Letter from Palau Number Eleven
August 11, 2006

Greetings from apartment 402 in the Palau Transportation Company building on Malakal.  And the big news is that yet again, no one won the raffle at Wednesday’s meeting of the Palau Rotary Club.  This means that the $1,830 in the pot stays there until next week’s meeting at which time no doubt it will grow considerably in size when tickets go on sale.  There are now only six cards remaining in the deck, which is to say that the owner of the ticket that is pulled from the bowl will have a one in six chance of picking the queen of hearts and going home a winner.  The guest speaker talked about her summer program to teach Palau’s young athletes good sportsmanship and to be gracious winners and cheerful losers.  So far none of us at that weekly meeting has had a chance to display the former quality, but everyone has been remarkably cheerful about losing—week after week after week.

Speaking of being cheerful in the face of adversity, all of us here in Koror seem to be remarkably cheerful in the face of the adversity the crew and passengers on Atoll Way are dealing with.  If you remember, she’s the ship to Tobi and the other Southwest Islands we were forced to miss because of that medical emergency.  Well, they were due back several days ago but have been trapped by high seas and bad weather in the protected waters of Helen Reef, the only anchorage in the Southwest Islands. They hope to get back here on Saturday or Sunday, almost a week late.  They are out of fresh water and have to depend on rain for their drinking water.  This is quite a problem since the ship’s toilets flush with fresh water.  They are also low on fuel. 

We happened to be in the Hatohobei State Office the other morning when Crispin Emilio, the Governor (and an experienced ship’s officer) was talking with the ship on the radio.  Pin, as he is universally known, told them to leave the lagoon that evening since the forecast was looking up, sail the 40 miles to Tobi, and then drift to save fuel until high tide at first light, when they should board passengers (but no cargo) from the north end of the island, where the seas should be calmest.  Except for Helen Reef there are no anchorages in the Southwest Islands, so loading and off loading involves the use of small boats running between the ship and shore.  In a rough sea this can be pretty tricky and an exciting event for all concerned.  After finishing as rapidly as possible at Tobi (thus the ban on cargo) the ship will call at Pulo Ana and Sonsorol; then it’s on to Koror and the end of what sounds to have been a very rough trip.  So rough, in fact, that only six passengers made it all the way to Helen Reef, almost 400 miles south of here.  The others all got off at various stops along the way south because the weather and sea conditions were so bad.  And in Eang?  Lots of cheerful acceptance of the adversity those passengers and crew had to deal with, marked by not quite gleeful speculation about whether or not the people on the ship have run out of such essentials as coffee or, perish the thought, betel nut.  And Bobby and me?  Much less regret at missing that trip. 

The season from May to December is called niyefang in Tobian which means from the north.  This term refers to a strong current that sets in from the north at the beginning of the season, which is a time of rough seas, bad weather and generally miserable conditions for the run to the Southwest Islands.  It’s kind of interesting that the trips that live in my memory somehow all seem to have been made during the time of year when the seas are calm, the sky clear, and the equatorial nights bright with the light of a million stars.  Surrounded by boxes and suitcases, we deck passengers would spend the four or five days that it took to get to Tobi talking, singing, telling stories and lies, playing cards, napping, tending our lines when the ship diverted course to chase a school of fish someone had spotted, preparing food, and watching the ocean slip by.  None of those trips seem to have been the kind of epic voyage of sea sickness and suffering that so many people talk about and that by all accounts is going on right now.  Just lucky I guess.

A lot of people have been urging us to take it easy for a while before plunging back into all the projects we are trying to finish up.  Well, we took their advice last Friday and after visiting Palau’s public aquarium at the Palau International Coral Reef Center (which is one of the best designed and most informative small aquariums anywhere), we took off for North Beach Cottages at a place called Choll in the far north of Babeldaob to spend the night.  We drove across the bridge from Koror to Babeldaob at noon and by two-thirty we were eating a delicious lunch on the deck of our small bungalow, under the shade of some huge old trees, looking out over the longest and most beautiful beach in Palau.  This is the point in this letter where anyone who has spent time in Palau but has not been here in a while is probably crying out: Two hours to Choll?  By car?  What’s he been smoking?

Up until not so long ago a two hour drive to Choll was just not thinkable.  Driving there would have been a mad idea, requiring much more than two hours and only possible with a heavy duty four wheel drive vehicle, not the little Japanese sedan that we used. You went to Choll by boat, and until the advent of the fast speed boats, that was an all day trip.  Now you can drive there in an hour and a quarter (it took us a little longer since we missed a turn and had to back track a bit) because the Compact Road is now drivable.  That simple fact promises to have enormous consequences for Palau—political, economic, social, and even demographic.

Funded by a provision of the Compact of Free Association between Palau and the United States (an agreement that led to the emergence of the Republic of Palau as a sovereign and independent nation), the road runs right around Babeldaob, linking all its villages to Koror.  Building it led to those amazing archaeological discoveries which I mentioned in a previous letter.  Among the more interesting of those findings is that the historic settlement pattern of Babeldaob (coastal villages and a largely uninhabited interior) was preceded by a much more ancient pattern characterized by a densely populated interior.  The new road may well revive that ancient pattern, opening up vast tracts of land in the forests and grasslands of Babeldaob for house sites and farms.  Already the chiefs in several of the island’s states have begun giving out leases to interior land reachable by the Compact Road and its associated tributaries.  The road also may well lead to reversal of a more recent demographic trend. Over the last three decades the villages of Babeldaob, just like the Southwest Islands, have emptied out, as families have left to live in Koror, where the jobs, the government, the high schools and college, the hospital, and most of the commercial activity of the Republic are located.  As a result the town has become more and more crowded and housing ever tighter.  This is especially true in Eang, by the way.  With the Compact Road the possibility of commuting to Koror suddenly becomes an option.  Already many people drive in each day from homes in the southern end of Babeldaob, but now I’ve begun to hear of those coming in from much farther north.  Palau is a place where up to a few years ago the idea of spending a whole hour in a car was viewed with great discomfort (as it still is by many older people).  The pace of change here is amazing.  I remember the first car in Eang.  The guy who owned it (and all his passengers) treated it something like a canoe, carefully balancing its load so it wouldn’t capsize, before creeping off at a snail’s pace for downtown Koror.  Now the place is full of cars, coming and going on very narrow streets, dodging each other and searching for parking places. 

The impact of the Compact Road will be hard to separate from the impact of another major change that is due to happen on October 1 of this year: the transfer of all three branches of the government to a single, new, amazing, huge building in the state of Melekeok, halfway up the east side of Babeldaob.  The government is the major employer in Koror, and the movement of all those jobs to Melekeok is going to kick off some big changes.  Melekeok is a historic rival of Koror, leader of one of two confederations into which Palau was divided (Koror led the other) and home to one of the two highest traditional titles in Palau (Koror is home to the other).  Like many other port towns in the Pacific, Koror’s dominance during the colonial and postcolonial eras is due to the fact that it was lucky enough to be located at the best anchorage in these islands.  Such a location almost always led to political and economic dominance as local leadership was able to turn the increasing stream of foreign ships to its advantage.  Now Melekeok is attempting to right the balance with the assistance of the new road and the relocated government.

Not all the changes here flow from huge projects such as that new road or that new government building with its central dome and wings, high on a Babeldaob hill.  For example, the building of a new, modern mortuary has had a huge impact.  Being freed from the demands for a quick funeral imposed by a tropical climate, funerals have become larger and more elaborate as more and more time to choreograph them has become available.  In fact there is a strain of public opinion which seems to find this not a totally positive development as the expectations and expenses for funerals continue to inflate. More time for the dead person’s father’s relatives to put together money to give to the mother’s side and much more time for the mother’s side to assemble the vast amounts of food expected at funerals.   It is now not at all uncommon, for example, to delay a funeral until people can get here from the east coast and that’s the US east coast, not Babeldaob’s east coast.  Several people have remarked that this can be a huge waste of scarce money and that in the old days no one expected people to come from any farther away than Guam.
We have a very eventful weekend coming up.  The Tobi slide show in Eang, which I have been working on since I got here, is scheduled for Saturday night.  I hope the ship gets in before then because there are people on it who really want to see those pictures from the past.  (I’ll probably tell you all about it in the next letter.)  And then on Sunday night (actually 1:45 am Monday) Bobby leaves for home.  


Along with her worries that she will not be able to take a book onto the plane with her because of the security scare, she says she takes some good memories of her time in Palau.  North Beach Cottages, a place of silence, simplicity, and great beauty, is an especially good memory and we strongly recommend it to anyone visiting Palau.  And be sure to stop on the way there to check out the new government building in Melekeok.

Bestly Cards,

Rough seas in the Southwest
Rough seas in the Southwest (Sunny Williams)

Atoll Way: below decks
Atoll Way below decks (Sunny Williams)

Helen Reef
Stormy Helen Reef (Sunny Williams)

Aquarium View
Aquarium view

View from Aquarium
Another view from the aquarium

North Beach, Palau
North Beach

PWB at North Beach
Yes, it's me at North Beach

North Beach, Palau
North Beach

New Capitol Melekeok
The new capitol at Melekeok

Capitol Building, Melekeok
Capitol building

Port, Koror
The port in Malakal

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