Part 1: Natural Wonders You Never Knew Existed (…and they’re all in Palau!)

We’re hearing all kinds of rumors about Blood Moons and other newsworthy natural phenomena. I thought it appropriate, then, to share a few of the wilder natural wonders we’ve experienced in Palau, which is full of them (this place wasn’t named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothin’). This is Part 1 of a 2-part series…or more, depending on how much the upcoming rainy season puts a damper on our adventuring. For now, when we’re not on the clock, you can find us in…

1. The Rock Islands

There’s something about the Rock Islands that really awakens the inner second grader, the one who wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist and a paleontologist, scanning reefs for shipwrecks and caves for old bones. (With Palau’s World War II history, and with the discovery of supposed ancient cave-dwelling “Hobbit people,” discovering old bones in caves is also something we do on occasion in the Rock Islands.)

As Tufts alumni, we are partial to this one. Go Jumbos!

As Tufts alumni, we are partial to this one. Go Jumbos!

 

Only nine of Palau’s islands are inhabited, but the country is made up of over 250 limestone and coral islands spread across 400 miles of Pacific Ocean. Millennia ago, the Rock Islands were submerged coral reefs formed on the tops of underwater volcanoes. Now, these ancient reefs are uplifted, mushrooming out of the sea in great green mounds: statuesque bodies of rock and jungle foliage in all shapes and sizes. Due to wave erosion and the porous nature of the rock, the islands are cut away at the base, so that from a distance they appear to be hovering, magically suspended above the surface of the water. Through fog, they look like sleeping elephants or brontosaurus, prehistoric giants about to rise up and roar.

An outer reef surrounds this area of Palau, so the water throughout much of the Rock Islands remains protected, radiant turquoise blue and calm. You can kayak or snorkel, hang beneath the lip of the rocks for shade—a great place to examine coral and take in a hundred varieties of palm, white rur and elilai flowers, tropic birds and fruit bats sailing overhead. If you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

Anna kayaking in the Rock Islands

Anna kayaking in the Rock Islands

 

2.  Jellyfish Lake

From Koror, it’s a 40-minute boat ride through the Rock Islands to Mercherchar Island, where you dock, hike over a steep hill, don your mask and snorkel, and immerse yourself in a marine lake full of five million stingless jellyfish—transparent, golden pink globes in every size, some as big as grapefruit, some smaller than a baby’s fingernail, so tiny you can barely see them, and they’re all pulsing and pitching around you in the rhythm of heartbeats, bumping into one another and moving on, feeding on light.

Jellyfish Lake, taken by our friend Joey, December 2013

Jellyfish Lake, taken by our friend Joey, December 2013

If you’ve ever been to an ocean beach, you’ve learned to beware of jellyfish. But this is one of few places in the world where you can ignore that rule, a place where sea levels rose as high as the islands themselves and then receded, forming marine lakes, briny inland environments in which a few oceanic species (namely, jellyfish) remained, predator-free. Sea anemones around the lake’s perimeter provide a degree of population control, and with hundreds of visitors daily during high season, human impact is inevitable. But without a direct threat to their survival, these jellies evolved without strong stinging defenses. Instead, they float innocuously, shifting en masse from east to west with the passage of the sun.

I had my doubts about Jellyfish Lake, one of Palau’s hyped visitor destinations. (In an attempt to deter crowds, Koror State jacked Jellyfish Lake visitor permits to $100 a pop–it’s free for Palauans and “locals” like us, with work permits. So far, the fee has primarily meant income generation for the state.) But if you catch it at the right time, communing with the jellies is equal parts thrilling and serene—you imagine yourself floating through a kaleidoscope, a sky of peachy clouds, a galaxy of pink stars…

Brian gets comfortable with the jellyfish

Brian gets comfortable with the jellyfish

 

If you catch it at the wrong time, then a rowdy tour group starts squealing, slicing the water with kicking fins, and the beheaded remains of jellyfish float past–limp arms, a silent bell. It reminds me of a visit to Machu Picchu, which was magnificent and peaceful at sunrise, but by 11 a.m., a man was shouting into his cell phone, shaking it at the sky for service, and a bunch of teenagers were climbing the ruins behind a “Do Not Touch” sign. Sigh. That’s the thing about natural wonders: they are incredibly attractive to humans.

I can’t stream this video from The Guardian, but the first-worlders among you can visit the lake vicariously here.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Glow-in-the-dark swimming, fastidious fish, and underwater things that go bump in the night…

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Who Wore It Better? Quirk v. McCain Edition

John McCain was all over the Island Times and Tia Belau when he and his family recently visited Palau for the holidays. Apparently the McCains like to vacation in Palau (world class scuba diving, serious loyalty to the U.S. military—what’s not to love?). And when the McCains visit, they like to stay at the Palau Pacific Resort, the swankiest hotel on the island on a coveted stretch of sandy beach just a 10 minute walk down the road from our apartment.

It may surprise you to know that Palau isn’t all white sands and beachfront property–they don’t call them the Rock Islands for nothing. These babies were built from uplifted reef and volcanic activity. They are coral and limestone. They are jagged. They are edgy. They have been the death of many a flimsy rubber flip-flop. Postcard beaches are easy to come by if you have a boat or time for a drive up the coast of Babeldaob, but around Koror, the hotels have a monopoly on the best.

Brian and I pay a PPR member fee to swim at the beach, so I had high hopes for a McCain sighting. I was thinking Meghan and I could bond over a scuba dive, just two all-American Millennial girls dishing about our conservative dads, marriage equality, her new reality TV show…who knows? Maybe after a few of the PPR’S  signature Shark Attack cocktails I’d convince her that she really is, in fact, a feminist.

Alas, my holiday time was busy with other things, including rehearsals for a dance performance at the Supreme Court’s annual holiday party…which in many ways felt like its own reality TV show…

The Setting: The Sunset Park bar at T-Dock, an open-air establishment perched at the end of a long boat launch. Views of a turquoise bay by day. Black lights and neon strobes by night. And food. So much food. Potluck of bottomless sushi and sashimi, taro and tapioca, and at the head of the table, a roast pig the size of a small car.

The Cast: The Judiciary, the House of Delegates, and the Ministry of Infrastructure. A handful of surly bartenders. Marshalls on duty around the perimeter of the building.

The Challenge: Out-perform your fellow government branch using only a song, a caller, 10-20 coworkers, minimal props, and at least some nod to traditional Palauan moves. Like Hawaiian hula, Palauan dance conveys a story. But why tell a story about rain or sea or sunshine when you could roast friends and delegates in the audience instead? Bonus points awarded for stories that air on the side of total mockery.

There were grown men in diapers. There were government officials dressed in drag, in cropped tops and blood-red lipstick, printed tights and stiletto heels. There were ministers of infrastructure riding neon orange construction cones around the room as if they were horses. There were grass skirts swishing and sweeping the floor (now I understand what “pretend like you’re wiping your butt on the wall” means). There were whistles and gyrating and lap dances and a group of U.S. Military men sweating on the sidelines in polyester bellbottoms and afro wigs—they were told it was a ’70s-themed costume party.

Blurry, but you get the idea.

Blurry, but you get the idea.

The Judiciary’s dance team was a motley crew of clerks, custodians, IT whizzes, judicial assistants, court counsel and court counsel spouses (I’m still not sure how Chris and I got roped into this). By the time we box-stepped onto the dance floor to perform our tame-by-comparison mash-up of Japanese/square dancing/traditional and modern Palauan dance, it was clear that we were out of our league. But we shook as much as we could shake, smiled, marched, clapped, slapped and bowed, and the audience was forgiving.

Unsurprisingly, the Judiciary took third place—booted off the island, in time, I suppose. But we had a good time. Heck, we even made a few bucks. In Palauan tradition, we learned, to dance for someone is to honor them. Those who witness the dance offer money in gratitude for the honor (like I said: forgiving audience).

If John McCain had been present, he would have seen that, surely, Palauans have discovered the solution to government shutdowns and party-line gridlock. Less pontificating on the Senate floor, more grabbing floor! Less finger-wagging, more booty-shaking! Less filibuster, more drag!

He would have also seen that he and a certain someone I know share a flair for island fashion, as you can see by this photo captured the night of our holiday performance. Which brings me to the pressing question at hand: Who Wore It Better: Quirk or McCain? And is Brian, in fact, the new poster boy of the young Republicans? Cast your votes by comment, please!

McCain keeps things simple and chic with minimal accessories, while Brian gets festive with a bold striped scarf and a sassy red undershirt.

McCain keeps things simple and chic with minimal accessories, while Brian gets festive with a bold striped scarf and a sassy red undershirt.

McCain photo courtesy of Tia Belau, “State Dinner,” 12/27. Quirk photo courtesy of Lou Lou. Caption by Susan Reid. Photoshop magic by Chris Yorke.

A Bright, Palauan Christmas Day

Ungil Kurismas! All week long, Palauans have been sporting their best red t-shirts, decorating the heck out of everything, and doling out nightly gifts to kids in Bethlehem park, which is glowy with angels, ornaments in the palm trees, and an artificial Ponderosa Pine planted in a hole in the dirt for the occasion. Brian and I have been learning traditional Palauan dances for the Supreme Court’s annual holiday party this Friday, which will include grass skirts and a lot of shouting and booty shaking before the entire judiciary and House of Delegates. In case you’re wondering what traditional Palauan booty shaking looks like, consider this from one of Brian’s coworkers, offered as a tip to improve our sub-par moves: “Pretend you’re wiping your butt on the wall. That’s what they told us when we learned in elementary school.” I have a feeling it will be a memorable performance.

Xmas Bethlehem Park

Brian photo bombs an angel in Bethlehem Park

Brian photo bombs an angel in Bethlehem Park

Christmas wasn’t quite the same without snow and sub-zero temps, but we made do with what we had: sunshine, beach, and Spam, which made for a shiny topper on our last-minute makeshift Christmas tree, constructed with leftovers from the move.

Island Xmas Tree

We spent the day at the beach, reveling in the company of good friends and visiting relatives, and wishing we could import all of our family and friends for the occasion.

Wishing you all merry holidays. Be good, ok?

Tree Decor-Be Good Ok