Letter from Palau Number Twelve
August 18, 2006

Greetings from the Oral History and Ethnography section of the Historic Preservation Office of Palau’s Bureau of Arts and Culture where I’ve agreed to put in a few hours a day, helping out with various reports and projects.  The Director, Roland Merar, is in Japan for the next month so we are under the capable acting direction of Rital Olsudong, the National Archaeologist.

I’ve also agreed to help BAC’s new ethnographer get started when she gets here from Germany at the end of the month.  Rumor has it that she is an ethnomusicologist who has transcribed and re-recorded music collected here by Germany’s Thilenius expedition in the early 20th century.  Like all the best rumors this one is rich with possibilities.  What if she unwittingly has some of those old obscene songs, or better yet one imbued with magical powers?

On Saturday afternoon Atoll Way sailed into Malakal Harbor and right past our bedroom window on the final leg of that epic voyage to the Southwest Islands.  A few minutes later she was tied up at the Port of Palau, five days overdue and with passengers and crew who seemed really happy to disembark.  It was the usual scene, one that has changed little over the years (except, that is, for the heightened security that kept all of us ship greeters behind a locked gate until the ship had actually tied up and been passed by the quarantine officer—I guess Osama better think twice before trying anything around here).

 As the gate finally opened, car and foot traffic poured through and made its way into the port and around the many stacks of containers piled up there until the ship finally came into view.  People were already pouring off her—no gangway, just climb out a door or a window and then take a quick jump/step to dry land and home.  Boxes and bags and buckets and suitcases and babies passed up and over from hand to hand.  Lots of laughter and jokes, lots of people relieved to see one another again, lots of old friends catching up on news, and lots of cars leaving with reunited families, heading off for showers, meals, and sleep in beds that will seem to rock like the ship itself for the first couple of nights, if my experience is any guide. 

Some of the passengers who got on the ship in the Southwest Islands hadn’t been up to Koror in years.  They were taking advantage of the fact that there is another trip scheduled in a couple of weeks to make a flying visit here to see doctors and get some shopping done.  My old friend Joe Kintoki is one of those people; he has been living on Sonsorol for the last ten years, I think.  Before that he was a Xerox repairman in the Washington DC area where he had grown up after been adopted as a young boy by an American doctor who lived in Silver Spring.  I first knew him on Tobi when he was a small boy, one of the school of kids swarming in and out of the ocean all day long and running up and down the paths when they weren’t.  It was good to see him on the pier, even if he did announce himself as a dinosaur.

These periodic reunifications of the Southwest Islanders are a kind of mirror opposite of what happens during departures, of which there seem to be a constant stream these days, now much more frequently at the airport than at the port.  Just as there is a familiar pattern in what happens when the ship arrives, so there is another pattern when it’s time to say farewell, whether on Tobi’s beach, on the pier in Koror, or at the airport.  It is not so much the gathering around of family and friends to be part of the experience and help lift what are often pretty distressed spirits with jokes and subtle reassurances that relationships are not being severed that I am talking about, but what happens afterwards, among those left behind.  The sweet sentimentality with which the goodbyes have been saturated abruptly drops away and with an almost visible shake, people head off on their way without a backward glance. It is as if someone has said, well she’s gone and who knows when she will be back, but there is no point wallowing in sadness.  In fact an old man said as much to me one day on Tobi as I was morosely walking around with a long face after baby James and his mother left on the ship.  

Of course sometimes the cultural dance breaks down, and despite themselves people show a bit more of what they are feeling.  That same guy who told me to cheer up had to chase after his wife in his canoe, as she, desperate to flee the island and go up to Koror (for reasons there is no need to go into here), was swimming madly for the ship.  It was quite a scene, as he frantically paddled after her and she churned through the water heading out to sea.  As you can imagine, everyone on ship and shore watched the drama with great interest.  (He got her back.)  Another parting was even less culturally appropriate.  This was in 1991 when I was visiting people here in Koror, including Perpetua, my Tobian mother.  In all my previous visits she had made much of my departure, reminiscing and exchanging promises that we would soon see each other again.  This time though, she was close to the end of her life and knew that there was little chance we would ever see each other again.  Instead of the stereotypic sentimentality at which she was so good, she just looked me in the eye, hung a lei around my neck, and pushed me away saying Go.  So I did. 

Bobby left early Monday morning for Guam, Tokyo, Newark, and Washington.  Soty and her sisters came to the airport with us and we had a very nice farewell, one of those really good ones that involve sharing a meal together.  On the way home we agreed she looked a little sad and so were we and then we began talking about other things.

Saturday night those people who had come up on the ship and managed to stay awake joined the rest of us for an outdoor slide show.  The weather was beautiful and the show was a big success.  It was preceded by a surprise birthday party for yours truly, featuring food that the women of Tobi figured did not violate all those crazy post-Manila restrictions I am forced to observe (no barbecue but plenty of  seafood fried rice, for example).  My sister Sisma (Perpetua’s adopted daughter and Soty’s grandmother) had baked a beautiful cake at the bakery where she works. There was plenty of food for everyone and Rosa, Isauro’s wife, made a very flattering speech.  Much was made of Bobby and me.

The slide show had been Sisma’s idea to begin with.  She doesn’t have much access to the internet so I had offered to bring my laptop over to her house to show her all the pictures from the past that are posted on our Friends of Tobi Island website.  Let’s have a slide show here in Eang so everyone can see them, she said.  I will tell Wayne (her sister’s son) to set up a tent over there where they park the cars and all the Tobi people here can come see those pictures.  Thus began the great Tobi slide show of 2006.

Most of the pictures of Tobi and the Tobians I have taken over the years are in this laptop.  There must be several thousand of them.  What I didn’t have was a good way to sort and then organize them for showing.  In other words, no PowerPoint, to which I have always reacted scornfully, having sat through way too many dumb scholarly presentations made more boring by having to listen to the slides on the screen being read by the speaker who, in case we didn’t get it the first two times it went by, then passed the slides out in hardcopy.  But faced with all those pictures and remembering how Joe Chilton built some really neat ways of getting math across to his students using PowerPoint, I decided that an anti-PowerPoint bias is another piece of academic arrogance which I can do without now that I’ve retired.  Bobby was shocked but went along without making too many withering comments about Bill Gates taking over my mind.  Of course the first thing we had to do was get the software installed, which involved a lot of maneuvering that I won’t bother you with.  But once that was done, most of my spare time went into creating the slide show.  Even when we were in Manila I whiled away some of the time we spent in the hotel sorting though all those images, choosing those I wanted to show, trying to improve those that needed it (most of them), and then inserting titles where necessary.  Since I wanted the whole thing to be in Tobian, that last task meant lots of consultations with Isauro. 

Improving those pictures didn’t just mean trying to sharpen up the colors and crisp up the details.  Over the last few years, a convention has emerged among Tobians that pictures showing the genitals of naked babies are so risqué that they should not be shown in public.  And this despite all the naked babies running around Eang.  The rule is particularly directed at pictures of babies who are now adult members of the community.  The idea is that anyone seeing such a picture can extrapolate what that person looks like today naked.  A minor subclause holds pictures of topless women and girls also to be suspect even though not so long ago most women and girls were publicly topless at least part of the time.  The last few days before the slide show I did little else but crop baby pictures.

I ended up showing 334 slides, organized into a number of sections, by year and topic.  (I have been known in the past to overdo projects and I suspect this slide show is going to be added to the list that I am teased about by my friends and family).  Most of the slides were from my field work on Tobi in 1972-1973, and most of those were in black and white.  This is by far not the Tobians’ favorite kind of picture; they much prefer color pictures.  But one point of this project was to show picture of people from before, and almost all my portraits are in black and white.  I was worried about this, but needn’t have been.  I also worried that seeing so many faces of those now dead might be upsetting.  After all, people don’t even like to use the name of someone’s dead father in their presence because it is thought hearing it might make them upset.  But Sisma assured me it would be ok, and it was.

Picture a long table with laptop and projector set up across from a screen, sheltering under a carport-like tarp, with power cords and a surge protector hanging from the support poles.  Off to the left is another table on which the remnants of the birthday feast draw the occasional visitor searching for that last, perfect, morsel.  All around are benches and plastic lawn chairs filled with men, women, and children talking and laughing; behind them are doorways and cars and tree stumps all crowded with people. The odd dog or two wanders through and a skeptical looking cat has its eye on the proceedings.  Darkness has fallen and the first slide comes up on the screen.  A shout goes up.  It’s old Teichi, with his long beard and loin cloth, taken in 1972.  This opening image says Yaugeri Hatohobei, Eang.  Hawaruwari Maham 12, 2006.  That’s Pictures of Tobi, Eang.  August 12, 2006 for those of you who can’t read Tobian.

Actually the word for picture in Tobian also means shadow.  And that’s what we all looked at for the next hour, shadows from the past.  As each slide came up, it was an occasion for people to exercise their wit and for the older people to reveal their knowledge of a long gone way of life and the people who lived it.  Younger people asked questions and made jokes and kept saying:  But they look so young.

The earliest pictures were from my first stay on the island in 1967-1968 as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Several of them showed my house being built.  It was made of thatch and was perfectly suited to me.  A window looked out across a well to the abai or meeting house.  The generator that powered the single sideband radio was housed in a small thatch shed behind the house.  Every Friday and Saturday for the first three or four months we were there, the other two volunteers and I put a 16 mm projector on a table under that window and showed films on a sheet hung on the side of the abai.  Weekend after weekend by popular demand we showed the same five short educational films.  These lame movies and the crummy projector were all I could talk the education department in Koror and Saipan into loaning us to bring on the ship that took us to Tobi.  We only gave up this practice when the next ship appeared and we had to return the equipment.  Weekend after weekend everyone on the island showed up to see what the International Telecommunications Union had to say about itself and whether or not the Americans were still doing well in that Army Air Force film about the war in the Pacific in 1942 (eventually we started running that one backwards so that we could watch Japanese Zeros reassemble themselves and fly away in reverse).  And just like Saturday night’s slide show, people used those films as an excellent reason to get together, make jokes, and have some food (in this case, popcorn—what else?).  Everyone attended, because no one wanted to miss the fun, even blind Ireneo who couldn’t see the films but could take part in the jokes.  On Saturday night as I looked to my left to see blind Isauro sitting there making comments and laughing, I had the strongest sense of, if not a circle being completed, then a refrain being repeated.  And I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of that old woman sitting off to my right, who raised her arm and gave a tentative wave to the shadow of someone important from her past, up there on the screen.

Wondering about the Rotary drawing?  Greg Gordon’s ticket was drawn, but of six cards, one of which (the queen of hearts) was worth $1,980, he drew a loser.  So next week there will be over $2,000 in the pot and only five cards left in the deck.  I hope some lucky person wins next week, so that when Dora Uchel comes the week after to talk about what it is like being blind in Palau, she can have our full attention.  This week a guy came from the Coral Savers Foundation to talk about replenishing the reefs on which so much in Palau depends. It was a very interesting talk but I think it’s fair to say that the anticipation of the imminent drawing cut into the number of questions he got.  Next week’s talk will be about the upcoming move to the new National Government Building, a subject of great interest to everyone here.  But even this talk will find it hard to compete with that drawing.  By the way, if I haven’t spelled it out before, fifty cents of every dollar spent for one of the tickets goes into the Rotary Club of Palau’s treasury to be used for good causes.

Bestly Cards,

Roland Merar
Roland talking with Bobby after church

Atoll Way
Atoll Way steaming home

Atoll Way returns

Atoll Way returns
Atoll Way returns from the Southwest

Coconut crab
Coconut crab

Joe Kintoki
Joe Kintoki

BWB, Soty & Her Sisters
Bobby, Soty, TinTin, & Talina after church on Bobby's last day

SIsma at party
Sisma with the food for the party

Getting ready for the slideshow


Watching the show: Soty with her little cousin

PWB & birthday cake
With my
birthday cake

PWB & Sisma
My sister
Sisma & me

Setting up for slideshow
Soty's father, Nicky, helping me to set up for the slideshow

The first slide
Rosa's introduction & the first slide

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