Prosperity at an Acceptable Price: Yap and Palau Try to Protect Culture in the Age of Tourism

Article excerpt

Louisa Kasdon Sidell is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

The tribal chiefs, the villagers, and the elected officials on the tiny island State of Yap in Micronesia, look across at their neighbors on the islands of Palau, and they are afraid. They observe how a spike in tourism dollars quickly improved their neighbors' standard of living-- more roads are paved, the communications infrastructure is better, and hospitals are more up to date by far in Palau than they are in Yap. But the elders worry that economic progress is not always a blessing, and that unexpected social and cultural erosion can follow in its wake.

Yap and Palau are both considered diving destinations of a lifetime for serious scuba divers and snorkelers. But as vacation destinations for non-divers, they are virtually undiscovered. The aquatic life is incredible. The Micronesian reefs are thick with so many varieties of brilliantly colored tropical fish, sea turtles, and massive manta rays that even first-time snorkelers, outfitted with a simple mask and flippers, can swim in what feels like an over-stocked tropical aquarium.

Because of the islands' remoteness, their waters and reefs are virtually undisturbed. The islands can also offer non-divers a rare glimpse into the rich, if not entirely intact Micronesian culture. For a culture vulture, a visit to Yap or Palau is a virtual walk through the National Geographic articles of the fifties and sixties. In Yap, the women are comfortably bare-breasted and wear ankle-length grass skirts as they walk down the road, greet you at the airport, and stand in line at the bank. Palau, for all its totems of Asian investment--a new marina, a dolphin park, four-star hotels, and restaurants that serve international cuisine--is still a place where villagers often congregate in a bai, the traditional triangular thatch-roofed meeting house central to Palauan village culture, and village chiefs preside over many over many day-to- day decisions.

Palau is also sophisticated about environment conservation for both its natural resources and its wildlife. It has its dugongs (called mesekiu in Palauan), the huge 1,500-pound sea cows that live in the reefs surrounding Palau, as much out of respect for their role in Palauan mythology as they are for their ecological significance.

Wisdom in the basket

In Yap, they have a saying; "There is wisdom in the basket." Every conversation, even in those in government chambers, with all participants seated in swivel armchairs, begins with a ritual chew of betel nuts. When the men (and women) of Yap, want to think and talk about something complicated, the session always begins with their hands in their baskets, pulling out their nuts, and dusting a fresh green leaf with powdered coral lime and popping it in their mouths. To the Yapese, those whose teeth and gums are stained the brightest red from decades of betel nut chewing are indisputably the wisest.

Yap is a destination where a visitor can watch time stand still. I have the sense that if I went back to Yap in another ten years, the same people would be carving story boards, reeling in Parrot fish for dinner, and chewing betel nuts. Yap is beautiful, and for divers, it's the destination of a lifetime. On our trip to Yap we were able to see, and to document the conscious efforts to keep traditional culture thriving-- a dance performance that is as much about teaching children as it is to entertain visitors, craftsmen who still carve with steel adzes--even though they are fully proficient with a power saw, men who work bare- chested at computers in government offices, but still know not to enter into a neighboring village without the explicit permission of the chief. It's a fascinating admixture of the very modern--in a thatch hut, a baby swings in a hand-woven basket, wearing disposable diapers imprinted with pastel ducks--while the grandmother listens to the radio, and cooks rice over an open fire. …