Yap, Micronesia

The country Micronesia is a group of 4 main islands, Kosrae, Chuuk/Truk, Pohnpei, and Yap, and are still sometimes referred to as the Caroline islands. They are not atolls, but actual islands, the Jurrasic park kind of islands, tall and big and lush, spread out long and far between Palau and the Marshall islands. The only way to get to these islands is with United Airlines, who has a complete monopoly on Micronesia, and only connects them with cumbersome little island hopper flights. So, if you want to go from Majuro, Marshall Islands, to Palau, like I did, I had to stop at every Micronesian airport, except Yap (which came after Palau). The only thing I knew about Yap before going was that they used to (and still today) use stone money from Palau to settle disputes and mark wealth. The bigger the stone, and the more men whose lives were lost at sea bringing it back to Yap, the more its worth.

a traditional Yapese house and some stone money around it

a traditional Yapese house and some stone money around it

Yap was a pleasant surprise, maybe my favourite Micronesian island, but the one I spent least time on. Because of the United flight schedule of only one flight a week in each direction, I could stay 3 or 10 days, and being this close to the end of a 6 month trip means I dont have much choice other than rushing through 3 days. I magically found a couchsurfer, the first one since Samoa 6 islands ago, at the very last minute, and this guy Graham was one of only 9 profiles, and randomly studied in Isafjordur, Iceland, for his masters degree three years ago. What an awesome coincidence, except that we probably spent more time talking about Iceland than Yap, but I still got so much more out of Yap in 3 days because of him.

slaughtering lunch

slaughtering lunch

He lived in Tomil village, with a local family and all their Philippino workers (the owner ran a construction business), so it was like living in a village within a village. I arrived in the middle of the night my first day, and we sat up drinking rum and eating smoked fish with our fingers until I succumbed to a food coma in the little blue treehouse that was my ‘couch.’ The next morning I woke up to the sound of pig squeals, which continued for a few minutes until the Philippino’s finally had her tied down well enough to slit her throat. She was then roasted in a sealed oven of burning coals and served for lunch, including pigs head bits soaked in pig blood – which happens to taste much better than it sounds.

the beach house in Maap

the beach house in Maap

The food kept up to this standard throughout my stay, with boiled crayfish dinners and midnight snacks of fish soup. I only ate at 2 restaurants – Oasis, which felt kind of like an Irish pub meets pirate tavern, where I had a super American-styled burger and fries, and once at Village View Hotel up north in Maap, where the okonomiyaki was better than I’d had in Japan (its like a pizza with en egg/potato pancakey crust instead of dough).

the women prepare for their sitting dance

the women prepare for their sitting dance

Graham took me to Maap because him and his friends share a beach house there. It was a tiny shack on stilts, with electricity run over on an extension chord from the neighbours. There was no toilet but a shower, but of course the sea served both purposes just fine. I only wish I could have stayed there for 3 more days, since it felt like the type of place you would automatically fall into meditation just from being there, totally alone and relaxed without a care in the world.

photo 4

practicing for Yap day

But luckily I also spent some time in Graham’s village, where upcoming Yap day (March 1st) sent every man, woman and child into preparation for dances, costume making, or more pig slaughters. We went around the villages to watch some of the dance practices, and the women’s sitting dance was so touching. It was a line of nearly 30 topless women, ranging from 2-60 years old, wearing beautiful bark skirts, green leaves and colourful headresses. They sang these sweet and somber songs while sitting cross legged and dancing with their arms and heads, and watching them gave me goosebumps. The men’s dance was a little more commanding (and had twice the number of men), erotic even (their skirt is tied and hung to resemble a big ball and penis), as they thrust their hips around and yelled staccato words at the tops of their lungs. The mixed dance was the most technical one, when men and women of different heights, ages and skill danced together with bamboo sticks, synchronizing their dancing and singing with hitting their sticks together. Graham participated in the men’s dance, the only white guy, but they cover their bodies in tumeric-infused coconut oil so everyone just looked really yellow and greasy from far away.

First stop in the North Pacific: the Marshall Islands

Majuro atoll, in the forefront and faintly in the background

Majuro atoll, in the forefront and faintly in the background

There are a lot of different words to refer to this part of the world, like Oceania, Australasia, or simply the Pacific, but there are three distinct parts to the Pacific islands: Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. They don’t refer only to geographical separations, but also cultural and genetic differences between the islanders. Melanesia includes the countries furthest west and closest to Australia: Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. Polynesia can be described as all the islands within the triangle between Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Micronesia are all the North Pacific islands, including the country called The Federated States of Micronesia.

Majuro airport

Majuro airport

My first stop in the North Pacific was the Marshall Islands. From then on, it was only Micronesian islands and the US dollar, despite there being different countries along the way. All of these islands were once peaceful, self-sufficient communities originating mainly from Asia, but during WWI and WWII, Japan, Germany and the USA ravaged the islands and their people as they fought for these strategic territories that they themselves had never even settled. The Marshall Islands probably got the worst of it, since they were not only bombed and invaded during the war, but heavily bombed with nuclear bomb tests after that. More than 60 nuclear bombs were dropped on Bikini atoll in the 10 years following WWII, islands where the local population had been removed and later returned to their super-polluted, nuclear contaminated, radioactive islands. The Marshallese still suffer from exposure 60 years later and haven’t been able to return to their homes.

And to make matters worse, the US hasn’t learned much from their mistakes, since they are now bombing the hell out of Kwajalein atoll, called a Ballistic missile defense test site. Although its not nuclear bombs, its still killing huge parts of the coral reef and marine ecosystems, and again they’ve displaced the local community from nearly the whole island, isolating them to just one atoll called Ebeye where the population density is worse than Manhattan. Neither locals nor tourists can visit any other part of Kwajalein unless you’re part of the US Military on task there, or one of their family members or an invited guest.

a hammock kinda day

a hammock kinda day

Aaaanyway, enough ranting… I loved Majuro atoll, the friendly, happy, bomb-free, locally inhabited part of the Marshall Islands. It’s a huge, broken up, u-shaped connection of atolls and islands, little spits of sand and coral sticking out of the sea, and traditional canoes sail alongside the fishing boats and private yachts in the space between them. I went to Eneko for a night, reachable from the capital city in about 15 minutes by speedboat. There me and a friend had the island to ourselves for $45 a night, including our private beach, some kayaks, a coral reef to snorkel, our wooden hut, an outdoor kitchen, the hammock and one nearly washed-away picnic table. Another night we camped at Laura beach, which isn’t a camp site but we hung a hammock and used the benches, but a drunken dumb and deaf guy came tearing through our camp a couple of times in the middle of the night, so it wasn’t quite as relaxing as Eneko.

our beach hut at Eneko

our beach hut at Eneko

If you make it to Majuro, there’s only one proper backpackers called Flametree Backpackers (and very affordable at $20US/night for a semi-private room). All your tourist things can be taken care of from the nearby Marshall Islands Resort, the Visitor’s authority tourist office in town, or the REE (Hotel Robert Reimers/ Robert Reimers Enterprises) docks. There are fully-stocked American style stores everywhere, it was cleaner and cheaper than many of the other islands, so Majuro comes highly recommended in my books.

our half-standing picnic table

our half-standing picnic table

*For more information on the hydrogen bomb test and the US’ impact on Bikin island and the Marshallese people, read this article: www.theguardian.com/bikini-atoll-nuclear-test