Kate Galbraith

“You chew until it’s all smashed,” Laurence explains, as we sit at a table beneath the thatched-hut hotel where he works as a tour guide. “Then you take it out and add a little more lime. That’s when the flavor really comes out.”

He pulls out a straw pouch with a flourish and hands me the ingredients: A pepper leaf, a vial of lime powder, and the chunky acorn-like thing called a betel nut to which every native of Yap Island is addicted. His teeth stained inky blood-red from decades of betel nut chewing, Laurence demonstrates how to hold the betel nut in his mouth and crack it in half. I ape him, semi-successfully; then I sprinkle the two halves of my betel nut with lime powder. I fold the betel nut back together, wrap it all in the pepper leaf, pop it into my mouth, and start chewing and spitting. Just like the Yapese, my saliva turns a disgusting red, and my head gets a bit hot and my hands shake. A betel nut virgin no longer.

It’s called getting high in the name of research–for how can I write about betel nut without trying it? Betel nut is illegal in the States but is the mainstay of Yapese life–every islander walks around with a fat red wad of betel nut in the back of his mouth, which makes it very difficult to understand when they talk and gives them permanently red-black mouths, even the kids. All day, all night–the Yapese are chewing and spitting, chewing and spitting. Just as many U.S. businesses say “No Smoking,” professional institutions across Micronesia have posted signs saying “No Betel Nut Chewing or Spitting.” I resolve to take a good slide photo of one before I leave.

Yap is in my third country in three weeks. I’m zipping through Micronesia well ahead of schedule–I’ve already “done” Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (Saipan, Rota, Tinian), which means that I’m now a walking encyclopedia of hotel prices, Internet resources, the best restaurants, public library hours, etc. Saipan and Guam, if you want my honest opinion, are absolutely awful, ritzy dens of high-rise beachside hotels, fast-food joints, and duty-free shops for the hordes of Japanese tourists (whose numbers have dropped substantially since the Asian crisis). Saipan, additionally, is covered with poker facilities and is the home of large-scale garment-factory abuses. (With my own eyes, before getting chased out, I watched as gates closed on young Chinese workers in striped, prisoner-type uniforms who lived in tiny barracks and worked at $3.05 an hour so we can have clothes that say “Made in the USA” because Saipan is for no good reason a commonwealth of the United States).

But Yap I know I’m going to like better. Yap is supposed to be far more traditional, the kind of place where I’ll wear long pants initially because I’m not sure if women are supposed to wear shorts. (Yes, you snowbound Easterners, it’s 80 degrees and gorgeous here.) Strangely enough, the only firsthand report I have on Yap life besides the previous Lonely Planet book comes from my grandparents (yes, he’s J.K.G.). They stopped off briefly in Yap en route to Palau, another Micronesian island where my grandfather randomly helped write the post-U.N. constitution in the ‘70s. My grandfather claimed that his sole recollection of Yap was that the Yapese women went topless. My grandmother, delicately, recalled nothing of the kind.

But my grandfather, to my astonishment, was right. When we get off the plane, a bare-breasted young woman stands just beyond the customs desk. A lei swings across her nipples. She tucks a welcome-to-Yap map in my hands and puts a grass chain around mine and all the passengers’ necks. The American guys in line behind me are trying desperately not to stare. Not all the women are like that–not even the majority–but it’s enough to make Yap a primitive place. For the first time it really feels as if I’m on an isolated tropical island across the international date line.

There’s not much to do on a Sunday in Yap–post office, bank, all important institutions are closed–so I settle into my hotel and pump Laurence (who seems to be one of those old-timers who knows everything) for local tips while we chew and spit betel nut. Tomorrow will be a busier day.