Four-Wheel-Driver

By Michael H. Kew

Tamog. Photos: Kew.

In Colonia I find a cabbie, his seats empty.

“Been raining in the south so no sunset today,” Tamog says, smiling, sensing money. “But we can go if you want.”

In the drink holder is an empty Bud Ice can. Tamog seems tipsy but from betel nut, he says, not beer. We sit inside a small, abused four-door. There is a green pen behind his left ear. His stubbled face is soft and round, his nose wide and flat. His hair is in a frizzy top-knot. He is glassy-eyed and congested, sneezy, sniffy. He wears baggy white mesh shorts and his blue Jokers team basketball jersey—number 21.

Outside Colonia are dense jungles of banana, areca palm, coconut, breadfruit, pandanus, mango. The sky again bursts and we pierce curtains of rain, forming streams where the road rises. In flatter areas the water ponds in potholes, unable to soak into the saturated soil. Tamog, 37, is intimate with these jarring avenues.

“Yee-haw!”

He tells me to “hold on” as he guns the car at high speed up a steep, overgrown curve that looks more like a hiking trail.

“Whoo-hoo! Yeah!”

We hit a hole; the back bumper smacks hard off the dirt.

“You see the road is no good!” Tamog says, hunched forward, gripping the steering wheel. “So not much people are making it out here.”

“Is this your car?”

“No, it’s my taxi company’s car. Don’t tell them about this road. (laughs) I have my own car, but I don’t like to use it for taxi in case it break down or something like that.”

His side of the windshield is badly cracked.

“From coconut! Somebody else was driving, though. Hey, you surfing Yap, yeah? We have many sharks here, but nobody dies from sharks. Lots of people die from coconuts falling onto their heads. If you get killed by a coconut, tradition here says you did something wrong to Mother Nature. Mother Nature is mad at you. So you have to respect Mother Nature, you know?”

Considering that many Pacific islands are public dumps, I mention Wa’ab’s lack of roadside trash.

“In our culture, we respect the land,” Tamog says. He raises a finger. “Excuse me—” A fierce, wet sneeze. Sniff-sniff. “So, yes. Our land is very important. When the people came to Yap first, all the different groups had to fight over the land. The ones who won became the highest caste. The ones who lost some of the battles, they got middle caste. And the ones who lost most of the wars had no land and had to work like slaves for food and things like that. If you are born here on Yap Island, you are normally born high or middle caste. I was lucky because I got to be born in the middle caste. I like middle caste. Not so high, not so low. When I was in school I noticed that some of my classmates could not eat together or play together because they were in low caste. You could only eat with your caste level. But Yap is changing very slowly.”

Yesterday in Colonia I asked a native Wa’ab woman if she could spot an outer islander in a crowd. Outer islanders are taller, she said. Different features, lighter skin, longer faces. And they’re dirtier. They’re not known for being as clean as us.

Tamog?

“I don’t know about all that stuff. But one of their crazy customs is for the women there, when any man walk past them, they get down on their knees until the man passes. If the man sits, the woman has to sit too. It’s really weird.”

“Have you spent much time in outer Yap?”

“I went to outer islands for six months. I went there because I join a contract for putting up solar systems. Every night we get drunk! They like tuba, from coconut. It can make you really drunk. It’s not like sakau or kava. The thing about it that most people don’t like is the smell. The smell is strong, and it looks like milk. But, man, it’ll kick you.”

We are kicking, spinning, fishtailing in mud, smashing across potholes. Tamog is repeating: “We don’t wanna get stuck in here!” He whoops like a cowboy then, unprompted, keeps talking.

“On each island there are groups of people, and each group is a ‘bar.’ So, me and my crew, being visitors, we could go bar-hopping around the island. But when the people in one group finish their tuba, that’s it. They cannot go to another bar, or the other bar will beat them up. And when I get drunk, I used the island taxi. You know what it is? A wheelbarrow.” (laughs)

As his dispatch radio spurts Yapese garble—cabbies shouting back and forth—we approach a dubious mud track leading to our vista point: an open space of red dirt and pandanus trees. Here on Wa’ab’s leeward side, the vegetation is browner and drier. Acres of dead grass.

“The car is not four-wheel-drive, but the driver is! Hang on!”

We bang up to the anticlimactic top. No sunset—there is a wall of darkening gray against the flat Philippine Sea. Crickets trill and there is a soft breeze. Tamog stuffs his mouth with betel nut and gets more stoned and pensive as we stand there, absorbing dusk.

“Are you going to Yap Day?” I ask.

Big arms across his chest, bloodshot eyes gazing at the dim sea, he shakes his head then spits.

“I hate Yap Day. Every year, a different part of our islands hosts it, and the best time for me to enjoy Yap Day is when we host it. My island is Tamil. Next year we will host. This year it is happening on Gagil and Maap. It’s a competition between village teams from all over Yap. When Tamil hosts the Yap Day, it’s the best one.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s my island.”

He points at the sliver of moon. Other than Yap Day, he says, Yap youth are unmoored from tradition, enthralled by modernity and the outside world.

“In elementary school, when we finish each day, we rush home and work fast, do the homework. Then we all get together and run and race to the men’s house because we want to jump into the lagoon and swim and play games. See who can dive the deepest, who can hold breath the longest. Things like that. Or we climb up the mangrove tree and we jump so we see who can climb highest and jump the farthest into the water. Now, this new generation, you know what they do? When they finish class, they use cell phone, PlayStation, computer. They don’t go to the men’s house anymore. That’s a big difference.”

His radio crackles. He reaches through the window and replies to the tinny voice, asking questions, making plans. He looks tired. He sneezes twice—hard.

“The idea is to teach the kids and for them to not lose our culture,” he says as we descend the hill, Colonia-bound in the dark. “They learn from the older people. When the older people die but teach no tradition, nobody will know it. We must know it—forever. But you know what? I’m worried, man. I really am.”