In 1999 I was once again fortunate to be selected to do a World Bank project in Palau. The Y2K problem was a big issue and there were fears that whole countries might have significant problems unless they planned for replacement of critical systems that might fail as a result. Palau was the place I was lucky to draw amongst Vietnam, Samoa and other Pacific nations.
Koror and around
This is the kind of sunset you get most days in Palau. Looking to the South China Sea towards Hong Hong. The average DAILY rainfall is 10 mm. A drought is 5 days without rain. I loved the weather – 26-34 degrees each day and 60-80% humidity. Sunsets were always good and you could see a long way on a good day.
It was hard to imagine that this island is so far away from everything. During WWII it was a strategic location for both Japan and the Allies because it was the only place where airstrips could be built for hundreds of kilometres.
This is where the traditional council meetings were (and sometimes still are) held. Palau is a modern country that understands its past better than most. The traditions are Micronesian but have similarities to the Melanesian ones I saw in Papua New Guinea.
There is a long history of population in these islands, even though they are not easily accessed by sea. Nearby islands have a history of cannibalism, much the same as many other areas of the Pacific.
The local name for the set of islands is Belau. It is closer to the way it is said aloud. Babeldaub is the biggest island but Koror has the most population living there.
Stone money is used in other islands but on Palau they used a different type. It looks like jewellery made of shells but the items are very rare and valuable.
This is what it looks like inside the hut. Women have an important part in society. They effectively own the land and have a say in what happens at council. Men have a role that traditionally involves hunting and warfare. These days, hunting involves getting out in a motorised boat and spear fishing.
Thanks to the generosity of the local school and a good word from the Vice President, Tris was able to go to school in Palau and accompany me on the final phase of my work. Highlights for him were playing soccer and the food provided at lunchtime. Possibly also the credibility boost from being the best at maths.
Kids do what is natural in the tropics. As well as climbing trees, chasing piglets in the mangroves and drinking coconut milk were the thing to do after school. Then it was a swim in the pool, food and cartoon network on the satellite TV. There was no chance of stopping any of them climbing the coconut palms so nobody does. They are safer there than in most cities anyway.
This is where the President and the other representatives of the Government meet. Palau has a parallel Republican Government with the traditional council of chiefs. Each arm of Government has its overlapping role. It was possible to just go in and sit there. Nobody minded at all.
We were fortunate to be able to go for a long sea kayak tour of the Rock Islands. Margie ran one of the nicest restaurants on the islands and let us use the family beach to sleep overnight. There were plenty of sand crabs to keep us awake at night but sleeping on the beach is quite comfortable when the overnight temperature drops to a low 26 degrees C. Daytime temperatures are always around 32 degrees.
Dean and Carla were with us on the kayak trip. Both had come to Palau as part of the youth aid program from the USA. Seen here at Margie’s Beach. Dean was a locally engaged consultant to help with preparations for Y2K. I enjoyed the time I spent with these people and would love to go back there again soon.
Liz was also with us and was part of the team working on the Y2K response in Palau, on behalf of the World Bank. There was a weekend in the middle of our work and we took the opportunity to kayak. The Rock Islands are completely surrounded by the coral reef and are quite safe for kayaking, even though it is in the middle of the Pacific. About the only problem is tiger sharks near the reef itself.
There we are kayaking. I was resting in the shade and Tris was about to go snorkelling. Liz took this photo. On a previous visit I had joined a party that kayaked about 80 Km on a weekend. I have memories of a jellyfish lake where the jellyfish had evolved to have no sting because they have no predators. I saw giant clams. I also saw the dead coral caused by global warming.
View along Margie’s Beach. This is a very peaceful place but is often visited by power boats taking tourists to the islands. Kayaking is the best way I know to travel. It is hard to know whether the standard tourism here is good or bad. It is not very considerate of the natural environment. Locals still have the right to hunt sea turtles that are an endangered species. The clash between globalisation and local customs is quite evident.
The Pacific Paradise Resort is a popular place to stay for foreign tourists. It is a nice place to visit but I preferred to stay in a more ‘local’ place. This spot overlooks the place where Japanese shipping was anchored during WWII. The many (over 100) sunk ships around the island are one of the attractions for diving.
It is not hard to see the message form this sign. It is outside the hospital on Koror. The USA Government pays Palau about $45 million a year to use the air and naval bases. The population of Palau is about 30,000. This means that the USA is responsible for most of the cash economy in Palau. Something like 60% of the economy is subsistence, but that is a bit misleading because subsistence is actually going out in a motor boat and fishing.