10 December 2011


It came as a dream come true to me when, in perhaps March or April of 1969, I was offered a contract to work in Yap over the summer to be in charge of the linguistic aspects of the Peace Corps training programme, to be conducted there in Yap.  I had worked full-time on the Yapese language for three years.  I knew much about the language, but was very much aware that my understanding of its structure was imperfect - and I had almost no practical command of Yapese.

This last fact may surprise non-linguists.  Actually to use a language is a skill, not simply a body of knowledge.  As well might one assume that a deep understanding of the physics, mathematics, and psychology of western music is sufficient to enable one to play the piano.

Thus I was excited simply as a linguist at the prospect of living and working in a speech community for a language which I had so intensely studied - and, indeed, this experience gave me the beginnings of the ability to speak Yapese, and enabled me to correct some basic errors in my interpretation of the grammar of the language (and which are propagated in my book).

All of which had very little to do with the emotions with which I greeted the possibility of going to Yap.

There is no doubt that western men are infected with the myth of the noble savage, and I am no exception.  This is not enough to explain the emotions I felt at the thought of going to Yap.

I said, in a previous post, that I had given up hope.  This is not true, of course.  My use of LSD was itself a part of what has to have been a search - a search outside, as I have put it - outside of the world of matter and energy - and, indeed, of thought and reason.

Yap also was outside.  The life I imagined the Yapese to live was as different as the life of dwellers on another planet.  And, after all, I was not very happy in Honolulu now.  I knew that my studies had pretty much gone down the drain.  I spent much of my time going from LSD trip to LSD trip - with marijuana in between - and was, perhaps, getting a bit bored.

When, therefore, I left Honolulu on the first leg of the flight to Yap, I had, it may be, the attitude of a man being transported to Heaven on the wings of angels.

Honolulu to Guam on the 727.  Two nights in the Micronesia Hotel (which may not exist any longer - a web search doesn't find it - and, as Susan will testify from her memory of the night we spent there in 1973, it was a dump - and to me, at the time, sheer heaven), then onto the DC6 for Yap.

Looking down from the aeroplane on my first trip to Yap is an experience I will not forget.  I felt that a new life was beginning for me.

The training site was in Gagil ...

Perhaps I should say that one puzzling fact about living in Yap - puzzling, I mean, to those who have never lived there - is that it is much larger on the inside than on the outside.

Yap Island - which is really four islands inside an encircling reef, with narrow channels between them - is roughly a fairly squat triangle, with the base roughly 25 Km in length, and the 'altitude' (straight line from the peak of the triangle to the base) about 10Km long.  According to Wikipedia, its land area is about 100Km2 - so it is quite a lot smaller than the city of Auckland.

Yet I have never been in most of Yap.  And, although travel within Yap is - or was - not as handy as in, say, Auckland or Honolulu, there are roads and there are automobiles.

But I would never just get into a car and drive someplace in Yap.  I don't know that anyone ever explained this to me, but the fact is that in Yap in 1969 - and, for what I know, still today - there is not, except for in 'Kolonia' itself, the concept of public land.  If I had some reason to go to a particular village, it would be well understood.  The local chief would know who I was and why I was there.

So I will mention places in Yap that may give the impression of great distances apart - and, psychologically, they were.

Training was in Gagil.  I think - though I am not sure of the accuracy of my memory - that training was in Gachpar, at the school.  I lived, however, in Wanyaan with Waqyaan, brother of Tharngan.  I wore Yapese clothes - loincloths - three, layered, as an adult male - with - well, without a lot of words to describe them, I won't make much sense.  A picture is worth a thousand words (Susan is concerned you might think this is a photo of me; it is not.  I have one somewhere, but this is just off the web):
I chewed betel nut (no marijuana or LSD in Yap - at least not then :-)).  I lived pretty much like a Yapese.  Worked at the training programme.  Sometimes Waqyaan and I slept in the school, but mostly we slept in his brother's house.

We went (spear-)fishing pretty regularly.  This was almost always simply mask-and-snorkel work inside the reef.  We had no trouble getting fish, of course - but ... Waqyaan told me of the fish outside the reef.  For that, however, we would need a raft or a boat.  Tharngan, his older brother, had a boat.  No doubt we could borrow it.

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