Letter from Palau Number Seven
July 11, 2006

Greetings from apartment number 402 in “the new blue building on Malakal just before you get to Rip Tide Beach,” which is how we have to tell people where we now live, since the building is too new to have a generally accepted name.  Yes, moved again.  On Sunday Bobby and I moved here from Lehns Motel.  This place has more room and is just down the road from the house where our foster daughter Soty is living.  I think this will be the final move of this trip, even though Soty’s grandfather Patris just gave me a small house right next to where he and Soty and a bunch of her cousins and uncles and aunts live.  Somehow he neglected to point out that the little house needs a bunch of work, beginning with finding something to do with the clothes that the last bunch of people who lived there left behind when they decamped with no notice.   Why should Patris give me a house?  Well, he explained that he is worried that too few people are living on Tobi (his home island) and thinks it would be good if he could get a bunch of white people to live there, starting with Bobby and me.  And I guess he thinks if we have a house here in Palau we are more likely to keep coming back and eventually will move to the island (where he has promised us land).  He is not as young as he used to be and his health is not as good as it was, so everyone but him is treating this as a kind of joke.  But his son Thomas sure looked amazed when I first reported that his father had given me a house on the family’s land on Malakal.  And now every time I go there, the old man asks when I am going to start fixing the place up.

This apartment is great.  It’s on the fourth floor with a bedroom and lanai overlooking the harbor.  Out the front door and across the street is a classic Pacific port town strip of bars and laundromats and restaurants, including the inevitable Popeye’s Disco (is there a port anywhere without a joint with a name like that?).  The beach is beautiful and Soty is a short walk away. Originally I had booked an apartment on the second floor, but most of its view was blocked by a stack of containers.  When Peter Polloi, the manager (and son of one of my fellow summer school instructors and old Peace Corps friend Lyn Polloi) told me there was a top floor unit available, we agreed that we would leave it up to Bobby, for whom stairs are sometimes a challenge.  She took one look and said let’s go for the fourth floor with the view of the Rock Islands, the harbor, port operations, and small boat and ship traffic.  I knew she would.

She arrived last Friday after spending a week exploring Tokyo with her old college roommate. This is her third visit to Palau but the first one where she will be staying long enough to get over the jet lag. She will be here for five weeks.  If you have noticed a marked improvement in the style and grammar of this letter over the earlier ones, you can thank her.  And that is only the palest reflection of the improvement she has made in the quality of my life.  It’s great having her here and showing her the sights. 

She came to this week’s meeting of the Palau Rotary Club so for once I had a guest to introduce.  Unfortunately for her, President Risong asked me at the last minute to be the guest speaker, so Bobby had to listen to me drone on as though she hadn’t heard it all many, many times before.  She did get to take part in the weekly cake auction (proceeds going to the scholarship fund) and applaud with the rest of us when it was announced that the new park built by Rotary down under the KB bridge is finished and that the beach which members shoveled into place on Saturday made it through what some call a “banana typhoon” which made the weekend very rainy and windy (and knocked down a bunch of banana trees).  She even got close to winning the $1,408 in the raffle.  But neither she nor anyone else walked away with the dough. (She won a pad and pen donated by Palau Royal Resort instead).  Now only ten cards remain in the deck.  Never in the history of the club has the deck been so small.

I have two huge lists that keep getting longer no matter how many items I cross off as accomplished or not worth bothering with.  One is a to do list and the other a list of topics to be covered in these letters.  Short of reducing the to do list to a single item called “write weekly letter” and spending my entire time writing ever longer letters, I don’t see any way around just leaving some stuff undone or unwritten.

I am just about at the halfway point of my work here.  I’ve been here for six weeks and have about six weeks to go.  I’ve finished the teaching part of my fellowship and now am ready to begin work with the Tobi community.  I still have some program development work to do at the college, but most of my time now will be split between the Bureau of Arts and Culture and the Hatohobei State Office.  Living on Malakal I won’t be walking to the museum and BAC office any more, but HSG office is an easy walk down the road from our apartment.  Of course this is the port area so nothing like the quiet tree and flower lined streets of Ngarbeched.  But there sure is a lot going on.  Dive boats coming and going, fishermen and sailors and construction workers milling about, containers entering and leaving the terminal, tourists looking for their lost keys.

I really enjoyed teaching that class at PCC.  In fact, it never did seem like summer school at all (which if you remember from an earlier letter is hardly my favorite activity).  Partly it’s the visiting Professor’s freedom from all the administrative minutiae that can make an academic job so excruciatingly dull.  But mostly it’s because the students presented such an interesting challenge.  There was a real mix of experience and skill levels in the class, so the challenge for me was to cover material in a way that everyone could grasp and that no one found too ridiculously simple to bother with.

Over the years I’ve learned to distrust my impression of how successful any of my courses actually were.  Sometimes when I thought a course bombed, student evaluations were over the moon.  Other times they were vanishingly low for a course that I thought had gone quite well. So I have only the vaguest idea how successful I was in meeting this challenge, but it was fun to try.  I already miss the class; we had some great discussions and I did learn a lot about Palau I didn’t know before.   

I continue to attract and accept invitations to give talks. At church in Eang on Sunday (and no, the Catholic Church of Palau has not fallen so low as to ask me to speak during a service) the gospel reading was from Mark.  Jesus returned to his home town, preaching and performing miracles. This produced a certain amount of muttering among his fellow townsmen.  His response to this is translated as “Prophets are honored by everyone except the people of their hometown and their relatives and their own family.”   It occurred to me that this is the obverse of the phenomenon I have been experiencing since I got to Palau and which might account for all those speaking invitations—“an expert is anyone from at least fifty miles away.”

Not everything in scripture translates easily into either Palauan or Tobian, the two languages in which the service is held at St Joseph’s in Eang.    But some things have an inherent local sense for this particular congregation, I think.  The first Sunday I was here the gospel reading, again from Mark, was about the time Jesus and his apostles were caught in a storm in a small boat.  He slept through the whole thing, in the stern on a cushion.  They finally woke him up and asked if it didn’t matter to him that they were all about to drown.  Now that’s a story that anyone around here, in this place of small boats and sudden squalls, can relate to.

I just named one of the languages of the Eang services as Tobian.  That is not strictly accurate.  In its written form (in the order of service handed out every week) it is much more Sonsorolese than Tobian.  Sonsorolese and Tobian are two very close dialects of Carolinian, a language spoken on atolls and low islands across much of the west central Pacific. Sonsorol and Tobi are both Southwest Islands of Palau. 

Why am I going through all this with you when there are so many unaddressed and (at least superficially) much more interesting topics I probably will never get to (e.g., recent developments in betel nut chewing; typhoons I have known; the Satawal/Saipan/Palau voyaging canoe reconstruction project; great barbecues of Eang; the first go go girl in Palau).  It’s because one of the main projects Bobby and I will be working on is recording Tobian and posting it on the Friends of Tobi Island website.  So future letters are liable to be full of talk about Tobian and Sonsorolese and their relationship, how they are written, and how they are changing. 

Bobby and Soty had a very warm reunion.  They hadn’t seen one another for almost two years, and seemed to have fallen right back into the same way of being with one another that they had developed during our four years together.  We are hoping she will be able to go with us when (and if) we take the ship to Tobi later this month. 

Oh yes.  I know someone must be wondering.  We do our laundry here in a laundromat across the street.  So far, no sign of any crocodiles.  And at least once a day since she has been here I’ve heard Bobby plaintively say, “They do have some spectacular plants here.”

Bestly Cards,

View from Number 402
View from Number 402

Patris Compound, Malakal
Patris Compound, Malakal

Grandfather Patris
Grandfather Patris

Rainbow over the port
Rainbow over the port seen from Number 402

Malakal Street
Malakal scene

BWB at Lehns
Bobby at Lehns before the move

HSG Office
HSG Office and Longshoremen Restaurant

Missing keys
Did you mention missing keys?

After church in Eang
After church in Eang

Taco Dinner
TinTin, Talina, Bobby, and Soty making taco dinner at Number 402

Back to Letters from Palau