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Paradise, if you can find it

Special to The Times

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.

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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.

Next, we drove to a spot on the map marked “Stone Money Bank,” which I envisioned as a columned building erected to protect these national treasures. In reality, Stone Money Bank was a cluster of rock coins lying against the highway’s embankment. But they were indeed impressive. The largest were about 7 by 10 feet. Today the coins are used only for significant transactions such as buying a house; the U.S. dollar is the main currency.

The most stone money we saw in one place was in a narrow space between two men’s houses -- large mahogany-and-bamboo huts where men regularly convene to have meetings. It’s typical for unmarried adult males to sleep in men’s houses every night, using logs as pillows. In Yap, sleeping on wood is almost preferable to a bed, because fabric holds in the humid heat found on the island.

Continuing our drive, we passed a rural graveyard with huge decorated crosses -- most Yapese are Christian -- and a bit later, a white church with color-stained windows. Its gable framed a vivid Crucifixion painting, with Jesus wearing a thu -- a loincloth worn by Micronesian men.

Scott directed us to his village, Toruw, a cluster of stilted huts near shore, where the village chief welcomed us. While we made small talk, Scott climbed a notched palm tree to fetch a coconut. A short distance away, pigs stood, tied on ropes. They, along with the chickens scratching around them, would be dinner sometime, I knew.

By now a heavy rain had begun, so we loaded back into the car. The day’s last stop was Moon RiZE Cafe, a covered open-air restaurant with a limited but interesting Japanese menu. I ordered a soupy soba dish garnished with egg and seaweed, which I slurped contentedly while watching the tide pull out.

The restaurant’s owners, Japanese expat siblings Daisuke and Sayaka Jomi, also operate an adjoining dive resort. Before we left, they persuaded Tim’s family to come diving the next day. I wasn’t interested, but I agreed to snorkel while the others dived.

Shortly after dawn, we were back at RiZE Diving Center. A speedboat whooshed us over azure water. And though I’d confined myself to the surface, this was by far the best underwater scenery I’d ever seen.

I gazed at a rich wonderland of psychedelic colors, brain-like coral and unusual fish species. At a certain point, the shallow ocean floor gave way to a cliff so sheer it appeared infinitely deep. The divers were exploring this teeming wall. Later they reported that they’d seen sharks, octopuses and manta rays -- a species Yap is known for.

That night, we were guests of honor at a barbecue coordinated by Joe’s host family. We were again humbled by their customary generosity; they showered us with handmade purses, lavalavas (skirt-like garments) and more marmars. We dined on taro and breadfruit and drank tuba, effervescent wine made from palm sap.

The next day was our last, and we intended to spend it exploring the island, perhaps taking a hike and then dining at Mnuw, a ship-shaped restaurant that’s reputedly the island’s best. But during breakfast, a tropical depression took hold and fierce winds blew the bay’s water inland, flooding the town and its stores. We spent the morning helping shopkeepers move wares to higher ground. The storm eventually died down, but winds kept up, and businesses stayed closed for the rest of the day, so we lazed in our hotel room.

Sometime after midnight, a taxi driver sporting a thu and a big, bare belly took us to the airport for our red-eye flight. We were relieved the extreme weather hadn’t delayed our plane.

As we flew out, I thought about how I’d answer that question now: “Where the heck is Yap?” Before visiting, my answer was simple: east of the Philippines and directly north of the Indonesia-Papua New Guinea border. But after my experiences, I knew I’d never answer that way again. The question opened the door for me to say much more. It offered a chance to explain the place, its beauty and its generous people.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Little known in the Western Pacific

GETTING THERE:

From LAX to Yap, connecting service (multiple stops, change of planes) is available on Continental, Singapore, United, Northwest, Delta and American. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,780.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 691 (country code for Federated States of Micronesia), 350 (Yap’s area code) and the local four-digit number.

WHERE TO STAY & EAT:

Pathways Hotel, 718 Pathways Lane, Colonia 96943; 3310, www.pathwayshotel.com. A tropical treehouse-style eco-resort with comfortable amenities, bay views and a gracious staff. Restaurant. Doubles begin at $125.

Traders’ Ridge Resort, P.O. Box B, Colonia 96943; 3000, www.tradersridge.com. An inviting colonial-style property. Doubles begin at $215.

O’Keefe’s Waterfront Inn, P.O. Box 68, Yap, 96943; 6500, www.okeefesyap.com. A warm Victorian-style inn on the water; balconies galore. Named for Capt. David Dean O’Keefe, an Irish American explorer who settled in Yap in the 1870s. Doubles begin at $155.

Village View Resort, P.O. Box 1386, Yap, 96943; 2031, www.rizedivingcenter.com. The only lodging option on Yap’s northeastern coast is in Wacholab, a 60-person village. Village View offers rustic accommodations that are being renovated. Dive center. Moon RiZE Cafe offers Japanese food (entrees about $6-$14). Double rooms begin at $80.

Manta Ray Bay Hotel, P.O. Box MR, Yap 96943; toll-free (800) 348-3927 or 2300; www.mantaray.com. This marine-themed hotel caters to divers. Mnuw restaurant serves international and local entrees (about $7 to $15). Double rooms begin at $102 per person per night.

TOURS:

Sightseeing tours are available at several local hotels, with half-day tours starting at about $35 per person.

RiZE Diving Center, P.O. Box 1386, Yap; 2031, www.rizedivingcenter.com, runs eco-tours, snorkeling and diving trips. Manta ray season is from February to May, but RiZE operates year-round. Half-day snorkeling trips from $40 per person, including equipment.

TO LEARN MORE:

Yap Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 988, Colonia 96943; 2298, www.visityap.com.

FSM Visitors Board, P.O. Box PS-12, Palikir, Pohnpei, 96941; 320-5133, www.visit-micronesia.com

-- Avital Binshtock


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