Face The Sun: Let There Be Light!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are exclusively those of its author, and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

Past Travelogues.

Finland, Estonia, Petersburg

Kirovograd, Ukraine


Tirana, Albania

Macedonia & Romania

Budapest to Bucharest

Balkans and Poland.

Christiania, Copenhagen.

Northern Norway

Northern Finland


Kashgar, briefly

More to come, Inshallah, as I go through old paper travel journals.

The DC experience, archived.

July '05
June '05
December '05
October '04
More to come should interesting things happen to me. Ever.

Blatent Plagiarism

The nation's largest chain bookstore has indicated that, due to lack of consumer interest, it has stopped selling books.
--Frederick Raphael, The Glittering Prizes

I feel this is the equivalent of a surgeon, skipping through a radiology department singing, 'I don't have cancer, I don't have cancer!'
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

Mum is crying with her faced turned away from me, gulping and honking like an injured seal. And I'm rolled up in the back seat wishing the old man would stop the car and make her walk. That or buy her a fish.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

I love it when well-educated women sweaar -- the words regain their original power and meaning when delivered unexpectedly with so much poise.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

She lived with her mother, who looked like an old labrador, and an old labrador.
--Will Self, Great Apes

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God sitting on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

...In the frank brilliance of the bright sun, which, as we all know, is the friend of heroes.
--Jose Saramago, All the Names

He stuttered so badly that you could go out and buy yourself a chocolate bar while he was wrestling with an initial p or b; he would never try to bypass the obstacle by switching to a synonym, and when the explosion finally did occur, it convulsed his whole frame and sprayed the interlocutor with triumphant saliva.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

To Stand on Jericho's Walls and Face the Sun.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The opening sentence of China Southern's in-flight magazine, perused en route from Manila to Beijing: "2008 is doomed to be a year of special and happy."

I will begrudgingly admit that it's good to be home. (A few more posts are coming out of this trip; photos to follow).

Posted by Dakota on 11:08 PM link |

Thursday, February 21, 2008

So, orangutans: turns out they're rapidly being driven into extinction by habitat loss. They currently exist only in the province of Sumatra, Indonesia, and in northern Borneo, straddling the border between Sabah province in Malaysia and Kalimantan, Indonesia. Those two areas and a few scattered zoos host the approximately 30,000 orangutans left in the world.

One of only five orangutan rehabilitation centers in the world is located in Semilok, Malaysia, about 25 kilometers outside of the city of Sendakan. (There's one other in Bornean Malaysia, two in Bornean Indonesia, and one in Sumatra). I was pretty excited by the idea of rehab for primates -- a place where they could write-tell memoires while going through the misery of smack withdrawal -- but it turns out its only for injured or orphaned orangutans, not for washed out addicts. Nonetheless, orangutans are offered a lifetime of free milk and bananas twice a day at the center at Semilok, and for a small donation (it's mandatory, which I think stretches the definition of "donation"), tourists can go watch from a viewing platform.

Semilok Rehab Center: Primates are the dirty thieves of the animal kingdom, and the center has on display the remnants of other people's belongings after the orangutans get done with them. Insect repellant is intensely poisonous to orangutans and monkey, and there are signs everywhere prohibiting bringing it in to the park lest the monkeys steal your bag and then unwittingly kill themselves with it. I'm not carrying insect repellent -- hadn't even occurred to me, honestly -- and the signs are a reminder that I'm in both a Dengue and a Malaria zone. Between that and the fact that I'm wearing birkenstocks in a place where they sell gigantic boot coverings to supplement the thick socks you're supposed to be wearing to deter leeches -- leeches! -- I can't help but feel a little unprepared.

I get to the center well before it opens and kill some time by strolling around. Semilok is the premier primate destination in Malaysia, and one of the top in the world, certainly. Another nearby primate attraction, a proboscis monkey park, is trying to piggyback off of Semilok's success, and they're got a pile of brochures that sound downright desperate. Apparently the proboscis monkey's leaping act is "superb, fast, steady, stylish and perfect." I'm not buying it.

At 8:30, a small museum-type exhibit opens up. It presents a few facts about orangutans -- the world's largest arboreal (tree-dwelling, they parenthetically explained) mammal, threatened by habitat loss due largely to illegal logging, four times stronger than adult humans, what have you. They don't say what basis of the human vs. monkey strength test was, but I think it's safe to assume that it involved push ups. They mention that 96.4 percent of human genes are identical to orangutans, and I start seeing some uncomfortable parallels between myself and my primate cousins: "adult males," they say, "are large animals with beards, throat pouches, and long lustrous hair." I'm not sure what the throat pouch is all about, by my facial hair has since grown back and I can't help but be glad I shaved my head in Guam: less animal-like. And then, hitting closer to home: "a large portion of daylight hours -- 60 percent or more -- is spent searching for and consuming food."

They have a small question and answer portion where you have to look behind little doors to see the answers. Do orangutans eat meat? (Occasionally insects, but mostly they're vegetarian). What is the main threat to the continued existence of the orangutans? (I was quite surprised -- the answer, unexpectedly, is MIRRORS!)

There was also a small exhibit on rhinos, which was less exciting than orangutans, but that did contain the exciting fact that male and female rhinos often meet at the salt lick area. I write this little factoid down because I'm pretty sure that with a little tweaking, I'll be able to find a practical application for my dating life.

After the museum, there's a brief film about the rehabilitation center. Before it starts, a woman from a UK-based NGO called the Orangutan Appeal gives a spiel about the need for money. It seems that the upkeep of growing orangutans is an expensive affair -- in addition to saving up for future orangatuition, they also employ a vet (which, I begrudgingly admit, does make some sense), and a wet nurse. I clearly don't understand the concept of a wet nurse, because I can't wrap my mind around exactly what this person is employed for. But god knows I would've loved to see the ad they put in the Semilok Times advertising the position.

Then the film: there's an overview and brief history of the center, and the whole thing is chock full of shots of adorable orangutans learning how to climb and swinging from ropes and getting their faces covered in bananas and milk, and generally just being heart-melting. The tiny orangutan in a gigantic diaper was what got me: adorable.

Once they've got you totally buttered up, they move in for the kill: for a scant 120 ringgit -- about 35 bucks -- you can adopt a baby orangutan. They've got two up for adoption, a little girl named Sen and a strapping young male named Sogo Sogo. 35 bucks gets you a newsletter and a certificate, and six months later they'll mail you an update on your orangutan. It's February and that's too bad, because if it were early December then everyone I know would be getting an honorary orangutan adoption for Christmas. As it is, I decide to go ahead and cover mom's birthday by adopting Sen (she's adorable!) on mom's behalf, even though my parents never check their mailbox and I'm pretty sure they'll trash the update as junk mail. (Later when I'm all set to go pony up my 35 bucks, Ms Orangutan Appeal is nowhere to be found, so mom didn't actually end up adopting Sen; I'll have to google for other wildlife adoption options a little closer to her birthday).

To the viewing platform! After dumping my backpack in a locker, and then going back to add my messenger bag, and (then to the chagrin of the locker guy) going back a third time to retrieve my camera, I followed the throngs of people to see some orangutans. The viewing platform is a large wooden affair elevated only a few feet off the ground, sort of like a nice outdoor deck that you'd find attached to a home in the suburbs in the States. It's in the jungle so there are plenty of trees around, and just off the viewing platform are a series of ropes that lead to a separate platform where they feed the orangutans.

There were a few orangutans hanging out, killing some time and waiting for the food to be served. Orangutans are solo animals and almost never congregate in the wild (the exception, they explained, is when a particularly large tree is in fruit, which is generally what drives me to meet up with my friends as well), so the social atmosphere of the rehab center isn't quite like they've got out in the jungle. A female was hanging out above the deck area, showing off the baby that was clinging to her, and shortly thereafter a male swung over to join her. Orangutans have opposable thumbs on both their hands and feet, in essence giving them four hands, and the swinging motion is identical to the motion of swinging on aptly-named monkey bars.

First observation: it seems that the reason they fly solo is because orangutans aren't really nice to each other. The male (whom I promptly mentally labelled deadbeat dad) was all up in mom's grill, trying to pull her off the pole she was hanging out on to better position himself for the smorgasbord. Now, I live in China and know my way around elbows in a buffet line, but even I will (usually) defer to woman with newborn kids. Unless there's some sort of tempura on the buffet line, and then really it's every man for himself.

Food is served: some volunteers tossed a couple dozen bananas around the feeding platform and filled a small metal pan with milk. The orangutans went to town, stuffing themselves with bananas (they peel them at light speed -- I was trying to take notes one how they do it, because I'd really like to up my banana consumption rate), and going in face-first to the milk pan. One of them started splashing around in the milk with his fist, and an employee from the center cuffed him lightly on the head to make him stop. It looked kind of friendly, like they were old pals: knock it off, my friendgutan.

Unexpected developments: there was a path just off the viewing platform. One of the orangutans swung down out of the trees and started walking up it, but an employee was standing in his way, blocking him from going any farther. But the orangutan feinted right and then unexpectedly shifted left, and somersaulted -- I'm talking Bring It On style tumbling here -- somersaulting past the employee and then vaulting on to the viewing platform. He swung over the bars, and then I swear he was barreling straight for me at a pace that implied I was wearing banana underwear. (I wasn't -- I checked later to make sure, because THAT would've been embarrassing). He was moving at a hell of a clip, particularly for being an arboreal animal that wasn't in a tree, and I was so busy backpedaling to get the hell away from him that it didn't even occur to me to take a picture. He was maybe three feet away from me, and I figured that if they're really 4 times stronger than humans, I'd have been humiliated if he challenged me to a push up contest.

The majority of the tourists cleared out once the feeding ended. My bus out of Semilok didn't leave for a few more hours, so I took a seat and hung out with the orangutans for a while longer. A little while later, there was a rustling in the trees indicating that there was another orangutan swinging towards the feeding platform, even though single momrangutan and her kid had long since carted off most of the bananas. But the guy sailing through the trees -- again the similarities to myself -- wasn't actually all that great at his job (his job being to grab branches, which is similar to my job which involves sending a lot of faxes and unjamming the xerox machine as necessary). He just kind of missed the branch he was reaching for, and cascaded down on to the viewing platform with a really unpleasant whumpppp sound. He stood up, did the orangutan equivalent of jogging off the pain, and then jumped on to the railing and went for a little walk. (Had said orangutan and I been on a date, I would've awarded him style points for the panache with which he pulled it off).

I promptly followed him, as did everyone else who was still there. About twenty feet down the line, he decided he'd had enough walking (you could tell what he was thinking: crawling on my hands and feet -- what am I, an animal?), and decided to just hang out on the railing and cool his heels. The picture taking was frenzied -- this dude was maybe two feet away, the closest I've ever been to an orangutan and (let's be honest here) probably the closest I'll ever be again.

A girl sidled up next to him and took a picture at arm's length, a self portrait with Orangutan; I was annoyed that she was blocking my view, but I was also eaten alive with jealousy at the internet dating potential of such a portrait. Our ginger-haired friend decided, however, that he wanted nothing to do with match.comutan, and responded not so well. He cuffed her on the head (which terrified me, but not her), and then to further express his displeasure, pulled her bag away from her. You know, like you do. There was no bug spray in the bag (she announced as such), but I couldn't help but silently hope that she hadn't brought any mirrors in to the park: they're the number one threat to the continued survival of the orangutan!

Our pal hoisted himself up a tree and swung off, the bag was written off as dead. Quoth former bag owner: it was "totally worth that bag" to be so up close and personal. I in the mean time, was totally enamored: I was trying hard to think of suggestions for how to improve the park (that's my value added: annoying suggestions to primate attractions), and aside from the addition of monkey bars for the tourists to work out their inner primate, I couldn't think of anything. Simian entertainment doesn't get much better than all of that.

Posted by Dakota on 10:05 AM link |

Thursday, February 14, 2008

(Flashback to Manila)

The pimps and prostitutes in Manila are aggressive, and I was approached by a woman at 7 in the morning who offered me a beautiful lady. "I don't want a beautiful lady," I told her quite honestly. "Oh," she said, thinking it over. "Maybe you want ugly lady? Yes, very ugly, I can get for you."

Posted by Dakota on 5:08 AM link |

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I went to Indonesia in the summer of '99, when I was 19. I had won a grant through the time-tested method of dumb luck, on the basis of being in the right place at the right time, and they paid for me to go anywhere in Southeast Asia. I chose Indonesia.

At the time, I had studied French (old hat), dabbled in Spanish (seemingly exotic for its comparatively complex verbs and optional pronouns), and dipped my toes in German (whose case endings felt like a rite of passage). I had taken two semesters of Chinese, which I was great at, and one of Thai, which I wanted to be great at and nearly flunked. Both seemed grammatically uncomplicated and quite similar, albeit with each the inverse of the other in grammar.

I won the grant while studying for my Thai final. I was in the library with a classmate who was acing Thai and didn't really need to study, and I was hoping that by sitting near her it might somehow rub off and make up for my semester of bumbling incompetence. She was Cambodian, raised in the States since she was three, and fully bilingual in English and Khmer. All of these things gave her an unfair advantage, I felt -- even though Khmer is unrelated to Thai -- but she was nice enough to be studying with me (the village idiot of Thai 101), so it was hard to hold a grudge.

After a while we decided to take a break -- although it's questionable if I had even begun studying -- and check email. She came back to the table upset because she had just been denied a grant on the basis of being not a US citizen. "And the worst part," she told me, "is that they have no one else to give the money to -- no one else even applied!"

I am in fact a US citizen -- the only criterion for the grant, it seemed -- and six weeks later a check showed up in my mailbox. I had managed, by some professorial largesse, to scrape by with a B minus in Thai; the free trip to Southeast Asia was just gravy.

I loved Indonesia, but I think I loved it more in retrospect than when I was actually there. I was living in a boarding house with Indonesian college students, none of whom spoke English, and aside from lunch conversations with the few other students at school, I didn't have anyone I could take to. I was lonely, and I filled my time by throwing myself aggressively into Indonesian.

The owner an manager of the school where I was studying was a woman named Diah. She had short hair and was smart and funny and we got along well. In Indonesian, dia without an H at the end means he or she, and at one point I asked her -- don't you get confused? "Of course not," she told me. "There's an H at the end of my name; you just can't her it."

I started listening for it, and sure enough, there it was -- a sliver of raspy breath at the end of her name. I started taking pains to sound every H, all the ones I'd thought were silent in the middle and at the end of words. People remarked that my pronunciation had improved. That was th first revelation: I was surrounded by sounds that were invisible, until someone pointed them out.

Classes were one-on-one for six hours a day, and environment that I thrive in. And I was 19, which put me at a huge advantage over the other students, most of whom were mid to late career diplomats (some Canadians, a Dane and a few others, but no Americans), and most were struggling with the language, even though basic Indonesian is about as straightforward and uncomplicated as a language can get. I only had enough money for three weeks of school, and I was flying through material, determined to learn the entire Indonesian language in the little time alloted to me.

The teachers were mostly Indonesian grad students, and they rotated every two hours. They always sat across from the students rather than next to them, and wrote upside down on unlined paper using magic markers, switching colors to emphasize things. Diah had told me that learning to write upside down was part of the teacher training course.

At the beginning of the third week, Diah came in and sat down across from me. She was the manager and didn't usually teach, but I loved her classes and it was always a treat to have her instead of someone else. She was wearing a light blue outfit, pretty, and in the distance someone was playing a recording of Gamelan, traditional Javanese music played on heavy metal gongs. I remember all of this so clearly, even still.

I had written Indonesian off as a simple language with only the adorable quirk of pluralizing words by doubling them. For a word like teksi (a cognate: taxi), you've got one teksi but two teksi-teksi, which fun-loving Indonesians would abbreviate as teksi with a superscript two -- that is, teksi squared. That, I thought, was the best Indonesian had to offer for grammar.

And then came this: Diah (blue dress, gongs in the background) wrote down a list of verbs in a single column, and then began modifying them with prefixes and suffixes, explaining to me the accompanying shifts in meaning that make up the beating heart at the center of Indonesian grammar, the dance of the Indonesian verb.

It all comes down to these three factors: formal and informal (buy vs. purchase, understand vs. comprehend), transitive and intransitive (that is, whether a verb can take a direct object), and active vs. passive (bought the book vs. the book was bought).

In English, formality isn't standardized: knowing that purchase is more formal than buy will not help you extrapolate that comprehend is more formal than understand. Transitivity isn't marked in any way -- you just have to have an innate knowledge of the verbs themselves to know that "eat" can take a direct object (food), but sleep can't (you sleep when you take a nap, but you can't, for example, "sleep a nap.") And active vs. passive, the rallying point of self-styled grammatical gurus everywhere, is complex enough that it requires a full chapter, if not more, in English as a Second Language books.

But in Indonesian, it's much more straightforward: the base of the word carries the meaning and stays the same throughout, while all of the above characteristics are manipulated using only prefixes and suffixes, sometimes alone, sometimes in conjunction with one another. It's a dance: the formalizing prefixes shift depending on whether the verb is transitive or intransitive, active or passive, and with the stroke of a pen you can derive nouns from verbs and vice versa, or turn a staid intransitive verb into a dynamic transitive one, allowing you to be grammatically correct in "sleeping a nap."

The system is so logical, so brilliantly conceived and so fundamentally elegant, that it honestly blew my mind. The prefixes and suffixes all work in concert, building verbs and nouns from both ends, the left and the right, while the center carries the meaning all the while. In addition to the grammatical points, there are a few simple phonological rules for attaching prefixes, making their use more fluid in the mouth and thus even more elegant.

Diah explained all of this to me over two hours, using her list of verbs and a series of preselected prefixes and suffixes, marking words with the soft catch of a glottal stop in the back of her throat whenever two a's would unwittingly collide. It was the second revelation: everyone around me was, completely unbeknownst to me, speaking in an elaborate code that I didn't even know existed. The low rhythmic clanging of the gongs in the background were like a soundtrack to the movements of the grammatical elements, and for a brief moment, it honestly felt like a moment of clarity unlike any other I had ever experienced before -- like for a brief moment, the entire universe made sense.

It was an awful lot to extract from a verb structure -- but that's how it felt.

In two hours, Diah took delightfully simple Indonesian and turned it into the most elegant language that I have ever studied, even to this day. Indo-European languages pale in comparison, with their weak conjugations for person and tense. Chinese doesn't even try, never modifying its verbs under any circumstances. Verbs in Urdu (an Indo-Iranian, and thus a distant cousin to the more familiar Indo-Europeans like French and Spanish) are a step in the right direction, marked for gender and habituality, and with an intriguing ability to expand to a causative (to learn expands to "to cause to learn," which is "to teach"), and a double causative (one more step removed from the base verb -- to cause a third party to cause to learn -- that is, to have someone teach your kids, for example).

But for all its flexibility in that regard, Urdu still pales in comparison to the glorious intricacy of the Indonesian grammar structure, with its unbelievable expandability and glorious regularity.

I'm back in a Malay-speaking area for the first time in nearly a decade, and all of this has come flooding back to me. Indonesian and Malay are nearly identical (about as far from each other as American and British English), and they're extraordinarily pleasant to listen to -- Malay has a lovely singsong quality to it, an intrinsically playful up-and-down of the voice. People have had no trouble understanding me, although they recognize instantly, usually within a sentence or two, that I'm speaking Indonesian and not Malay. I don't know what's tipping them off, but they invariably ask -- did you study in Indonesia?

I am rusty, of course -- I really haven't touched Indonesian since I left in '99, except briefly to prepare for my State proficiency exam during my initial training. My admiration of the verbs is now largely theoretical: I've almost entirely forgotten the nuts and bolts of how to go about forming a passive, say, or how to shift a verb from transitive to intransitive.

But it's still there, lingering underneath it all. I see Malay written on signs and newspapers, and the prefixes and suffixed jump out at me. And even though the meaning is largely beyond me -- my Malay vocabulary now borders on non-existent -- it's still a reminder that I'm surrounded, unwittingly, by the most elegant grammatical system I've ever come across.

Posted by Dakota on 3:34 AM link |

Thursday, February 07, 2008

I think it goes without saying that the Siren Song of Borneo was too strong to resist. I left Guam, spent two days lazing around Manila (stopping off to see Mt. Taal, a volcano within a lake, but mostly spending my time eating lumpia and writing about the Pacific). But Brunei was only three hundred dollars away, and there wan no way I could pass it up.

I flew in this morning to the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan, and then immediately headed east into Malaysia, trying to get as far away as possible to then work my way systematically back. I'm currently in Kota Kinabulu, and am heading tomorrow to climb Mount Kinabulu. Depending on how long it takes -- the logistics of actually getting to the mountain, and then the hiking itself -- I might then keep heading east to hit up an orangutan rehabilitation center in the rain forest.

(Orangutan, excitingly, is one of the few words in English that we've taken from Malay -- literally "person of the forest." All the other words we borrowed from them are also spectucular -- like amok, as in to run amok; and cootie, taken from kutu, meaning a dog-biting flea).

Anyhow, the logistics of travel thus far have been much more complicated than I anticipated, and getting to Kota Kinabulu took all day rather than the few hours I was banking on. I'm heading out to the relative hinterlands tomorrow morning, so it's possible that I'll be incommunicado until I fly back to the Philippines on the 12th. (Hopefully not -- god knows there are more words derived from Malay that need blogging about. Like taffy, the candy, whose name derives from tafia, a rum-like alcohol!).

The best of days!

Posted by Dakota on 7:56 AM link |
I was pretty excited for the Superbowl. Not for the football, of course -- I honestly didn't even know who was playing until the morning of Superbowl Monday (kickoff: 9 a.m. Guam time). Football is of religion-esque significance to quite a few of our men and women in uniform so Superbowl Monday is given as a day off for the soldiers posted in Guam, and I was geared up to go to one of the bars in the beachy strip town near my hotel to watch it, clinging mugs with drunk soldiers and other football fans. What I'm saying here is that I was in it for the EXPERIENCE of it. (And of course, when it comes to drinking too much at 9 in the morning, something I haven't done since college, really -- any port in a storm).

But I woke up on Superbowl Monday to high winds and a driving rain coming in hard off the bay. I showered, packed and then headed out, but the first two bars I hit were locked up tight, no one around. The this bar was open, but only for a troop of window washers, not customers. I asked them if they knew of any bars where I could watch the game (I abbreviated the Superbowl to just The Game in the hope of impressing them with my obvious deep love of sports). They recommended the TGI Fridays.

Fridays was closed.

The night before, I had returned my rental car to the airport and then gotten stranded -- unexpectedly, there were no taxis. I eventually met an Australian greencard holder named Judy who was waiting, on behalf of the Navy, to pick up some of her fellow Navy compatriots on an incoming flight. She offered me a ride into town once the flight arrived, but they were delayed, and she and I ended up chatting for about two hours. (She was two weeks away from retirement and crazy nice, and I've always gotten along with older folks. And I think, courtesy of my haircut, that she was convinced I had a military background, even though I explicitly told her otherwise).

When we were finally on our way into town, Judy told me that she was a volunteer at the USO, and that if I needed a place to watch the game she could sign me in as a guest. I hadn't planned to take her up on it -- I am ultimately not in the military, and going to the USO just seemed strange (bordering on creepy) to me. But having found no bars (much less any packed with the howling sports fans and military I was hoping for), I figured -- eh, why not. I assumed it would be packed, but I'd be able to catch a few commercials (in Guam, the first commercial of every break is an actual superbowl commercial; all the rest are local), and it would be somewhat reminiscent of the raucous experience I was looking for.

The USO was not packed. The USO had three volunteers working (including Judy), catering to a total of three military folks using the place: one on the phone (the USO provides free long distance calls home for the military), one playing video games (the USO provides free first-person-shooter games for the military), and one watching the game on a giant television. Judy introduced me to the football fan, who turned out to be her husband (he never took his eyes off the screen ones), and I plunked myself down beside him to watch some commercials.

He immediately started filling me in: "Pats are winnin' on points but you look at the stats and you'd never know it. I mean god damn, the Giants have run like 150 yards more than the Pats, running circles around 'em, but the Pats are up in score. For NOW, at least."

I briefly wonder what color the Patriots are. There's no means of knowing and god knows I can't ask. I respond to his lond explanation of differences in completed passes and blah blah blah with "gotcha," which was honestly the only thing I could think of to say. I think I sounded convincingly interested.

He had been watching the game by himself and was pretty darn excited that I had come along, giving him someone to discuss with. "I didn't even have a dog in this fight until yesterday," he tells me, "when all that spygate stuff came up again." I tell him that I've been in Yap, light years from televisions and news, and haven't heard anything about it. "Pretty much the same crap as before, just more of it," he tells me. I have no idea what he's talking about. "Gotcha," I respond. It's like the eighth gotcha in a three minute span. I'm sounding less convincing.

I start desperately looking for clues as to how I'm supposed to respond to his football-laced chatter. "Patriots kicking game ain't for shit," he tells me. "That's gonna hurt 'em," I respond blindly. He seems satisfied with my response. We're ok. "Neither Moss NOR Spratchka* have even TOUCHED the ball yet!" he says. I don't know which team these gentlemen play for. "Yeah -- YET," I say. He looks at me strangely. Wrong response, it seems. Just before the half, he looks over at me and says "9 outta 17, you BELIEVE that shit?!" I had completely glazed over and can't even begin to guess what he's talknig about. I shake my head. "Un fucking believable," I tell him.

I decide to duck out at the half, because I want to go keep hunting for Chamorro grammar books and because sitting next to him was actually extremely stressful. I kept waiting for him to figure out that I know nothing about football, not even the basic rules, and that I care about it even less. I was terrified he was going ask -- why are you here? Which probably would've prompted an awkwardly honest response on the order of "partly because I wanted to see the commercials and partly because I wanted to experience watching a major sporting event while surrounded by rowdy soldier types who're really in to it, and partly because Judy told me there would be reduced price breakfast."

So that was my superbowl. I saw only beer commercials, and they were all lame beyond any speaking of it. Dalmation jumps from horse cart to Miller truck -- that's the best you can come up with for your two million dollar ad? But hey -- at least I got reduced price breakfast.

*Names changed to protect the innocent, and because I didn't write it down fast enough to actually remember it.

Posted by Dakota on 7:27 AM link |
(Flashback to Yap)

The flight from Yap left at 4 in the morning, resulting in a waiting room full of groggy people anxious to get on the plane and fall asleep. When the announcement for boarding was made -- "we'd like to start by boarding our first class and elite members" -- a voice rang out from the back of the room, adding "and Swedish people!!" on to the announcement.

Posted by Dakota on 7:24 AM link |

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

On the second go-round, Guam ain't so bad after all. Once you get out of the soul-sapping beach town of Tumon and the soulless capital of Agana, the island starts to have a certain charm. Min you, huge swaths of the island are out of bounds for non-military folks, and I found myself doing awkward U-turns at bade entry points on a surprisingly regular basis, waved off by tense MPs standing bored sentry at the gates -- but aside from that, it's really not too bad.

I rented a car (a pretty awesome seafoam-green Toyota Yaris. Quoth the guy at Dollar Rental: dude, I like totally trip out on how sweet its gas mileage is), and swung south in a loop around the island. It's mountainous, with the sharp, craggy sort of mountains they have in Hawaii. The road wraps around the bays, and there are mom-and-pop grocery stores and houses painted in bright pastels -- a nice contrast to strip malls.

After a quick duck into a Denny's (ahh Americana -- and the only thing open at half past five in the morning, when my flight from Yap arrived), I swung around the island, stopping at World War II parks with halfhearted explanations in English and Chamorro of pillbox strongholds and US beach stormings. (Guam was an undefended island, and the Japanese took it with little effort, proclaiming their intent to rule for 10,000 years. 31 months later, the US retook the island through intense fighting and bloody beach stormings).

It was sunrise, and that's always nice, but I was feeling pretty indifferent on Guam right up until I passed a hand-painted sign at the southern tip of the island that read "Sweet Tuba For Sale." Shortly thereafter, someone passed me with the brittle remnants of a Christmas tree strapped to the roof of their Volvo -- you'll note that it's February -- and I thought: these are my people, really.

And then I swung by a flea market that was packed at 9 a.m., with people lining up at stands selling barbecued chicken kebabs. I had one, thinking that kebabs truly aren't just for breakfast anymore, and wondered -- what's not to like about this place?

I got lost in the military-dominated northern half of the island, surrounded by intimidating signs that read "unauthorized access prohibited: this area is patrolled by military working dogs." And then I passed another, more intimidating sign -- Notice to Joggers and Pedestrians: WARNING! Unexploded Ordinance." I made it out unscathed, without so much as getting yelled at (or snapped at by a working dog).

At around lunchtime, I took a walking tour in the soulless capital city that started at a replica of the Statue of Liberty, installed by the boy scouts. I took a sarcastic view of it, thinking that Guamanians are bound by the same rigid immigrations requirements as the rest of the world, but no -- full US citizenship was given to everyone in Guam beginning in 1950. Guamanians for their part are model citizens, enlisting in the military at a per-capita rate nearly double that of the rest of the United States.

I passed by a statue of the loin-cloth clad, well-muscled Chief Quipuha (Kepuha in his native Chamorro), the ruler of Guam who let the Spaniards in to set up a mission in 1668, one year before his death. A second Chief Quipuha would later lead an armed rebellion against the Spaniards, and just over three hundred years later the Statue would again be a cite of controversy when Ricardo Bordallo, the former governor of Guam on his way to prison for corruption and bribery opted to commute his own sentence by wrapping himself in the flag of Guam, chaining himself to the statue, and firing a pistol into his head during rush hour. He placed a placard in front of himself: "I regret that I have only one life to give my island."

When I was there, the statue had been gifted with a coconut, a mostly full can of coke, and an empty bud light bottle. The chief has a pretty sweet view of a tattoo parlor and a Vietnamese takeout place. Just south of the statue are a bunch of canoes, sitting in the sun next to a sign that reads "Guam Outrigger Canoe Club."

I pass by a florist offering a 15 percent discount on sympathetic arrangements. In the next window pane, they mention that they also sell Kama Sutra oils. Classy. Just up the road is a bronze statue of Pope John Paul II. His bronze head is beaming, grinning perhaps because 85 percent of Guamanians claim to be Roman Catholic. That, or maybe he's happy because he's mounted on a lazy susan, revolving 360 degrees every 24 hours like a papal sunflower. We should all be so lucky in memoriam.

I pass a few more signs that make me chuckle: "Guam Public Schools: Every child is entitled to an adequate public education." (Not great, mind you -- but adequate). And then later: "Every Husband's Nightmare Arts and Crafts Festival." I applaud Guam for calling a spade a spade.

As part of my pursuit of foreign language materials, I stop by the University of Guam (go Tritons!). Not only is it a linguistic jackpot, supplying me with a dictionary, intro text and reference grammar for Chamorro AND a Pohnpeian-English dictionary (which I bought without ever having been to Pohnpei, just because it was there), but there was also a post office so I could mail everything back to myself (via US mail!) and avoid having to lug it all around. And to cap it off, they had a live band playing in the cafeteria, which is about all you could want as far as I'm concerned.

I decide to stop by a few of the places my map labels as actual tourist destinations. I start at the Hamamoto Tropical Fruit World. China actually has incredible fruit throughout most of the year (brought in from tropical Hainan island in the south, domestically produced and thus gloriously cheap), so I'm not exactly expecting to be wowed. The place is packed with Japanese tourists -- with a name like Hamamoto I can't say I'm shocked -- and they tell me that it's 15 bucks to get in, which gets you a guided tour in Japanese and an all-you-can-eat fruit buffet. Walking is strictly prohibited: it's tour trolley only. I decide to pass.

I move on to a waterfall and cave where Yokoi Shoichi, a Japanese solider, hid out for 28 years, fearing reprisals from locals for the actions of the Japanese military during WWII. He found leaflets advising that the war had ended, but was still unwilling to call it quits, weaving clothing from jungle fibers and burlap sacks, bathing in rivers and eating breadfruit and fish he trapped himself. When he was finally captured by local hunters in 1972, he was declared the Last Japanese Soldier to Surrender, and returned to Japan and unexpected celebrity status for line to the press on coming home: "It is with much embarrassment that I have returned alive." (Two years later another Japanese soldier named Onoda Hiroo would become the actual Last Japanese Soldier to Surrender, emerging from the jungles in the Philippines and bumping Yokoi to number two, despite 28 years of life in a cave in Guam: some people have terrible luck).

I went to the cave largely because I wanted to check out it's adjacent site, the Guam Outdoor Shooting Range. I've never fired a gun and can't say I'm interested in taking it up -- I mostly just want to see who the clientele are. Soldier types? Don't they have their own shooting ranges? If not them, then burly, heat-packing Chamorros and Philippinos? The answer, of course, was none of the above: the range caters to Japanese tourists who lack such facilities at home. It explains why there are so many "gun clubs" in downtown Tumon as well.

It occurs to me that Guam really is nothing more than an America-flavored theme park for Japanese tourists. Maybe that's why so many people -- self included, the first time around -- find it so distasteful: it's the generic America, the America of strip malls and chain restaurants and shooting ranges and strip clubs, the McAmerica that I try so hard to avoid when I'm home. But in Guam it's writ large, fully on display and reveling in itself for the sake of tour buses full of people who don't know, and will never know, any other America. To them, the choice between the Hard Rock and the Planet Hollywood is excruciating, the sort of thing people at home are going to ask about, the one thing they'll really remember. It's all a little depressing.

So that's Guam, I guess: some to take, some to leave behind, and a lot of in between. I doubt I'll ever come back unless I'm in transit, but I can't say that I regret having come: it was something new, albeit somewhat familiar.

Posted by Dakota on 6:59 AM link |

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

(Flashback to Palau)

I loved Palau, I truly did. I will say this, though: Palau is basically the land that young people forgot. It's only old people here. The bar-hopping twentysomething scene just hasn't made it here yet.

There was a woman on my boat on the first day of diving, a corporate lawyer in her late 50s or so, and she and I started talking. One of us (I'm not sure who) brought up the subject of Chamorro grammar, and I got pretty excited about what an agglutinizing language is, and how Chamorro is infixitive, building its nouns excitingly from the inside out. You know, normal small talk. At the end of my diatribe, she mentioned in passing -- you know, this is why I like Palau. I mean, there are no poor people here, so everyone is educated, and it means that all the people are so INTERESTING!

Be advised, poor people: I have it straight from the diamond-encrusted horse's mouth that you bore the wealthy.

Posted by Dakota on 7:23 PM link |
(Flashback to Palau)

The Palauan joie de vivre manifests iteslf in a bounding exuberence for life, an enthusiasm even for everyday activities. My kayaking guide, a 22-year old with an easy grin and an encyclopedic knowledge of local fish and World War II history, would respond to every question with "oh, I'm so glad you asked that." You could practically hear the exclamation points in his answers: "so, you see -- in total there are nine species of clam in the world. And we've got seven of them right here in Palau!"

My waitress at dinner on the night of my departure kept studding her speech casually with the exclamation "yay!" "You're done with the soup, yay!" and then later "you're having the special, yay!" I don't think she was putting on an act; she was just genuinely excited that I was having the special -- yellowfin tuna in fennel-shrimp butter with fried potatoes, yay!

Posted by Dakota on 7:17 PM link |
(Note: This is the longest post coming out of Pacifica; you've been warned).

People come to Yap for two reasons. Sort of. The reality of the situation is that people do NOT come to Yap, an island chain in the Federated States of Micronesia of about 17 thousand people, some 12 thousand of whom live on the main island. I flew to Yap on a crowded flight from Palau and was thinking that I'd have to fight to get a hotel room. But the flight continued on to Guam, and during the stop in Yap I was one of only three people who got off the plane. They estimate that 6,000 tourists visit Yap every year, but the capital city of Colonia (population: 1,000) feels like a ghost town, and it doesn't seem possible that so many people make it here every year.

The few people who do come mostly do so to dive in Manta Ray Bay. There are a small fistful like myself, who come because Yap is the Island of Stone Money, home of the world's largest currency, and that in and of itself is enough of a draw.

The money in Yapese is called rai -- flat stone discs, three to eight feet in diameter, carved from crystalline limestone. There's a hole in the center, through which logs were threaded to aid in transport. The stones were quarried in Palau using only clam and oyster shells -- metal tools did not arrive on Yap until the Europeans showed up, hundreds of years after the Yapese began using stone money. (The first group of Europeans to arrive were Spanish Jesuits in 1731, but the Yapese sensed trouble and slaughtered the entire mission. Europe gave Yap a wide berth for the next hundred years).

I came to get up close and personal with some rai, and after walking both streets in the capital city, I rented a bike and pedaled around looking for it. The Japanese civil government in power in the 1920s endeavored to count all the coins and found over 13 thousand in an area of about 40 square miles -- about half the size of DC -- so it's not exactly hard to find. (That same Japanese civil government in the run up to World War II used the Yapese as forced labor to build roads and runways; ever pleasant in wartime, the Japanese punished non-compliance by smashing stone coins and using it as filler in the roads).

The value of a piece of stone money is determined not by its size, but rather by the number of lives lost during the quarrying, carving and 250-odd mile outrigger canoe trip each direction that one had to undertake in order to obtain said money. My kayaking guide in Palau showed us some of the uncarved limestone, and said the loss of lives that gave it value was not due to the fact that people were taking several-ton stone cargoes across the unpredicatable Pacific in hand-carved canoes, compassless and guided only by the stars; rather, he attributed the deaths to Yapese black magic. (The Yapese have long been known as the sorcerors of the Pacific).

The stones are all over the island, usually in groups of five to ten in so-called "stone money banks" on the side of the road.

The stones are everywhere, on proud display in front of the homes and businesses (often given as a gift, to wish luck to new enterprises), and in stretches of five to ten in so-called "stone money banks" on the roads that lead into villages. Rai, while largely superceded by the US dollar as a matter of convenience and practicality, are nonetheless still used for weddings, funerals, and to purchase property. When the money changes hands, the stone discs do not move -- everyone just knows to whom they belong, and how much they're worth, and what the story behind them is. Theft is not a problem: the money is protected by taboos and curses, and I was told that stealing one would put one's entire family at risk.

Yap isn't an easy place to explore by bike. For one thing, the entire island is uphill. More importantly, every inch of unpaved land is privately owned, and the Yapese (the most traditional of all the Micronesians) do not take kindly to strangers tromping unbidden on their property. And the majority of the island isn't actually on the paved road; a lot of the villages are tucked back in the jungle, connected by ancient stone paths that have been maintained for generations by the villages they connect. For the most part, my bike ride around Yap didn't do much for me except leave me sunburnt and hot (I had washed my mud-caked shorts and spread them on the balcony to dry, leaving me in jeans. And a decently deep cut on the bottom of my foot, right where the little toe meets the rest of the foot, made me exchange my sandals for closed toed shoes out of fear of infection. Neither are appropriate in tropical Yap).

The next day I hired a Yapese guide named Tilus -- short for Nautilus, he told me -- to take me around the island. Tilus was leathery, an inveterate betel nut chewer with the requisite red-stained lips and gums, and he had a raspy voice that spoke of decades of cigarettes. He was captivating.

Tilus was preparing for a three to four month trip from Yap to Samoa in a traditional hand-carved outrigger canoe, to participate in a Pan-Pacific cultural celebration that unites all the indigenous people of the Pacific. He told me he was fundraising for the trip and I mentally readied ten bucks to give him, but all he wanted was for me to pass word to the embassy: he was looking for corporate sponsorship. The primary expense of the journey, he told me, was going to be food. In order to cross the Pacific in a canoe, you have have to carry two to three weeks of food at a stretch for the time in between island stopovers. With a crew of 10 in the canoe and up to 16 in the traditional Polynesian supply boat that follows behind, it adds up to a lot of food -- upwards of two thousand pounds of more or less nothing but cooked taro root, the traditional long-lasting staple of epic Pacific journeys.

In exchange for corporate sponsorship, he offered me a spot on the boat. His project -- a true cultural preservation project -- is the sort of thing that embassies love to fund, and I promise that when I get back to Beijing I'll look in to it. He says a canoe journey of this length is a spiritual trip, a test of faith, and ultimately a lot of fun, with fishing and storytelling the whole way. But since I don't speak Yapese, it sounds to me like it would be a long and lonely trip, marked by seasickness and the looming possibility of scurvy. Mind you, I'd kill to go -- it would be like no other experience in the world -- but I don't think it would be the rosy cakewalk that Tilus paints it as.

We stop just outside of Colonia. Tilus points to a nondescript island just offshore, and tells me that it's O'Keefe Island. I had passed by it on the bike but didn't realize what it was: the former headquarters of David O'Keefe, an Irish immigrant to the United States who had washed ashore in Yap half-drowned in 1872, and was nursed back to health by the shaman who found him. O'Keefe was a hot-tempered fortune hunter, shipwrecked during an expedition to look for pearls; he recognized the Yapese obsession with stone money and proceeded to corner the market, bringing in metal tools from hong kong and using a employing a Chinese junk that was much more stable than the traditional Yapese canoe. (Because fewer lives were lost when O'Keefe came into the picture, the money he traded in was worth less -- but he still dominated the market, and made a fortune).

O'Keefe traded the stone money for sea cucumbers and copra, dried coconut meat used in the production of lucrative coconut oil. He became ungodly wealthy by selling copra to the Hong Kong market, although the jump in the money supply caused by the influx of rai led to stone money inflation, and O'Keefe's stones were regarded as worth less than the traditional ones. He was treated as royalty on Yap until he was lost at sea in 1901. All that's left of his former empire are a few scattered ruins on the island he called home and the remnants of his trading post, since turned into a bar.

Tilus takes me to where the outrigger canoes he's planning to take to Samoa are being carved. The process used to take years, beginning by felling a tree in such a way as not to damage it, leaving it for several years to cure in the sun, and then painstakingly scorching the top layer of wood to soften it, so it could be scraped away with clam and oyster shells. Metal tools have made the process easier, and he tells me that the almost-done canoe has only taken about 6 months to make. The project has been open to the public, with children and teenagers in particular urged to participate so the art isn't lost in a generation or two. "We were once the rulers of the Pacific," Tilus tells me, and you can tell that the slow erosion of his traditional culture by encroaching modernity is almost physically painful to him.

The canoes are beautiful, painted red and black and accented in white as tradition dictates. Tilus gets a far away look in his eye as he explains the various parts of the ship to me -- the hand-carved hull, the oar holes, the sail woven from pandanus leaves. The prow and stern are identical, to allow either end to act as the front when the boat tacks into the wind.

He starts talking about traditional sailing methods. "What do you do if a storm comes, with 20 foot waves?" he asks. "Start crying?" I respond. Incorrect: if a storm is threatening to sink the canoe, everything -- oars, sails, food -- is tied down using ropes woven from coconut husks, and the canoe is flipped in such a way as to trap a small amount of air in the bottom of it. The canoe retains bouyancy, and the crew can hold on or lash themselves to the boat to ride out the storm.

"But, but what about sharks?" I asked. (Tilus was in his element, and I was completely in his spell by that point). The traditional way to deal with sharks, he told me, was to throw them a coconut. When they bite into it, the fibrous husk gets caught in the ridges of their teeth, binding their mouth shut and leaving them unable to attack. They call this 'tying the shark's mouth.' "We've been doing this for thousands of years," he tells me. "You have your technology -- and we have ours."

The Yapese, already declared as the sorcerors of the Pacific, would always travel with a medicine man on board to pray for wind as needed. When the wind died, tradition required the Yapese to bind a betel nut with multiple knots in a tightly wrapped pandanus leaf -- the same leaf from which the sails were woven. The betel nut was then thrown overboard, so that whatever ghost was stealing the wind would be occupied with untying the betel nut, and the wind would be freed.

Tilus takes me to a meeting house in the northern half of the island -- a tall, spacious thatched-roof affair, graced by 10 stone coins from the ten villages that use it, and made from coconut wood and built without using nails. Tilus sounds the conch shell trumpet traditionally used to call meetings, and points out a spot in the distance where the Philippine Sea crashes into the Pacific. The ocean is impossibly blue.

Towards the end of the day, we head to a spot on the island with a rusted anti-aircraft gun and the remnants of two Japanese zeros, shot down during World War II. Tilus tells me that others involved with the canoe project want to ask the Chinese embassy for money, as China has traditionally been generous to Pacific nations that recognize the PRC over Taiwan. But Tilus wants the funding from America because we -- America -- freed the Yapese, he said. He gestured at the remanants of the planes. "From the Spanish, from the Germans and from -- from this."

I tell him that I'm going to check with the Embassy in Palau, and I will. It's a long shot -- I'm guessing that US Embassy Koror, Palau isn't the most well-funded -- but I'm captivated by the idea, and I want it to happen. "You'd be welcome on the trip," he tells me. "Regardless of the money. You'd be welcome."

Posted by Dakota on 7:08 PM link |
(Flashback to Palau)

My kayaking guide introduced himself to the group as TJ. "I always tell people to call me that," he said, "because my Palauan name is way too difficult for tourists." We as a group were unwilling to accept this slap in the collective phonetic face, and clamored to be told his actual name. He relented.

"My name," he told us, "is ..." And here he pronounced his name. It sounded like Tangqnggngau. "The easiest way to think of is," he told us, "is that it's like the letter T, and then the word 'and,' and then you just add on the word qnggngau at the end."

I shamefacedly called him TJ for the rest of the trip.

Posted by Dakota on 7:29 AM link |

Monday, February 04, 2008

(Flashback to Guam)

Once upon a time, a couple of years ago, I was sharing hotel room in downtown Charleston (South Carolina, not West Virginia) with Quixote and T-rempe. Quixote bolted himself into the bathroom and emerged half an hour later, looking a bit woozy from blood loss and holding a red-streaked towel against his scalp. He'd tried to shave his head using the flimsy single-blade razor that came free with the hotel room, and the end result was a bloody mess for him and hours of hilarity for the rest of us, joking about 'safety razors' and towels that had to be redbagged as biohazards.

The karmic cycle came full circle when I, on a whim, decided to shave my head in my hotel room in Guam using only a beard trimmer and an old 3-blade razor. I can now say on good authority that shaving your own head -- particularly the back of your head, using a sort of braille method -- is best left to stuntmen and other trained professionals. I avoided the bloodbath that leveled Quixote (such is the miracle of the Mach 3 razor), but I did in fact overlook a one inch by one square on the back of my scalp, leaving me with a sort of slightly northwest of center rat tail until someone in the hotel took mercy on me in the hallway and mentioned that I'd missed a spot.

When I was about halfway through the hour-long head shaving process (and looking very much like a post-op lobotomy patient), it occured to me that I was standing more or less on the equator, and was in the process of removing the only thing that stood between me and a blister-laden third degree sunburn on my scalp. Panic set in when I visited every single store in Chuuk on the way to the hotel from the airport and learned that all of them cater only to the local market, comprised of dark-skinned Micronesians who neither need nor use sunscreen. I had resigned myself to spending two weeks with a t-shirt tied around my head in a sort of uber-attractive Osama bin Sun Protection look, but the dive shop came through for me with enough SPF-35 to keep the sunburn to a mild pink at worst.

Posted by Dakota on 6:28 PM link |

Sunday, February 03, 2008

I've still got two long blogs to type, but I'm going to start filling in with brief one-to-two paragraph bits from previous places. Some of these will be in present tense (which is how I originally typed them), and to please you tense nazis out there, I'll convert some to past tense depending on how I'm feeling. Let's get started.

Flashback to Chuuk, en route to Palau (via Guam):

The Chuukese woman next to me -- like a lot of Chuukese women on the flight -- was wearing an elaborate garland of flowers in her hair, somewhere between a Hawaiian lei and a floral tiara. It was pretty, but I couldn't help but think that customs is gonna freak out when they see it. The War On Agricultural Smugglers is much more ferocious (and efficacious, I think) than the War on Drugs.

Just before the end of the flight she stuffed the whole ensemble in her purse, making me wonder if customs would ever even know about it. God knows it's fragrant enough that they should be able to suss it out: I was close to passing out from the fumes by the end of the flight.

Posted by Dakota on 3:51 AM link |

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Where Chuuk has failed, Palau has succeeded.

Let's start with this: the people of Palau, a tiny Pacific nation of not qute 25,000 people, independent only since 1994, has some of the friendliest, most outgoing people I've ever met.

Anecdotal evidence:

(This story is a little convoluted; bear with me).

So, I was sitting outside the airport in Palau with a Dutch guy I met in Guam, waiting for his pal Father Francis, a Palauan priest who was supposed to come give us a ride into town. Palau International is a small one-gate airport with very few people wandering around, and the few people that were there were clearing out fast. It didn't take long before there was only one shuttle bus left, a fancy-pants type bus belonging to a luxury resort in north-central Palau. And even though we didn't have a reservation at that particular five-star hotel, when the final passenger showed up, the driver made a point of pulling over to ask -- hey, do guys need a lift into town?

Shortly thereafter, one of the customs and border patrol inspectors came out. He didn't even pause before asking -- you guys ok? Need a ride downtown? (American customs inspectors are good guys who are big on border security, but they're not so good on offering rides to complete strangers hanging around outside the airport).

He was followed by the woman manning the Palau Visitor's Information booth, of of the last people in the airport. She asked -- who are guys waiting for? And when the Dutch guy told her Father Francis, she responded excitedly -- oh! Father Francis is a friend of mine! He was my religion teacher! I'll wait till he gets here, to make sure you guys don't get stuck.

And when the priest finally did arrive, he told me that there was an extra room at the church, and that it would be a waste of money to stay elsewhere; why don't I just stay there? And so I did.

Heck of a first impression, I'll be honest.

The thing is, this over-the-top friendliness, the you're our guest and we'll take care of you attitude wasn't an isolated experience. It's not some faux, put-on friendliness for tourists at the airport when they show up, or limited to dive masters or hotel staff who deal with tourists every day. Every single Palauan I met had the exact same attitude. It's just part of thier national way of doing things. I recognize that my experience is very limited -- but when even the people behind the counter at the minimart follow you out to see if you need directions, and when students hanging out at Koro Community College go so far as to walk you to the bookstore to make sure you don't miss it -- you just kind of know. It's the way it is here.

It seems like it's all being driven by this fundamental happiness, a sort of underlying joie de vivre. When people see you, you can almost hear them thinking -- welcome to Palau: we're glad you're here. And they're not glad you're there in some cynical sense, just because tourism is what's driving the Palauan economy. They're glad you're there because they're Palauan, and they're occupying a gorgeous archipelago in western Micronesia with perfect weather and and unbelievable diving and hiking and paddling and fishing and anything else you could want, and they're genuinely glad they can share it with you, that you can sit back with one of their outstanding local Red Rooster draft beers and watch the sunset over the lagoon, and for a brief moment you can enjoy the paradise that belongs to the Palauans. It's an unbelievably uplifting national psyche.

And the diving was indeed incredible, with sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, a barracuda and giant clams. The Palauans know what they have and recognize that if they lose it it's gone forever, so they're eco-friendly and conservationist in their tourism, collecting garbage, warning against kicking or touching the reef, what have you. There have been a few cases of flagrant disregard for this, which the Palauans dealt with swiftly: when two Taiwanese fishing vessels were caught wrecking the environment (one dynamite fishing, which destroys coral, and one with a cargo hold full of illegally harvested sharks fins), the vigilante justice was swift: both boats were set on fire and burned down. That sort of behavior just doesn't fly here.

On the night of my departure, I was sitting at an outdoor bar in southern Koror (the capital "city" of Palau), enjoying the air that's that perfect temperature with just a light breeze, so it almost feels soft against your skin. I was drinking a beer while typing all of this up on my blackberry when the dive master from my first day came in to the bar. He shook my hand, called me by name -- they're crazy good with names here -- and asked me what I'd done for the day (sea kayaking, which I loved). He asked what my plans were for tomorrow, and I told him that I was leaving on the midnight flight to Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

"Oh," he said, "well -- I hope you enjoy Yap. But I really hope you can come back to Palau some day, too."

And he meant it.

Posted by Dakota on 5:40 AM link |
Current Location:
The People's Republic of China.

Stop by any time: everyone's welcome.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Be Born

Comments and requests for dates should be directed to email.

And here I am.

And for all you random folks out there whom I don't know, for the love of god, email me. I'm abroad, know no one, and look forward to hearing from you. I'm especially looking at YOU, whomever YOU are who's Facing The Sun all the way from Kenya. And Sweden. And Canada. And whatnot.

Books Tackled, 2006:

1. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
2. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington
3. A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
4. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Anonymous
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, Dawn Prince-Hughes

This year's movies, in chronological order:

1. Kung Fu Hustle
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Pi: Faith in Chaos
4. My Big Fat Independent Movie
5. The Winter Guest
6. Voices in Wartime
7. What Dreams May Come
8. Farewell My Concubine
9. The Ring
10. Like Water for Chocolate
11. Sahara

Foreign Service Officers by day, Bloggers by day as well.

The Diplodocus
(Islamabad, Pakistan).

The Permanent Mission of Joshie
(Zagreb; Libyaward).

Prince Roy
(Chennai; Taiwanward).

Sue and not You
(Tbilisi, Georgia).

Life on the Mekong
(Vientiane, Laos).

FSO Globe Trotter
(Lahore, Pakistan).

Vice Consul: Diplomatically Transformed
(New Delhi, India).

Adventures in Good Countries

Our Man in Tirana
(Tirana, Albania).

Anne's Blog
(Kazakhstan; Greeceward).

(Bogota, Colombia).

Furnish Worldwide

Tasman's World
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

(Lome, Togo).

World Adventurers
(Seoul, Korea).

Aaron Martz

A for Adventure
(Chennai, India).

The Excellent Adventures of Nickie P
(Paris, France).

Permanently Disco
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

Consul At Arms
(Kingston, Jamaica).

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com
Five Random DC bloggers. Asterix indicates recently updated.