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Big Money: Yap's Stone Currency

Photo Credit: Flickr user annamatic3000

If you wanted to be a bank robber on Yap, you’d need a forklift and a crane, along with an 18-wheeler to make your getaway. That’s because for centuries, the main form of currency on this tiny Micronesian island was stones. Very large stones. Looking like Claes Oldenburg sculptures of oversized bagels, the stones – or rai, as they’re called – can stand as high as ten feet and weigh several tons each.

While these carved stones may not look like big bucks to an outsider, some have enough value to purchase a new house.

Of course, all currency, from beads to spices to paper bearing pictures of dead presidents, carries an arbitrary designation. It’s money because a culture says it is. And often, in the beginning, it’s money because it’s pleasing to the eye. Think of silver and gold. That’s the way it was with the stones on Yap.

According to local legend, five hundred years ago, Yapese fishermen got lost at sea and washed up on the island of Palau. There they saw some shimmering Limestone deposits and thought they looked beautiful. They broke off a piece of stone, carved it into the shape of a whale, brought it home and called it money. The Yapese word for whale is “rai,” and it soon became synonymous with all stone currency.

Photo Credit: Flickr user David Weekly

In time, the villages on Yap were launching regular expeditions to Palau to bring back more rai. For the right to quarry on their island, Palau residents were paid with various services, plus goods like beads and coconuts. As their mining process became more refined, the Yapese started carving the limestone into disks with holes, presumably because they were easier to carry. Poles were inserted through the centers and sailors hauled them to waiting boats. In the 19th century, the size of the rai grew markedly, as European traders equipped Yap natives with more modern tools.

The Value of a Giant Stone With a Hole In It

Though many of the large stones look similar, not all rai is of equal value. Its worth depends on several factors. The first has to do with its provenance. How many lives were lost in transporting the stone to Yap? In the old days, it was a treacherous journey by sea to obtain the stones. Beyond the mining and transportation across three hundred miles, there was also a lot of rivalry between village chiefs, resulting in fights to secure the rai.

The second factor has to do with who discovered a particular stone. Having a famous sailor’s name attached to it, or the dedication of a chief who sponsored the mining trip, can greatly increase the rai’s value. There’s also the matter of craftsmanship. Many of the newer rai stones are highly polished with smooth edges, a look that’s been achieved with imported modern metal tools. The older stones, less polished and rough-hewn, were finished with homegrown shell tools, which gives them a higher value.

Once transported to Yap, the stones were rarely moved. In fact, unlike most currency in the world, the rai were not hidden in banks, but publicly displayed, in ceremonial grounds and village centers. Even if their ownership changed hands from village to village, the stones remained in place, because everyone understood who owned them. Though there’s no direct parallel in our own currency, rai are a bit like bonds or certificates of deposit. They gain value over time, and are used only for major purchases.

For smaller, everyday transactions, there are other forms of money on Yap, including turmeric, pearl shells, banana fiber mat and mortars and pestles. And since the early 1990s, the American dollar and the Euro have found their way onto the island via a burgeoning new tourist trade.

Elsewhere on the Island...

And something much more unexpected from America may have also ended up on Yap. Remember New Coke? Back in the mid-‘80s, that was Coca-Cola’s misguided attempt to fix something that wasn’t broke. Public outcry resulted in Coke returning to their Classic formula. Meanwhile, New Coke, its sugary younger brother, lingered in the shadows until 2002, when it was discontinued. But according to various unconfirmed reports, New Coke, or Coke II as it's also known, has apparently found a small, but stable market on Yap.

No word on how much it costs per can, but chances are its somewhere between a pinch of turmeric and a ten-foot rai.

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9 Things You Should Keep in Mind Around Someone Observing Ramadan
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To mark the ninth (and most holy) month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. Often compared to Lent in Christianity and Yom Kippur in Judaism, Ramadan is all about restraint. For one month, Muslims observing Ramadan fast during the day and then feast at night.

By abstaining from food and water (as well as sex, smoking, fighting, etc.) during daylight, Muslims strive to practice discipline, instill gratitude for what they have, and draw closer to Allah. To be respectful and not annoy observers, here are nine things you should never say or do to someone observing Ramadan.

1. DON'T JOKE ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS.

A traditional iftar meal.
A traditional iftar meal.
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Although it might be tempting to joke about Ramadan being a good excuse to lose weight, it is a time for spiritual reflection and is a serious matter. Observers undertake the challenge of fasting for religious and spiritual reasons rather than aesthetic ones. And, once the sun sets each night, many Muslims prepare a hearty iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) of dates, curries, rice dishes, and other delicious foods. The suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) is often fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and dishes that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. So the idea of a cleanse is pretty far from their minds.

2. DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.

An Indian Muslim student recites from the Quran in a classroom during the holy month of Ramadan.
NOAH SEELAM, AFP/Getty Images

There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, but not all of them observe Ramadan the same way. Although most observant Muslims fast for Ramadan, don't assume that every Muslim you meet has the same methods, traditions, and attitudes towards fasting. For some, Ramadan is more about prayer, reading the Qur'an, and performing acts of charity than merely about forgoing food and drink. And for those who may be exempted from the daily fasting, such as pregnant or nursing women, the elderly, or those with various health conditions, they might not appreciate the reminder from nosey busy-bodies that they aren't participating in the traditional way.

3. SAY "RAMADAN MUBARAK" INSTEAD OF "HAPPY RAMADAN."

A sign which reads
A sign which reads "Ramadan Kareem" in Arabic is seen pictured in front of the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai.
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Rather than wishing someone a happy Ramadan, being more thoughtful with your choice of words can show that you understand and respect the sanctity of their holy month. Saying "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem" are the traditional ways to impart warm wishes—they both convey the generosity and blessings associated with the month. The actual party comes after Ramadan, when Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, an up to three-day festival that involves plenty of food, time with family, and gifts.

4. DON'T BE A FOOD PUSHER.

Muslim woman saying no to an apple.
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Even if the idea of not eating or drinking all day might be unfathomable to you, don't push food onto anyone observing Ramadan. While fasting all day for a month can cause mild fatigue, dehydration, and dizziness, don't try to convince participating Muslims to eat or drink something—they are fully aware of any side effects they may feel throughout the day. Instead, be respectful of their decision to fast and offer to lend a hand with something like chores, errands, or anything unrelated to food.

5. ACCEPT THAT WATER ISN'T ON THE MENU.

Dates and a glass of water.
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Muslims who observe Ramadan don't sip any liquids during daytime. No water, coffee, tea, or juice. Zilch. Going without water is even harder than going without food, so be aware of the struggle and accept it. It's all part of the sacrifice and self-discipline inherent in Ramadan.

6. RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRIVACY.

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Some Muslims choose not to fast during Ramadan for medical or other personal reasons, and they may not appreciate being badgered with questions about why they may be eating or drinking rather than fasting. Children and the elderly generally don't fast all day, and people who are sick are exempt from fasting. Other conditions that preclude fasting during Ramadan are pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menstruation (although, if possible, people generally make up the days later).

7. BE MINDFUL OF ENERGY LEVELS.

Woman running on the beach.
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Eschewing food and drink for hours at a time can cause lethargy, so be aware that Muslims observing Ramadan may be more tired than usual. Your Muslim friends and coworkers don't stop working for an entire month, but they may tweak their schedules to allow for more rest. They may also stay indoors more (to prevent overheating) and avoid unnecessary physical activity to conserve energy. So, don't be offended if they aren't down for a pick-up game of basketball or soccer. We can't all be elite athletes.

8. DON'T OBSESS OVER FOOD AND HUNGER.

Family playing in the park.
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One of the worst things you can do to someone on a new diet is to obsess over all the cheeseburgers, pizza, and cupcakes they can't have. Similarly, most Muslims observing Ramadan don't want to have in-depth conversations about all the food and beverages they're avoiding. So, be mindful that you don't become the constant reminder of how many hours are left until sundown—just as you shouldn't joke about weight loss, you shouldn't call attention to any hunger pangs.

9. DON'T BE AFRAID TO EAT YOUR OWN FOOD.

Coworkers discussing a project on couches.
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Although it's nice to avoid talking about food in front of a fasting Muslim, don't be afraid to eat your own food as you normally would. Seeing other people eating and drinking isn't offensive—Muslims believe that Ramadan is all about sacrifice and self-discipline, and they're aware that not everyone participates. However, perhaps try to avoid scheduling lunch meetings or afternoon barbecues with your Muslim colleagues and friends. Any of those can surely wait until after Ramadan ends.

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