Basket weaving in Yap

One of the most common and useful traditional arts in Yap is basket weaving, whether for special gift-giving occasions like the one we just celebrated, or everyday use. Every young girl learns the technique early and uses it throughout her life.
Baskets are often made “on-the-spot.” The most common basket for everyday use begins with a single green palm frond stalk cut from a tree’s trunk. The individual leaflets are then crisscrossed with nimble fingers as the two sides are woven together down the length of the frond to form the base of the basket. When the frond is woven closed, the thick rib is slit lengthwise to open the basket and act as sturdy carrying handles. These carryall baskets are made in many sizes and used to transport everything from babies and taro roots to bananas and breadfruit. They are the ultimate in natural, compostable materials and can be made very quickly, often within five minutes as the maker’s experienced fingers twist, turn and adjust the leaflets.
Other types of baskets are made for long-term use from naturally preserved fibers of the pandanus and coconut palms. The shapes, styles and designs are dependent on the weaver’s needs or preferences and with the end user in mind. And, of course, almost every Yapese carries a handheld basket to hold their essential items. This basket is so important that it is often called a “second home,” especially for men.
You may have heard the saying, “wisdom in the basket.” This refers to men who meet to discuss important matters. It is believed that their thoughts should not be expressed quickly or without some contemplation. And so, they reach thoughtfully into their basket to get a betel nut, a pepper leaf and a small bottle of lime made of ground coral. As they prepare their chew, the other men wait silently until the man has pushed the chew into his cheek and is ready to speak. According to Micronesian scholar Father Francis Hezel, “A betel-nut break [provides] a check against impulsive speech. Nothing is so detrimental to the peace and climate of respect as an ill-considered remark.”
For more information on how different types of baskets are made, visit

Weaving the leaflets together begins the process
Next she braids the two sides together to form a strong bottom
Finally she slits the stem lengthwise to open the basket and form handles

Baskets are used to carry and store food for long ocean voyages on traditional canoes

This experienced basket maker is weaving a round basket for produce and prepared foods. Note the light colored stem that will stablize the basket at the bottom.

Nearly done, she finishes braiding the leaflets around the base. Note the exquisite patterns she’s created.


Nunus – flower headbands – are ever-present in Yap. Worn by both men and women of all ages and given to a friend or family member as a “welcome home” or “goodbye”, for special celebrations like a birthday, graduation or wedding, or simply for no reason at all, sweet-smelling flowers like plumeria are collected and woven into a tightly braided band made of strips of palm fronds and leaves. Each one is unique, made by hand with the skill passed down through the generations from mother to daughter or grandmother to granddaughter. Marmars, or flower leis, are also given in the same manner. When you arrive at the airport, a young woman wearing a traditional grass skirt will place a marmar around your neck as a welcome to our beautiful island from the Yap Visitors Bureau. But be aware that if someone compliments you on your nunu, giving it to them is the polite thing to do!

Dancers’ nunus are often elaborate

When Peace Corps left Yap in 2018, volunteers presented nunus to their local families and friends
Nunus are given to guests at all official events

Selecting just the right flowers for the nunu
Note how she keeps the leaves taut as she braids the nunu

All school graduations end with the students smothered in nunus and leis presented by their families. Some are made of yarn, candies and fabric flowers.

Woodcarving in Yap

Once upon a time, Yap had some of the finest woodcarvers in the world. The art is being passed on by a few of the elders who still have the skill and knowledge, often in the canoe house where the youth learn how to carve and build a traditional canoe. But it’s feared that it’s a dying art. The youth begin with small pieces of wood, making birds and fish and small stone money discs for display or jewelry for sale to visitors to the island. One exquisite example of the Yapese art of woodcarving can be seen in the departure lounge at Yap International Airport. An explanation of the carving is nearby to provide a guide through the large, curved panel that shows everyday life in stunning detail. Today, Michael Finey (@arts Of Micronesia) continues the tradition from his studio in Saipan. 

Yap’s Traditional Buildings

Dolphins race along the eaves of Yap’s traditional buildings, a reminder of ancient myths that tell the story of the island and its people. This type of decorative symbolism is only one aspect of the honored traditions that are still adhered to when a new house is erected. Built to withstand the force of storms, no nails are used to allow the building to breathe. Dried, hand-rolled coconut fiber rope is woven into ornate lashings to bind together the heavy beams and pillars made of termite-resistant mahogany. 

Danup Kanifay House
Dolphins on eave of Living History Museum building

Rolling dried fiber for rope

How Yap Got its Name

Legend tells of the first European ship to arrive at the main islands that was met by a canoe of local warriors. Using sign language, the warriors invited the captain to come ashore for discussions. As the captain boarded the canoe, he pointed toward the shore and asked the name of the island. Thinking the captain was pointing at a canoe paddle held by the navigator in the bow of the canoe, the warriors responded, “Yap.” The name was recorded by the captain so today the islands of Wa’ab are known to the outside world as Yap, or “Canoe Paddle.” There are many who would like to go back to the original name of Wa’ab and visitors will see it throughout the island in the name of businesses and other uses. 

Legend of the Ghost Dance

Legends and myths abound in Yap. They are passed through oral tradition from one generation to the next. This is one of the most well-known legends that many visitors to the island may hear, but, like all stories passed from one generation to the next via oral storytelling may change over time. This story enjoys several versions.

There was a time long ago when foreign sailors brought the terrible disease leprosy to the island of Wa’ab. A man in the village of Akaw, Weloy was inflicted with the disease, which they named “bliss.” In order to prevent its spread when all local medicines failed to cure it, his family built a shelter for him high up on a hill outside the village and took him food every day. More sores appeared each week on his body and he began to hallucinate. He saw people going to practice a dance in the village, remembering it as a dream. One night while he was sleeping, the people came again. One person asked if he would like to join the dance practice. Agreeing, he practiced with them every night until he learned the dance well. When his family came to bring food, he asked them to bring his traditional dancing clothes, as well. They were alarmed and concerned that he was losing his grasp of reality. But he insisted and finally one of the family members agreed to bring his thuw, hibiscus, lava lava and dancing leis. That night when the people arrived, he was dressed in his best traditional clothes somehow realizing that that night would be the ”hang up dance,” the final dance which traditionally puts the dance away. They danced through the night and when the sun came up the next morning the sick man noticed all the dancers had disappeared. He was alone, hanging on a branch in the largest banyan tree on the island. He began shouting for help. People from his village heard him and came running. They were shocked to find the sick man in his dance clothes hanging in the tree. They were even more surprised to see that the sick man’s sores were gone and he appeared to be well again. As they helped him down from the tree, he began telling them about the dancers in the night. Back in the village, he called all the people to the dance platform where he repeated his story and began to teach the dance before he forgot it. It is said this dance is still performed today.

It went so fast…

When my mother was getting toward the end of her life, she told me that remembering was like turning the pages of a book in her mind, each page was an incident she had experienced or person she had known. 
As I grow older I am beginning to understand what she meant. The time before sleep arrives or when sleep eludes me after midnight, my mind wanders to people I knew. My former husband, a childhood friend, a former business colleague, a young woman with whom I was close for a time but gradually, or quickly due to a disagreement, lost touch. Places I have lived and others I have traveled through often come to mind with startling clarity, each a page in my mind’s book.
In recent years I have attempted to live a mindful existence. To be present and aware of my surroundings as I walk the streets of Manhattan to and from work, running errands, or meeting a friend for dinner, the theatre, a movie or to see a new exhibit at a favorite museum. With the constant busy-ness of the city, being mindful is difficult. The mind wants to shut out the chaos and think about things other than the dog walkers and their charges straining at their leashes; the momentary traffic jam caused by a cab stopping for a fare; getting across Union Square quickly by weaving in and out of Green Market shoppers and vegetable stands; an ambulance screaming down the avenue toward Bellevue or Beth Israel Hospital; a squat Guatemalan in an orange traffic vest and helmet speeding through traffic lights intent on delivering a takeout order. Or simply noticing the Gramercy Park neighborhood in which I live and walk daily. The businesses closing, the new ones opening; new recruits at the Police Academy wearing crisp black suits, white shirts and ties, perhaps the first such dress most of them have owned since their first communion; the appearance of new ratings in restaurant windows, a sign that the inspector has made a visit; a wave hello to the Korean dry cleaner standing behind the counter waiting for customers; the cobbler in his small, narrow, cluttered shop, a table of unclaimed shoes for sale set up on the sidewalk.
Pushing away thoughts of the past – how I might have acted differently in a difficult situation or said something that would have turned the outcome another way – or thinking about the future – an upcoming meeting or expected conversation, planning the arrival of a friend from faraway, or simply dinner that evening – rather than the steps I’m taking, the air I’m breathing, the buildings and people and trucks and cars and parks I’m passing prevents me from living my life fully in the moment. We only have this one moment. The past is gone and the future does not yet exist except in our imaginations.
On her deathbed, my mother sighed and said, “It went so fast.” Did she live a mindful life or did she live always in the past and future? With responsibilities that I do not have – children and a husband – she seemed lost when we were all gone and she was left alone. There was only the past to think about and relive. The future was a calendar to be filled in and planned and thought about. The void of the here and now with no more family needs to take care of may have been the source of that sigh.
Five years ago I drove from Seattle to my alma mater, Stephens College, in Columbia, Missouri through the middle of the country before turning left to take a northern route home. Two years later I moved from Seattle back to New York City intent on getting rid of encumbrances, of possessions that were unnecessary. I traveled across the volcanic ridge from Washington to California, dove into the deserts of the southwest, rambled toward the Rio Grande in Texas and down to the Gulf of Mexico, turning left again and heading north into Missouri, Kentucky, a corner of Tennessee, and up toward the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Amish farmland of Pennsylvania, coming to rest in Chinatown.
I thought of both as journeys, not merely trips or travel. It was to be a time to remain present and aware of my surroundings as I passed through, stopped, listened, took photos and jotted down random observations. No music, no radio, nothing but my own thoughts about the immediate environment. All too often we allow our minds to relive the past and go forward into the future thinking about something that is coming up or something that has come and gone. I was mindful of catching myself when these thoughts crowded out the here-and-now and turned them off like a dripping spigot that demands attention.
Avoiding the interstate highways, I stayed on back roads, slowing the pace. Time was no object. I could be on the road as long as it took. The two-lane roads were once the main connectors between towns and cities before the interstate system was built, linking main streets miles apart.  
As a result, the pages in my mind come more clearly. Details are sharp. The slow turning of a vulture’s head as it sits on a fencepost and watches me pass by on a deserted road in southern New Mexico. A remote, ancient outpost of stucco and wood where Spanish priests attempted to introduce Jesus to Native Americans who already had their own rich traditions of higher powers. When they resisted the priests, the priests turned to genocide helped by others who wanted the land.
I remember driving into Hannibal, Missouri and the poverty that has consumed the once thriving port. Stores were closed, massive weeds the height of a man stood in doorways as roofs and ceilings and walls crumbled. The apocalypse had come to this small town and there was no way out. A man in a motorized wheelchair moved down an empty street and turned into a corner building with a flashing BAR sign in the darkened window. A young girl exited a large, turreted house, its paint peeling and the veranda sagging like an old woman sitting bereft in her once grand parlor. The slender young girl skipped and hopscotched on long brown legs toward the corner market, a small change purse tightly held in her hand.
These images are among the pages in my mind as I flip through the memories. There are not to be forgotten but I have resolved to be present, caught between the pull of yesterday and the blank canvas of a tomorrow that can only be planned but never assumed.

The Far End of a Bar

As I turned into the gravel parking area, an emu looked at me quizzically, its small head twisting above a stalk-like neck. Confined to a pen next to the low shingled building, its presence in this remote corner of Pennsylvania was as quizzical to me as I was to it.
The smell of stale tobacco smoke, lack of hope and hamburger grease greeted me as I opened the weathered wood door, its original paint only faintly evident in the cracks and splinters.  I was hungry and this was the only place to satiate it on this long, remote ribbon of back road. An OPEN flag fluttered on a flag pole outside. I’d passed a few places but it was November and they were all closed for the season. Thanks for a great season! See you next April! had replaced Welcome! on signs at small cafes, tourist cabins, RV campgrounds, ice cream stands, and Family Funland parks where parents could let their children run off pent up energy in go carts while they sat at picnic tables drinking beer and eating hot dogs.
The squeaking hinges and narrow shaft of afternoon light announced my entrance. “Well, hello,” one of the men tossed my way as I entered the dimly lit interior. “Hello,” I replied, trying to be the right amount of friendly but not wanting to be subjected to questions or conversation.
A long bar curved around the narrow room. Seven men and one woman sat along its expanse, beer bottles within easy reach. At slow intervals, the bottles were absentmindedly fingered and raised to lips, heads tilting back just enough for the next swig to enter past eager lips with a brief swish before swallowing.
A room lined with video games and pool tables took shape in the darkness through a large archway. A tall, sturdy woman of about 50 with bleached blonde curls framing a square jaw and red lips was behind the bar. Nine pairs of eyes followed me, some turning to look directly at me, others looking sideways. The less effort the better. Approaching the far end of the bar where she stood near the door leading to the kitchen and next to the cash register, I asked, “Do you serve food?” She produced a menu and handed it to me, looking closely at me to perhaps determine if I looked familiar but more likely curious about why I had stopped at this place, a place for locals that only sees strangers in the summer months. Even the hunters who arrive in the fall are familiar and make this their weekend hangout in between treks into the forest. Who you’re related to is important in a place like this where people are born, schooled, married, work and die without ever going more than 50 miles in any one direction.
I took off my coat and sat down to scan the menu. “Do you have any wine?” I asked, expecting the answer to be “just beer.”
“Mmmm…well…I think I have some zinfandel…and some of that Niagara,” she replied.
“No pinot grigio or chardonnay?” I asked, catching myself only after the question was aired.
“No,” she shook her head, the wary look in her eyes similar to the emu’s startled curiosity.
I settled on the zinfandel with little expectation that it would be anything more than poured from a box with a spigot that was near or past its expiration date. I also asked for a plain hamburger “on our own bun” as the menu proudly promised, and a small side salad. Everything else was battered and fried.  I had come to understand that “salad” in this part of the world meant roughly chopped iceberg lettuce, a few dime-size carrot rounds, thin slices of onion, a few tomato cubes so pale they could easily hide in the lettuce with no discernible taste difference, and a sprinkling of grated American cheese for color. My wine and salad expectations were not disappointed.
As the bar sitters became more accustomed to my presence, idle comments and local gossip were again traded, punctuated now and then with a burst of loud horselaughs followed by gaps of silence. A young woman of perhaps 35 exited the kitchen and walked toward the door that I had recently entered. “Bye, Roger,” she called to one of the men. “See you,” she called to the others.
“How many kids you got?” one of the men asked as she passed by his stool, his denim-clad rump overflowing the cushioned plastic seat.
“Three,” she replied.
“How old are they?” he asked.
“Nearly 18, 15 and nine,” she answered.
“Well, then, you better get home,” he said with a low chortle, the others joining in with grunts.
As the door closed behind her, someone commented that she had her hands full and indicated she wasn’t one to fool with. Louder chuckling grunts followed the comment. Everyone knew what the speaker meant.
Turning back to the bar and their beers, the room went quiet again save for the sound of bottles pulled closer, lifted and tilted into mouths.
Listening to the intermediate volleys of good-natured ribbing, it became apparent that several of the men were unmarried. One confessed to still living with his sister. Their trucks in the parking lot were a giveaway to their whereabouts but inside they could be removed from judgmental neighbors and angry ex-wives, abusive ex-husbands, disappointed grown children and long-suffering elderly mothers. They preferred the darkness of the bar and regular drinking companions who never judged their love of beer to going to their trailer homes and cabins. Set back from the two-lane road in tangles of undergrowth and tall pine trees, a dirt road was often the only indication of habitation, the property littered with rusting car parts and machinery ensnared in dead vines, an old washing machine and a broken down sofa on the sagging front porch. Social security checks and any income from odd jobs went toward beer, gas to get to the beer, beef jerky and ammunition. Food stamps bought potatoes and boxed meals you could heat up on the gas stove, crusted with food and rust.
Listlessness became more evident as my senses adjusted to the darkness and the smells of body heat, shapeless, unwashed work clothes, beards, cigarettes and stale beer. I studied the patrons more closely, attempting to be discrete in my interest. Lives spent in day labor had taken their toll. Shoulders hunched toward the bar, timeworn faces and rough hands, some with a missing finger or two chopped off in a sawmill or mangled in a wood chipper, made them look older than they were.
“I worked for him one time up ta his sawmill,” one of the men abruptly said to his companion two stools away. “He had a big operation up there.” The other man nodded. “I live up in Leeper now,” he continued. “She’s living in Ohio. Married my cousin.” Conversation was like loose threads picked at until they come free. Some of the threads were familiar to everyone, some not, but there was a shared place and time and community among them that didn’t require explanation, just a phrase or two that indicated what the speaker was remembering at that moment. I thought of the emu, penned up outside and pecking the ground with no more interest or thought about the world than what was happening at that moment.
The well-done hamburger arrived on a bun much larger than the burger itself. A tossing of potato chips lay beside it. A wine glass had been found and pale pink zinfandel poured in. As I ate the meager fare, the blonde woman came out from the behind the bar and asked if I was enjoying my hamburger. “Yes,” I said, not untruthfully since the meal was now not about the food but about the observation of her world.
The woman sitting at the end of the bar was silent, occasionally looking my way. I was a foreigner. Someone to be curious about but not to ask questions of.  Bent elbows splayed outward on the bar, she leaned toward a man two stools away, holding her beer loosely, fingers caressing the bottle. She spoke to him, her speech muffled by vacant gums and lips that wetly formed words, the tongue unable to find traction.
Finishing my hamburger, I stood up, pulled on my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck and walked to the cash register. “Do you take plastic? “ I asked, knowing what the answer would be but hoping otherwise since I had given most of my cash to the service station attendant a few miles back. “No,” the blonde woman replied, “that’s why we have the ATM over there.” She nodded toward the machine situated nearby. Fumbling with my debit card, the instructions on the front of the machine faint from use, I spent several minutes trying to insert the card. The room was quiet as as I struggled to complete the transaction. I began to get concerned. What if the machine didn’t work and I had to find cash? Would she trust me to return with it? Relieved when I finally found the magic combination, I turned to pay with the $20 bill.
Walking the length of the bar past the beer drinkers nursing their bottles, the air that greeted me as I opened the door was cool and smelled of pine sap and wood smoke. The emu looked up from its scratching, turning its head to the side to get a better look at the stranger. As I pulled out of the parking lot, the blinker indicating a right turn onto the deserted road, the bird went back to its mindless pecking among the dirt, dried leaves and old pine needles of its pen.

Traveling Unpaved Roads

Traveling across the U.S. on back roads seems to some to be insanity. The “what ifs” tumble from the lips of people who position themselves as merely concerned friends. Friends who want to make sure the traveler has thought through the possibilities of failure or worse. Friends who seem to be risk takers but are, in actuality, well…believers in being safe. While I can understand the hesitancy of the families and friends of those first settlers who set out across the mountains and plains, deserts and forests in covered wagons, those same warnings seem out of place in this age of paved roads and connectivity.  That said, I am pulled toward unpaved roads that disappear into the distance. Places where cellphone bars also disappear.
Group travel in a large bus is foreign to me. I have seen these behemoths whizzing by on highways or lumbering through a city, the occupants staring out the windows at the passing landscape or cityscape, a tour guide speaking into a microphone and pointing to things of supposed interest. They go home and tell their friends about their trip and what they saw. But what did they really see? Did they experience a new culture or explore a neighborhood or eat in a local restaurant like those that I enjoy every day in Washington Heights or the Lower East Side or even a small town in a remote area of China?  This is what it means to “take a journey” rather than “go on a trip.” A journey is discovery. A trip is merely getting from point A to point B the fastest way possible.
I was brought up by a mother who read the road atlas like others read Good Housekeeping. Her red-polished finger following the continent-wide spiderweb that connected farms to villages, villages to towns, towns to cities. She took special joy in finding names like Dime Box and Old Dime Box, adjacent villages in Texas, or Bug, a small town in southern Kentucky. Whooping with glee, she would announce the name and write it down as a future destination.
I took my first road trip at the age of one when my father accepted a new job in Dayton, Ohio. The year was 1948, several years before the first interstate highway was opened. It took my father three long days of driving from Wichita to arrive at our new home. My mother was in charge of the atlas, linking the roads to find the shortest route. My four-year-old brother and I were relegated to the back seat and a box of toys. 
My father was known for not turning around no matter how lost he might be. “Oh, for god’s sake, Russell, turn around!” my mother would plead. But onward he would go. The running joke during my childhood was that we would end up in a farmer’s backyard before he would cave and agree to turn around. And then we did just that one day. The farmer’s wife appeared to see who was stopping by. Sheepishly, my father backed out, a flock of chickens squawking and flapping around the tires and an old dog of indiscriminate parentage raising its head sleepily to emit a halfhearted woof at the unfamiliar car. 
In the years after that first journey, we took numerous car trips, my brother and I still stationed in the back seat, my mother the navigator with her atlas on her lap, finger at the ready to tell my father where to take the next turn.  As the interstate highways were completed, we often took them to span the distance between places like south Texas, where we moved when I was six, and northern New Hampshire where my father attended a conference of fellow city managers. But the back roads were never truly abandoned. Unlike the highway rest stops built for long distance truckers, the small towns offered diners that few travelers visited any more. Roast beef sandwiches floating in brown gravy. Grits slathered with butter. Hot, flaky biscuits that melted in your mouth. Barbecue slow cooked in metal drums over mesquite wood. You couldn’t get that at a rest stop.  Every diner had a table of old men in overalls and plaid shirts drinking coffee, talking local politics and gossiping. Dressed in a crisp uniform, apron and cap with a corsage handkerchief pinned to the shoulder, the waitress kept the cups filled, trading snappy comments and laughs as she passed the table, pencil and order book in hand.
I had been living in New York City for nearly 20 years when my widowed mother came to join me for another road trip back to Wichita where she was once again living. Now it was my turn to get out the atlas and plan the trip. Highways were to be avoided. Inns were nighttime way stations; reservations were made at some and allowed daily mileage of  250 to 300 miles. Time was allowed for stopping along the way to see the sights, most of them far off the beaten tourist path but still noted on the atlas or in the books on each state that we were to pass through. We would take a week to make the trip out and a week to make it back with a few days in between to do the laundry and get the car ready for the return.
New Jersey is a state that has its good points but back roads are not among them. Highways provide multiple lanes meant to move vehicles large and small to their final destination as quickly and efficiently as possible. No lingering in small towns. No slowing down to enjoy the farms that dot the countryside, their rolling hills inviting the driver to stop at a farm stand, buy donuts and cider and sit at a wooden picnic table to savor the sight of cows standing placidly under the shade of a tree or a regiment of apple trees dappled with sunlight. The highway demands the driver’s attention as large trucks bound for California and Ohio, Texas and Michigan race against each other. Cars move in and out like flies trying to find a spot to rest before leaping into the next opening. Rest stops appear every few miles laden with fast food and video games, gift shops and soda machines and rest rooms with lines of travelers waiting impatiently for an open stall, anxious to get back on the highway. Staffed by uniformed teenagers and their adult supervisors from nearby small towns that were left behind when the highway was built, these rest stops are anything but restful for the road weary driver. 
I often take roads that run parallel to the highway. Most are a mile or more distant but there remain remnants of a time before the earth was moved to make way for interstate commerce. 
In the Midwest, small towns that have been largely abandoned dot the back roads; the only indication of life is the grain silo, a diner offering homemade pies and hot coffee, and a few houses decorated year round with Christmas lights with old tires, rusting cars and plastic trolls in the scraggly yards. The younger generation left long ago. A motel, or motor court as they were once called, stands silent at the edge of most small towns, overgrown with weeds, its fading welcome doormats askew worn and bare, and a cracked swimming pool empty and rimmed with a wire fence, mirroring the sign that once blinked gaily, “Welcome. Air conditioning. TV. Swimming pool.” The only inhabitants live on small government pensions or Social Security. Some work at the convenience store, serve breakfast at the diner, or plow snow in the winter for the county. It’s a hardscrabble existence as the town slowly fades around them, the high beams of trucks and cars racing along the distant highway disappear over the horizon.
Yet its those small towns and their ghosts that I seek out. I look for the historic signs planted along the roads or in small rest stops where a simple picnic table stands waiting for the traveler to rest awhile. The signs tell of events that took place nearby and the people who first settled there; of Native tribes who roamed the hills and plains; and wars that were fought. The signs show pride in local history; pride in survival; pride in ancestors and the events that shaped these clusters of people who were all seeking a better life. They found that life for awhile. Until the highway passed them by.