The island of the Betelnut
Nov 29, 2007
|Our friend Thane lives in a house on the beach in Maap district on Yap. Just off the beach are two spirits who were frozen in place forever, caught by the sun after they stayed too late at a party on the forbidden island of Ranung. Thane lives in the village of Wolloi, and if there were a soundtrack to his life right now, it would be the opening theme to the tv show "The Office." In the morning he listens to an episode on his iPod during the drive to the hospital, which is about 7 miles and 45 minutes away. Thane is a doctor.
We reached Yap from Guam late on a Saturday night, and could see Thane across the customs desk. "What hotel are you staying at?" they asked us. "We're staying with a friend," we said, and the official looked suspicious. I pointed at Thane, who waved.
"Oh, Doctor Thane," she said, and that's what she wrote down on the customs form: 'Doctor Thane.' We spent a week there, drove his car around, went diving five times, waited out the rain, then sat in the sun, got Thane drunk on his own liquor and watched a traditional native dance. We never would have made it except Thane is one of my old friends and we had enough frequent flyer miles to get there and back from Bangkok. Now, having left, we have vowed to return.
Thane is one of about eight doctors who care for the 7,000 people of Yap, which is a small island east of the Philippines, and the government seat for Yap State, one of the Federated States of Micronesia. Thane has an adopted brother, Max, from one of the Outer Islands, Ulithi, and came here the first time when he was 14. Now he's here for at least 3 years, probably more.
We dodged gaping potholes on our way to the Hotel Hancock (Thane's house), sat downstairs for a while with a few mugs of his home-brewed beer, then went to bed. In the morning we cooked up breakfast on his mostly-finished deck, the sun beating down on us. Yap is humid. We went out for a ride in his 9-foot inflatable boat, out to the barrier reef that rings Yap. The main island is divided into four or five parts by mangrove channels; the whole group is only about 8 miles long and 3 or 4 wide at the widest. At the north point is the Forbidden Island, Ramung, where they have, until recently, sworn off visitors and modern conveniences like electricity.
Thane's beach is a narrow strip of yellow sand with some benches and a palm-thatch roofed hut with a sitting platform called a falong(sp?). The falong has a charcoal grill, a food serving table and some coolers under it, ready for the locals to have a party or just hang out. His boat is anchored just offshore, and his house, which he and his brother fixed up for him to live in, is just across the dirt road from the falong. He lives down the hill from his boss, Dr. Bell. Just next door are the luckiest pigs in the world: kept in chicken-wire pens, right on the beach. The pen is invisible from the sea, though, as are most of the buildings on Yap. Take the boat out and all you see are mangroves and palm trees, and occasionally a men's house, which is a peak-roofed thatch house built right on the water out of mahogany and palm leaves.
That first day - Sunday - we went diving, and although the visibility was terrible (it began to rain, hard, as soon as we got in the boat), we saw some reef fish and a brightly colored worm. We had a steak dinner, and Thane and I stayed up late, sampling from his whiskey selection, smoking a cigar, catching up and reliving old times, making plans on how Bean and I could find work on the islands for 6 months. We went to bed and got up late; Thane called in sick, his first day off in almost a year.
Torrential rain dogged us for the next two days; Thane was working, and the second night we went on a hotel tour to a traditional Yap village. We boarded a minivan at Trader's Ridge Resort, where Thane's friends Chris and Brenna are the managers. We drove to the south of the island with five middle-aged Americans, who were wisecracking in that pleased, corny American way. They wore the American safari uniform: shorts or loose pants, sensible sneakers, fanny packs and huge cameras. One had a bush hat on. We pulled up at the entrance to a stone footpath, and joined a group of Japanese tourists, who were listening to Francis, our Yapese guide. Francis wore an orange thue (a bit of cloth around his waist) and carried a woven basket; he had a chunk of betelnut in his cheek. Most Yapese chew betelnut, which is why I feel it would be a more up-to-date symbol than the old "Island of Stone Money." The nut is a fruit the size of a kumquat, with a tough shell, growing in clumps high on a palm-like tree. You crack open the nut, sprinkle some lime on it to facilitate absorbtion by your cheek, and wrap it in pepper leaf, cramming the whole mess in your cheek. Apparently it's a mild stimulant, and it stains your teeth a blackish-red color. Yapese carry a satchel or basket with the ingredients: a sack of betelnuts, a sheaf of pepper leaves, a plastic canister of white, powdery lime for sprinkling. The bulge in the cheek makes it difficult to enunciate, so they slur their speech a bit, as when Francis pointed out the soursop fruit (a fleshy, sweet and sour fruit kind of like a papaya). He said "shourshop." I tried betelnut later, but couldn't keep the lime inside the pepper leaves, which made the inside of my cheek burn, and I spit it all out after a minute or two.
The stone path was close-packed, moss-covered and slippery. It was about 500 years old, Francis said, and he stopped at a rest platform about halfway down. He showed us some medicinal plants for treating cuts, and told us about the ettiquette for carrying baskets. A palm-frond woven basket in hand meant you came in peace, and also was a sign of good manners. If you didn't have a basket available, you picked a leaf and carried that instead.
We continued down past taro plantations, which are dug into the middle of the jungle, seeded with taro root and left alone. In a while you return and the taro is ready for harvest - an almost tasteless starchy staple of the native diet in much of Polynesia and Micronesia.
Looking to see that the Japanese weren't in earshot, Francis told of how the entire area had been cleared for farming under the Japanese occupation. Eventually, the garrison was cut off and the occupiers and natives were forced to subsist on what they could grow here. The Japanese took most of the food, Francis said. Hard times.
A Yapese was coming home from Afghanistan, he told Bean and me when he learned we were Americans. We said "Great," but he explained that the kid, who like many young Yapese had enlisted in the U.S. military to get off the island and gain experience, had died of a heart attack. His body would return home on the Wednesday night plane.
We reached the village, centered around a thatch-roofed community house, with stone terrace around it, lined with palm and betelnut trees, bordered by a sand/mud road that was in turn lined with stone money. The money looks like a giant stone cart wheel, and varies in size from about basketball diameter to six or seven feet across. All the village money is usually kept in one place, the "bank." The money's value does not go by how large the stone is, but by the story behind the stone. Like so-and-so bought four canoes and a skirt with that stone, but the other one was brought all the way from Palau on a sailboat, and so is worth more. Or something like that.
Another guide took over, grinning with black-red betelnut teeth, talking of the traditions as a row of young women in colored grass skirts sat on the stones, topless, in front of a benchload of tourists. The women wove baskets and little birds from palm leaves; a man on the end hacked at a piece of mahogany with a stone axe. The village boys and girls lined up and danced on the sand, stamping and chanting and calling out in reply to a clear-voiced young woman. We were served coconut, shourshop, fruits, and betelnut. Then we packed into the minivan and went home.
That night, the dogs began to howl, a high quavering croon from the beach, interspersed with barks. Thane got up three times to chuck rocks and shut them up. We slept fitfully, sweating under the fan. The next morning we dropped Thane off at work and had breakfast on the Mnuy, a boat sailed here from Indonesia and made into a restaurant. We returned to Hotel Hancock and took his raft, made of bamboo, out over the reef to go snorkeling. We took it out again that night to look for manta rays in the fading sun, but saw none. Thane was gone all night, on call at the hospital. The dogs were at it again, but we had placed rocks on the deck, so I was ready. Still had to get up three times to throw rocks in the dim light of a streetlight; one stone hit a palm trunk a few feet off the deck and exploded into fragments.
We picked Thane up the next morning, took him to Trader's Ridge for breakfast, and talked about his practice. The island is currently still fighting a dengue fever outbreak, and had a brush with the rare Zika virus not too long ago. Besides that, Thane handles deliveries, colds, emergencies, pediatrics and has a role in the public health management for the islands. He just cut his own salary to make budget room and keep two aides on - he's not just here to pay off med school.
We ran some errands, dropping off some money for Thane's host father, who would be returning to the Outer Islands the next day. He also picked up a box of stuff which had a funny story to it. Not too long ago Thane bought a new motor for his boat because the old one was too big. His host father asked after the old one, but he wouldn't just take it. He wanted to pay for it, but he didn't have the money. So they negotiated for four lava-lava, or woven colorful skirts worn by women (and in the past used as currency) and a variety of woven baskets. So Thane picked up the box of skirts and baskets, payment for an outboard motor. Other errands: stop at Micronesia Water to pick up refills of the drinking water, make a trip to the bank. We went diving, another adventure, outside the reef this time, in the deep blue. So much coral - it stretched forever, and endless reef fish. But diving is only truly interesting to describe if you've been there.
Back to the house for a siesta, dodging and weaving to avoid the potholes, then back to town for dinner with the Trader's Ridge managers at their house. We arrived with a bottle of wine, past a porch hung with drying clothes, and Chris jumped up when he saw us, turning off the TV. "There's a coup in the Phillipines!" he exclaimed, and immediately became a bit bashful that he seemed too excited by it. It became a joke for the night, coming up whenever the conversation turned to the quietness, and remoteness of Yap. Any news is big news, and sometimes it seems the distance from anywhere must amplify certain events far away. A small incident on the island, however, can carry the gossip for weeks. This week they were still talking about the Peace Corps volunteer who had been sent off for sleeping with at least one of his high school students. There was also a Bible school teacher expelled for the same thing. They may have been the same person - I can't remember. It was an entertaining evening, Thane drunk on 3 hours of sleep, and we rehashed the events of "Whiskey Night," shared old college stories, and Thane and Chris revealed the book they were working on, "How to Shit in the Woods," at which I laughed so hard my sides hurt. It was that kind of night, full of in jokes and silliness. After a game of Cranium, we said our goodbyes and departed.
Friday we went diving again, this time without Thane but with Dieter, an Austrian with a head like a howitzer shell, who was a former dive instructor and now an architect for Yap State. Another dive after manta rays, but no mantas; three reef sharks, plenty of fish, some brightly colored worms and a five-foot eagle ray. The second dive was a wash - poor visibility, but during the surface interval Dieter entertained us with diving stories. He had learned to dive in a muddy Austrian lake, and got a pleasant shock the first time he dove the Red Sea. "It was fantastic - so much color in the corals, so many fish, you are surrounded by hammerheads..." So he worked for a few years as a divemaster at Sharm-el-Sheik on the Sinai Peninsula, with a British guy named Ian Brown. Brown worked at Camel Divers. "If you ever go there, go up to him and say, 'wow, you have a big head!' He will flip out!" Dieter and Ian had a running prank war, which included getting unwitting dive customers to compliment the other on his big head, and getting one dive boat's passengers to flip the other's off. We sat on the gently rocking boat, with Melvin the boatmaster spitting out betelnut juice, and Dieter looking confident and sure about everything he said. He held forth on the Republican debates - "I like this man Ron Paul," - and the Iraq war - "It is not so smart to go in there all alone." After the second dive, we turned for home through the mangroves, and he kept up a constant banter with Melvin, who almost forgot the way through to Thane's house. But he didn't, and they dropped us off at the beach, we waded ashore, and waited for Thane to return home from work.
The next day, after working on the deck in the morning, there was a party at the falong, held by Dr. Bell's daughter and her work friends. About six women, four men and a tablefull of food, with a bunch of kids and a few dogs hanging around. We ate taro in coconut, banana in coconut, fried taro, pork stir-fry ('this is dog stir-fry,' Thane joked), chicken, salad and a giant chocolate cake. We ate and drank, the women vented about work and asked us how we liked Yap. The kids played in the sand by the shore and the men sat apart and talked quietly. The party broke up as it grew dark, and Colleen and I began to pack. The plane left at 4 a.m., so we took a short nap, then drove to the airport at 1 a.m. We said our goodbyes and waved to Thane, who looked a little forlorn. I felt guilty to leave him here at the edge of the world, it felt something like abandonment. But he is deep in his work, and doing great things, and our paths will cross again.