Mount Matade (Yap, Micronesia)
In High Places
By: By Burton (I looked her straight in the eyes) Falk
Our travel agent, who specializes in the Pacific Island destinations, explained to my wife, Jo, and me that Yap was the most traditional area of all Micronesia, and that, even though no national highpoint was located there, it would be a shame to for us to miss it during our tour of the region. She also mentioned that, should we decide to visit the island, due to airline schedules, we would have to commit to a full four-day stay.
Well, we weren't exactly sure what traditional might imply, but curiosity got the best of us. "Book us in," we told her.
And so it was that at 11:15 p.m., this past February 3~' we landed on Yap, not really knowing what to expect.
The Yap airport is small, and on the night of our arrival I was at the back of the line pressing through passport control. J0 had managed to get ahead of me, but I could see her beyond immigration, a floral tiara being placed on her head by a young Yapese woman. Because of the milling crowd, however, I could see them only from their shoulders up.
Imagine my surprise after I finally squeezed through the gate to discover that the Yapese girl, wearing a traditional grass skirt, was not only lovely, but that she was topless. I looked her straight in the eyes as she placed a floral halo atop my head. I was bewitched. I was bothered. I was-you guessed it-bewildered.
Later that night, standing on the porch of our thatched hut, on the side of a lush hillside, looking out over a moonlit bay, it occurred to me that life couldn't be sweeter. The words to "Bali Ha' i" came to mind, "someday you'll see me, floating in the sunshine, my head sticking out from a low-flying cloud. You'll hear me call you. . ."
I thought I heard Yap calling..
When discussing Yap, it's important to distinguish whether you are referring to the State of Yap, which consists of approximately 140 islands strung out over 600 linear miles, or Yap proper, a tight cluster of four islands-three of which are connected by bridges-containing 84% of the State's 46 square mile total land area, and 65% of the State's 11,500 total population. For the purposes of this article, when we say Yap we mean Yap proper.
Yap is in the Caroline Islands, 515 miles southwest of Guam. It was formed by tectonic forces (actually it's a piece of Asia that broke off and floated away), rather than by volcanic action like most of the rest of Micronesia. The island's landscape varies from coastal villages flanked by graceful coconut palms, to open grassy areas with scattered pandanus (also known as screw pine, a tree with sword-like leaves), to thick jungles in the upland interior. Although there are a few good swimming beaches on Yap's south and west shores (in the lee of the trade winds), most of the coastline is fringed by dense mangrove forests.
Ethnically, the Yapese exhibit traits of western Pacific origin, specifically Filipino, Palauan and Indonesian. Culturally, more so than any other Micronesian group, the Yapese have been reluctant to adapt modern ways. Although they have endured four successive colonial administrations-Spanish, German, Japanese and American, their culture remains relatively free of most outside influences, and they continue to vigorously retain their own customs and traditions.
One Yapese tradition that appears regressive to most outsiders is their ancient caste system, which, although weakened, remains in effect even today. While not readily apparent in terms of standard of living, every islander's social status is determined by the village of his or her birth (and the status of each village is based on the outcome of inter-village wars fought long ago). Local government is another cause for raised eyebrows, as, although there is a democratically elected State Legislature, each village remains ruled by a chief who holds his position because the land he owns possesses the highest status of all land in the village. In other words, in Yap land has status, and status is power.
A third negative involves sexual parity. Most women-especially those from the outer islands-remain subservient to men. In traditional families, sisters can neither begin eating until their brothers are finished, nor can they contradict statements made by their male siblings.
The following morning, Sunday, Feb. 4th, Jo and I slept in and then enjoyed a late breakfast, consisting mostly of fresh island fruit, at the eight unit Pathways Hotel, where we appeared to be the only guests. In the early afternoon, after unpacking and bringing our journals up to date, we decided to walk into the nearby town (the only town, in fact) of Colonia, population 1,188, the capital of the State of Yap, for lunch.
The day was hot and humid, and we began to melt down as soon as we started walking east along Chamorro Bay, heading for the bridge into town.
It was quiet, too. The only signs of life we encountered along the way were a couple of passing taxicabs, both empty; three or four teenagers catching a slight breeze on the bridge; and a few mangy dogs.
Arriving at the central crossroads of Colonia and finding it deserted, we continued east on the short main drag, past the Yap Cooperative Association, the Yap Small Business Center, the Yap Marina, the Federated Government Offices and, finally, the State Legislature Building, encountering nary a soul along our way. Colonia wasn't merely sleepy, it was in a coma. Turning back, we saw a "Nature's Way" dive boat pulling into the marina, so we ambled over to have a look-we were desperate for activity. The wet-suited leader of the dive group was a petite woman of Japanese descent, who, after bidding her clients (also Japanese) goodbye, explained to us that Colonia was always quiet, but that it was especially dead on Sundays. When we inquired about a good place for lunch, she recommended the restaurant at the Manta Ray Bay Hotel, a quarter mile north of town. And that may have been the best advice we got during our entire Micronesian adventure.
The Manta Ray Bistro, located on the third and top floor of the hotel, although unpretentious, was an unexpected delight. The restaurant overlooks Tamil Bay, and it is air conditioned by means of windows left open to catch the trades. There are no menus; you scan the blackboard at the entrance listing the day's featured dishes, and place your order before you sit down. Jo and I both opted for Ono (Wahoo) sandwiches, which were absolutely, positively, mouth-wateringly delicious. We were sure that the fish had been caught within the hour.
Our lunch was so good, in fact, that we returned that same evening for dinner-Ono served in a champagne-butter sauce-and then did a repeat two nights later as well. We've dined at some highly rated (read expensive) seafood restaurants over the years, but we both agree that our $13 dinners in Yap were the best anywhere.
Yap, along with Kosrae, Pohnpei and Chuuk (formerly Truck), make up the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a country that was admitted to the United Nations in 1991. At one time, the FSM might have included the Marshall Islands and Palau, but in 1977, at the time of a vote on a common constitution, those two island groups broke away and eventually became independent Republics on their own. Like the Marshall Islands and Palau, the FSM entered into a long- term Compact of Free Association with the USA, under the terms of which we have supplied big bucks ($1.3 billion to FSM alone) in exchange for the rights to build military bases on the islands if so needed (but with the Cold War over, it's highly unlikely we'll ever exercise that option).
This coming November, the 15-year financial aid portion of the Compact Agreement comes to an end, and the U.S. and the FSM are now engaged in negotiations regarding ongoing support. Considering that the FSM's trade deficits are huge (in one recent year, their imports were $84 million; their exports $10 million), it seems that economic disaster is certain unless aid is continued and/or alternate sources of income can be found. The single best opportunity for increased revenue seems to lie in increased tourism, however many Micronesians, especially the Yapese, are reluctant to have their home islands overrun by hoards of vacationing Asians, as is the case with Guam and Saipan. Increases in fishing and fish processing could also add significantly to the GNP but those ventures would require large infusions of capital and expertise. Copra (the source of coconut oil) production, once a major source of income in Micronesia, seems to be a dead issue at present.
The following day, Monday, Jo and I hired Eugene, the part-time driver for the Pathways Hotel, to drive us to the top of Mt. Matade, the 571' highpoint of the State of Yap. This was an interesting excursion, as: 1. Eugene was halfway up 482' Medeqdeq Hill, a popular visitors' destination overlooking Colonia, before we realized he was taking us up the wrong summit. His excuse was that he thought we must be mistaken-no one had ever asked him to drive up Matade before. 2. After reorganizing, we found that the hotel's Toyota van couldn't get through a large mud puddle on the dirt road leading to the highpoint, so we had to get out and hike, and, 3. Eugene, in his mid twenties, was so overweight and out of shape (too much Spam and Ruffles) that Jo and I became seriously concerned for his health, as he huffed and puffed his way to the top of the hill.
From the top of Mt. Matade, on which several antennae are located, we enjoyed a good view of Yap proper, including sprawling Tamil Bay, in the middle of which we could see Tarang Island, the one time home of David O'Keefe.
The flamboyant O'Keefe, arguably Yap's most famous citizen, was an Irish-American sailor, who, after nearly dying during a shipwreck on the island in 1871, spent the next 30 years amassing a fortune in the copra trade. He, Tarang Island, and what little remains of his residence there-built of bricks imported from Hong Kong-were made famous in the movie, "His Majesty O'Keefe," starring Burt Lancaster.
Following our ascent of Mt. Matade, Eugene drove us south to an overgrown WWII Japanese airfield where we viewed the remains of two Zeros and an anti-aircraft gun all of which were destroyed in a U S air raid dunng that war Although the U.S. bypassed Yap in the final drive toward Japan, we did effectively cut off supplies to the Japanese troops stationed there. As a consequence, the Japanese expropriated what few foodstuffs the Yapese possessed, thus making life especially difficult for the islanders during the last months of the war.
When I was a kid, my favorite reading material- besides the Hardy Boys series and Richard Halliburton's "Complete Book of Marvels," consisted of two dog-eared "Ripley's Believe it or Not" paperbacks, in which, along with many other wondrous facts, I learned that the Yapese employed large stone discs, or rai, as currency.
Well, guess what? They still do. Improbable as it may seem, the Yapese, although using dollars for most day-to-day transactions, still utilize the stone discs (which have holes carved in their centers for ease of handling), as currency for traditional purchases.
Quarried in Palau, and rafted 250 miles back to Yap, the value of the limestone discs, which vary in size from 1' to 13' in diameter, depends on their age and history.
In 1929, the Japanese civil government counted 13,281 of these "coins," however during WWII many were destroyed when the occupiers smashed them (and used them as road fill) in punishment when the Yapese didn't cooperate in forced labor projects. Others, unfortunately, were removed as souvenirs. Today only about half of those original 13,000 discs survive.
Interestingly, the rai that do remain are not tucked under mattresses or buried in the back yard, but displayed rather prominently. Jo and I came across several stone coin "banks," lining the roads and pathways as we roamed the island. Rarely moved, and now illegal to take off Yap, every islander knows precisely what stones his or her family owns.
During our four days on Yap, we did almost everything a tourist could do except go scuba diving (however that's what a majority of the visitors come to Yap to do, especially to view the island's renowned squadron of manta rays). We visited several villages, including Balabat, where we paid $2.50 each for the privilege of walking deep into the jungle on a well-maintained ancient stone footpath, a part of a network of trails that once connected all the island villages; Bechiyal, where we viewed a thatched men's house containing an anatomically-correct mannequin of a woman, designed to teach the young men of the village the intricacies of the opposite sex; and Kadaay, where late one afternoon we witnessed a stick dance, the cultural highlight of our visit.. Stick dances, which are choreographed to commemorate a large range of occasions-from winning important battles to high school graduations, may be the finest of all the Yapese traditions. The one we witnessed took place on a wide stone walk shaded by towering coconut palms just before dusk. About 20 village young people lined up in two rows-the girls and young women decked out in grass skirts, and topless; the boys and young men wearing loincloth, and all holding 3' long sticks. Following a loud shout from the leader they began to chant in unison, beat their sticks against the ground and against one another's, and weave in and out along the lines. The timing was perfect, and the clacking rhythm hypnotic. Not only were the dancers well trained, but also from their smiles it was obvious that they were having a good time. The whole performance lasted about 30 minutes.
In Kadaay, too, we learned first hand about betel nuts-you know, those things that Bloody Mary was always chewing in South Pacific.
Well, in Yap they chew them still-from kids as young as 10 or 12, to folks on their deathbeds. In fact, it's hard to find an adult Yapese who doesn't have a bulging cheek, red lips and black teeth. And since most everyone goes around spitting like a major league ballplayer, the streets and sidewalks are stained the color of betel juice. Call me yellow, but when I see an attractive brown woman let loose with a spurt of red, I turn green.
But don't let me talk you out of it. Give it a try. What you do is take a green betel nut (a fruit about the size of a kiwi that grows in clusters on the betel palm tree), split it in half, sprinkle it with roasted, granulated coral (most everyone carries their own coral shaker), wrap it with a pepper leaf (a large leaf not at all similar to the leaf of our California pepper tree), pop the whole package in your mouth and begin chewing. After a few moments, you too will begin to feel a mild high that lasts for about ten minutes.
Did I try it? Yeah. Did I feel a buzz? You bet. Would I try it again? No thanks. Make mine a gin and tonic.
On Wednesday evening, after four full days on Yap, Eugene drove us back to the airport so we could catch the twice-weekly flight bound for Guam. While checking our baggage, we noticed a small car pull up in parking lot across the street. Out popped the same young woman who had greeted us with the flora tiaras, three nights earlier. Once again she was grass skirted and topless; once again she was ready to bedazzle the batch of passengers arriving on the plane on which J0 and I would soon depart.
Our stay had been interesting, but it was time to leave. Yap, as I discovered, was not my Bali Ha'i. The island was still calling, but I wasn't picking up. Next we would visit Saipan and Guam, the two most westernized islands in Micronesia, where we could immerse ourselves once again in good old American traditions. You know, traditions like ordering sushi, quaffing a Sapporo, and renting a Toyota at Avis.
"One minute, I'm walking across the pedestrian bridge, heading for Tijuana, and the next minute I'm stretched out on the ground, wondering if anyone got the license of the truck that hit me. Two men helped me to my feet. A woman handed me my wallet- empty, of course, which she'd found lying a few feet away. My throat was sore. It took me a few minutes to realize that I'd been mugged by someone who had come up from behind, squeezed the nerve bundles on either side of my neck, and dropped me like a sack of cement."
And that was just one of the many stories our companion, a retired correspondent for UPI, told my wife J0 and me during our five-hour layover in the Guam International airport, awaiting our flight to Saipan.
We were languishing there because, due to a delay in our early evening flight out of Yap, we missed our original connection to Saipan, and the next flight, scheduled to leave Guam at 1:15 a.m., was also delayed-until 4 a.m. By the time we did arrive in Saipan, retrieved our bags, took the jitney to the hotel, checked in, and fell zombie-like into bed, it was 5:30 a.m. Dawn was beginning to glow like a red ember on the eastern horizon.
Forming a 426 mile-long, bow-shaped archipelago, the Mariana Islands stretch from Guam, the southernmost and largest island (208 sq. mi.), to Uracas, the northernmost. Saipan, the second largest of the islands (47.5 sq. mi.), lies 100 miles north of Guam. The Philippine Sea laps up on the islands' western shores; the North Pacific Ocean washes in from the east. To the east also lies the Maņana Trench, 1,835 miles long and up to 35,827 ft. deep, the greatest known ocean depth in the world. The islands themselves, tips of a massive underwater mountain chain, can lay claim to being the tallest peaks in the world-if you measure them from their base to their highest point. In fact, the highpoint of the archipelago would stand 10,000' higher than Mt. Everest, were that Himalayan peak to be measured in a similar manner.
The first to inhabit the islands were the Chamorro, a people who may have arrived as early as 1500 B.C. Because of language and other cultural similarities, it is believed that they migrated from South-East Asia, probably Indonesia. Interestingly, the Chamorro were the only Micronesians known to cultivate rice prior to contact with the Europeans.
On March 6, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew from the Trinidad became the first Europeans to set foot on the Marianas. The Portuguese navigator (who was working for the Spanish crown at the time) named the islands either Islas de los Ladrones-the Islands of Thieves or Islas de los Velas Latinas-the Islands of Lateen Sails, depending on which guidebook you read. In 1668, they were renamed Las Marianas, in honor of the Spanish queen Maria Ana of Austria, by the Spanish priest Luis Diego Sanvitores, who that same year, along with five other Jesuit priests, set up the first mission in the islands.
In 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. gained possession of Guam (along with the Philippines and Puerto Rico). The following year, Spain sold the balance of the chain (a.k.a., the Northern Marianas) to Germany, who coveted the islands for the production of copra. In 1914, at the onset of WWI, Japan seized control of Northern Marianas, and proceeded to replace the German coconut plantations with fields of Japanese sugar cane. Between the World Wars, up to 45,000 workers, mostly poor tenant farmers from Okinawa, emigrated to the Northern Marianas to help tend the fields. On December 8, 1941 (which, because of the International Date Line, was December 7 in Pearl Harbor), Japan attacked Guam, sending 5,000 troops ashore, causing Guam's naval governor to surrender within a matter of hours.
Jo and I had planned to make a day trip to nearby Tinian, just 3 miles south of Saipan, to take a look at the airfield from which the B-29 Enola Gay, at 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, began its mission to drop the "Little Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima (where 75,000 Japanese died instantly and another 125,000 thereafter). By the time we began stirring, however, it was almost noon, and we just weren't in a mood for any more sightseeing. Instead we decided to lounge around the Pacific Islands Club, which, booked solely on the recommendation of our travel agent, was substantially more posh than we had expected. In fact, after wandering the grounds for awhile it dawned on us that we might as well take advantage of the resort's elaborate water features, including a meandering circular stream, complete with a whirlpool, "The Long River," on which, floating on large inner tubes, we dallied for an hour or two. We also enjoyed watching several young Japanese men attempt, usually comically, to bogie board down a giant standing wave, "The Point Break Wave Machine," created by pumping a huge volume of water up an inclined concrete plane.
We dined at the hotel's excellent beachfront restaurant that evening, a somewhat somber occasion, however, as we had earlier observed a memorial bronze plaque commemorating the U.S.Marines who lost their lives on the very same beach during the invasion of Saipan on June 15, 1944. Three thousand five hundred Americans, almost 30,000 Japanese and over 400 Saipanese were killed in the course of the 31/2 week battle for the island.
We found it somewhat ironic that most of the guests vacationing at the hotel were Japanese. The next morning, refreshed, we hired a 4x4 taxicab, owned and operated by Bertha Ada, a very friendly, very informative Saipanese woman, and headed north along the island's west coast. Passing miles of mini-malls (all with peeling paint, all home to at least one poker parlor), and through the capital city of Garapan, population 15,000, our first stop was Banzai Cliff, at the northern tip of Saipan, where hundreds of Japanese civilians committed mass suicide.
The tragic story here is that, following the invasion, as American forces advanced ever northward on the island, entire Japanese families, shamed by the thought of capture and/or fearing torture, gathered on the top of the beautiful seaside precipice and prepared to die. Lining up their children in order of age, the next-to-youngest child pushed the youngest over the edge, a process that continued until the mother pushed her first born over the side. The father then thrust his wife over the precipice, after which he ran backwards to join his family in death on the jagged rocks below. Today, the site is arrayed with plaques and other memorials, commemorating the unnecessary deaths.
We then drove to the top of Suicide Cliff, an 820' precipice overlooking Banzai Cliff, where several of the Japanese Military staff also committed suicide.
Still at the northern end of the island, we visited the Last Command Post, a shell-cratered concrete bunker, carved into the face of a cliff, where the Japanese Commander of Saipan, Lt. General Yoshitsugo Saito, realizing defeat was imminent, committed hara-kiri by thrusting his sword into his stomach, while his aide shot him in the head.
Heading back toward mid-island, we drove almost to the top of 1,545' Mt. Tagpochau, the high point of Saipan, which under normal weather conditions can be easily reached by car During inclement weather, however, the dirt road can turn slippery, and a 4x4 may be necessary. A short flight of stairs leads from the parking lot to the actual summit.
Standing in the tall wind-blown grass, under a brilliant mid-day sun, surrounded by a scattering of crucifixes, crosses, and statues of the Virgin Mary (the predominate religion in Saipan is Roman Catholicism), we enjoyed panoramic views of the lush tropical island-a welcome break after a morning spent reliving the horrors of war.
Because we had checked out of our hotel that morning, Bertha then drove us directly to Saipan's modern airport at the south of the island for our flight to Guam.
Following WWII, the Marianas, with the exception of Guam, became a United Nations Trust Territory, administered by the United States. In 1975, the people of the Trust Territory voted to become more closely allied with the U.S., and consequently the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was born, thereby conferring U.S. citizenship on the islanders, and establishing for them a government similar to that of Puerto Rico. Guam, on the other hand, still remains a U.S. Territory, and although the Guamanians are also U.S. citizens, they are not afforded as much selfgovernment as CNMI residents. In 1987, not surprisingly, the Guamanians also voted to become a commonwealth, however their appeal has languished in Washington, D.C. ever since.
The current population of CNMI is approximately 70,000, 90% of whom live on Saipan, with another 5% on Tinian. In addition, some 40,000 low-paid Chinese and Filipinos work in Saipanese garment factories, the goods they produce enjoying a dutyfree status in the U.S. Because these foreign workers are often mistreated (long hours and prison-like living conditions), these factories have become a serious bone of contention between the U.S and CNMI.
The population of Guam numbers about 165,000, approximately 40% of whom are Chamorro, most of the rest being either Filipino or hailing from other Micronesian Islands. Guam is also the residence for some 23,000 U.S. mainlanders, 6,300 of whom are in the military.
Jo and I arrived in Guam in mid-afternoon, and by the time we reached our Tumon Bay hotel, the Royal Orchid, and got settled in, it was time for dinner. We walked a half mile to the Hilton Hotel, where we dined at Roy's (yes, the same Roy's as those in Hawaii), amid a plush and quiet ambiance, much different from the noisy Roy's we know and take pains to avoid in Kahana, Maui.
The following morning, we rented a car and drove some 15 miles south of the capital city, Hagatna (formerly known as Agana), to a turnout just opposite the Cetti Bay Vista Point. Parking in a grassy field, we began our hike toward 1,332' Mt. Lamlam, Guam's highpoint, an adventure I described in my journal as follows:
"Most Guamanians think that the annual Good Friday ascent by cross-bearing Catholics ends up on the top of Mt. Lamlam. Actually, the yearly religious event ends on the summit of Mt. Jumullong Manglo, elevation 1,282', amid a small forest of crosses. Mt. Lamlam is one of the several slightly higher bumps on the ridge stretching out north of Mt. Jumullong Manglo.
"Due to recent rains Jo and I discover that the use trail leading up the mountain is slippery and eroded, and we manage to crash and burn a couple of times on our ascent. Approaching a saddle on the summit ridge, we enter a field of tall, sharp-edged grass, completely overgrowing the path. We push on, however, turning south (right) at the saddle, reaching the top of Jumullong Manglo in about an hour. As from the top of Mt. Tagpochau in Saipan, the views are awesome.
"Returning, I leave Jo at the saddle and head off for toward the bumps to the north, in an attempt to locate and climb the highest. (Although I had a U.S.G.S. topo map of Guam, its detail was too small to ascertain which bump was in fact Lamlam)
"Crashing through more tall grass, I soon come to an area of sharply eroded limestone (similar to deep, jagged suncups), covered with a matting of vines and spider webs. It takes 10 or 15 minutes to stumble through this obstacle course, and I have bloody shins by the time I reach the other side. Also, although I'm pretty sure they're nocturnal, I can't help but think of the poisonous brown snakes that have overrun this island, effectively killing off all its bird life.
"Struggling up though more dense tropical underbrush, I reach the top of the first of the knobs in about a half an hour. Unfortunately, there is no USGS survey marker on the summit, and a couple of the knobs further north look like they may be slightly higher. Since I told Jø I'd be back in 45 minutes, and because it would take at least an hour round trip to reach just the next bump, I head back. On the way down, I decide to claim I've reached the top of Guam-I mean, who would ever know, unless I were to admit otherwise."
We hiked back to the car; drove around the south end of the island, and that night enjoyed a great teppanyaki dinner at the Gurji restaurant, also at the Hilton Hotel. Next morning we flew from Guam to Honolulu, our Micronesian adventures coming to an end.
ODDS & ENDS
Should you have an interest in Micronesia, I suggest reading "Micronesia," by Lonely Planet Publications, and "Micronesia Handbook," by Neil M. Levy. They're both excellent. Another volume worthy of consideration is "Adventuring in the Pacific," a Sierra Club book by Susan Margolis, which, although diluted somewhat by covering Polynesia and Melanesia, contains a wealth of information on Micronesian history, nature life and ecology.
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