Letter from Palau Number Four
June 22, 2006

Greetings from Room 2 of Lehns Motel.  Why room 2 instead of 3?  Well, I got moved to a new apartment because they are getting ready for a construction project right outside the door of my old one.  I was happy to transfer to this much nicer (a usable stove!) place, especially because it’s only a couple of weeks now until Bobby arrives and my temporary bachelorhood will (for the five weeks of her visit) end.  I’ve told her all about Lehns: the way the phone system works (it rings in the store and if anyone is there they come and get you—and as paying guests we don’t need to worry about that sign that says $.25); the free coffee on the back patio every morning, which usually comes with conversation with an old guy from the neighborhood who was working at the weather station when I was transmitting twice daily weather observations up from Tobi: “Kilo Uniform Papa 68 this is Kilo Whiskey Quebec 42.  How do you read?  I have traffic. Over.” But I just came across something in the laundry room she might not be exactly thrilled to hear about. 

There I was minding my own business when I looked over the edge and found myself staring at a huge crocodile. Fortunately it was caged or I might not be sitting here writing this letter, but still quite a shock first thing in the morning just as I was trying to figure out how many quarters to stick in the machine.  I guess I probably can’t expect that Bobby will be doing a lot of laundry while she is here.  

Of course, as I learned when I asked about it, it hadn’t been that big when it first was captured many years ago, but on a steady diet of a half chicken every two weeks it has grown and grown.  And since it belonged to the late godfather of the guy who owns it he can’t bring himself to release it—where in the mangrove swamps around here would it ever be able to find half chickens?  Nor does he know whether it’s male or female.  There’s a way to find out, he told me, but it’s just not worth the risk.

Palau sent a strong team off to the Micronesian Games in Guam this week, after a parade, a final round of fund raising, and a lot of good wishes.  This is a very big deal around here, so be sure to send the team your best wishes.  George Mason has a special connection, since at least one of the competitors (my friend Marcus Hangaripaii) is a GMU alumnus.  He graduated in sociology and then did a masters degree in the same subject before returning here first to teach at Palau Community College and then to work in the government’s budget office.  He is a very strong paddler, and a lot of hopes go with him.

That first baby ceremony was really something.  These events (called Ngasech) are right at the living heart of Palauan culture and one of the first things people tell you about when they are explaining Palauan custom to you.  They are said to mark the discovery of natural childbirth which, so the myth tell us, replaced a painful and dangerous procedure involving sharpened bamboo.

This was a big one with lots of people, food, music, and dancing as the new mother was welcomed into the world of motherhood by family and friends.  Food and money were contributed, and the new mother herself appeared in public for the first time since giving birth.  The center of all eyes—her skin a rich yellow from being bathed in turmeric and oil, clad in a fine grass skirt, naked from the waist up, wearing a beautiful necklace of traditional money—she was led out into the center of the dance area to stand and to be honored by all as her relatives and others danced to her.  Sometimes the new mother looks absolutely stunned by the noise and attention, but she looked every inch the incipient matron, poised and self-composed.  Looking at the elegant older women with whom she was surrounded, it was easy to see where she had learned to handle herself so well in public.  I was there as a guest of Dirk Ballendorf (his stepson is the husband and father).  He looked over in the middle of all this excitement and noise and said something about how amazing Palau is and how impossible it is to get across what it is really like, even when you try.  I have to agree with him.  There is just something special about this place.  One of Palau’s former presidents was there, by the way, but it didn’t seem the right occasion to mention that encyclopedia’s crazy mistake about who was head of state.

Have you been wondering if anyone won the drawing at this week’s Rotary meeting?  Well I had to leave for class before the meeting ended so I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it because the guy holding the deck of cards didn’t attend this week so I don’t think there was a drawing.  There was a very interesting talk though, given by the manager of the Palau Royal Resort, a new luxury hotel.  He spoke about getting this huge project built in record time and about the prospects for high end tourism in Palau.  The questions were sharp and focused; no one seeming fazed by the mix up about the cards.  At one point someone asked him how many Palauans he had working in his Taiwan owned and managed hotel.  When he said he wanted to hire more, I couldn’t resist interrupting to ask if he had a job for Soty, our foster daughter, who lives just down the Malakal shore from the hotel.  I know this was pretty rude to my fellow Rotary guest. I had to admire the guy; he didn’t miss a beat but just suggested that she get her resume to the human resource people and to let him know when she did it.  Actually I don’t even know if Soty wants a job.  Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  But I do think I had better talk to her and her folks this weekend.

Maybe I will see them when I am back in Eang for church on Sunday.  Eang is where most of the Tobian and other Southwest Islanders in town are living. Before and after the service are the best times to see everyone, and there is a very nice outside area where those of us who hang back at ceremonies (whether first baby celebrations or Catholic mass) can sit in the shade and listen to the music.  Last week a couple of cell phones went off at inopportune moments. I don’t remember this happening in the past.  Progress I guess.  I’m starting to think that scenario of ring, pause while people look around, then the frantic digging around in pocket or purse by the guilty party followed by a hunched posture and sheepish grin, might have the makings of a human universal, likely to occur at any time or place where it shouldn’t—concert, lecture, worship service, etc.  But before last Sunday I had never heard a church’s PA system suddenly switch from broadcasting the service to some music from the local FM station.  The suppressed giggling from the younger (and not so younger) crowd was something to behold.

Besides talking with Soty about her job prospects, and listening to jokes about the speaker system in the church, I will also be talking with people about the plan that my Tobian sister Sisma and I started hatching last week.  My laptop is absolutely crammed with pictures of Tobians and their island, dating back years and years.  Why not tell the boys to put up that big tent, Sisma asked, and invite everyone to come to a slide show.  Great idea!  In fact Meked, who works at the museum and is in my class (despite already having a MA in anthropology, she patiently sits through the rather elementary material I am presenting), had already suggested a slide show for either the class or the museum or both.  So in addition to teaching and starting in at the Bureau of Arts and Culture (I’m so green there I don’t even know if it’s Art or Arts) and church and first birth ceremonies, etc., I’ve been turning Paint Shop Pro loose on my old photographs and slides.  I have to pay particular attention to baby pictures.  I’ll tell you why next week: it has something to do with a big difference between crocodiles and babies.  Meanwhile, here’s something I’ve been wondering about.  Would my many nieces who have just had or are about to have babies like to have a first birth ceremony?   After all they have every reason to celebrate the end of that sharpened bamboo procedure.  It could become a Black family tradition.

Bestly Cards (as Sisma used to sign her letters before her English got better).

PS.  If you hear some big anthropology news from Palau in the next day or so, I will fill you in about it in the next letter. And if you don’t, it just means that the rumor mill has gone completely out of control.

Grace, TinTin, Soty at Lehns
Soty, TinTin, & Grace after dinner at my apartment

Old Weather Station, Koror
Old Weather

Crocodile at Lehns
Lehns Crocodile

Marcus Hangaripaii

Palau Royal Resort
Palau Royal Resort

Soty at PRR

Soty & me at our 21st birthday lunch for Soty at Palau Royal Resort

St. Joseph's Eang

St. Joseph's Eang
St. Joseph's
Church, Eang

First Communion at St. Joseph's

First Communion at St. Joseph's
1st Communion at St. Joseph's

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