A couple of scuba divers who had lived in Micronesia for many years told us how to do it: The first day you arrive in Palau you go to the jail and tell the inmates who carve the storyboards which legends you’d like them to carve for you. "Remember to settle on a price," they warned parenthetically. Then on the last day of your vacation, return to the jail, pick up the storyboards, pay the guys and depart for home with a few exquisite examples of island culture.
Guess what? It didn’t work that way.
In April 1986 Scott and I and two dive buddies – our fellow teacher Tami from Minnesota and my dive school classmate Jeff, a government contract engineer from Colorado – flew from Saipan, where we were living, to Guam and then on to Koror, Palau, for some of the best diving in the world.
There are many essays I could write about that week in Palau. It was one of those weeks that came along at a certain time of my life when I was able to soak up everything. I remember the hard beds at the Palau Hotel, the expired dates on the merchandise in the grocery store, shaving my young lover’s face, (albeit for the first and last time), the way our dive leader, a crazy Palauan named Dennis, would hop out of the van before it stopped moving. And I remember going to jail.
We arrived at night, picked up our rental car and went straight to the hotel. It was a divers’ hotel right in the middle of town rather than the much more expensive Palau Pacific Resort to the south or the Nikko to the north. There was no restaurant but there was a bar in the basement. It was institutionally tiled and spare and full of sixties kitchen chairs with a half dozen hard-core American diver guys standing at the bar trying to best each other with stories of shark encounters and equipment failures. They were older and drunker and we left after one Mai Tai. Tami was from Minnesota, after all, and did not hold truck with that kind of loud and raucous behavior. They made us feel like what we were – three young parochial school teachers and a quiet engineer – when we wanted to feel like intrepid travelers.
In the morning we drove to the jail to order our storyboards. Scott and I wanted three, Tami wanted one and Jeff went along for the ride. I assumed that we would enter the jail office and a receptionist would call for a carver/inmate to come to the front desk under guard and we would make our arrangements with him. He would then return to work hard all week on his commissions while we dived to our hearts’ content.
Palauan storyboards are beautiful works of art. They are portable versions of the ancient Palauan legends carved onto the interior and exterior walls of the traditional men’s meeting house or bai. Carved on an extremely tough wood called ironwood, storyboards were first carved in the 1940s during the Japanese occupation of the island. On Saipan we had heard that the best and least expensive way to get a traditional storyboard depicting your favorite legend was to go the Palau jail. Carving storyboards was a way for prisoners to make money while inside.
At the jail office there was indeed a receptionist. She didn’t seem surprised when four Americans asked to talk to a prisoner about storyboards. She motioned us back behind the counter and unlocked a door, telling us to walk across to the far end of the recreation yard and ask for “Peter.”
Huh? Go into the yard, alone, with all these guys with sharp carving tools, with the man who just two months before was arrested for assassinating the Palauan president. That yard?
What I said was, “You want us to go into the jail?”
“Yeah. Just knock when you want to come out,” she said with her lovely Micronesian singsong that always ended with an upward lilt, like a question.
Okay. We looked at each other and followed the receptionist. How did we know Peter wasn’t the presidential assassin?
So we four howlies (Hawaiian-speak for “white knuckleheads” that is pervasive across the Pacific) ventured across the packed dirt courtyard. Two or three dozen men looked up from what they were doing at tables under thatched loggias that lined the perimeter. It was easy to see why they weren’t recreating: at four degrees above the equator the morning sun over the middle of the rec yard was already brutal. A work area was obvious at the far side and we walked over to where three or four guys were working with some unfinished boards. A tall man with a shaggy head of black hair stood up to greet us.
“Peter?” we asked.
I remember he wrote down which legends we wanted on a scrap of paper. We talked price and I recall we agreed on $35 for a small board and $50 for a large. This was more than our friends had paid, but we figured it was still fair compared with what we’d pay at a local handicraft shop. (I just checked and saw a crude storyboard on E-Bay going for $1,500.) “U.S. dollars only, okay,” he said seriously. “Cash.”
“Sure,” we nodded. “No problem.” The whole exchange was very serious. The Palauans we knew on Saipan were all fun and loving people, but then they weren’t in jail on their home island. “We’ll be back on Saturday,” we said and then walked back across the yard. The other prisoners were still watching us and we realized that this kind of commerce was rarer than we’d come to believe. Jeff tried to open the door to the office before he remembered that we had to knock.
The following Saturday, after a terrific week of our own shark encounters and snorkeling the famous Jellyfish Lake and some stupidly imprudent cave diving on my part, we returned to the Palau jail.
By now we knew the drill and the receptionist opened the door to the yard. The sun was hotter than ever as we made our way to Peter’s corner. It came as a shock to us when he told us he hadn’t had a chance to finish our storyboards.
“None of them?” Tami, our Midwestern promise-is-a-promise friend, asked.
“No, but I have some in stock,” and he gestured like a natural salesman to a table behind him and pulled over a half dozen boards. “Here is one of the how the Yapese brought over their stone money from Palau.” That was actually one of the legends we'd requested so we said we’d take it.
“I have several commemorating 50 years of electric power on Palau,” he said, showing us a bunch of identical storyboards that obviously hadn’t sold during the big electricity anniversary celebrations of 1984.
“Ah, no,” said Scott. “What else have you got?” He showed us a small board with the legend of the rabbitfish. We didn’t know that legend, so he told us. It was something about fishing from one side of the boat and getting nothing and then fishing from the other side and getting a huge catch. I knew that I would forget the details even as he was telling. But we took it because he had another big board that Tami wanted and we didn’t want to hog the only good ones.
“What about the legend of the sea turtle?” I asked with a little whine in my voice. “That’s the one I really wanted.” The legend of the sea turtle is a little like a Romeo-Juliet/Blue Willow china story. Two young lovers whose families have enmity toward one another must meet on a distant rock island on nights of the full moon. During their trysts, they discover that the sea turtles lay their eggs by the cycle of the moon.
“Could you make that one and send it to me on Saipan?” I suggested. Scott tried to casually kick the side of my flip-flop but I refused to look at him.
Peter showed his first expression of emotion: surprise.
“Sure,” he said, “But you’d have to pay me now. Cash.”
“Okay,” I said, realizing I’d gotten myself into a bit of a jam. The nudge to my flip-flop seemed a little stronger.
“I guess you’ll need money for postage too,” I added, stealing a look at Scott. We had been married ten months and the expression on his face suggested that he was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of spending the rest of his life with someone as stupid as I am.
Peter raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, definitely.”
“I guess you’ll need our address,” I said and he scrambled for a piece of paper and dutifully wrote it down. “How long do you think it will take?” I asked.
“I’ll do it this week. Things should calm down around here.”
Back outside, I knew there was hell to pay and Tami and Jeff stayed silent as we squabbled. They were on Scott’s side. “Do you really think he’ll send it, Heidi? What were you thinking?” he asked.
“I was thinking that he would think that I didn’t trust him to keep his promise if I didn’t pay him up front.”
“He won’t send it, Heido. You just blew $60 bucks.”
“Yeah, but at least he thinks I trust him.”
“No, he thinks you’re naïve and he’s right.”
“But I’m still a nice person,” I sniffed.
“You’re a very nice person. You’re just needlessly poorer than you were ten minutes ago.”
And I knew I was both.
Because you shouldn’t fly for 24 hours after your last dive to avoid getting the bends, we had the whole day ahead of us until our evening flight back to Guam. We went to the Palau National Museum and saw the bai and many storyboards. There was a small gift shop there where, among many other things, you could buy tortoiseshell bracelets from turtles harvested during their limited island hunting season. I had read in a guide book that very occasionally you could find bracelets carved with a legend and to that end I was flipping through all the bracelets in a large basket by the sales desk. A wide one caught my eye and I pulled it to the surface. There it was, the legend of the sea turtle delicately etched into the shiny, polished surface of the shell. Fifteen dollars. Sold.
A few months later, our teaching stint over, we and our many footlockers and suitcases and Scott’s Martin guitar were returning through customs at the Honolulu airport. I was deeply concerned about my ability to smuggle my treasure into the U.S. It is illegal to bring real tortoiseshell into this country and I, a heretofore nice person, was about to commit a federal crime.
It was 5 a.m. Hawaii-time when our flight from Guam arrived, many hours off kilter and a day earlier than we had left Saipan. After much deliberation I had finally decided to hide the bracelet under a zoom lens in Scott’s camera bag. As the telling moment approached, the customs agent watched as we shoved all our stuff on carts up to his desk. He never even asked us if we had anything to declare. He just waved us on through.
“Man,” said Scott, shaking his head as we navigated our way to the re-check conveyor belt. “We must look so white bread. I need to get an earring or something.”
Palau is now known as the Republic of Belau, correcting the longtime European corruption of its pronunciation. Next spring will be the twentieth anniversary of ordering my story board. Maybe Peter will google me, find my address in Maine, and send me a commemorative version. Maybe because of my faith in him, he's now the president of Palau.
I know weirder things have happened.
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