Life sometimes takes us to mysterious places. I volunteered to travel to Yap – known by the natives as Wa’ab – to live with and work among the people who called that place home. I didn’t know anything about Yap other than what I read in the National Geographic. I knew there were huge round disks chiseled out of rock that the natives used for money. I knew the people mostly lived in bamboo huts. And I knew the women went topless.
Culture is always a shock! When you grow up in Idaho and venture outside the U.S. national borders for the first time, you’re bound to find something awkward and maybe a bit scary. A new and unfamiliar environment can be scary. Learning new customs can be awkward. Being a minority can be both scary and awkward.
I heard the captain of the 737 jet airplane announce that we were approaching the runway. I knew he wasn’t lying because I could see the island down below. It looked green and lush with a few reddish, bare splotches dotting the interior. The colorful reef that surrounded the island was ominous. Even from a few thousand feet in the air, I could see the white water breaking and crashing around the exterior a few hundred feet out from the island shores.
The makeshift runway we were approaching was a resurfaced Japanese airstrip used during World War II. The captain advised that we should get in our crash positions and remain there until the plane came to a stop. The pit in my stomach reminded me of the cereal and banana I had eaten only a few hours before. Remembering the safety lecture before takeoff, I tucked my head down behind the seat in front of me. I glanced over at the brown-skinned man and woman sitting across the aisle. They looked calm, like they had done this routine hundreds of times before.
The moment the wheels touched the pavement and bounced through the first giant pothole, I understood why we were in the crash position. I turned my head and looked out the window as the plane slowed to a stop – the reverse thrusts bellowing and screaming in protest. At the end of the runway, I could see the remnants of another plane just like the one I was riding in that had crashed only a few years before. It’s engines and electronics were removed, then it’s huge, burned fuselage pushed off the runway only to be swallowed up by the jungle.
As I carefully made my way off the plane and down the stairs to the tarmac, I looked off in the distance to the airport terminal. It was a bamboo hut with a green, woven roof made from some kind of leaves. The slight breeze caused sections of the roof to wave and flap as a welcome. All the passengers waited at the terminal for the luggage to be brought over. Then, one-by-one, we filed past the man standing at a bamboo table and showed him our papers. Then another man unzipped my suitcases and rifled through my clothes. “Did you bring any beetlenut or other plants and foods to Yap?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Okay, welcome to Yap; enjoy your stay,” he said as he quickly zipped up my luggage and pushed them over to me. I shoved my papers in my pocket, grabbed my stuff, and shuffled out in the open and out of the way of the people behind me. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I stood and looked around for my ride.
About fifty feet away, sitting on a long, narrow bamboo bench, 10 or 15 women sat with small children playing at their feet. All the women had colorful skirts that draped down near their knees. All of them were topless. They sat visiting, smiling, and laughing. Long, woven baskets were strewn around the bench and on the ground; some of the women clutched their baskets to their side, carefully protecting the contents inside. I looked out at the dense jungle, the noise from the crowd melding into a muffled din. I felt like a visitor launched into a new dimension of time, completely unknown and mysterious – and alone. “So, this is Yap. This is where I will call home,” I thought as I squinted into the afternoon sun and heat.
Suddenly, a group of smiling people approached. “Hey man, how was your ride out here? We’re here to take you home. Welcome to the island!”