by Lanie Tankard
Cover story in the
Florida Times-Union and Journal Sunday Magazine
by Lanie Fuller
January 3, 1971 (pp. 4–11)
August 2019 Edited Version
As a Times-Union editorial writer she now ponders the problems of community and world affairs, but for a time she lived an idyllic life far removed from the crush of 20th Century civilization.
Photo by Foster Marshall, Jr. (Credit: Florida Times-Union and Journal Sunday Magazine)
THEY say that once you’ve found your island, it becomes a part of you, a special place in your mind to retreat amid the hustle and bustle of the city. My islands—350 of them— are seven degrees above the equator in the Northern Pacific, slightly east of the Philippines and Borneo. This string of islands in the Western Carolines, known geographically as Palau, is one of the six districts of Micronesia.
Mostly I remember the islanders themselves—their hospitality, ready grins, self-pride, and easygoing attitudes about life. Almost any tropical island has its share of waving palm trees, thick black nights lit by a silvery moon and a myriad of stars, and turquoise water surrounding a network of coral. But these islands have something more—a legacy not easily forgotten. It greets you as you step off the tiny DC-6 onto the red-dirt airstrip at Airai and reminds you even when you’re idly snorkeling in the warm velvety water near the rock island of Ulong.
These islands were the last stronghold of the Japanese before World War II—a summer resort area and an important source of bauxite, sugar, pears, fish, and copra.
Twenty-five years ago, the United States fell heir to the 2,141 isles of Micronesia and has held them under a United Nations Trust ever since. Consider these islands, flung out over the vast stretch of the Northern Pacific, dotting an expanse of water as large as the continental United States yet with only half as much land as the state of Rhode Island. Micronesia: the very name itself paints this picture. It means “sea of small islands.”
The “micro” islands, scattered as they are, vary both in culture and in geography, but share a heritage of footsteps: Spanish, German, Japanese, and American. The islands embrace remnants of every culture that entered their world.
Where does that leave these islands today, in the 20th Century? Daily traversed by jet-powered birds winging their way to war-torn lands in Vietnam, they still nurse wounds from a world war fought a quarter of a century ago. Micronesia is—almost as it was—undisturbed yet by tourists and developers. No one has sought to capitalize on these war ruins…or even to clean them up.
They were recently opened to tourists, and plans are underway in each of the districts to build modern hotels. That’s progress, I suppose. Tourists are considered an important source of income, and there is a lot here for the tourist to see. Much will not meet a casual vacationer’s eye though. Perhaps the best way to understand a place is through the people.
SO COME with me now, before the tourists arrive, and meet the Smaserui family, a typical clan living in Palau. Come back with me to that day I stepped off the plane with 17 other Peace Corps trainees and first saw those majestic green mountains jutting up out of the Pacific. A small band of Palauans welcomed us, dressed in loose cotton clothing and zories (rubber flip-flop sandals). We soon saw the wisdom of that attire. Even the mildew seemed to mildew in the humidity.
Three girls dressed in neat yellow and white dresses placed leis of tropical flowers around our necks and uttered carefully rehearsed words: “Welcome to Palau.” I didn’t know until later that one of them would be my Palauan “sister” Maria, who would teach me all about her culture in exchange for help with her English.
We rode in a jeep over to the air terminal, about half a mile from the airstrip, to go through “Customs.” Stepping over a dog giving birth to a litter of pups in the muddy road, we entered a crumbling two-story concrete building with Japanese markings on the outside. The structure had been bombed during World War II. No roof remained, so the second story now served that function. Out the window we observed “the landscape of war.” Weeds surrounded a rusting tank amidst more ruins. A group of natives sat on one side looking at us with doubt. All in all, it was a rather forlorn area, and we gladly piled into a cramped old bus to bump along the muddy road to the dock.
Then, as we passed through the jungle, we saw them. Faces peered out of small wood-and-thatch huts. Children playing in yards, shy at first, became curious. One of us, in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, shouted one of the few Palauan greetings we had learned by that time: “Ungil tutau!” (“Good Morning!”). We chorused it at every brown face we saw peeking out among the palm trees—and it worked! They understood it, and waved back, bursting into huge grins…unfortunately followed by a long string of words we hadn’t yet learned.
At the dock, a line of Japanese cars owned by wealthy clan members waited to take the two-car ferry (since replaced by a larger one) across to the district center. Koror, once a bustling city of 50,000, was known as Japan’s Miami Beach before the war. There had been modern houses on paved streets, and even geisha houses. Today, only 5,700 Palauans and Trust Territory officials live there, and little of the former structures remain intact. Holes from mortar shells pockmark any concrete buildings still standing. The houses are corrugated metal, usually perched atop the large concrete foundation of a former Japanese house entered by a flight of imperial steps.
A once-concrete street is now full of holes and dirt. It was impossible to walk even a block without your zories splattering mud on the backs of your legs. Crumbling lions guard some entranceways. One Shinto shrine gallantly remains, along with other remnants of the prewar community. In those times, the population was mostly Japanese. After the war, the Americans bombed the islands to render them useless to the Japanese. Then Palauans moved in, claiming the remains. The islands were under US military rule following the war until 1951, when the Department of Interior took over and promptly forgot about Micronesia. The “zoo theory” was the guiding rule—“leave them alone.” This unfortunate attitude of neglect is probably what makes the problems confronting Micronesia today much harder to correct.
Ships still stand in harbors and on beaches where they were defeated under attack. Live ammunition, hand grenades, and mortar shells are strewn around the islands. A rakish “boomtown” atmosphere surrounds the remains of Koror today. The city boasts 14 bars sporting such names as the Boom-Boom Room, the Royal Palauan, Cave Inn, and Texas Saloon. Two movie theaters show “vintage classics.” The district center has a character all its own, and is to the rest of Palau much as New York is to the rest of the United States. Palau, compared to the other districts, is considered the most progressive. Several new buildings dot the scene in Koror: one a new school and the other…another bar.
BACK at the dock, an old boat finally chugged up, and we began the two-hour journey to Ngaremlengui, a village on the coast of volcanic mountainous Babelthuap, largest island in Micronesia (27 miles by 10 miles). The flying fish skimmed past our boat, the sun beat down, and the fluffy white clouds were so low we could almost touch them. In the distance was a labyrinth of rock islands, where the movie “Hell in the Pacific” with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune was filmed. An 84-room hotel overlooking these “giant seagoing mushrooms” is currently in the planning stage.
At the Ngaremlengui dock, a few natives helped us with our luggage. One of the girls who had met us at the airport took my suitcase, balanced it effortlessly on her head, and walked with me.
The long path to the village went past a mangrove swamp, where we “casually” eyed the murky water. We had been told of the 50,000 crocodiles estimated to abound in Palau. Hunters from Australia were in the district at that time, by invitation of the Trust Territory, to help rid the waters of this overabundant supply after the creatures had killed two men. The hunters had caught over 30 in several weeks, and planned to sell the hides in Singapore.
A GROUP now awaited us in the “bai,” traditionally the all-male meetinghouse in days of tribal wars, but lo and behold women’s liberation had even reached Palau! Many of the bais had detailed carved storyboards depicting legends about wars, storms, and island migrations. No nails were used in the traditional bais. In the center hung an earthenware bowl in which a warrior returning from battle placed an enemy head. Just 50 years ago, headhunting tribes existed on these islands. Then came two world wars, and the islanders were abruptly thrust into the 20th Century. Quite a leap to make in such a short time, one that certainly can’t be made without consequent problems.
Over 400 people lived in the three hamlets of Ngaremlengui. We had met our families with whom we would live during training, and our luggage was picked up and whisked away before we knew what was happening. Smilingly a native girl beckoned me. I followed her to a wooden house with white sliding windows on all sides in the Japanese fashion. They could be closed at night and opened during the day so that the house became apart of the dense jungle.
Walls in the adjoining kitchen and “family room” opened outward, propped up during the day. A perpetual fire burned there for cooking. The rotted porch was falling in. Underneath the house was the largest collection of scrap war metal I’ve ever seen. The roofing was not thatch, unfortunately, but rather hot rusted corrugated tin—sheltering quite an active family of rats in the rafters.
At the door stood Angelina, who spoke English rather well—a blessing during those times I was completely mystified by things. My family’s name was Smaserui, and my family they truly were. I became their daughter, and was expected to cook, clean, and work along with the rest of the women. Mainly, however, I was expected to teach them English.
“We want all our people to learn English so they can go anywhere, even in Micronesia, and be understood,” explained Angie. For the 93,000 Micronesians speak nine different languages in their six districts. The schools use the TESL method (Teaching English as a Second Language).
Besides my “mother” and “father,” called mechas and rubak (literally “old woman” and “old man”) out of respect for their age, my new family included Angie (20, training to be a TESL teacher), Martha and Maria (15, twins), Inocensia (13, adopted from another family in the clan), Kabriel (23, a carpenter in the district center), Lazarus (11), Harvestine (7), and Richie (1½, Angie’s son). Girls sometimes had several children before considering marriage. Their families took in these children. Johanna, an older daughter, was married and lived in the same village. Her children (Wilma, Wilson, Pasqual, and Pasquana) often came over. Two other daughters, also married, lived in Yap, the district just east of Palau.
After watching me unpack, my new sisters took me to their favorite spot—the river. “Lanie, you come swimming, too.” I had planned on only watching, but the water felt so cool, I soon joined them. Later, I was told that a 14½-foot crocodile had been killed there several months earlier.
I had a terrible time telling the twins apart, but Maria soon solved the problem. “Here, Lanie, you will cut my hair. I want to look like this,” she said, pointing to a model in an old Sears Roebuck catalog. “But Maria, your hair is down to your waist. It’s so lovely,” I said. Nothing could dissuade her, so I took the rusted wire cutters she proffered and proceeded to snip.
THE FIRST time my mechas had seen me, she said (through gestures and the few Palauan words I knew), “You’re too thin. I’m going to fatten you up so you can find a husband. No one will want you if you’re that skinny!” Well, she did keep the first part of her vow. With the Palauan diet of taro, tapioca, fish, rice, yams, pineapples, coconuts, lobster, mangrove crabs, papayas, crocodile meat, squid, sashimi (raw fish with soy sauce and lime), octopus, turtle meat, breadfruit, bananas, sugar cane, rambutan (rambotang, similar to a lychee)…no wonder I put on ten pounds.
Meals were eaten in the family room by the fire, always seated on the floor using no utensils. Shoes were left outside, and the floors were always swept clean with palm whiskbrooms.
My mechas was also the dancing teacher for the village. She tried to teach me the dances and corresponding wails, but I know I never looked quite like those women who, even with their “well-padded” hips, could sway gracefully in time with a ukulele and a harmonica. They still wore grass skirts, but jeans and 20th Century clothing now covered up brown legs peeking forth during the dance. No more surprises for the spectators. The only district that still “went topless” was Yap. Mail order watches, cigarette lighters, and other signs of American influence went side by side with loincloths and pandanus headbands. My Palauan sisters could hardly wait to learn the latest dances from me. They had a stack of Elvis Presley records to play far into the night.
TWO Japanese cannons overlooked the village, still trained on the harbor waiting for some unknown foe. A searchlight, long since rusted out, maintained its silent vigil alongside. The Palauans had built bamboo benches around the site, a hill with a breathtaking view of the entire valley, the harbor, and those fabulous tropical sunsets. Here we sat in the evenings singing, or in the heat of the day relaxing in the shade. It was like playing King of the Mountain, commanding a view of the entire Pacific for 360 degrees.
Villagers young and old enjoyed weekly movies in the bai, courtesy of the Peace Corps during training. One night there, I tried betel (areca) nut. Betel nuts are about the size of green pecans. They’re popped open, filled with lime, wrapped in green leaves, and placed between the gum and the cheek until saliva begins to work on them. Then the wad (quid) can be chewed, the longer the better, while spitting out the red juice periodically. Many islanders had stained teeth and red lips from this activity. I couldn’t understand the fascination until I began to chew—the room started to spin, my temperature must have risen five degrees, and I felt positively numb. The longer I chewed, the more pronounced the effects became. I’m sure I must have provided amusement for the group of women watching me, who had long since become immune to the effects. That was my sole encounter.
There were two “stores” in the village, a few shelves in a house stacked with Tang, sugar, tissues, cooking oil, canned fish, mosquito coils, zories, and a few other essentials. The village chief ran one store. Adjacent to the bai was a dispensary. Ngaremlengui was the only village of ten on the island with community electricity and water systems. The electricity came on from 6 to 11 every evening, and most houses had one or two light bulbs.
Palau was a food-gathering society. The men in the village fished during the day to provide meat, while the women worked in the taro patches and gardens to provide the rest of the diet. The women held most of the land and money.
In one way or another, islanders live off the coconut tree. It supplies food, drink, building materials, fuel, cooking utensils, oil, and copra (the dried meat). It was said that in days gone by, tribes used to make their older members climb the trees, and if they could manage to hang on when the trees were vigorously shaken from the ground, they were considered still useful to the village and allowed to come down. If someone was disliked in the village, that person would awaken one morning to find a raft and an oar in front of the door, meaning, “Leave before sunset. We don’t want you.”
MY SISTERS soon taught me how to cook Palauan food, wash rice, clean fish, cut grass with a scythe, make brooms, and wash my clothes in the river. Maria took me to the garden one day and I dug several rows of tapioca and planted two more to replace them. After I had learned just how to pack in the roots, Maria proudly declared I was now ready for a Palauan husband. No man wants a woman who can’t supply him with food, she told me. “Will you live here when you marry?” I asked her. “Ah, there is so much work here. I want to live somewhere else, maybe Yap or Guam…or America,” she said with a gleam in her eye.
Naturally I had to learn to plant taro (no small job). The taro patch is all mud, with a tremendous suction. Maria took me to the patch one day to show me. Following close behind her, I had just managed to put both feet in the muck, which came up to my knees, when I lost my balance. I tried to lift one foot to walk. It wouldn’t budge. I grabbed a plant with one hand to pull myself up. This didn’t help either. I found myself falling face downward in that muddy black mess. As Maria picked me up between fits of laughter, I heard one mechas cackling away in the river where she was bathing. She had seen the whole episode, which she laughingly repeated throughout the village before we had even walked home.
On one island in Palau, there were monkeys who imitated the actions of women planting taro. After the women left the field, the monkeys would pull up the taro and stick it back upside down, causing the plant to die. There was a drive to eradicate the monkeys, but my solution would have been to plant the taro upside down to begin with!
I really needed a shower when I got back from the taro patch. The shower consisted of two round cylinders from an airplane, into which water cascaded from a bamboo pipe connected to the house. The water originated in a mountain stream from the island interior. The shower was set up on an old concrete slab from a former Japanese house, and surrounded on three sides by shoulder-high corrugated tin. The water flowed off the slab onto the surrounding ground, so that wading back to the house after showering usually left you looking like you hadn’t really bathed too well. But when you’re hot and sticky, a shower in the midst of a jungle—with water running over you while the sun filters down between the pandanus leaves, or at night under the stars—makes you almost feel like bursting into the strains of South Pacific.
The benjos (outhouses) were next to the showers. A good old water seal toilet was a rarity. At night we all slept on pandanus mats, with mosquito nets over us and mosquito coils burning around us. The mechas and rubak slept in the family room, and Kabriel slept on the dock with the other men his age. We played the transistor radio for a while while we talked. Radio Koror (The Voice of Palau) and Radio Okinawa came in well. The music was a blend of American rock-and-roll, Hawaiian and Japanese tunes, and Palauan folk songs. We were usually awakened about 4 a.m. as the roosters screamed the coming of the dawn. Any thoughts of sleep after that could be forgotten. The geckos would be running all over the windows by then—transparent little lizards with five suction cups like fingers on each of their four feet.
Palauans are brown skinned, with black hair and brown eyes. The children must all be born fish, for they can swim beautifully at ages five and six, and always seem to be in the water. The older ones free dive with spear guns and can catch about 20 fish in an hour. They appear much more advanced for their ages, compared to their American contemporaries. I had toddlers of two and three take me by the hand, mumbling Palauan baby talk, and lead me all around the village pointing out various sights. One night a tiny black kitten ran into our house, and I tried to catch it to pet the soft fur. Kabriel, my brother, saw it run under the bed, yanked it out by its hind leg, and handed it to me still screaming. I was appalled, until I began to understand that the villagers didn’t think of cats and dogs as pets. In fact, the dogs just wandered around the village looking quite sad, and were often pelted with rocks. But did this make the Palauans mean? Animals simply fit into their culture in a different pattern than in ours. The generosity and kindness of the Palauans had overwhelmed me on many occasions, and their disinterest in animals didn’t worry me.
IT WAS monotonous at first hearing everyone around me speak another language—quite frustrating. Then I began to discover many ways to communicate that didn’t involve words. I learned to convey ideas to my Palauan family without ever uttering a word. When they heard about Hurricane Camille on Radio Koror, they managed to tell me about it without saying a word of English, sharing my concern until I heard my family was safe. And when Ritchie, the baby, fell and had welts and bruises all over his head, I shared their concern, helping to look after him until he was better. Courtesy…and a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others…were the guiding rules in Palau.
Finally the day came when I could understand some of the words they said, and then sentences, until at last I could ask questions and actually understand the answers. Palauan was a mixture of Japanese with many German, Spanish, and American words thrown in. Once we had mastered Palauan to the extent that we could communicate basic phrases, our training group went on a midboard break to the other side of Babelthuap.
WE set off one Saturday morning at six on the Asahi Maru, an old diesel tug-type boat, leaving a few trainees off at each village along the coast. The eastern side of the island was all white sand beaches (ground coral) and coconut palms surrounded by turquoise water. I went to Ngaraard with four other trainees and two Palauans: Antonina (a nurse) and Lange (a language instructor). The boat couldn’t get close to shore due to low tide. We got on a bamboo raft and poled ashore, holding our bags above our heads. The natives met us on the beach to show us the village.
There were five hamlets, each connected by wide stone paths, part of Babelthuap’s past no has quite deciphered. Nearby stands a row of five-ton stones surmised to have supported a huge bai capable of sheltering thousands amidst the jungle, next to large carved stone heads. We walked from hamlet to hamlet, resting in each village bai where women brought us the traditional baskets of food for visitors. These were also served at parties. One basket could do nicely for a week, and we were served one three times a day! It would have been rude not to sample something out of each basket, so I soon got quite a reaction from my stomach. After the first night’s feast, the dancing women of Ngaraard entertained us, practicing for a party their village was having at Airai the next weekend.
We visited Bethania, a Protestant girl’s school, beautifully landscaped. A Catholic mission school had also stood there, but Typhoon Sally had completely leveled it the year before. Father Edwin McManus, an Irish-Italian Jesuit priest who had been in Palau for 25 years, ran the school and the small church. This energetic man was in his sixties, had a pointed graying beard, and wore spectacles. He travelled to all the villages on Babelthuap every few months to offer Mass. He had compiled a Palauan-English dictionary at least six inches thick, the only one anyone had ever written. We visited with him several days, fascinated by all he had to tell us about Palauan culture. With much regret, I learned recently that Father Mac had passed away. I’m sure it will be difficult to fill his place in the hearts of the Palauans who came to know and respect him.
When we were ready to leave the last morning, we located a small fishing boat to take us out to the reef to meet the Asahi, which was to pick us up at 10 a.m. It was low tide by then. We waded out to the fishing boat in waist-deep water that was quite rough, as rain was coming down in buckets. Tropical Storm Viola had begun, and there had been an announcement broadcast that no boats were to go out. The Asahi had turned back, but we were unaware of the situation as our radio had not been on.
We crowded into the hold of the small fishing boat, trying to keep out of the rain. This boat couldn’t stay out, so it deposited us on a small rock island about half a mile from shore to await the Asahi. A small concrete-block shelter for fishermen sat astride the rocks, but the windows had blown off and it was almost as wet inside as out. Only later did we learn the locals called this spot “Snake Island,” for we began to see yellow-banded sea snakes crawling around on the rocks. We quickly voted against staying outside. For five hours in the storm, we waited for a sign of any boat, but none came. When the rain let up a little, we were all hungry. Someone pulled out a can of Spam, which we passed around to share, digging in with our fingers. Antonina and Helbert (a Palauan language informant) decided to swim ashore to see about getting another boat to take us back to Ngaremlengui. I was constantly amazed at the Palauan lack of concern for safety, and yet I never saw anyone seriously injured while I was there.
They paddled back to “Snake Island” on a raft piled with beer, vodka, and food. In the typical Palauan fashion of not worrying about the problem at hand, we had a feast stranded on a rock island in Tropical Storm Viola. She raced across the Pacific, strengthened into a Super Typhoon, bounced off the Philippines, weakened near Taiwan—and then struck the Guandong province of China, killing a thousand people.
On “Snake Island,” the vodka kept us warm, and by the time another small boat was able to make it out to the island from the village, we were ready to leave. We crowded aboard, most of us on top to watch the ocean. The tide was low again, and we had to go all the way around the reef in the open ocean, quite rough by that time, to enter the reef from the other side at the tip of the island. The rain stopped about five o’clock, and Helbert immediately cast off his fishing line (a length of string wrapped around a bottle). He pulled in quite a few tuna, whooping at each one, and taking another swig of his vodka-filled coconut. After the waves began to get so rough that they drenched us even sitting on top of the boat, we decided to go below.
The sun had set by that time, a sight I had never before witnessed on the open ocean with no land in sight. The stars came out, and the moon glowed more brightly than I’ve ever seen it. Only later did I hear that three Americans had left their footprints on the moon that night. Such a giant leap for mankind seemed almost incomprehensible then, in the midst of a vast ocean. Nine hours later, we managed to find Ngaremlengui in the dark, as the electricity no longer burned at that late hour. I don’t think any grass mat ever looked so comfortable as I fell into bed.
SOMETIMES being pushed to the limit of your mental and physical capabilities forces you to discover personal resources you never realized you had. I began to think of my comparatively complex life back in the States, how everything was rushed and hurried. In Palau, I began to experience a peace of mind, and a full rich life I never thought could be possible so far away from Americanized living. I hadn’t had time to find this in the States. The world became a lot smaller, and things I had thought of as “exotic” slowly seemed commonplace. I started to take fantastic scenery, along with island food and living, for granted as I realized the natives actually thought of the American way of life as “exotic.”
One day Miou, my cousin, took me shelling at the reef with a group of high school girls. We went out in a boat with a few men, who went fishing after letting us off on the reef. There were hundreds of shells to pick up while millions of tiny iridescent green and orange fish darted around us. Moray eels splashed the water as they dashed out of our way. We saw quite a few ugly Crown of Thorns starfish, a brownish creature that feeds on living coral. They had already eaten well over 100 square miles of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and are now threatening the Pacific Islands.
Miou took me out to the very edge of the reef, where the lagoon meets the ocean and the piece of coral on which these islanders make their home drops down to the depths. It’s probably just as hard for most Americans to imagine someone living an entire life on a tiny speck surrounded by the ocean as it is for an islander to imagine someone living an entire life of cocktail parties, freeways, nine-to-five office hours, and suburban housing developments.
Miou showed me the splendors the ocean had to offer, and told me of her plans to go to high school on Guam next year. Her brother was at the University of Hawaii. Although she had never been outside her district, she knew there was something more to the world than what she had experienced in Koror and Ngaremlengui. She’s now living with a Navy family on Guam, planning to be a physical education teacher, and proud that she knows enough English to be able to write to me.
At the end of the day on the reef, the girls brought all the clams and sea cucumbers they had gathered to the boat. They ate the raw meat on the way home, dipping it in soy sauce and lime juice.
Another day my sister Inocensia took two other Peace Corps trainees and myself to Imeong, a village about 45 minutes away from Ngaremlengui by foot. It was a smaller hamlet, with only a tin Quonset hut for a bai. The children followed us all over. We stopped at our aunt and uncle’s house. No matter which clan you’re a member of, you are certain to have relatives in any village in Palau who will take you in as one of theirs, feed and shelter you, and show you the best their village has to offer—knowing that when they come to your village they will be treated in the same manner. In this extended family system, wealth must be shared, and any person who “has not” is entitled to welch from a relative who “has.”
AMONG our most memorable outings was to the waterfalls of Ngardmau. We took the Asahi Maru to the village, about an hour’s boat ride down the coast of Babelthuap. It had once been the site of a big Japanese mining operation for bauxite. The remains of the towers, railway, and buildings were still there. The grass was shoulder high as 20 Palauans and 7 other Americans walked from the dock to the village in the interior. We had all packed our lunches in pandanus baskets, which we carried on our heads. After getting beer at the store in the village, we headed inland for a seven-mile hike through the rarely traveled jungle. We followed the trail of an old Japanese water pipeline and railway, alongside a four-foot ditch covered by grass, into which we fell periodically.
Fording two rushing streams, we were carried downstream by the current as we tried to walk across. At one point, we slid down a five-foot wall of mud. Coming back, we had to dig in with our fingers and toes to climb it. Strong vines hampered our way. Then we hit a tropical rainforest with logs in various states of decomposition, completely surrounded by jungle. The heavy rainfall in the islands made the area very green. Birds chorused above us, orchids hung from the trees, and sunlight filtered through the dense growth to light our way. One of the other trainees and I got lost, and met the first and only land snake I saw in Palau. It was curled up, opening only one sleepy eye to wonder what had disturbed its sleep in the midst of that thick growth. We backtracked in high gear, however, and rejoined the rest of the party.
The overgrown path led along six bridges, some only six inches wide (the remains of railroad ties), which we pulled ourselves across. Others were larger, made of logs and old planes. It was a long two-hour journey, but well worth the reward at the end—a breathtaking 60-foot waterfall, surely one of the last unspoiled paradises left on this earth. We climbed up the mountain next to it, almost solid mud, grabbing hold of tree roots to pull ourselves up. We crawled up the fast-moving river that ran over the cliff, then climbed the rocks over the river and waded across the current. I was carried downstream, and one of the Palauans grabbed me as I sailed by. We climbed the ledge, which went behind the waterfall under the cliff, and walked out through the falls. What a delicious feeling to stand there under that waterfall and drink in its beauty, unmarred by concession stands, telescopic viewers, or guided tours. What made it doubly lovely was that no one had yet sought to make money off of it or to “develop” it…or to make it easy to reach.
We spent a lazy hour playing in the water, and then went over to the river to see the remains of a Japanese dam, bombed after the war. The river was very wide but quite shallow, running over smooth rock. In some places, there were six-foot pools of water in which to swim, with their own miniature waterfalls. After eating, we began the hike back, refreshing this time since we were wet and didn’t feel the heat as much. On the boat ride home, we caught a 200-pound turtle, and feasted on fish, tapioca, and a mountain of rice with soy sauce and green onions. Sore and tired as we all were, though, we were ready to go back again the next day.
MY CLASS for the summer was a Head Start group of eighth graders. I taught for several hours each afternoon, learning TESL along with the Palauans. We were being supervised and trained by an older Peace Corps volunteer. The school was a mixture of Palauan and Japanese architecture, decorated with storyboards. Open walls with slats for windows let in the breeze.
TESL was quite a challenge. Some of the students were bright and caught on fast, but others had no interest in English at all. I never knew whether they were merely repeating the words in the lesson, or whether they actually understood the meanings and would use them outside the classroom in the same contexts.
One evening I received a small package from my parents in the States, which I took down to the bai to open. All my eighth grade boys soon surrounded me. My mother had put a variety of colorful commemorative stamps on the package, which I peeled off and gave to the boys. They licked them to wear on their foreheads. Swingley was one of my brightest students. He had long greasy black hair, a freckled nose, and deep brown eyes with a mischievous twinkle. He wore loud Hawaiian shirts, had a comfortable slow way of walking, and caught on to English very fast. He picked up a stamp with a picture of Abraham Lincoln, began reciting the Gettysburg Address, and then told me how many cars Henry Ford had made.
I asked him where he had learned all that. “Oh, they make us learn it in school,” he explained. “Lanie, do you think that someday we can go to America and see the Statue of Liberty?”
“Swingley, as smart as you are, if you study hard in school and learn English, you’ll be able to travel lots of interesting places. Did you know that you could walk inside the Statue of Liberty?” He was impressed. “That’s right. You can walk all the way up to the head and look out at Manhattan Island.”
“What is Manhattan Island? Is it like Palau?” he asked.
“No, Swingley, it has a lot more buildings and cars, and is very crowded.”
“Aw, I don’t think I’d like it then.”
We began preparing a week ahead for an all-night farewell party for two married Peace Corps volunteers who had spent two years in Ngaremlengui. Men roasted pigs and women wove baskets for food. Each basket held a piece of pork plus a mangrove crab as big as a lobster, papayas, cucumber salad, coconuts to drink, candy, taro, tapioca, fish, donuts, cake, cornbread, rolls, pineapples…ad infinitum. The high school students presented a Palauan dance. My sisters had been practicing for weeks. I had never seen them look so lovely…or so proud. It was a custom that whenever anyone performed at a party, spectators would walk up and give money, flowers, and leis to the performers they liked best. The departing Peace Corps couple took a 13-year-old boy named Marcellus back with them to educate in the States in the profession of his choice, with the understanding that he would return to the islands someday to help his people. The gesture deeply touched the villagers’ hearts.
Returning from the river one day after doing my laundry, I came upon a group of women sitting in the road working. They were “sewing” the palm-leaf roof for a new house being built. Since everyone in the village helped with a new house, I sat down and took lessons from a mechas on how to fasten the leaves to the wood so they wouldn’t work loose. She gave these instructions smilingly around the betel nut she was gumming in her toothless mouth.
THE Palauans liked to go on all-day picnics to nearby islands, and would usually send several men over the night before to bury a pig wrapped in banana leaves and roast it. One island could be reached at low tide by walking across a sand bar. An old man lived at one end in a grass hut next to the concrete frame of a former two-story house, badly battered by gunfire. He was originally from Saipan, but spoke English mixed with Palauan, with which we gleaned this story from him. During the war, an American commander had mistaken his home for a Japanese building and bombed it. When the officer realized what he’d done, he apologized to the man and assured him the United States would pay for his house so he could build a new one. Twenty-five years later—no money and no new house.
Planes rarely flew over these islands now, but one morning during language class a Navy plane flew over quite low. Fear was written in the eyes of all the older islanders. They ran outside to look up at the sky, watching the lone plane as it flew off into the distance, probably remembering other times when the plane overhead hadn’t flown off without dropping a few bombs.
One of the rock islands sheltered a prehistoric cave with red markings on the walls. Climbing up a limestone cliff by the tree roots, you could inch your way along the dense underbrush to a narrow ledge leading to the cave. Captain Wilson, an English sea captain, had run aground here in 1793. He built a fort, the ruins of which were still there, along with the remnants of prehistoric pottery. Natural limestone caves abounded in the islands, and provided a final resting place for scores of Japanese.
Two wild boars lived on the islands and had become so accustomed to the life that they would walk out in the surf and step on fish to eat. (Or so we were told!) I did see them crack open a coconut and ravish the meat, and when our backs were turned they made off with several of our carefully wrapped lunches.
All too soon came the time to leave my Palauan family. Training was over, and part of our group was being returned to the States so the natives could take over teaching. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-chosen words: “Island life has charms not to be found elsewhere.” Here I had witnessed both beauty and ugliness, hope and frustration, side by side. I have seen the marks left on these islands from the tidal wave of war thundering over them toward Asia. I hoped that these remarkably patient people would never have to suffer an ebb tide.
They were unable to return to their ancient simplicity, but were as yet unprepared to go forward. And I wondered…go forward to what? What did they need, except the right demanded by Cyrano de Bergerac “to sing, to laugh, to dream, to talk in their own way and be alone, free, with an eye to see things as they are…to travel any road under the sun, under the stars”?
Yes, they could be living cleaner and healthier lives—with better housing, medical care, and sanitation—plus education geared more to their needs. With the influence of the 20th Century thrust upon them, however, what would be their response? Would Micronesia go forward to an affluent society and become a tourist mecca? Or would the islanders be able to stand proudly on their own feet and retain what culture they had left?
As I flew away in the darkness above the Pacific toward Guam, I couldn’t seem to find the answers I wanted to hear.