Palau: a silly experience in a beautiful place
Day 3,032 since October 10th 2013: 195 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic!
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).
The other side of the coin
Most of you probably have no idea about Palau? And those of you who do have some knowledge of this little country will likely mostly know of its beauty. Well, I had a unique inside to something else.
Last week’s entry: MV ‘Kota Ratna’ – passenger no. 1 (reaching Palau)
Within Once Upon A Saga, it has always been the aim to share the positive while staying somewhat realistic. If the people are horrible then you can always shine some light on nature. If the nature is plain then there might be something interesting within the history. You can always find an angle to go positive. Reality is, that Palau has super nice people, a great deal of natural beauty and a fascinating history. So, it is easy to share good stories. I guess I was just lucky to get my “hands dirty” and see what was behind the curtains. Let’s go back to when Pacific International Lines (PIL) good ship ‘Kota Ratna’ approached Palau. Or I should say “some of Palau”. Because this Western Pacific Island Nation stretches more than 600km (370mi) from its northernmost island to the southernmost! We were following the coastline of Babeldaob which is Palau’s main island and, in my ears, sounds like something out of J. R. R. Tolkien's imagination. It is 43km (27mi) in length. A crewmember said: “It’s so beautiful. It looks like the home of King Kong”. I was on the bridge together with Captain Zaidi. Then a scent hit me. It is rare that you get to smell a country before setting foot within it. The wind needs to come from the right direction. It has only happened a few times for me. The smell reminded me of the Seychelles! Isn’t it funny how a scent can send our memories back in time? It was a pleasant warm and humid scent of tropical forest.
Approching Palau onboard the good ship 'Kota Ratna'
Approaching the gate at the port of Koror.
I had no idea what to expect once the ship came along side? In Hong Kong there was a new outbreak just as I left and in Palau an outbreak began while we were at sea! I was quickly called to the gangway, threw my bag over my shoulder and rushed down to see if it was immigration? On the quay there were several vehicles. Port Security, representatives of the Health Ministry, the agent, immigration…all wearing masks and some remained within their vehicles as well. No heartwarming welcome and no dancing :) There was some small talk while we waited for what was about to happen. Everyone was nice. Then someone said: “there they are” as a white van approached from the small ports gate. It rolled up next to the other vehicles and a couple of men wearing masks and visors told me to get in. My bags went in the back, I waved farewell to the ship, and away we went. We drove to the gate where security and the driver were speaking within the local language. Then we made a U-turn and headed back inside the port again. As it happened, they had dropped an entry pass and would need to pay a fine if it wasn’t returned. So, we headed back to the ship, found the pass, returned to security, and then we were on our way. It was a full 300m (300 yards) to the hotel where they dropped me off. Inside I met Melody who was wearing a mask and sat behind a plastic screen. She was the kind receptionist who gave me my room number and key. I had a hotel booking in Palau which we had informed the agent of but not for this hotel? Anyway, I went with the flow. Once in my room two nice ladies from the Health Department arrived to instruct me that my 14-day quarantine had begun and that I was not allowed outside the room. Then they tested me for COVID-19 which quickly came back negative. And then I was left alone. It had to be a mistake? Why would they quarantine me for 14 days?
When negative is positive :)
Back in mid-2020 I received an email from a Dutch guy named Roel who lives in Palau. He had heard about the Saga and that I was trying to reach Palau from Hong Kong. Roel told me that Palau was hermetically sealed and that it would be a while before I could enter. We stayed in touch. And come June 2021 Palau had opened up for tourism again. Roel and I immediately began working on getting me to Palau. Our first breakthrough was an invitation letter from Jackson M. Henry, Vice President of Angaur State. With this I approached our friends at PIL, whom immediately began looking into what was possible. As the days flew off the calendar, I had a videocall with Meang and Alyssa from the legal office of President Surangel Whipps Jr! They were my first meeting with Palauan’s and they were as sweet as sugar! By early November we had an invitation letter, which had been signed by Mrs Sherilynn Madraisau who’s the director of the Bureau of Public Health. All of this paperwork needed to fall into place as Palau was only open to those who were fully vaccinated and traveled on a vessel where everyone was vaccinated. This was the practice with airplanes and as such content creator Drew Binsky flew to Palau and made some videos making Palau his country number 195. At the time it could not be guaranteed that the entire crew on a containership would be vaccinated. Therefore, we agreed that I would do ten days of quarantine in case I arrived on a vessel alongside unvaccinated seafarers. And now the stage is set.
THIS is where Palau is. I'm in the top circle.
I have tested negative for COVID-19 for two years. The vessel I arrived on was highly isolated as nobody had joined the ship for 28 days prior to me. Everyone onboard was vaccinated and had tested negative prior to joining. Temperatures were taken of everyone onboard twice daily. The voyage was a full fifteen days. And as mentioned before, I tested negative on arrival to Palau. Why was I being quarantined? Well, the Health Ministry had issued a new directive three days before we reached Palau which authorized: isolation, quarantine, and restrictive entry measures. I had a look at the ‘Order for Quarantine’ which I had been handed. It read that I had been: “determined to have been in Hong Kong in the last 14 days”. Isn’t that silly? I had been on the ship for 15 days. So, I wonder how that was determined? It had to be a mistake. It also read that Ministry of Health reasonably believed that I was infected or potentially exposed to COVID-19? I was quickly able to reach out to the government and soon both the President and the Ministry of Health was aware. Yet – I was not released from my quarantine.
This is Roel!! In the flesh! Our first face to face meeting from my balcony on the 2nd floor. Roel was kind enough to bring me fruits and food. He offered to bring me whatever I wanted.
I do not mind being in quarantine. I can easily make time pass and I don’t miss the human interaction. In Hong Kong everyone gets at least 14 days of hotel quarantine while some get 21 days depending on which country they arrive from. In Palau it appears to be determined on an individual basis and for the most part people arriving to Palau simply walked into the country after testing negative. I was quite perplexed about my quarantine and became even more so as time went on. A part of the Saga is to reach every country without flying and make history in the process. A part of the Saga is to symbolically connect the Red Cross and Red Crescent globally. And a large part of the Saga is to show people the world through my eyes, sharing positive stories to counter the often negative narrative seen in media. How could I accomplish all of that from a hotel room?
In a way, the quarantine didn't matter all too much given how much it was raining. And raining hard! I might have stayed indoor regardless.
On day six the phone rang and it was only at the end of the conversation I realized that I was speaking with Mrs Sherilynn Madraisau, the director of the Bureau of Public Health! She wanted to hear about my situation. I explained that I had not been in Hong Kong within the past 14 days and that the seafarers were all vaccinated. Mrs Madraisau said that she had no proof that the crewmembers were vaccinated to which I could respond that I had. Captain Zaidi had provided me with all the crewmembers names, their vaccines, their vaccine dates and much more. Signed and stamped by the captain. Mrs Madraisau wanted to know if it was signed by a doctor? I replied it was signed by the captain. Mrs Madraisau asked if the captain was a doctor? I replied no. Then she concluded it wasn’t proof. I was perplexed? I asked Mrs Madraisau if I had to bring the 23 vaccination certificates of all 23 crewmembers with me to enter Palau – she replied yes. I asked if this was common practice for passengers arriving by plane – she said yes. Isn’t that silly? Towards the end of our conversation Mrs Madraisau said that I would be tested again on the following day (day 7). If I tested negative then we could discuss early release. I was left what had prompted Mrs Madraisau in person to call me? Something was happening!
My beautiful view of Palau from my quarantine room.
The following morning around 09:00am I once again met the two nice ladies from the Health Ministry whom tested me. I tested negative again. Then I waited, and waited, and waited…as the shadows grew long, I realized that nothing was happening that day. There was also no news the following morning so I drafted and sent an email to Meang and Alyssa from the legal office of President Surangel Whipps Jr. And Meang was quick to write me back and show sympathy for my unfavorable situation. I had expressed that I felt I was being held in quarantine for the wrong reasons and while I sympathized with the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Palau, it had nothing to do with me. Later that day after the sun had set, there was a knock on the door, which I thought was my dinner. All my meals would be placed on a green plastic chair outside my door and afterwards a knock would sound. When I opened the door, I would find my meal but never the one who placed it. So, this time I opened the door shirtless anticipating nothing else than my food. But it was the two nice ladies from the Health Ministry. Ups! I stood there wondering if I should quickly return to the room and put a shirt on. The two kind ladies smiled and said: “we have good news! You have been released!” That was good news! It was late in the day so quite unexpected. I called my friend Roel and we agreed he would pick me up after dinner and take me to his place.
I was really pleased with the food! Most meals were above average. But the portions were a little small for me. Especially coming from the Chief Cook and 2nd Cook on 'Kota Ratna' who would shovel food into my head :)
Around 8:00pm I paid my bill (USD 1,000!) to the very kind Melody at the reception. If you want to help pay some of that then you are more than welcome to contribute on MobilePay #12711, PayPal or sign up on Patreon :) Roel was outside chitchatting with security, whom I also quickly spoke with. A lot of people within Palau’s service sector are from the Philippines and Bangladesh. I was in my early stages of exploring Palau. You may wonder what I spent time on in quarantine. I thought I would sleep a lot but in reality, I had a lot of work, there was much research to be done, I needed to coordinate with PIL regarding our return to Hong Kong, I had to prepare for quarantine in Hong Kong and make a booking, I reached out to shipping companies regarding getting from Hong Kong to Australia, some days I watched a lot of YouTube, did a few interviews and I walked about 30,000 steps over two days by doing more than a THOUSAND circles in my room. Now I was free!!! Roel and I made a stop at Drop off Bar and Grill, which would normally be packed – but the pandemic had people worried. Everyone was wearing masks. I thought I had escaped that. Not so. It was back to hand sanitizers, masks, temperature checks and social distancing. I just did two years of that. Roel explained that ten days earlier life in Palau had been normal. In fact, Palau had gone free of the virus throughout most of the pandemic up until now.
First stop together with Roel. And I had my first Palauan beer! :)
We reached Roel’s home around 11pm and he showed me to a room where a madras had been prepared for me on the floor. “Are you okay with that?” he asked. People have no idea how humble some of my sleeping arrangements have been around the world. Yes – I was more than happy.
First views of Koror. Nice.
The next day was my first real day in Palau! Sure – it was day 9, but being in that hotel room wasn’t much different from being on the ship. Albeit it was less social with the 23 brave seafarers. I must admit that those first 8 days in quarantine had me growing somewhat bitter towards an entire country. Isn’t that silly? It is a common mistake amongst people to judge and generalize based on a bad experience. I could have arrived 14 days earlier and had a wonderful welcome and a splendid time in Palau. Then I might have been deliriously positive about this Western Pacific nation. Unfortunately, I sat in quarantine growing bitter about a series of overgrown rocks which had been scattered across the Pacific. Well, it took less than 24 hours of exploring Palau to fall in love with the nation. I grew up hearing that it would always take several positive encounters to outweigh one negative encounter. Palau had plenty of good encounters in store for me!
Roel and I headed out to Melekeok, which is the seat of government (Ngerulmud) of Palau. And we did a thorough tour of Koror. There is much beauty in this country.
Roel played tour guide for me from his car as we drove around Koror, which is the main commercial center within Palau. They drive on the RIGHT side of the road in Palau opposed to what isn’t RIGHT ;) But a lot of vehicles have the steering wheel on the right side as well? That’s because a lot of cars come to Palau from Japan which has a special bond with Palau. There’s the war stuff but also so much more. Many Japanese soldiers started families with Palauan’s and even to this day there are many Palauan’s whom speak Japanese and Palau is a huge tourist destination for Japan – outside of the pandemic that is. Another large contributor to Palau’s economy is Taiwan, which has an embassy in Palau. And then there is the USA. Since WWII there has been a lot of history between the USA and Palau and today Palau is in Free Association with the USA, which provides defense, funding, and access to social services. Any Palauan can also freely move to the USA to study, live and work.
Palau reminds me a bit of Greenland, in that if the supplies have not arrived - then the shelves are empty. No empty shelves in this photo though.
Palau is an absolute frontrunner within conserving nature and protecting the environment. Tova (from Israel) has lived a lifetime in Palau and told me that such efforts began already back in the 50s. I met her together with Dieter (from Austria). They both work at Fish'n Fins Palau, which is one of the leading diving centers in Palau and offer a lot more than that. I sat down to meet with them and slowly feel in love with Tova who has lived 2-3 lifetimes. Dieter was of a similar character and has lived and traveled all over the world. They both hold a passion within diving and conserving nature. But more about them on Sunday because were likely heading out into the blue together. On Saturday I will be joining Swingly “Swing” Aguon (from Palau) and his friends for some snorkeling, fishing and chilling (he’s Vivian’s husband whom I met in HK). And I’ll be meeting the Palau Red Cross on Monday.
A peaceful corner in Koror. Well, every corner of Koror is pretty peaceful.
These Palauan’s live quite isolated from the rest of the world. Protecting the environment comes at a cost. Of the roughly 18,000 Palauan’s about a third are said to be “off island” and living in the USA, Guam or elsewhere. People get bored. Beauty fades or becomes bland and ordinary. Tourism plays a huge role but foreign funding even more so. Palau, in its current state, is not a financially sustainable country and relies heavily on funding from USA, Taiwan and Japan. With more than 3,000 years of history the culture is strong and the traditions run deep. With a small population you can be sure that a handful prominent families run nearly everything and everyone knows everyone – or at least someone who knows who you do not know yourself. If you step on someone’s toe then you might find yourself in trouble amongst many. I may have stepped on a few toes already. Foreign nations have come and gone for centuries. A bit of culture and influence has rubbed off here and there. And I’m just another outsider coming to take a look and give my take on a complex society within a few days. But the people I have met have been kind and curious.
Hanging out with Tuva and Dieter in front of Fish'n Fins Palau's liveaboard. Thanks for the lovely lunch :)
If I’m joining the good ship ‘Kota Ratu’ on Wednesday then you’ll have a shortish entry next week about all of the upcoming adventures. And more about Palau which I already have some fairly good insight into. And if I’m not able to join the ship then you’ll have a couple more Palau entries to look forward to. But really – we need to get on that ship and be on our way to Australia soon. It has been eight years of this and it was time to go home long ago…
Yeah - there is something special about Palau. But running under the sun is bloody hot and only for idiots such as me!! :)
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - happy to be out of quarantine
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Once Upon A Saga