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Paradise, if you can find it

Talk about remote -- even Yap's souvenir T-shirts poke fun at the obscurity of this Micronesian island chain. But what a getaway for divers and daydreamers alike.

February 11, 2007|Avital Binshtock | Special to The Times

Colonia, Yap — THE slogan is silk-screened on T-shirts sold in stores on this tiny Micronesian island: "Where the heck is Yap?" It's also the question I fielded most after telling people I was headed here.

Yap, one among the Caroline Islands, is in the Western Pacific and part of the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM. I visited last summer with my boyfriend, Tim, and his family to spend time with his brother Joe, a Peace Corps volunteer assigned here.

Although Yap has only 83 square miles of land, it is made up of 134 islands -- including one that locals call "Yap Proper." This was the lush green strip that was becoming visible as we descended at the end of a 48-minute flight from Palau. The most striking part of the aerial view was the water, which was at least 10 shades of blue. It was easy to see why divers love the region.

On the ground, we passed through immigration and were greeted by a topless girl in a grassy skirt. She smiled graciously and placed a plumeria-strung marmar (crown) on my head.

Joe's host family -- the locals with whom he lives during his Peace Corps service -- greeted us at the baggage claim area and bedecked us with more marmars for our heads and noonoos (like Hawaiian leis but more intricately woven) for our necks.

A 10-minute ride to our hotel gave us a better sense of the island's lushness: Save for the road, almost every inch of land was blanketed in tropical plants. At a small intersection, I caught a glimpse of several bare-breasted women sitting by the side of the highway; they stared curiously after our van.

When we arrived at our hotel, the Pathways in Colonia, a portly innkeeper greeted us warmly with chilled pineapple-orange-grenadine juice. He showed us to our rooms, passing a prominently displayed collection of the stone money, the unique currency for which Yap is known.

The nine-unit hotel, straight out of "Swiss Family Robinson," was a glorified treehouse made comfortable with air-conditioning. Full-length windows afforded bay views.

It was evening, so we headed down to the hotel's outdoor restaurant, JM's, where Joe's host family met us for dinner. I ordered the $2.50 veggie burger, a satisfying mishmash of vegetables deep-fried together and placed on a mayo-slathered bun. Tiny cats milled around us begging for scraps; the air buzzed with mosquitoes and fireflies. Teo, Joe's host family's father, dominated the conversation with stories about the islands' politics. He'd been a state senator for 16 years.

I asked whether tourists are welcome in Yap. Teo paused, then conceded that they are now that locals realize they're a source of income. There was a time, however, when, because property rights are very important to the Yapese, tourists were liable to be beaten if they wandered uninvited into a village, he said.

Micronesians are quick to laugh at even the slightest humor; at one point during the dinner conversation, a kitten I'd been holding hoisted itself onto the table and sprinted across. I was embarrassed, but the locals loved it and laughed heartily.

After dinner, we strolled through Colonia, Yap's capital. It was 10 p.m., and the only signs of life were a few scruffy dogs sleeping on the one-lane road.

An obsession to chew on

THE next morning, Tim was the first out of the room, and a housekeeper greeted him with a hibiscus-and-thistle marmar. Breakfast at JM's was pancakes, and the day's first stop was the Peace Corps office, where Joe's boss, Larry, introduced us to betel nut.

Betel nut is Micronesia's national obsession. It's a palm seed that, when chewed raw, produces a mildly narcotic effect. Locals chew it constantly -- far more than Westerners chomp gum -- and I'd been put off by descriptions of its effects: dizziness, wooziness and slight euphoria. But now that it was being offered, the reasoning typical of travel manifested itself: "When in Rome ... "

Larry split one open, sprinkled ground coral on it, wrapped it in pepper leaf and presented it to me. I stuck the bundle in my mouth and gnawed. It was bitter, hard to chew and produced a lot of red saliva, which we spat into a communal soda can. Soon I felt lethargic and foggy, as though my brain were working half-speed.

Leaving the Peace Corps office, we walked into Colonia's center, where we rented an SUV and took off on a tour through the 39-square-mile island. Scott, another Peace Corps volunteer, joined us on the drive.

Although jungle and wild foliage were everywhere, the road's flanks were manicured, courtesy of public works employees. Our first stop was to tour the Micro Spirit, a supply ship that weaves its way through FSM, stopping monthly at each major island to bring supplies and transport people. The boat was noticeably dilapidated but seemed to serve its purpose.

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