Letter from Palau Number One
June 3, 2006

Greetings from Palau’s DW Motel.  It’s my first morning here, after a journey that began in Yellowstone National Park and then led back to Virginia for a quick nap and change of clothes before ending in Koror last night.  Jet lag means I can’t figure exactly how many hours it took me to get here, but it sure seemed like forever. I don’t know when I will get on line to send this but since I can’t sleep I’ll work on this introductory letter in which I will say just a few words about Palau and about my project here.  First though, I’ll let you know what I have in mind for these letters.

As part of my Rotary International University Teaching Fellowship I will be sending out a message like this every week during my stay in Palau. So far there are probably around one hundred names on the distribution list.  Some are Rotarians; others are scholarly colleagues, students, family, and friends—Palauans, Americans, Bulgarians, and others.  Rotary International is a service organization with a strong people to people focus, and those of us fortunate enough to be supported by it are encouraged to do what we can along that line—thus these letters, in which I will try to keep you informed about what it’s like for a retired American anthropology professor to spend the summer in Palau.

The Republic of Palau is a small island state located in the Western Pacific, southwest of Guam and east of the Philippines.  One of the world’s newest countries, it retains very close ties with the United States, which administered these islands under a United Nations Trusteeship prior to independence. The population of Palau (or Belau as it is known in the language spoken by its inhabitants) is approximately 20,000 people. The land area is about 190 square miles. Rightly famous for its spectacular reefs and the lush beauty of its many islands, Palau is home to a rapidly developing tourist industry.  Most people live in Koror, the capital.  And that is where Palau Community College, where I start teaching next week, is located.

Rotary Grants for University Teachers are designed to strengthen colleges and universities in low income countries while building international understanding. There is also a strong community development focus to these grants. Here is a summary of what I expect to be doing (please excuse the rather official sounding prose, which I adapted from something I wrote for Rotary International):

My primary assignment is in Palau Community College, where I will teach an anthropology course: Peoples and Cultures in the Pacific.  Due to this year’s abbreviated semester, which runs from June 5 to July 5, the course will be compressed and material will be covered intensively.  The course schedule calls for daily meetings of two hours on each weekday. I have agreed to work with PCC faculty and staff on development of an anthropology degree program for the college.  This will involve planning, curriculum development, faculty and staff development, resource identification, and development.  Most of this work will be done in July and August.

Map showing Palau & the Western Pacific (CIA 1995)

Map of Palau
Map of Palau (CIA 1994)

Rock Islands, Palau
Rock Islands

Along with my work at the college I will also work on several projects involving the people of Tobi Island, a minority population in Palau.  In addition to teaching during June, and in consultation with members of the Tobian community, I will carry out these interrelated projects during the remainder of my stay.  These projects will benefit from the participation of my wife Bobby (Barbara), who is highly skilled in web design and content management.  Since 1999, she and I have been building a comprehensive ethnographic and community building website called Friends of Tobi Island (FOTI) http://tobi.gmu.edu/.   Each of the projects is related closely to the website in its twin roles as communication tool and as repository of cultural knowledge and linguistic expression.  Bobby plans to spend several weeks working with me in Palau during July. The projects include the development of a public health page for FOTI, and a website for the Hatohobei (Tobi) State Government, as well as continuing work on the preservation of Ramari Hatohobei, the language of Tobi.

As I pursue these projects I will also be working to help facilitate positive relations between the Tobian community and the larger Palauan society in which it is embedded as a minority group.  Here my connection to Rotary should prove, I think, especially useful. 

Now I think I had better say a word or two about me, since many of the recipients of this letter are new acquaintances.  I first came here in 1967 for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and then returned in 1972 to do a year of dissertation field work on Tobi Island for a degree in anthropology. Over the years since then I have made a number of trips to Palau, for short periods of research.  I retired a year or so ago from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where I was a professor of anthropology. This is my second summer teaching at PCC—the first was in 2000, when I taught introductory anthropology.  I have a son, James, and Bobby and I have a Palauan foster daughter, Soty, who I just heard is coming by for dinner tonight.

So, what’s it like being back in Palau?  Same jet lag, same heat and humidity, same rooster crow in the morning, quiet murmuring voices, tropical smells and colors.  By now, it’s late afternoon and the day has been filled with phone calls to old friends, a breakfast with Joe Tutii Chilton and his wife Baklai (he teaches social science at PCC and has made all the arrangements for my course, she works on the Palau Olympic Committee) and a quick visit with Soty’s father, Nixon.  Looking ahead toward the coming week, I need to find an apartment to rent and a car to drive.  I have one or two leads and tomorrow I’ll see what I can dig up. Last night, even before getting to the motel, I stopped by the Belau National Museum where a quiet farewell party for a couple of visiting volunteers was wrapping up.  I had a chance to eat a bit of taro and some great taro soup and to meet some old friends.  It’s good to be back.

Don’t want to receive any more of these letters?  Just send me a message asking to be taken off the list.

Palau Community College

Palau Community College

Tobi Island
Tobi Island
(Sunny Williams)

Soty Patris & Quentin Andrew
Soty & her brother, Quentin

Peter W. Black
Me in 1968
(Jeff Boal)

Palau's lushness
Palau's lushness

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