Yap has a strong traditional culture that involves a lot more than betel nut consumption. The island is divided into villages, each headed by a chief. A system of stone paths leads from one village to the next. There are resting areas built alongside the paths, and fruit trees planted nearby for nourishment on long journeys. (There are also betel nut trees close at hand.)
Day to day, life here isn’t terribly different from what it was before Europeans left their mark. The Yapese fish, grow fruit, and carve wood. They gather to tell stories. They built their homes out of whatever they can find, be it scraps of wood or shipping containers.
But other things are different. The kids are nuts about both volleyball and basketball. There is cable to many homes, and air conditioning. Young people join the U.S. military to get off-island and to get an education.
This afternoon we go to a village for a demonstration of traditional Yap clothing and culture. Our tour bus drops us off by the side of the road and a traditionally-built Yapese woman comes out of the trees to greet us. Her daughter shyly hides behind her grass skirt. She tells us about the stone paths that connect all of the villages, and they leads us down towards her village.
When we get to the village there is not a modern person in sight. Everyone is dressed traditionally, and working on traditional crafts. Women weave, old men chew betel, some girls gossip in a meeting house. An elderly women reclines in the shade of a palm tree.
A handsome young man cracks open a coconut and offers us the flesh. This coconut has sprouted, and the flesh is very different from anything you may have heard… it’s delicate and airy, like coconut-flavored cotton candy. I have several pieces.
Villagers of all ages are gathering in the meeting area. They’re all dressed in grass skirts (for the girls) and loin cloths (for the boys). In addition, they’ve tied palm fronds onto their bodies in ways that make them look both beautiful and a little more dangerous.
Suddenly everyone’s attention is on the main path through the village. A group of villagers walk down the main walkway carrying bamboo poles. The stop, face one another, and a woman begins chanting, her voice loud and strong. The dance begins. It’s a war dance and a square dance, with pairs of dancers striking their poles together and then spinning to face another dancer. Poles strike together, everyone do-si-do’s, and the poles strike again.
When the dance is over the chief thanks us for our interest in his culture, and we walk back to our bus. My mind is reeling. I feel some voyeuristic shame, like I have watched something I have no right to see. But I also feel love for the dancers, for their preservation of a unique piece of world culture.
We go back to the hotel, and I photograph the sunset. Tonight we fly to the island nation of Palau, a republic of approximately 200 islands that are 500 kilometers away. Palau will be more modernized, and I’m a little sad about that.