Palau is one of the most naturally beautiful places in Micronesia with it’s famous rock islands and thousands of square miles of pristine reefs. It is much more commercial and developed than the other islands I visited (well, the capital city Koror, is). It actually had ATMs (Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap had none) and shopping centers (although nothing huge), and many immigrants from Philippines and other parts of Asia. My main regret about having only two days to spend there is not getting up to Babeldaob, the “big island” of Palau that is still very traditional.
I arrived at the airport in a throng of tourists coming to dive famous spots in Palau. The Filipino driver from the hotel moved about a million miles a minute and made me realize just how much I’ve chilled out and adapted to island time. He made me feel dizzy he was moving so fast! While waiting for the other hotel guests, I had a friendly conversation with Amena Yauvoli, manager the North Pacific regional office of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (the regional Pacific Islands partnership) coming for a conference and inauguration of a the new Palauan president. The members of the delegation with him were really important community leaders but all completely down to earth without the slightest bit of arrogance, which is one of the things I love most about living in the Pacific Islands.
Because Palau has really developed their tourism industry, there are many immigrants from the Philippines who come to earn dollars (which are significantly more valuable than Pesos). They work hard, provide excellent services, and are excruciatingly polite. My hotel in Palau was run completely by Filipinos and was immaculately clean and friendly, plus only cost $40 per night. It was just on the edge of “downtown” Koror, which made it very convenient to get around. I walked and walked and walked! The first day in town I got a haircut (my previous one was self inflicted and not very even…I don’t know why I do this to myself when I get bored, but cutting my own hair is a pastime that does not frequently have positive results), visited the Palau Aquarium and learned all about the coral reef ecosystem. I walked down to the end of the island hoping to climb a hill from which to see all the country, but realized half way up that I would have to bush-whack the rest of the way up and decided against it. So I walked back up to the other end of the island hoping to spend sunset by the bridge but never made it there because I got distracted talking to some friendly local Palauan guys.
When darkness fell, I decided to check out the Western Carolines Trading Corporation (Palau’s closest thing to a mall…it has one grocery store, one department store, and a couple of other small shops). The inner cheapskate in me couldn’t resist checking out the Ben Franklin discount center on the third floor, at which I found three new pairs of flip-flops for $2.50 each. It was there that I met Doods, with whom I became friends. She is originally from the Philipines but has lived in Palau for over 5 years now. She left the Philippines 1 month after marrying her husband because her mother got sick and she needed to provide for her parents somehow. She has an accounting degree from her country but there are so many talented people there and not enough jobs for all of them so competition is tough. She swallowed her pride and took a job at the Ben Franklin discount center working as a clerk (earning more than an accountant in the Philippines) so she could send some money home. Now she really wants to start a family as does her husband, but she’s locked into 18 more months of her contract or else she has to pay for her own plane ticket home and her work permit, which would empty all the savings she’s worked so hard for. Yet she misses her husband and wants to have children with him. Now it’s just a matter of putting her life on hold for another couple years before she can go home and resume her happy life. Meanwhile her husband is wondering if she’ll ever be able to return and is beginning to give up hope in her. My heart went out to her. I was reminded that despite challenges, my life has been so full of wonderful opportunities that many in the world have to really struggle and fight for. I told her that if she makes the decision to go home earlier than her contract ends I’d use my airmiles to get her a ticket. I look forward to keeping in touch and hope that someday our paths will cross again. It was just really easy to become friends because we have very similar outlooks on life.
The next day I spent kayaking through the rock islands of Palau. There are hundreds of these uninhabited small rock islands popping out of the lagoon outside the main island of Palau but inside the barrier reef. The water has undercut the edges of them so that many of them resemble mushroom tops or appear to be magically floating above the surface of the water. The water itself is emerald green from a distance and so clear to look through that you can see the rich coral and marine life from above the water just as well as if you were snorkeling (I took these photos from above the surface as the kayak drifted along). There were hundreds of neon colored small giant clams (mostly shades of blue and purple) and I saw three humphead napoleon wrasse (each about 2.5 feet in length) at the reef’s edge. There will millions of great snorkeling sites, so I paddled around for hours, occasionally tying the kayak to a tree and jumping in the water to see what I could see. It was just absolutely a natural paradise both above and below the surface of the water! I was pleased with the way the pictures I took turned out, although you know how the camera never does justice to real life!
That night I went back to the hotel, showered, and packed up to leave. It was a whirlwind stay there, but I saw a lot of beautiful places, learned a lot of new things, and made a nice new friend. I hope that I can return again sometime soon. All of these travels make me interested in renewing my contract at CMI for longer so that I can stay in this beautiful neighborhood! My boss will be glad to hear, I’m sure!