Palau's beautiful Rock Islands
Where? you say. You thought the Inmates had long since sailed off the edge of the earth?
Not quite... But by landing in Palau almost 18 months ago, we did arrive at the western-most edge of Micronesia, the third of the Pacific's "-nesia" groups (Polynesia, "many islands"; Melanesia, "black islands"; and Micronesia, "small islands"). When you have your atlas or globe in hand, look carefully into the vast expanse of blue about 500 miles east of the southern Philippines. If you get to Yap, you've gone too far. Avid divers will know where it is. Palau is considered one of the top dive sites in the world, plunked down here in the middle of oceanic nowhere.
We arrived here in early June, 2011 after a relatively uneventful 8-day ride from our little nub of paradise in the Hermit Islands in Papua New Guinea (if you missed it, check out the "Paradise Found?" blog post). Most of the trip was a slow slog through the doldrums, starting from just south of the equator in PNG to our destination at 07* north, so most of the trip was a motorboat ride. It got so that we welcomed dark squally clouds on the horizon because they generally brought wind, even if only briefly. At about 5*N we finally found steady wind, often more than we would have wished for (like Goldilocks, we want our wind just right) but the quiet sailing was welcome after days of steady diesel engine drone.
We waited for daylight to enter the long, reef-rimmed channel leading into Palau's commercial harbor where we had to clear in but it hardly mattered: it was raining so hard visibility was nil. The unforgiving channel was once well-marked but now you have to know how to interpret bare poles along the route. As for the rain, we now know that those conditions are fairly normal here, especially during the summer SW monsoon months. Our water tanks are always full.
As a country, Palau is both tiny and young. It's made up of more than 350 islands, only 7 of which are inhabited and many look not much bigger than green gumdrops tossed on the water.
View from a dive boat
The entire land area is barely 150 square miles, about one-sixth the size of our tiny Rhode Island--and Palau has 16 states of its own. Most of the population of 21,000 live in the capital (and only) city of Koror. To our great delight there isn't a single traffic light in the land (though to get a driver's license you have to answer 3 questions about what they mean). The roads are right-hand drive but most of the cars come from Japan (where they drive on the wrong side of the road) so it's a bit odd being in a car. I still go to the wrong side. Perhaps they prefer the wheel on that side so that when the driver opens the door under way to spit beetle nut juice on the road they won't be whacked in the head by an oncoming car?
Before Palau was "discovered" by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s there were about 50,000 native Palauns (no one's quite sure where they came from originally) living in the islands in small clan-based villages. The village chief came from the most powerful clan. The culture is matrilineal and matriarchal. This may be one of the few places in the world where girls were considered more profitable to a family than boys: men paid a stiff price to their future in-laws for a bride. Women inherit land but it's owned by the clan, which can make decision-making about what to do with the land difficult. As in all the other island nations we've visited recently, land ownership is a big deal in Palau. Family and clans remain very hierarchical and a powerful force. Palau is about to have its own presidential election on November 6 and we've learned that you're pretty much expected to vote for your clan member, even if you think the other guy is better.
Early village life in Palau was organized around the Bai ("bye"). The leading Chiefs had one for their private use and others served more or less as clubhouses for the rest of the village. Young men learned and practiced the facts of life in the Bai, with services provided by girls brought in from other villages, who were compensated for their time. Like this one, a replica, the early Bais had elaborate (and sometime rather erotic) artwork:
Despite sharing their women from time to time, the villages also apparently spent a fair amount of time at war with each other. I love the way one book put it: "In general, the men stayed busy with local warfare, head hunting and fishing." No doubt they fished from their war canoes...
Local warfare was particularly intense between the two High Chiefs of the land and it took a peace treaty negotiated by the British warship HMS Espiegle in 1883 to get them to stop bashing heads. Before the British arrived, the Spanish had claimed the area but didn't do much here except introduce Christianity and the alphabet. The British became Palau's chief trading partner for a while, even stirring up some of the inter-clan warfare and making things worse by introducing firearms. But then Spain kicked England out, later having to sell Palau to Germany to pay for the Spanish-American war. Germany then lost it to Japan, which lost it to the US in World War II.
For such a tiny place, Palau saw major action in the Second World War, primarily in the southern island of Peleliu. Japan was well-entrenched in Palau (and all of Micronesia) by the time the war started. In September 1944, after the US bombed Palau for a few months, a sea invasion was launched to clear the southern island of Peleliu of more than 10,000 Japanese troops and secure the airfield to make a Palau a stepping stone for MacArthur's return to the Philippines. The Peleliu battle was expected to take only a few days, but 3 hellish months later more than 8000 Marines and soldiers were dead or wounded in what has been called one of the most needless battles of the war. MacArthur, in the meantime, trudged ashore in the Philippines.
Peleliu is still riddled with WWII junk, a network of Japanese tunnels (one of them called "Thousand Men Cave"), and significant amounts of rusty live ordnance that's still being discovered (just before we visited, a fisherman had found ten 1000-pound bombs wired together and buried in the sand as a booby trap--all still alive). We've gotten to know the owners of a small bomb disposal business who have been working there for several years to find, identify, and destroy all the live ammo still lying around and spent a weekend with them exploring the tiny island's painful and overgrown history. The bomb crew accumulates piles of rusty old leftovers in sandbagged cubbies and then sets a date to blow it all up.
Old hand grenades waiting to be exploded for good
During the war, the island had been denuded of all its tropical greenery. In old photos it looks shorn and bare, as if it had been given a military buzz cut. Now, nearly 70 years later, the jungle is relentlessly working to hide any memory of the mess left behind.
Bombed out Japanese HQ
Japanese tank being overtaken by jungle
A recently discovered cave where remains of Japanese soldiers had just been found. The area around these excavation sites is carefully examined and cleared before anybody enters.
Between WW I and II Japan had "administered" all of Micronesia--some 2000 islands strung out across more than 2500 miles--and used the chain as its stepping stone across the Pacific. After the war, Palau and the rest of Micronesia became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, a United Nations trusteeship administered (and funded) by the United States. Over time, however, rumblings of independence grew and by 1986 the Trusteeship was dismantled and the island groups began going their separate ways. One group (the Marshalls) became a commonwealth of the United States; another formed the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Palau opted not to join the FSM, choosing to go the independent route instead. They became the Republic of Palau in 1994, entering into a "Compact of Free Association" with the United States. This means, among other things, that we provide money and their defense. The local currency is the US dollar and they also have a US zip code. The grocery stores are full of U.S. products, all shipped in.
As in the other 3 newly-independent countries we've recently visited, independence didn't come easily here either. There were 15 years of haggling and bloodshed over the terms of the new constitution, including whether to let the US bring nuclear-powered ships in. Palau's first (anti-nuc) president was assassinated and his successor committed suicide. The old traditional chiefs didn't like this new-fangled election stuff either so there was a bit of a tussle there, too. But money talks, and in the end the Compact of Free Association was accepted. On Oct 1 we joined in the celebrations of Palau's 18th birthday. We liked the greased pig-chasing contest the best.
Today Palau's economy is pretty much all tourism and that pretty much means diving. Google "world's best dive sites" and Palau will be on the list every time. It's dramatic diving: lots of currents and sharks and other big pelagic fish hanging out at corners in the reef when the current is ripping, looking for prey. When the currents are right, you hook on to the reef (otherwise you'll be whisked away) and fly like a kite watching all the action.
Our dive buddies
Palau had not been on our original itinerary (to the extent we had one), but it offered a safe place to leave the boat for a home visit. Because that visit became somewhat protracted, our "intentions" to head south to Indonesia were upended and now we're hatching a new plan, which will probably include a totally unintended return to the Philippines, where Asylum can get a much-needed haul-out and buffing up. I promise to be more timely in welcoming you to wherever we end up next!
(If the dreadfully slow internet cooperates, there will be a few additional photos in the Welcome to Palau photo gallery.)
12/02/2011, Hermit Islands, Papua New Guinea
Luf Island Village, Hermit Islands, Papua New Guinea
I never read Milton so don't exactly know what Paradise he thinks was Lost, but I'm sure he would be happy to know that a little corner of paradise still exists in the Hermit Islands of Papua New Guinea. It's been 6 months since we sailed away from the Hermits, but our too-short visit there remains a highlight of our voyage.
The Hermits are little blips of islands - I'm not even sure how many there are...maybe 6 or 7? - dotting the Pacific about 150 miles north of PNG's main island. There is one small village of about 200 gentle SDA (Seventh Day Adventist) souls on the largest of the group's islands, Luf. It was our last stop in PNG on the way to Palau. We thought we'd be there a couple of days, stayed 10, and would have stayed longer but for the lure of a good weather window to continue the sail north.
Like so many Pacific island clusters, the Hermits are ringed by a formidable reef with narrow passes that the prudent sailor only negotiates in good light. We were timing our arrival for morning light but with the help of a generous following current on the route from Kavieng we arrived at the pass at the end of day 3 rather than the beginning of day 4. We still had enough light to clear the deep water cut and then wound around several more miles to the anchorage off the village, which we discovered was either very deep or scarily shallow. Enoch paddled out as we circled like a dog looking for a comfortable spot to snooze and directed us to a safe place to drop the hook. (Check out that reef in the photo above!)
Later, during a stroll through the tidy little village, I asked Enoch if they had a store.
Yes, a small one, but only if a ship comes in.
When was the last ship here?
What month is it?
Maybe... in January...?
Everyone loves to garden and a pot is anything you plant in
Several outboard engines were mounted on stumps in the sand, as if they'd sprouted from seedlings poked into the ground to grow new ones. Outboards generally signify a degree of wealth and Enoch explained that the villagers collect sea cucumbers to sell to the Chinese for their seemingly insatiable appetite for beche-de-mer. Harvesting had been banned for some time, however, to allow the dwindling sea cucumber populations to replenish so there had been no collecting - and therefore no income - for a while. "But it's ok," he said. "I'm happy even when I don't have any money. I have my garden and I can catch fish." The outboards, it turns out, were all in for repair, and like the little store, waiting for the ship to arrive with parts.
Waiting for parts
The villagers were immensely proud of their new church - a true labor of love slowly assembled over 14 years whenever a ship showed up with supplies. They built it without any formal plans, natural architects that they are, from timber they cut by hand from the surrounding hills. They were very grateful, however, for input from a "real" architect on a visiting sailboat who helped design the electrical/lighting system, all generator run, when the supply ship arrives with fuel....
On Saturday, the SDA Sabbath, we attended the Children's Graduation Ceremony at the church. Everyone was gussied up in their Saturday best and every child in the village was called forward to be officially promoted to the next level of Sunday, er, Saturday school.
The graduating classes.
(Most of the kids and many of the adults are barefoot.)
The pastor, a diminutive little Leprechaun of a man (whose name was even McLean), was not a Hermit Island native but clearly carried a lot of stature in the village. We had saved a number of trade and gift items for our stop there and as we tried to figure out how best to distribute the stuff, the village elders all said, "Give it to the Pastor." But there are no secrets in these villages so after giving one old lady a pair of reading glasses the word was out and everyone needed glasses. We rooted around the boat, our bags and backpacks to extend our stock of specs and set up shop in one of the villager's houses. The old chief wasn't so much interested in readers as he was with a snazzy pair of sunglasses Jim had added to the giveaway pile. Every time we saw him after that he was sporting his new shades.
Happy customers at the optical shop
Another item on the give-away list was an electronic keyboard we'd been carrying around like a silent stowaway for 12 years. Never used. All my good intentions to practice long since blown away. It turned out Pastor McLean actually plays the piano so this was the perfect place to leave it, as long as the power hurdle could be cleared: the piano needed 110 power, their generators all produced 220. But Jim rummaged some more and produced a small transformer we didn't really need, so we left behind the piano, transformer, and a pile of sheet music for the village. The good pastor had already taught several of the village boys to play the guitar and was now signing up piano students.
Pastor McLean tries out his new church organ
Even birds have a corner of paradise in the Hermits. About a half hour's boat ride from the village is tiny pristine Bird Island, home to boobies, terns, frigates, and others I don't recall.
Katie tries to figure out who's who up there
Nesting booby and watchful friend
While we circumnavigated the island along its pristine beach, no-doubt annoying the birds along the way, Enoch and his crew built a little sun shelter for our stay (you can do anything with a bush knife!)...
... refrigerated the watermelons freshly picked from his garden...
... and fired up the grill to cook the day's catch.
Meanwhile, we visited a densely jungled nearby island where the guys did a little crabbing...
...and came up with enough lunch for everyone.
Cooking crab the easy way
The villagers were incredibly generous to us during our stay. Not only were we daily lavished with more freshly plucked fruits and vegetables than we could ever eat...
Sharing the bounty with our Aussie friend Al from sailboat Zeke
...the village ladies also delivered a fully cooked banquet to the boat (and then stayed and serenaded us with perfectly harmonized church songs).
Dinner and entertainment arrive at Asylum
And as if all that weren't enough, the village threw us a feast as a farewell thank you for the piano. Grilled fish and all manner of local delicacies, most cooked in freshly grated and squeezed coconut cream, filled the table. We chipped in a couple of chocolate cakes, always a hit in these oven-less villages.
After Jim sang for the kids...
...the kids sang for us.
And the chief was there in his cool new shades...
Namu, the wonderful mechanic; Al from Zeke; the cool chief and Jim
Even in Paradise we kept one eye on the weather to catch a good window for the eight-ish day trip to Palau. We were hoping to score a little more diesel for this second and longer leg of the journey, which would take us right through the windless doldrums, so Jim visited a small disabled fishing boat moored near us to see if he had any to spare. Sylvester, its sole occupant, had been towed in sometime in February, stuck there indefinitely while he, too, waited for a ship to arrive with parts. It wasn't clear whether anybody actually knew to send the parts he needed or whether he was just hoping they'd show up, miraculously, on a supply ship one day. We wondered if his family in some distant village had any idea where he was... He was able to spare about 4 gallons and was happy with the small amount of PNG cash we had left. And, well, was there any chance we had a 1 amp fuse? His GPS didn't work. Jim spent some time on the rattle-trap little boat, helped him diagnose and rewire the offending circuit, and left him with 2 spare fuses.
A couple days later Sylvester paddled over to Asylum and shyly asked if we could remove some of the old movies from his flash drive and put new ones on it.
From a dugout canoe??
Technology definitely had found its way even to this remote little outpost of Paradise. A bit like water, it seems electronic gizmos will seep in wherever they can. Sharon, the headmistress at the primary school, had a portable DVD player that she asked Jim to fix. Enoch had a small MP3 player that he wanted us to load with new music. Pastor McLean had a digital camera (I'm not sure where he puts the photos he takes; don't you need a computer for that?). Most of this stuff has come from visiting yachties like us who have a spare this or that to leave behind (we also gave them a cell phone to use when someone goes to the "big city"). But all these contributions do seem a bit incongruous in a village that has no electricity except from a community generator (when the supply ship comes with fuel) or wee solar panels attached to their thatch houses...
...where the women still haul water from community wells...
...and cook with hot rocks on an open fire.
Laundry is done the old fashioned way...
... and many of their tools are, well, finely crafted from available materials...
What was so remarkable to me -- and humbling -- was that none of this was particularly remarkable to them. They live contentedly as they always have, not opposed to modern stuff with bells and whistles but also not particularly covetous of it. An occasional dip in the gadget pool seems to be enough for them.
Perhaps what we have in these lovely people in this tidy little village in the middle of nowhere is really Paradox Found.
11/08/2011, Maryland, USA
The Inmates clean up pretty good on land!
(At my niece's wedding in D.C. Those dashing blond guys
are 2 of my brothers and that chic lady behind me is my mother.)
Just in case anyone's been checking up on us here, we just wanted to let you know that we're running a wee bit behind these days. We've been in the States since August and seem to have been in a catch-up mode most of the time so the blog has been sorely neglected. But I do have one new post almost ready to go and another in the queue, waiting patiently in the back of my brain, so please stand by!
Happy Thanksgiving to all!