Palau: So Far, So Good
Sunday, March 9, 2003
Thirty years ago, at the tender age of 17, I did what many people dream of doing: I ran away from home to experience life in the South Pacific.
For a year I lived on the remote north coast of Tahiti, in a tiny thatched-roof cottage in a garden of mango trees. My seaside home was a lush sun-dappled valley protected by soaring green mountains. Each evening I fell asleep beneath an open window filled with a vast canopy of stars. At dawn I awoke to the sounds of seabirds and the buttery scent of wild plumeria. It was a paradise of almost painful sweetness that I never forgot.
Over the next 25 years I traveled the world but never returned to Tahiti. I knew that with the advent of tourist-packed jumbo jets and high-rise hotels, the world I experienced there now exists only in memory. Yet when a recent chance came to visit the islands of Palau, in the far western Pacific, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Believing the islands to be undeveloped and largely still unvisited, I hoped that they might evoke the South Pacific I had known in my boyhood.
Probably not one American in 10,000 can find Palau on a map. Which is strange, because for 50 years after we defeated Japan in World War II, America ruled these beguiling isles as part of our own vast oceanic empire, just as Germany and Spain once had.
More precisely, the U.S. Navy managed Palau. In fact, until the mid-1960s, non-military travelers needed special security clearance to visit this part of the Pacific. Today, Palau is an independent nation, and Pentagon permission is no longer needed to visit, but patience is. To get there, you literally have to chase the setting sun for an entire day.
My first stop was Koror, the balmy, ramshackle capital of the Republic of Palau, eight hours flying time beyond Hawaii. This is a real-life, working-class South Pacific seaport, where residents dress in shorts and T-shirts year-round and everybody seems to wear that cheerful, slightly sun-dazzled look that children have on sunny summer afternoons -- pleased with the sweetness of life in a warm climate. People get about mostly in old pickups or vans, driving along concrete and crushed coral roads that zigzag up and down the hills. The glinting blue Pacific is never out of sight, and most roads seem to end at a dock or jetty, with dive boats loading and uploading gear. Farther out, Taiwanese fishing vessels rock gently at anchor.
After dark, Koror is transformed into a veritable Margaritaville, as hundreds of bushed but blissfully happy divers from as far away as Sydney or San Francisco exchange tall tales with sun-bronzed locals over chilled bottles of Red Rooster, the excellent local beer. Later everyone pushes on to dinner, where, for a small town of about 15,000, there are a surprising number of good restaurants, including some serving authentic Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisine.
Everywhere I went in town, I was warmly welcomed by Palauans and, most notably considering the times, especially enthusiastically as an American. In fact, after a few days, I almost felt as though I were in a tropical version of Ireland, because it seemed that every Palauan I met had a favorite aunt, brother or cousin living "in the States."
It turns out the 200-plus islands of Palau (only a dozen inhabited) are already quite well-known: Last year some 50,000 tourists visited, more than double the archipelago's population. A majority of Palau's visitors are passionate scuba divers, people who get off the plane and get right on a dive boat. These are the scuba elite, people who dive all over the globe, from the Red Sea to the Great Barrier Reef. Such divers have the purity and passion of stamp collectors, and they've made Palau one of the world's top dive sites.
And the rest of us? When I, an avid snorkeler but non-diver, turned up at a long-established dive and tour company, I was made to feel every bit as welcome as their tank-carrying customers. We were headed for Palau's most striking attraction, an amazing natural phenomenon called the Rock Islands. The collection of some 200 jungle-clad limestone islands rise up high out of Palau's lagoon, looking like immense floating emeralds. And because the shallow lagoon protecting the formations is as calm as a Swiss lake, the best way to explore them is by kayak or snorkel.
For the next six hours, we cruised in a motor boat through the serene islands, stopping wherever we wanted, to snorkel through vast coral gardens teeming with trigger fish, Moorish idols and the occasional shy sea turtle the size of luggage. But there was more -- a special cove the locals call the Milky Way. Unlike all other coves we visited, the bottom of this little bay consisted not of sand but of white limestone mud, which gave the water a milky sheen.
After informing us that the mysterious white mud made an excellent rejuvenating facial, our guide dove off the boat and down to the bottom, returning with a huge handful of the white muck, which we proceeded to coat ourselves with. The women on board said it was as soft as cold cream.