22 January 2011 | Palau
Palau is the westernmost island group of Micronesia and one of the prettiest places imaginable comprising of mushroom shaped rock islands and having underwater flora and fauna that rivals any on earth. Its history is colorful with its ancient money of huge stone circles with holes in them and spirit houses decorated ornately with scenes from days of old. More recently it was colonized first by the Spanish in the 1500’s then the English and back to the Spanish who sold her to the Germans who lost her to the Japanese in WW1 who were in turn defeated by the good old US of A in WW2 who took her till she became independent in 1994.
With all 16 states having a total population of 20,000 you get to know everybody pretty quick and with the first few days of hitchhiking around I was picked up and became friends with a helicopter pilot, dive guides, a congressmen from Anguar (an island in the south), and even the former president who served two terms and signed the declaration of indpendence.
Landing in Palau was like being back in the states with paved roads (paid for by US tax dollars), electricity, United States Postal Service post office (costs the same to send a package from Jackson County Indiana to Jennings County in Indiana as it does from the far west pacific of Palau to Maine) and grocery stores stocked from the states where I am able to buy things like kraft macaroni and cheese, fozen barritos, mustard, parmason cheese, and USDA certified ground beef all of which I haven’t seen in months. US dollar is the local currency and after spending the past three months trading for everything seeing any currency is somewhat of a novelty but here they even go as far as accepting a debit card nearly everywhere – Amazing!
Due to its location which provides currents of nutrient rich water the diving here is top notch and on Christmas day a few us (including an arm wrestling champion from Russia named Valdim) went diving in Ulong Channel where on a single dive we encountered turtles, schools of fish by the hundreds, huge grouper, and a school of tuna in a ball being feasted on by five sharks. On a more recent dive in german channel we came across many sharks, several manta rays (the largest being 9 foot across) barreling through the water, and even a massive ornate eagle ray of which the like I have never seen. The next morning we woke to watch the sunrise and were doubly entertained by a massive manta jumping out of the water doing back smacks.
Of course like every stop along the path of a boat that gets pushed much time has been spent doing repair and getting Bubbles seaworthy for the next passage. My diesel fuel was thick with algae and I had to use a grinder to cut a hole in my aluminum fuel tank and remove all the gunk at the bottom and clean my fuel lines. Luckily though there is a machine shop in town and all little things I need to weld or fabricate could be done with walking distance of the main harbor. Also around was a very experienced diesel mechanic who helped me install new throttle and clutch cables (able to buy both in town) which I couldn’t have done on my own.
Upon arrival, customs condemnded both Skittles (green) and Skwawks (red) to be burned but after some greasing he allowed me to keep the pretty pirate parrots on the condition I keep them in a small cage which he wrapped in quarantine tape which I was not allowed to open. Due to the design of the cage and the tape that surrounded it, the cage was hard to clean and the birds started playing in their own poop. Skittle was small enough to escape to the freedom of the boat but Skwawks remained trapped inside and got deathly ill. I searched the island for a vet but she was out for the month but I still managed to round up antibiotics but it was too little too late and Skwawks died the next day. The kids on the surrounding boats who had helping feed the birds shed some tears and Skittles now has grown some red feathers on his wings carrying on his sisters spirit. Looking into all the complications of taking Skittles onward I decided to leave Skittles in Palau in the hands of a local Polish artist who had experience raising parrots. In return for Skittles I was sketched wearing only a pirate hat, eye patch, Skittles on the shoulder and a cutlass in hand.
We did a road trip around the $150 million ring road (paid for by the US ) of the largest island of Balbodoep . Along the way we visited the way-out-proportions and way-out-of place capitol (also paid for by US) which resembles the white house except plastic built (legos would have done the job better). It sits on a hilltop and hour from the main town and is surrounded by island brush and no city making it quite a bizarre scene. Farther up the Swedish mother-daughter combo accompanying me and I took and hike to the largest waterfalls in the island group. Along the way we crossed old railway tacks (installed by Japanese) now overgrown with vines and jungle trees but still found a couple cart axles to play with. We also had to wade up a jungle river before being able to frolick under the cascading jungle falls . On the very tip of the island at a place called Ngarchelong we came across huge stones all placed neatly in rows and some with giant face carvings. The stones have been there for over a millenia and because there rock composition is not found elsewhere in Palau and no boat at that time could have brought them there from such a distance their very presence still baffles both onlookers such as ourselves and archeologists alike. The Swedes and I touched the rocks in silence and could feel the power the stones still possess.
On one of our trips through ‘the rocks’ (what they call the islands south of the main town of koror) we made our way to jellyfish lake. After climbing over the rocky ridge to the lake with dozens Japanese tourists (most tourist here are from Japan due to its proximity and history with Palau) we arrived at the lake and with my south African buddy B-funk as a guide swam away from the crowds to an area of the lake where we were immersed in tens of thousands of non-stinging pink jelly fish – very surreal. After leaving that anchorage we were off the Clam City (a snorkel area of gigantic clams that could swallow a small man) but because of both technical difficulties and having been robbed in PNG were navigating ‘captain cook style’ with neither gps or charts. About the time the sunset we found ourselves having another ‘aground party’ with Bubbles starting to list over as the water disappeared with the falling tide from under the boat on the reef we were now stuck on. With a heel of over 30 degrees at low tide I found it more difficult to move around on the boat than during a gale and finally found a spot to sleep against a wall. Some rangers came by around midnight to check on us and I told them we were waiting for rain but I don’t think they got the joke and began to explain to me how tides worked. I was later issued a $10,000 fine for the incedent but after going to governors office for a chat it was promptly reduced to $200.
Because the Christmas/New Years timing of our arrival, being at sea for so long, the amount of sailboats present, the price of beer 1/3 of what we had been paying, and amount of western style bars/people the nightlife of Palau took me into a party mode I hadn’t seen since the Carribean. This lead to some behavior that is out of most societies norms and after the second week I won the cultural experience of a free nights sleep paid for by the government for van surfing. Because the the deteriation of local customs in palau due to western influence and things like tv, video games and the internet the storyboard wood carvings that tourists buy are made not by locals who choose be artists and are proud of their culture but rather by inmates at the local jail. Because I was now in jail with them (I became known as Indiana Jones) I helped sand and shape some of the wood carvings that a Japanese tourist would later buy thinking it was all Palauan artisian work. My stay was quite enjoyable as a local restaurant owner who I had became good friends with sent in his finest dish and another Danish friend with local pull had me released well before I should have been. On the way out I was given a grocery list by my homies in D-block and upon my return with the items the chant ‘Indiana Jones’ rang through the cells. If I were running for mayor of that jail I would win by a landslide.
The island of Peleliu in the south Palau was the stage of one of the bloodiest in the Pacific theater during WW2 and is featured in Tom Hank’s and Steven Speilberg’s ‘the Pacifc War.’ It was the first place in the world both naepalm and scatter bombs were used and the small island’s 600+ caves were used by the outnumbered Japanese to hide and prolong the battle. 300 of these caves are now mass graves as the American solution to finally end the battle was to bulldoze the caves shut trapping inside what was left of the Japanese forces. Attempts to exhume the bodies has been problematic due the Japanese turning themselves into mines by pulling the pin on their grenade then clutching it in their hands as they died to make their bodies an eternal booby trap. When we first arrived on the island we hitchhiked with a friendly elderly Palauan named Itz in a rickety old van who took us to town to arrange information and possibly a guide. After talking with the governor’s office we were told the governor himself would be taking us around and Ben and I were quite surprised then see walk out of the office the very man who we had caught a ride into town with. Driving the island with governor Itz in his old van was quite the enjoyable experience and in such a remote, peaceful island of the west pacific seemed odd to hear this old quiet man warn of the dangers of WW3 having seen as a boy the destcrutive power a war can have. He eventually turned us over to the local rangers and instructed them to take us some of the caves and along the jungle trail we came across live mortors, tanks, amphibious vehicles the marines had landed with and a huge antiaircraft gun still at the mouth of one particluar cave.
Back in Koror it was time to check out and head west. Joining Bubbles was a couple young Californians – a river ecologist named Shannon and a Chino-American adventure named Kirk. Our local DJ friend Ivana hosted a late night farewell gathering where we had one last hoo-ra with all of good friends we had made. Its amazing how close you can get with so many people in just one month but it was time to push on – the sea was calling once again.