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Palauan Meeting Space

We are used to the window as an object of easy metaphors, a symbol of openness, clarity, gateways to the soul, etc., etc. But Palau blows that metaphor right off its hinges: if you walk down the street here, you’ll find most people leave the doors and windows of their homes wide open—if they have windows at all. The more common structures have wide open spaces where you would normally see a window pane or a wall. Every neighborhood has a gazebo-like common space—generally a thatch roof propped up by wooden pillars and equipped with long benches, where people stretch out on lunch breaks and hold customary family-wide picnics on weekends. If it rains, they pull a shade. Otherwise, they are open to the world.

This is, in part, for obvious reasons. It’s hot here, people. Not oppressively so—not the perpetual steam room of guaranteed skin cancer my overactive imagination had prepared me for—but a reliably humid 80-something, 365 days a year. (Thanks to some nearby typhoons, we may even be experiencing a “cold spell” which basically means a breeze and a few clouds overhead.)

But it’s also because concepts of “personal space” and “alone time” as we Westerners know them aren’t part of the island psyche. Families share land. They share bedrooms. They share kids. (Palauan adoption and family structures warrant their own post, so more on this later.)

“I lived in Baltimore,” a Palauan woman named Julie told me as we stood in an open-air cafe, “and my father-in-law was always yelling at me for leaving the doors unlocked and the windows open.” She gestured toward the view of coconut trees and empty beach outside the hut. “Why even have windows at all?” she said. “Why close yourself off to the world like that?”

So, when you walk by a house, maybe you see a man stretched out thinking on his cool stone floor, or a woman hanging her underwear to dry, or kids fighting over who gets to smack the mangy dog around. Either way, everyone’s business is all out there—on an island this size, we’re quickly learning, it all comes out eventually anyway.


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