Palau – Islands on the Edge (2011) Part Two

On my second day I was signed up for a snorkeling tour in the Rock Islands including a visit to Jellyfish Lake.  I was just a tad apprehensive about the jellyfish bit, but had no time to think on it.  Best for me not to think too much.  The first stop was at a Japanese Zero, submerged where it crashed in WWII, just 10 feet beneath the surface.  At first we just stopped to look at it, but one of the guests asked if we could snorkel there and after just a few seconds of hesitation, and a quick scan at the sea, our guide said “Sure, why not?”  The others quickly threw on their fins and masks and jumped in.  I was a bit slower – I am always hesitant before jumping in the sea.  But once I was in, it was, of course, really cool.  And it was my first chance to test out the underwater camera a friend from work had loaned me.

32. mimicking mudmen

Hamming it up with the mud ladies

We continued on to an area called Rainbow Reef for snorkeling – and it was stunning, like swimming in an aquarium.  Then on to the “milky way” where the limestone mud just a few feet below the surface of the water is supposed to have therapeutic properties.  We all slathered up and then washed it off with a dip in the crystal clear waters.  Then it was on to Jellyfish lake.

Many, many thousands of moons ago, Jellyfish Lake was open to the ocean.  Over time it became closed off and a species of jellyfish became enclosed and isolated inside the lake.  With no predators, over time, they evolved to no longer have a sting.  Our boat docks at Eil Malk island and we walk up a small staircase trail and then down again to a dock jutting out into the saltwater lake.  “Ok,” our guide says, “go ahead and get in and swim out in that direction and we will swim with the jellyfish.”  Right.  I stare at the water.  I am not the only one of the group just staring at the murky green water, where underneath the surface teem millions of rumored-to-be-sting-free jellyfish.  Oh, and possibly a crocodile.  Thanks Tour Guide for that wonderful story about the crocodile sightings here at the lake.  I jump in and start swimming.

79. jellyfish

Surrounded!

Perhaps ten or fifteen feet in I see my first jellyfish and my instinct is to jerk back and dart in another direction.  I swim around it. But then I see two.  And then five.  And then more and more and more.  No turning back now.  I reach out and touch one.  Nothing.  It feels like thick, flexible latex.  It slides benignly along my hand and away.  I am giddy.  All of us are giddy.  We swim among them.  Through the swarm.  It is amazing.  I completely, well almost completely, forget there might be a crocodile lurking in the depths ready to take me down.  After half an hour or more we swim back to the entrance point and return to our boat.  Once settled and ready to move on to our lunch area, we spot a moon jellyfish floating in the water.  I want now to reach out and touch it and it takes a moment to realize we are back in the real world where jellyfish are not our friends.

It was lunch time and we headed out once again in the boat.  Our stop was a small, flat, palm covered islet.  From the small beach, the drop off is steep and quick.  Maybe 30 to 50 feet deep within 10 feet of the  shore.  Several beginner scuba diving classes were in progress when we arrived.  After lunch I ventured into the water.  This was a big deal.  Our guide had called it Shark Island or something like that.  If you know me at all, you know that I have an irrational fear of sharks and the ocean.  I know it is irrational but I have the fear all the same.  When I was five years old my parents took me (and my younger siblings) to see the movie Jaws.  Apparently I had been hounding my mother for weeks on end to see it.  So she did, and I had nightmares for weeks, maybe months afterwards.  [I used to think my mother was half crazy to do this but now that I have a 4 ½ year old child myself, I completely get it].  It complicates matters that I wear glasses and once they are off, as they are for snorkeling, I cannot see all that well.

43. sharks

Sharks just below me — unclear due to being underwater and not my my shaking or anything

So there I am in the water, halfheartedly paddling about, trying very hard to appear at ease, while pushing back the scenes running through my head of my impeding loss of life and limb by shark attack.  And there below me I spot a circle of divers practicing some basic scuba lessons.  And off to the side is a circle of black tip reef sharks doing what appears to be staring at the divers.   I felt a flutter in my chest.  I might have peed myself.  Wait, it is the ocean, I did pee myself.  I felt terribly brave and slightly panicked at the same time.  But I stayed put.  I willed myself to stay put and watch them.  I took pictures with the underwater camera a colleague had loaned me.  I had just seen sting-less jellyfish and touched them and now here I was in the water within quick swimming distance of some sharks and I was relatively, surprisingly calm.   Would wonders never cease?

50. bloody nose ridge memorial

Monument at the top of Bloody Nose Ridge.

On my third day in Palau, I joined a full day WWII tour to Peleliu island, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War, resulting in the largest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in US history.  It was here that 1000s of marines were met with an entrenched Japanese force of nearly 11,000, all on an island only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.  Over two months of fighting resulted in 40% of the 28,000 marines killed or wounded.   Although I am not a WWII buff I am very interested in history and before my trip I had watched the miniseries “The Pacific” and read the autobiography Hemlet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, one of the true characters from the documentary who had served and was wounded on Peleliu.

An hour speedboat trip from Koror brought us to the shores of Peleliu, the southernmost of Palau’s main islands.  It looked like any other tropical island with palm trees and a short sandy beach.   Like any other place in history that has seen atrocities, I felt strange standing there looking at the beautiful sea and sky and greenery and trying, completely in vain, to imagine the horror that both sides faced and wrought upon one another.   The divers in the group headed off for their morning dive, which just left me and a family of 3 for the full land tour.   We walked with our guide through the small town, investigated several caves (one with a large spider that I might never get over),  to the old airfield, through the jungle to see rusted out tanks,  downed planes, armaments, and gutted bunkers and buildings.  We lunched and the divers returned to join the second half of the tour including a hike up Bloody Nose Ridge and to the small, but informative museum.   Our hike up Umurbrogol Mountain or Bloody Nose Ridge, a 300 foot high peak, took maybe 30 minutes.  During the US offensive, military leaders planned on 72 hours to take the ridge, but instead it took 73 days.  It was a sobering day but well worth the trip.

DSC_0111

Storyboard depicting Ngibtal

My fourth day was a lazy no-tour day.   I got a lift down to the town center for a visit to the Palau Aquarium.  I love aquariums and I try to visit them wherever I can.  It was a nice little place, part of a larger coral reef research center, but after actually snorkeling around the actual reefs of Palau, the aquarium could not hold a candle to the real thing.   I then walked over to the Koror Prison, an important stop on any tourist to-do list of Palau.   Unlike my visit to the Women’s Prison in Chiang Mai I was not here to see a specific prisoner but to call on the prison workshop where you can browse the beautifully wood-carved storyboards made by the prisoners as part of a rehabilitation program that benefits them and their families.  I hemmed and hawed between two particular storyboards while chatting with the carvers before deciding to purchase one depicting the legend of the fish-bearing breadfruit tree.  From the prison I meandered through some neighborhoods before getting lunch and then visiting the pleasant Belau (as Palau is sometimes spelled) National Museum.

Pouring rain that looked like it would not end but suddenly did, almost sunk my kayaking and snorkeling tour on day five.  Four people cancelled.  Luckily one other person had not as the tour company required a minimum of two.  My tour companion was an American working on a US naval vessel who just wanted a quiet day of swimming and boating in the Rock Islands.  We stopped first for snorkeling above a reef and then at a partial cave, more an opening in one of the smaller islets.  At another location we picked up the kayaks to begin our trip along the mile-long Long Lake, a saltwater lake surrounded by mangrove forests.  It was quiet and relaxing.

24. Badrulchau monoliths (2)

Some of the stone monoliths of Badrulchau amongst the lush greenery of Babeldaob

Rain the next morning nearly washed out another tour but again the skies cleared just in time.  This time it would be just me.  I agreed to pay extra for a solo land tour of Babeldaob, the country’s largest island, and the largest island in Micronesia (other than Guam).   Despite its size, only about 30% of Palau’s 18,000 residents live there, and is one of the least developed islands in the Pacific Ocean.  Babeldaob.  It is a mouthful but it sounds exotic.  Unlike the other islands of Palau, which are limestone, Babeldaob is volcanic.   It is hilly and still very much covered in foliage.  Here in 2006, Palau established its new capital of Ngerulmud, moving it from the most populous town of Koror.   Though the capital is the only settlement to have its own zip code (the country is serviced by the US postal system), and it has a few capital-looking buildings, it does not have the feel of a bustling capital city.

My tour took in the capital, ruined Japanese WWII sites, the mysterious stone monoliths at Badrulchau dating back to 161 A.D. (sort of like Palau’s version of Stonehenge), waterfalls, and traditional Palauan meeting structures, it was my conversation with my young tour guide as we drove around the island that stuck most in my mind.  “A” spends most of her time leading scuba dive tours.  Her father, also a scuba dive tour leader and instructor, worried about his daughter spending too much time underwater and the toll it might take on her body.  He wanted her to find another job.  So “A” did go the United States for college.  Palau, with its small population, only has a community college but no four year institutions.  But there are special considerations and scholarships for Palauans to attend university in the US.   Many go to Hawaii, but not all.  “A” went to the mainland, but quickly became homesick and after a year or so called it quits and returned home where she returned to the job she loves, much to her father’s consternation.

On my final day, I was picked up once again by representatives of Sam’s Tour, the company with which I had taken every single one of my tours.  My flight to Manila, like the one I arrived on, would depart in darkness, after the sun had set.   I would spend the day at the Sam’s Tour headquarters – where they have their dive shop, gift shop, bar and restaurant facing the marina with beautiful views of the water.  I arranged one final tour – a helicopter flight over the Rock Islands.  I was joined on the tour by two 20-something Japanese girls whom the pilot inexplicably assumed were my daughters.  Seeing the islands from the air was breathtaking.  And it was a great end to having experienced Palau from land, sea, and air.  I spent the rest of my trip awaiting transfer to the airport, sitting in the bar, nursing beverages, as I looked out at the water.

27. sunset (2)

Sunset at the Sam’s Tours marina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!