Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fishing the Deep Blue

By: Mike

Editor’s Note: I realized that the previous entry about visiting the old Japanese dock in Leebinaew Village occurred before the Yap Day blog entry, and was posted in its current order incorrectly.

On Saturday, March 10th, Miranda and I were invited by an ex-pat friend of mine to go fishing. I’d been looking forward to it for a couple of weeks, especially since even after two years, I still hadn’t ever been invited to go fishing.

Not knowing what to expect, I figured that we’d be sitting in a little rowboat with a couple of fishing rods and a can of worms. As it turned out, fishing on Yap out beyond the reef is a much different kind of experience.

Miranda and I arrived bright and early at the Manta Ray Bay Hotel dock. We were introduced to Captain Iggy, and invited to board his canopied, dual-engine fishing boat. Shortly before heading out, two other hotel staff hopped in and took seats in the back.

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Captain Iggy launched the boat full speed out from the dock, and after picking up some reserve fuel from a Manta Ray diving boat moored out in the harbor, we motored across the water heading northward along the coast of the island.

At one point we slowed as we entered a narrow, jungle bordered channel and passed underneath a short bridge.

On the Channel North

DSCN2464Out of the channel, it was back to full speed.

The wind whipped through Miranda’s hair, and I held onto my hat, as we passed by village community buildings constructed along the shore.

 

 

 

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This hilltop hut seemed like a particularly good spot to just sit back, feel the breeze, and take time to enjoy the view.

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On the way out to the reef that surrounds the island, I happened to look behind me and noticed that a storm was pouring down buckets of rain back on the rapidly shrinking mainland.

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Looking ahead though showed only clear skies and relatively calm seas.

This changed somewhat after we crossed the border of the reef. Out in the open ocean we set off in search of fish, as the boat rocked and bumped its way through the waves. Captain Iggy seemed un-fazed by the turbulence. He stood confidently at the helm and directed us to various spots that were “good for fish”.

DSCN2474The two hotel staff who remained in the back of the boat turned out to be the actual “fishermen” on board, as only the fun, easy part of reeling in the fish was left to the rest of us. 

They prepared various lures and hooks, one of which included several palm frond strips which I was told added to the visibility and attractiveness of the lure.

You might be wondering by now if palm fronds are used for everything on Yap.

Clearly, the answer is yes.

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DSCN2470Our master fishermen anchored two sturdy fishing poles with oversized brass reels to the boat, as well as several “hand-lines” that were basically a hook and lure attached a thicker variety of fishing line. They explained to us that there was a spring at the boat-end of the line and when the spring stretched out you knew it was time to start reeling in a catch.

They expertly pulled and released these hand-lines at various times, replaced certain lures or hooks based on the kinds of fish years of experience and practice told them were in the area, and deftly tossed them back into the water.

With all this tackle trailing along behind us, and with the wise advice of our seasoned fishermen, catching a boatload of fish seemed to be inevitable. The Captain spotted a flock of birds wheeling above and skimming across the surface of the water, and piloted the boat full-throttle in pursuit.

Even for a novice like myself, I knew that birds mean fish, and fish means dinner.

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We circled around the birds, attempting to plunge directly through the center of submerged school of fish. Soon enough we were rewarded with the telltale tightening of the fishing lines and the excited cheers of everyone on board.

DSCN2509My first time reeling in one of the fish was somewhat disappointing. I cranked that fishing reel as fast and hard as I could, battling against what seemed like a gigantic catch. Right before I was able to raise this fish out of the water, one of the fisherman cried out “Shark!”, and immediately the tension on the line slackened. I pulled up on the rod, to discover only the head of a beautiful fish dangling from the hook. The rest of that fellow must have been lunch for a hungry shark.

DSCN2517My proudest moment was hooking and finally reeling in an exceedingly obstinate Wahoo tuna, who turned out to be nearly as tall as I was. I wasn’t able to smile for the camera, with Captain Iggy’s nervous shouts of “Watch your feet!” ringing loud and clear as I maintained a tenuous grip on this very heavy, very slippery fish.

Even with all my precious toes intact, I was relieved when one fisherman snatched up a stout metal baseball bat and soundly whacked the wriggling fish over the head. Now motionless, this fine specimen (Which I’m glad to report was the largest we caught that day) joined the rest of our haul at the bottom of what looked like a body bag draped over the rail at the front of the boat.

 

Miranda also caught her fair share of fish that day, using the fishing rod and also the hand line. As luck would have it, she wound up reeling in more fish on the hand-line, resulting in some very sore arms and fingers!

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DSCN2505Around lunch time, one of the fishermen asked if we wanted some sashimi, holding up one of our recent catches. After several hours of being jostled around by the waves my stomach lurched at the thought.

Nevertheless, I accepted out of politeness, and also to say that I ate “minutes fresh” sashimi-grade tuna caught with my own hands. The fisherman quickly produced a razor sharp knife and proceeded to filet a medium-sized tuna with practiced ease. The tuna was placed in a bowl with a spicy local pepper infused soy sauce, and we took turns choosing morsels of fish with our sea-salty fingers.

DSCN2520After eating, I sat back in the boat and just looked out at the vast expanse of impossibly blue water (shown here without enhancement) and contemplated the unique luxury of being able to enjoy this experience.

After testing out a few other potential fishing grounds, and reeling in more dinner, we headed back to the island.

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Here, Miranda shows off the result of a hard fought battle with the hand-line.

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Because the tide was coming in we weren’t able to cross the reef where we had exited it, and wound up taking a circuitous route around the reef back to the harbor.

As exciting as it had been to watch the island fade into the horizon earlier that morning, after a long day on the water, I was equally excited to see the familiar buildings of Colonia. Slightly sunburned, and covered in a crust of sea-salt, my immediate thoughts were for a restroom and a shower.

DSCN2494Our fishy body bag was unloaded, and after asking for a few filets to take home with us, the remainder of the fish were “donated” to the hotel restaurant, likely to become a special entree on that evenings’ dinner menu.

We said our goodbyes and gave our thank you’s to the Captain and his crew, and made our way back home, exhausted but thoroughly satisfied by our fishing adventure.

Here’s a final picture of me, relaxing comfortably at the bow.

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Many thanks to Bob for inviting Miranda and I out for this incredibly fun day of fishing in the ocean - It was the best!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay

by: Mike and Miranda

We’re doing a little bit of catch-up on blogging with this entry.

Aside from the increasingly difficult task of coming up with even marginally interesting topics to blog about (any suggestions, readers?), so far 2012 has been a very busy year. Even if we had the time, the motivation for writing a reasonably positive and objective blog entry often isn’t there. After a long, stressful, or frustrating day of work, all we feel like doing is using those precious short hours to rest and recharge to face whatever new challenge tomorrow surely will bring.

That’s also why it’s so important to enjoy the weekends as much as possible. It’s a chance to finally slow down, put things into perspective, and actually enjoy living here. Sometimes that involves simply vegetating in the comfort and security of our living room, listening to the wind rustle through the trees, with a good book, the television, or the always therapeutic, non-stop antics of Peanut. Other times, we’ll have the opportunity to venture outside the home, to do something different or have a new adventure.

Last month, just such a chance arose. We were invited by an expat friend to visit the remains of an old Japanese dock in Leebinaew Village on the eastern coast. It’s a rare treat to see a new part of the island, so we readily agreed and packed up the car for a day in the sun.

We drove north along the main road as far as the pavement would go, until it abruptly turned into packed dirt and gravel. Our car rumbled and jolted on the uneven surface like a jeep on safari, kicking up a plume of rust-colored earth in its wake. The scenery transitioned from inland rolling hills covered with savannah grasses and brush, to the more typical jungle setting as we got closer to the water.

Eventually we came to an intersection of dirt roads, and headed down a single lane path deeper into the jungle. There were houses along the way, some only barely visible down numerous little footpaths that branched out from the road like tributaries of a river. The village was very quiet, likely because it is one of the least populated villages on the island. This is rumored to be because many of the younger people have moved away. Even so, residents of the village took notice of us, and some children waved and yelled “Bye!”, as we drove past.

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The road meandered out of the village, sometimes narrowing to what felt like a tunnel carved through the overhanging canopy of trees, sometimes suddenly opening up to a vista of the ocean or a deep mangrove swamp with its crisscrossed tangle of roots.

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It had rained earlier in the day, and we hesitantly joked about the car getting stuck, or the road getting washed out, or any number of other clichéd horror movie type scenarios. The still quiet of the jungle, punctuated only by the strange cries of unseen birds or insects, combined with the twilight murk underneath so much foliage, made everything feel a little bit creepy, especially the mangrove swamp.

Mangrove Panorama 1

Since we’d never been to this part of the island, we followed our friend in his much larger vehicle, who powered through the potholes and wide patches of mud with relative ease. Thanks to Miranda’s off-road driving skills that she has acquired here on Yap during adventures such as these, and luck, we made our way through without much trouble. Clearing the jungle, we came around a corner and observed a narrow path, just wide enough for a car, stretching out from the shore to a square stone platform out in the water.

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This picture here, taken on the dock, shows that narrow causeway, looking back towards the island. After some careful parking maneuvers (and making certain the parking brake was fully secure), we had arrived at our destination.

Here’s another, showing the side of the causeway, now home to local plants that have taken root among those ancient stones.

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We unloaded the cars and readied our snorkel gear, eager to jump in the water.

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This remnant of an old Japanese WWII dock sits on a channel away from the open ocean. Out on the horizon, we watched a fisherman returning from beyond the reef, with his pallet of collected nets in tow.

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DSCN2298Unfortunately, the water was fairly murky and visibility while snorkeling was difficult at times. But not all was lost, we did get to see some great stuff! We saw schools of small and brightly colored fish hanging out in coral that was a brighter blue than even the fish were. We saw brain coral the size of our car, literally.

To enter the water off of the dock there was a very old, moss-covered stairway made of concrete. It was slippery and sharp in spots, so we took great care climbing in and out of the water. We would have loved to be able to dive off the dock into the water, but the enormous brain coral prevented us from jumping.

If you’re wondering what brain coral looks like, you’re right. It indeed does look like a giant, underwater human brain.

The water was fairly shallow and warm close to the dock, but got increasingly cold out in the channel. Diving underneath the water, Mike unsuccessfully tried to touch the bottom as his ears popped from the pressure change. He swam out to what looked like a smaller island or clump of mangrove trees directly across the channel from the dock, and tried not to disturb the carpet of coral around its periphery.

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Mike learned that this outcropping is actually the nature-reclaimed remains of a bridge that spanned the entire channel, partially constructed with stones from fishing weirs (a traditional fishing method) used in the nearby villages.

Apparently, Japanese ships would moor at the dock, and then transport their goods by truck across the bridge. While looking out across the channel, we could only imagine that this area was a hub of activity during the Japanese occupation, with transport vessels loading and unloading, and possibly even warships patrolling these now peaceful waters.    

After we snorkeled and air dried in the breeze of the trade winds and the glorious February equatorial sun, we relaxed while our friend played the guitar. We sang along to songs we knew, and during ones we didn’t, a calm quiet came over us as we listened to the music and enjoyed the amazing scenery of our island.

Dock Panorama 1

With panoramas like these, it was an easy reminder of the unique benefits of the island life, and that even after two years there are always new places to explore.  

Later, more friends joined us bringing their own stories of surviving the road, and dishes to add to the growing potluck dinner. However, our meal wasn’t complete until the majority of our group set out to catch some dinner, in the form of land crabs. 

Mike joined the hunting party. He admitted some skepticism at the prospects of this large, not particularly stealthy group stomping into the jungle in search of food. Surprisingly, with the help of some local friends experienced in the art of crab hunting, soon enough we spotted the tell-tale scuttling of shadows across the jungle floor. Once we knew what we were looking for, it seemed like there were potential crab dinners all around us.

One of our group demonstrated how to catch a crab, with the helpful instruction to grab the main section of the body and to “avoid the claws”. It was actually good advice. The next time Mike saw a crab illuminated by a flashlight, he went for it. He was able to tightly grab an area behind its claws and managed to hold onto it without losing any fingers. Eventually, others were able to catch a few more, and we all proudly marched back to the dock, seafood dinners in hand.

The crabs were placed right on the grill, after being humanely euthanized by machete to prevent them from crawling off. Being smaller than what you’d find as an entrée on a Red Lobster menu, these crabs had a lot less meat on them, but were nevertheless really tasty.

The only thing missing was about a gallon of melted butter.

While the original plan was to camp out, as the evening drew on, and the prospect of a night sleeping on the cold stone dock seemed less inviting, we decided to pack up and drive back to Colonia.

We all said our good-byes, tired from the sun and the swimming, but happy after a long, enjoyable day. 

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Yap Day 2012

By: Mike

Another year, another Yap Day.

This time around, the Yap Day (it’s actually two days: Thursday, March 1st and Friday, March 2nd) celebrations weren’t held in one of the villages around the island, but rather at the newly completed Yap Living History Museum conveniently located right in the middle of Colonia.

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Since the museum site is literally less than a five minute drive from our house, and we knew exactly where to go, Miranda and I decided to head down a little earlier this year to watch the opening ceremonies.

DSCN2400We were initially concerned that with the number of off-island visitors, as well as many locals from around the island who attend the celebration, it might be a bit crowded given how small the Colonia area really is. Luckily, we arrived early enough and found a well-situated parking spot within easy walking distance to the museum site.

I couldn’t help but take a picture of this easy-going sign reminding people:

No Parkin’

Although the program stated that the opening ceremony started at 9:30 am, it did not account for island time. So, we spent the next half-hour or so wandering around, looking at the various exhibit booths.

Several of them were set up on a narrow strip of grass bordering the Museum site. One booth had hung up posters showing fish native to the region, underneath large water-filled tubs containing live specimens of coral, local clams, and a few small crabs. Even though I was curious, I wasn’t about to reach in for a closer inspection.

In another booth, a group of women in local attire sat on a carpet of palm fronds and demonstrated Yapese cooking techniques. With practiced skill, these ladies prepared taro and breadfruit by tightly wrapping them in a banana leaf for steaming. Nearby, pots of banana leaf packages bubbled away atop a tripod of stones, placed around little campfires constructed so carefully it would put any Boy Scout to shame. The heavy aroma of leaf-wrapped cuisine competed with the almost overpoweringly sweet smells from the agriculture display next door.

This booth was decorated with palm fronds and multiple flower arrangements, and featured a colorful variety of locally grown produce.

Agriculture Display

I could recognize some of the items, like bananas (of course) and local yams, but others I had absolutely no idea what they were.

Agriculture Collage

After we had examined all the exhibits, the master of ceremonies got on the microphone and gave some introductory remarks. Then came a presentation of the Yap State and Federated States of Micronesia flags by officers of the Yap State Public Safety division.

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After the presentation of flags, two men in local attire stood in front of the museum buildings and alternated blowing into conch shells as a signal that the Yap Day celebrations had officially begun. We were told that the trumpeting of conch shells is traditionally used to call community members to the Men’s House for village meetings.

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The conchs produced a deep, but surprisingly loud, warbling noise. The sound was so unique it’s probably instantly recognizable to a local. To my untrained ear, I’d likely wonder what sort of injury an animal (perhaps a sea lion or an elephant?) had received to produce this unusual bellowing.

Next came the ceremonial arrival of the stone money, as it was carried to the museum site by a half-dozen strong young men. Even though this was our third time attending Yap Day, Miranda and I had never before seen this part of the festivities.

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DSCN2267As the stone money was brought in, you could tell by the exertions of the carriers, and their carefulness, that the stone disc was both very heavy and very precious.

The procession was a slow one, as every few feet, the money carriers gently lowered their cargo and remained kneeling while another person served drinks of tuba out of coconut shell cups.

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Once refreshed, they hefted the stone money again, and continued on their way.

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After the stone money arrived, the Governor gave a speech welcoming everyone to Yap Day, which always falls on March 1st, and celebrates Yapese culture and tradition. At least that is what I thought he said from the words I was able to understand, since the speech was in Yapese!

The latter part of the afternoon featured traditional dancing. Scheduled that day were two Bamboo Dances by the young men and women of Weloy, a Women’s Sitting Dance by the women of Maap, and a men’s dance called a “Gaslew” performed by the residents of Tomil.

We’d previously photographed similar dances in other blog posts, with the exception of the men’s dance. I asked someone if Gaslew meant anything in particular, but was told that he didn’t know a direct translation. Apparently since this dance is somewhat sexual in nature (I’ve heard it involves a fair amount of thrusting) and performed only on rare occasions, it probably means something along the lines of ‘taboo’.

DSCN2414Unfortunately, as there were so many tourists crowding around the performance area, I wasn’t able to get any decent pictures of the dances themselves.

There were a few photo opportunities before the dances though, as the dancers posed in front of the cameras and seemed to enjoy all the attention received by the paparazzi-like tourists.

 

 

 

Portrait Collage

After the Women’s Sitting Dance, I managed to snap this photo of the dancers, led by a couple of men, as they exited the museum site.

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I should mention that traditional dances on Yap are performed only for a very limited time and are unique to that occasion. Western-style dances tend to follow a standard, repetitive pattern (such as the Foxtrot, the Texas Two-Step, the Macarena, and the Dougie – which I understand is actually a dance, which gained popularity while we’ve been in Yap, meaning that I’d never heard of it). In contrast, Yapese dance features distinctive variations in the movements, chanting, and other aspects. Once the dance is performed for the last time, it is formally “hung up” by the village elders, and that the dance will likely not be performed in that exact manner ever again.

I’d have to say that while I thoroughly enjoyed watching the dances and viewing the Yap Day exhibits, my favorite part about the festivities was the food. Usually there are many booths set up by communities, organizations, and local restaurants featuring many different dishes, and this year was no exception.

DSCN2303The graduating class at the high school set up a booth with pre-made ‘boxed lunches’ of barbecued meats and local food. The restaurant at the Manta Ray Bay hotel erected a tent with a small beer garden featuring their locally made brews, next to large barbeque grills and even a chicken rotisserie! The smell of cooking meat drew many hungry customers to their booth.

I was tempted to sample some of their food, but held off in favor of my own Yap Day tradition: Meat-on-a-Stick.

 

I liked it so much I even went back for seconds, and finally after four of these delicacies I felt that I had met my quota until next year!

Another part of Yap Day that I enjoy is the opportunity to pick up a few new locally made handicrafts. In previous years handicrafts were hard, if not impossible, to find for sale. This year though, several booths were selling items and I was very pleased to take home some souvenirs. I bought this little, carved paddling canoe which I had wanted for the longest time.

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DSC00029Also, this “Mortlockese Mask” (meaning in the style of the Mortlock Islands, a small chain of atolls to the southeast of Chuuk State, in the FSM) carved in Yap that is now hanging on our living room wall.

In addition to purchasing handicrafts, I also learned how some were made. At a booth staffed by a former co-worker of mine, he graciously showed me the process of making rope.

Starting out with the husk of the coconut, the fibers are dried for about three months, and then thoroughly washed and rinsed. 

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After another week and a half of drying, the fibers are then carefully rolled together by hand to form a string, which is then braided together to create the rope.

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I was told that the rope has many uses. Because the rope is both strong and flexible, it’s actually preferred over much more expensive nylon and synthetic fiber ropes. It can be used not only for traditional sailing canoes, but also to construct homes. I was told this flexibility allowed many homes to survive even a typhoon.

The rope is also used for building fish traps and fishing nets, seen below.

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DSCN2286We also watched paddles being carved, which we were told can be made in a single day by an experienced carver if he works non-stop from sun up until sun-down.

I was amazed at the skill of these carvers, who expertly chopped away at blocks of wood using a razor sharp tool, only inches away from their toes!

 

 

 

 

After spending all day out in the hot sun, Miranda and I returned home in the evening. The following morning, we looked at the schedule, and decided to just continue relaxing at home since most of the events were repeats from the following day.

Having eaten enough Yap Day food, seen all there was to see, and had a pretty good time altogether, we closed out our Yap Day celebrations for the year.

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