tree that was put up at work, in the Office of Planning and Budget.

One Saturday, Santa decided to visit one of the local stores so kids could come and get their picture taken with him. Miranda was hoping that one of our Yapese friends would be dressed up as Saint Nick. When she arrived, it turned out that the guy in the costume er… Santa’s regional deputy, kids… was another American ex-pat! Even though Miranda didn’t get a picture, hopefully Santa will still know what she wanted for Christmas.

On the day of Christmas Eve, I woke up at around 9am to two unpleasant, but not unfamiliar sounds: The shrill shrieking of a pig being killed, likely for Christmas dinner, and the blaring blasts from a fire truck horn.

In an amusing coincidence, these sounds synched up perfectly, dueling for the title of Most Annoying. Each increasingly frenzied “Sqeeeeeel!” was answered with a correspondingly loud “Blaaammmfff!” from the horn as the fire truck inched closer and closer.

Still groggy, my first thought was, “Are these two related?”

Did the Christmas pig escape and get hit by the fire truck? Did a bonfire to cook the Christmas pig get out of control, threatening to burn down my neighborhood? Visions of liability danced in my head, as I imagined what a hassle it would be to unravel these scenarios back at work after the holidays.

Thankfully, I then remembered that the Bank of Guam was sponsoring a Christmas parade. It turned out that the fire truck was just chauffeuring Santa around the lagoon! I’m sure it was similar to last years’ parade for Constitution Day, but likely with different signs.

The Christmas pig was still for dinner.

Maybe next year I’ll try to inject a little of my New Mexico-raised heritage into the island Christmas by putting out some luminarias. These are the traditional Christmas decorations from where I grew up in Albuquerque. They’re made by filling a brown paper lunch bag with sand, and putting a candle in it. Given the minimal requirements, it might be feasible here on Yap. Of course, after a good rainstorm, those soggy bags would lose their decorative effect!

Miranda did decorate around the house a little, and unpacked our mini-Christmas tree from the box where it sleeps for the rest of the year. Even so far from family and friends back home, all these signs of holiday spirit made it feel more festive during this Christmas season.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

D-Day: The War on Dengue Fever

Dateline: December 09, 2011

               Government Qtr. #37, Talguw, Rull Municipality, Yap State

DSCN2200Today Yap went to war.

After over 600 reported cases of Dengue Fever, the government declared a state of emergency, and organized an island-wide cleanup effort to destroy the breeding grounds of Dengue spreading mosquitoes . Each community across the island was instructed to form cleaning parties to remove trash, fill in pits of standing water, and trim back shady jungle growth from around their homes. Schools were shut down so students and teachers could participate, and government offices were closed. It was war, against an enemy so small, but with vastly greater numbers and on its home turf.

Miranda and I mobilized at 09:00 hours. Completely lathered in mosquito repellant, iPods fully charged, and machete and lawnmower locked and loaded, we surveyed the battlefield: our front yard. Untouched by human hands for nearly a month, the yard had begun its inevitable return to the jungle. Vines slithered up the remains of a once proud fence, and snaked across the ground towards patches of tall weeds. A perfect breeding areas for mosquitoes. It had to go.

Over the next several hours (cue action scene montage, preferably to “Eye of the Tiger”), we mowed and chopped and hacked away at foliage so tough and resistant it must have been some new form of superplant.

DSCN2207Peanut supervised from a safe distance, curious but wary of the strange machine we were walking up and down the yard. Even with a relatively new push-mower, it was a slow and tiring process to carve away at a small section of ground, and then to go over that same section several times to cut weeds that refused to go down. Then again, the mower was designed for cutting grass, on an actual lawn, not overgrown jungle scattered with coconut husks, termite infested tree branches, and jagged chunks of coral. Miranda also filled bucket after bucket full of rocks of various sizes. She used these to fill in a rather muddy spot in our yard.

Miranda and I switched off with the raking and mowing. After gathering up a huge mound of cut vegetation, I shoveled it in back into the jungle, fueling the fire of growth at least away from the front yard. At one point, I raked so furiously that the handle broke in two. This was highly amusing for several neighbors who were intently watching my every move from the comfort of hammocks stretched as close to the property line as possible. Peanut ran to the edge of the yard, intermittently barking a warning of “back off”. They stood their ground, finding Peanut’s attempt at bravery also pretty amusing. With half a rake, I went back to my labors under the critical gaze of a nine-year old in a thuw.

After a little while, I noticed that my neighbor had ordered his family to clean up their yard, which they did in record time due to their rather large workforce.

DSCN2196Eventually, the yard began to retake its usual shape. It wasn’t perfect, but we made a good faith effort. Near the end, Miranda and I were both drenched in sweat and thoroughly exhausted. We retreated back inside, and drank as much water as we could. The shower, with its temperature varying between chilly and arctic, actually felt good.

Resting for a moment on the couch, we heard the telltale plinking of raindrops hitting the roof. It got steadily louder until everything was drowned out by the sound of rushing water. As it often happens here, the rain continued for several hours, sometimes in a downpour hard enough you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you. The kind of rain that hurts when it hits you. It’s still raining as a write this, and it doesn’t appear to be letting up any time soon.

DSCN2199Even though D-day may have been affected by the weather, that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Now we can rest guilt-free inside for the rest of the day, getting a little down time out of this D-day. Let’s just hope the enemy mosquitoes aren’t using this as an opportunity to increase their numbers in the fresh rain water. We did our best to fight the good fight.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Yap Canoe Fest 2011

It is hard to believe we have been here long enough to start having memories from multiple years of attending certain events. Most recently we went to the Canoe Fest (11/11 – 11/13), an annual event highlighting traditional sailing and navigation skills. It’s so popular everyone counts down to it all year long. Literally. A billboard near the center of town shows the number of days until Canoe Fest that someone painstakingly updates daily.

Miranda and I attended last year and had a great time, so we knew what to expect. Instead of waking up early to listen to the inevitable speeches, and generally waiting around for events to begin, we slept in late and went downtown in the late morning. As is our new tradition, we got beverages from the local coffee shop, and walked around a bit, sipping our excellent mocha smoothies.

Eventually we found a place on the concrete retaining wall above the waterside, and watched as races for various age groups were organized.

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Lanes for swimmers and buoys marking the race track for paddlers floated on the water, gently bobbing on a calm sea under a clear and sunny sky.

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An announcer sat close by at a table behind a mountain of radio equipment. His play by play and color commentary about the ongoing races boomed out from several gigantic loudspeakers, then echoed a few seconds later on various car radios tuned to the live broadcast.

DSCN2154We watched the youth swimming events, and the traditional paddling canoe and kayak races.

Unsurprisingly, there are some potentially champion swimmers among the participating villages.

Michael Phelps, beware!

We missed out on the totang races, made out of a folded sheet of tin roofing, but did see one totang sink slowly beneath the waterline as the unfortunate racer tried to paddle to shore.  

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I was really impressed by the bamboo raft races. Even though they’re paddling with just a bamboo pole, these little crafts shot across the water as if powered by a small electric motor.

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Aside from all the racing events, one of the best things about Canoe Fest is the food. Vendors with barbeques large and small tempted tourists and locals alike with the smell of cooking meat.

We sat in the shade on the outdoor patio of the Marina Bar and Grill, as a canoe sailed by and parked itself a few feet away.

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DSCN2165-7We drank a beer, and soaked up the sights and sounds of Canoe Fest. After asking, I took a picture of this friendly gentleman in local attire who we often see around town and at events.  

Eventually, our food arrived, and we enjoyed an excellent platter of freshly barbequed chicken and pork. Usually these meals come with some form of local food, either taro or breadfruit, but I knew to save room for the real main course.

After asking about it once earlier, we were told to come back later. One of our friends heard that it had arrived, so we all quickly went over to the particular vendor and placed our order. Removing a large tupperware container from underneath the counter, she handed over several skewers of tender, marinated, barbeque meat. Turtle meat.

DSCN2192-11You might not think it when looking at one, but those serene, shelled giants sure are tasty. Turtle meat is generally not sold on Yap , except it is cooked occasionally at events like these. I’ve tried it, and while I don’t think anyone should open up a turtle-burger joint, I do think it’s pretty good. It’s not fatty, is very tender, and has a taste somewhere between beef and pork.

After lunch, we walked around a bit more, and looked at some of the handicraft booths. This lady sold nuwnuws made from flowers, and the multi-colored grass skirts worn by dancers.

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This booth had the traditional wraps from the outer islands of Yap, and a table set up by the students of the High School selling food and offering non-permanent tattooing with permanent markers instead of tattoo guns.

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DSCN1890Since I’ve accumulated a fairly large collection of various traditional items, I couldn’t resist buying a replica traditional spear, and some replica shell money, a curved piece of shell tightly wrapped with woven strands of rope. I’m sure several people had a laugh at the strange looking guy, brandishing a 5-foot spear in one hand and a camera in the other.

The spear now sits proudly in our living room, always at the ready to fend off any attackers.

 

 

 

 

Since it was getting late in the afternoon, we decided to  finish our visit by watching a stick dance being performed at the community center. We’ve seen dances to these several times now, but each is as captivating to watch as the last.

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Even though the festival was all weekend, I decided not to go back for the second and third days. After absorbing too many rays, and generally having seen all there was to see, I used the remainder of the weekend for rest. Miranda went back on the next day and watched a band made up of expats, followed by a magic show performed by a Disney magician from the States. It rained pretty heavily, which thundered on the tin roof of the community center, nearly drowning out the music of the band.

All in all, it was a good Canoe Festival. Good food, good times, and a nice break from monotony of island life. Only 365 days left till Canoe Fest 2012!

A first for this blog: video! Here’s a short clip from the stick dance, seen above.

Yap State, FSM, Canoe Fest 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

Something a Little Different

By: Miranda, with input from Mike too.

I once read somewhere that normal is just what you see every day. This got me thinking about how our “normal” has been affected by the things we see daily that once seemed odd or different, or had never even crossed our minds. I have been working on this list in my head for several months now, taking time to notice the things that may have once seemed odd to us.

In no particular order:

driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid potholes

babies sticking their head out the window of a moving car

boxed milk

being hot all the time

exposed breasts! everywhere! even in the bank!

no hot water

giant cockroaches scurrying away when you open a cupboard, drawer, or closet

rats wrestling above the ceiling while in the shower

the distant bang of coconuts falling onto corrugated tin roofs

chickens everywhere

geckos everywhere

stray dogs everywhere

red-stained clothes, teeth, and the ground

mosquito bites

the constant whir of a fan

frequent breathtaking sunsets

not being able to eavesdrop, because everyone is speaking a foreign language

nuwnuws

dirt roads that are often muddy

“fresh” tuna means caught that day, and costs $1.50 per pound

toes always being exposed, because we don’t wear shoes

not being able to drink tap water for fear of catching some strange, exotic parasite

palm frond baskets

Skype calls

roosters crowing at all hours of the day and night

slow internet

instant coffee

taro

being generally unaware of what’s going on in the rest of the world

trade winds

the island running out of things we used to consider essential- flour, sugar, butter, garlic, etc.

sweat

seeing American commercials for new products we have never heard of before

spit bottles

two-week mail delivery times

food dreams

year round tan lines

and of course, covered thighs

What? These aren’t normal things where you live?

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Commute: Home to Work

By: Mike

Back in July, I wrote a blog post about my evening “commute” home from work along the generally circuitous road that borders Chamorro Bay. I had always intended to complete this theme by writing about taking the road on the other side of the bay. As often happens, I never seemed to get around to it.

On one particularly clear and sunny morning this week, I brought a camera along to document my routine morning journey from Quarter #37 (“Home”) in Talguw to the Yap State Administration Building in Colonia (“Work”).

DSCN2131I started off by heading down this unnamed road, which has been recently repaired to fill in the numerous ruts and potholes that naturally develop as a result of continuous cycles of rain and baking sunshine.

Every few months, a work crew will come along, armed with shovels and truckloads of rocks and earth, to painstakingly fill in these sometimes cavernous hazards. They’ll also dig shallow drainage trenches on either side of the road, but it is a constant losing battle against Mother Nature. When the next heavy storm blows through, these trenches become fast flowing mini-rivers. Loose dirt and sediment are swiftly carried downstream, opening fissures that eventually form new potholes. Soon enough, the road returns to its usual teeth-rattling condition.

DSCN2130The first stop along this road is our local convenience store, called Gilmar’s. Owned and operated by the Director of Health Services (many government employees have their separate side projects or businesses), it is a neighborhood resource for all the essentials, like bottled water, betel nut sold by the bag, canned tuna, and a well-stocked assortment of spirituous liquors (like the previously mentioned White Wolf Vodka) and beer. It also has a laundry-mat. Across the street is a building with a solitary pool table, which is a popular venue on weekend nights for locals to hang out and drink.

A little further down the road is the Family Chain Auto Shop, where I’ve had my scooter repaired a number of times. Since it is a Japanese-run establishment, explaining exactly what the mechanical problem is can be difficult due to the language barrier. It usually requires a little patience and good pantomime skills, though I’m always impressed by the low prices for their work. Patching a flat tire was only $7, and they’ll often fill up your tires or perform minor repairs for free, depending on how nicely you ask.

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Next to this compound crammed with cars in various stages of repair and disrepair is probably one of the best maintained buildings on the island: the Seventh Day Adventist Church. On an island where everything built is continually worn down by wind and rain and sun, this place always looks brand new. It is both a testament to the industriousness of its congregation, and a gleaming beacon of “un-Yapness” in its striking and obvious contrast to its surroundings.

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Hanging a right at the church brings you to the main paved road into town. There is a very steep hill with an actual sidewalk (one of the very few), that I thought would make a great racetrack for a soapbox derby. I joked that Miranda could slalom down it on her roller-skates, but given the incline, it’s unlikely she’d make it in one piece!

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On any given morning, children can be seen trudging up this slope on their way to school. The blue truck on the right in this picture is the Drops Of Life delivery truck. Drops of Life is a business that provides clean drinking water to many on Yap, including us. A pick-up window is quickly slid open by the employee who dutifully leaves their solitaire game on the computer to help as we approach with our two empty five-gallon bottles to be refilled every week or so. It’s not a bad deal for $4. For another dollar more they will deliver it to our house, which was very helpful before we had our car.

DSCN2113At the bottom of the hill the asphalt road continues over a low bridge, and around the mangrove choked shore of Chamorro Bay. Recently someone took the time and effort to wade into the murky waters and chop down the trees and other plants that created a natural hedge between the water and the road. Now, instead of being faced with impenetrable a wall of aquatic plants, you can actually look across the Bay from the road. Alongside, a well-worn dirt path serves as a sidewalk, where you’ll sometimes see entire families traversing it in single file.

This store, called Ace’s Mart, is one of several little shops along the way into town. Best described as a “household goods” store, you can get everything from pots and pans to sunglasses and clothes here. It is rumored to also sell a ‘Sega: Genesis’ video game system, the height of entertainment technology, circa 1989.

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Here’s the main “financial district” on Yap, featuring the Bank of Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia Development Bank. We use the Bank of Guam primarily because it has the only ATM on the entire island. Since the bank closes at 3:00PM Monday through Thursday, and 5:00PM on Friday and is also closed all weekend, if we ever run out of cash, it’s an easy drive to the always open (but not always stocked with cash) teller machine.

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Continuing down the road, on the right side are several houses built on stilts over the water, next to which sits the Lagoonia Store. I’ve yet to venture inside, but Miranda has reported that this shop sells, among other things, reasonably priced bolts of cloth that their seamstress will sew into shirts and other clothes for you. They also have a bakery that brings the smell of frying dough to this street each morning.

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Next up is the Post Office. You’ve likely seen pictures of this before. It may have a weird color scheme, but without a doubt, it’s one of my favorite places. It’s our fragile lifeline to home, friends, and family in the form of letters and boxes of precious, priceless artifacts from the western world. The simplest, most forgettable things back in the U.S., like jars of salsa, cans of artichoke hearts, or boxes of Kraft Shells and Cheese, are worth their weight in gold here.

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It’s still the high point of any week to check P.O. Box 1191 and find that little slip of paper alerting us to a newly arrived care package.

DSCN2118Across from the post office is an open space that was once used as a motor pool for government vehicles, and sometimes as a soccer field, though its close proximity to the water would seem to make any wild kick of the ball a game-ending occurrence. Several times a week canoes are launched here for paddling practice, where locals and ex-pats alike stroke their way back and forth across the Bay.

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Other boats, used for fishing and diving within the reef are moored here on a regular basis.

Here is the Yap State Division of Public Safety, where Yap’s proud, fearless firefighters and police officers work. At the back of this building is the jail, as well as an enclosed yard where prisoners are allowed outside. An unintended quirk of urban planning located Yap’s premier luxury hotel, the Yap Pacific Dive Resort, directly above this yard so that anyone eating at the restaurant or swimming in the pool has a birds-eye view of all the going’s on down in the jail yard.

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DSCN2120A path from the hotel high above the jail leads down to this dive shop and pier, where patrons of the resort embark for their afternoon underwater diving adventures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across the street from Public Safety is the site of ongoing construction on what will be the Yap Living History Museum.

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In the four months since I last posted pictures of this place, a great deal of progress has been made. A stone wall studded with carved rocks circles the area, and many fine woodworking details have been added to the individual buildings.

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A stone platform has been mostly completed in front of the structures, where dances and other tourist-friendly cultural events can be performed. Given the rapid construction progress, it’s likely that this living museum will soon be a highly visible and attractive addition to ‘downtown’ Colonia.

Just past the museum site is the rest of Colonia, including among other landmarks, the State and FSM Courthouse, several stores, a gas station, and the community center, which I’ve photographed and blogged about numerous times in the past.

On this day, before heading down the last few blocks to work, I paused for a moment at the ocean-facing shoreline and simply stared out at the glassy, unbroken surface of the water. On my daily walk to work, this is one of my favorite vistas. I think it’s a powerful reminder of the beauty of this island that frequently fades into the background of everyday life.

I sometimes look out at that white line of waves crashing against the reef, and think that just beyond there (give or take a few thousand miles or so) is all that I’ve left behind, and the promise of an unknown future*.

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* I’ve been subsequently informed that technically, this view is actually facing South-Southeast, meaning that all this time, my melancholy gazing has been directed towards the wilderness of Papua New Guinea, the western coast of Australia, and the vast expanses of the South Pacific Ocean. Even though my sense of direction is slightly inaccurate, the sentiment remains the same.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Winter Is Coming

By: Mike

Sometimes I have to remind myself it’s October already. Halloween is right around the corner, followed by a normally chilly Thanksgiving and a white Christmas far from here. People are starting to unbox their sweaters if they haven’t done so already, and turning up heaters or maybe even trying out the fireplace in the evening. Hot chocolate weather. Curling up underneath a blanket weather.

Here, we just have hot, and slightly less hot.

On this scorching, sunny Sunday afternoon, I spent an hour or so sitting outside in my comfortable but slowly disintegrating green camp chair, and read a good book. Aside from the usual background noise of the jungle insects and the random chirps of birds feasting on termites in the infested mango trees, it was quiet and peaceful. Even in the shade of the house, the unused concrete carport used as a patio was hot under my sandaled feet. It rained photo 2heavily yesterday, and all that evaporated moisture caused an almost oppressive humidity. Thankfully, a bottle of chilled water sat within arms reach on the wooden utility cable spool that serves as makeshift lawn furniture. All in all, it was a nice day on Yap, even if I wished for a little breeze or a cloud in the sky.

Apparently, no one told the weather man. The sky remained clear and blue, and the trade-winds that usually waft through the living room hadn't arrived. I'd heard about this weather man before, from several different locals. They'd jokingly talk of going to see him when it's too hot or rains too much. After some curious inquiries, I learned that he doesn't report the weather, but rather creates it. While I'm uncertain of the specifics, I got the general sense that controlling the weather involves keeping the weather man happy. For instance, good weather might be more likely if the weather man received some White Wolf Vodka, a locally available brand more notable for the size of its bottles than the quality of the spirits.

Recently, I get the feeling that the weather man has not been very happy. For what feels like months, Miranda and I have been kept indoors due to nonstop downpours of rain, followed by work-filled weekdays of taunting sunshine.

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For instance, I've wanted to go snorkeling again for a while now. However, trekking all the way up north in the rain, constantly dodging potholes on a road that is treacherous even without a layer of mud, seems more trouble than its worth. So, instead of happily floating in the ocean, I sat on the couch and hoped that next week, for whatever reason, the weather would cooperate. It never did. I wondered if I should have bought some White Wolf.

Today would have been perfect for some underwater fun. As bad luck would have it, I'm stuck inside with what I hope is just the dreaded common cold.

It started about a week ago, with Miranda coming home from school with a sore throat. Since she yells at kids all day, I didn't think much of it at first. This was followed by a fever, tingling ears, and a runny nose that worsened into a full-on head cold. She took two days off from work, but didn't improve. She went to the hospital, and told the doctor it might be an ear infection. Predictably, the doctor agreed after a cursory examination, and sent her home with a bottle of antibiotics. Slowly but surely, Miranda continued to get better over the next several days, no doubt helped by some attentive nursing by her caring husband.

Being sick here is quite possibly the worst feeling ever. Combined with a fever, the heat is terribly uncomfortable, even with every fan set on high. The brightness of the sunshine feels like its poking needles in your eyeballs, and the bugs and birds that never stop making noise are sirens in your ears. It's definitely not fun. Sure, you can get better with prescriptions from doctors who seem genuinely relieved to hear your own medical diagnosis, but the days in between are rough. I should know because I, of course, caught whatever Miranda had.

That's just one of the downsides of living on an island. Sure, we'll be the last to go if a global pandemic super plague hits. On the other hand, if anyone you know on island has a cold, you probably will too eventually.

There are also more serious illnesses to watch out for. Ever since I arrived here, people have told me about dengue fever. It’s a disease spread by mosquitoes, which causes fevers, headaches, and as reported by local authorities, “General Body Aches, Pain in the Body Joints.” There have been several reported cases across the island recently, and even an outbreak in one of the nearby villages. Mosquito’s are always around, and even with mosquito coils and bug spray, it seems like it’s a constant losing battle. Another disease that has had many outbreaks reported within the past few weeks is called Leptospirosis, caused by rodents. There’s a long list of symptoms, including “Shaking Chills” and temporary blindness, that all sound terrible.  Both of these diseases are serious and we are taking all necessary precautions. In the house, we’ve had rat problems before, and most recently a litter of baby rats were born above the bathroom ceiling. Every morning, they can be heard softly squeaking for breakfast. Time to break out the rat traps again!

IMG_0049Speaking of potentially life-threatening things, I should also mention the recent earthquake. Two Thursdays ago, Miranda and I were sitting on the couch, when all of a sudden it sounded like a large truck went rumbling by. I jumped up when the rumbling got more and more pronounced. It lasted about five or six seconds, just long enough to wonder which doorway would be safest to stand under. The US Geological Survey said that it was a 5.8 magnitude quake 16 miles northeast of Yap, and the largest reported quake in Yap. Throughout the rest of the evening, there were smaller aftershocks that were barely noticeable. There wasn’t any serious damage around town, but we did notice a suspicious crack in our living room wall afterwards. Since I hadn’t experienced an earthquake like this before, it was a real reminder of how vulnerable we are to freak acts of nature.

I guess each climate has it’s own complications that come with winter. Colder places have their icy roads and snow plows. We’re certainly not in danger of frostbite any time soon. We just have our earthquakes and rat diseases to deal with here. I suppose everywhere has its own unique adventures.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Summer Reading Program 2011

This summer I was asked by the Librarian of the Yap State Library to be a teacher at this year’s “Summer Reading Program”. I might add that this librarian is the former AG’s wife, and the mother or aunt to what was once my entire Girl Scout troop. I know her fairly well. She also knows that I love working with kids, including her own. I was asked to join 25 or so 7-11 year olds every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 2-4pm at the library. I was very excited!

The goal of the reading program is to promote literacy by getting kids excited to read. They were oriented to the library and issued library cards. But then it was time to get down to business, the business of having fun!

Each day was a little different but included a story being read, often many, and a craft or art project. One day we read three children’s books about monsters, including one very tattered copy of Where The Wild Things Are. Then they used water colors, yarn and sequins to create their own monsters!DSCN1574

On another day they created books out of construction and photocopy paper. That day we had read a story about having pets, so they were asked to write a little bit about if they could have any pet in the world, what they would choose. There were dolphins, cheetahs, sharks, dogs, cats, and one penguin. Though I wonder if this child got his inspiration from the chapter book we began reading that day, Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

DSCN1657 - CopyUs teachers took turns reading two chapters each session to the kids from Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and by the end of the month we finished the book! Several 7-8 year olds had never read a chapter book before so they were very excited about this and listened intently to each and every chapter. I ended up reading a majority of the chapters to the kids. Partly because it was my idea to read the book to them and I felt bad for making others read it too, and partly because I wanted to read it again! It wasn’t nearly as exciting as I remember it being when I first read it as a young girl, but I did my best to get the kids interested in it, which sometimes was hard since there weren’t many pictures and they weren’t even in color.

Each day myself, or one of my two fellow teachers, both expat friends of mine, would read several children’s books to the kids. This was my favorite part. It feels good to grab a group of kids attention with just a good book and a few silly voices! I can’t recall all the books we read as some days there were four or five books read, but I do remember the excited faces as I read to them about animals, friendship, duck soup, and the places they will go. I was ecstatic to find a copy of Dr. Suess’s Oh the Places You Will Go! that I stashed away and read to them on the last day of the program.

I remember being impressed with the size of the children’s section of the library when I first saw it, but when you take a closer look, many of the books are in very poor shape, are very old, or just don’t seem to grab the kids attention. Many have stickers on the inside saying who donated them, churches, former visitors, and various humanitarian groups are represented in our little library.It was a treasure hunt each session to find great books, luckily we found a few. Here are the kids playing a game with one of my fellow teachers.

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A student from the high school also helped us each session, and created many of the awesome craft ideas. One day I was a little alarmed to find out the craft was tie-dye.  Inside the library? With 25 kids who have never used tie-dye? Sure but, I’ll be hiding over there in the corner telling the kids not to touch me or anything else! It was a good lesson for me, and for her. She learned that working with small groups is best when permanent mess is involved. I learned that sometimes you have to let others figure out what works and doesn’t, even if you think you know better. Luckily we didn’t receive any angry calls from parents after sending home a few kids with big blotches of dye all over their clothes. It took 4 days just to get the dye off my hands after I finally caved in and decided to make a tie dyed swatch of cloth for myself, that didn’t turn out, because by then all the dyes were mixed into the inevitable brown that develops when too many colors get mixed together. The kids did enjoy scrubbing the floor afterward and sliding around on the soapy floor.The swatches were hung up in the library to decorate the large windows in the children’s section, allowing the kids to feel some ownership of the space, and hopefully entice them back to its shelves.

I also picked glitter out from in between my toes on a few occasions.

It was GREAT!

On the last day we had a party to celebrate the end of a fun-filled month of literacy. Each child was given a wrapped gift and instructed not to open it until they got home. I don’t know what they were, but some were definitely books. Awards were given out, selected by the teachers, including “best behavior” and “perfect attendance”. The table that once held craft projects was covered with a spread of junk food provided by the library and teachers. I baked a cake that turned out mortifyingly funny looking, thanks again to my anti-baking freak of an oven. As I stared at the mess of a cake I wondered if I should trim it up and try to make it presentable,  then I remembered it would be devoured by a room full of sugar craving kids, so I slapped on some chocolate frosting and hauled it down, through a tropical rain storm with the tin foil flapping in the wind, to the library.

We took turns reading a few last books to the kids before letting them loose to load up their plates with chips, cookies, cake, popcorn, and the like. As a thank you to the teachers the kids decided to sing a song for us. The first selection was Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”. They were going strong, and I was surprised how they all knew every word, but then voices faded away and the performance stalled out mid-song. A few other church songs were attempted but had the same result. Eventually we took the opportunity to clap wildly showing our enthusiasm for their efforts and thanked the kids for their singing. It was very sweet. They tried so hard to reciprocate for what we had given them over the month, our time and attention

As the children settled down on the floor in the kid’s section to enjoy their selections, us teachers hovered over the table snacking and commenting on how fearful we were of what was to come next. The sugar rush. It came, and to distract them we gave them ice cream, right before we sent them home! The librarian jokingly asked me if I wanted to babysit her kids, one of which at that moment was laughing so hard on the floor that I was worried she would get sick. I laughed and told her that I would love to, any night but tonight.

I had glitter to wash off my… everything.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Questions From The Audience

One unintended consequence of writing this blog is that, surprise, people actually read it.

Before coming out here, Miranda and I thought that our relatives would read it, and maybe a few friends who would want to check in and see what those people “that moved to an island” were up to, but that’s it. Strangely enough, over the past couple of years, readers (just like you) have tracked me down to ask questions about Yap and life here. It’s been a random assortment of other attorneys, people from around the world interested in interesting places to travel, one major newspaper, and various internet stalkers. Well, thankfully, not that last one. Even so, since my email isn’t listed here, I think it’s remarkable that anyone would put in the effort to track me down on Facebook.

To reward all that internet sleuthing, and since I’m not very responsive to the comments section of these posts, I thought I’d address some of the most common questions that people write in about.

Q: How do I buy a house there?

DSC00096You rent. Land ownership issues here can be complex and controversial, and entire books, let alone blog posts, could be devoted to discussing them. Simply put, if you’re not Yapese, you can’t own land on Yap. There are traditional reasons for this, most of which I won’t even pretend I fully understand, but also a very practical one: This is a small island, and there’s not much land to go around.

As a politically charged side note, there’s probably less land each and every day. Back in the US, “global warming” or “climate change” are terms thrown around by the conservative media with scorn and the whole-hearted belief that it is a myth made up by the liberal media. The idea that the seas might biblically rise and drown us all may seem like a fairy tale to some landlocked Limbaugh listenin’ Midwesterner, but for us, it’s a serious concern. I truly wish Bill O’Reilly could sit down with an outer islander who’s watched his ancestral homestead slowly eroded away, and explain how it’s all a big conspiracy masterminded by Obama.

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In any case, most people who come to Yap are either tourists who stay in hotels, or those like me, who came here for work. If you’re an expat with a job (if you’re a teacher with a B.A. or M.A. degree, there’s plenty here), your employer will usually provide you housing. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, there are apartments for rent, for around $400 - $600 a month, and a few rental houses for much more.

But as to buying a house, it’s much more difficult. I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing it. To say the least, there’s no formal real estate market of any sort. There’s no classifieds section of the newspaper (there isn’t a newspaper), or ‘for-sale’ signs posted. Even if you get a lease on some property, whatever you build remains on the land when you leave. In other words, you may have just built a house for your landlord.

Q: What’s the best advice for living there?

DSC00095In the very first weekend I arrived on Yap, a former co-worker of mine took me down to O’Keefe’s bar where a bunch of the expats were getting together for a few Friday evening beers. There was an impromptu going away party for one of the group, who was leaving the island in a few days. I got to talking with this guy, and after telling him that I just arrived here, I naively asked him if he had any advice for the island newbie. His answer: Observe. On a number of occasions since then I’ve appreciated this sage bit of wisdom.

Q: Is it like living in ________? (Insert Location)

DSC00076No. There are many comparisons to be made, but nothing that completely captures the unique circumstances of living here. Yes, it’s like a small town in that you know everybody, and yes it’s remote like other places, since you can’t just drive over to your nearest big city, but Yap is only like Yap. Come see for yourself.

Q: What do I need to know before coming to Yap?

This is a very big question that we will try to answer briefly. There’s quite a lot, so do your research. Even though information on the internet about Yap and the FSM generally is pretty slim, it pays to find out as much as you can. The Yap Visitors’ Bureau has a decent website, and there are a few travel sites that can provide pointers. There are also a number of Peace Corps volunteer blogs that talk about living here from a more in-the-culture perspective. Some simple googling should come up with some results. As a last resort, try contacting the FSM Embassy in your home country, or your home countries embassy in the FSM. They might at least be able to point you in the right direction.

As for specifics, one important suggestion is: Ladies, leave your short-shorts at home. You’ll see local women both young and old walking around topless, but will rarely (if ever) see a woman’s thighs in public. Nothing says “I’m a tourist who didn’t do my research, or I don’t care about what’s appropriate here” like seeing an unfamiliar female walking around the lagoon in booty shorts. As attractive as a scanty strip of skin tight fabric two inches below your waist with the word “Juicy” rhinestoned on the backside might be in your home town, here in Yap, that’s a sure sign of a loose woman. Come to think of it, maybe it’s not so different here. In any case, unless that is your intention, try wearing shorts that go to your knees. Otherwise, you’re likely to receive a lot of stares from the locals or catcalls from passing motorists. It’s also disrespectful in a culture where respect is so very important. So please, visitors or future residents, don’t make this mistake. Out of respect, the locals won’t tell you directly that your attire is not appropriate. Likely, us expats who live here won’t either - we’ll just feel embarrassed for you. When Miranda sees a tourist in short shorts she often wants to yell at them, “You are here for what, a week? Cover up! My thighs haven’t seen daylight in almost two years!”

Also, make no mistake, this is a developing country. Be prepared for that as much as possible. Though most daily necessities can be found here, some things require a great deal of hunting, or can’t be found at all. Stores carry limited items in stock at any given time, which can take some getting used to. DSCN1608There is no Wal-Mart here.  You will need to get used to living with less, a good thing for many to learn. Unfortunately, sometimes we have a hunger for something we just can’t get here. Like cheese or finger mustaches . For that, we have to rely on the generosity of others, in the form of a care package.

Q: Yap seems like such a great place, why don’t you stay there? (or some variation of this question)

First off, life here is not all fun in the sun or spending all day relaxing in a hammock on a pristine beach. That’s called a vacation. Like anywhere else, there are good days and bad days, ups and downs, and pro’s and con’s to living here. We’re not writing a “Come Live in Yap” advertisement, even if this blog tends to emphasize the positives and not dwell on the negatives. There’s good reason for that, primarily because a litany of complaints doesn’t make for particularly engaging blogging. There are negatives though. If that’s what you’re interested in reading about though, you’ll have to wait for our tell-all book.

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Do not be fooled by all the pretty pictures. Remember, this is not a vacation.

There are other reasons, like wanting to buy a house (or at least pay off a mortgage), and the thoughts and dreams of the usual, eventual grown-up responsibilities that just can’t or shouldn’t happen here. Like one day having a hot tub in the back yard. Sure, there are people who come to visit and wind up staying a lifetime, but I don’t think we’re one of them. Hot tubs and Yap don’t really go well together. 

Q: How are your toes doing?

Our toe health is very good. For Miranda, after the last bout of sausage toe (which I believe is the medical term) , as reported in “Two Toes and A Centipede”, her toe returned to its normal size and has stayed that way ever since. Luckily, there were, no long term effects of the bite. Mike’s toe was a slower recovery, but also, has fully healed. Thanks for the concern everyone!

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