Monday, April 2, 2007

On the Road Across Mindanao

Normally I’m not a city person. I come in by necessity, and then I’m out as soon as possible to seek the peace, quite and beauty of the natural realm and to escape the noise pollution and overcrowding of the manmade one. But they have a saying in Davao, that if you try the local durian fruit, you will always come back. I decide to stick around for a few days, but not because of the fruit, which was oddly delicious and nauseating at the same time, but because I have a few friends in the area who I’d like to meet up with. I end up not meeting them at all, but while I’m waiting I get to check out the Philippine Eagle Center and the smallish island of Samal, which is a short ferry ride from Davao City, and a nice place to snorkel with impressive soft corals and the most leaf fish I’ve seen anywhere I’ve been. I’m also impressed with the overall cleanliness and friendliness of Davao, especially compared with Manila, which is the closest thing to hell on earth that I’ve experienced.

But as nice as the people in Davao are, I get tired of the hardware district where I’m staying, which smells of dried fish oddly enough, and I’m ready to check out the famous surfing island of Siargao, which lies to the north of Mindanao. So I catch an early morning jeepney to the bus terminal, and hop on a bus headed for Surigao, the so-called gateway to Mindanao. I mistakenly take a non-direct bus, which ends up stopping at every terminal in every small town on the way, as well as along the road for anyone who wants a ride. Physically it’s a very uncomfortable ride; no a.c., passengers crammed three by three into the seats big enough for one person of my size, and bad ‘80s music playing loudly and repeatedly. But it’s a good way to see and experience this huge island, as we motor more or less straight across the interior, bound for the northern tip.

As I’m suffering I take in all sights of Mindanao, which are the usual sights from most of the big islands in this country. It’s coconut trees, rice fields, distant mountains, nipa huts, tin-roof shacks, chickens and dogs, men playing basketball, wide and shallow rivers with big rocks and little pools with women doing laundry and people bathing, cars passing busses, busses passing trucks, motorbikes passing everything, tricycles overloaded with people, produce or wood, children everywhere. This being Mindanao though, there are frequent checkpoints, but we are never stopped, and they end up being sort of a slalom course for the driver. There are many military police about, on the side of the road, usually eating, sometimes sleeping, talking, laughing, always holding big guns. Usually when they see me they smile and wave, as do most of the people, especially the children, who are everywhere.

It’s beautiful country, green and lush. Everywhere there’s fields of rice, bananas, corn, pineapples, fruit trees. It’s all easy to grow, although the work can be hard for sure, especially in the rice fields. To be sure there are poor people everywhere I go in this country, but in the countryside, it seems like it’s easier, happier even. There the people are laid-back, relaxing, smiling. Whenever we pass through a small town, everyone’s hustling to sell something; a ride, bottled water, peanuts, pork rinds, roasted corn, cell phone minutes, fruit juice, dried bananas…anything. And so, without wanting to, I end up pitying the people in the city and identifying with the people in the country. Perhaps I do the same thing at home?

It’s a long, long dusty ride, but I enjoy watching the countryside go by and the different people who get on and off of the bus, endlessly. We pass through some striking scenery, some still forested mountains, a huge lake. There’s not enough passengers going to Surigao so I have to get off in a smaller town about two hours away, and a man from the bus pays my fare in a small van to my destination. We reach the terminal there and I jump on the back of a jeepney to ride through the dusty and noisy streets of Surigao, which seems to be full, overflowing, with tricycles. I’m too tired and dirty to wander around looking for a good, cheap hotel, so I settle for a good one, overextend my budget a little ($22 per night), take a heavenly hot shower and wander back outside. I skip straight past the hotel restaurant and find a road-side food stand, where I eat rice and longaniza (spicy sausage) for a dollar, then wander over to the boulevard, which runs along the northern coast. I wander around, turn down a few offers for karaoke, drink a few san miguels as I gaze longingly off into the distance, where I know my island destination lies. I stumble back to my room, and easily doze off, dreaming of perfect waves….cloud nine.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Monkey-Eating Eagles

Philippines, land of islands and wondrous creatures. It’s also home to more than 80 million people and counting, large families begetting large families, all with mouths to feed and heads to shelter. This is a country of tremendous natural resources being used up more quickly than you can say, “Wait a second,” and one of the hottest of the Earth’s hotspots, according to the experts. We’re talking about maybe 5-10% of the planet’s biodiversity, maybe a quarter of its coral reefs, plenty of unique species, and also some of the world’s worst environmental abuses and least environmental education. So, on my third trip here, I make it a point to see a few of its more interesting animals, while I still can, and do my small part to chip in some pesos to Filipinos working hard to protect their natural heritage, as well as to some of those who are just plain nice or hungry. I also make it a point to have fun, and try to remember as often as I can how lucky I am just to be able to come here.

So, I’m in Davao, largest city in Mindanao, which is either the first or second largest island in the country, but both Luzon and Mindanao are home to the last really viable populations of the Philippine Eagle in the world. Known to some as the Monkey-Eating Eagle, this is the second largest bird of prey in the world, and being on top of the food chain and all, needs sizable chunks of intact forest habitat to feed itself. Unfortunately, the Philippines has been seriously deforested, and what little remains continues to diminish at a quick pace. It is estimated that there remain only 400 of these eagles in Mindanao, due mostly to habitat destruction but also hunting.

Mindanao is also home to several separatist Muslim guerilla groups (including Abu Sayef and MILF), who apparently don’t like the way the country is being run, and choose to make their bases in the most remote locations in the country in order to avoid persecution by the national army. They have also tended to terrorize local people and visitors alike, making SE Mindanao and the neighboring Sulu Archipelago a big red zone and no-no for even casually cautious travelers like myself. As curious as I am about these groups, and as much as I’d like to go trekking in some of the last big forest tracts on this island, I don’t feel like pressing my luck, so I decide to visit the Philippine Eagle Center, which is dedicated to the conservation of the bird, other local birds of prey, and the preservation of their habitat.

The trip to the center from Davao by Jeepney (old WWII American jeeps converted into trucks for passenger transport and painted with any kind of colorful design often incorporating themes from American pop-culture like Elvis, Heavy Metal, or say Baywatch) takes about two hours, including a fifteen minute ride on the back of a motorbike. I learn that the center is also involved in protecting the local watershed and there’s a small forest sanctuary around the center of a few hectares. As I walk around learning interesting facts from the signage, I notice that all of the big trees have been adopted by individuals, local businesses, or organizations. I quietly think to myself that if individual trees need to be adopted then this country’s forests are in big trouble.

As nice as some of the big trees are, I notice that a good deal of the plants that are labeled have been introduced from elsewhere, and many are common household decoratives. Almost all of the eagles and other birds are in cages, as are the few other local animals, including a salt-water crocodile, a local deer, and a warty pig. A few of the birds must be well trained or unable to fly away because they’re allowed to sit outside on a branch or a metal perch. I also learn however, that they have successfully bred a few of the eagles here, and released them into large tracks of forest elsewhere on the island. Most of the birds have been rescued from one area or another.

I learn that the Monkey-Eating Eagle’s diet is composed of only 5% monkeys, whereas more than half of its food comes from flying lemurs. I wonder why it’s not called the Flying Lemur-Eating Eagle. But mostly I stand around and gape at these huge birds, which are truly magnificent looking, and despite being confined within these largish cages, still seem to be dignified and almost proud. They are quite huge, about a meter tall with a two meter wing span, enormous claws capable of tearing my face off I’m sure, and with the most interesting hairdo of feathers that jut out from the top of their heads like some kind of funk musician which jiggle when they move.

Of the more than dozen eagles that I count, only one seems to feel like flying, which he (or she) does so like clockwork, almost once every two minutes. He’s in a big, almost cylindrical cage, and I can tell when he’s going to fly by the way he stands before he takes off. I get my binoculars ready to get a good luck at him (the cage is about 5 m off of the concrete path). Even in this confined space it’s impressive to watch him, because his wings are so huge, but as big as the cage is, I can still hear the tip of his wing brush against the cage fencing as he does a big circle from his perch, around the cage, and back to his perch. It makes a light but very audible thwip-twhip-twhip-thwip, which, I think to myself, is the sound of a doomed species.

I have a similar feeling here as I do in all zoos I visit, which is a mixture of fascination, awe, and sad despair. I know the people here are doing good work though, and educating the populace, so I donate a little on top of the one dollar entrance fee I paid to get in. Still, I find it funny, in this country so full of quirks and wonderful oddities, that at the moment the terrorist groups Abu Sayef and MILF might be the most effective conservationists here, as they keep the general populace away from fear of kidnapping and violence. In my experience, the comparably few tourists in Mindanao and its neighboring islands (most stay away because of strong warnings from their embassies) make it one of the most enjoyable places to visit on my trip. It makes me wonder, if the United States continues to help the Philippine government wipe out their rebels, will it mean the end for the magnificent Philippine Eagle and the genuine welcome for the traveler in Mindanao? It’s an impossible question to answer perhaps, in this complex, interconnected world we live in…...

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Philippine Dreaming

Ah, the Philippines. Pinoy Land; the first stop on my much anticipated trip through SE Asia, by virtue of being the closest and cheapest place to fly to from Palau. This being my third time here (being so close it's where I have taken my last two vacations), I'm familiar with the country's geography, people, customs, and language, just enough to feel comfortable strolling from place to place and at ease hopping from island to island. I'm coming from Palau, a country and small archipelago of around 500 islands, to P.I., comprised of more than 7,000. So many islands and such a bewildering array of possibilities can be a bit intimidating at first, but sometimes your choices seem to be made for you; by a chance encounter wth a local or fellow traveler, by the logistics of getting from point A to point B, or by intuition. In a way that is the idea behind my trip, and my hope is to see what happens when I loosen my grip on the steering wheel and let my path open up before me as it may.

So, I took a one way flight from Koror to Davao, which is the biggest city on the huge southern island of Mindanao, and one of the bigger cities in the Philippines. After staying up all night to catch my 5 o"clock flight, I was happy to be allowed into the country, and asked a cab driver to take me to a cheap hotel. As we drove into the city and cruised around seemingly in circles looking for a cash machine, I realized both with mild amusement and depression that most cities in the Philippines are so similar that it's easy to forget where you are. I ended up being dropped pretty much in the middle of the city, about a block from the wharf, and in the heart of the hardware district. After a few days of walking around the streets nearby, I realized that there were at least 50 hardware or automotive parts stores within about 4 blocks. I was told later that this was because the whole area belonged to a few chinese families, who liked to give little businesses to everyone in the family, so that there's always a kind of insurance that if one of the sons fucks up and blows all of his money on women, gambling and drink, the family business will go on. Anyhow I made it to my hotel, checked into my closet of a room, and passed out.

Waking up in a tiny room, wondering where I am, dreaming or dream-waking, waking-dreaming? Walking out of the door and down the hall and flights of stairs, realizing from the view of ocean and distant mountains, that I've switched countries, to a different reality all over again.It's afternoon. I'm dying of hunge and thirst, so I wander around the street looking for good food to eat, water. There's so much noise, brightly painted jeepneys and tricycles, buses and trucks motoring up and down, around the corner. People are everywhere, walking, crossing the street, dodging traffic, sitting against buildings, laughing, talking, staring, smiling, pointing. I realize I'm the only foreigner in sight, probably for blocks. People turn their heads to look at me, tell their friends I'm walking by, say "Hello" and "Hey Joe!" I smile, keep walking, try to avoid tripping on motorbikes and scooters parked seemingly everywhere, bins of cheap clothes, fruit, vegetables, dried fish, cell phone accessories, DVD's. Somehow it's mostly hardware though, every other store is hardware, sometimes there's three or four in a row, and they all have the same merchandise.

Finally I find a mini shopping mall, there's at least 50 choices of food to eat. I go to the cafeteria, eat alone amidst wide-eyed stares and double takes, shy smiles. Yep, back in the Philippines. I'm tall, white and handsome, Amerian looking (foreigners are all called Amerikano or kano, anyway) so everyone wants to be my friend, or at least ask me where I'm going. It's good to be back, and yet, strange. It's easy to forget Palau and home, for the moment, anyway. Normally I hate being the center of attention, and yet somehow I like the feeling of being different, unique, special. It never lasts though...and anyway there's plenty of special places here which I've come to see. But that'll have to wait, maybe until tomorrow or at least until I get used to this dream....

Friday, March 2, 2007

Leaving Palau

So my last month tour in Palau ended up lasting a couple of weeks. It was appropriate after all because an improvisational tour of SE Asia should have a spontaneous beginning, right? I told a few friends that I was just waiting for the right feeling, and to my surprise, it came.

My last few weeks were good though. It turned out that the people on Kayangel Island were having a New Year’s celebration on February 10th, because for some reason they couldn’t celebrate it on THE day. This was a great example of island time for me, and a good excuse to visit the place where I started working when I first came to Palau, but that I hadn’t been to in more than two years. Through a Peace Corps friend of mine, we ( me and my buddies Julian and Angus) arranged a homestay for the weekend, and hopped on the small, Kayangel state boat early Saturday morning. At this point I knew that I would be leaving soon, so I felt blessed to be a witness to the beauty of the coast of Babeldaob island, as we made our way through the reef channels and passages north along it and out of the barrier reef and towards the atoll that is Kayangel.

There’s nothing really like being out on the water in nice weather cruising along in a boat in Palau. There’s so many different hues of blue as you pass over different depths with different substrates, and they’re always framed by at least a dozen brilliant greens of the islands’ forests and the powder white of a few puffy clouds in the blue blue sky. And yet somehow the colors seem to become even more intense and magical when you approach Kayangel, and they never seem to fade. Even when you’re on the main island you can look out over the lagoon towards its barrier reef edge, or along the beach towards the three other, smaller islands, and you feel like you’re in a masterpiece.

I missed the island more than I had realized: The small village, sparsely laid out along two parallel coral roads, lined with trees and house gardens, the footpaths between houses and to the beach or taro patches, and the people, so laid back and friendly, especially if you speak a little Palauan. I missed the smell of the place especially, a mixture of sea breeze, barbequed fish, lemon trees, plumeria flowers, cooking taro, smoke, leaf litter and sand. I guess if you don’t live there, it makes for a great walk just strolling to one end of it or the other, and right after we arrived we walked along the forest path to the north end. The view from the curving beach at the tip was sublime, as always, and we spent a few hours sitting in the shade of a tree, or swimming in the current going past the tip, but mostly just absorbing the calm beauty of the place, waves, sky, clear water, wind.

Back in the village we spent the rest of the day napping in hammocks, down at the edge of the beach across from the house were we were staying. Awaking at dusk, we wander over to the house, where we mumble a few Palauan phrases, make jokes, and are provided with some fish soup and rice. I am amazed, as usual, by Palauan hospitality and humor, and in a good mood we stroll over to the village meeting house, or abai, where the “New Year’s” festivities will take place. People are sitting on benches and in plastic chairs, underneath open-sided tents used in almost all Palauan gatherings. Some people are sitting in the grass, and an old friend who I used to work with offers me his chair. The schedule for the evening is announced in Palauan over a microphone, and we stroll down to the end of the newish concrete dock to have a chew of betelnut and watch the end of the sunset.

In time we go back to the party, sit through some short speeches, and are then invited to help ourselves to the food laid out; barbeque pork, chicken, and fish, taro, tapioca, rice, taro leaf soup, coconuts, and a few local deserts. We stuff ourselves without a trace of bashfulness, go back for a choice item or two, and then sit back satisfyingly full, rubbing our bellies and sitting on the grass listening to Palauan music. We sit around long enough to see a few silly dances by men dressed as women, and then go back to our hammocks, ready for gentle swinging and dreaming in the ocean breeze. Normally we would sit around longer, watch with amusement and dance the occasional cha-cha, and drink a few Budweiser or Asahi beers, but the night before we had a big night at one of the karaoke bars in Koror.

We had gone big, feeling, but not quite knowing that it would probably be the last of so many fun nights had Kororokeing (the special blend of karaoke in Palau with Chinese or Filipina-usually-hostesses, buckets of beer on ice, “ladies drinks”, tagalong and English songs sung badly, the Palauan cha-cha to both Palauan and American hip-hop songs, and weird conversation while yelling over the noise) for me. As the Australians say, it was full on, and I went all out, singing a dozen songs and inventing a new dance called the spuns’ shuffle, which no one noticed because there were two very drunk bar girls dancing quite close to each other. Felt pretty hungover the next day, but we rallied with some doughnuts and coffee from Winchell’s before making it to the boat.

So, I missed out on most of the Kayangel February 10th New Year’s Eve party, but my buddy Julian got up, thinking that he had slept a few hours only wandered back over. He soon discovered it was already nearly five a.m., but there were still plenty of people up, talking, drinking Budweiser and Asahi, chewing betelnut, eating leftovers, laughing and doing the cha-cha as only they can. In all of my travels I’ve never encountered a people so well suited and devoted (in a culturally appropriate way) to indulgence. God knows I love them for it and have been forever altered in my ways.

The next day I had another stroll around the island, this time fully feeling like the end was near for me, so I soaked it in, and sucked up the smells and sounds and colors. As we were waiting around for the boat’s departure, we sat around the small house of a Filipino living on the island for thirteen years, Felix. We talked with him and his nephew Darwin about cock-fighting, living as a foreigner in Palau on a small island and the difference between that and being in prison in the Philippines. They gave us a few tips on picking up girls in the Philippines, and it seemed like a good segue to my next destination….the Philippines.

After Kayangel I ended up leaving about five days later, but only after I had felt mostly satisfied that I had tied up all the loose ends and infinished business that I had steadily and slowly (it is island time there after all) acquired. Mostly it was selling and getting rid of stuff, a rather eclectic and surprisingly large collection of. I had come to the country with a two backpacks of stuff, and I was determined to leave with one and a quarter, so I parted ways with so many toys and gadgets that give a good impression of my lifestyle there: nylon string guitar, mountain bike, extra snorkeling set, “island magic” rash guard, at least a dozen randomly acquired t-shirts, a rice cooker, “Chocolate”, a radio half broken, an t.v. with no channels, 2 hammocks,2 mosquito nets, scuba gear, kayak paddle and seat, surfboard, 4WD truck. Parting ways was pretty easy in most cases, even satisfying in a Buddhist monk kind of way as I was steadily and noticeably making my life simpler and my possessions lighter.

Of course, I had to use all my stuff at least one last time, so I went on a “cave special” kayak and snorkel with Angus, a night dive on local legend Keith Santillano’s secret wreck, a bicycle ride around Arakebesang, and a offroad trip to the Rock Islands of Airai with my buddy Art. Art and I almost didn’t make it back, because it was a rainy day, and I foolishly went down a pretty steep road that became a thick, mud slide we nearly didn’t make it back up. It was worth it though for the cool, beautiful hike along the ancient stone path to the Abai in Oikull and straight up one of the Rock Islands to a little-known view point of SE Babeldaob.

My last day was predictably a cluster fuck of running around at the last minute getting my plane ticket, forms I didn’t know I needed to leave the country, and pleading with the nice people at the travel agents office so that they would let me leave with a one-way ticket. Thankfully I was able to spend some quality time with a few of my best friends, but as hectic as things were, I still neglected giving the proper farewell to the many and odd acquaintances and wonderful people I had come to know living in this small place. My flight left at the butt-crack of dawn, as they say, so after a well-needed nap and a last minute extravaganza of giving away my material possessions, I went for one last, nearly all-encompassing stroll of Koror, seeing the sights, as it were, for one last time.

My three closest buddies at the end, Arturo, Angus and Julian were valiant, and they stayed up with me until the very end. I left a bit worn, so tired and sleep deprived, but ready, and anxious for my next adventure…

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Say Goodbye Palau

Say Goodbye Palau

This is the first real entry to this blog, which is fitting, because it’s the end of a chapter in my life, three long years in Palau, and the beginning of another, yet to be determined. I sit undecidedly between eager anticipation of what lies ahead, improvised travels through SE Asia and beyond, and loyal reluctance to leave this little Pacific jewel I’ve grown accustomed to.

After two years working through the Peace Corps at the local office of The Nature Conservancy, I decided to stay here in Palau and work another year for real wages. The Coral Reef Research Foundation, a small, non-profit organization dedicated to learning more about the marine environment, hired me to work as their collection manager for the past year. I had been volunteering for them during the last six months of my volunteer service, helping them monitor the famous Jellyfish Lake once a month, so it was an easy transition and a great year filled with new and wonderful experiences. I just finished there a few days ago, and I don’t think it has quite sunk in yet, because I’ve been too busy seeing good friends off to realize that for all intents and purposes, I have just begun my indefinite summer vacation.

The feel of summer is palpably in the air here, as the wet season seems to have finally turned over to the shorter dry season, and the sunny, warm weather reminds me of summer at home. The Palauan public schools, at least the ones in Koror, have also just begun their break between semesters, due to a delay at the beginning of the year for renovation of most of the classrooms. I live in a small village called Echang, where most of the people from Palau’s Southwest Islands live and more or less keep to themselves. There are a lot of kids here, and they’re more visible than usual because of being on break, so I’m often filled with the urge to just go outside and play.

And I do. Having no schedule to speak of, I’m finally getting around to exploring the area around the village, and the island that it’s on. Of the three islands that make up Koror (Koror proper, Malakal and Arakebesang), I know this one the least, so I figured it’d be good to see it before I start visiting all of my old favorite places for the last time, what my roommate jokingly calls Spuns’ last month tour. The few friends of mine who know me well, are already signed up, because they know my tour is one of a kind. Apart from the few jaunts I’ve already made (waterfalls in Airai and Ngiwal, and Airai summerhouse and trail), here are a few of the remaining items on my list (my assumption is that after I check ‘em all off, I’ll feel better about leaving): 5 day kayak trip from Airai to Peleliu, motorcycle tour of Babeldaob, weekend trip to Angaur island, Ngardmau waterfall, closeby kayaks (oasis lake, two-story cave, sea-snake cove, chicken lake), rescue diver certification, dives (blue holes, blue corner, new drop off, turtle cove, devil fish city), surfing in Melekeok, wake boarding in Nikko Bay, a few games of fusbol at Kramer’s bar and restaurant, and one last dinner of Bangladeshi curry.

I guess it just remains to be seen if after all of that I’ll change my mind and decide to stay:)

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Peace Corps Letter

I guess I'm doing this whole thing back-asswards, because I keep pulling out older stuff, but I wanted to post something a bit older to remind myself of what I was doing here a year or two ago. This is a letter I wrote to my old buddies from my Peace Corps Panama training group, so it's filled with several innuendos and acronyms that might not be understood by your average layman.

Koror, Palau

A Letter to my Compas,

Greetings and salutations from this land to yours, wherever it is you may be. I’ve been reading some of your updates with much interest and gladness, wondering all the while if my old friends of 46 might like to hear a whisper from the western pacific every once in a while. Then I came across the group 46 COS issue of La Vaina in a pile of neglected papers, and I was joyfully reminded of la vida panamenya and so many wonderful people. As I read through esa vaina I couldn’t stop smiling and I burst out laughing while sitting alone in my room listening to the hoots and whistles of the creatures living in the betel nut forest behind my house. While this cemented my resolve to write an update to y’all, I was also shocked! I was shocked to realize that I could forget, or at least so easily re-shelve such an intense period of my life. I haven’t really forgotten though. Every so often I’ll play a few tipico songs; my heart will swell and my eyes will well up and I’ll think to myself “hoo hah what a crazy time.” At those times sometimes I’ll think that maybe I left my heart behind in Panama, or at least a very large chunk of it, which might be why I don’t like to think of it unless I’m reminded by something, like roosters outside my window crowing at 3 o’ fucking clock in the morning.

Anyway, I just wanted to say hello to you all and maybe give you an idea of what my Peace Corps experience has shaped up to be here. Normally I don’t write about this stuff, because, as you may have found since you’ve landed back in North America, most people don’t really care about it, or at least they quickly lose interest because they’d rather talk about W or Janet Jackson’s boobs. Since you all have been there and done that, and are familiar with the lingo and acronyms, I figure that you of all people can at least relate and maybe even enjoy hearing about the life of Spuns (this is my Palauan name).

I’m coming up on 7 months left to the official completion of my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Palau. You may have seen Palau mentioned in Farenheight 9/11 as one of the countries in Bush’s coalition of the willing in the Iraq conflict. It’s one of the world’s smallest and newest independent nations, with approximately 20,000 total residents (15,000 Palauans) and 8 years of independence. The Peace Corps has been here since the late 60’s, and has become fairly ingrained into the local landscape and culture. There’s even a word for us, “Biskor”, in the local language, and there are at least as many former biskor living here as there are current volunteers. I’ve met Micro 1’s and at least a dozen biskor married to and living with Palauans; Palau might just have the highest permanent retention rate of volunteers in relation to total local population, anywhere. The current program is small, with 14 volunteers, 8 of whom are from my training group, the Micro 70’s (Micro stands for Micronesia). Our two sectors are natural resource conservation and development and youth and community development. Training groups arrive one a year, and after spending 10 weeks in the FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) state of Pohnpei, they’re shuttled off to their respective islands (The FSM States – Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Yap, and the Republic of Palau). Apart from my homies here in Palau, I haven’t seen any of my training group since I left Pohnpei for Palau, but we may get together here in Palau for a group COS conference. Since the living conditions are harsher in all of the other island groups, all of the other volunteers always want to come to Palau, and the Palau volunteers are pretty much content to stay put, even though it would be nice to have the chance to see Chuuk Lagoon or some topless women in Yap. Needless to say, Micro 70 pales in comparison to our group, magical #46, but it’s composed of good people nonetheless.

Palau is an archipelago of islands, more than 400 in all, with less than a dozen being permanently inhabited. It’s a beautiful place; a tropical island getaway for the Japanese and Taiwanese, a scuba diver’s paradise, and more recently, the location for Japanese, American, European and Russian Survivor reality television series. The standard of living is the highest in Micronesia after Guam, but Guam is too much like the U.S.A., somewhere in between Honolulu and Las Vegas. It’s also quite possibly the most over-governed nation on Earth, with a national congress and senate, 16 states each with their own legislative and executive branches, and a traditional system of chiefs and clans. I gave up trying to figure out how it all fits together quite some time ago, probably around the time when I realized that being American AND biskor, I’ll be forgiven for just about anything.

Palau was a trust territory of the United States until 1997, at which time they signed a compact of free association, making them independent but freely associating with America. The United States has the right to establish a military base if they choose, and they can bring large military ships through Palauan waters, even if they’re carrying large amounts of nuclear material. In exchange, they give Palau something like 30 million dollars every year. After this huge sum (which funds most of the local government activity, or non-activity as it were), the local tourism industry is the largest income generator, and the capital city of Koror is built to accommodate the large numbers of visitors with plenty of good restaurants, nice hotels, and karaoke bars with Filipina hostesses. My assignment is to work in the branch office of The Nature Conservancy, which was just moved to Malakal, one of the three islands that make up Koror and the financial, population, and entertainment center of the country. The office is across the street from SLC (Single Ladies Club), next door to Watergate (a hostess bar) and in front of a hidden trail that goes back to a marine lake and old cave system from WWII on the small Rock Island we’re stuck to. There’s a nice view of the Peace Corps office, Arakebesang island, and Babeldaob island in the distance from my window.

I chose to live somewhat far away, on the biggest island of Babeldaob, in order to force myself to ride my bike into work everyday and thus strengthen my bum knee. So, I live in Airai state, in the southernmost village of Ngetkib. Since PC Micronesia policy is for volunteers to stay with host families for their entire service, I still live with my nice family, in an old clan house just setback from the road. My host father is single, is the principal of the local elementary school, weighs over three hundred pounds, and lived for twenty years in Wisconsin and Washington D.C. He lives with his mother, his brother and sister and his nephew, who at 19 years of age is the youngest member of the household. They all basically live in an old beaten-down tin house, but most of the time they sleep in an adjacent summer house (kind of like a choza with a tin roof). I sleep in the old clan house, which I share with my younger brother, but because the house is haunted or maybe because I’m weird he sleeps most of the time on the other side. We also share a bathroom with cold, running water and a flush toilet. There’s an ancient graveyard with old, coral tombstones on top of a stone platform between our houses, and there’s an old kitchen with a huge hole in the floor next to my house. I pretty much come and go as I please and cook for myself a lot of the time. When I don’t, we eat a lot of fish, yucca, rice and taro. For breakfast there’s eggs and rice and spam, and there’s peanut butter and jelly for all times of the day. It’s a pretty nice living arrangement, especially since, as I mentioned, there’s a nice betel nut forest bordering the mangroves behind our house. Spending quality time with the family here basically means, sitting around the summer house chewing betel nut, talking shit about Palauan politics, and watching American Idol and Extreme Makeover on t.v. I’ve picked up a minor betel nut habit because of this, as my host grandmother tells me “you chew” every day when I enter her proximity. With almost everyone being older than me, I basically have to do everything they say, so I do a lot of carrying trays of food from the kitchen to the summerhouse, because the rest of the family (except little bro) are so fat that it’s uncomfortable for them to walk 100 feet. They’re very good people though, and are always trying to get me to eat more...”You eat more!”

My neighborhood is small, and right along the road that leads to the airport, so there can be a lot of cars passing by. Nonetheless it’s very peaceful and cool, with a lot of huge, ancient trees in peoples’ yards. It’s very safe and everyone knows me, but it has the reputation for having the most trouble-making young men in all of Airai. These fellows are, of course, my friends, and they form a men’s group called Mli Way which helps the community out however they can. I enjoy taking part in these activities, because it’s almost the only community-related work that I do, and it feels good to get sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt like I used to do all of the time in my old village in Panama. It’s also one of the few ways I can keep my host father from disowning me, because he thinks I spend too much time at my work assignment, too much time with other Americans, too much time having fun, too much time chasing non-Palauan general too much time not learning about Palauan language and culture. Even though I speak more Palauan than all of the other volunteers and have a good reputation for the work I’ve been doing, he’s right.
So why is it I seem to be too busy to concentrate on learning about Palau? Part of the reason is that I came here to learn the skills I would need to help out our NGO, Native Future, so that I could continue to help out the Wounaan, the people and culture that I fell in love with. Part of the reason is that I might be afraid of learning to love something so strongly again when I know that it could be torn away at any moment. And part of the reason is that I’ve become excellent at making excuses, any excuse will do, to have fun. I mean, you can’t work all of the time, and nobody came to the end of their life and said to themself, “Gee, I wish I had worked more.” But don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a busy beaver. Here’s a short list of the projects I’ve been involved with: 1) Kayangel State – Worked with the state conservation officers to improve the management of their marine protected area. 2) Koror State – Wrote a compliance plan for the Koror State Rangers who patrol and enforce the world famous Rock Islands, helped establish the tour-guide certification program. 3) Bureau of Marine Resources – Helped conduct a study to conduct blood samples from local crocodile population in order to look at DNA linkages and establish the number and identity of the species present, planned a field trip to Australia to train Palau’s crocodile manager, and am helping set up Palau’s management program to work with crocodiles and sea turtles. 4) Belau National Museum – Found funding and planned studies to look at the biodiversity and distribution of plants and insects in Palau’s islands. 5) Palau Conservation Society – Am helping conduct a national bird survey and study to determine Palau’s most important bird areas. I feel pretty lucky to have had the opportunity to get involved in such a diverse assemblage of activities which, at the same time, allow me to travel all over Palau and see amazingly beautiful places that most tourists and even most Palauans don’t ever get to see.

So, I’m usually not reluctant to head into work, but as you may know, work happens at its own particular pace, especially in the islands, and it’s usually not from 9 to 5. As I am determined not to ruin my eyes further by staring at a computer screen all day or ruin my lungs by breathing too much artificially cooled air, I’ve become quite good at noticing vacant spaces of time (spaces of time, why that’s ludicrous!) and jumping on them, or rather into them. My favorite thing to do with my time these days is to go sea kayaking, as Palau is an ideal place to do this and my office is within spitting distance (I’ve tried this) of the water. My old boss also left me his old kayak, so whenever I feel the urge, I lug the thing down the stairs, plunge it into the ocean and head off to go exploring some of the nice, nearby Rock Islands with their incomparably interesting mix of hidden marine lakes, old WWII relics, limestone caves, steep jungle groves and rich, coral reef lined fringes. In these explorations I’ve discovered a secret tunnel that leads into a marine lake filled with a breath taking salt-water garden of ancient, multi-hued corals of every shape and a two story cave with a cliff inside that you can jump from (inside the cave) into the underwater chamber below. Even though I have yet to come close to thoroughly exploring even the close-by islands, my friends now seek me out to show them my secret spots. On other days I’ll take off early and ride my bike out to some of the ancient stone paths that used to connect most of the old Palauan villages or to some of the old, mysterious earth terraces in southern Airai which overlook Airai Bay and northern Koror. There are some interesting, if not dangerous, mountain paths with beautiful ocean views that make for some good mountain biking, and when I’m ready to fork over my hard-earned cash sometimes I’ll go diving with my Peace Corps issue dive gear. These are the kinds of activities that lead me to say, “peace corps Palau, the plushest job on Earth.”

Even so, endless fun doesn’t translate into happy-happy joy-joy, and even happiness doesn’t translate into fulfillment or a sense of purpose. It can be very difficult, especially in a place where fun and entertainment are easily found, to find a meaningful balance in life, and this has been my greatest challenge here. Worrying about spending enough time with my host family, anxiously searching for meaningful connections with other human beings, agonizing over past loves and losses; these all kept me from settling down and truly enjoying life during my first year here. Maybe that’s why my best friend was a surfer from Costa Rica, who seemed as surprised as I was to find himself washed up on such a far away isle. Once we ran into each other and he discovered that I spoke Spanish with a Costa Rican accent, we learned to lean on each other and comfort each other with stories and memories of a shared passion, places we both knew and loved. Although it was comforting to have a secret language with a good friend, it was a distraction from what I came here to do, and I found other distractions. I’ve always been good at that. Now I have friends from Bangladesh, Bali, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, Australia, Holland and the Philippines. Palau, especially Koror, is truly becoming a melting pot of different cultures, and I became somewhat obsessed with getting to know people from all of these places. Maybe I’m fulfilling the Peace Corps mission in a larger sense in this globalizing time as I get to know these people and introduce them to each other and my Palauan friends. I mean, I’m helping to spread peace, understanding, and knowledge of geography man! Or maybe I’m just kidding myself as I wander, confused, from one experience to another, trying to remember my reasons for coming here or if they’re even important.

So, that’s my life here in a nutshell. Of course there’s a lot more that I had to censor, because, well you know. I’ve enjoyed reading about yours and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about mine. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I COS (surprise, surprise), but I may take a job continuing to work with the management program dealing with crocodiles and sea turtles. Or, I may go live with a girl I fell in love with in the Philippines on the frontier island of Palawan. Or I might go fishing on a lake in Bangladesh, or go back to Panama or New Mexico. In any case, I will still miss you guys and wonder what you’re up to. Hopefully this summer I’ll get the chance to hang out with Karlyn and Jenny, si dios quiere. I do like the idea of a #46 mass reunion, which appeals to me a helluva lot more than my high school reunion, which I’ll be gladly missing this summer. Wherever, whenever, just let me know....

Much love and peace from Palau,


Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Wounaan Story

This is a piece that I wrote (borrowing heavily from sources listed at the end) about the Wounaan, an indigenous people that live in Panama and Columbia. I lived in a small Wounaan village for about a year (2002), during part of my service with the Peace Corps, and at present I'm a board member for a non-profit organization called Native Future, which works with a few of the indigenous groups in Panama. This piece was written for our website, and you can read it or download a short movie about the Wounaan, at .

Who are the Wounaan?
The Wounaan are one of seven indigenous peoples (Bribri, Bugle, Embera, Kuna, Ngobe, Teribe and Wounaan) who live within the Republic of Panama. One of the smallest indigenous groups in Panama, the majority of the 6,800 Wounaan live in the Darien, Panama's largest and wildest province. In the Darien province most Wounaan live in small communities, located within and outside the two Embera-Wounaan comarcas, which are indigenous provinces with special indigenous, democratic administrations. They also live in and around Panama City and other increasingly urban neighborhoods along the Pan American Highway, and in three villages in the East Panama Province along the Pacific Ocean coast foothills of the Maje Mountain Range.

Traditionally, the Wounaan were semi-nomadic forest dwellers who lived in elevated thatch houses in small clearings close to meandering forest rivers. They lived in small groups of extended families, and carved special trees into river canoes they used to navigate green mazes of rainforest rivers and mangroves channels. Their villages were often located at the edge of the tidal reach between estuarine mangrove forests and semi-deciduous tropical moist forests, and they would catch fresh fish and shrimps and collect mangrove crabs and clams. They used traps, bows and arrows, spears, and blowguns with frog poison-tipped darts to hunt rainforest animals and birds. They maintained diverse gardens around their houses, gathered wild fruits and medicines, and planted bananas, plantains, corn and root crops in small forest clearings. They wore little clothing but painted themselves with intricate designs using inks derived from jungle fruits. They used various palm and other plant fibers to fabricate baskets of many kinds, for many varied purposes. They carved animal forms out of balsa wood (Ochroma lagopus) and gave them ritual significance. They maintained extensive knowledge of the forests and their inhabitants, learning their natural patterns and rhythms and incorporating them into their stories, dances and cosmological beliefs. They practiced several kinds of shamanism and ritually beat a sacred canoe to resolve local problems and maintain a state of peace and harmony in the world. The Wounaan keep many of these traditions alive today.

Presently the Wounaan are one of the least known and most marginalized indigenous groups in Panama, yet internationally, they are beginning to gain recognition as some of the finest basket makers and carvers in the world. During the past few decades, the Wounaan have transformed their traditions of weaving practical baskets and carving wood figurines into veritable art forms. Nowadays, most of the Wounaan women (and some men) spend days tediously sewing thousands of stitches using naturally harvested, dried and colored palm fibers (Carludovica palmata or naguala for foundation fibers and Astrocaryum standleyanum or chunga for outer design) to make tight rainforest baskets which depict colorful local designs derived from bodypainting or local rainforest animals. Many of the men use the hard, dark wood of cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa Helms or rosewood) or the more easily carved white meat of the tagua nut (from the Phytelephas seemannii palm) to create extremely lifelike rainforest animal sculptures. Several of the most accomplished weavers and carvers live close to Panama City where most of the local markets and buyers of their masterpieces are located, but the palm fibers and natural dyes, the cocobolo wood and tagua nuts (vegetable ivory) still come from the forest.
In the rainforest villages of Panama, the great majority of the Wounaan also weave baskets or carve cocobolo and tagua in addition to hunting, gathering, farming and fishing, because oftentimes their artwork is the best source of economic revenue they have. The Wounaan are one of the poorest ethnic groups in Panama, and many families in the rainforest villages live in conditions classified by the government as abject poverty. Most of the villages lack potable water or sufficient sanitation, and even the few villages that have health centers cannot count on a consistent supply of medicine or the presence of someone to administer it. Most of the villages have elementary schools, but many of the children do poorly because the classes are almost entirely conducted in Spanish, and the subject matter never includes Wounaan culture. For the kids who graduate from elementary school, the financial and cultural difficulties of continuing on to secondary school or college are usually insurmountable, and as a result there are very few Wounaan with the college training or experience necessary to help their own people.

Where do the Wounaan live?
Historically the Wounaan have inhabited the forests and traveled the streams and rivers of the Choco-Darien, a biogeographic region or ecoregion1 that includes Eastern Panama, Northwestern Columbia, and Northwestern Ecuador. Because of the formation of the Panama land bridge approximately 3 million years ago, new habitats were created and a great interchange and diversification of North and South American organisms occurred. As a result, the Choco-Darien is considered to have one of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet.

The Choco-Darien is primarily a lowland ecoregion characterized by very high rainfall (4-9 meters per year) and large rivers with associated riverine forests that lie within great basins of famously formidable lowland forests. The basins are bordered by isolated mountain ranges up to 1,800 meters high, which are home to mixtures of Central American and Andean montane plants and animals. The rivers flow out into the ocean through large, complex estuaries and extensive mangroves. The mountains are covered in a mosaic of wet forests cloaked in fog and draped with dense layers of moss and tangles of lianas, vines and orchids. The lowland and montane forests both have high beta diversity and endemism, meaning that the biological species composition differs at just about every locale and many forest locations are home to organisms that don't live anywhere else in the world. Luckily, relatively large areas of the ecoregion are still blanketed with forest and there are still many forested corridors connecting lowland and montane forests, which allows for the long-range movements of some larger animal species and altitudinal migration of others, like the jaguar and the Bare-necked Umbrella Bird respectively. Many scientists consider it to be the last place and best opportunity to conserve representative lowland tropical ecosystems of Northwestern South America.

Biologically, the Choco-Darien is outstanding and distinctive. Although the whole region remains relatively poorly studied, it is thought to contain at least 8-9,000 species of plants, with about 20% of them occurring only in this region (Gentry, 1982). The list of recorded animals in the region is also impressive, including 127 species of amphibians (Roa and Ruiz, 1993), 97 species of reptiles (Sanchez and Castano, 1994), and 577 species of birds, 60 of which are restricted range species (Roda and Styles, 1993). In addition to being a major center for unique birds, it is also home to many vulnerable and endangered animal species, including the Choco tamarin, the tapir, the giant anteater, the spider monkey, the puma, the ocelot, the jaguar and the Harpy Eagle. Approximately 30% of the ecoregion in Panama lies within Darien National Park (a Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Kuna and Embera-Wounaan comarcas, while ~30% is devoted to agriculture. The Choco-Darien is also culturally rich, as numerous indigenous forest peoples still persist here and maintain strong traditional ties to their land.

Where do the Wounaan come from?
The creation story of the Wounaan of Panama tells that in the beginning the creator was carving a Woun (a Wounaan person) out of cocobolo, but his hand slipped and he cut himself, so he molded the first Woun out of clay instead. Interestingly, Panama is the southernmost extent of cocobolo's range, and in the Columbian Wounaan stories, cocobolo is not mentioned. Traditionally, the Wounaan shamans in Panama made their curing staffs out of cocobolo, but apparently the use of cocobolo for making their well-known, lifelike animal carvings didn't start until a few decades ago.

The earliest reports from Spanish missionaries and explorers make very little mention of Wounaan settlements outside of Columbia. In part this could be because many Wounaan (traditional enemies of the Kuna) reportedly moved into areas of the Darien previously inhabited by Kuna people forced out by a Spanish edict. At that time the Wounaan were living in very small, remote settlements along rivers not likely to be visited by early chroniclers, and apparently the Kuna lived in organized villages where the Spanish could interact with them, while the Wounaan were more nomadic and likely to terrify outsiders with their body painting and poisonous blow darts. Good archaeological evidence of habitation in the Darien is scant, telling us only that there was substantial human habitation (but not by whom) in the region at least 3,000 years ago. In any case, the Wounaan seem to have increased their numbers in the Darien during the 18th and 19th centuries respectively, and by the 1960s, their population stretched as far as Panama Province, just east of the Panama Canal (Herlihy 1986).

A Short History of Wounaan Villages in Panama
Throughout most of their history, the Wounaan have lived in temporary dispersed settlements along river courses just above the tidal zone, but they began to reside in more permanent villages in order to improve educational opportunities in the 1950s. The villages formed because a generation of parents who could hardly speak Spanish wanted their kids to be able to communicate with the outsiders with whom they were increasing in contact. These new villages attracted the attention of General Omar Torrijos, who empathized with Panama's rural poor, and initiated a formal effort to improve the plight of indigenous people in Panama. In 1972 a new national constitution in Panama gave its indigenous peoples a right to participate in the political system and considered reserving lands for the economic well being of indigenous peoples. An office for indigenous affairs was created, and it worked with Wounaan and Embera leaders to draft a bill that declared the Embera-Wounaan Comarca. This included 31 of 53 villages inside the comarca, and gave them legal rights to their lands and resources. Apparently, many villages were too scattered to lump into reservations, and presently at least 37 Wounaan and Embera villages are located outside of the legally protected comarcas.

Meanwhile, beginning in the 1970s, Panama began using U.S. funds to extend the Pan American highway, which up until that point had reached a gap of undeveloped forest land between Panama City and the Panama-Columbia border. The highway not only altered the transportation system (previously dependent entirely on fluvial and maritime transportation) of goods in and out of the Darien, it facilitated the creation of additional roads and opened a new colonization frontier. Landless peasants from Panama's western provinces began arriving with hopes of "improving" forested land (by deforesting forty percent) in order to title it and create new farms and/or raise cattle. These peasants often unknowingly or knowingly crossed indigenous trochas (cut land demarcation boundaries), which has resulted in increased numbers of land disputes, mistrust and even violence between the historical populace and the newcomers. At the same time, forested land not protected in national parks and/or belonging to whole indigenous communities, cannot be titled according to current Panamanian law. Hence, nearly all of the Wounaan communities located outside of comarcas find themselves struggling with some kind of land dispute, which they are trying to resolve peacefully and legally by presenting historical evidence of land tenure to the appropriate Panamanian government agencies and authorities. If they do not have success there, they hope to bring their case before an international human rights court.

1 An ecoregion, as defined by the World Wildlife Fund is a "large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities and environmental conditions." "Biodiversity is not spread evenly across the Earth but follows complex patterns determined by climate, geology and the evolutionary history of the planet. These patterns are called ecoregions."

Choco-Darien ecoregion classification - - Terrestrial ecoregions Ð Choco-Darien moist forests.
Gentry, A.H., 1982. Phytogeographic patterns as evidence for a Choco refuge. In G. T. Prance, editor, Biological diversification in the tropics. Columbia University Press, New York, USA.
Herlihy, P.H. (1986). A cultural geography of the Embera and Wounaan (Choco) Indians of Darien, Panama, with emphasis on recent village formation and economic diversification. The Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University: 306 pp.
Roa S. and R. Ruiz. 1993. Anfibios. In J.O. Rangel-Ch., editor, Informe Proyecto Estudio de la Biodiversidad de Columbia. Convenio INDERENA-Universidad Nacional De Columbia, Bogota. Internal Document.
Roda, J. and G. Styles. 1993. Aves. In J.O. Rangel-Ch., editor, Informe Proyecto Estudio de la Biodiversidad de Columbia. Convenio INDERENA-Universidad Nacional de Columbia. Bogota. Internal Document.
Sanchez, H. y O. Castano. 1994. La biodiversidad de los reptiles en Columbia. In J. O. Rangel-Ch., editor, Informe Proyecto Estudio de la Biodiversidad de Columbia. Convenio INDERENA-Universidad Nacional de Columbia, Bogota. Internal Document.
Velasquez Runk, Julie (2002). "And the creator began to carve us of cocobolo":historical ecology of the wounaan forest use in eastern panama. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New York Botanical Garden