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Today started pretty early for me. I’ve still been wrecked by jet lag, so I was wide awake at 4am. I got to chat with a lot of people from home, though, since it was mid afternoon. Now, however, I am absolutely exhausted.

We got up and headed to the U.S. Embassy first thing this morning. The Embassy is brand new, as Palau only recently installed an ambassador to the U.S. a couple years ago. Ambassador Helen Reed Rowe was wonderful. We got to meet her and a few of her other staff members, take some fun pictures (we’re hoping to be in the papers!) and then chat about Palau. She asked all of us about ourselves, and shared her take on the current health care situation, as well as updating us on Palau’s economy and other important aspects of life here. She was a really smart and entertaining woman to talk to, and I was so grateful to have met her. She seemed thoroughly impressed by the work we were doing here, and she and her staff are looking forward to hearing about our findings. One of my favorite things she said today reminded me of our focus here, she said, “the US Air Force wanted to send doctors here to Palau. So, I asked the Minster of Health (Dr. Stevenson Kuartei, who we’re essentially doing the research for) what kind of doctors he wanted. He said that was great, but what he really wanted was to send a doctor from Palau to the United States, so he could learn and then come back and stay in Palau”. That’s the crux of our work here, I think. We don’t just want to come in, do our thing, tell them what to do, and then leave. We want to do work that will help us create meaningful solutions that the Palauans themselves will actually want to implement. That’s the only way we’ll change the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases that plague so many Palauans.

After the meeting with the ambassador, we had to head out to Ngerchelong, one of our study sites for the in depth interviews we’ll be conducting next week. It is a rural island pretty far out from the capitol city Koror, where we are staying (and 70% of the population is living). We broke up into three groups and each had an area of the region to map out; that is, we had to write down the location and description of every house in the area, as well as indicate whether or not they seemed to have a garden of some sort. Of course, while this was all happening it was pouring down rain, so our maps, notebooks, and ourselves were (and still are) soaked to the bone.

While mapping, we walked by one house where two people were standing outside. Obviously confused by what the heck we were doing outside in a monsoon with our maps and whiney dispositions, they asked us if we were okay and we tried to explain what we were up to. A few minutes later, they pulled up in their car and asked us if we were SURE we didn’t need help. We must have looked pretty pathetic. We told them we were okay, but they still pulled up beside us and checked in with us one more time before leaving us to our own devices. The generous and kind spirit of the locals here is truly incredible.

While my group members and I were pretty sure we were stranded and were going to have to start our own equivalent of Survivor: Palau 2, we successfully finished our area and were rescued by Leonard, a Palau local who came with us to help the teams with the mapping.

Leonard pulling up to the five of us sitting in the road, in the rain, looking miserable was like finding water in a desert. He put us in the bed of his truck, and while the rain whipped at our faces, he drove us down to this dock. The ocean was sprawled out before us as we watched 4 local boys play in the shallow waters and throw mud. We could see all the way out to the reef, and Leonard shared his experiences with local fishermen and fishing culture with us. He also talked to us about how coral bleaching and climate change was affecting life in Palau. Having this one-on-one time with such an interesting and helpful local was unexpected and really special. He then brought us to meet up with the rest of the group and we headed back towards Koror, wet and (for the first time since we’ve been here) freezing.

Our arrival back in Koror meant it was time for class discussion. Chad procured us a room at Palau Community College (PCC for short), which is basically across the street from our hotel. We headed over there and got to meet the Dean of PCC, who was excited for us to be there and, in true Palauan spirit, very kind and generous (though I believe he was originally from Hawaii). We had some really interesting chats about what we had seen and learned today from the ambassador and from the community mapping work. We talked about today’s assigned readings, as well; a selection from our book on the history of globalization, an explanation of Palau’s Compact of Free Association with the U.S., and Wallerstein’s analysis of the World Systems Theory. All very interesting. I had never heard of a Compact of Free Association before, which is Palau’s agreement with the U.S. since declaring their independence just 17 short years ago. Imagine, a country only 17 years old? I’m older than this country…weird.

We went to a Korean place for dinner, about 8 of us, and Chad and Kelly came too, which was fun. Dinner was pretty delicious, but I’m hoping for some variety soon. The tourist-friendly asian style cuisine is delicious, and could be a lot worse, but it gets old fast.

After dinner, I came back to the hotel room with intentions of doing tonight’s assigned reading, but ended up falling asleep. I woke up to a knock on our door, and Marshall told Morgan and I to come “look at something cool”. Of course, because it’s something cool, we obliged. We walked down the hall to another one of our friends rooms and when we entered, everyone (including Chad and Kelly) were there with a cake they had bought for me at a local bakery. They had candles in it, and had written “Happy Birthday Alex” across it in big gel letters. They all sang to me and I got to blow out the candles. Since my birthday was Sunday, the day we left Roanoke, I guess they had wanted to be able to celebrate with me. I was (and still am, as that was minutes ago) so moved by this. I am so lucky to be on this trip with some of the kindest and most thoughtful people that I have had the pleasure of meeting at Roanoke College. This experience has already been amazing, and so much of it is because of these great people. The weird antics in the vans on the way to our various locations, and the time we spend together acting strange and laughing as a group are already some of the most cherished memories that I have.

Now I’m getting all sappy, but seriously, these people are rockstars. So much fun, so positive, and so refreshing to be around.

Tomorrow is Peleliu day. We’ll be up early to take a long boat trip to the island of Peleliu, where one of the bloodiest Pacific battles of WWII took place. There are some amazing historical sites here, and we’ll also get to do some snorkeling, which I am just thrilled about. If I didn’t get in that water soon, there was going to be a crisis.  It will be nice to do some relaxed, tourist-y things before more intense interviewing and heavy research stuff comes down the pipeline.

I can’t wait to see how the next few weeks are going to unfold. It’s only been 3 days and I’m already so enamored with the people, places, and experiences of this strange little island country that no one’s ever heard of.

Morgan and I still search for real coffee.

Sulang,

a.

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"Experience, travel…these are as education in themselves."

- Euripides
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some images from the coconut battle on day 2. thanks Colleen for capturing these lovely pics :)

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First of all, you can see some pictures and stuff below (I uploaded some cool ones earlier!) from today’s adventures.

Morgan and I got about 3 hours sleep between the two of us (about 2.8 of which were mine) last night, but we still woke up today excited to check everything out in daylight. There are roosters and chickens everywhere…one particularly excited rooster made sure to let us know it was time to wake up…all morning starting at about 6 am.

The weather here is hot, the sun isn’t too brutal but the air feels like pure water, still. It’s not terrible, it feels pretty good actually, but just walking around Koror today for 45 minutes was enough to have Morgan and I pretty sweaty. We got up and headed out in search of coffee and a few groceries. We were pretty successful; there are plenty of little grocery stores within just a short walk of our hotel. We scoped out some cool looking restaurants (burgers, Korean, Thai, Indian…you name it) that we want to try, too. The locals are friendly and helpful here, and everyone has been really polite to us. We were able to get some cereal, granola bars, fresh fruit, and lots of Diet Coke, and everything was pretty cheap. The most expensive thing was cereal (about 5 bucks a box); soda and water were only 75 cents a can/bottle or so.

After much deliberation, no coffee. Anyone who knows Morgan or me knows that this is a problem. We kept walking with our groceries in tow, hoping that a Starbucks would appear among the palm trees. No such luck.

We walked by Palauan Community College, where we would be again later this afternoon for class time with Chad, our professor. When we were about to give up forever, Morgan had the brilliant idea to stop into a little gas station to see if they had any coffee. Among the plentiful cans of Budweiser and Natty Light were shining beacons in the darkness….cans of coffee. Having never seen coffee in a can, we examined our options and settled on one promising looking brand with “Pokka Milk Coffee, Real Brewed” printed on the front. From Singapore, I think. At about 75 cents a can, it was hard to say no.

Back at the hotel, we settled in to work on our homework for this afternoon and munch on some cereal. We cracked open our coffees nervously…but they were delicious, so we’ll definitely be living on those for the rest of the trip. We had another exciting moment this morning, too. I was chatting away with Morgan (working on this blog) when she says to me, “There’s a lizard on the wall!” Of course I freak out, and when we look over there is definitely a small lizard running amok around our hotel room. Morgan was on top of her game, though, and grabbed this small plastic container that was on top of our toilet (why, we have no idea) and quickly made attempts to trap him. While she was working on that, I ran down the hall to the boys’ room and asked them for help. Being boys, they were more than excited to offer their assistance. We successfully got the lizard out of the room, but we’ve learned that our door isn’t sealed at the bottom from the outside. So, more lizard invasions could be in our future. We stuffed towels in the doorway, though, and it seems to be working for now!

There is the CUTEST little cat that lives here at the hotel. Her name is Tiny Cat, obviously. Apparently there is quite the variety of animals here at the hotel. I’ve heard rumors of a parrot and a “walrus bird” on the third floor, a monkey in the backyard…and, of course, more chickens than Tyson would know what to do with. No wonder they serve eggs at every restaurant!

After our eventful morning it was time for lunch. Morgan and I met up with Colleen and Brooke and headed to Rock Island Café, a really cool lunch spot with good American, Filipino, Asian, and other cool food. Following lunch was a driving tour of the area, lead by the fearless Chad. He took us around Koror.

He showed us the hospital, where the Ministry of Health is (the Minister of Health is the dude we’re doing the research for, and we’ll present to him before we leave here). The water here is BEAUTIFUL. I had no idea I was going to be surrounded by palm trees and the most gorgeous blue water I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of palm trees….Morgan and I found a coconut when we stopped to check out the ocean on our tour. Chad, Kelly, and the rest of our companions on the tour had quite a laugh watching Morgan and I pry the darn thing open using our bare hands and a rock. We are both a little cut up from the adventure (Morgan has a nice coconut-paper cut and I think I have a coconut splinter), but we cracked the thing open and got to try the coconut! Spoiler alert: it tasted weird. Possibly not worth the effort. Then, Pablo, a local, saw our struggles and came over and grabbed us a coconut from a tree, peeled it open, and cut a hole in it so we could all try the coconut water. Pretty cool stuff. Pablo must think we’re all crazy. I also found a fish skeleton….weird stuff. Probably shouldn’t have touched it. Oops. Don’t worry Mom, I washed my hands!!

Also on the tour, we spotted a place where we can go swimming, that’s within walking distance. Making immediate arrangements to get there ASAP. After rinsing the dirt off from the epic battle with the coconut, and taking a really hardcore nap, it was time for class. Who knew we had to learn stuff while we were here? We talked about Bronislaw Malinowski, the first dude to really do the kind of ethnographical research that we are doing here in Palau, and went over some more of the logistics. We shared some of our initial impressions and potential fears. Then, a group of us went out for dinner—tonight we tried this really good Thai place. The food was pretty cheap and delicious. I had a shrimp and pineapple curry, if you were wondering. My shower tonight was icy cold, but it was nice to get my body temp down, and it helped the insane swelling of my feet a little, so there’s a brightside.

My total spider kill count is at 3 now, bringing my lifetime spider kill count to a whopping…3. Yes, overcoming my fear of (very small, unobtrusive) spiders is a work in progress and I’m darn proud of myself. In recent history, upon a spider sighting I would just cry and beg someone else to do the dark deed, but hey, I’m taking charge. Go me.

Now, it’s time to get the readings done for tomorrow and get some much needed shuteye. Tomorrow morning we’ll go to meet the U.S. Ambassador to Palau (can’t believe I’m actually typing that), and then head to a rural neighborhood at the very tip of the Palauan islands (Ngerchelong) to do some community mapping for our research.

Then, we’ll have class time again. I definitely miss some stuff about home already; my family, Dunkin Donuts, my comfy bed and shower, that kind of stuff. But giving up Dunks and a more comfortable bed hardly seems like a terrible price to pay to be in such an amazing place doing some really cool work. More adventures are on the way!

Until tomorrow,

a.

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beautiful ocean views from our tour on day 2. yeah, it kinda doesn’t suck here.

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tiny cat, our new friend at the hotel. a burger place, and some delicious canned coffee. findings from day 2.

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travel started bright and early on Sunday, May 13th (my birthday and mother’s day! sorry i couldn’t be with ya, mom). Morgan (my sorority sister and best friend who is with me in Palau, along with 13 other students) and i woke up at her house in Richmond at 5 am so we could begin the trek to Richmond with her wonderful parents. it was a long drive, followed by a short flight to atlanta. i’d never been to atlanta, and i spent all of maybe 20 minutes in the airport, but it seems lovely. then it was time for the colossal flight to tokyo—about 14 hours total.

the flight was long and tedious, but smooth and uneventful. i watched four movies; the change up (jason bateman and ryan reynolds make for great eye candy but it was sort of dumb), something borrowed (so adorable), bad teacher (dumb), and shawshank redemption (easily my best choice, i’d never seen it and it was incredible). we had a reading assignment and journal entry (we have to do them every day and they are graded, basically reading responses) to do on the plane so that passed the time. they fed us three meals, none of which were particularly delicious or awful. those lucky individuals in first class had these awesome looking pods they could sleep in…jealous is an understatement.

finally, we were in tokyo. we flew over a huge golf course and lots of rice paddies, so it was pretty cool to see. it was the middle of the day in tokyo, so it was light out and there was lots to look at. we headed over to our gate for palau and boarded pretty quickly. holy guacamole, i was getting nervous.

the 5 hour flight to palau went by fast. they served another meal, supposedly, but i slept almost the entire flight. well, slept and ate sour patch kids. as we were landing, i kept wondering where the heck the plane was going. i saw nothing but darkness until the wheels hit the tarmac and we pulled up in front of a small (seriously small) airport. oh, hello palau.

the air was so warm, and breathing here feels like you’re literally breathing in pure water vapor. some wonderful people from the hotel met us off the plane (after immigration and customs). they took all of our suitcases and loaded them into the back of a flatbed truck. a nice palauan man sat in the back of the flatbed with our bags, and the truck drove off. now…how were we going to get there?

my fears put aside when two vans pulled up. we all piled into them. kelly, the other “grown up” who is accompanying us aside from chad, pulled into the front left side of the van. “oh, kelly, are you driving?” i asked her. “no…….?” she laughed. confused, i looked around the front of the van. there was no steering wheel in front of kelly! the van’s actual driver, a wonderful woman who works at the Guest Lodge, hopped into the right side of the van and we pulled away from the curb. woah. good thing i don’t have to drive here! thus was my first “other side of the car but not the road” driving experience. 

we arrived here at the hotel just a few hours ago. morgan and i spent some time fretting over the internet (which is slow and finicky, but exists) and then we unpacked. our hotel room is old, nothing fancy, but clean and will definitely suit our needs!

i guess now is the time where we try to sleep. it’s 2 am in palau on tuesday morning…considering i left at 5 am on sunday, it feels like a 48 hour day!

also, as i write this, this weird nightlight/flashlight thing that morgan’s mom sent us just exploded. there may or may not have been flames. 

tomorrow morgan and i will hunt for coffee and brave the grocery store, then have class/orientation time with the rest of the group!

wish us luck!

sulang,

a. xo

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"What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road."

- William Lest Heat
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me (and my brother!) celebrating my 20th birthday just a few days before my departure!

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my attitude as i embark on an adventure of a lifetime in palau, a small island nation near the phillipines and 2,000 miles south of tokyo. i’ll be up at 5am to prepare for the 29hour journey.

sulang,

a xo