May 21, 2006

"Paradise Found"

Sunday,May 14, 2006

Barbara and I on the boat in paradise, the rock islands of Palau.

Sunday morning dawned bright and, yes, early once again. Though the “work” of the tour was finished, we had an 8 o clock appointment with Paluan Senator Sam Whipps who had generously volunteered to take us out to the Rock Islands free of charge. One does not keep the Senator waiting.

So we were up by 7 and eating breakfast in PPR’s gorgeous open air restaurant overlooking the beach.

By shortly after 8 we were on the Senator’s boat speeding out into the one wonders of the natural world—the Rock Islands of Palau. You’ve seen them on Survivor but trust me the show doesn’t do them justice. Over 300 limestone islands, many undercut by the ocean over time so that they resemble giant green mushrooms, make up Palau, and they are unlike anything in the world. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. My words won’t do them justice.

A typical rock island

This tour that Senator Whipps gave us was unbelievable. We could have paid $300 a piece and it would have been worth every penny (not that we had any such money. We’d already gone through our meager budget and now everything was being paid for out Bab’s and I’s own pocket). The Senator knows the Rock Islands intimately and he seemed to have designed a special tour for us that reveal new wonders at every turn.

Our first stopped made me fear that we were in for a repeat of our last tour to Palau where our hosts had left us marooned on island (albeit a beautiful one) for five hours while they went fishing. We stopped off a rock island, and the Senator sent some of the teachers from the SDA School in Palau in to do little net fishing. The Senator would toss in the net, and we had to jump in right after it to scare the schools of fish into the net which the teachers would then drag back to the boat. We never got our jumps in fast enough and we didn’t catch a lot. But we caught enough. Later we would find that the fishing stop was an important part of a later prize adventure. Even there, floating at anchor while they fished there were hints of wonders to come. Looking into the crystalline water we saw what we thought was dark patches of silvery seaweed, until we realized these patches moved and were great schools of fish.

Our next stop was Jellyfish Lake, a standard stop on any Rock Island tour. The marine lake, entrapped in a rock island is accessible by a somewhat arduous hike up the rock island and down the other side to the lake. The lake is deep, and a dark midnight blue in contrast of with the aquamarine and turquoise of the water around the island. We put masks and snorkels and start swimming out away from where the jungle shades the lake and out to where the sun shines brightly on the lake’s surface. Jellyfish Lake, by the way, is filled with millions of jellyfish that, over the millennia in their protected environment, have lost their ability to sting. The kids snorkel out and return. I ask if they’ve seen any jellyfish. “I saw one” cried the Diva, very excited. Having been here before, I know they have not swum out far enough. Finally, I take to the water and the lead way to where Bono Girl and Friday (who have also been here before) are snorkeling with the Gentleman. I keep swimming until I see what I remember. I’m surrounded by jellyfish on every side, millions of them floating and pulsating all round me like pale pink aquatic flowers. I have to swim carefully to avoid killing dozens of them with my kicks. I reach out to touch them, and they are soft, like, well, jelly. Despite having been here before I am awed and amazed all over again by their gentle, quiet beauty.

I'm not sure, but I believe this is at the Rose Garden. I wish I had an underwater camera. At least half the beauty of Palau is found there.

After Jellyfish Lake we next proceed to the Rose Garden, a patch of coral amongst the Rock Islands where numberless tropical fish gather. (The fact that the Senator is throwing bread and rice into the water helps too). We jump in with mask and snorkel and the fish food rains over us. The fish swarm around us, brilliantly hued, yellow and black stripes, silvery rainbow colored fish, orange and white, red—every color imaginable and some I can’t describe, all swimming all around. So close you’re sure you’re going to bump into them, but unlike the jellyfish, they never touch us even when they are inches from our masks, swarming around our bodies. Deeper down, larger fish in less brilliant colors, at least half my size in lazy, royal ellipses, too proud to join in the feeding frenzy near the surface. I’m in awe. Absolutely awestruck.

Next Senator takes us to t Giant Clam City. I don’t see much of this because I’m having mask issues, but before my mask would fill with water, I did catch a few watery glimpses of the massive clams, clams the size of recliners, on the ocean floor their mouths open. “You can touch them. Just don’t stick your hand in their mouths otherwise you’ll never get it back” says one teacher. “Don’t touch them at all,” another teacher warns. I’m going with not touching them at all.

“Now we’re going to go see some sharks,” the Senator declares. He’s joking right? We look at each other and laugh nervously. “Now when you get there, you must be very still or the sharks will not come.” We WANT them to come? Apparently he isn’t joking. “We don’t want to scare them.” We don’t? We arrive at a rock island with a sandy white beach. There are a lot of tourists on the beach lunching, and others swimming in the shallows. We swim off the boat and wade to near the shore. The water can’t be more than waist deep. “Now put on your masks and snorkels and look under water,” the Senator instructs. Remember those fish we got with the net? He tosses them into the water a few yards in front of us. Immediately fish swarm in to feast. For a few moments, that’s all we see and then—THERE—a large—very large, gray shape darts out of the recesses of the ocean, darts into the mass of feeding fish, gulping down something. It’s unmistakable, the muscular, sleek gray body, the pointed fins—it’s a shark and BAM there’s another one! A pair of them powering through the water within just yards. . .FEET away. And I’m not scared. Instead I’m thrilled, amazed, wowed. I want to see more. This blows away any Sea World shark encounter—we’re in the water WITH them. Several times more, we see a pair of sharks (probably the same pair), each at least as long as I am (and a whole lot bigger around) swim in to snack. “Oh well, that wasn’t so great,” the Senator sighs. “We really needed to come earlier, not when it’s lunch time and there are not so many people around. They’re scaring them away.” That it could get better than this is unfathomnable to me.

The view from the boat of us "shark watching"

No, it's not Bob Marley. It's just me. Lunchtime in the Rock Islands.
And there’s still more. After a nice bento lunch on one of the rock islands (the same one we got left at two years ago) we’re back out on the water, this time we go to Ngemlis Island and the famed Ngemlis Wall, one of the best wall dives in the world. And the snorkeling isn’t too shabby either. Here the a shelf of coral coming off the island drops off in a sheer wall that drops hundreds of feet down. The wall is festooned with brilliant corals, hard and soft, and people by thousands of varieties of tropical fish. Snorkeling along this wall is like being in some sort of enchanted wonderland. You know that movie Finding Nemo? It’s exactly like that. . .except it’s not a cartoon. They even have those weird little fish (remember the ones that spelled out words in the cartoon—well they don’t do THAT part) that dart about in schools at hyper speed.

Me in the boat at Ngemlis Wall and. . .

. . .Me the snorkeling the wall. Note the darker color of the water indicating the greater depth, as the wall plunges deep into the ocean.

For about twenty minutes I followed a sea turtle as it meandered along the wall. Finally Friday who was snorkeling close by dived down to it, close enough to touch. It turned and swam up toward me, passing within a little more than an arms length of me. We snorkeled along the wall for what seemed like hours and I never, ever got bored (though my fingers did begin to get numb from being in the water so long and my back fried like bacon). No words do it justice. Maria said she almost cried from the beauty of it, and I understood.

That was our last stop, after that the Senator returned us to the dock at PPR and we ended our rock island adventure satisfied.

Back from the rock islands, the team is sunburnt and tired, but happy. Thanks Senator Whipps!

Me, the "island guy" back at PPR after a day in the rock islands.

We finished out the day with some more souvenir shopping at Ben Franklin and then went to the home of Vince (my running buddy who teaches grades ½ at our school in Saipan). Her family is one of the leading families of Palau and very wealthy. They prepared a feast for us at their beautiful mountaintop home and we ate well. In appreciation we gave a brief performance of some of our sketches for their entertainment.

Then it was back to the hotel to pack up. And at 11:30 we checked out of PPR (except for my wife and CK Girl who wouldn’t leave Palau until Weds. Lucky them) and went to the airport. We were exhausted, but exhilarated. It had been our best theater tour ever and a memory we would treasure always.

The REAL Christian Theater team with new friendsat the airport Sunday night getting ready to return to Saipan.

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