Yap on My Mind
I’ll tell you what I miss.
I miss bougainvillea and hibiscus and the big flame tree across the street from the post office.
I miss purple taro, thin slices of fried breadfruit, and those incredibly sweet little bananas; coconut juice fresh from the coconut (so what if I never managed to finish it without spilling half of it down my chin), and small fish blackened over an open fire and eaten, heads and all, with your fingers. I miss sashimi at O’Keefe’s and hamburgers (in season) at Mrs. Kalau’s roadside eatery down the hill from the Protestant Church. I even miss the only dish I ever created all by myself and ate in only one place on earth, Yap, as a kind of culinary last resort: elbow macaroni al dente, canned peas, and cubed Spam.
Send me five dollars, and I’ll send you the recipe.
I miss the orange and gold and black and white Air Micronesia DC-6B that made the trip from Guam to Yap and Palau and back again three times a week. Flying in that plane was the real deal as far as I was concerned: nothing between you and the bottom of the Mariana Trench but four Pratt and Whitney ‘Double Wasp’ engines whipping propellers round and round through the heavy, waterlogged air.
God, I loved that plane.
I miss looking up at night and seeing so many stars there was hardly any room left for the sky.
I miss dodging fruit bats as big as Buicks, trying to stay one step ahead of the Peace Corps district staff, and sitting in the men’s house in my village in Delipebinaw, watching the sun set night after night, ever more spectacularly it seemed to me, far out on the edges of the Philippine Sea.
I miss being reminded daily by the place where I found myself that I was, with a certainty beyond any possibility of doubt, a microscopically small pebble in the immense sea of life.
I miss mosquito coils.
Well, yeah, I do.
I think what I miss most, though, is betel nut.
Not the idea of betel nut, you understand; or betel nut as the object of some polite, soi-disant academic interest.
And not betel nut as you find it at Trader’s Ridge, the swell new hotel in Colonia up on the hill where the old Rai View used to be. There they serve a betel nut martini poolside, if you can believe it. I was so curious, I had to ask: what in God’s name is a betel nut martini? A nice woman named Jill e-mailed me back before 24 hours had passed. Turns out they split—poolside?—a small betel nut in two, extract the juices, and then drop the nut into a glass of vodka or gin, whichever you prefer, like an olive. Only you don’t eat the betel nut. It just sits there. And you—poolside?—just sit there, staring at it.
What a waste.
Me, I don’t think I’d be able to resist taking a chew.
Because that’s what I miss the most about betel nut: the chewing of it. And the companionable rituals that go along with that chewing. Sitting in the shade with a friend—or even a stranger who just happens to be passing by—to share the fixings and the preparations. The effortless camaraderie and genial conversation about nothing in particular. The spicy pepper leaf, the alum coolness of the lime, the satisfying crunch of the fruit—I guess it’s a fruit—itself. The gum-massaging fibers. The red saliva welling up in your mouth in volumes you wouldn’t have thought possible. The half-panicked savoir faire with which you struggle to keep it contained there, while trying desperately to hold up your end of the conversation. The pleasant little buzz.
I knew some hardened betel nut chewers—probably you did, too—who liked to add a small wad of tobacco to the mix to give the whole thing an extra kick, but I wasn’t man enough for that potent combination. The only time I ever tried it, I lost half my body weight in sweat in the space of 30 seconds, and my head telegraphed me briefly to say it was going to lift off from my body for a non-stop flight to Ulithi. Length of stay: indefinite.
After that, I settled for the vice in its purer form.
I have to be honest with you. One thing I don’t miss is that coconut sap wine: achif, I think it was called. You know, sort of milky white, vaguely effervescent, always with a few dead bugs floating around in it and a smell like nothing on God’s green earth—well, nothing that I was familiar with. Although, now I come to think of it, I bet the smell from the old Eastman Kodak plant in Kingsport, Tennessee, near where I grew up, could have given achif a run for its money.
Maybe it was the smell that was the barrier. Maybe it was the suspicious opaqueness of the liquid. Maybe it was the dead bugs (I mean, if they weren’t a warning, what were they?). I don’t know. But I do know that achif was definitely an acquired taste that some of us, sadly, never acquired.
Not that it was for want of trying.
I myself made efforts at taste-acquisition too numerous to relate. For me, achif never did go down smoothly. But I eventually figured out that, if you prepared yourself for it by chugging a liter or so of vodka first (Suntory, usually) and then sort of held your breath while you took a swig, it went down a whole lot easier.
The only problem was, so did you.
On the bright side, there was always some genuinely kind and almost impossibly understanding Yapese friend nearby who would move your comatose body out of the drop zone of falling coconuts, and make sure you didn’t sleep it off out in the open if it looked like it was going to rain.
I have to tell you, I really miss that.
But . . .
. . . poolside?
New York, NY