Letter from Palau Number Two
June 7, 2006

Greetings from Room 55 at Palau Community College where I’ve just finished the notes for a lecture for my upcoming class and many thanks to all those who sent responses to that first letter.  It’s great hearing from so many people but since Internet connections here at the college are very slow I’m afraid my replies have been pretty telegraphic, for which I apologize. Terseness is a solely a function of band width.

People at the college have been very welcoming and supportive, from the President, Patrick Tellei, and Dean, Alvina Timarong, to the folks in the library, bookstore, dorms, etc. My office mate and partner in crime, Joe Chilton, has been especially helpful.  And it’s a lucky thing that our tastes in music overlap, like emancipation songs.

My class, which has been taking up most of the waking hours not otherwise occupied in simple self-maintenance, is turning out to be an interesting experience.  Of course, even way over here I can hear that big horse laugh from friends at George Mason—after all, I’m the guy that proclaimed “First Day of Summer School” to be the five worst words in the English language.  All I can say is that I am really enjoying this challenge. Maybe it’s because, unlike at GMU, everyone in the room really wants to be there, at least as far as I can tell.

The seven students taking the course span a wide range of ages and experience: six Palauans and one from Kosrae (one of the Federated States of Micronesia, probably 2500 miles to the east); two PCC vocational arts instructors trying to finish up their bachelors degrees, two employees of the Belau National Museum, one of whom has a Masters in Anthropology from New Zealand where she studied with my old friend Karen Nero, and a couple of young women working on their associates degrees.  The book I’m using is too technical by half for most of the people in the group, but full of descriptive material about societies all over the Pacific, which gives us lots of material for really interesting “compare and contrast with Palau” discussions.  The first quiz is today, always an acid test for a new course.

I had planned on staying in the dorm, but Sebas Marino managed to turn up a studio apartment I can (just about) afford.  I moved in a couple of days ago, and once I manage to lay my hands on some pots and pans I can start feeding myself.  It is in a motel called Lehns (a name made up of the first letters of the names of the children of the owner) and its located in Ngerbeched, one of the prettiest parts of town, quiet and lushly tropical, and easy walking distance from the college and the rest of the town center.  There’s a patio in back, looking out over the taro fields where a cat and a cockatoo hang out, and the owners, Moses and Lily, can be found early in the morning ready to share a cup of coffee and talk about old and new times in Koror.  Moses is the publisher of Tia Belau, the local newspaper, and he has been threatening to send a reporter by to interview me. We’ll see.  He and Lily were part of the group that started Rotary in Palau, but are no longer active Rotarians.  So they weren’t there on Wednesday in the Penthouse Restaurant, when I attended my first Rotary meeting in Koror, thanks to an invitation from incoming President Risong Tarkong.

In many ways it was like the two Rotary meetings I attended in Burke, Virginia at Brian’s Grill.  That’s where the Burke Rotary Club (part of District 7610), which is my sponsor, meets every week. Good fellowship, rapid fire movement through an agenda (for an academic it was an absolute revelation that you didn’t have to spend half an hour reviewing minutes before you could even get started), a drawing, a system where those with good news etc. paid a bit of money before speaking, fines for being late, lots of jokes, same paraphernalia of banners and plaques (but Koror’s club has nothing like the very elegant podium built by one of the Burke Rotarians).  In other ways, the Virginians and the Palauans put on really different meetings.  Here in Koror, they sing at their Rotary meetings, and I don’t remember them doing that in Burke.  And they wait until the guest walks in the door before they tell him he is the guest speaker. Of course they only ask for five minutes, so after I got over the surprise, it was no problem.  And the drawing is for serious money as well as for all kinds of donated small prizes.  It was lots of fun, there were one or two people there I already knew, people did seem interested in my project, and the food was great.  I definitely plan on going back next week.  The guest speakers (I hope they remember to tell them beforehand) will be two policewomen who have just returned from temporary duty in East Timor.  And the money in the pot is now over $1000.

I would like to try to give you some sense of what Koror and Palau are like, but it’s not easy.  There is just so much energy in the place. Every time I come back here I am blown away by changes I could never have expected.  For example there are lots and lots of SUVs roaring up and down the streets now, many more than even there were in 2004 when I was last here.  But there are also, and this is new, many people riding bikes. 

Palau imports cars (mostly used) from both Japan and the US.  So about half the cars on the road are right hand drive and the other are left hand drive.  It used to not make that much difference, since the roads were so bad that people were driving on both sides and the middle as they navigated around pot holes (some of which were so big as to be famous). But now the roads are in really good shape, and I am finding it a bit disconcerting to look at an oncoming Pathfinder and see no one sitting where the driver “should” be.  Nor do I think I will ever be able to figure out which is the passenger door when I’m walking up to that same Pathfinder, with its heavily smoked windows.  I’m always going to the wrong door. I don’t have a car of my own to use yet, but there is a chance I’ll be loaned one this weekend.  Or maybe I’ll borrow a bike. I wonder if the increase in bike traffic is related to the appearance of granola on various breakfast tables around town.  Or maybe it has to do with the improvement in the road surfaces.  In 2000 when I was here some friends from Hawaii came with bikes and planned on riding back and forth to work but flying mud, dust, heat, and swerving cars discouraged them.  Or maybe it’s the price of gas, which is through the roof.

Here’s something else that’s new (at least to me).  The President of the US is Head of State of Palau.  Or so says the encyclopedia I was looking at the other day. No one I asked around here had ever heard such a thing, and no one thought it to be a very good idea either.  Perhaps it’s just a factoid held over (in the world of encyclopedias if nowhere else) since the days Palau was administered by the US under an UN mandate.  At least I hope so.  When you think of the people who end up as American Presidents, it’s hard to think Palau couldn’t do better on its own.

Time to stop.  See you next week.

PS.  If you would like to receive the first of these letters, let me know.  If you don’t want to receive any more of them, let me know.

Joe Chilton at PCC
Joe Chilton
at PCC

PCC Class
My class
at PCC

Lehns Motel, Koror, Palau
Lehns Motel

View from Lehns
View from Lehns

Rotary Club of Palau
Rotary Club
of Palau

Traffic & Parking at PCC
Traffic & parking at

Back to Letters from Palau