Letter from Palau Number Fifteen—The Last
September 8, 2006

Greetings from room 402 of the PTC apartment house on Malakal where my last day in Palau has just dawned with my usual swim in the light of a spectacular sunrise and where I only need to put the final touches on this letter and I am done.  Done that is except for packing up this apartment, giving away the last of the food and household goods that I won’t need anymore, visiting Patris for one last time, stopping at the museum, dropping by Hatohobei State Office to see what they have ready for their state website, and recording a few more Tobian phrases with Isauro.  At least I can stop worrying about what I should do about the book I checked out of Palau Public Library back in early July.  The library has had a Closed Until Further Notice sign on the door ever since I got back from Manila.  My friend Meked has kindly taken the book off my hands, promising to return it when the library reopens.  So when it does, and Mihnea, Palau’s resident veterinarian, wants to read about his native Romania, Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December will be there for him.  A bleaker contrast to the energy and beauty of Palau cannot be imagined than Bellow’s depiction of socialist Bucharest—gray, stultified, and deeply depressing. 

This morning’s work with Isauro will be on a set of endings that indicate that the thing you are talking about is well known to your listener.  For example, let’s take the word for cat, which is moyo.  Suppose you say let’s feed the moyo and I ask which moyo. All you have to do is say moyowe and I know you are talking about the cat that is well known to both of us. I find this feature really interesting.  In fact I’ve started to wonder if people use it to irritate each other, in a fashion analogous to the way certain English speakers I could mention routinely get my goat by falsely implying that I know what they are talking about.  They do this by constantly using the word that as a noun modifier when they begin a conversational gambit.  Perhaps Isauro and I could create a dialogue illustrating this practice.  It would begin with: That cat got eaten by the crocodile.  And then go on to:   Can’t you be more specific?  How am I supposed to know what cat you are talking about?

All this giving away of stuff before leaving reminds me of the first time I was getting ready to leave Tobi. The ship was due in September so beginning about the middle of August I began to divest myself of things I would no longer have any need for once I left.  By the time September rolled around I had given away all but the bare minimum—a pair of cutoff jeans, a tee shirt, and a pair of zorres, all much the worse for wear.  (It’s a measure of how far Tobian society was from being a money economy at that time that I left with the same dime and penny in the pocket of those cutoffs that had been there when I had arrived the year before).  Well, the ship didn’t come in September, and it kept right on not coming through October, by which time I was reduced to visiting people and sheepishly asking if I could borrow my stuff back until the ship came, which turned out to be not until late November. But I guess the plane will leave on time early tomorrow (Saturday) morning, when Nicky and Soty and her sisters take me to the airport.

I don’t expect many more people to be there, unlike in the past.  This is because airport send offs have started to de-escalate over the last few years, in an inverse relationship to the rise in the number of air passengers.  Knowing someone who is leaving on a plane is no longer so special and unusual.  Also, the main daily flight (the one to Guam which I will be on) now departs at 1:40 am.  Anyone seeing someone off will not get home to bed until after two in the morning, making for a rough next day at work.  So the days of huge numbers of people turning out for the unusual and glamorous opportunity to say good bye at the airport are coming to an end.  

Wednesday’s meeting of the Rotary Club of Palau was memorable for a number of reasons.  In a small ceremony I presented the club with a Rotary Club of Burke banner in exchange for one which I will take back with me to present to the folks in Virginia. This was a good moment and I hope I adequately expressed my gratitude to my hosts for their marvelous hospitality.  Once again I mentioned the possibility for productive partnership between them and my sponsors in Virginia for the betterment of Palau.   Also speaking were the three candidates for this year’s Dave Williams Scholarship, named in honor of one of the founders of Rotary in Palau.  Mr. Williams was a self-made entrepreneur who, with only an elementary education, rose from selling ice cream cones from a cart on the streets of Koror to ownership of a number of businesses, including the DW Motel.  The $500 scholarship is given in his name to a student at Palau Community College (preferably one studying business) and is funded by the proceeds of a weekly auction at the Rotary Club lunch.  The object of the auction is always a cake, baked every week by Dave Williams’s widow and usually eaten by the group immediately after the meeting is gaveled to a close.  The auction is one of the high points of the meeting, with the bidding always spirited as the Rotarians urge each other higher and higher with many a joke. The three PCC students were very impressive; I don’t envy the Scholarship Board its task.
I began this visit to Palau (and these letters too) in the DW Motel, getting ready to start teaching at PCC.  So as I sat there in the Penthouse Restaurant at my last Rotary Club of Palau meeting and listened to those three PCC finalists for the Dave Williams Scholarship talking about their courses and their plans for the future, there was a distinct feeling of things coming together.  So perhaps this letter is a good place to reflect a bit on this summer’s visit.  

In some ways the experience has been quite different from previous trips here, and not just because of the usual newness of Koror.  Ever since I first went to Tobi I’ve been pretty focused on that island and the other Southwest Islands and on Eang, the hamlet in Koror where people from those islands tend to live.  On the many trips here before this summer I’ve almost always stayed in Eang with one or another of my adopted family or friends, and thus tended to experience Palau from that perspective.  This time, though, I had a peek into some of Palau’s other worlds and am leaving with a heightened sense of how complex this beautiful and ever surprising country is. 

That impression arises from a lot of things, some of which are these:  long mornings at PCC in a building called Smooch, sitting at a table writing my lectures and talking with Joe Chilton, my mentor in all things PCC;  early morning walks through the flower bedecked hamlet of Ngebeched after even earlier coffee and conversation at one of the outdoor tables at Lehns, high above the crocodile;  quiet evenings at the Airai home of Tina Rehuher and Jerry Marugg, combining the best of rural Palau with world ranging conversation;  and of course a painfully acquired patient’s eye view of Palau’s medical system and its ability to respond to a situation beyond its capacity.  It comes from my time in Malakal also, with its Bangladeshi and Filipino, Palauan and American, Nepali and Tobian mix of people and languages, its karaoke nightlife right outside my window and its constant daytime bustle of building and improving and buying and selling in this port neighborhood, not to speak of the constant loading and unloading of ships.  And I keep thinking about North Beach Cottages in Choll with its simplicity and beauty as well as the Babeldaob home of PCC President Patrick Tellei’s father, with his stories of church building on Tobi.  There was also a late afternoon paddling expedition in the serene waters of the Rock Islands—this last on Sunday in an inflatable dingy that had run out of gas on the way back from dinner with Rotarian Richard Brungard and his wife Rita Becker on Tiaka, the beautiful 40 foot sloop on which they live. 

All of these experiences and many others have taught me something about a wider and richer life in Palau than I had previously been much aware of.  I’ve learned from people living on yachts like Richard and Rita, who showed me how you could live in a space even smaller than our house in Hawaii and still serve a chicken dinner to a group which included Mihnea the veterinarian, Dave, a public health worker, Debra, the former administrator of Palau’s Washington Embassy, and Sarah, a current Peace Corps Volunteer.  And I’ve learned about it from Palauan American couples like Jerry and Tina, equally at home in both cultures and creating families with deep roots in both societies, from several former Peace Corps Volunteers who stayed on after their service to become deeply enmeshed in Palauan society, and even from the email junkies at Maura Gordon’s Internet@Cafe.  All these people and more are making their homes in these islands and creating new and interesting ways of being in Palau.

My knowledge of all these varieties of Palauan experience comes to me through the process of participant observation.  What’s that?  Oh, it’s the principal method used by anthropologists—you probably know it as just hanging out.  And what’s up with anthropology you ask?  Well there are really only a couple of things you need to know about it.  Speaking from his experience growing up in an anthropological home, my son James once observed that you can always tell the anthropologists because they are the ones who wait until you are in the middle of the meal before they start arguing about who has eaten the most disgusting food.  That’s one.  And the other is that anthropology is the academic discipline that has invested enormous effort developing elaborate arguments about whether or not hanging out is an art or a science.  In any event, as I think I said in last week’s letter, the Belau National Museum and its neighbor the Bureau of Arts and Culture are the places where anthropology has a long established presence in Palau.  So for those who thought all I was doing here was hanging out at the museum and the bureau, I have to say think again, because what I was doing was in the highest traditions of anthropology. Hanging out there I learned an enormous amount about how Palau is recording, preserving, and transmitting its past and its culture in the face of rigid funding requirements and arcane mandates.  The people who taught me this were the staff and directors of these two agencies, who seem to me to be rapidly developing a uniquely Palauan way of getting done the important things that need to be done, while keeping happy those who need to be kept happy, and all the while keeping their balance (my definition of a successful bureaucracy).  Finally, I have to say I learned an enormous amount about being in Palau by seeing it through Bobby’s eyes while she was here. She brought a fresh set of perceptions to the place, noticing much that I no longer was aware of, if I ever had been.

I used the phrase, usual newness of Palau, earlier in this letter.  By this I am referring to a kind of rule of thumb that says that no matter how little time has passed since last you were in Palau, you will be surprised by the changes you notice when you return.  For me, one of the most interesting things that seem to have happened since I was here just two years ago is that much that was then kept out of the public realm is now out of the closet.  For example today’s newspapers carry stories on at least some of the scandals involving waste, fraud, and abuse in the public sector as well as on workshops held on previously taboo topics like child abuse.  I thought of this anew when one of the applicants for the Dave Williams Scholarship began talking about the impact his 12-step program for overcoming addiction is having on his life.  To my eye, no one in the room seemed particularly uncomfortable with this disclosure of what in the not so distant past would have been seen as something too shameful to even discuss publicly.  So when people suggest that Palauan cultural attitudes toward blindness (and disability in general) make it unlikely that a program to address the issues of blindness will get very far, I can only remind them of how dramatically such attitudes can and have changed in the past.

Another amazing change is that Palau has become a very busy venue.  All kinds of meetings take place here, with people coming from all over the region and beyond to eat catered food, listen to and make speeches, and, if they are lucky, spend some time in the Rock Islands.  I’ll never forget a few years ago meeting a couple of guys from a group called the Diving Doctors of Dallas who were having their annual meetings at Palau Pacific Resort (sessions in the morning only please, so that afternoons could be free for undersea adventures).  Well, this week Palau took all this to the next level when it hosted the first summit conference of Taiwan and its Pacific allies.  Heads of the governments of Taiwan, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau met in Koror for two days of talks, motorcades, photo opportunities, press conferences, receptions, closed sessions, official dinners, and even a little fishing.  Strongly denying that anything like checkbook diplomacy was going on, President Chen Shui–bian of Taiwan met with those leaders of Pacific nations willing to support his bid for membership in the World Health Organization.  All I can say is that I wish they could have met earlier in the summer, it would have saved me ten dollars.

A few days ago it apparently became known to the folks trying to widen and repair the main road that crosses Malakal and connects it to the rest of Koror that it would be a good idea to have the road in smooth and drivable condition in time for the summit.  Night and day the graders and the rollers and the patchers and the flagmen toiled.  By the time President Chen arrived the road was, if not exactly smooth, then very much smoother than it had been.  But this was not soon enough to prevent the front wheels of my borrowed car from getting so badly out of whack that I had to have them realigned.  The ten dollars is what it cost to have a guy figure out which tire was out of line and then to set it right.  He used nothing but a piece of nylon fishing line to check the alignment, something I haven’t seen since I lived in Northern Nigeria in the early 1960s.  All mechanics in Palau are shade tree mechanics, and without the equipment that you might be used to seeing in a repair shop, they do a pretty good job of keeping Koror on the move.

Despite my involvement in the wider worlds of Palau I have to say that my primary focus here has remained with the Tobians.  That is to say, when I wasn’t teaching that course at PCC, helping out at Arts and Culture (including spinning out a quick co-authored article for a Unesco journal), and developing and delivering a series of talks (three more or less substantial ones and several off the cuff), I have spent most of my time with friends and adopted family from that small island.  A huge percentage of that time was spent with Isauro, working on Ramari Hatohobei (the Tobian language).  So as one of the final pieces of my Rotary International Fellowship and as a way to integrate the two main components of this summer’s work, Rotary and Tobian, and also as a gift to Rotary International, Isauro and I have translated Rotary’s four way test into Ramari Hatohobei.

For the non-Rotarians among you who may not know what I am talking about, the four way test is recited and affirmed as an essential part of each Rotary meeting, all over the world.  The test goes like this (I hope I get it right):

Four Way Test of Everything We Think, Say or Do:
Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build good will and better relationships?
Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Or, in Tobian:

Fauo Metemeteri Mengimeng ra Sibe Mengi, nga Sitapa, nga Sifauhu:
Emoh ifiri samar ma samar yahamat?
Emoh iohomu nga enifa ihefimu ma uruteri yahamat?
Ebe tapangih yahamat?

With any luck, in a few weeks you will be able to listen to Isauro reciting this text on the Friends of Tobi Island website, in Language in Use: Phrases & Sentences (http://tobi.gmu.edu/wordweek/phrasessentences.html). You might also eventually find photos from this summer in various places on that website and perhaps even expanded versions of the talks I gave (they will be in the Document Archive).

Now its time to close this letter, end my temporary bachelorhood and set off for the other half of my life, stopping in Hawaii on the way back to Bobby (Hurrah!) and our Virginia home. I’m looking forward to being back in the Washington DC area with its friends and family and my studio with its pile of unglazed pots waiting for me like unfinished novels.  I’m also looking forward to upcoming trips to Maine, Los Angeles, and Bulgaria.  But of course I also will be looking back.  I will miss Palau and its people and, yes, I will miss writing these letters.

One last note: Several people apparently missed my earlier explanation of the origin of the phrase:  Bestly Cards.  One person speculated that it must have something to do with the weekly Rotary raffle.  Clever but not even close.  Its just the way my Tobian sister Sisma used to sign her letters until her English got better and she realized the phrase (I think she learned it from a country and western song) should be Best Regards.  For myself, though, I’ve always preferred bestly cards, with its vaguely bent Hallmark connotations.  (Some of Sisma’s neologisms have been even more apt.  For example she used to refer to Special Ed as Special Head).  Anyway, for this final letter I think I will say good bye to you in the same way her brother Nemesio, the former sea captain, used to say good bye to me.  I wish you all

Fair Winds and Following Seas,

Malakal sunrise
Malakal sunrise

Rotary Club
Banner presentation at Rotary Club

Prince Lee Boo statue at PCC
Prince Lee Boo
statue at PCC


Bobby & Sunny
Bobby & Sunny at church

Sign at PCC
Welcoming Taiwan

Malakal potholes
Malakal potholes

Malakal Road Repairs
Malakal road repairs

Family after church
Soty, Bobby & I
after church

Andrews & Blacks
Bobby & I with our Tobian
family after our
picnic at
Ice Box Park

Farewell Barbecue
Nicky & Domiciano
at my farewell barbecue

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