“Only Rai gathered in the old way has any value.”
Captain David O’Keefe, His Majesty O’Keefe, 1954
If the sign on the refuse bin in the airport was any indication, we had arrived deeper into the red spectrum of Rainbow’s End. Do not spit betel nut chew into this garbage can. It was surrounded by splotches of what the Yapese called langad, the preparation of areca nut and lime, that went into a betel leaf, into their mouths, and into the obvious orange respect they had for rules.
Our driver didn’t say a word during the entire trip to Colonia, more because of shyness that the fact that his mouth was full of betel nut. Robyn and I had arrived late in the afternoon, on a flyspeck of an island less than forty square miles, with almost as many lights twinkling in the equatorial dusky distance. The darkness had chased away the last betel-colored rays of the sun from Chamorro Bay, as the car pulled up to the first of three places we would stay on Yap. Across a wooden suspension bridge, we were greeted by roosters and barking dogs, a caged fruit bat in the thatched lobby, and a warm San Miguel beer. The old man in the white T-shirt that had handed it to us, with the key to our tree house, told us that the restaurant would close early, and we should hurry if we wanted any selection of food. The place had advertised itself as an ecolodge, and the ecology was indeed lodged in every crevice. At the top of a series of suspended pathways on a steep tropical rainforested hillside, was a traditional faluw hut on stilts, and an open lanai where we could sit and enjoy the sunsets. Inside we found beautiful haku lei on our pillows, made with fern fronds and red bottlebrush and orchids. But there was also mold in the mattress, geckos on the hardwood walls, and mosquitoes outside the net for them to munch on. The no-see-ums down at the restaurant were the only sign of life for the first half hour, before a dead half chicken that had likely begun his journey to us as a half dead chicken, shuffled in on two plates counterbalanced with taro. Menus were obviously not on the menu. Robyn and I looked longingly at the luxury of Trader Ridge across the bay- we would be there in just a few days, if we survived the ecology on this side of the water.
Our Continental breakfast next morning had undoubtedly been named after the airline, rather than the continent. We walked into town, but it was closed. Under a large thatched cover, hanging between two pillars, was a ladder of boards connected by chains, on which were written the names of all the shops of the co-operative mall, maybe more than all the shops of the co-operative mall- FSM Customs-FSM Finance-Les Video Rental-Diving Seagull-Ganir Restaurant- Bank of the FSM-Micro Tech Services- Moylans Insurance- Community Ayum Service Credit Union- FSM Tax and Revenue- FSM Public Defender- MR & Tee Drug Store. A stop sign stuck out the side of one of the poles. Across the street were three big letters made from rocks set into a grassy knoll. Yap. I wondered why they needed reminding.
The outside of the Office of the Public Defender was a charming amateur hand-painted undersea blue mural of coral and grasses and reef fish, with a big white jellyfish lurking on the closed window. All the other white and powder blue buildings were shut. The palms were still. We walked past the Mnuw, an old brown and blue Pinisi schooner from Sulawesi, reminiscent of our Bugi-men days, Headhunting in Kansas, to the hospital. Alert...Please do not spit in any area except for waste basket, or ‘tafenedow.’ Even better bring your own spit or waste can!!! Keep our hospital clean. There was a new wasp nest in the old air raid siren.
But the siren would have blown it apart eight month before we got there. On April 9th, Typhoon Sudal slammed smack into Yap. The strongest in fifty years, with winds of over 226 km/hour for over four hours, it produced 22 foot-high waves along the coast, dropped eight inches of rain, sunk ships, damaged the coral reefs, flattened trees and destroyed 90% of the structures on the island. The hospital, airport, most government facilities, and the water, power and communications systems were either badly damaged, or destroyed.
The intrusion of salt water destroyed almost all of the food crops on the island. Following the typhoon's passage, about 1,000 people, an eighth of the population, were left homeless, and another 500 were forced into shelters. The Yapese were still recovering from the effects of Typhoon Lupit, the year before. It may have partly explained why their betel boluses were missing the trashcan at the airport.