I remember learning about the stone money of Yap about the same time as I learnt about the pyramids of Egypt. These things can live in your imagination for so long that seeing them in real life can give you a sort of shock, as the details are filled in, and new unexpected features are revealed.
The mystery of why and how stone money (called Rai) is used gives us some insight into our own culture and the meaning of money. Even today stone money has value. You might think that the larger the more valuable, but this is not necessarily the case.
Hundreds of years ago the Yap warriors undertook hazardous ocean voyages to Palau and other distant islands, where they cut the stone money from the hard crystaline (calcite) rock using hand tools. Then they sailed back with these heavy pieces of stone. Sometimes lives were lost in storms, or they were blown far off course and vanished in the vastness of Pacific. So it has come about that the value of the stone money is proportional to the story of heroism and the difficulty in obtaining that particular piece of money. The stone money really serves as a carrier of culture from one generation to the next, as the stories are told and retold. The most interesting stories survive and the value and status of the money associated with these stories increases.
Stone money is not used to buy everyday items, instead its value is reserved for traditional purposes. It may pass from one family to another as a wedding gift, or as part of the price of land. Rai given in this way is not usually moved, instead the knowledge of who now owns the money simply becomes part of the collective memory. That is not so different to how we use money.
Yap was not really known to the world until the mid 1800′s when the Irish trader David O’Keefe began using modern tools and ships to mint huge pieces of stone money in return for copra and bêche-de-mer (sea slugs). The result was akin to inflation, with the result that the O’Keefe stone money lost its value.
Stone money is not the only unique attraction of Yap, there is excellent diving. The “Canyons” is a quiet dive with little current and a labyrinth of corridors and swim throughs that are just fantastically good fun to explore, with some interesting critters.
Manta rays are one of the other key attractions of Yap. The manta rays come in great numbers and return to the same coral outcrops year after year. Small cleaner wrasse pick off the parasites that live on the mantas’ skin in a symbiotic relationship.
I have many more Yap underwater images, in the Yap Gallery, but before checking that out, I want to talk about the Yap culture. Since my visit to Yap was only for a limited time I thought I would rush in get the shots I wanted, rush here, rush there…but the island had other ideas. Heard of island time? Well Yap culture has embraced island time in its own charming way. For example, I found out there was a traditional dance through word of mouth, and then had to visit one of the resorts to be told that yes there will be a dance but that no one really knows exactly when it will be held. I had to call each day and they would let me know if it was going to happen, also they might call me since they know where everyone is staying. At first this could seem a bit frustrating, but once you accept the idea of island time it is quite endearing. I also like the fact that when Yapese do a traditional dance it is on their terms.
The Yap dancers are among the most skilled and authentic Pacific dancers I have seen. The dancers include people of all ages, and everyone has a lot of fun.
Some places can only be visited by obtaining permission from the traditional owner, who sometimes cannot be found and probably does not have a phone. As it turns out this actually gives you a chance to talk to the locals and absorb some of the culture. At one stage while waiting for a lift to see some of the old world war II relics I had a chance to chat to an old man who had sailed as far as Japan in his younger days using just the stars and wave direction to navigate. Since the islands were occupied by the Japanese for many years, some of the older folk are part Japanese and can speak Japenese.
Click on this link to see the full Yap – Micronesia Gallery (images of Asia Collection)