Koror, Palau— Rocking to some Palauan Oldies music on a local station, I drove my car on the Compact Road in Babeldaob, winding through the beautiful scenery and taking in the views as I crested hills.
As I accelerated out of a curve in Ochelochel, Airai, a land crab, rekung, skittered across the road, headed for the coastline where it will shake its eggs out in the high tide brought on by the full moon. As it crossed my lane I felt an adrenaline rush as I slammed on my breaks and swerved slightly to the right, praying I had avoided the little creature. Heaving a sigh of relief, I watched it continue its eight legged scuttling across the rest of my lane in the rear view mirror. Then crunch! The car behind me swiftly ran it over! I was outraged. Did they not see me swerve? Did they not see my red tail lights brighten as a signal that there was something or someone that I was intentionally trying not to run over?
With a face of disapproving wrinkles I stared glaringly at the tinted windshield that was now following me at a close distance. I could not tell if the driver of this silver mini-SUV was a local, foreigner, young person, old, or what. The only thing I knew was that this driver saw a car in front of it react to something on the road and by the time it came their turn to cross the same stretch they didn’t see the precious rekung trying to get over the manmade barrier in its habitat. For my own mental health I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were daydreaming, busily talking to a passenger, or maybe they just didn’t see, for whatever reason, the fellow creature of Palau.
Things did not get better as I continued to watch the vehicle behind me swerve ever so slightly out of its lane and run over the road reflectors, bump bump bump to the right and then overcorrecting bump bump bump on the left. Again, what kind of awareness or lack thereof was going on behind me? I sped up to keep a safe distance from what was clearly not the most conscious driver.
For the next half an hour as I continued to drive north I reflected on our behavior as humans in Palau, sharing an ecosystem with other Palauans; Palauan plants, Palauan animals, Palauan soil, Palauan air and Palauan water. I continued to think about how when I would go fishing with my Dad that he would remind me endlessly in Palauan “Be careful, don’t step in the fish’s house and make sure you don’t take the very small fish.” When we would hunt rekung during the full moon I would fill up my five gallon bucket as much as I could without having the rekung crawl on top of each other to get out. When we would come home he would unload half my bucket. I watched disappointedly as my catch waned “Remember don’t take the babies, okay? We won’t have the big ones later if you take the small ones now” he would say.
Another thing about my fellow road user bothered me too. Those road dots become unglued if we go bump bump bump over them. When we don’t pay attention or try to save time by cutting across lanes that weakens the adhesive and we end up wearing down our expensive infrastructure just as we wear down our precious populations of rekung by not being careful when we drive. Just how much are we really sacrificing when we put Western values such as ‘instant gratification’ and “my time is precious” above the Palauan teachings such as a reched a ioud (haste makes waste) and a mesei a delal a telid (the taro patch is the mother of our life breath)? It seems our Ancient Wisdom clearly tells us to cherish the environment and to make progress while still considering the creatures around us as beings endowed with special powers, not to be disrespectfully run over.
I realized then that it is so very important to include environmental conservation language in our day to day conversations. Furthermore we can make a concerted effort to talk to our children and youth about what they think is the best way to show compassion to our home islands. This can be in the form of gentle reminders to be careful when driving or to release premature sea life caught during a fishing outing. Young people love positive reinforcement. I know it might be awkward at times but trust me, we love being praised for the good that we do. So next time your driver slows down to avoid a rekung or makes it from Ngarchelong to Koror without hitting a single road reflector, you can give them props for being a conservation champion. Every kind thing counts. Jus’ Sayin’.
(Souang Inez Benedict Tellei is an undergraduate student at the College of Forestry, Oregon State University. She is passionate about protecting nature and keeping the Palauan culture alive. Send feedback firstname.lastname@example.org)