The Fish & Rice Chronicles: My Extraordinary Adventures in Palau and Micronesia
by PG Bryan (Micronesia 1967–70)
$19.99 (paperback); 7.69 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
In 1993 the University of Guam (UOG) forwarded to me a manuscript of a memoir written by an RPCV, Patrick Bryan, who had spent three years in Palau. The University had recently created the University of Guam Press in an effort to bring all the University’s publishing efforts under one umbrella. At the time I was working at Gum Community College, and I was a member of the UOG Press’ advisory board.
I looked over Bryan’s manuscript and drew up a short list of critiques and suggestions for rewrites. I was impressed with Bryan’s vivid descriptions, but there were a few quirks and problems that, if fixed, I thought, would make the book much stronger. I returned the manuscript to UOG and heard nothing back. I assumed my suggestions and comments were passed along to Bryan, but I don’t know. UOG Press didn’t publish the book and soon ceased to operate, leaving the different entities of the University to do their own publishing.
Years passed. Then one day recently, while browsing for Micronesia books on Amazon, I spotted the title: The Fish & Rice Chronicles. It was Bryan’s book. He had self-published it through Xlibris.
Let me say that The Fish & Rice Chronicles is a great Peace Corps memoir. Bryan’s descriptions of scenery, people, and action are riveting. His analysis of issues is, in my opinion, spot on.
Yet it is his descriptions of the island that are his real strength. His recounting of action incidents are riveting. His details of scenery, whether the beauty of the Rock Islands or the squalor and atmosphere of Koror, are rich and vivid. When he finishes his telling, whether of an action or a scene, the reader has all he needs to see exactly what the author saw. Patrick Bryan took me to Palau with his memoir, and kept me with him for more than 300 pages.
Here is a sample of his descriptive richness:
We had driven down from the airport through the damp coolness of dense tropical forest. Now we sat on the coral causeway without benefit of forest shade, sweating in the moisture-laden atmosphere, waiting our turn to cross on the ferry. No air moved. To the northwest, beyond the reef, cumulonimbus clouds reached toward the heavens. Off to the southwest, small islands loomed delicately on the horizon. The lagoon’s surface moved ever so slightly, lazily, like Jell-O. Bright solar flashes mirrored off the water into our eyes. Out toward the barrier reef, splendid hues of blue-green and turquoise, vivid colors uncommon in temperate zones, described varying water depths. The lagoon-clear, pristine, irresistible-teased me to jump in; to break the surface, bust through that intriguing mass of turquoise water. I shall always remember that first scenic view of the Palauan lagoon. I had arrived, and I was infatuated.
In addition, the author’s observations, while both accurate and sensitive, are able to describe the condition of the islands without being pejorative. It’s obvious the author loves the people and their islands, and manages to describe some of those faults without condemnation.
Bryan also accurately depicts the political situation with regard to US policy in the islands. Peace Corps Volunteers were part of the overall package of aid that flooded Micronesia beginning in the 1960s. Some say it was a calculated US policy to make the islanders dependent on the United States. Others feel it was just America’s answer to any problem: throw enough money at it and it should go away.
Bryan was assigned to Fisheries while in Palau. Because of this he spent a lot of time . . . fishing, and boating around Palau. All of which is described in detail. A lot happens to him in his three years. In fact, it’s a wonder he survived. There were SCUBA diving accidents, stranded on reef with sea snakes incidents, close calls with sharks and crocodiles, boat accidents, near river drownings, several bar fights.
He also does a fine job describing how alienated he had become when he visits his home on leave. It is not his world anymore and he doesn’t fit.
An interesting side story Bryan relates is when Hollywood comes to the island to film “Hell in the Pacific” starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. Marvin loved to fish, and Bryan often went with him. Marvin’s girlfriend, however, Michelle Triola, is quickly bored and spends an inordinate amount of her time with one of the other PCVs cavorting Palau’s uninhabited Rock Islands. Just the two of them. You can do the math. It is after this movie making that Lee and Michelle break up and Michelle sues Lee in the famous “palimony” case.
In many ways, Bryan was the ideal PCV. He does his job, working various projects as requested by Fisheries, but more importantly he assimilates into Palau and its culture. He lives with a family, learns the language, and learns to accept “Micronesia time.” He understands what works, what doesn’t work, and what a PCV can or cannot do about it. His book gives all of us a fantastic glimpse into both Palau and a PCV’s life on the island. It is a Peace Corps memoir that is much more than a tale of fish and rice.
Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971-73) is the author of the widely used textbook Pacific Nations and Territories, in print since 1983, and its elementary level version, Pacific Neighbors. He is also author of the collection of Peace Corps stories Bending to the Trade Winds and the Micronesia novel Green Pearl Odyssey. His most recent work is the novel The Isla Vista Crucible. He retired as a dean from Guam Community College in 2013.