Chitchat from the end of the world




With eyes squinting under the scorching equatorial sun, I tried to discern the silhouette of the man who was hiding in the mangrove forest opposite. The boatman refused to move within the range of an arrow. We were separated from the “Primitive island” by no more than a hundred metres and the situation seemed absurd. In the beginning of the 21st century they were trying to convince me of the existence of a tribe that was rejecting the modern way of life in any form whatsoever. It had taken me a lot of effort to find somebody to take me there, only to have my undertaking threatened with failure. My guide categorically refused to shorten the distance to the object of my curiosity. Luckily the tide was with us and the boat was steadily nearing the island. I could feel the taste of imminent success, which evaporated the minute the man half showed himself behind the tree which he used for cover. His naked body was covered in white paint with the exception of his blackened face. In his left hand he was holding a long spear. What terrified me were his eyes. He had the look of a man for whom life means nothing. His behaviour led me to believe that he was quite willing to sacrifice it. My guide swallowed hard, nervously switched on the motor, revved up the engine and blasted out into the ocean. I admit I did not regret this in the least. I was happy to leave the study of primitive local customs to the anthropologists. In the final analysis, I was there for the diving. I was in the Pacific. To the left, a distance the size of the whole of Europe separated me from Manila, to the right – from Hawaii. I was on the island of Yap. In the middle of nowhere. So far from civilisation as we know it, that it had proved too much even for the missionaries who left the people inhabiting the island to develop in their own particular way. This explains why their legends do not smack of Biblical teachings, which corrupted so many innocent souls through the ages. Instead, their dances are full of roaming spirits, enormous snakes and perfidious temptresses. They have no script. If you ask them how the world came into being, they respond with a beautiful and mystical dance. Like plain savages. Absolutely incomprehensible, possibly except for some Dancing Stars fans. People with the same customs and culture easily understand each other. Luckily, I was not accompanied by any such fan, which forced me to use the services of a former American ranger who had returned to his native places with bad breath and even worse English. The breath was due to some extent to the constant chewing of betel nut – an intoxicating habit inherent to most peoples in the Pacific region and a large part of Asia. My wish to try it vanished as soon as I learned that my teeth would turn red and stay that way for the next three months. The idea of showing a red smile back home, giving rise to unfounded associations, did not particularly thrill me. All I could do was to jealously watch how everyone around me took nut-like kernels out of small straw bags, made by their wives, squeezed white pulp from boiled corals onto green leaves, wrapped them carefully around the kernels, pushed the whole lot into their mouths and, after chewing briefly, appeared to be stoned out of their head. Everybody chews the stuff – young and old alike. Add to this the rampant alcoholism and you will understand why there aren’t all that many old people around. On Yap Island drunkenness is a problem which has caused the chieftains to introduce a special alcohol passport, without which you are not served any alcohol. I myself thought I had overdone it when I saw a woman, dressed only in a straw skirt, to shop for washing power in dollars in a grocery store, before driving off in a dusty pickup in an unknown direction. On Yap traditions are respected. One in three women is dressed like that. As regards money, the island tribes have attained two unique economic achievements. They have succeeded to introduce absolute private ownership on everything abound them, including the beaches, riffs and even the underwater world. There is a complex system for obtaining permits even just to stop your car on the road, to cross the sparse jungle or to go to the beach for a bath. Then there are the stone disks, resembling mill stones, used for centuries as the main means of payment on the island. Near each village there is a stone bank, an arrangement of stones, their size ranging from one- to three-metre huge rocks. Fathers take their children there to tell them the story of the family stones and the ownership they signify. This is how memory is preserved. Their value is determined by the fact that the material they are made of comes from an island some hundred miles away, from where they were brought on rafts, at the risk of life. A piece of stone money from Yap can be seen outside the National Bank of Canada in Ottawa. A highly complex caste system exists on Yap. The tribes waged long struggles with each other for dominance and survival. The gender division in everyday life is also impressive.


The men have a male house, tall, cool and open, on the ocean shore, where they pursue their male affairs. They take their sons there to teach them how to make canoes out of a whole tree trunk and fishing hooks from tortoise shells, they show them how to build a house and everything else that a young man needs to know on Yap island. The women, for some unknown reason, have a pink house in the interior, not particularly open, in a not necessarily airy spot, where they take their daughters to teach them female things. The main one of these, it seems to me, is knitting the above-mentioned small bags proudly carried by every man on the island and probably containing their most precious possession – the betel nuts. It may sound sexist, but it’s the absolute truth. In one of the male houses I asked the big chief, Tomane, whether they commit adultery. Smiling mischievously, he told me that this was inevitable. In order to avoid the just anger of the women they have an iron law. If the lawful wife beats up the mistress, you are entitled to a divorce… But the women do not allow such a golden opportunity and so everybody lives happily in peace and harmony. That’s how it is and that’s how it will stay.


The Americans who regard this zone as belonging to them economically and politically, support the island with annual financial injections distributed according to a mysterious scheme by the tribal chieftains. The material world is slowly invading the pure hearts. Like the bright beads of the first colonialists, shops with colourful goods take over the mind. Asphalt roads cut through the jungle. Petrol fumes waft from the droning boats of the fishermen. But this is not accepted by the purists on the neighbouring island, not wanting anything of the goods of civilisation. They want life to be the way it has always been.  Without schools, cars and rapid communications. I wonder how long they will last? Their tranquillity has so far only been disturbed once – during the Japanese occupation. They treated the local population so badly that they earned their eternal hatred. My guide tells me about his father, who, the minute he set eyes on a Japanese tourist, would approach him and start whispering in his ear in his native tongue which he remembered from the war. The Japanese would then start to cry in shame and humiliation. Remnants from that time are rusting on the runways in the shape of guns and planes. They, too, are owned by somebody, and being taken to see them involves preliminary negotiations and arrangements. This is how, without haste, the people on Yap live. Will the calculated evil of our world engulf them? Will it obliterate the legends and mores? Probably yes. Let’s hope they will be happy until that time comes.


I won’t write about what is happening underwater around the island. Instead, I will let the photos take you through this adventure.


Finally, in case you’re interested, the world was born two hundred miles north of Yap on an island inhabited by spirits. At some stage, nobody knows when, it was submerged to about 10 metres below the surface, and the locals go there in their canoes to fish. I know because I was there.