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.
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.
We 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:
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.
I could recognize some of the items, like bananas (of course) and local yams, but others I had absolutely no idea what they were.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once refreshed, they hefted the stone money again, and continued on their way.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
Also, 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.
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.
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.
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.