Friday, January 14, 2011

The Story So Far, and Where To Go From Here

Written By: Mike,

with Editing and Additional Contributions By: Miranda

[Cue Voiceover] “Last season, on Zone 8: Micronesia, our castaways Mike and Miranda left behind their comfortable jobs and home in urban Seattle for the unknown… and the adventure of a lifetime on the tiny Pacific island of Yap. They struggled against the elements, from tropical windstorms to the blazing heat of year-round temperatures in the upper 80’s. They fought against roaches, mosquitoes, rats, wild dogs, and centipedes. They learned about the culture and traditions of the local inhabitants, made new friends, and adapted to their new lives and slower pace of life on the Island of Stone Money. This season, the adventure continues, as Mike and Miranda face new challenges as they make their way on the island as the clock steadily counts down to their departure and return to the US.”

To kick off this mostly reflective blog post, I thought I’d address the two most common questions I get from American visitors to the island who discover that I’m not in the Peace Corps, a religious missionary, or another tourist on vacation: “Why did you come to Yap?” and “How did you find the job?”

The last question has a simple answer. I had been working for a giant, well-known software company in the Seattle area. One day, I was surfing through the job postings on my law school website. This had been a frequently pastime of mine. Skipping over the usual “requires 5-10 years experience” and “must have a book of business” postings, I found an advertisement for an attorney job in someplace called “Micronesia”. The job requirements were reasonable, and I figured that I would have the opportunity to practice in diverse areas of law. It also helped that I wasn’t satisfied with my then-current position, and with the legal job market being particularly terrible in Washington State (as it is now – hint, hint to any Seattle attorneys looking to hire a well-traveled, go-getter in about a year), I figured I’d put in an application. I never expected anything more to come of it, except perhaps some interesting stamps from this “Micronesia” place on a rejection letter. About a month later, after a particularly stressful day of work, I received an email stating that my application had been received and asking whether I would be available for a telephone interview. Afterwards, I remember quite clearly sitting on our couch with Miranda and telling her, “I got an interview… but… the job is kind of far away.” What an understatement! We talked about it a while, and after showing her some intentionally picturesque photos of Yap I’d found on the internet, she warmed to the idea. I told her that I really didn’t think I’d get the job anyway, but that it wouldn’t hurt to interview. Little did I expect, a couple of long-distance calls later, I had a job offer. It included a two one-way tickets, free housing, transportation expenses for our belongings, and a salary that was low by US standards but would at least allow us to live comfortably here. After some serious conversations with Miranda, and several “pro/con” lists, I accepted the job. The rest is history.

The answer to the first question is more complicated. My standard response is “for the adventure of it”, which is mostly true, or “because I was looking for a change… for something different”, which is even more true. The real answer though: I’ve always wanted to be a contestant on the reality TV show “Survivor”, and it just happened that this was the closest thing I could find. Seriously though, I remember watching an episode of “Survivor: Micronesia” where the reward for winning a challenge was visiting a village in Yap, Micronesia. They showed a traditional stick dance performed by villagers in local attire, some centuries old stone paths, and large pieces of stone money. The contestants seemed impressed by their experience, and I thought that it “looked pretty cool”. The seed had been planted. I must have filed that away in the back of my memory, because when I saw the job posting, I clearly remembered that Survivor episode. Who knew that a decade later, I’d have walked around that same village, seen more stick dances than I ever thought I would, and stone money lying around is so commonplace it barely registers anymore. So if Jeff Probst (host of “Survivor”) or Mark Burnett (producer) happens to be reading this, I’m still very interested in appearing on your show!

Back to the present… On this New Years Eve, I didn’t make any of my usual half-hearted, eventually forgotten resolutions. I did stop to think about what a year it has been though. A year earlier, [Cue Flashback Sequence] a few days before New Years Eve, Miranda and I had just finished moving out of the apartment we had lived in together for the past six years, had boxed up for storage most of our worldly possessions and mailed the rest to this random little island. We sat on our balcony one last time in the freezing cold, looking out at the familiar view of the Fremont Bridge and the refurbished condos that had recently sprung up like weeds in our neighborhood. We joked that in less than a week we’d be wearing shorts and flip-flops, and it seemed unbelievable at the time, especially since it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit that night. Later, after hours and hours of hauling boxes down three-flights of stairs into a moving van, we turned the keys over and never looked back. Our two beloved cats, Sox and Pumpkin, were safely installed with their new custodians, Miranda’s kind and generous parents. We then had a tearful but groggy goodbye in the early morning hours before catching our flight. Thinking back, it seems like just yesterday, even though the individual days and weeks have gone by so slowly. On the other hand, it’s surprising to think that it’s already been a year, and that I’m halfway finished with this two-year tour of duty.

Has it changed my perspective on things? Definitely. I’ve come to understand and appreciate many admirable Yapese traits. One example is the importance of courtesy and respect. On Yap, these are paramount. For instances, there’s the custom of not addressing someone seated while you are standing. Back in the US, it would be commonplace to knock on someone’s office door, and talk to them while they are seated behind their desk. Here that never happens. Someone will knock, come into the office, and sit down immediately without saying a word. At first I thought it was a little rude that someone would come and sit without being invited or introduced. It was explained to me that it is considered disrespectful for someone to stand and ‘talk down’ at me while I was seated. Once you understand the reasoning, it all makes perfect sense. Another example is the custom of bowing when walking between people. Depending on the social status of the people you are walking in front of, and your own status, determines whether it’s a little or deep bow. At first it was a little off-putting to see people bowing when they walk in front of you. It grated against my very American attitude of “we’re all equals” and that no one should bow to anyone else (or maybe more arrogantly, that I’m not bowing down to anyone). After a while, I realized it’s just common courtesy, like saying “excuse me”, “please”, and “thank you”. These common courtesies make life here that much more personal, and less self-absorbed as back in the US.

I’ve also learned to appreciate the importance of family and community. Yap is a very small place, and most everyone has large extended families. A local walking down the street has good chance of frequently running into a ‘cousin’ or aunt or uncle. These families are very close-knit too. They do work in the villages together, participate in a variety of traditional and family-only functions, and come together in the evenings to rest and relax. I think that having this constantly available, built-in support network must be very comforting.

Yap is a beautiful place, and unlike anywhere else in the world. There are people that come here from the US, and instantly know that this is where they want to spend the rest of their lives. Some, in time, really adapt to their surroundings and live no differently than the locals. I can see how the simpler lifestyle is appealing. I can see how this would be a peaceful place to retire, or to make an extended stay as a port of call on a sail around the world. You can come here to stay, and start afresh. You can also run away here to hide, leaving behind the stresses of a hectic modernized life, or the IRS, or active arrest warrants, or staggering student loan debt. The FSM Tourism Dept. really should have as their new tagline: “Come to Micronesia: They’ll never find you here!”  

I’m not saying living here has been a vacation in the sunshine though, full of carefree days of lounging on pristine beaches with paper umbrella topped fruity beverages in hand. It’s absolutely not. As our friend says, “This isn’t Cabo!” Nor am I saying that this is a place where everyone is always friendly and gracious and kind to one another. Like anywhere else, if you look hard enough, you can see some frankly shocking behavior. For me, I have no hesitation admitting that its never been easy. In fact, it’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Nothing makes you feel quite so isolated as being cooped up on a tiny island, surrounded by people who have customs, values, and ideals, and a language that are completely alien to you. It’s not always fun constantly being the outsider, the foreigner, and the one who looks different. It’s not easy being in a place so devoted to family and community, while being so far away from our own families and our own ‘people’. Even with email, Facebook, this blog, and Skype for keeping in contact, it’s just not the same.

Now, both Miranda and I realize this blog isn’t a private journal, where we let loose our daily frustrations and complaints about being here. It’s open to the public, and we try to present a fair and balanced (and not in that fallacious Fox News sense) view of life here, both the positive and negative. In all honesty, given the fact that we live here, we probably skew things more towards the positive. But still, (like Fox News) we’re not journalists. This blog isn’t just the facts, but a record our subjective impressions, opinions, and experiences. One day we will be able to look back on this blog and all the memories it recounts, with the benefit of hindsight, and hopefully continue to appreciate this island and it’s people as much as we do now. But until that day comes, we will continue to write here, trying our best to remember and record as many little details of this unique place as we can. For one day, we will leave here, onto our next adventure, wherever that might be.

[Cue Closing Credits] “Next time, on Zone 8: Micronesia, Miranda battles boredom, her high school students, and negotiates the life of a plus-one.”  [Fade to Black]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Our First Island Christmas & New Years Eve

Mike here, with a short post-Christmas and New Years’ wrap-up.

DSCN1276This holiday season came and went with as little fanfare as any other time of year. There was no waking up on Christmas morning to a pristine, snow-covered landscape, there were no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, no bell-ringing Santas in front of every store, and no brightly wrapped packages tied up with string nestled under an elaborately decorated Christmas tree. We did receive a ‘table-sized’ Christmas tree though, which was displayed proudly in our living room. Even with the added bit of holiday cheer, it still didn’t feel like Christmas. 

Even though a few of the houses around our neighborhood sported Christmas lights, and one of our Yapese friends did dress up as Santa for the local kids, it just felt like there was something missing. Perhaps it’s just more difficult to get into the holiday spirit when the weather is hot and sunny, and you’re sweating heavily even in front of a fan on full-blast, while wearing little more than shorts and a t-shirt.

At my work, there was no formal exchange of gifts, but I did receive a home-made present from our office administrator. She gave me a unique set of coasters and a large potholder, made entirely from cigarette packages!

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December 24th was declared a State government holiday, not on account of Christmas Eve or even a generic non-denominational “holiday”, but for Yap State Constitution Day. To celebrate, Miranda wound up participating in a parade of sorts organized by the students of the High School. The kids put together signs and banners that emphasized the various fundamental rights, and marched around the lagoon yelling chants and slogans. DSCN0029 While Miranda was marching in the parade supporting her students, I stayed at home and spent the day deep in contemplation of the Yap State Constitution. Seriously though, I spent most of the day in the hammock, reading a novel, and trying my best not to think of anything vaguely related to constitutional or legal issues.

At one point, I heard what sounded like a riot or a mob getting closer and closer to the house. I could hear the kids shouting various chants like “Freedom! Of! Individual! Rights!” (which doesn’t make much sense, if you think about it) and holding signs of dubious grammatical correctness like the one shown here.

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As it turned out, it was just the high schoolers, apparently taking full advantage of an opportunity to yell and shout at the top of their lungs. At least they were using their rights of assembly and freedom of speech!

On Christmas morning, we slept in late. We didn’t exchange any presents, primarily because shopping for gift-items is extremely limited, but also because we’ve learned to make do with less. As a treat, Miranda did make some delicious scones from a mix she’d been holding onto for a special occasion. The weather decided to give us a nice Christmas present of a cloudy, overcast, and fairly cool day. In the afternoon, we were surprised to find the movie, “A Christmas Story”, on television. For a brief while, watching that classic tale of a boy and his quest for a Red Ryder BB Gun made it actually feel a little like Christmas.

One surprise highlight of the Christmas weekend was the discovery of another unexpected and unwanted visitor in our house. We decided to go into the backyard to look at the stars, which were shining very brightly on that clear, cloudless night. We turned off most of the lights inside our house, and prepared to go outside. Miranda tried to push open the screen door, but it seemed to be stuck. With a little force she eventually got it open, and saw what appeared to be a strip of insulation or a thick piece of rope wedged in the gap between the screen door and door frame. Then, it moved. Holding the door partially open, Miranda flipped on the light, and shrieked when she realized she was standing face-to-face within arms’ length of the biggest, scariest looking centipede we’d ever seen.  The picture here doesn’t do the creature justice, but for perspective, each of the squares of the screen door is about one inch across. DSCN1274Fully stretched out, it was at least five or six inches long, with its multitude of legs grasping the edge of the door and undulating rapidly as it tried to get out of sight. Its head had giant pincers that twitched menacingly, and the other end had a two-pronged stinger that looked like it could do some real damage. Miranda called for me, and I ran over to try and dispose of the thing. At any moment, I expected the thing to jump off the door and latch onto my face. I grabbed our trusty machete and chopped at it wildly. The thing fell to the ground, but was otherwise unfazed, and made a mad dash towards the safety of the backyard. I was surprised by how quickly it moved. I stomped on it as hard as I could, but it only slowed it down a little. Eventually, after at least a dozen stomps, it stopped moving. Seeing the thing lying there motionless gave me the shivers. Even creepier, the next morning, it was gone! Sure, it was likely just eaten by a dog, a lizard, or any number of jungle inhabitants, but it still didn’t stop me wondering whether it would crawl its way back inside to terrorize us once again!

The following Monday, it was back to work, and business as usual. Miranda had a couple of relaxing weeks without having to teach classes, even though she was required to go the High School every day to work on lesson plans for the following semester. For me, it was a rather hectic week of tying up loose ends before the end of the year. Here’s a picture of me in my office, working hard as usual. 

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On New Years’ Eve, Miranda and I went to a friend’s house that was having a party for a number of the other on-island expats.  He lives about a half hour drive from Colonia, and his place is at the top of a treacherous, mud-slick road that winds up an impossibly steep hill. The drive was worth it though, as his house has wonderful view from an elevated deck in his back yard of Colonia harbor and the ocean beyond the reef. We all ate a pot-luck dinner, including some excellent barbecued chicken seasoned with a Tabasco-like hot sauce made from spicy local peppers, and spent the evening enjoying ourselves while a local band belted out rock tunes. Here’s a picture of Miranda examining the careful thatching of palm fronds that make up the little koyeng next to our friends’ house. DSCN0066

Since firearms and fireworks are illegal on Yap, there wasn’t any expectation of much fanfare at midnight. I had heard some stories of some communities setting off ‘home-made fireworks’ (i.e. crude explosives and pipe bombs), but thankfully I didn’t hear any. We counted down until midnight, but then quickly made our departure. Since there were many similar New Years’ parties that night, we hoped to avoid the expected rush-hour traffic of drunken revelers on the road. Luckily, we made it home without incident though.