What does it take to sail in a fragile outrigger canoe beyond sight of land in search of what lies over the horizon? Impressive motivation and a hefty dose of “intrepid,” I’d say. The Austronesians who headed east from southeast Asia via Taiwan and, later, the Philippines had to have just that! The first people to find their way to Palau arrived about 4500 years ago. It is just one of many island nations in the western Pacific where people landed and, over time and due to the oceanic isolation, developed distinct cultures.
One of the most fascinating elements of Palauan culture, to me, is the language. For eons, cultural history, stories, myths and lessons were shared orally or through pictographs. Only recently has the language been written, so there are sounds and spellings that defy Western linguistic logic. For example, as a member of the National Association for Search & Rescue (NASAR) in the States, I found it fun to learn that the Palauan word “Ngchesar” is pronounced the same way. Other fun place-names: Ioulomekang, Mecherchar, Ngeruktabel, Bailechesengel. Cool. But my favorite Palaun word was “smiich” (pronounced “smee”), which means “hardcore”—the nickname the crew gave to me and my tentmate Christa!
Palau culture is clan-based. Women play a prominent leadership role, largely controlling the selection of chiefs and also the division of land and money. Lineage and titles are inherited from the mother’s side. Chiefs and the matriarchs are always related, but are not married to each other; more typically, they are brother and sister or close cousins. The smallest settlements are villages or hamlets, which are then grouped into chiefdoms, then chiefdom alliances, then federations. All this for a population of about 22,000—but don’t underestimate the power of clan! Our host, Ron Leidich, told us he has to be careful to hire people from different clans so that if there’s a death or other need for a clan to gather, he isn’t suddenly without the help he needs to run his business!
For “Survivor” fans, yes, we did get to see some of the places where the popular reality TV show was filmed during its two visits to Palau. In fact, we stayed two nights on Ulong, home to one of the beaches where the contestants stayed.
Traditionally, each village or clan had a men’s house called a “bai” where boys were taught the cultural ways and alliances were made and broken. Also, historically, inter-village wars were common, so the men’s house also served as a place to prepare for those conflicts. One day, our group visited the largest island, Babeldoab, where we were able to enter the men’s house in the state of Aimeliik. There, painted on the beams and walls, were the cultural stories told by pictograph, ably translated for us by our Palauan guides.
That day, we also hiked to a series of lovely waterfalls to swim. On the way, Ron’s 13 year old son, Calvin, spotted a boa constrictor resting in the leaves by the side of the trail; this young man already has a very well-honed naturalist’s eye! Thus we were treated to a short visit with this shy, fully-grown but small reptile. And the bird-life was amazing; we saw many species, along with the ever-fascinating fruit bats soaring overhead. One of my favorites was the lovely white Tropic birds with their long tails.
On another island later in the trip, our cook, Malcolm, was leading a hike to ancient village ruins. We were crossing the sharp limestone through the dense forest when he smelled a snake, then located it lying along the branch of a nearby bush. We got to admire the 3-foot racer before it streaked away with impressive haste. Yes, Malcom smelled the snake…these are people truly in touch with their natural world! I wish I had a (sand) dollar in my pocket for every part about being in Palau that was so impressive.