Humbled and inspired. Those are two words that describe how I feel at this very moment—and how I’ve felt for a lot of this trip. Tonight we were invited to a dinner at Chief Ngira Kebou’s house. Actually, “dinner” doesn’t come close to a sufficient description—“feast” is more appropriate, though it still fails to fully capture our group’s experience tonight.
Before the dinner started, we had the opportunity to talk to (and more importantly, to listen to) Reklai Raphael Bao Ngirmang, the Paramount Chief in Palau. The Chief took the time to get to know all of us (and to impress us with his knowledge of the U.S. states and their respective claims to fame) before indulging our curiosity and answering questions we had about the life of a Paramount Chief in Palau and about governance and conservation more generally. The Chief served as a U.S. marine for over twenty years, and his flat top hair cut, well-shined black shoes, and ironed navy pants were reminiscent of his military past. But the chief had none of the austerity I sometimes associate with military personnel—he was warm, welcoming, and very personable. I think what struck me most about the Chief, though, was his wisdom. He spoke of the inextricable link between Palauan culture and conservation, his fears that focusing on the economy will make leaders forget about the environment, and his sincere concern that future generations will have to pay the price for our failure to act as responsible stewards of the earth. I wish more people shared his concerns.
After getting to speak with the Paramount Chief, the evening moved to a ceremony, in which we were all made lifetime membership of the Society of Lukel a Klengar (Nest of Life). The Paramount Chief handed out the certificate of membership, and as we each walked up to accept our certificates, he looked us squarely in the eye and expressed not only his congratulations, but also his hope that we would accept the responsibility of working to ensure that something is done to protect the environment, to protect the environment and the Republic of Palau.
I don’t really think of it as a responsibility—a vocation and an honor, but certainly not a chore. And I am fairly certain that my sentiments are shared by everyone else in the group.
After the ceremony, we were invited to speak to the group. Nobody was able to fully articulate just how gratified, inspired, and humbled we all were by these expressions of friendship and honor, but four members of our group came pretty close (Thanks Rebecca, Amanda, Tori, and Lisa!).
A feast followed a ceremony. Literally, a feast. All of the foods were caught or harvested in Palau, and those who wore stretchy pants put their extra elastic to good use. The food by itself was fantastic, but it was made even more so by the company and the sound of waves gently crashing on the shore in the background.
After dinner, our host, Chief Ngira Kebou gave us even more of his time (he already gave up over an hour of his time to speak to our group earlier in the trip!) and shared his stories and knowledge with us. He echoed the Paramount Chief’s emphasis on the importance of conservation to Palau society and his hope that we will serve as ambassadors for Palau, sharing their stories and representing their interests when we return to the U.S. I’m positive I will always remember Palau—this night, in particular, was unforgettable.
What I took away most from this night (besides a few extra pounds) was a sense of hope and of inspiration. I find myself so often frustrated at the state of marine affairs—the political system that one has to navigate to effect change often seems insurmountable. And even if one does manage to create policies that offer serious protection of the marine environment, the foreboding statistics of crashing fish stocks and sea level rise make me worry that such policies might be too late.
Tonight, though, I was neither frustrated nor worried. I was humbled by the incredible generosity, kindness, and friendship of the Palauans. And I was inspired—inspired by a country and its visionary leaders. Inspired to go out into the world and start making a positive difference. A sincere sulang to Chief Ngira Kebou for the feast and the inspiration—I needed both.