Friday, August 9, 2013

Palau: Part Two: Island Roadtrip

Friday morning, we prepared to set off on our planned day-trip around the northern island of Babeldaob.  We hadn't exactly planned very much, but we had pre-arranged a rental car through the dive company that planned our trip, who in turn arranged it with the hotel.  Or least, they were supposed to.  We don't know exactly who didn't follow through, but in any event it wasn't pre-arranged after all.  No matter.  Things are pretty informal, and a phone call later, the rental company dropped off the mighty machine with which we would cruise around the island.

As you may note, the steering wheel is on the right (wrong) side of the car.  Your first thought might be: so they drive on the left in Palau?  No.  They drive on the right.  The cars, however, are aligned based on the place from which they were imported.  Mostly, this is from Japan, rather than the U.S.  As a consequence, the cars are designed based on Japanese standards, which means right-hand steering wheels and kilometers on the speedometer.  It also means that the models are much less familiar: rather than the standard American models found on Guam (and, uh, America), the road is mostly filled with smaller, boxier Japanese style cars (or, if you prefer, more reminiscent of Europe as well).  Our car, for instance, was a Nissan March.  Not the best of models, but it did the trick.

We started off at our hotel, the Guest Lodge, which was a fine establishment, particularly for the price ($40 a night).  Ordinarily for that price you're happy if you only have a mild bedbug infestation, but the place was clean, spacious, and as a bonus, had a hyperactive parrot out back.  

We headed off in search of the Palau Visitor's Authority to get a map and some advice.  We knew there were numerous sites on Babeldaob, and we knew there was basically one road going around the island to follow, but beyond that we weren't quite sure what to do.  Luckily, the people at the PVA had a good map that marked many of the major sites.  Figuring that we'd just sort of wing it, using the map as a rough guide, we set off. 

Just before doing so, Amanda noticed a little paragraph on the map, informing us that many of the individual states have their own departure or visitor tax of $10-$20.  Looking at the map, we noted that Babeldaob is comprised of 10 states.  We did not relish the idea of paying ~$200 or more just to drive around.  We consulted with out hotel manager/concierge/chauffer, KB, who was working there with his family until heading back to school in Hawaii.  He didn't think that the fees were really a thing, beyond paying to visit some sites.  Armed with this very specific and confident assessment, we headed off.

First, we crossed over the famed bridge from Koror to Babeldaob.  Originally built in 1978, it was the largest "bridge of its type," where its type is, according to wikipedia, a "balanced cantilever prestressed concrete box girder bridge." 

As this is the old bridge, naturally this isn't our photograph (from wikipedia)
However, in September 1996, the bridge suddenly collapsed.  "Suddenly" is not entirely accurate; in 1990 it had sagged some 1.2 meters, causing the government to commission studies to make sure the bridge was safe.  The studies concluded that it was and in fact would probably sag (or "creep") another meter in the future.  Confident things were fine, the government ordered cosmetic work done to make the bridge LOOK safer.  This work "hastened the bridge's collapse, but did not actually cause the fatal weakening."  2 people died in the collapse.  It cut off not only access to the northern island, but also knocked out water and power, as those connections followed the bridge.  Luckily, Japan came to the rescue, offering to pay for and build a new bridge, which was completed in 2001.  We're not entirely sure what people did for the intervening five years, but at present the islands remain connected and accessible.

The current version of the bridge gave us no trouble, and we headed northward.  Our first stop was an old Japanese command post, not unlike one we saw on Tinian.  

While there, a man approached us and informed us we needed a permit to visit sites in that state, and that we should go to the office near the airport to get one.  Dismayed, we realized we might have to engage in a fair amount of "guerrilla tourism."

Luckily, this was the final attempt at collecting any state permit fees we encountered.  We drove onward, fortuitously "missing" the permit office and heading north towards the capital.

The capitol building, as mentioned previously, was completed in 2006 with funding from Taiwan.  There was a movement to place the capital outside of Koror in order to stimulate development on Babeldaob.  Taiwan, having lost diplomatic recognition in favor of China in the past few decades, had embarked on a plan of showering money on smaller nations in return for recognition.  Palau is one such nation.  China, for its part, is fiercely competing with Taiwan for the diplomatic loyalty of small, Pacific islands, with each showering aid upon nations, and those nations, in turn, often changing loyalties.  The upshot of this for us was that Taiwan had funded the building of one big-ass capitol complex, and we were going to see it.

The building, or buildings, are massive, and would be at home in Washington, DC, both in size and style.  There are three distinct buildings, one for the legislature, one for the executive, and one for the judiciary.  The entire complex exists on a hill in the middle of essentially nowhere, rising out of the jungle like an ancient ruin from a forgotten time.  There is no surrounding town or other buildings.  There are a few small villages a couple of miles east on the coast, but there is nothing else near the actual complex itself.

The spider motif represents the Palauan legend of Mengidabrutkoel, the spider who taught the people of Palau natural childbirth. 
The bird is a whimbrel, also called delerrok, the money bird. In Palauan legend it is said to have laid money beads or udoud.
And that "ancient ruins" part isn't necessarily far off.  We noticed that there were only a handful of cars at the complex, and the judiciary building was closed entirely.  This being a Friday, and not a holiday of any sort, we were curious why this would be.  It turns out that the complex is something of a white elephant.  The windows don't open, and the A/C is subpar.  For anyone who has spent time in the tropics, you can imagine why this is an undesirable combination.  Further, that set of issues has led to a problem we are all too familiar with: mold.  That coupled with the remote location has meant that few people use the complex.  The judiciary, for instance, remains in downtown Koror, just a few blocks from our hotel.

What it lacks in palatial majesty, it makes up for in "can actually be used for its intended purpose."
Practicality aside, it is rather impressive to view.

Our next brief stop was a seaside village nearby, where we took a couple of pictures of the severely low tide and a colorful house.  The moon was full around the time we were there; as a consequence, it was a spring tide, meaning that the high and low tides were at their most extreme differential.  This was advantageous for diving (more on that later), and made for some interesting visual contrasts.

A very colorful home.
We headed north once more.  At the extreme northern part of the island were a few sites with ancient stone carvings.  We opted to pass on the giant stone coffin, but went to see the stone monoliths.

It now being well past mid-day, we headed back south along the western half the island.  We stopped at a site that featured a large waterfall, but decided that $20 a person was a bit more than we cared to pay to hike to a natural feature.  We did, however, get to see a baby saltwater crocodile.

"One day, I will be large and mean enough to eat you."
The northern island was a bit like southern Guam, except greener and with fewer signs of humanity.  That done, we headed to the Palau Museum to take in some culture.

"Belau" is an alternate spelling of "Palau"
The inside of the museum did not permit photography.  It had many features on Palau's different colonial periods, including Spanish, German, Japanese, and American.  While their colonial periods do not appear to have been particularly damaging, as far as being colonized goes, we wondered a bit at the fact that the exhibits were incredibly favorable towards the colonizers and were also in most cases funded by groups from those countries.  Probably a coincidence.

The only dugong we saw on the whole trip.
Outside, they had a replica bai, which is the traditional men's meeting house in Palau. Historically, every village used to have one (or more) bai.  The bai was considered the most important building in the village and the chiefs/elders would have assigned seats along the wall, based on rank or title. Inside the bai there were no diving walls, no furnishings, only two fireplaces break up the expansive area within.  We were intrigued to find many of the traditional bai symbols and motifs appeared on the new capitol building complex we saw earlier in the day. 

It is decorated with numerous paintings depicting local animals and legends. This gable area depicts the Palauan legend of Miladeldil.

This very happy fanihi, or fruit bat, was on the underside of entrance/doorway beam, looking down. The bat symbolizes respect.
We theorized that the man on the top looks so awake and unhappy because the chicken is keeping him awake. In reality, the rooster symbolizes the need of village leaders to rise early and not be "asleep on the job" so to speak.
This depicts the legend of Palau's creation.  The people kept feeding a goddess, Chuab, who eventually grew so big that they could not supply her with enough food, so she sacrificed herself so that the people could live.  Her body became Palau.
After an exciting and busy day, we met Matt and David, who arrived that evening from Guam, had an early dinner, and went to bed promptly.  We would be getting up early to go diving on the morrow!


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  2. Nick, I came across your blog while researching clerkship opportunities in Guam. I was wondering if you might be willing to answer a few questions over email about your experience? Thank you for your time.

  3. Thanks. My emnail is (I created an account that will forward to my personal account so that I hopefully avoid any of the bots that index sites looking for email addresses to spam). Thanks again.