Driving into Koror. I'll miss my little town.
I had the best final weekend in Palau.
After running a 5K at 6 a.m. on Saturday and then going dancing until 3 a.m. that very night, it's been great to relax during the past few days.
The overcast weather and smell of woodsmoke in the air reminds me of home in Northern California. I spent part of yesterday lying in a hammock on my friend's porch, reading magazines. Last night another friend cooked an amazing four-course meal, featuring local products like taro wine, cucumber, tuna poached with banana, ginger, coconut, and green onions, and titiml ice cream. It was probably one of the top five meals I have had in my life, and easily one of the top three I've had in Palau this year. I couldn't believe it! It was wonderful to spend my second-to-last night outdoors with good friends, great food, candlelight, and a full moon. I also slept really well, too.
And today I spent most of the day at brunch with one of my Palauan friends, her kids, and a few other families. It was perfect. We enjoyed some drinks and casseroles, and I loved hearing stories from the Palauans about fishing, Micronesia, and other topics. Then I went into work for a few hours to finish up a few projects (my last day is tomorrow).
I have less than 24 hours in Palau. Tomorrow I will say goodbye to my work colleagues, and hopefully go to PPR to see my last sunset before boarding my 8:50 p.m. flight to Manila. I'm feeling a lot of things right now, but the strongest emotion is definitely gratitude. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to come to Palau, and I am so glad Palau will forever be part of my life.
The view on my last morning in Palau. Ma uriul (see you in the road), Palau!
I've been saying goodbye to people and places for about a week now. I've noticed that the Palauans don't say "goodbye." Instead, they say, "ma uriul," which means, "see you in the road." It's kind of a nice sentiment, because I do hope to see many of my friends from this year again!
In a few hours, I have to say my final goodbye to a place that has meant so much to me (and to you, my faithful readers), this past year. It's 5:01 on a Tuesday, and nearly everyone at the Judiciary is gone for the day. I am sitting in my air-conditioned office, wearing flip-flops and a knee-length skirt, with my hair in a ponytail. I'm watching the traffic outside my window. I'm expecting another nice sunset. I'll be eating fish for dinner. It will be just like any other day, except I'm leaving, and I'll be crying a few tears over my time in Palau. I wanted to share a few thoughts in my waning hours in Micronesia.
Everything Happens for a Reason
I think back to how I felt a year ago. While I was packing this weekend I found some of my early journal entries from the one week that I kept a journal this year. My excitement was palpable. I was in Australia, getting ready to go to Taipei for a few days and then start my year in Palau. "Several times on this trip, I've had this feeling that, 'This is exactly where I need to be right now.'" I wrote about how excited I was for a new adventure. I wrote about being excited to connect to people and to try new things. "It's funny to think about this year is going to affect me," I wrote. I am more relaxed and patient here. I appreciate simpler things, and I know it's important to slow down, connect with people, and not get wrapped up in things that don't matter.
I do believe that Palau was part of my destiny. I like looking back on all the circumstances that led me to Micronesia: the fact that I applied for the Peace Corps when I was a senior in college (and was nominated to the Marshall Islands, but ultimately decided I wasn't ready to live on an island at age 22); the fact that I applied to clerkships in Hawaii and received some interviews when I was finishing law school; the fact that I lived overseas a few times and was jonesing for more; and the fact that I love adventure. Palau really is where I was supposed to spend my 31st year.
I think about what my friend Lindsey calls the "Palau Pearls" of wisdom that I learned this year. Some are easy to share, like "accept people for who they are instead of trying to make them into someone they are not" and "be kind to one another." And some are deeply personal and profound.
I look back on all of those great lessons, which I learned with and through the Palauans: I'll miss the sing-song way that Palauans talk, the spitting and the red betelnut smiles, the long black braids and skirts of so many of the women here, the heat, the water, the laughter. I'll miss the newspapers, which have headlines like, "Team Palau Braces for Opening of 2012 Olympics" and "President Bares Goals." I'll miss watermelon available almost year-round and seeing palm trees and being able to swim in the ocean after work. I will even miss taro.
My parents always tease me that the first word I learned to write was "no," which I scribbled on the walls of our house with a crayon when I was two years old. It's true that I can be pretty cautious and conservative in my actions--I think being cautious makes me a good lawyer! But I knew that Palau would help me loosen up, and I remembered a card my parents sent recently.
My mother reminded me that a year ago, in the week before I left, I went on a hike to a fantastic Oktoberfest celebration in Marin (north of San Francisco). My friend Juliana and I met someone who had been living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and so of course I asked him lots of questions about island life. "Remember when that man from Oktoberfest told you to 'say yes to everything'? You took that message to heart," my mother wrote. "You have really said 'yes' to every opportunity." I think back on all the times this year that I said "yes." I said yes to trying new foods, to learning a few Palauan words, to meeting people I would have never met in the U.S., to trying new sports, to just being more relaxed. My life feels so much richer because I felt open to opportunities this year.
Palau is an easy place in which to say "yes." There's only one option for evening entertainment, so you say yes. You want to get on the water, so you say yes when someone offers you a ride on their boat. You want to try local foods, so you say yes when they are offered. Palau taught me how very simple and wonderful this concept can be.
Tonight marks the end of an amazing year in Palau and the beginning of two months of travel in Asia. Tonight I head to Manila, then Kuala Lumpur, then India, then Nepal. I'll be home after Thanksgiving. Pen Palau will stay up until September of 2013, but I won't be posting too often. Instead, I want to preserve my blog as-is: a reflection of one young woman's experiences in Micronesia, which also turned out to be one of the best years of her life.
As one of the Justices said today as she said goodbye to me, "It's good to leave with happy memories." And so I want to preserve Pen Palau, with my memories and reflections of Palau. Thank you for reading and commenting. I have enjoyed sharing this experience.
Sulang and ma uriul!
*Yes, that is a presidential slogan here.
The Gear Up Offices, where I tutored twice a week.
For most of May and June, I spent two nights a week tutoring a young man who was trying to earn his GED. He just to needed to pass his essay test, and because I enjoy teaching, especially writing, I was thrilled to help. An organization based at Palau High School, called College Access/Gear Up, needs tutors and one of my colleagues told me this was a great program. Tutoring was a really rewarding experience, and I enjoyed working with my student on his essays. I learned so much about Palau from reading his responses to the assignments I gave him. Unfortunately, a death in his family occurred at the same time as the exam, so he did not pass. But I think he'll try again.
As I prepare to leave, I think about the future of this country. I think about all the young people I have met, through basketball, moot court, tutoring, and even shopping at Surangel's, the grocery store. I think about my experiences on the juvenile justice commission, where I learned that truancy rates are sometimes 50%. Many kids here are just bored--there's no Boys and Girls Club or teen center. I remember once talking with a fellow expat about what it would be like to grow up here. "I think," she said, "You would grow up wanting to leave."
Some Palauans have told me that they didn't like living off-island when they went to college: too many people and cars. And they missed their families. Others have said they wanted to leave to get away from family obligations here. There's such a tension here between the opportunities available off-island and the pull of family in Palau. I know that many of the young people here dream of an education in Guam, Hawaii, or the Mainland. But money and distance are obstacles. Big obstacles.
I think it's so important for as many kids as possible to LEAVE Palau: to be exposed to new ideas and diverse communities. I think often of one of my moot court students who, at age 17, left Palau for the first time and went to Guam. "I couldn't believe it when I went into a Barnes and Noble," he said. "All those books, and I wanted to read every single one." These are the kids that Palau should be supporting and encouraging to attend college in the U.S. It's all very heart-warming but sad at the same time.
As I sit here on a Sunday afternoon, with a cool breeze and a view of plumeria trees and rock islands, my hope for Palau is that the elected (and soon-to-be-elected) leaders really take the value of education and youth services to heart. There are so many children here who are thirsty for knowledge and challenges. They have the passion and drive to leave the island for college and graduate school and return to use their education to better serve Palau.
Palauans love to abbreviate things, and one's first few weeks here are spent learning the differences between PNCC, PUC, and PIDC (the telephone company, power company, and a store in Koror, respectively).
This weekend is Palau's Independence Day, World Food Day, and UN Day, and it's all being celebrated as "Olechotel Belau Fair," or "OBF." I wanted to stay in Palau through October 1 so I could participate in the fair, and it has turned out to be a great way to spend my last weekend in my little island home!
This morning started off with a 5k run, and the top 10 finishers were asked to plant lemon trees on the grounds of the track at the community college. I really wanted to plant a lemon tree, but I hadn't run in six months and I also wanted to take it easy. And I wanted to spend time with my friend who is nursing a knee injury. So we decided to take it slow and jogged and chatted, which turned out to be far better than planting a lemon tree. We finished the race together, picked up our free orange and hot pink towels, and talked with some friends. Then, lo and behold, there were some extra trees that needed planting! So we were able to each plant lemon trees after all! If you are ever in Palau and standing at the track facing the bleachers, the sixth from the left tree is mine!
This afternoon I went to the fair itself, which was awesome. There were lots of kids who had had their faces painted, and many families were enjoying barbecue and other foods. Each state had its own booth (kind of like the California State Fair has displays from each county, which is always my favorite part of the state fair).
My favorite part was watching the dancers from different parts of Micronesia. I recognized the Chuukese dancers because men from Chuuk (in the Federated States of Micronesia, about a thousand miles from Palau), have shaved heads except for a long skinny braid in the back or side of their heads. They were wearing grass skirts over their board shorts or bicycle shorts, and the crowd was really going crazy over seeing a bunch of men with six-packs!
The highlight of that time was that I ran into one of the star players from the WNBL (Women's National Basketball League), who has always been super friendly to me, and we ended up chatting for about an hour as we watched the dancers. We had a lot of laughs about Palau and the U.S., and I loved hearing her story, about how she left Palau to go to high school in the U.S. and was worried she wouldn't be smart enough "because all Americans are smart," so she studied really hard and by the end of her freshman year, she was second in her class! She will be going back to Northern California soon, I hope, so I am looking forward to hanging out when we are both on the Mainland. And she told me that tonight there's a party at the Taj, with a DJ from Guam. Seeing as how it's been nine months since I've been dancing, I'm ready to burn some calories and have more good memories!
Japanese couples sometimes come to Palau to be married; it's cheaper here, I've heard. The ceremony is usually quite Western, with a translator, and the couple wears traditional Western dress. A Justice from the Court always presides, and the wedding ends with Celine Dion's "A New Day has Come." This is, clearly, how all weddings should end.
Yesterday I had a bit of a "girls' night" with the wives of the two new Court Counsel. They're wonderful ladies, and I wish I was staying so I could get to know them better! Well, there's always the Mainland!
We were in the pool at PPR, this wedding (pictured) was going on behind us, the sun was setting, and we were all feeling a bit contemplative. One of the ladies asked me what I'll miss most about Palau, and the first thing that came to mind were the sunrises and the sunsets. I've never seen anything like them: every day is a beautiful, celestial event with colors I've only seen in a polluted sky.
But what I'll really miss is the community here and how everyone knows my name. I love going to, for instance, a basket-weaving class and already knowing half of the class. I love that I can wave to people when I'm driving, or go to the grocery store and do "stop and chats" in every aisle because everyone else is grocery shopping at the same time. I love that every time I go to the post office, without fail, I see at least one person I know. Where else does this happen!?
Before I went to PPR last night, I met up with my friend Jose, a reporter here. He gave me some candies from the Philippines, his home, and where I'll be headed first on my long trip home. He said, "Megan, you really did everything here, at all the events I would see you." I feel so lucky that the community here welcomed me and made it easy to join classes and events and races. I realized how accustomed I have become to seeing Jose bicycling around town, and I started to get a little emotional. There are certain faces and people who have been a part of my world every day for a year...and after Tuesday, they'll be gone. So, I will miss my friends here.
On the beach at PPR, one of the Justices with whom I am particularly close was performing a wedding ceremony. A little farther down, the House Legal Counsel was relaxing after a meeting we had just attended for the juvenile justice commission, another group I will miss. I also ran into one of the other attorneys and his young daughter in the pool area. And that was just at PPR!
Later I went to Surangel's, the grocery store I go to every few days. One of the checkers asked if I had been off-island because she hadn't seen me in awhile. I said no, just busy with friends and packing up. She wished me a good trip home. And today, when I went to pay my last bill at the communications company, one of the cashiers said, "Is this is the last time we'll see you? You'll come back, right?" And I never know what to say to that, because who knows? So I just nod and I feel grateful for such a kind group of people who made this year so memorable.
Nearly one year ago, I stepped off the plane and onto in this strange and wonderful little island of Palau. Even the name is beautiful, the way it can roll off your tongue. I knew it was going to be a great year, and in the coming days, I’ll share some of my thoughts about the whole experience. This has been one of the best years of my life.
But back then, before all of the magic, Christine Scott, and I sat down at Drop-Off with our bucket list. The first item on the list, which stayed up on the wall in my office until I took it down a few minutes ago to write this blog, is “Dive!!” And we have other items on there, like “go on a yacht”; “kayak in the Rock Islands”; “sewing lessons”; “fishing (spear)”; “develop apocalypse plans” (which we did use when the tsunami warning hit us); “play board games” and “cooking lessons.” We did most of the 53 "bucket list" items, and it was so exciting, in our last few weeks to think about our favorite evening and weekend activities.
- Best run: Melkeok Walk for Life (four miles, from the capitol to the beach)
- Best group sports league: adult basketball, particularly the WNBL!
- Best group swim: PPR Open Water Swim
- Best gym: Camp Katuu, Airai
- Best gym where you can watch TLC or the Style Network: PPR
- Best bargain workout: Yoga or Insanity (tie)
- Best time to see big fish: Etpison Cup (May), at Drop-Off
- Best waterfall we took two trips to finally find: Airai Waterfall, located behind Camp Katuu
- Best snorkel spot: PPR or under the K-B Bridge (tie)
- Best hot tub: PPR
- Best kayaking: Risong Bay
- Best place to swim with the jellyfish: Jellyfish Lake
- Best place to bicycle: Angaur
- Best place to camp, climb coconut trees, and lie in hammocks: Kayangel (Lazarus’s island)
- Best place to plan your Court Counsel 2011-2012 bucket list: Drop-Off, on your second day in Palau.
- Best (and most culturally appropriate) way to sleep: on one's side
- Best board game played on-island: Ticket to Ride, a game in which two to five players craft elaborate train routes through pre-twentieth century Europe.
- Best TV show introduced to Palau: "Portlandia" (Runners up include "How I Met Your Mother," "Big Bang Theory," "Californication," "Big Love," and "The Wire".)
- Best newspaper: Tia Belau (and I say this not just because the publisher is also a lawyer!)
- Best place to find Communist school supplies (e.g., 30-year-old supplies that still bear the “Made in East Germany” or “Made in the People’s Republic of China” moniker): Sure Save Mart
- Best place for karaoke: the Bar on Angaur
- Best Palauan bar (outer island): the Bar on Angaur
- Best Palauan bar in Koror: SLC on Malakal (if you’re female, consider going with a few guys, just in case it gets rough)
- Best presidential slogan: Why not! (Sadly Sandra did not succeed in the primary, but she was the first woman to run for President in Palau and I hope more female politicians will follow in her footsteps!)
Many of my favorite memories from this year are of food, particularly cooking with my friends here and visitors from off-island! I learned to make Korean food, how to cook in a Dutch oven, how to stir fry the local spinach into garlicky goodness, how to crack an egg open with one hand, how to make a French gimlet, and how to make pumpkin pancakes! When I look back at my pictures, well, my kitchen has had a lot of visitors! I even taught my two most recent visitors how to cook Megan's Vegetable Marinara, which I do believe has won the hearts and minds of a few people this year!
When I wasn't eating at home, I was out with friends enjoying Palau's limited but varied culinary offerings:
- Best smoothie: Burger House’s soursop smoothie. (Not always available. Be sure to ask which fresh fruit smoothies are available….watermelon and banana are other good options. If you don’t ask for fresh fruit, you’ll get a less-healthy-but-equally-delicious drink made with ice cream and powdered mango or strawberry "mix").
- Best local fruit: Soursop (here, made into ice cream and pictured with a coconut); starfruit; and dragonfruit (tie).
- Best place to buy fresh or local produce or products that remind you of home (like Brown Cow yogurt): Surangel's (bring your own bags and receive a 10 cent discount for each, even produce bags! Also everyone there is super friendly and they will carry your bags to the car).
- Best breakfast: Emaimelei
- Best coffee and donuts: Best Coffee and Donuts (yes, there really is a shop here that has this name!)
- Best sashimi (blackened): Kramer’s
- Best sashimi (regular): PPR
- Best poke: Night market
- Best cafe on Babeldaob: Deli in Melekeok (this is the only entry in this category)
- Best salad deal: Sarah’s Yum-Yum grilled fish salad. (The price ranges from $5.50 to $7.50, depending upon what the fresh fish is).
- Best Palauan food: Penthouse restaurant. Try the titiml lemonade!
- Best way to eat taro: Taro pizza at Palau Plantation Resort
- Best fish: Blue marlin/red snapper (tie)
- Best place to bring a date: Rose Garden Resort (great views, nice atmosphere, and you can walk there from the Belvedere Apartments, but I would only advise doing that in the daytime).
- Best vegetarian meal: Drop-Off (tofu with vegetables, enough for two to share).
- Best Thai food: Mingles So Thai Restaurant -- For the Love of Mama Thai Cooking! (also wins the award for longest restaurant name in Palau)
- Best Chinese food: Fresh Noodles (a dilapidated pink building on the way to the national museum)
- Best Indian food (possibly ever): The Taj. Also home to fabulous parties, DJ'ed by a Polish woman who lives here. Go for the Friday all-you-can-eat lunch buffet!
- Best pizza: Red Rooster Café
- Best dinner with a view: Elilai Restaurant
Sweets and Drinks
- Best birthday treat: Homemade ice cream sandwiches, with candles from America!
- Best fresh local drink: Rum and coconuts, preferably with freshly opened coconuts and enjoyed on a beach or porch.
- Best bar music: Palasia (Girl Talk and classic hip hop in full rotation)
- Best bartender: Quincy at Palasia (he makes the best Moscow Mules!)
- Best tailor: Marcy at Omsangel (next to the Taj).
- Best place to print photos: Palau In Print’s [sic] (next to the Taj).
- Best haircuts: Rogie above Dollar 99 Cents. He won’t wash your hair first, so don’t come from a run sheepishly expecting to have it washed. He’s especially good with curly or wavy hair and he only charges $5! He will give you some nice layers and he’s got an amazingly fierce jewelry collection, plus he values his clients. He once said, to the phone, when it rang while he was mid-cut with me, “Don’t bother me, I’m cutting the lawyer’s hair.”
- Best entertainment deal/best place to violate copyrights: Jello’s
- Best massage: Melusch Dil (next to Sarah’s Yum Yum). Melusch offers haircuts, pedicures, and massages. It’s a simple and clean salon. You get a discount if you’re a local, and it’s usually the favorite haircut spot for all the military troops when they need haircuts. The massages are more of the athletic variety, so be prepared to have someone walk on your back and bend your arms and legs. Christine and I went in our first month and found it to be a memorable experience — definitely a place to try at least once!
Today is the first installment of my three-part series (can you tell I'm eager to get back to watching The Colbert Report?) about the "bests" in Palau. A few weeks ago, Christine and I spent a fun lunch reminiscing about our year here, and we came up with our favorite places, activities, services, and other funny and wonderful parts of life in Palau. Today, I tackle the best places in Palau, starting with great views.
- Best sunset overall: PPR
- Best sunset (outer island): Peleliu/Kayangel (tie)
- Best sunrise view: Belvedere Apartments or Meyuns Causeway
- Best view in Koror: Belvedere Apartments
- Best view in Babeldaob: Stone-faced monoliths, Ngarchelong (bring a
- Best bridge: Koror-Babeldaob Bridge
- Best place to spot politicians: the Taj (which also wins for best Indian food and possibly best food in all of Palau!)
- Best summerhouse/garden: Ngarchemeyong Cultural Center
- Best place to use free Internet (with purchase of a drink or snack): Drop Off Restaurant/Palasia (tie)
- Best bargain transportation: State boats (to Peleliu, the most reliable boat, I think the ticket was between $5 and $10, including a few pieces of luggage at 50 cents
- Best airline to fly when leaving or arriving in Palau: Korean Air (I believe I said, “Can I just spend my entire vacation in this airplane?” after not having seen so much as a movie for six months)
- Best roosters: Koror, especially in Meyuns Hamlet
- Best place for a planning meeting/flashcard-making session for a trip to China: I Heart Noodles, a Thai restaurant
- Best rooftop: Dollar 99 Building (Medalii)
- Best place to be when the power or water is out: PPR
- Best hot tub: PPR
Outside of Koror
- Best outer island: Kayangel/Angaur (tie)
- Best Rock Island: Long Beach (this is also a great place to practice your soccer
- Best Babeldaob getaway: Ngiwal house
- Best Babeldaob site: Ngardmau waterfall
- Best statues: Korean Memorial (sponsored by Daewoo) at the Capitol
- Best outdoor art/cultural artifact: Airai Bai
- Best museum: Peleliu Museum (I could spend hours looking at the interesting and hodgepodge collection of displays)
- Best hotel in Palau: Storyboard Resort (Peleliu)
- Best place to eat gluten-free cookies mailed from California by my dear friend Juliana: Melekeok
- Best orchids: the beach road in front of Melkeok Elementary School
This blog post is long overdue, but it's relevant because I have four friends who are expecting right now, and I'm sure they are intrigued by what would happen if they were Palauan. For me, attending the ceremony that recognizes and celebrates a woman's first baby was certainly a fascinating and memorable part of my time.
In Palauan culture, when a woman gives birth for the first time, she can participate in her ngasech, or first birth ceremony. My understanding of this ceremony is that two to three months after the baby is born, the mother will have a week-long "hot bath" in which she will be massaged with turmeric and coconut oil. She will also have hot water and herbs splashed on her in a series of therapeutic baths. One of the women on my basketball team told me about her experience, and she said that the hot baths are painful, but that each night she slept really well (and she felt like the baths helped her recover from giving birth, which is their intended purpose). This part of the process is just for the new mother and a few selected female relatives.
However, extended family (and friends) can attend the other part of the celebration, depicted in my photographs. This part is the actual first birth ceremony, and it's quite an event. It's really special to be able to attend one of these ceremonies, and I was pleased that my friend Amanda happened to be visiting and could celebrate with me!
My coworker's brother and his wife, Maybelline, gave birth to baby Mayumi in December, and in February I was delighted to be invited to attend Maybelline's first birth ceremony. We were asked to order and wear special T-shirts (the husband's family's color was orange that day) and spent a Saturday in honto (the word for the countryside/jungle, which is most of Babeldaob). I got a ride in the back of a pickup truck with a coworker, and that was my first (and probably last) time riding around like that. Fun, but dangerous.
After eating some food, we did a little dancing. We were given dollar bills and told to go dance and then donate the money to the band. Then we ate more food and chatted with our coworkers. In the early afternoon, we all paused to watch Maybelline enter the party. She arrived in traditional dress, which includes a coconut top (although one older woman I was chatting with scoffed at the "conservative" fashion and seemed to suggest that today's moms are less traditional or not as strong because they are more covered up). She also wore a skirt made of yarn, sevearl belts, and she carried a bouquet in her right hand.
Two ladies would walk in front of Maybelline, laying down mats so that her feet never touched the ground. Then she had to stand on a platform while ladies danced around her and continued to splash water and wave herbs at her feet. Maybelline kept getting turmeric in her eyes and other ladies would wipe her eyes with leaves, but it still looked painful. And, like every day in Palau, it was hot. Very hot.
Overall, I liked this ceremony and felt honored to be included. As I said to one of the Palauan ladies I was chatting with, "Palauan ladies are tough! First you have the birth, then recovering from the birth, then the hot bath, then standing in the hot sun with turmeric dripping in your eyes." But I do think that's right--lots of strong women here, and it was really cool to be able to see this important and unique part of Palauan life!
Christine is spending her last days in Palau at PPR, "like no other island dream." It's been nice to say goodbye over two days, with lots of snorkeling, sashimi-eating, and watching Polynesian dancing. These girls were so cute!