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Saturday, June 28, 2014


A brush with death tends to bring people closer and so it was with our merry group of divers here in Yap and there's plenty more mayhem on the way as I write.  But let’s start at the beginning:


Elan and I arrived on Yap at 2:00am Sunday morning. I spent ten minutes at immigration trying to explain the concept of an e-ticket to Ralph, the Immigration Guy.  The good news was after I left Ralph I got a flower garland from a local native girl who was wearing nothing but a grass skirt and a smile.    I thought, “Oh boy, everything they say about Yap and topless girls is true."   It’s going to be a combination of Playboy and National Geographic Magazines.  I’d better get a bigger memory card.

It didn't take long to get disillusioned - After exiting the airport and looking around I think they will have a big problem replacing her when she retires.  

Whereas the other Islands in Micronesia attract a lot of Japanese tourists, Yap seems to attract mainly Germans.  Does anyone else see the irony here? Did nobody tell them they lost the war?

With barely 3 hours sleep Elan and I were awaken and told to get our gear together because we would be diving that morning.  Going downstairs I got my first daylight look at Yap.  It's simply incredible the damage that typhoons do.  There was a big one five months ago and they’ve barely begun to fix the damage.  Imagine a big freighter in English Bay tossed up on Beach Avenue or the Stanley Park Seawall totally obliterated and you'll just begin to get the idea.


The big thing here for divers are Manta Rays and Sharks.  A bigger challenge is actually seeing them.  After two dives that morning we sort of think we see a solitary Manta Ray way off in the distance.  They're supposed to swim up to the reef where there are “Cleaning Stations.” These are underwater sites where small fish come and clean the parasites off the Manta Rays.   Obviously the stations are closed on Sunday as we didn’t see a single Manta Ray.   I manage to stay down for about 35 minutes which is double what I was able to do a week or so ago.  The Dive Master wants me to  work on my breathing.  I tell him I'll be satisfied to just keep doing it.  He says he has a plan for me.  Basically he says I can make my air last three times as long if only breathe a third of the time.  What he wants me to do is inhale count to five, and then exhale.

Monday December 2, 2004

Monday is our 2nd and last day of diving here on Yap and it's to be a three tank dive - that means three separate dives during the day.   The first dive is to the same spot we went to on Sunday hoping the “Cleaning Stations" are open and we’ll actually see Manta Rays.  It's also a chance for me to work on the Dive Master's breathing plan.   On this dive we actually see three big Manta Rays.  It was awesome to watch these large fish "flying” through the water.   As they are plankton eaters and don't have a stinger on their tails I’m told they aren’t dangerous so I'm not intimidated by them.  My air lasts 48 minutes this time -a personal best!  Maybe there is something to the dive master’s method.


Our second dive is an hour boat ride away at a place called Yap Caves - a series of caves and canyons connected by short tunnels – laid out like an underwater amusement park.   Using my new breathing method my air supply lasts nearly an hour this time!  I figure if I can stop breathing totally I can stay underwater indefinitely!  The problem is our final dive here in Yap – it’s scheduled to be shark feeding dive.  It’s where they make a big shark popsicle out of old fish heads and tails, and chicken backs, etc. - properly aged to make it really smelly, then coated with a whole lot of blood.   Then they suspend the whole frozen mess beneath a float.  When it begins to melt in the 80 degree plus water it attracts sharks:  big ones, little ones,
reef sharks, white tip sharks, black tip sharks, all trying to elbow each other out of the way – which is impressive since sharks don’t have elbows.   The divers are supposed to sit or lie on the bottom, close by, and watch the action.  

Sitting on the bottom in a swarm of feeding sharks isn't my idea of fun, but they are one short of a quorum for the dive, and unless I go the event will be cancelled. My son has really been looking forward to this dive so I agree to go figuring I can feign illness and stay on the boat when we arrive at the feeding site.  However when I agree to go three other “chickens” say that if I will dive, so will they.  Now I’m trapped:  I’ll lose a lot a face if I bail out and stay on the boat.  That's when I came up with the cunning plan I named “The Herring Ball Survival Technique”.

It works like this:   When Herring are attacked they form themselves into a big ball: the guys in the middle of the ball have a better chance of survival, hoping that the predators will fill themselves up picking off the guys stuck on the outside.   I plan to be smack middle in the group of divers.   Anyways, that’s my strategy and I'm sticking with it!

There’s a lawyer from Florida in our group: a tall guy with the most expensive equipment money can buy.  He tends to spend most of his time on the boat boasting, posing, stretching and trying to make the rest of us feel inadequate.  He’s not impressed with my Herring Ball Technique.  He plans to be right up front with his expensive camera.

We arrive at the dive site and take up positions.   Elan is in the front row and I'm about 10 feet behind him lying as flat as I can on the bottom.

A few minutes later they lower the bait ball and the first sharks arrive -then more and more come from all directions.  You can actually hear the sound of bones crunching as the sharks chow down. I push myself down flat on the coral bottom trying to make myself as small a target as possible. I’ve noticed that the sharks attack from beneath, so if I’m lying flat on the bottom I should be safe - unless they have a spatula.  The first of our divers panics, drops his camera and  bolts back for the boat.   It’s lawyer from Florida.  I don't know why he panicked.  The sharks would never attack a lawyer - professional courtesy!


I have a horrible premonition that the shark Popsicle will break loose from the float and land right on my head – sort of like getting hit by the pumpkin in The Headless Horseman.  One of the dive guides motions me forward.  I give him the diver sign for “No Way” - which is a violent shaking of my head from side to side and pointing to the surface with a raise middle finger. The
guide points down to my groin.  To my absolute horror I notice that I am laying RIGHT ON TOP OF A MORAY EEL!!  Judging on what the eel is lining up on, I immediately reclassify him as a “Mohl Eel:" [N.J. A Mohl is someone who performs Jewish Circumcisions.]  

Now I have real problem:  If I move away from the Mohl Eel I move closer to the Sharks.  I solve it by doing the crab maneuver: scuttling sideways closer to my son.

Eventually the shark popsicle is consumed, the sharks swim off and we retreat to the boat bonded together by our near death encounter.  The Florida lawyer is sitting at a table by himself, or should I say with himself.

Upon returning to the hotel we are greeted with the good news that a class 3 typhoon is headed right for Yap!  It will arrive Tuesday (today) night.  I’ve only been in one Typhoon that being Vancouver’s Typhoon Frieda in 1962 and it was quite exciting –and now I have a chance to live through a real typhoon – not a laid back west coast one.


The morning looks like Vancouver: foggy, rainy and miserable - except that it's 75 degrees out.   A typhoon may be coming but its business as usual at Yap tours.  Elan and I are booked for a kayak tour, and typhoon or not we're going.  Our kayaks and a guide are packed onto a boat and we head off to the Mangroves.  Not long after we leave the rains arrive.
After three hours of being drenched kayaking our way through an endless maze of Mangrove swamps it's time to go head back to the boat and head back to the hotel.  Once we're in the boat, the rain and wind really pick up. You can't see twenty feet in front the boat and the waves are six to eight feet high. It’s at that exact moment I notice the boat doesn't have a compass, radio or life jackets - I guess the Yap Coast Guard's a bit lapse on these small details.  Our boat driver has no idea where we are and the skies are getting darker.   I can honestly say that this is one of the only times in my life I've been afraid on a boat.  

The fog lifts for a second and we see land for the first time  and head into port as fast as we can go.   As I write this letter we’re hunkering down waiting for the full typhoon to arrive.  The authorities have told everyone in Yap to go home and find shelters.   I guess the best I can hope for is it will blow by here quickly and not interfere with our planned trip home tomorrow night.

I will email again soon and let you know how things turn out and where my laundry ended up.

The Typhoon, officially named Nanmadol, has passed Yap and is now hitting the Philippines. It has  been classified as a Super Typhoon.  I must admit that the excitement of experiencing a typhoon was very quickly overcome by the reality of actually experiencing one - it was no Universal Studios ride.   At the last moment the Typhoon veered to the North and the eye missed us by 20 miles.  The wind came from the land side of the island actually blowing the sea off shore.  It was like watching the surf in reverse as it blew off the beach.  If you were crazy enough to go down to the beach with a surf board you could actually surf out to sea. The sound  of the wind hammering against our hotel was like a thousand banshees screaming and the water coursed off the windows like they were being sprayed with a fire hose.  Water seeped through every seam it could find. About half an hour into it, the power went out and we retreated to the dining room and waited for the generator to hopefully kick in.  


The next morning Elan and I went on a cultural tour of the island - just the two of us.  We had the day to kill as we weren’t scheduled to head back to Guam until the evening.  Yap is still in its infancy when it comes to tourism.  The few hotels that exist cater mainly to divers who come from around the world to dive its crystal clear waters. When I expressed an interest to learn more about the customs and the history of the island, the hotel said they’d try and arrange something.

That “something” turned out to be Henry, a local resident, in a borrowed car.

“Where do you want to go?”  He asked. I’d read about old WWII airfields on Yap with Japanese planes still on the side of the runway.  I suggested we start there.

After a twenty minute ride we emerged out of the jungle onto a strip of beat-up concrete.
“Is this it?”  I asked.  I was expecting a manicured airfield with intact fighter planes lined up along the edges

“What did you expect,” Henry said, sensing my disappointment.  “It’s been 60 years.  The jungle has grown back.  If you want to see more we’ll have to go on foot into the jungle,”

As we progressed we found bits and pieces of Japanese Zeros and Betty Bombers.  I was particularly surprised when we stumbled upon a large jet engine sticking out of the jungle.

“I had no idea the Japanese were so advanced in the 1940’s.” I said.
“Oh that,” Henry replied.  “That’s a piece from a 727 that went off the runway about ten years ago or so.  It was after that the government decided it might be time to build a new airport a lot closer to the fire hall.”
“Good idea,” I agreed.


After the old airfield Henry took us on a tour of a couple of the local villages.  Everywhere we went there were great stone disks stacked on edge along the side of the road or in people’s front yards.

Yap is the home of Stone Money.  These stone disks, highly valued bgy the Yapese are called rai.  They were quarried centuries ago on Palau and towed by canoe over 250 miles back to Yap. You see them everywhere: the smallest is about 3 feet and the largest we saw were over 8 feet in diameter.

“That’s Stone Money,” Henry said as he pointed to a row of weathered stone disks lining the side of the road.  “We still use them here on Yap.” 
“Where do you find pay telephones big enough?” I asked.
Henry thought that was uproariously funny.  Yap would be virgin territory for a comedy club.

Henry explained they use American dollars for everyday things, such as groceries, gas, porn and such; but Stone Money is still used for important things: buying and selling land, dowries, porn and fines.

As we entered a different village, Henry picked some branches off a plant and handed them to me.
“Carry these.” He said.  “It shows that you are friendly.” 
Evidently a smile and a “Hey, how’s it goin’?” doesn’t quite cut it in Yap.


Yap is a very male dominated society where the men hang out at the men's house and the women do most of the work -  sort of like here. Like many Polynesian cultures there are still a series of taboos in effect - particularly when it comes to men and women mixing. Yap might not a great place to come if you’re a committed feminist.

We stopped at the men’s house in Henry’s village.  Henry tried to explain the rigid caste system that predominates in Yap: The village you’re born in determines your name and caste, and every village fiercely protects its own turf.

“What would happen if you caught someone from a neighbouring village fishing out here?” I asked pointing to the stretch of water right in front of where we were sitting.
“Well we’d go out and confiscate his catch.”  Henry replied.
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
Then we’d take his fishing gear and confiscate his boat.”
“Sounds like something that our fisheries department does back in
Canada.” I said.
“Then we’d bring him in here and beat him up,” Henry added.
“Just a little bit.” Henry continued. “Then we’d tie him to the pole here in the centre of our men’s house and send runners to his village demanding Stone Money for his return.”
“Sound a bit harsh to me.” I stated.
“Beats what we used to do.” Henry said.
“What was that?”
“Kill him!”

I’m now off to Guam to drop Elan off for his trip home, then I’ll had back to Saipan for a few days before heading home –sometime Friday.   It's been a slice, hope you all weren't too bored.  Maybe do it again, next

[N.J.  That ends my first trip to Micronesia in 2004.  The good news is I’m about to leave for  Spain to Run With the Bulls In  Pamplona in a couple of weeks – so we’ll be back to “real time” again. Hpefully you won’t find the blog entries from this upcoming trip to goring… I mean boring.]

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