All this time I have been referring to the people of Palau as Palawan, because spell-check seemed to like that word over Palauan. Come to find out though, Palawan is the name of an island off of Indonesia (yes, a different island). The proper spelling for the people of Palau is Palauan after all. Someday if I’m really bored I’ll go back and correct all of my blog posts. Until then, my apologies to the people searching the internet for info on Palawan and coming up with my blog. I haven’t been there. Yet...

Fletch and I took a long weekend these past five days and joined our friends Tanja and Stefan on what was supposed to be a kayak tour of the rock islands. They went through a company here called Planet Blue, who came up with the brilliant idea of renting out camping gear and kayaks to tourists and custom building an entire travel itinerary based on where you want to go and for how many days and which routes you should take based on the tides. Sounds like a pretty sweet adventure, right? When our friends asked if we wanted to join them, we excitedly jumped on the invitation.

So after much planning on the part of Tanja and Stefan, we decided that we would spend two nights each on two different islands to the south. They would each take a single kayak, and Fletch and I would tow a double behind our boat (to be used to explore the rock islands once we were in the area). To get to these islands there was a passage that would be too dangerous to kayak, and so Planet Blue offered shuttles for a significant fee ($250). Since we already had a boat, Tanja and Stefan asked if we could just tow the kayaks ourselves, and they said that would be alright as long as we went slowly. Permission granted.

Thursday


We woke up bright and early, wanting to catch high tide at 9AM for the journey to our first island, Fantasy Island. Fletch dropped me off at Tanja’s place so that the two of us could go and sort out the kayaks. Meanwhile, Fletch and Stefan would be loading up the boat.

We sorted out the kayaks at Sam’s and before too long, were rejoined by Fletch and Stefan. Right on time we had the kayaks tied up single-file behind our boat and ready to tow around the dangerous passage. As we were hitting the throttle and zooming off on our adventure, one of Tanja and Stefan’s co-workers came running to the end of the dock, shouting something angrily. He was upset about something with the kayaks. We stopped the engine to try and hear what he was saying, then Fletch asked Stefan who he was. He was a freelance boat captain and had nothing to do with the kayak tours, so we continued on our way. Every party has a pooper. 

Tanja riding in one of the kayaks. 

It was a beautiful, sunny day, the water was crystal clear, and the dangerous passage didn’t seem particularly threatening, but we kept our speed to a slow crawl to be safe with all of our cargo. Before too long, we found Fantasy island, one of many limestone knobs sticking out of the bays, this one with a strip of beach extending out from one side.

Fantasy Island
We set up camp under a roof constructed for visitors, the kind you see in parks, and went to explore our little private island. The tide was low and so a couple other islands were accessible by foot. They say there are 300 rock islands. I’m not sure how you would ever count them though, because when the tide is up, many are separated by water, but when the tide falls, it turns out that all those individual rocks are actually connected.

We went out into the water and spent some time spear-fishing. Fletch speared a small sweetlips and I a squirrelfish. I wasn’t sure if it was good to eat or not, but figured it must be since it was in the photo on the fishing permits. We came back to the beach and cut up some sashimi. What a joy to be on an island with no electricity, no other people, and a couple of spearguns to hunt food with.

Night fell and Tanja and Stefan grilled us a delicious feast of corn-on-the-cob and vegetable skewers and steaks and pasta salad. The potatos never finished cooking in time and when they did, we were already stuffed. The hermit crabs that took over the beach after dark appreciated the leftovers though. Thousands of the cute little critters, in every shape and size covered the sand so that we had to watch our every step. They were incredibly entertaining and we passed a good amount of time racing them and finding the ones with the nicest shells.

Friday

We were greeted in the morning by rain storms, which we happily took advantage of to shower in. We were smiling and having a jolly good time all the while until a tour boat pulled up onto our beach with only two Palauans on board. One of the men jumped off the boat and stormed towards the kayaks, yelling at us as he went. We couldn’t hear him over the noise of the rain hitting the tin roof. Stefan went over to speak with him and then came back with a long face. The guy stormed over towards us in an angered frenzy and we finally caught amongst his shouts that he was taking back his kayaks because we had towed them when we weren’t supposed to. He demanded that we give him the canister with all the maps they had rented us as well. There was no reasoning with him. He loaded the kayaks onto the tour boat and was gone as suddenly as he had arrived.

Meet Jake of Planet Blue.

We were left insulted and in shock, on a deserted island, in the rain, with no kayaks. There was much brooding and venting and talk of weather or not we should continue our kayak tour with no kayaks. We couldn’t very well go anywhere in the pouring rain, and so we sat and stewed. 

Low tide left our little boat beached and we were literally stranded. 
An hour later a tour boat showed up full of people who began to unload. A massive family, twenty in total, half white and half Palawan, had decided to camp on the same beach, out of countless other beaches, to celebrate two of their girls’ birthdays. Neither of our groups could get up and move beaches because you have to get permits through the state ahead of time to camp on any of the rock islands. They were very polite and apologized that the island had been double-booked. We were still stunned from the kayak episode and so just sat and watched them unload with what must have been some very horse-like faces.

It quickly became crowded under the little tin-roofed area and so we opened some beers and distracted ourselves in a corner by playing The Game of Life on the iPad. When we’d had our fill of the board game we went spear-fishing. If we were going to be wet anyway, we might as well be in the ocean. Shooting fish in the face cheered us up a good bit and we gave the three unfortunate fish we caught to the family as a peace offering.

By the time dinner rolled around we had done our best to forget the morning’s events. What was done was done. We resolved to have a professional conversation with the manager of Planet Blue when we returned. Until then there was nothing we could do. We heated up some tofu green curry for dinner and then settled in to watch A Million Ways To Die in the West on the iPad. If you haven’t seen it, you should; it’s really funny. Maybe don’t watch it at a little kid’s birthday party though. We were asking for angry moms to come and yell at us. Luckily for us they were too polite to. I’m sure the teenage girl pretending to sleep right next to us was thoroughly entertained though.

The noise from the party of 20 finally quieted down well after midnight. Then there was a grass fire. Then the grandmas who wanted to have breakfast ready when everyone else woke up were clanking pots and pans at the break of dawn. Oh and let’s not forget there were 24 people all sleeping under one little tin roof. It’s amazing anyone slept at all.

Saturday

We had our gear packed up and loaded into the boat not a moment too soon. Time to check out island #2. Whereas Fantasy Island had been a spot off limits to tourists, available for locals only, our next destination was a well-known lunch stop for tour groups. That had us slightly concerned. We figured we’d go scope it out and decide if we wanted to stay or not from there.

There was a good deal of guesswork involved in figuring out which island we were supposed to be on since we had had our maps confiscated. We chose the one with boats already moored in front. When we arrived, it was to find the tin-roof shelter already occupied by another large group of locals. They were all sitting around intently and didn’t look like they would be moving anytime soon. We moored the boat and made our way ashore to ask if they were just spending the day or they were another camping group.

“Hello there!” Fletch called out happily.

“We’re having a meeting!” One of the men snapped at him in a hushed voice.

Oh goody, let’s add 'church group' to the list of things I didn’t expect to encounter this weekend. We respectfully made our way away from the group and walked the length of the beach. When we returned to the boat we found the young children of the church people playing in the water. We asked why they didn’t have to sit in on the meeting and they just laughed. I was obviously raised in the wrong religion; I didn’t get to play in the ocean during meetings when I was growing up. We asked if they were spending the night and they said no, just the day. So we decided to go tootle around the turquoise water and return at 4:00 when all the tour groups would hopefully be gone for the day.

We found a beautiful bay around the corner and anchored the boat in the middle of it. Two different beaches were at our disposal to swim to. We explored both of those, and then spent several joyous hours floating in the salt water, drinking beers and soaking up the sun. 

Tanja found a hat on the beach. Stefan decided to wear it.

We turned the boat’s life jackets into diapers, which may sound odd at first, but hear me out. Next time you have a life jacket at your disposal, put your legs through the arm holes, and then you float about chest-deep in the water with both hands free for beverages. I learned that trick in Thailand. 

"I love kayaking so much!!! Oh wait..."

We pulled burritos we had pre-made out of the cooler and set the tin-foil out in the sun to Mexican microwave them. Before we knew it we were burnt and happy and tipsy and it was already 4:00. Time to claim our beach.

The last boat was leaving and we arrived to find a much dirtier shelter area than the previous one. The lunch benches were covered in ketchup and soy sauce. The grill was still burning and the scent of leftover fish lingered. The ground was squishy with rotten fruit. The sound of flies swarming was nearly deafening. We walked away from the shelter with our noses scrunched up and found a good spot between a couple of trees to string the tarp up and set up our tents under.

This island didn’t have nearly as many hermit crabs to entertain us, just lots and lots of insects. When it was too dark to notice how dirty the shelter was, we prepared dinner and then sat around and told stories and ate some good Colorado chocolates until it was time to sleep. A wonderful day was had by all.

Sunday

We had barely woken up and started the hot water for coffee when the first boat showed up. Curious as to who would bring guests there so early, we asked them which tour company they were with. They replied that they were the staff of Dragon Tei (a Japanese restaurant here), out for a company brunch. How nice. Palauans always have too much food, and hospitably try to share it with everyone, so we sat back eagerly and waited for the invitation that would likely come.

We never even noticed the second boat arrive, but before too long a Palauan toad of a lady approached us and said hello. I smiled, excited for some good food, and a moment later she was yelling at us about the kayaks!

“I asked Jake to go get the kayaks because they’re my kayaks and you aren’t allowed to tow them because that will ruin them and they are very expensive!” And on and on and on. No one else could get a word in because she would not stop. We were finally able to explain to her that her employees, at her company, had given us the ok to tow them. We were only doing what we had thought was ok.

“They have only been working for me for one year! They do not know enough to be making that decision! You should have asked me directly!” And on and on and on.

We told her (well tried to tell her, she wouldn’t let us get in more than two words at a time) that we were offended by the way Jake had handled the situation, showing up and yelling at us and taking the kayaks away, like we were little kids being punished. All he had to do was tell us that towing wasn’t allowed and we would have said ok, sorry, we didn’t know, and it wouldn’t happen again.

“How am I supposed to trust you won't tow the kayaks again?! You already towed them once! Why should I trust what you say?!” And on and on and on.

We finally managed to get out of the lady that she was Ron’s wife (Ron being the manager of Planet Blue).

The icing on the cake was when she shoved her hand in Fletch's face, I kid you not. She wouldn't stop yelling, and Fletch was desperately trying to say something. She would hear none of what he had to say, and without taking a breath, shoved her hand in his face and yelled, “Shut up! I’m talking to Tanja! This doesn’t concern you!” And on and on and on.

She wouldn’t let anyone else get a word in, and wanting to have the final say, finally stormed off, still yelling, leaving us once again insulted and in shock.

If you kept up with my stories from when we first arrived in Palau, you may remember what our business dealings were like in those early days. We learned off the bat that there is no such thing as customer service here, nothing is professional, the concept of the customer always being right (even when they’re not) is beyond comprehension. Business dealings are handled with the same amount of tact as personal dealings would be. If there is a disagreement, you are treated like a little kid for not understanding their way. And of course their way is always right because we are the foreigners. (That last part at least is consistent everywhere we go).

We sat there stunned for a few moments, vented until there was nothing left to say, then resolved that it would be a terrible idea to leave any of our belongings on the beach. That horrible woman might take it upon herself to confiscate our camping gear as well. So we packed everything back into the little boat and hightailed it away from all the drama.

No one knew where we were going. I had been pushing to continue our trip this entire time but now was ready to go home. Being yelled at once for a simple misunderstanding was unprofessional. Being yelled at a second time, by another person, on another beach was just downright unscrupulous and cruel. Tanja pointed us into another picturesque bay with white sand beaches and lagoons of turquoise, clear water. We dropped the anchor and then all spent a few minutes going off in opposite directions. Fletch stayed on the boat to look at a loose wire. I swam towards the beach and went to explore the jungle beyond. There were some disturbingly large holes in the ground, the kind crabs live in but these were big enough for my foot to fall through. The jungle also hid a small swamp, with a beautiful, old, twisted tree on the opposite shore.

When I returned to the beach it was to find the other three in the water discussing what to do. In the end we decided that since it was already low tide, there was no sense in trying to weave our way through the shallow reefs. We’d spend another day chilling in the bay, head back around 4:00 again when the last boats were gone.

We cracked open beers and drank until we were smiling and laughing once more. We were in paradise after all. 

I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand
Life is good today. Life is good today. 

Before we knew it the day was gone and it was time to head back. We set up camp once more, cooked some pasta for dinner, and gathered around the iPad to watch The Maze Runner. (No open fires are allowed on the rock islands, so unfortunately there was no gathering around the campfire over the weekend).

Monday

No time was lost in the morning in cooking breakfast and packing the boat up. We made our way home and then headed over to Sam’s to ask for a refund for the kayaks. (Sam’s and Planet Blue are related in some complicated manner). The lady in the shop kindly said she would do what she could. 

We walked outside and found the employees of Planet Blue who had told us we could tow the kayaks. They kindly apologized for giving us the wrong information and all the problems it had caused. Then Ron’s wife stormed over and started screaming at us all over again. The conversation, or lack thereof, went almost exactly how it had the day before. The woman just shouted and shouted and refused to let anyone else say their piece. She once again yelled at everyone that she only wanted to talk to Tanja. Fletch and I sat back at a loss for what to do. Stefan yelled back at her for making his girlfriend cry. Everyone was shaking by the time she once again stormed off. 

And thus ended our trip. There were some high points. There were some low points. Some bad people tried to bring us down. But in the end we still had a fun weekend of salt on our skin and sand between our toes.