Yap Islands….The Yap Islands are one of 4 groups of islands that comprise the nation of The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), there are limited flights direct to the main island of Yap, only accessible on United Airlines from either Palau or Guam.
My arrival into Yap was at the ridiculous hour of 02:25am from Palau, this flight then continues to Guam. Immigration was conducted outside of the terminal building on the airport tarmac on what was a sweltering evening. With passport stamped you entered the arrivals hall; two beautiful ladies wearing nothing but a grass skirt and a smile greeted all passengers. There were strategically placed garlands of flowers strung around their necks hiding them modesty. Each passenger received one these garlands placed delicately over your head, men who found themselves towards the back of the queue somehow forgot about the wait when the last of these garlands was transferred over.
I was pleased to see a sign in the arrivals area with my name on alongside the name of my guesthouse, when making the booking I wondered if I should use the date of the day before or today’s date. I really was unsure if I was paying for 2, 3 or 4 nights because of these early morning arrivals and departures prevalent in this part of the world.
After some sleep and before I arranged my activities on the island I had to get some cash. I was directed to the only ATM on Yap and it was out of cash and was not being replenished until after I was due to leave. This was a major problem as almost all establishments on the island only accept cash. I walked to the most popular hotel here to see what my options were. The Manta Ray Bay Resort is very popular with the diving community and is now popular with me too. They would take payment by card from me for use in their restaurant, bar and I could book tour excursions with them despite not being a hotel patron.
Yap in general is famous for two things when I researched, diving and stone money? This hotel as the name suggests arranges trips for divers to see Manta Rays. I don’t dive but I got talking to a divemaster who acts as a guide on the dive boat, he suggested I came on board the next boat leaving soon and snorkel above the divers, “you may see some” he said. Within the next hour and for only $60 I was on the next dive boat to depart.
It took about 30 minutes to reach the “cleaning station” as it is called, an area of the reef where the Manta Rays get parasites cleaned off by reef fish. When all of the divers had submerged I was ushered to follow along, I was told the reef was only 2-3 metres down. When I got there I was absolutely blown away by these magnificent creatures, there they were swimming between me on the surface, and the divers below, on two occasions they brushed against me. I was open-mouthed with amazement on my first encounter causing me to readjust my snorkel after swallowing a mouthful of seawater. It was the most wonderful experience and I’m convinced I had at least as good a view as the divers below.
Following this we moved on to another location where the divers submerged very deep, I continued my snorkeling a bit isolated from the others and found myself among a large shoal of barracuda, its time like this I wished I could not recognize fish species. I signalled for the boat to come over, enough snorkelling for me today.
That evening I tried the bar and restaurant of the Manta Bay Resort, the location is on a Chinese, junk-like boat just moored outside the hotel. A projector screen has replaced where the sails would have been located. Divers were shown videos of their days diving whilst enjoying dinner and one of the 3 craft beers brewed on the premises in a micro-brewery.
The following day I booked a round island tour of Yap, the main attraction being the stone money banks. As you wander around Yap you can see a lot of these large circular stone discs with a hole in the centre. This is the stone money or Rai as they are known here. There were quarried in and around Yap and their value was determined by the size and difficulty the stones were to obtain. They were used as legal tender but now used in ceremony and traditions, the Rai have an oral history of ownership as the stones are not moved but transferred down the generations as inheritance. An enterprising Irish American David O’Keefe managed to obtain stones from other islands for which he received copra and other materials as payment. These stones were much easier to obtain and are not regarded as valuable by the Yapese nowadays. A Burt Lancaster film “His Majesty O’Keefe” tells the story of his life and escapades on Yap.
The island tour also took me to an abandoned airfield where you can still see the wreckage of a Continental Micronesia Boeing 727 that crashed here in 1980 luckily with no fatalities. I also saw a few nice beaches, my guide had to obtain permission from the landowners for me to approach, it didn’t pose problems as she seemed to have a relative in each village. In many of these villages, you can see a traditional building know as a Faluw or men’s house. A large open-ended structure where men gather and used to be serviced by a beautiful woman chosen to serve at the Faluw, this was considered a great honour. This has all but ceased now as it is considered as prostitution, and is not congruent with the rest of the world’s view on the practice.
The other memorable experience for me on this tour occurred at lunch. Our food was accompanied by a dish of tiny chillies, I took a few and got the back of my hand slapped “these are vicious” I was warned by my guide. I tried one anyway, they are about the size of an orange pip, and well it nearly blew my head off. I took several home with me for those friends who revel in telling me how spicy they like their food, what fun I’m going to have with these babies.
My journey back started with the “middle of the night” flight to Guam, my guesthouse charged me for 3 nights here, two full days and two half-days which I thought was fair.
After seeing the Manta Rays everything else was an anti-climax and in retrospect, I wished I had done the island tour first, however, I did enjoy the tour and my time on Yap overall.
The faces of my friends after eating one of those chillies in the weeks that followed kept my enjoyment going.