Sunday, June 2, 2013

Palau? More like Palwow. A Four-Part Travel Adventure: Part 1: Background

Before Nick applied to his position in Guam, he actually applied for a Clerk of Court  position (clerkship) for the Supreme Court of Palau.  The Palau court began checking his references, but before they conducted a formal interview, Guam contacted, interviewed, and offered Nick a job, making the point moot.  However, we've always wondered what could have been, especially after reading blogs of past clerks, such as the excellent Pen Palau, written by a clerk who was there last term.

Guam, however, is a mere 2-hour flight from Palau.  It is rather expensive (typically $900) due either to low volume (the island receives about 100,000 total foreign visitors, or about 275 a day, about 2 moderate plane loads) or United's virtual monopoly on the route, at least from the U.S.  Luckily, Nick decided that we should get United credit cards prior to coming to Guam, giving us each a free roundtrip.  Further, we booked a dive trip through Guam's top dive shop, MDA, giving us a great deal overall.  So we headed off for a four-day trip over Memorial Day weekend.

First, some background.  Palau is an island nation in the Pacific, at about 7° N.  It is north of New Guinea, east of the Philippines, and southwest of Guam.  It is a series of limestone islands, the remnant of millions of years of coral growth atop a volcanic ridge.

The country consists of numerous islands, most of which are within a large barrier reef.  The total land area is 177 square miles, smaller than Guam.  About 20,000 people live on Palau, most of whom live in the state of Koror (14,000) and the city of Koror (11,200), which was until recently the capital.  In 2006, it was moved to the more-remote Melekeok on the large northern island of Babeldaob, in part to stimulate development of the northern island and in part because Taiwan paid to construct a lavish new capitol building there.

Historically, the islands of Palau have been populated for thousands of years.  During the pre-European period, the Palauans had a substantial trade with the island of Yap.  Yap is famous for giant stone money, or rai.  They actually obtained the stone from Palau, formed it, cut the holes in the center, use the hole to string the stones over a pole to facilitate carrying it, and ferried it back to Yap.

Seems inconvenient to us, but then so does the entire concept of giant stone money.
Unlike Guam, which encountered Europeans in 1521, Palau had their first sustained European contact in 1783, when the English ship Antelope, captained by Henry Wilson, wrecked off the coast.  The Palauans helped him rebuild, and he set off back to England, with the king's son in tow. The various European powers claimed Palau, but in 1885 the Pope (of course) ruled in favor of Spain.  Spanish administration lasted only until 1898 and was generally limited, but included a heavy influx of missionaries.  After losing the Spanish-American War and the Philippines, from which Spain administered Palau, Spain opted to sell the islands to the Germans.  The Germans also ruled for only a brief period, with the islands being seized by Japan early in World War I, but they had time to establish mining operations and, of particular significance to the diving community, blasted the aptly-named German Channel through the reef, creating a shipping lane and also a great dive site.

The Japanese, in turn, ruled through World War II, being a bit more involved than the previous powers, including establishing an exchange program for Palauan children to visit Japan annually.  During World War II, the United States Marines landed on the southern island of Peleliu, fighting a brutal battle leading to the deaths of 2,000 Marines and nearly 10,000 total casualties, against 10,000 dead Japanese, detailed in the excellent "With the Old Breed" by EB Sledge.  The bulk of the remaining islands were bypassed, lacking strategic value.  The need for the invasion itself has been largely considered unnecessary, particularly unfortunate given the tremendous loss and sacrifice involved.

After the war, the U.S. administered Palau as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific.  When the FSM and the Marshall Islands became independent in the 1970's, Palau voted against joining.  Palau eventually became independent in 1994, albeit remaining in free association with the United States.  This gives Palau access to certain funding from the U.S., grants its citizens the right to travel to and work in the U.S., while in return giving Americans similar privileges.  Further, the U.S. bears responsibility for the defense of Palau.  English is an official language, and the currency is the U.S. dollar.

The weather, like Guam, is tropical.  It never gets above 90 or below 70.  Rain is abundant year-round, totaling nearly 150 inches a year (by comparison, SE Michigan receives about a fifth of that).  Typhoons are rare, as the islands are too close to equator for consistent typhoon formation, owing to the Coriolis effect (look it up, we're not explaining it).  However, they are not unknown, and Typhoon Bopha hit Palau in December 2012.

Culturally, Palau remains relatively distinct and true to its historical roots, having been subject to far less outside interference than Guam, and for a shorter period of time.  While English is very widely spoken, most people still speak Palauan.  Palauan, incidentally, is, along with Chamorro, a language which is NOT related to other Micronesian or Polynesian languages, but rather appears to have an older derivation.  According to one of our guides, Palau has had the same culture for 4,000 years, while Guam has lost its culture.  While we cannot vouch for the total accuracy of such a statement, Guam is certainly much more Americanized and modern than Palau (or Saipan).  Perhaps there is some sense on the outer islands of the Northern Marianas, Palau, and FSM that Guam is a "sellout," and on Guam there is at least a bit of disdain exhibited towards the other islands, especially Chuuk.  From our experience, Chuukese are described in the same general manner that Europeans describe Roma (gypsies), in that they tend to get blamed for crime and backwards social practices.  We offer no opinion on the legitimacy of such claims, other than to note that such tension appears to exist.

Economically, the nation relies on two main sources of income: foreign aid (principally the U.S., but also Japan and Taiwan) and tourism.  Tourism in turn is driven by Palau's fantastic natural beauty.  At the confluence of at least three major currents, warm water, and a large barrier reef, Palau is the perfect place to find marine life of almost any type.  Sea turtles, tuna, marlins, rays, eels, dolphins, whales, and especially sharks are all present, in addition to the smaller, less-heralded but still amazing fish.  Further, it is home to a small population of shy dugongs (relatives of the manatee) and saltwater crocodiles.  

Dr. Dugong is the best dugong

Unlike Guam, it has numerous birds, as it has not been invaded by the dreaded brown tree snake.  While land-based animals are not nearly as impressive, there are some wild crab-eating macaques on one of the outlying islands, released and established accidentally.

In addition to wildlife, people come to view the incomparable Rock Islands.  These limestone islands are found all over the place.  The tops are covered in vegetation, particular trees, but the sides have been worn away by the ocean, leaving them to appear as large mushroom caps jutting out of the sea, with exposed overhangs at low tide.

Having this background information, we headed off ready to explore this remote island paradise.  In our next episode, we face down a saltwater crocodile, ancient stone faces, and oncoming traffic.  Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Oh read this was super interesting...I cant wait for the next installment!