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


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


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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*.


* 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.

photo 1

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.