One of the most expensive countries to get into is now under my belt as I clear immigration in Palau. Though Americans can travel here freely through the Compact of Free Association, flights can be expensive. Simply getting here rewards me with a full-page passport stamp-cum-poem entitled “The Palau Pledge” wherein I promise to respect the country and its culture. I am very uptight about my passport pages, and I hate when space is wasted when a border agent stamps frivolously in my passport. But dedicating a full page to Palau is an honor, not just because this is my first entry into my last “real” continent (who could count Antarctica?) but because I get to sign below the pledge and forever be contractually bound to loving this island. I think all countries should do that. Its just nice. Imagine if all visitors had to sign a form at Newark saying they’d just be cool and enjoy America, and if the stamp had a quote from “America the Beautiful” or “Born to Run.” The U.S. would definitely pick up some brownie points among world travelers and immigrants alike.
We are the only ones who disembark the plane and come looking for a cab. Most tourists rent a car as rentals are affordable and visitors have to drive nearly everywhere here. There are no buses, no trains, and few ferries, but the friendly close-knit island community of around 20,000 makes just about anyone a cab driver who is going your way. We catch Benedict, a Palau native, at the airport and ask him to take us to our motel in Koror. He happily obliges and supplies us with free insight into current events and culture. He is charming in a way that only people from relaxed island nations can be. He is happy to make a few dollars, but he is even happier to be doing what he loves, which is talking about his country and asking questions about America and Americans. He gets a real kick out of my affable mother and we are all beaming after fifteen minutes’ ride. Benedict gives us his card and telling us he does day tours of the whole island if we are interested. We tell him we’ll be in touch.
Palau: Plat Principal
As much as we want to call our driver for a day-long circumnavigation of this island paradise the next morning, we are all just a little tired from careening through Japan, Korea, and Taiwan over the course of a week. Though Palau is an island paradise in nearly every possible way, the challenge of finding a beach bests the Bernabeis and we wind up spending the majority of our day at a restaurant and bar with a pool and thoroughly enjoying the views of beautiful water and tropical greenery. For lunch, I order a spicy poke bowl which I am surprised to enjoy so much, since I’ve had the trendy sashimi dish before back home and been underwhelmed. Vegetables are scarce in Palau, as virtually everything but the fish has to be imported. As a result, my spicy tuna is little more than a mound of (almost too much) tuna caught a few hours before, well-prepared sushi rice, and strips of seaweed for garnish. I somehow digest the meal and go on to eat dinner that night. After scouring the internet for any details about good places to eat, I finally get a lead that recommends Carp’s Restaurant in Koror, past the main port, for Palauan food for a good price. We are not disappointed. Each course runs under 10 dollars (Fun Fact: the U.S. dollar is the official currency of Palau) and we actually find some locally grown vegetables on the menu. We eat garlic spinach, fried tapioca balls (which taste like a fried ball of mashed potatoes) and grilled fish. The hostess thanks us and calls for a cab to take us to the motel.
I am running low on cash, so I decide I am going to walk out to an ATM and take out some money for my coming trips. There is no telling when I will see an ATM with US dollars again, so I plan on taking out a few hundred and stowing it away. While researching dinner that afternoon, I had stumbled upon a Tripadvisor page that ranked L’Amorena, a Gelato shop in the north of town, as the best restaurant in all of Koror. I ask my parents if they’d like to get gelato after my ATM stop and they seem interested so we begin our walk along Koror’s only real road. At night, we take in touristic Palau and make sense of this strange place. What makes it strange? For starters, everything in Palau feels American, and this walk along the main drag is like walking through that of any Jersey Shore beach town. The money is American, and the locals all speak English. Not to mention many of the people here have been to America, many of whom have worked and lived there for a long period of time making them, in my opinion, American. Palau being a CoFA state, Palauans can live and work freely in the U.S., as if they are citizens who cannot vote, do not hold US passports, and do not pay taxes, but enjoy not needing visas, work permits, or residence to start a new life in our comparatively enormous nation.
Despite the Americanity, every tourist we run into is Chinese, and while they spend a lot of money in Palau the locals have mixed feelings about these new kids on the block. For one, many Chinese live and move here, start businesses here, and then when Chinese tourists come they patronize these places but not the Palauans'. We made the mistake of booking a Chinese-owned motel and, while we enjoyed the amenities, the service and tourist advice was lacking, as if the owner had no idea why we would want to visit Palauan restaurants or visit public beaches. Benedict, our driver from the first night, proved to be the most comprehensive guide to Palau we could possibly want, especially since he tried to explain this strange cultural divide as I just outlined.
I feel strange as an American in Palau, because I am treated with so much more hospitality than the Chinese. Walking down the street behind a mainland couple, a Palauan slows down beside me, shoots me a genuine smile, and asks if I want a ride like the two of are in book club together and my car is in the shop. When I refuse he wishes me a good day and drives north. The Compact of Free Association not only allows Palauans to work freely in the U.S., but also allows Americans to work freely in Palau, though few take the opportunity, so in a way I am a countryman here. Or, rather, I easily could be. The island is beautiful, but it is much too expensive to be worth it for most people. Gas is over $5/gallon, and since everything but the fish has to be imported, ultimately you have to pay exorbitant amounts for even basic necessities like rice and canned goods.
And that doesn’t even solve the problem of getting to Palau. Mandatory departure tax from the island is set at $50, and flights to and from Koror airport typically run over $500 roundtrip and can only take you from Taiwan or Philippines. As a result, the majority of workers in the island are Filipino because they can come and go with relative ease, and will work for less than Americans will. All of these barriers make American workers and tourists rather rare, and Palauans treat us like some combination of prodigal sons and long-lost cousins. At first, they treat us politely with “sirs,” and “ma’ams,” then when we reveal our inherent informality they immediately loosen up and start inviting us to their homes and secretly giving us the “locals only” price on things like drinks and meals.
Benedict greets us at our hotel at noon on our last morning, and loads our bags into the car. He is going to give us the usual: a four-hour tour of some of the best sights of the island at the furthest reaches of Palau. In the afternoon, we will board a flight back to Taiwan but for now we are still first-class tourists in Oceania. We start our tour in the jungle, where the three of us are to hike a couple of miles through the forest to a roaring waterfall and swimming hole. Some of the trail is foot-wide and heavily forested, but a half-mile in the trail merges with an old railroad, and we walk along the rusty tracks like some sort of uncontacted rainforest tribe of hobos.
I am enamored; my parents are exhausted.
We reach the top of a hill, sweat dripping down our faces, and just over the treetops we see the waterfall and I race down the steps excited to see whats next.
The trail merges with a river, which would have been fun had we all worn flip flops or, perhaps, brought an inner tube. The ’rents exhibit symptoms of drowning-related anxiety, but the rushing water flows hardly shin-deep in the deepest sections. I tell them I will lead ahead and plot a shallow course for them to follow. Neither parent drowns and I attribute that to my excellent leadership and navigational abilities, even though neither follow my course most of the time. I guess you could say I’m a more “hands off” type of leader who likes to “give his followers the tools they need” in order to “carve out their own success” (Bernabei, 101).
When we finally reach the waterfall, I strip down to my shorts and gingerly descend the slippery broken pine staircase, crouching alone into the shallow pool below. The stream courses around me as I plant my feet on a stone downstream. The pool is rather small so we only stay long enough for me to cool off and wash away the sweat from the hike. Before long, though we have to return to the parking lot and the humidity sends us sweating like pigs again within minutes. Benedict meets us at the trailhead and we change into dry clothes before driving further north.
The next stop is a Japanese lighthouse on the far north of Palau, or rather the remaining ruins that have been left to crumble decades after American forces destroyed it during WWII. There isn’t much to see onsite, but from the hilltop some of the most crystal blue Pacific waters can be seen stretching out for miles. Our next stop is Melekeok, or Ngerulmud, the nation’s binomial capital. All three branches of government are housed on the same property in formidable Greek revival structures that aptly look like the U.S. Capitol building had tan half-Polynesian triplets. We are able to walk right up to each building, as it appears today is a day-off for Palauan politics, and stroll the grounds as practically the only people there, save one or two indifferent security guards.
We stop at a convenience store, one of many identified only by the owner’s initials, before arriving at the airport. I am yearning for one last taste of Palau before I leave, perhaps for ever, but all of the food is boring chips and milk and various imported goods. They don’t have Spam musubi, sushi with a slice of teriyaki-flavored Spam instead of fish, or bento, trays of assorted rice and chicken sold like Lunchables for adults. We elect to eat dinner in the airport, but when we arrive the terminal isn’t even open yet, barely two hours before we are set to depart. It is clear we are the only flight out that afternoon, or perhaps that entire day, and so when we reach check-in (stationed at a folding table next to baggage drop-off) we just show our passports and are given a pre-printed boarding pass then told to go through immigration. We are the first to pass through, and our two-hour wait begins.
Bernabei, Victor. “Leadership for the Lazy, Delegating for Dummies: How to Use Your Character Flaws to Your Advantage.” March, 2020.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.