Palau day 15-18 – Snorkeling with a reef shark and a strange dorm experience

On the island of Anguar once lived a child named Uab, who had a voracious appetite. An average meal consisted of 50 large baskets of food, plus dozens of basins of spring water and coconut juice. Reaching manhood, Uab grew so fat he could no longer feed himself, and men had to climb ladders to force food into his mouth. The people of Anguar became frightened of him and decided to kill him. One night while he slept they tied him up and set fire to him. Uab roared and kicked, and Anguar shook. The struggle was so fierce that his body broke into many pieces forming the islands of Palau. That is how legend tells us that Palau was born. The island of Babeldaob was his trunk. A leg became the island of Peliliu. Ngarchelong was his head, so it’s residents are the smartest and most talkative in the republic.

Palau is much more a touristic place than the other islands I have previously visited on this trip and hence I find it harder to get to know the locals here. I did however meet the nephew of the president. When he heard that I write for the travel sections of Danish newspapers he apologized that his uncle had just left Koror but promised me to set up a meeting with him (!) the next time I come back to Palau.. Apart from that I find that it is a little harder to get close to the Palauan’s than has been the case with for example the Micronesian’s. Maybe the many tourists here have worn them out a bit – it seems like most people would just like to mind their own business. People here have brown skin and appear Micronesian – a bit maori-like. But they talk and act like young Americans. Approx 20.000 people live in Palau and every year around 40.000 tourists arrive. Most waiters and other low-pay workers are Filipinos – minimum wage which many of them get is 3,5 USD per hour.

Obviously Palau is known for its diving. I am no diver but being in a place like this I of course had to go snorkeling. So I did a “Rock Islands boat trip” that set me back USD 80 plus a USD 50 ten-day entry permit to the Rock Islands National Park. Palau is not a cheap place at all.

Apart from the diving Palau is world famous for its Jellyfish lake. A “marine lake” (whatever the hell that means) with special – not harmful – orange jellyfish among millions of which you can dive or snorkel. Unfortunately, some weather phenomenon related to El Niño have wiped out the entire population so tours to the jellyfish no longer run. On my trip we however managed to see one single – and very tiny – Jellyfish in one of the 10 less famous marine lakes. (allegedly there were ten more at the bottom 10 meters down but I did not manage to freedown down there)

On the boat there were 17 tourists. 16 of them were Japanese. The only locals were father and son. Robert, the captain, and Carlson the snorkeling guide. The tour guide Nishiko spoke Japanese 80% of the time. A bit weird in a country whose two official languages are English and Palauan. However Nishiko was very friendly. Arigato sarimas, Jakobsan (thank you very much Mr Jakob) she kept saying to me. She was wearing a t-shirt with a map of the rock islands printed on the front showing with little red dots the places we were going. Very practical. The corals were plentiful; the fish were colorful. We saw sea cucumbers and starfish and a giant sea turtle. And obviously lots of colored fish in all sizes. We stopped at the “Milky Way” were all my Japanese friends smeared themselves in a white mud taken from the sea bottom. They were confident this would prolong their lives significantly – I opted for taking photos only.

“Shark!” Carlson suddenly shouted. Very close to me at my right side a black tip reef shark was swimming peacefully about. It was between one and one and a half meter in size. I know reef tip sharks are fairly common for divers but for an ordinary snorkeling novice as me it was a pretty special experience (I have dived in a cage with great whites in South Africa and seen various sharks from the boat in Galapagos but still it is pretty special to be snorkeling right next to a reef shark). The water was shallow and I swam so close I could have touched it. After about 100 meters it became deeper and my friend disappeared.

Another day I rented a Nissan X-Trail 4WD for a day and drove to all islands connected with a bridge to the main island Koror. Even though everything is very expensive in Palau the car hire was only 35 USD. I went past the new parliament – a replica of Capitol Hill, US – built in the middle of nowhere.

It has been several years since I last slept in a dormitory style shared bedroom. But since the cheapest zero-star hotel in Palau costs around 150 USD I had booked “Ms Pinetrees Backpacker Hostel”. A bed cost me 40 USD per night – as far as I recall that made it the most expensive I have ever paid for a night in a bunk bed (and I have been in quite a few of those in my younger days). Fortunately, the hostel was great. An old converted mansion with balconies with nice views galore and super nice fellow travelers. After a fortnight meeting not a single tourist or traveler it was good to hang out with a few cool guys. 4 of them had travelled each in close to a 100 UN countries.

I sleep on top of a giant man from China. The step at the bottom of the stairs makes a loud noise when I stand on it. My room is a “6-bed mixed dormitory”. The very large Chinese and his hippopotamus shaped body floats the bottom bunk bed. Later on I am told that most people staying here believe he has some sort of illness. In any case he seems to be sleeping always also during day. Perhaps that explains why he is often awake during night. The Chinese giant likes to turn his super-sized body over and lie on his other side. When he does that my top bunk sways violently. At 3 am Olivier arrives. His plane has just come in. Olivier has a headlamp that shines with such power that I am guessing it could have illuminated even the darkest of coal mines. Olivier only spends an hour unpacking his stuff and making himself ready to go to bed. “It is wonderful to be back in a dormitory” I think. When Olivier finally turns off his powerful head light the silence is quickly broken by an apocalyptic snoring so loud that I wonder if the end is near. Even through my earplugs It sounds like a battered tape recorder is blasting out a distorted version of Highway to Hell with a backing band of chainsaws. At last I manage to fall asleep regardless. But in the very early morning I wake up when I sense somebody moving around close to my face. Then I see it. A strange creature. Something big. Whatever the hell it is it has a white hood tightly squeezed over pitch black hair. The hood has holes and big chunks of hair are protruding through them. It looks like a black and white football with hair growing only out of the black patches. I almost pee in my pants out of fear of this geeky football punk and for a moment I wonder if I am still sleeping and having a nightmare. Then I finally realize that it is of course just the Chinese snoring monster who has come out of the bunk bed below me to use the bathroom. To my great surprise I realize that the monster is a woman, even though I could have sworn that she was a man when I saw her lying in bed before I went to sleep last night. I give up on sleeping and wonder if I have grown too old to sleep in dorms. The next day – naturally at 1 am with all the lights switched on – the Chinese monster fortunately checks out. From then on I sleep like a baby in my bed that has now stopped swaying.

Hehe – enjoy the pics – I have already moved on to Taipei – from where new stories will shortly come.

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