Letter from Palau Number Three
June 14, 2006

Greetings from Room 3 of Lehns Motel.  I can’t get over how easy it is to stay in touch with family and friends.  It’s one of the biggest changes over the years and it makes my experience here really different than it was in ‘67 when I first arrived. 

Back in the day.  Snail mail was about the only way to stay in touch.  There was a radio telephone at the Catholic Mission that was available for emergencies. I never used it but went there with friends once or twice and got to see how it worked.  It was a slow, cumbersome system, using the short wave radio to contact a ham operator somewhere in the states who would then call the number you wanted to speak to and “patch you through.”  There were long delays in transmission, with big pauses between the time you said something and the time the person on the other end heard what you said and replied though the static. 

So you wrote (or didn’t write) and waited for an answer. I can almost feel that tissue-thin airmail paper, soggy and just about un-usable from heat and humidity (no aircon except in a few offices). There were two planes a week, so twice a week there was “mail day.”

Later that year I went to live on Tobi, where mail only came on the field trip ship, every 3 (or 4 or 5) months.  The ship would stay for half a day or so, so I had only a little time to get my mail, scan it, then add anything necessary to the letters I had ready to go out.  On the other hand I had months and months to get the next mail ready to go out.  Day after day of laboriously printing (a necessity given my handwriting) page after page on a lined tablet produced some truly mammoth letters. And when the generator clapped out and we ran out of batteries so there wasn’t any radio, then the reef around the island enclosed everyone I was in contact with.

Basically, at that time being in Palau really meant being out of touch.  Separations were much more difficult than they are now, I think, and not every relationship survived.  And it wasn’t only expatriates who were cut off in this way.  This was the time when more and more Palauans started “going out” to school, practically dropping off the face of the earth as far as their families here were concerned, being essentially unreachable most of the time. Now a $10 phone card gets you 28 minutes of clear as a bell conversation with anyone in the states.  Not to speak of text messaging, email, fax, etc.  It’s one of the first things we old timers talk about when we run into each other here. 

Of course there is a whole inventory of such topics, but those of us in the “active elderly” cohort have other things to do than sit around and remind each other about how things used to be.  For example, we can sit around and wonder why Palau has twice the rate of schizophrenia of other societies (about 2 percent of all Palauans over the age of 16, instead of the more usual 1 percent). That was the topic of the guest speaker at Wednesday’s Rotary meeting, a psychiatrist from the University of California San Francisco who is using the human genome project sequence to locate the genes that might account for this.  It was a great talk and generated an active discussion and lots of good jokes. The high rate in Palau has been known for quite a while and very detailed genealogies have been done of the families in which the illness tends to show up, so there is a good chance that this research might actually turn up something pretty important.  

An interesting moment: the President of the Club asked the psychiatrist what the club could do to help with this issue.  Give money to the Behavioral Medicine Unit at the hospital was the answer.  And then he went on to say that he didn’t think there were any homeless schizophrenics in Palau, unlike San Francisco and other places in the US.  Palauan society is already doing a pretty good job taking care of these often very difficult people. 

The guy I was sitting next to was wearing a really fine Rotary International shirt.  I’m going to try to get one, I think. His daughter almost won the raffle. But close only counts in horseshoes so there are now only 13 cards left in the deck and over $1100 in the kitty for next week.  The tension is building.
Oh yes, the hypothesis that psychiatrist was entertaining about the 2 percent figure is that since people with serious schizophrenia tend to withdraw from society they were less vulnerable to the big influenza and small pox epidemics which decimated Palau’s population in the early contact period and therefore proportionately more of them survived.  What do you think?

Speaking of researchers, I first heard about the “active elderly” in Bulgaria where Ilya Iliev (active but non elderly) had been looking at surveys of attitudes, and figured out that there was a demographically significant group of retired people who were still active in society and who differed from all other groups, including stay at home retirees, in their political and social opinions.  I wonder if that group exists in Palau and if so, how its opinions differ from other Palauans. If I remember correctly, those in Bulgaria seemed to have much more prosocial attitudes than any other group.  Of course the fact that I can’t remember for sure, when it was only a few months ago that he was telling Bobby and me about his research is evidence that in other ways active elderly are not all that different from the rest of the old folks.

By now it’s early Friday morning—very early in fact because a noisy group of Chinese speakers showed up out front at 3 am and I haven't been able to go  back to sleep.  I don’t know if they were tourists or an official delegation from Taiwan or people who are living and working here, but they sure talked loud as they hung around waiting for their rooms. It’s the day of the second quiz in my class.  People did ok on the first one, and I hope they do so again.  They will take it in the conference room of the Belau National Museum, because we are having a tour of the exhibits after the test.  The new building is really impressive and the exhibit of Palauan history through centuries of colonial experience (first Spain, then Germany, then Japan, and finally the USA) is just stunning.

I have a car now.  Cathryn Evanof loaned me a nice little Japanese sedan, and it has made a big difference.  I still walk to work and to the shops, but getting back and forth to Eang where the Tobians live is now much, much easier.  And I’m sure it won’t be long until I get used to shifting with the “wrong” hand, and stop turning on the wipers when I need to signal a turn.

I’ve agreed to pitch in at the Bureau of Arts and Culture which desperately needs an ethnographer to help on some of its projects.  I’ll start in for an hour or so a day on Monday.  Before then I have a first baby ceremony to go to on Sunday which I will try to remember to tell you about next week.  Also Dirk Ballendorf, who I’ve known since I first came to Palau because he was the Peace Corps Director here, is coming to Koror for the weekend.  He is now a Professor of Micronesian Studies at the University of Guam and it will be fun to see him.  Last Sunday it was a first birthday party for my Tobian brother Isauro’s latest grandchild and a fund raising party for Soty’s cousin Santolin who has been accepted to a summer program at Yale.  Weekends have always been fun here, but not always exactly restful.

This just in from the best internet researcher I know: According to the US Department of State the head of state and of the government of Palau is its president.  Also according to the CIA Factbook, Palau's own information and every other source I can find. 

I guess we can rest easy: Palau’s Head of State is not the President of the US.

See you next week.

Internet@Cafe Sign

Tobi Island Beach
Tobi Island

Tobi Island Village Scene
Tobi Island
Village Scene

Belau National Museum
Belau National Museum, Isauro Andrew & PWB

Bureau of Arts and Culture
Bureau of Arts and Culture

Fundraising Party in Eang
Fundraising party in Eang for Santolin

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