Letter from Palau Number Six
July 6, 2006

Greetings from Room 55 of Palau Community College where I should be grading final exams but where instead I am writing this.  One of the things I like most about this building is the sign just outside the door.  All the buildings on this part of the campus have been given the names of fish.  These names are in Palauan, of course—after all, this is Palau Community College.  So when you see that big sign that says “Smuuch” you are supposed to think of a fish.  But in a place where the newspaper once referred to the woman who accompanied John F. Kennedy Jr. on a visit here as his “main squeeze,” I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks of another kind of smooch when I see it.  For those non Palauan speaking language nuts reading this (and you know who you are), I should explain that “ch” in written Palauan indicates a glottal stop, not any of the English sounds that combination of letters can mean.  So the name of that fish and of this building sounds like the first part of the word smooth with the end chopped off.  Got it?  Speaking of orthography, I learned this week that it is an issue among at least some Palauans.  In fact one of the Senators is offering a resolution in the Legislature on the topic.  The reason that interests me is that Tobians also have issues about the way their language should be written.  It’s one of the things Bobby and I plan to work on now that (a) I am done with my class so have some more time at my disposal and (b) she is about to arrive.

I learned about the Senator’s proposal when he described it to the combined meeting of the Society of Historians and the Historical and Cultural Advisory Board that met over lunch on Friday.  Did I mention that they take history very seriously here?  Well they do.  Anyway, it was quite an interesting event.  My inadequate Palauan made it hard to understand exactly what was going on, but I was able to figure out when a serious discussion arose about the possibility of replacing the Japanese word for culture with a Palauan term.  Looking around the room at the collection of distinguished local (and elderly) historians trying to hash out what that damn word “culture” actually means, I couldn’t help but think of all the similar discussions I’ve sat in on all over the world.  Almost always to no avail, by the way.  Also at that meeting I accepted a couple of new assignments. 

Apparently a big part of contemporary Palauan culture is to glom on to any visiting professor and get them to agree to do some professorial thing for you.  Someone pointed out that all they are doing is trying to squeeze out anything useful in my head before I leave. Since my Rotary Fellowship brings with it the expectation that I will give talks while I am here this works out well for all concerned.  During the meeting Kathy Kesolei, an old friend from early Peace Corps days and now Chair of the Historical and Cultural Board, got me to agree to give a talk at a symposium that she is putting on in August and Roland Merar, the Director of the Bureau of Arts and Culture, got me to agree to write an article for a UNESCO culture magazine of some kind about that first birth ceremony I described in an earlier letter.  It was only after I agreed to help him out that he told me the deadline was on the following Tuesday.  Fortunately he had also asked Loyola Darius, a public information officer at BAC, to work on it and we were able to meet the deadline after a lot of scrambling over the weekend.  Roland also has me giving a talk at a huge education conference this Friday. 

This week there were two Rotary meetings; one Monday evening over a very fine dinner to induct new officers and members and then the usual Wednesday lunch meeting.  Risong Tarkong is the new President, and she seemed ready to start off the year with a lot of new ideas and projects, in addition to the school water filters, PCC scholarship, and building a new public park which are ongoing service projects here.  And do you believe it?  No one won the big prize in the raffle this week.  This is getting to be historic, if not hysterical.  Omar Basilius, a new member with whom I had an interesting talk about Sofia, which he had visited when deployed to Kosovo with the US Army and which I visited a number of times last year on another fellowship, bought a whole bunch of tickets and won all four non-monetary prizes and the right to draw for the Queen of Hearts.  It must have been quite a moment when he failed to pick her out of the deck.  I wasn’t there because I had to leave early to give the final exam to my students.  I was able to hear the guest speaker though, and she was absolutely fascinating.  She is an archaeologist who has been doing a lot of work on Babeldaob, the big island north of Koror.

It feels almost as though someone has tossed a grenade into our understanding of Palauan prehistory and blown much of what we thought we knew to smithereens.  Actually it wasn’t a grenade but a huge road construction project.  Using funds associated with Palau’s Compact of Free Association with the US, a road has been built around Babeldaob over the last few years.  Amazing prehistoric sites were uncovered and tons of information recovered by the archaeologists associated with this project.  It turns out that most of the interior of that island was sculpted into huge earthworks, beginning between three and four thousand years ago and maybe even earlier.  Babeldaob’s rolling hills, covered in forest and grass lands, have been revealed to be in reality giant terraces, huge defensive ditches, flattened hilltops, all constructed by massive labor thousands of years ago. And this is a landscape which was long thought to have been only minimally settled at best.  What was going on back then?  Some smallish terraces were known, of course.  Typically referred to as the “mysterious prehistoric terraces of Palau” they have been totally cast in the shade by these new and previously unsuspected giant earthworks.  Palauan oral history deals with shore side villages, and has nothing to say about this earlier historical horizon.  If I heard her right, most of the mangrove swamps and wetlands of the coastal area were formed from soil eroded from those sculpted hillsides of the interior.  She has promised a tour of some of the new sites; I can hardly wait.

We had high and gusty winds on Saturday and much rain.  We lost power and for a while it was very like the buildup to a typhoon, even though the winds never reached the sustained power of one of those monster storms (typhoon is another word for hurricane).   I’ve been through two of them here, Typhoon Sally in 1967 and Super Typhoon Mike in 1990 and to tell you the truth I have no need to repeat the experience.  When those winds get really howling and the tin starts flying off the walls and roof, it can all seem remarkably personal. Saturday’s storm knocked down a lot of banana trees and the odd areca palm and even a big old mango tree across the taro field from Lehns, but other than that proved itself forgettable.  For which we all gave thanks.  One thing I had forgotten was how good it sounds to hear the crowing of the roosters when it’s all over.  It’s interesting that the rooster is a symbol of leadership here.   Joe Chilton tells me that the rooster is used as a symbol of leadership because a chief should alert people to what is going on and let them know when it’s time to get going, and not just wait to find out what people want to do and then tell them to do it.  To my mind this is a big improvement over the donkey and the elephant.
Sunny Williams is an anthropology undergraduate at University of Hawaii at Hilo who is spending her summer at her home in Palau while she works on a research paper about the Tobians and other people of Eang.  She is learning all kinds of stuff I never knew, especially about their earlier years here in Koror.  She took me along when she drove up to Airai in Babeldaob to visit Ubal Tellei, or to use his traditional title, Ngirureor (Mister Work).  He spent time on Tobi many years ago as part of a work crew building the church there.  We had a great time; he has a wonderful country home that is a lot like such places were when I was traveling around Babeldaob for the Community Development Office of Palau during my first stay here.  Of course the main house is much more elaborate than anything around at that time, but the place where we sat and talked—a big, airy open sided roofed platform, with fishing gear hanging from the roof, kids and chickens and dogs milling about underfoot and baskets of this and that stacked here and there—sure seemed familiar.  He had great stories to tell of his stay on Tobi, and his wife told us what Babeldaob was like during World War II (not good).  And I did get to hear about the famous clock. A Japanese ship sank just off shore during the war.  Ubal Tellei dived down and took a clock from it and brought it home.  Once it was cleaned it proved to be a wonderful time piece, as long as it was wound once a week. Fortunately there were a bunch of kids in the family so winding the clock became a chore that kids took turns doing.  And woe to the one who forgot to wind it.  It set the time for the house for years and years.  It must have done a good job waking all those kids and sending them off to school; the Telleis are some of Palau’s most successful people.  Patrick Tellei, for example is the President of the college.  The clock still exists and if you come to Palau you can see for yourself where it rests in a place of honor in the National Museum.

Bestly cards,

Smuuch Hall
Smuuch Hall PCC

PWB giving talk
Giving one of those talks

Compact Road
Compact Road on Babeldaob

Banana typhoon
Consequence of the banana typhoon

Babeldaob from boat

Ubal Tellei
Ubal Tellei with Southwest Islands tackle box

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