P(re)S.  I can’t believe I missed my Friday deadline for this letter yesterday. I got so engrossed in doing my mail before losing power that I forgot to set up and send this one.  Duh.

Letter from Palau Number Thirteen
August 25, 2006

Greetings from Room 402 of the PTI apartments on Malakal.  It’s a beautiful afternoon as I begin this. Isauro and I have been sitting at my table as he desperately tries to visualize what Fare Hihah, the ancient spirit house on Tobi, used to look like.  It was destroyed in the early 1930s under the instigation of Yoshino, the Japanese storekeeper—more on him later.  Isauro has been asked to work with the artist who will be decorating the new Palau House of Chiefs with chiefly images from all 16 states of the Republic.  Tobi has chosen that long gone spirit house to be its contribution.  There are three problems with this.  (1) No one who actually saw that building is still alive.  (2) The only representation that exists is a painting done by Elisabeth Kramer in 1909 when she visited the island as part of a German anthropological expedition.  Her very evocative but hardly scientific painting is the frontispiece of the report of that visit, finally published in 1936.  (3) Isauro has been blind since the early 1970s.  He is also what can only be called an accuracy freak.  We are working from a thumbnail copy of Kramer’s painting.  It is an interior view showing a double hulled spirit canoe hanging down from the roof of a vaguely depicted thatch building.  Parts of one outside wall and one end of the building are shown.  This is all very unsatisfactory for an ex-carpenter like Isauro.  His idea of how to meet the historic responsibility that he has been given for the decoration of the new House of Chiefs requires him to know, for example, exactly how many rafters and beams there were and how they related to one another.  No matter how carefully I describe what is actually in the painting, he continues to ask for more detail.   

He and I have been spending a lot of time together this week, mostly recording Tobian vocabulary as part of an effort preserve the language.  I really hope Tobian does not disappear the way so many of the world’s languages recently have done.  It contains features that I find really elegant as well as having a fast paced and racy quality that makes it fun to learn and speak.  But it’s under a lot of pressure as more and more Tobians find Palauan, English, and Japanese important to their (and their kids) economic security and as it, along with the other three closely related Southwest Island languages of Palau, seems to be melding into a single tongue, called Eangese after the name of the hamlet in Koror where most of the people from those islands are now living.  Bobby and I hope to be able to use computer technology and the internet to help preserve it.  She went home with a suitcase full of Tobian vocabulary to post on FOTI and I will show up in a few weeks with even more.

Isauro’s meticulous regard for fine detail makes him a great language informant.  For example, there are a number of sounds in Tobian which don’t really occur in standard English and he is adamant that we spell them out in a way that best represents them (he is also an ex-school teacher, by the way).  And he listens to a replay of each of the recordings I am making; if it doesn’t meet his standards we just redo it.  I guess that’s the old carpenter’s philosophy of measure twice, saw once at work.  We are working from a lengthy list of words and illustrative sentences and if you could watch him slowly, thoughtfully, and patiently working out the best translation of one of those goofy sentences that the linguists who prepared the list came up with, you would see what I mean.

The other day we went to the Belau National Museum where the collections manager had brought all the museum’s Southwest Island artifacts out into the coffee shop—more later on why the coffee shop and not her office.  For the next 90 minutes the assembled staff, including the Director and various interns, watched, listened, took notes, and filmed as he manually inspected each piece and then discussed its name, function, and probable island of manufacture.  It was a really impressive performance and has gotten me thinking about how much people like Isauro who are blind have to offer Palau.  This brings us to the Rotary Club of Palau, at least in a roundabout way.

First, though, I have to report that the so-called Queen’s Purse is far lighter than it was when we all gathered at Penthouse Restaurant at noon on Wednesday for this week’s meeting.  Yes, the raffle finally has been won.  As everyone intently watched, the holder of the winning ticket, Treasurer Wayne Santos, managed to pick the queen of hearts out of a pile of five cards, walking away with $2,120.  Many a member wistfully wondered if the fact that he is a banker had anything to do with his remarkable ability to attract money.  I have to say I was kind of sorry to see this happen.  Not because I have anything against Wayne and not because I thought I was going to win, but because I was hoping that a couple of weeks from now when I send out the final letter in this series, the pot would remain to be won and all of us non-residents of Koror would be left waiting for the shoe to drop and only able to speculate on what happened next.  Ah well, next week it starts again.  

We had a very interesting guest speaker at this week’s meeting who gave us all a lot to think about.  Ric Mangham, a CIP (Capital Improvement Project) manager presented an overview of three huge projects: the improvements to the airport; the status of the new national capitol building—please indulge me while I plow ahead despite the fact that I can’t remember which is capital and which capitol; and the sewer system.  The bottom line is that the first two are going ahead swimmingly but the third is in horrible trouble.

The new capitol building is in Melekeok and is just about ready for the October 1 grand celebration of its opening and the start of the move from Koror of all three branches of the government up the new compact road during the following week.  When Ric agreed last week to give this talk I am sure he anticipated a lot of questions on this topic.  After all, much of the coffee shop chatter and muttering around town for the last few months has been about its cost and practicality and the probability of various disasters associated with the move.  He had his clincher ready, though:  it would have been unconstitutional not to build it. The new national capitol is mandated by a little noticed clause in the constitution of the Republic of Palau, a constitution which was approved by a considerable majority.  By the way, he also is convinced that 20 years from now this project will be viewed as a great step forward.  But as things turned out he didn’t really need this rhetorical ammunition since only a few questions were raised about the move.  Instead, everyone wanted to hear what he had to say about the collapse of the electrical system, a phenomenon for which he bore no responsibility and about which he had nothing to say except the general point that the same thing that led to the troubles of the sewer system (50 out of 50 pumping stations need major repairs) led to the electrical problems.  Lack of financing for, and attention to, routine maintenance is the culprit in both cases.

According to Tia Belau, one of Palau’s two lively newspapers, on August 11 the crank shaft of one of the generators was damaged beyond repair.  Then on August 16 a delivery truck brought down a guy wire. Later that same night a generator turbo charge failed (whatever that means) and then the next day another generator lost its crankshaft.  And now, for the first time in 20 years, power is being rationed in Palau.  The same edition of Tia Belau that published this tale of electrical woe carried a full page Power Interruption Schedule.

Reaction to all this has been pretty intense here in town (and as far as I know throughout the republic and the Palauan diaspora).  The inconvenience is considerable.  It’s been long enough since the shift to household electricity that very few people still have those kerosene lanterns and cook stoves that used to light Palau’s homes and cook its meals.  Candles and flashlights have been leaping off the shelves of the stores that carry them and those who live or work in a building with its own generator have assumed an air of modest superiority, as if they possessed unusual gifts of foresight instead of just being (most of them at least) even luckier than Treasurer Wayne.  I count myself in this latter group because I don’t think the building in which I live has had its power interrupted at all, and, in any event, the area where I live is only scheduled to lose power between ten in the evening and three in the morning, scarcely a hardship for any honest citizen.  (The karaoke bars and their clientele across the street might argue about that, I guess, but they get no sympathy from me).  But pity the poor people who work or live in the center of town where the situation is much worse.  For example, the neighborhood where the museum and the Bureau of Arts and Culture are located loses power every day at one in the afternoon and doesn’t get it back until five, and that’s not counting the constant series of brief outages that can make working on a computer totally maddening.  That schedule is why Marciana, the collection manager, set up the array of Southwest Island artifacts for Isauro to inspect in the museum’s airy and glass enclosed coffee shop instead of her office which becomes a dark and airless room when it loses power.  It’s also why Isauro is here this afternoon, even though I am mostly concentrating on getting this letter done.  His apartment, near the museum, becomes almost uninhabitable without power to run his fan, so this week he has been coming here after lunch to work on words. 

Right now he is sitting outside on the balcony listening to the sounds of the port of Palau and cracking up every time I take a break and come out there with a list of words and sample dialogues dating back to the 1830s, when some American whaling men were stranded on Tobi.  The humor lies in the dialogues.  In them Horace Holden, one of the castaways, argues with Pahrahbooah, his Tobian master/father, that he should help him get away on a passing ship so he could come back with gifts of cloth, axes, brass and iron, fishhooks, an anvil, and various other goods.  The answer?  You and all your kind are liars. If you don’t do what you say and return with gifts, we will get our god to kill you.  Holden’s obvious lies and Pahrahbooah’s attempts to find some way to lock in his promises are what we find so funny.  In the end Pahrahbooah helped Holden to get home where he immediately wrote a book, which included those lists of words and dialogues.  I think the sailor won the argument with the observation that if he didn’t leave on a ship he would certainly die on Tobi and if that happened Pahrahbooah would get nothing.  (Actually he very likely got nothing anyway, since Holden never fulfilled his half of the bargain as far as we can tell).  If you are interested in reading the actual dialogues they can be found at http://tobi.gmu.edu/wordweek/holdendialogues.pdf 

If all goes well next week’s meeting of the Rotary Club will feature Dora Uchel, who like Isauro is blind.  She will be speaking on what it is like to be sightless in Palau these days.  Suffice it to say that things have changed since the days when a blind person could expect to learn his or her way around a relatively benign and stable island environment in which most subsistence tasks were relatively simple and unchanging.  As the school teacher on Tobi, for example, Isauro lived a life full of activity and accomplishment, raising his kids, fishing, and running the school.  Several people have told me of their surprise when he offered to show them around when they visited the island and how amazing it was to see him make his way along the path as he gave them a tour.  (I only wish they could have seen us sailing my canoe out through the surf to the open sea for some early morning tuna trolling, when we were both a lot younger and he was newly blind.)  In living such an un-disabled life, Isauro was simply following in the footsteps of Ireneo, a blind old man who (with some help) lived alone, supporting himself by making copra.  (He used to chop the nuts in the cool of the night even when there was no moon, unlike the rest of the men who envied him this possibility).  Many people in Palau have similar stories of people whose blindness did not radically exclude them from normal life. 

Today the great majority of Palau’s people live in Koror, where the physical and human environments are constantly changing, where most adults work at jobs outside the home, where cars dominate the roads and most other public space, and where complex machines are penetrating ever more deeply into everyday life.  Koror is not an easy place to be blind, I think.  But maybe it can be made a bit easier.

Part of the expectations that came with my Rotary Fellowship is that I would try to find some way that Rotary could contribute to the betterment of Palau.  Well, as I explained the other day to Risong Tarkong, President of Rotary Palau, I have been thinking about the possibility of approaching the Rotary International Foundation or some other funding source for the resources to bring specialists here to train people with impaired vision in skills that would allow them to take a more active role in society.  She agreed that this is an idea that makes sense and that some kind of partnership between her club and my sponsoring club in Burke, Virginia might be an effective way to proceed.  She will bring it up to her board at their next meeting.  She was particularly taken, I think, with the notion that at the moment this is a relatively small social problem but one that may well become much more significant due to the very large number of people in Palau with diabetes.  (Blindness is one of the consequences of the uncontrolled progression of that disease).  In other words, it makes sense to address the issue now—kind of like preventive maintenance if you think about it. 
One of the people whose diabetes constantly threatens to run wild is Soty’s grandfather, Patris, who lives just down the shore from my apartment on Malakal.  The other day I took Maki Mito over there to interview him.  She is a Japanese anthropologist doing some work at the museum.  Her topic is the Japanese era here, and she has been collecting stories from those, like Patris, who were students in Japanese schools.  Latter she passed along some of what he had to say. 

Just imagine what it was like for him almost 75 years ago when, a Tobian boy of eight, he arrived for the first time in Koror from his tiny and remote home island. The town is a bustling Japanese urban center, with the full range of (then) modern amenities.  He and his mother are met on the pier by his uncle who bundles them into a bus for the ride over to Eang.  For the initial few minutes of the ride, his first in a machine, he doesn’t realize that he is moving forward.  Instead he thinks the trees and houses going by outside the bus window are all somehow moving backwards.  Or so he told Maki.  In any case, soon enough he was enrolled in school and every day, instead of taking the bus home for lunch, he walked to the house of his Japanese father and his new wife.  His father was Yoshino, the former storekeeper on Tobi, and the man who was behind the burning of Fare Hihah, the building Isauro is still vainly trying to visualize as I sit here writing this.

Bestly cards,

View from 402
View from 402

Tobi Spirit House
Tobi Spirit House by Elisabeth Kramer

Belau National Museum
Belau National Museum

Isauro Andrew

Isauro Andrew
Isauro Andrew examining Tobi artifacts at the Museum

Koror street

Koror street
Koror streets

Tobi canoe
A Tobi canoe

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