Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Yap: Land of Stone Money
Go to our photo website to see Troy's fabulous Yap photos.
In our travels we have not come across many cultures that have preserved their old traditions and way of life. Most have been influenced by the western world and today's modern technology. But we found one such culture on a tiny island called Yap. The Yapese are still so ingrained in their old traditions that they use stone money for some monetary transactions. Yap is in the close vicinity of Chuuk and Palau, which is where we just spent the last one and a half months, but it is still in the middle of nowhere.
The stone money is most likely not what you are thinking of. They are not small pieces the size of a quarter made out of stone that you can easily put in your pocket. Their stone money is much, much larger, ranging from two feet to seven feet in diameter weighing several hundred pounds. Definitely not something you can put in your piggy bank.
This is the story of how the Yapese came to use stone money: Hundred of years ago an ancient navigator named Fathaan traveled to Palau which was 260 nautical miles south of Yap. There he found glistening limestone which he first cut into the shape of a fish but found the giant shaped pieces too difficult to transport. He then cut the pieces into a crescent moon which he still didn't like. Then he tried cutting them into a full moon with a hole cut in the middle into which was inserted a wooden pole. The pole was hoisted onto the shoulder which made the transport to boats much easier. The journey back to Yap with the round stones was perilous because of the length of the journey and the rough seas. Many men lost their lives in the journey. The Yapese villagers came to realize that the risk involved in acquiring these stone disks made them desirable to have and carried prestige.
Villagers started trading the stone disks for agriculture, farm animals and land just so they could have these "full moons with the hole in the middle". Hundreds of Yapese followed Fathaans example trying to get these stone disks from Palau with many hundreds of sailors dying in the journey. The dangers attributed to the journey made the stone disks more valuable in trade. The worth of the stone disk was partly based on size and quality of cut but the more sailors that died in the journey, the more the stone disk was worth. The stone disks at this point had taken on the characteristics of money: they were a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of account.
Although the stone money is still in use today it is losing it's value. It can be used to settle disputes such as if your teenage son vandalized a neighbors property. Instead of going to court you can give the neighbor stone money. It can also be used to buy a wife or exchanged at a village ceremony. The island also has "stone money banks" which is basically a path or road lined with dozens of pieces of stone money.
But the best example of how the locals practice old traditions is in how they dress. Before we arrived in Yap I had read that womens bare thighs were offensive so I made sure to always wear long shorts or skirts to cover mine. But I didn't know what was considered appropriate when it came to womens bare shoulders (in Muslim cultures it is offensive to have knees and shoulders exposed). But as we walked into the local grocery store, I quickly found out the answer. Right next to the Pop Tarts in the cereal aisle is this local woman with her big ol' saggy boobs just hanging out. I don't mean that her top was so skimpy she was falling out .... she had no top on at all. But her thighs were covered! Then walking down the toiletry aisle was an old man, probably in his 70's, wearing what is known locally as a Thu. Imagine what a Japanese sumo wrestler wears: a small piece of loin cloth to cover his privates but his ass cheeks hanging out! Just that and his sandals. After we left the store we walked around the corner and sitting there was a whole gaggle of these topless women just hanging out on the sidewalk. Unfortunately Troy didn't have his camera at the time but he did have it when we went to the bank and got a photo of this lovely fellow in his gorgeous Thue! The thing was, it wasn't that we were so surprised to see the locals in their traditional dress, it was more startling to see them in such modern settings dressed like this. Honestly though, this is something we really respect of the Yappese - keeping their tradition alive while showing us their boobies and ass cheeks!
We did a cultural tour to see the ancient mens houses, resting places, stone money banks and to see a traditional dance. Here all the women were topless. From the young six year olds all the way up to the 70 year old women. Troy and I were so glad my brother-in-law, Ryun, was not with us. He would have been turning every which way saying "Look at the hooters on that grandma! Holy cow, I can't believe I'm looking at the boobs on a 16 year old and I'm not getting arrested." Oh, Ryun, we love you!!!
Remember from the Palau blog I talked about the Betlnut? Well, the Yapese are the biggest consumers of it. It is amazing how it is such a huge part of their life. Walking down the hall in the hotel we would come across the maids sitting on the floor preparing their betlenut. The ladies at the reception would have such a big wad of it in their mouth that they could barely answer our questions. The guys at the dive shop would be hanging out with their man bags (called a Way) full of betlenut. The sidewalks and streets are stained red from the massive amount of spit. Chewing it produces so much saliva that they have to use a Pringles can to hold their spit. The Yapese would put a rodeo full of Copenhagen chewing cowboys to shame. And of course as the saying goes "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" so we had to give it a go. Troy had a much better time with it then I did. What it came down to was he didn't make a fool of himself. Me on the otherhand....the piece I had was too big for my mouth so I was a mess, drooling and slobbering all over the place. But I did get the buzz and warm fuzzy feeling from it so it wasn't a total loss.
We thought the people in Palau had bad teeth from chewing it, but the Yapese have them beat hands down. If you remember I told you how it stains the teeth, lips and mouth red and with too much chewing it wears the teeth down to nubs. We came across a German who knew nothing about the betlenut and as he went through immigration at the airport he was a little freaked out because he thought the island was inhabited by vampires. Another European thought the locals were fist fighting all the time because of all the "bloody mouths". I never, ever though I would say this but it was nice to get away from this disgustingness and to get around normal people who smoked! Troy says he actually got used to seeing it though and still might prefer it over smoking.
So enough about the island and people of Yap. The main reason we came to Yap was for..... you guessed it, the diving!!!!!! But not for the reefs or the fish life, Yap is known for the Manta Rays. They are these amazingly huge, beautiful, graceful creatures. You never tire of seeing them and just get giddy when they come around. There are a few channels near the island that attract the Mantas after they have been out to sea feeding. Not only do they come in from the open ocean to get cleaned but they also come to mate, so we would see groups of them at a single time. They are also very curious and love divers bubbles so they come in very close, sometimes just inches from your head. As much as you want to, obviously you're not allowed to touch them. This causes them to go away and stay away for days, not to mention how much it pisses off the dive guides and other divers.
We spent our Christmas Eve and Christmas day in Yap. For Christmas Eve dinner we went to a nearby hotel since we were tired of the food where we were staying. Troy got a wild hair up his butt and tried the betlenut martini.
It was not good. He described it as a martini glass filled with hairspray with a twist of nastiness garnished with a dash of grossness. But he drank it.
Just a few side notes here, Troy and I have come to learn something about ourselves on our travels: Either we're really goood about pointing out what can be improved (like with dive boats, hotel rooms, restaurants menu) or we have just become really hard to please. You would think on our travels it would be the opposite and we would be happy with anything, but evidently that is not the case. Troy's quote of the day "We are easy to please once things are the way we like them!" Hmmm... not quite sure how this happened. Another thing I have recently noticed about myself is my response when I come across a store, any store. Since September we have not been places where there are many stores to shop at. I'm not a shopper by any means but I have found there is something in my inner being that misses it. For instance, while in Palau we went to an office supply store to find paper to mail a box. I found myself going up and down every aisle looking to see if there was anything I needed. "Ooh, paperclips, I think I need those. What about this printer ink cartridge? Cool, it's even red. Troy look, they have a dry erase board. Should we buy it?" You get the picture.
Next stop, Australia and the Great Barrier Reef where we will spend a week diving the outer reefs then we'll rent a car for nine days and drive to who knows where considering it's a ginormous country!