Palau's Toy Box

PALAU'S TOY BOX: A grown man travels to the Pacific and lets loose in a playground of Jellyfish lakes, Tarzan jungles, mushroom-shaped islands and caves.

Some might argue that with age, we become far too adult. i would voice wholehearted agreement with these sage beings, but I am reluctant to open my mouth for fear of ingesting chiton poop as I tread water in this marine lake on Palau. Beside me, my friend and guide Kevin Davidson is more tactful. "It's sediment from the chitons!" He shouts because we have chiton poop in our ears. "Their back ends!"

Whatever you call it, it's great fun. First, you fin down 15 feet through smoky white water to the creamy bottom of this lake known locally as Milky Way, scooping up fistfuls of goopy substrate. Once back on the surface, you slather chiton poop all over your face and hair; the stuff gloms on firmly, like some sort of House of Wax facial. Then you hoot, your happy heart echoing off jungle walls that are home to nothing but ¿ well, jungle.

Note to practical adult self: The incessant gnawing of countless chitons, a rock-clinging marine mollusk, is responsible for the signature mushroom shape of Palau's famed Rock Islands. The chitons gnaw the limestone base until what's left looks like a densely foliaged umbrella poking out of the water. Sometimes colorful birds circle beneath the overhangs like schooling fish. Note to adult self: Chiton poop feels like watery silly putty and stinks a lot if you get it up your nose. Bliss to be 10 again.

Welcome to the island nation of Palau, where life - yours and that of the creatures around you - takes unexpected and wondrous turns. You might even find yourself reliving your childhood.

To see Palau solely as a tropical paradise is to largely miss it. But acquiesce to Palau's magic and time ceases to matter - or even to follow its traditional track. In a blink, the present might become the past, or the past might leapfrog to the present.

I spent nine days exploring this republic, east of the philippines and north of New Guinea, where some of World War II's fiercest fighting took place. "About two years ago my wife's uncle was clearing his property and this 500-pound bomb comes rolling down the hill like a big drum," a resident of Koror, Palau's capital, told me matter-of-factly.

I used the tiny island of Koror - probably Palau's most convenient jumping-off point to other islands - as my base. My guide was Kevin, a resident for 12 years who possesses the know-how to mine the true magic of Palau. He made a most excellent playmate. White-sand beaches so bright they make you squint? Check. Dripping jungle canopy hung with colorful birds and flowers? Check. A horizon full of islands scattered across a sea so blue and smooth it might as well be marble? Check.

I floated on my back and spat perfect saltwater geysers between my teeth. I chased tiny green lizards around tree trunks and leapt from the summits of rock islands, arms and legs flailing through bright sunshine until I struck the warm sea.

With Palau's 340-some islands scattered across roughly 400 miles of the western Pacific you could spend several lifetimes indulging in such childish endeavors on all manner of islands, from car-size rocks to the 127-square-mile mass of Babeldaob, Palau's largest island, a jungle-and-waterfall paradise just a two-mile drive northeast of Koror (which is connected to several islands by roads).

The Palauans I met were a happy lot, a potpourri of Malaysian, Melanesian and Polynesian descent endowed with a hearty sense of fun. Picture your dream playground, with all the playground monitors joining in the fun.

On my first day, with Kevin at the helm of our skiff, I experienced both the slaphappy childishness of Milky Way and - how best to put this? - the ethereal honeymoon that is Jellyfish Lake.

Though most visitors hear only of Jellyfish Lake, there are plenty of these Twilight Zone swimming holes. Palau has 70-plus marine lakes - saltwater lakes wholly or very nearly cut off from the surrounding sea - watering holes in which tropical fish drift among coral bommies. The effect is bizarre, like finding a sea turtle in your bathtub. The lakes possess a physical serenity so tangible and pleasant that, were it manmade, it would be illegal.

Jellyfish Lake, on Eil Malk Island, 30 minutes by boat south of Koror, is inhabited by millions of stingless jellyfish, tentacles rendered benign by years of isolation: no predators, no need for defenses. The jellies give themselves up to you entirely.

Standing on the wood dock at the lake's edge, snorkel gear in hand, Jellyfish Lake looked no different than the empty summer lakes of my youth - a dark green marble basting in the sun. Finning away from the dock the illusion continued. Through my faceplate I could see mossy tree limbs resting on the rocky bottom, and dark fish flitted here and there. Halfway across the lake all familiarity disappeared. The first of the jellies appeared, like fat drops of a thundershower. Their numbers grew. After several more minutes, the lake became a milky cloud.

What happened next is difficult, and a trifle embarrassing, to explain. Somewhere I lost two hours. I snorkeled slowly across the surface. I rolled on my back. I rolled on my side. I drifted through the gelatinous cloud-cover mass. I swam through the jellies on every available plane. I did it again and again. I was shameless. In my defense, only a soul of stone would not thrill to the erotic press of hundreds of jellyfish, each as delicate as the fingertip touch of a loved one.

One afternoon, we motored out to a reef called short drop-off. four of us were aboard: myself, Kevin, the captain and a chicken fryer inside a wire mesh cage.

If all went according to Kevin's plan, our bait would serve as an aperitif, raising critters from the deeps: specifically Nautilus belauensis, the rarely seen chambered nautilus - rarely seen because the cephalopod resides at depths of 1,000 feet or more, a patient, prehistoric creature quietly maintaining its scavenger existence in a world of gigabytes.

That afternoon the cage would be lowered, via 1,000 feet of line, into the deep. The next morning, the ensnared nautiluses would be hauled up to enthrall divers and snorkelers. Raised from pressurized depths, most deep-sea creatures would explode like briny fireworks, but not the remarkably adapted nautilus.

"They have these chambers that release gas so they aren't damaged when you bring them up," said Kevin. "It's an incredibly rare opportunity to see a creature from another world."

And over the chicken went. The next morning it returned - shredded and accompanied by five gorged cephalopods. I descended, along with a dozen other divers, to the shallow reef, watching as Kevin gently removed the nautiluses from the cage. For the next hour we took turns holding them. Their shells were ivory-smooth, the inner curves white as the loveliest rose. They possessed the heft of a sturdy paperweight. Each time I released my nautilus it wobbled resolutely toward the deeps, so I had to fin down and nudge it gently up again. Looking around I saw my fellow divers engaged in the same exercise. We resembled an astronaut volleyball team in dire need of practice.

It is an incomparable thrill to hold a creature from another time. After any given descent, divers typically start recounting past dives that were far better - a casual one-upmanship. But this time everyone was silent. Toweling off, Kevin whispered to me, "Pretty psychotic, huh?"

I arrived during Palau's November elections. Formerly a U.S. Strategic Trust (Palau declared independence in 1994, but English remains the official language and the U.S. dollar the official currency), Palau now has a constitutional American-style democracy. Two days before the vote, I jounced down Koror's potholed main drag - past the river of Japanese and Taiwanese tourists, the Internet caf¿s and the restaurants selling fruit-bat soup - with cabbie Francis Haruo. Koror itself is small enough to walk around, but many of the hotels and guesthouses are outside town, including the Palau Pacific Resort, where I was staying.

Francis nodded toward a woman walking beside the road. "That's the vice president, going door to door for votes," he said. "Often it does not matter, though. Most people vote for relatives."

Palau's 19,000 residents fall under the governance of 16 different states. Each state has its own constitution, but I was told that most villages pay little attention to the state. Local village chiefs govern their villages and, it was explained to me, generally tell the state and national politicians what to do, too.

The Palauans themselves seem to commingle modern times with tradition. They slip easily between English and Palauan, a rapid-fire dialect that rings closest to Indonesian. They are comfortable listening to their iPods play the music of Green Day while living a village existence rife with tribal politics.

Francis dropped me off and I walked around downtown. I enjoyed Koror - sampling tasty dishes at its Oriental restaurants and eavesdropping as visitors bargained for storyboards at Koror's jail. Storytelling has always been part of Palauan culture. When Japanese artist Hisakatsu Hijikata visited Palau in 1929, he took a job teaching art at a local school. Hijikata encouraged the villagers to preserve their oral history by carving them on various local hardwoods, and the storyboard was born. Storyboards are intricately carved and either painted with a wide assortment of colors or simply treated to preserve the wood. The carving might depict the feats of a brave Palauan warrior, a story of lovers or even the legend of a giant with a particular appendage of tremendous size.

Plenty of folks buy their storyboards at the Koror jail. A jail might seem like an odd place to purchase cultural artifacts, but it's actually ideal. Palau has little serious crime - the jail is not Sing Sing. I was told the jail's front door is often left open. The residents have plenty of time to carve the storyboards, and with room and board already taken care of, there's a lot less sales pressure.

I enjoyed my encounters with Palauans and their culture, but it was the wilds that appealed to me most. Here, Palau's startling beauty was most evident.

Nature's evolution was clear to see. The primitive jellies and the chambered nautilus, still remarkably well adapted, had, if not given way, at least made room for improbably wonderful and bizarre adaptations. Diving inside a cave at Blue Holes, a dive site about an hour's boat ride south of Koror, I spied a clam attached to a rock. Inside, an orange Frankensteinian electrical current appeared to be leaping between invisible positive and negative poles. "A flame scallop," our guide told us. "We call it the disco-party clam."

One day, I went with Sam's Tours on a kayak trip that started (after we made the 20-minute boat ride from Koror) off Lee Marvin Beach in the Rock Islands. "Lee Marvin was here filming a movie," explained our guide, Butler Bintorio. "He was really good to the locals. After he left, they named the beach for him."

Butler proved to be the Crocodile Dundee of the sea, able to identify every fish and bird. Palauans revere the sea, and Butler was no exception. As we slid across turquoise waters, he often halted his own paddling to exhort us. "OK! Enjoy! Right now!"

We followed Butler from the open ocean through an arch cut in the rock, whose low ceiling forced us to do a mild version of kayak limbo. Beneath the dripping limestone ceiling, the world was a cool, shaded place. Then we plunged into the bright-white sunshine and the broad expanse of a saltwater lake.

"Blacktip Lake," deadpanned Butler. "Lots of sharks around here." A German woman blanched.

"Babies," continued Butler - after the proper pause. "The mothers bring them here because it's protected. Right now they're not at the top of the food chain."

At first we saw nothing, then a parting: a tiny fin, three inches high, unzipping the water. More fins appeared, luffing slightly like windless sails. "How big is the mother?" asked the German.

"You guess," said Butler, poker-faced.

"Is she bigger than this kayak?"

"Probably."

"When do they come?"

Butler shrugged. "Depends on the lunar cycle and the temperature."

Later we hauled the kayaks ashore, and Butler split open coconuts. We were hot and hungry; the coconut was delectably sweet. Someone asked for more.

Butler politely denied her. "You keep some, and you have to give some away," he said. We paddled away, leaving a halved coconut balanced on a rock. On the beach the coconut crabs scurried for their prize.

The scene made me remember a line Henry David Thoreau once wrote: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."

Before I left, I saw more proof of our species' inclination toward greed.

I toured the island of Peleliu, roughly an hour's boat ride southwest of Koror, with the incomparable Tangie Hesus. A stocky man who walks about holding the cuffs of his shorts as if delicately skirting a puddle and who speaks in pidgin English when making a point he thinks is important, Tangie may know more about Palau's role in World War II than anyone.

Peleliu is a quiet, jungled place, and its population count of 600 is roughly the same as the number of caves the Japanese dug to prepare for the coming of the Americans in September 1944. American commanders figured the battle to secure Peleliu would last several days. It raged for nearly two months. American forces burned the jungle to the ground so that the Japanese would have fewer places they could hide.

The jungle had grown back within five years, but the remnants of war remained everywhere, enfolded in the jungle's bosom - everything from upended tanks to bullet casings. Tangie had done the tour so many times for so many visitors (among them Arizona Senator John McCain) that he casually recounted the horror of war without even blinking. It was remarkable and sobering, a place of hidden caves and sniper holes, overseen now by leaves and butterflies.

We ducked into a claustrophobia-inducing cave, impossible to find if not for Tangie. Japanese soldiers had hidden here. Tangie played his flashlight along the floor. There was a gas mask, sake bottles, an old canteen.

I asked Tangie why there were black marks on the walls. "Americans throw the flame throwers in here," he said.

Stepping outside the cave was like surfacing from the bottom of Milky Way. I gulped a deep breath of air, but this time there was no hooting. Tangie had already wandered off, and I was glad. This time I wanted to be alone, wholly adult, quietly absorbing the realization that freedom comes at an astronomical price and the world is far bigger than one person.

Eventually I found Tangie gazing up into the canopy. He motioned excitedly. "Come closer and look!" He beamed proudly. "Beautiful, yes?"

I followed his gaze to a vine with tiny buds. Only one had bloomed so far, giving way to a blood-red flower.