Gauguin lives....There truly are small nooks in the Pacific where young nubile women run around topless and golden hued muscular men spend there days in a loincloth decorated only by sweet smelling tightly woven lays. Nowhere else have we been where we felt quite so overdressed. Actually I make light of such things... the dress code is quite specific despite it's seemingly liberated exterior. Men of course have a deal of freedom in their choice of apparel and the loincloth (or 'thu' as it is called) is both practical and desirable in such a warm climate. Women however, in this traditional setting have a strict code to adhere to. Whilst young women who have not yet reached womanhood may wear a grass skirt, once a woman has reached maturity a handwoven lap lap is folded and held intact with a cord (often decorated with turtle shell) over which is placed another cloth covering (although this is not always required). The purpose of this apparel is cover the upper thigh and rear end....the only parts of the human body likely to cause offence......Lucky for the people of Woleai I was not expected to adhere to the dress code, although I did refrain from wear pants, jeans or shorts for the duration of our stay and kept the bikini in storage.

We entered Woleai lagoon in the late afternoon after spending hours bobbing around within 10 miles of it with no wind while Ralph did an emergency overhaul. Mysteriously we had gotten sea water in the engine which meant Ralph had to bleed the engine and change the oil before we could get going and I needed to steer the boat into the waves for 4 hours as best as possible to minimise swell while he did it. Nothing like a whopping challenge to keep you on your toes when you're already exhausted and your destination is within sight! Having successfully met the challenge amidst much understandable cursing, spays of greasy water over the cabin walls from the fuel injectors and throbbing back aches from wrestling the swell we finally motored into the east lagoon weighed anchor and promptly slept for 14 hours.

In the early morning light Woleai looked almost uninhabited and we were surprisingly devoid of visiting canoes (most unusual). In fact it did cross our minds to simply get on our way as the trades had made an early morning reappearance, but we thought perhaps a little stretch of the legs may be in order....and who knows....maybe even a few supplies (sugar, flour and oil had almost run out)....so off we went...heading for what appeared to be a large hut.

Within metres of the shoreline we were greeted with a rousing 'Hello would you like some help'? A young man by the name of Romeo (yes...no shit...his name was Romeo) gave us a hand to haul the dinghy on to the sand and having promptly an efficiently tied it to a coconut tree proceeded to guide us up the beach towards a large hut housing a large number of canoes. We were handed coconuts and asked to sit in an open circular hut while the chief was called...within moments Chief Fred was introduced to us and a large portly fellow by the name of Bernardo (a local teacher) was translating on his behalf. We were informed of the anchorage fee ($10.00 per person and $5.00 anchorage) and what it entitled us to (basically the ability to roam freely over the island)....all very efficient really and a far cry from what we had expected. We were also invited back to the hut for a drink with the men in the afternoon..... so we decided that we'd go for a little wander then return later with a gift for the chief and join in the drinks (having finished our last beer a week ago we were quite looking forward to it.).

Now I just need to clarify a few things for you.....

Firstly...drinking is only permitted for men (for the duration of our stay I was an honorary man) and the canoe house/drinking circle is a critical component of Woleai culture. It is the place where stories are told, knowledge exchanged and the following days activities are planned... It just so happens that this is best done with a 2 litre bottle of home brewed tuva (coconut wine)...mind you every man brings his own bottle and the circle does not break until the bottles are consumed!

Secondly...according to Yapese custom having been 'invited' to wander amongst these beautiful people by Chief Fred, meant we had the 'protection' of the chief, we were in essence, his guests. We treated with courtesy and good ol' fashioned generosity. Everywhere we went we were invited in for food or handed fresh coconuts. Even the supplies we managed to obtain were in the main given to us from peoples own personal supplies..... Actually we were somewhat overwhelmed by it and in awe of such open hearted acceptance. Our invitation to join the drinking circle was just one of the many ways we were welcomed to the island and we were grateful for it.

Our week long stay on Woleai saw us participate in the Good Friday procession across the island, attend mass (an opportunity to be swept away by the incredible voices of the parish), listen to the squeals of pigs being slaughtered for Easter lunch (couldn't quite bring myself to go watch, although we were given a share of the the little sucker which we promptly roasted), watch the young people play games on Easter Sunday, sit around in the shade with the womanfolk and spend many an evening drinking tuva whilst chewing beetlenut with the menfolk. It also saw Ralph make numerous attempts at fixing a variety of things, both electrical and mechanical...not all attempts were successful unfortunately but his efforts were always appreciated.

Of all the interactions we had on this amazing island I will remember Tianna with warmth. Tianna is one of the chief's daughters, born in the same year as myself and is not only a kind soul (and tireless community activist) but an articulate one. She was keen to share her culture and was also capable of critiquing it. We sat for many hours outside her hut in the shade talking about the challenges facing her community. Tianna was of the belief that it was vital to maintain the integrity of Yapese culture but expressed her frustration at a generation of young people incapable of coping with some of it's rigidity, especially when contrasted by the apparent freedoms that a more westernised existence offers....She spoke of the growing number of teenage pregnancies (not a good look in a devoutly Catholic population), the alcohol abuse and destruction of traditional values. Tianna called it the creation of the 'me and now' culture...... a more selfish western existence.

Strangely enough the consumption of alcohol (Tuva) is also a large part of Yapese culture, however it strikes me that it's use is now far from culturally significant. The men's drinking circle, once a limited activity and an essential means of communicating the next days tasks, now lasts til the wee small hours and consists of little more than hearty laughing and jovial singing. This may seem harmless but it's impact on family life is quite profound...Fathers are rarely present at home in the evening and family exchanges are limited as none but the men of the village may attend the circle. With increasing numbers of young men and women now also making their own Tuva and sneaking away to consume it (and have sex) it is of no surprise that alcohol related crime and teenage pregnancy is on the up..... It would appear that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree....but I digress.....

The night of our departure saw us once again in the drinking circle, where we were joined by Lewis (kinda the local government representative, secretary to the chief and Principal of the local High School) who had discovered we were both teachers and wanted us to come and talk to the seniors. Naturally we were only to happy to repay if only a little of the kindness shown to us and on the morning of our departure walked to the school and spoke to the students for about an hour on a variety of topics.....careers, travel, western culture, finding your way in the world....just to name a few. To be honest I'm pretty sure the slideshow we showed them of our trip thus far went over better than the talk....perhaps a picture tells the story better eh?....but we enjoyed the encounter and could have happily stayed longer.....alas the tradewinds were calling and we had to depart.

So with our dinghy heavily laden with parting gifts of bananas, papayas, drinking coconuts, taro and an incredible coconut sweet (made from Tuva) we sadly left these incredible people.