Friday, July 13, 2007

Cargo Culture

Today, Cargo arrived...

Living in Yap for some time has given me a new understanding of how cargo cults got started. Being used to the plenitude of the modern world, while being restricted to what is available on a remote island, it is quite easy to start praying for ships and flights arriving with all sorts of goods.

There are two major stores in Yap. They don't differ much in what they offer. You can find a basic supply of canned and dried food, snacks, rice, soda, beer and liquor, etc. Fresh vegetables and fruit is more or less limited to taro, bananas, papaya, green beans and imported apples and cabbage. Most of the local harvest of mango, breadfruit, avocado, soursop/guanabana, etc, never show up in the stores. The only things offered in wide selections are canned fish and spam.

Canned fish might seem strange in a place surrounded by seas full of fish, but it's not that strange actually - people here like fish, and do eat a lot of freshly caught fish, but it's not always available so there is a demand for canned fish. The spam is a different thing though... There are a few theories regarding why spam is so popular in the western pacific, the most cited but least believable being that spam tastes like cooked human, which is claimed to be a taste acquired by the cannibal ancestors of the south pacific natives...

To a certain extent this also goes for food at the hotel restaurant - while they order their own stuff from Guam, this arrives by container on ships that take weeks to arrive in Yap and chilled container room is limited and expensive. So when the cargo ships arrive it is usually a thing to celebrate as the next day we will have real mozzarella (rather than some yellow US cheese substitute) on the pizzas and fresh lettuce (rather than cabbage) in the salads again.

The availability of literature and music in the stores is nonexistent... with one notable exception, more on which later. Usually this would not be a problem, as Amazon delivers here. Since the beginning of June this year Continental Airlines, the only airline flying into Yap, has refused delivery of any courier packages though - be it UPS, DHL or Fedex. I won't go into the reasons for this right now, suffice to say that it is political. When it comes to regular post, Yap is still a part of the US though, with the US postal service being a "must carry" for Continental Airlines. So, when I ordered a couple of books from Amazon a few weeks ago, using the cheapest and slowest delivery option, I expected them to be sent by US Post. But no... due to availability, Amazon split the order in two, with the first one going out by UPS and the second one by DHL... Tracking the packages on the web it looked hopeless; after getting to Guam they both got stuck in there for a week, with nothing happening, seemingly getting stuck in an eternal "in transit" loop.

This afternoon first the DHL package and an hour later the UPS one arrived. Earlier in the morning, I also got the latest instrumental Calexico tour CD, Tool Box*), sent by US postal mail. I assume they all arrived on the Wednesday morning flight from Guam to Yap and have spent the last days going through individual bureaucratic processes.

So, yes, today was Cargo Day. Thank you, gods of the sea and the air.

Getting back to the one notable exception to what is available in the way of music and literature - since Zeitgeist*) was released this week and I finally got the last track downloaded today it is quite appropriate.

The first time I visited Yap, in October 1998, I noticed a familiar box in a corner of YCA, one of the local stores. I had a similar box back home. It was The Aeroplane Flies High - a limited edition box collection all of the Smashing Pumpkins singles released at the time. Even when figuring in that the "limited edition" was actually 200 000 copies it was strange to find this box in Yap where you didn't even find the current number one best selling CD.

Every time I have visited Yap since, I have checked the same corner in YCA, and every time I have found the same box still sitting there. And yes - it is *still* there. Checking on Amazon and EBay, I note that the box - in used condition - is going for over 100 dollars. So if you are a fan of SP and not one of the 300 000 (yes - 300 000 - they released an additional 100 000 of the "limited" edition after the first 200 000 sold out) already owning it, let me know and I will finally rid YCA of that 9 year old inventory.

*) Just having listened to it once, I would say Tool Box is Calexico back in shape. I never did like the quite bland Garden Ruin or the more mainstream songs on Above the Wire. This is a return to the Calexico I love. Soundtrack music. Not so sure about SP and Zeitgeist, but will give it a few more listens before final judgment.

Tomorrow will mostly be work, but I am really looking forward to spending a major part of Sunday reading the freshly delivered On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. Powers is a true master of story telling.

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