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.