17 December 2011


Tharngan did, indeed, have a boat, but when Waqyaan went to borrow it, Tharngan wasn't around.  Ah, well, he won't mind, thought Waqyaan.  So we took it and went out, did some fishing outside the reef (which was fun, although more demanding for me - deeper water and annoying small sharks trying to steal your fish).  We came back in and Waqyaan went to return the boat - and came back angry and with a bruise on the side of his face.

Tharngan had slapped his younger brother across the face for taking his boat without permission.  I emphasise the 'younger' in that phrase.  English has one word for 'brother;' Yapese kin terms distinguish older from younger brother.  Tethiig is 'my younger brother;' ironically, 'my older brother' is nganniiq.  The distinction is important.

But so, I imagine, is that distinction important most places.  Waqyaan's reaction was rather different from what I expected.  He did not think it was improper for his older brother to chastise him.  He seemed to think, first, that it had been extreme; and, importantly for my own future, that he, Waqyaan, would act the same towards his younger brother.

Why, I wonder, was this incident so exceedingly upsetting to me?  For it seemed to turn my world upside down.

For reasons that surely have more to do with my own frame of mind at the time than anything connected with Yapese culture, this experience amounted to a kind of conversion for me.  I had, I am sure, made a kind of idol of Yap.  The unspoilt native culture, without western hang-ups and uptightness, a people who are naturally in harmony with nature and with one another - and Waqyaan's experience had shattered the idol.

It had shattered it, not only because all was not sweetness and light amongst Yapese, but because I perceived - correctly, I am sure - that it was not western influence that had bruised Waqyaan's face.  It was traditional Yapese culture.

It will not help for me to remind myself that cultures may well produce systems that meet their very real needs.  It will not help, either, to say that I may simply have been wrong about what was going on between the two brothers.  I have called my change of outlook a 'conversion' and by that I mean a major change in me, triggered by objectively inadequate external events.  The causes of conversion are seldom sufficiently accounted for by pointing to externals.

This happened in late summer - perhaps mid- to late-August - and I was, in any case, scheduled to return to Honolulu in early September.  My return was hastened by an accident that would have been minor anywhere but Yap.

Yapese buildings are built on top of platforms of stone and coral skeletons.  One day I was stepping up onto the platform of the house where we ate, and slipped, skinning my left shin.

In Yap, one should not leave wounds open to the air.  Perhaps things are different today, but at the time, going to the toilet did not involve nice sanitary flushing arrangements and drains leading to sewerage purification plants.  I immediately cleaned the spot, applied anti-bacterial ointment, and bandaged it.  No problem.

Three or four days later, it had scabbed over and I took the bandages off.

Oops!  Lots of flies gathering around this one spot on my shin!  Bad sign.  Bacitracin and bandages, please!

Within a few days, I not only had a very bad infection in the spot, it had gone systemic.  My temperature was about 39 degrees, as I recall (102F for those of you still living in the 18th Century).  Blood poisoning a serious possibility.  An urgent flight was arranged for me to Honolulu.  I hobbled out to the 'plane on crutches, in fair agony.

On the flight, I recall thinking - feverishly, of course, but not, on that account, unreasonably - about my experience with Waqyaan.  I thought about what the difference between Yap and ... well, and 'us' ... was.  What did 'we' have that the Yapese did not have - or did not appear to me to have, given the inner nature of my experience.

I concluded that the difference was the Western ideal of love - an ideal, certainly, rather than, in any but the sketchiest sense, a reality.  Nonetheless, I decided that we in the West believed, even though we seldom acted in conformity with that belief, that it was somehow the case that love ought to characterise the relationship between people.

I had returned to being a Western man.

I arrived in Honolulu and immediately was seen by a doctor - who told me that he thought he could save my leg.  This was sobering.  He did - but it took six months of repeated packing of the ulcerated wound with antibiotic-soaked sponges.

I did not enrol as a student for the fall semester, 1969, and nor did I have any work tutoring at the University.  I was now unemployed.

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