Although just a few meters off the road, I had never been to the place before because I didn’t have the guts to explore the very steep road going down. A false step on the accelerator would send you hurtling down towards the cliffs and rooftops of houses below.
It was then when I felt like walking into a strange scene in a foreign movie or an alien intruding into some kind of a ritual I was not a part of, a total stranger.
There was a huge open tent filled with many solemn-faced people. Somebody which looked like a foreign priest (judging from his clothes) was chanting in Japanese in front of an ancient-looking tomb surrounded with wreaths and freshly-cut flowers. Before the tomb was a table spread with smoking incense, wines, cakes, cookies, sweets, candies and other goodies with Japanese labels.
Everything and everyone was in Japanese, including the huge banner hang from a nearby tree. Not understanding the language was a huge handicap.
I stood uncertainly at a corner, not knowing whether it was alright to take photos or not. I was afraid to just go and shoot without observing first for fear I might be intruding or offending some service. Finally, one of the local doctors spotted me. He motioned for me to feel free to go around and ‘do my stuff’. Suddenly, it seemed as if every body moved and the latest models of digital cameras and videos came out. It turned out I came at a time they were praying.
Somebody stood up and talked at length. Very soon the speaker’s voice broke and he cried. There was silence among the audience and they too, shed silent tears. My mind was wondering what the occasion was. I concluded it must be the death anniversary of somebody important because of the presence of important people there, including the governor and the ambassador of Japan. I also concluded that the person must be old as at least 80 percent of the guests are aged 60 above.
More chants followed. Very soon everyone stood up and formed a line towards the table before the grave with flowers, taking their turns to look like paying tribute by pinching a bit of the powder and dropping into the burning incense, bow then returned to their tables.
The guests cried, applauded, laughed and nodded their heads when somebody talked in front but I did not cry, applause, laugh or nod my head because I did not understand what was going on. I just went around and snapped photos of everything and everyone while searching for answers to the coverage I blindly covered. My editor just called me to go to the event, only telling me there was something going on there.
Finally the program was finished, or so I guessed because everybody stood up and milled around, majority going to the table and hoarding the goodies in loot bags.
I finally found somebody to tell me what happened, a Japanese from Okinawa who regularly come to Palau every September 13. At last I was told they were paying tribute to the 3,432 Okinawans who died in Palau during the World War 11 in 1942.
At last, too, I was able to nod my head because I finally understood what I was covering.
I left the cemetery carrying a pack of something which looked like small round balls of deep-fried flour and a pack of square, orange candies which smelled more like air freshener I was not that sure of eating. Both packs were given by my news source, goodies from Okinawa, he said.
I still hesitate to eat the goodies because they were already offered for the dead and they might not like it if somebody else, a non-Japanese speaking person at that, to eat what was offered for them. I guess I need to learn a little Japanese. The goodies are still in the compartment under the armrest of my car. Maybe I’ll share them with friends.