One of the more difficult questions for a traveler to answer can be whether they have been to a country. Can they count it if they pass through on a train or visit on a cruise ship without ever disembarking? Must they go through the entry formalities, such as having their passport stamped, or at least, in the case of arriving by air, leave the security area? Do they have to have been there a certain length of time, overnight, say, or, more commonly, as long as whoever is asking the question?
Have I, for instance, been to Yap, a Micronesian island group in the far western Pacific where my plane touched down just long enough for me to stretch my legs on the tarmac while I waited to continue a flight from Guam to Palau?
I would argue that I have, though I was not there long enough even to see examples of the one thing Yap is known for — the coin-shaped stone money, some of it as big around as truck tires, that has prevented the Yapanese from developing the concept of pocket change.
I base my claim on the interaction I had with an old Yapanese woman who sat next to me on the flight from Guam. She was not friendly at first, fearing, I suspect, that I might be offended by the overflowing baggy in which she spat the betel nut juice that was dripping blood red, vampire style, from the corners of her mouth. But when I offered her the airsick bag from the back of my seat, her bag having gone missing, possibly as a result of use by a betel nut chewer on an earlier leg of the flight, the practice being fairly common in that part of the Pacific, she warmed considerably, and we passed the flight in pleasant conversation, despite her dribbling. And by the end of the flight I had an invitation to her daughter’s wedding, an invitation I had to decline because the airlines are so unreasonable about letting you change your mind about itineraries in mid journey.
Her daughter, who had seen much of the world, having traveled even as far afield as Hawaii, was back home in Yap now, making final preparations for the wedding. But there was a problem, the woman told me. All the daughter’s traveling had put the notion in her head that she should not have a traditional wedding. And the woman, as mothers often are in these situations, was upset about it.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I told her, waving off an offer to try some of the betel nut myself.
The sticking point, it seemed, was that in a traditional wedding on Yap the bride would be topless, as the woman is in the photo accompanying this story, which also features, you may have noticed, the stone money. That the photo is an authentic depiction of traditional life on Yap can be assumed from the fact that it is a closeup of an official Yap postage stamp. The bride-to-be, however, wanted no part of tradition.
I was disappointed that I would miss the wedding, especially after, as we deplaned, the old woman pointed out her daughter to me, a lovely-looking girl waving to us from the other side of a chain-link fence at the edge of the tarmac. The experience did help define for me, however, when you can say you have visited a country.
You have been to a country when you were there long enough to come back with a story.