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.


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.


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!


Wednesday, August 24, 2011


A few nights back, while Miranda and I were comfortably lounging on the couch playing a video game, suddenly and without warning our entire world went dark. The TV shut off, the lights went out, and both of our living room fans stopped their precious oscillations. Our dog, Peanut, became understandably freaked out and started barking wildly, along with what seemed like every other dog for miles around.

Those first few moments, before we realized that one of the generators at the power plant probably just broke down, were slightly terrifying. The total absence of light is indescribable. It’s not like back in the US when a fuse blows in the house, or the power in the neighborhood goes out, where there’s at least some source of light from somewhere. Here, since everything – including street lights – runs off the same grid, when the power goes out, you literally can’t see your own hand in front of your face. Occasionally a car would drive by, its headlights carving a tunnel of visible jungle, only to be quickly swallowed by the dark.

The creepy quiet didn’t help the generally unnerving atmosphere. Without the blaring of any radios, televisions, telephones, all you could hear was the low rustling of the wind through the jungle and the intermittent yelping cries of confused animals.

We stumbled around blindly until we were able to light some candles that have turned out to be both practical and decorative. Thankfully, we also brought along with us a rechargeable lantern that has come in handy on more than one occasion. Miranda actually got four of these identical lanterns at her bridal shower all those years ago, which we rarely used before coming to Yap. While blackouts are infrequent, and are usually at least scheduled in advance with the times announced on the radio, it does help to be prepared. During our entire stay so far there have been maybe half a dozen scheduled outages, usually lasting two hours in the early evening, and two unscheduled ones. The other unplanned one was during a powerful storm. This one on the other hand, came on only a slightly windy night.

Without any power to run our usual form of entertainment, the TV and trusty PS3, we basically sat around wondering when the electricity would come back on, and developing paranoid theories as to what caused the problem. My guess: zombies.

At one point, our new neighbor came over wondering whether the power outage was island-wide. He had pretty bad luck, considering the power went out on his very first night living in the house across the street from ours. We passed the time by going outside to look at the stars. Even though it was hazy and cloudy, with no other light anywhere to be found, the stars were pretty bright.

Sleeping that night was difficult. Even during the relative cool of the evening, without the air conditioner or even a fan, the temperature was uncomfortably high. I tossed and turned, before finally getting out of bed in order to pace around the house aimlessly.

Shortly before midnight, all our electrical devices suddenly came to life without a moment to spare. Miranda’s worries about how long everything in the refrigerator would last with no power and constant 85 degree weather were put at ease. Luckily, we still have not had to find out, and we hope it stays that way!