Letter from Palau Number Nine
July 28, 2006

Greetings from Room 710 of Asian Hospital and Medical Center.  But not for much longer, they are letting me go today—kidney stone gone, likewise gall bladder; heart thoroughly checked and passed, likewise lungs; various other bits on the do nothing at this time list.  Still unable to tie a hospital gown in the regulation fashion despite ten days of trying, we are off to spend the next few days in the Manila Hotel, said to be a grand old pile on Manila Bay.  If it turns out to be a dump we will head for the nearest Holiday Inn, but if not we will stay there until Wednesday when we are booked to fly back to Koror, or “home to Palau” as someone put it in one of the many supportive emails that have poured in from there over the last week or so.  And do you know what?  That’s how it feels . . . going home to Palau.  Ten days in a hospital is an amazing fact in and of itself for anyone from the US these days, where they send you home from surgery with the catheter still inserted and blood seeping out from under your bandages.

Do you remember that in last week’s letter I talked about how every woman who knew anything about kidney stones knew that the pain was almost as bad as childbirth?  Well, now I have the bookend to that: at least if my email is anything to go by.  It turns out that just about every guy who knows anything about kidney stones knows that the best prevention is to drink at least one beer a day.

For obvious reasons I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be sick in Palau and how that has and hasn’t changed over the years.  I think I said something in my last letter about the old McDonald Memorial Hospital.  It was an awful place and I am deeply grateful that the new national hospital has replaced it.  But much of what was most positive in my experience in the new hospital I also would have experienced in the old.  Even more than the incredible gentleness and tact of the nursing staff—not even a hint of any Nurse Ratchets to be seen—I am talking about the social side of being in the hospital, Palau style.

No sooner had Bobby’s call for help gone out than what seems like half of Eang swung into action. This family began working on food, that began logistic planning for getting Bobby around and for running errands.  A cot for her to use as my designated patient’s attendant magically came through the door with one group, and a back scratcher with another. All these visitors began working out a schedule.  And everyone seemed deeply gratified that we had taken their advice about which doctor to choose (and boy were they ever right, Dr. Emais Roberts is a wonderful physician).

After the first flurry of activity, things settled into a peaceful pattern.  Mornings and evenings people going to or from work like Thomas Patris, Sebas Marino, and Nicky Andrew (Soty’s father) stopped by for a quiet word of support and encouragement.  If it was a first visit, then the first few minutes would be spent detailing how the person had learned of my illness and what they had done about it since.  During the day other people (like Soty and her sister, Talina, and Sisma, my Tobian sister, and Isauro, our brother) came by for more lengthy visits.  They usually brought some food with them to tempt me into eating, and they were the ones who set up transport for Bobby so she could get the day’s errands completed and sit with me while she was gone.  Bobby’s rides were mostly with Tina Marcello, the family taxi driver.  Hers is the cab flying a Hatohobei State Flag by the way.  In Palau, lucky is the family with a taxi driver in it, someone who can be called at any time to carry around any of the family at no charge or at least a steep discount. 

Conveniently enough, Lorenso, the current last of the Tobian canoe builders and a friend of many years, was sick in the next ward after eating a cheeseburger against his doctor’s advice, so a visit to him could be combined with a visit to me and vice versa.  Mostly I had the four-bed ward to myself, so there were always chairs enough to go round.  It didn’t take long for people to figure out the kind of visit that most encouraged me—no public praying (although the prayers that people told me they were offering meant and mean an awful lot to me) but lots of jokes; encouragement but only the quietest of commiserations. Then once the initial greetings and requests for information had been made, people looked around to see who else was there and my guests, sensing my inability to hold up my end of any conversation, promptly began conversing among themselves. (That elegantly dressed woman who, at a Smithsonian reception four or five years ago, told Soty to “mingle, mingle” could have saved her breath.  As a well socialized Tobian, Soty can mingle with the best of them.)  Since all this is pretty culturally appropriate in the Tobian context, it was no great stretch for anyone to cheer me up. Probably the high point came when I was able to sing a pair of very old and very rude songs for a couple of Lorenso’s sons, all the while making sure we weren’t overheard by any of the women.  This whole thing reminded me of how efficiently the parents and grandparents of many of my Tobian visitors figured out how to cheer me up when I first lived on their island so long ago.

You can imagine how people who viewed being alone as tantamount to being lonely, and  being lonely as only a small step away from going insane, reacted when, inevitably, I withdrew from the unfamiliar and, for an American, too intense pace of social interaction, to brood or at least enjoy my own company for a few hours.  Here was this giant American who might be going nuts.  Soon enough a solution emerged: call that little kid and tell her to pick some flowers to put in a jar and put on his window sill.  Then send in one or two of the old men with a checker board and don’t accept no for an answer.  It always worked; soon enough and despite myself, I was having a good time, cracking jokes and singing not very polite songs.  I am certain if I had been a different kind of person they would have figured out another way to bring me back into the web of social interaction.  Certainly I don’t know any outsider, American or Palauan, who lived in the Southwest Islands during those years who doesn’t remember his or her time there with great fondness, not so much for the beauty of the islands or the quality of the food, but for what amounts to the skill of the people in generating good feelings and warm relationships.  These are the same skills that were so in evidence during those days leading up to my evacuation. 

But of course it wasn’t only Tobians who visited me and whose emails have been so cheering to me here.  Many Palauan friends like Joe Chilton, my PCC buddy, and Rita and Loyola from the Bureau of Arts and Culture also came by.  It took three cars to get us to the airport so that everyone who wanted to say goodbye could be there and I have to tell you I almost lost it when Tina Rehuher appeared out of nowhere while we were waiting to board to give me a hug and wish us well.

Obviously the hospital visiting pattern from which I benefited—from “ruing to “taing” (admission to discharge)—wasn’t created on the spot.  Hospitals have been a well-culturalized feature of the Palau scene at least since the Japanese era and that pattern must have evolved over the decades since.  A little window into that time opens when you think about a Palauan word that means to go barefoot.  It is “omeril” (or something like that—my Palauan spelling is even worse than my English spelling) and is derived from Merir, the name of one of the other Southwest Islands.  Apparently people from those islands were slower to adopt footwear than the other residents of Koror, and as the local explanation of that term goes, they were observed in the line at the hospital omeril while everyone else was not.

The arrival of people from the Southwest Islands, beginning during the early 20th  Century when the German administration relocated people from there to Palau following a disastrous typhoon, really marks, I think, the beginning of Palau and especially Koror as a multicultural place. Next came large numbers of Koreans, Okinawans, and Japanese under the Japanese administration.  Almost all these people were expelled from Palau by the US Navy right after World War II.  Since then there has been a growing and increasingly diverse population of non-Palauans living and working there.  It now includes many Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Vietnamese, Chinese, American, and Japanese people and lesser numbers of Europeans and others, including some from other places in the Pacific.  I met an Iraqi there once and an Argentinian.  Many people in Palau are comfortably bi or tri cultural, equally at home in two or three languages, cuisines, and social scenes. This is one of the biggest changes since first I came to Palau.  It makes Palau all the more interesting—one of the places in our world where the chop stick meets the fork.  And the largest non-Palauan group is from right where I am writing this: the Philippines.

I don’t know the history of the immigration of people from PI to Palau.  I don’t think there were very many there during the sixties and early seventies when the big outside group (beside the Americans) was Korean construction workers.  But now they are present in considerable numbers, working in restaurants and bars, stores and offices, skilled trades and even in homes as domestic helpers, watching the kids while both parents work.  I hear that some have lived in Koror for 25 years now; some have married Palauans and begun families. Others have just begun families. There used to be a place not far from where we are now living on Malakal called Manila town.  It was a row of postwar Quonset huts, with laundry hung outside and smashing looking women looking out the windows.  I remember a trip to the Rock Islands (the local and spectacular picnic grounds) with Sisma and some other people including her good friend and fellow restaurant worker, a Filipina whose name escapes me.  And now, Philippine hospitals have replaced those of Guam and Honolulu as the place where people too sick to be treated in Koror are sent.  I hope they are all as fortunate in their outcomes as me.  I know they will meet a hospital staff very curious about Palau and interested to learn as much as they can about it.  It turns out that from Manila Palau looks to be an attractive place to work.  Rather than the Middle East or Africa or South America, it is close, politically stable, with a familiar if miniature landscape, and just a cheap ticket away.  This is a perspective on Palau I had not come across before and it makes me wonder what else I might learn from Palau’s Filipinos.  For despite being a multi-cultural place, there does not seem to be much public acknowledgement of this fact.  In fact, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that the diversity of Koror is the elephant in the middle of the room, unacknowledged but unavoidable and slightly unsettling.

I have to report that as of this Wednesday morning no one has won the Rotary Club of Palau raffle.  President Risong Tarkong held the lucky ticket last week but failed to draw the Queen.  As she said in her email reporting this amazing news:  “everyone roared in disbelief and probably relief against the backdrop of their laughter.”  What happened this week, I have not yet heard. We get back to Palau too late on Wednesday to be there for next week’s drawing but since next week’s letter will be written in Palau, I will be able to tell you what happened.

As we get close to the end of this medical adventure and I get close to the end of this letter, a line from a letter my nephew Eric sent about his recent trip to climb in the Andes keeps running in my head.  I am not at all sure why but “I was very thankful to have recently sharpened my crampons,” somehow seems appropriate to the occasion.  Maybe it has something to do with the person sleeping in the pull out bed next to me.  In this hospital she is called a patient companion/ watcher.  But long before that she was known as TTP Webster (To the Point, of course).

Bestly cards,

Hospital Visiting
My sister Sisma and her husband Tony visiting me

Hospital Visiting
Soty & Talina at the hospital

Hospital Visiting
My friends Thomas, Pia, and Max

And from the next ward, Lorenzo

Peter Black on Tobi Island
Me on Tobi
in 1968

Back to Letters from Palau