Palau – Islands on the Edge (2011) Part One

[As part of my blog I am posting stories from my past travels.  These are edited, augmented, versions of email stories I sent to friends and families, or in some cases meant to send but were never completed.  They are at times supplemented with information from my diaries and/or memories.  This trip to Palau was one of my last before I started carrying a baby on board and joined the Foreign Service.  It was a trip in which I pushed up against my comfort zone (swimming in the ocean with a twist), bent to convention (signing up for lots of tours – because the nature of the islands make it nearly impossible to get to places on your own unless you have your own boat – and realized what things I might be too old for (like running after Taylor Swift in the Manila Airport during transit–I did not do it in case you were wondering. I only thought about it.]

19. placid Palauan waters

The incredibly stunning and calm waters of Palau

“The Caroline group includes, besides coral islands, five mountainous islands of basaltic formation, beautiful and fertile with rivers and springs…They look very picturesque as you approach them, with the white shining sands of the beach in the foreground dotted with their queer-looking canoes; then the cocoanut [sp]palms, lifting their tufted feathery heads seventy or eighty feet in the air, the long drooping leaves of the pandanus trees, and the dark, shining foliage of the bread-fruit, while beneath all one can here and there catch glimpses of thatched huts of the natives.  With a closer inspection, however, the beauty vanishes, and the barrenness and isolation of the island are realized.  The heat is intense, and there are heavy languor and lifelessness in the air, which is heavy with the odors of decaying vegetation and the rancid copra, as well as the odor which seems inseparable from heathenism…To establish protectorates over any of these groups must be purely philanthropic work—a laying up of treasure in heaven for there will certainly be none to lay up on earth.” —Harper’s Weekly, November, 20 1900

Palau.  A string of small sun-kissed islands in the Western Pacific Ocean.  Who wouldn’t want to visit?  Certainly not the author of this Harper’s Weekly article over 100 years ago!!  Funny, how our visions of far-flung tropical islands (and heathenism) have changed.   I suppose if more than just a few die-hard divers, WWII history buffs, and Asian honeymooners knew the place existed (and I am none of the above), I expect many people would like to make their way there.   Yet these days even many guidebooks seems to have given up on Palau.  Perhaps a decade and a half ago I had myself a Lonely Planet guidebook to Micronesia.  I was going to visit Guam and had visions of myself soon after somehow making my way to these other difficult to reach islands.  That did not happen.   But it must not only have happened to me because Lonely Planet no longer makes a guide book to Micronesia.

4. sunset at hotel

Sunset view from my hotel

I had a number of reasons to visit Palau.  I love visiting different countries and cultures.  But I do have a particular interest in the South Pacific after spending 6 months in Hawaii as a visiting fellow and then visiting the Cook Islands and Samoa in 2004.  I am not quite sure when Palau came on my radar – but it was sometime after 2004, just 10 years after Palau’s independence from the United States, after 47 years in trusteeship status.  Just a few years ago I started thinking I would really like to visit Palau, but it seems a long way from anywhere.  Unlike Hawaii, which, although it is the world’s most remote island chain in the sense of distance,  is connected to many places by daily flights, Palau has but a few flights a week, some only by charter, from Manila, Guam, Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei.  Although it is perhaps closest to Indonesia (they share a maritime border!) there are no air connections between the two countries.

I love that Palau is home to the longest river and second largest island in Micronesia.  And amazingly enough there are bridges between several of the main islands!  I find this extraordinary in the Pacific.  Also the famed Rock Islands, featured in multi-years of my National Geographic Islands calendars, are here.

Another interesting tidbit about Palau is that in 2009 the country offered asylum to the 20 Uyghurs held at Guantanamo.  Eight took them up on the offer (and on my first day a guide took me by the apartment where they all supposedly reside.  According to the guide, they are all “very nice”.)  Several months later the US offered Palau something along the lines of $240 million in long-term assistance and in September 2010 the first permanent U.S. Ambassador to Palau started work.  Previously, the US Ambassador to the Philippines also covered Palau.

Palau is different.  Most flights arrive in the darkness.  Mine landed right on schedule at 2:05 am.   Despite that, I noticed something was off as soon as I got into the car to take me to my hotel.  My driver got into the right side of the car, but we also drove on the right side of the road…  Uh, what?  When I asked him why he was driving on the wrong side of the road he said he was not.  So I asked him why his steering wheel was not on the other side of the car.  Turns out, a majority of the vehicles in Palau are from Japan.  i.e. for the Japanese market.  Though the traffic patterns of Palau are those of the US.  I found this confusing because well, the Philippines is perhaps Palau’s closest neighbor (though parts of Indonesia might be just as close, there are no direct flight connections) and they manage to have their steering wheels and their lane directions matched up.  But this is just one of Palau’s many idiosyncrasies.

17. german consulate

Clothing store downstairs and the German Consulate upstairs.  Old school representation in Palau

Like when I went into a souvenir shop and looked at the postcards.  First, the selection was really limited.  But then I noticed that some of the cards were not even of Palau!  I noticed three cards were of Yap, Micronesia.  Okay, I guess that is relatively close by, but it is a different country, the Federated States of Micronesia.  And then I noticed a card that showed an aerial view of a village.  I picked it up to look at it closer – and thought there was far too much land visible for it to be of any island in Palau or Micronesia.  And, wait, the houses looked European.   What?  I turned it over and the card information was not in English, but I noticed the words C. Krumlov.  Oh my goodness.  I have been to Cesky Krumlov.  It is in the Czech Republic!  Why in the world would they sell a postcard of the Czech Republic in Palau?

I had only a few things planned for my first day.  Buy sunblock, get my watch battery replaced (it died the day before I flew to Palau), arrange a few tours, and take a walking tour of Koror.  The live-in-manager of the hotel, Maisa, drove me down to the main shopping center in Koror around 10 am.  (well, at 10:15 am she told me she wanted to leave at 10 am! – but hey, I got a free lift to town).   I browsed through the supermarket to check out what was available, had my watch batter replaced (check) and bought the sunblock (check).  Then I decided to talk a walk around town.  Funny, but that morning as I looked out from the hotel balcony, to see swaying palms and the crystalline sea, I thought, “I could live here”.  After about 10 minutes of walking in the blazing heat, along the main road lined with nondescript buildings, I thought, “there is no way I could live here.”

Koror reminded me of Suva, Fiji, and even parts of Hawaii.  Blessed with beautiful blue skies, warm trade winds, palm trees, and stunning vistas across clear aquamarine seas – but cursed with ugly, functional concrete block architecture.  Maybe it is a result of so many WWII battles being fought in the Pacific that so many of the buildings resemble bunkers? Tall, often colorfully painted, bunkers.

I had a delicious lunch at an Indian restaurant staffed by Filipinos before calling Maisa to come and pick me up.   She let me know that she had arranged a river tour for me that afternoon and they would be picking me up in about 40 minutes.  I was thrilled.

The River Tour was great!  First, on the way there, the self-employed Polish couple from Chicago with whom I shared a pick-up service regaled me with their hilarious tales of tourism in Palau.  When asked how long they would stay in Palau they said 2 months – but so far it was three weeks and they wryly said they were not sure how much longer they would stay.  They said that Palau is odd because it thrives on tourism and yet is not very helpful to tourists.  There are few, if any, maps available.  Many tourist sites have no signage.  For example, they told me how they tried 3 times to visit the Crocodile Farm.  The first 2 times they went it was closed.  So, on the third try they called the place at 8:30 am to ask their opening hours and were told until 11 am that day.  But when they showed up an hour later it was locked up tight!  So they parked the car, scaled the fence, and took a look around themselves!  They also told me when they arrived and the immigration officer asked them how long they were staying, he laughed and asked them “what are you going to do here for that long?”  They loved my story of the postcards!

9.

I am quite sure I would never grow tired of seeing tropical flowers

Once at the river boat tour site we had an opportunity to hold a juvenile fruit bat and a baby crocodile.  I think fruit bats are cute.  I really do!  Their faces look like puppy dogs.  It is just when they spread their leathery wings and reach out with their clawed toes that things start to get a bit scary.  Still, I held him as he pawed my shirt, then licked and nipped my hand.  Until the nipping got a bit too hard.  However, better than the little crocodile, which I dropped as soon as he started to squirm…

So, yes, there are crocodiles in Palau!  I was rather surprised myself.  As part of preparing myself for snorkeling in Palau, I googled “sharks in Palau” and came across some articles about the crocodiles, which some divers seemed a little concerned about.  I know I certainly became concerned as well.  I get that the Philippines and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have crocodiles – they have some fairly large islands – but the little islands of Palau, a minimum of 400 kilometers from anywhere?  However, an online search of the worldwide habitat of saltwater crocodiles revealed that they were in fact in Palau.  Though there has not been an attack, at least a fatal attack, on a human being since the 60s.  That attack turned the Palauans against the crocodiles, nearly wiping out the island population.

While meandering down the river we saw only one crocodile.  On the way down river, we saw him sunning himself on the bank, on the way back he swam up to the boat.  Otherwise there was little to see along the river – a few birds and fruit bats, but mostly lush green vegetation on either side.  It was quite relaxing.  The tour was supposed to last around an hour, but I think our guide took at least twice as long.  Time seemed unimportant.  There was no hurry.

Back at the hotel, the owner told me that she would be going to the supermarket at 6 pm and I could join her.  I told her it was already 6:10 pm.  That’s Palauan time.  Her friend ended up taking me at 7:30!

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