Peleliu, the Hard Way

26 SEP CO891 from Yap back to Palau

Peleliu Island, the site of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, is generally experienced by tourists one of two ways: either on a lunchtime tour organized by a dive operator based in Koror, as part of a two dive day, or by taking the cheap (USD 4) state boat, which travels a few times a week between Peleliu and Koror. Unfortunately, for the days on which we were interested in traveling, the dive shop we were using, Sam’s Tours, didn’t have any Peleliu trips, nor did the limited schedule of the state boat quite fit ours.

Our hosts at Waterfront Villa, Arnold and Jamie, informed us of an alternate route–first, travel from Koror to Carp Island, a hotel and dive shop operated in the Rock Islands near Peleliu, then arrange for transportation for the short hop from Carp Island to Peleliu. We learned through discussion with Carp that they would provide free transportation if we stayed or dived with them (the lodging was somewhat expensive in the USD 130s but the diving was roughly the same as Sam’s). If we did not stay with them, they would charge us USD 25 for the trip from Koror to Carp Island. Carp also told us that Storyboard, one of the better lodging options on Peleliu, would pick us up from Carp for no additional cost if we stayed at Storyboard.

We figured we would do a dive day with Carp, which is located close to the best dive sites anyway, for the free transportation to Carp and then on to Peleliu. We picked a day that was before the Peleliu state boat’s return to Koror so that we could experience the public boat (and also take advantage of its cheap, relatively leisurely ride).

Our great plan started collapsing once we reached Carp Island. The weather in Palau was quite poor for our whole trip, and so the dive shops were not making trips to some of the best dive sites (e.g., Blue Corner). We had contented ourselves with a great day diving wrecks and a day of somewhat unexciting diving, but Carp’s proposal was to go to the same mediocre site we had visited the day before (Ngerchong Inside). We let them know that we were, frankly, not interested in diving at all of this was the only possible site. To our disappointment, they were unable or unwilling to take us anywhere else. Since we couldn’t dive, we contacted Storyboard right away for our pick-up from Carp, which ended up being a 10-15 minute ride on a single engine boat.

The real trouble began when we arrived.

First some background: All of the guidebooks I had consulted for Micronesia (LP’s South Pacific and Micronesia, Moon’s Micronesia and Papa Mike’s Palau Islands Handbook) recommended a fellow named Tangie Hesus for his Peleliu tours. One of our first actions in Palau was to track him down to ensure that we could have his guide services, which were according to the guidebooks supposed to cost about USD 80 for the day for a small group for a tour including transportation. However, when we got Tangie on the phone, it was clear that something wasn’t right. Instead of recommending the cost efficient state boat from Koror to Peleliu, for example, he assumed that we would arrange a charter boat for USD 600 (compared to the USD 12 return that the state boat would cost for the two of us). In addition to his guide fees, he also wanted to add a transportation surcharge of USD 45 (mentioned in all the guidebooks as included) and wanted to make all of our lodging and meal reservations in advance, at what seemed like not-so-great prices. Our BS alert was triggered right away, and we ended the phone conversation.

When we got off the boat on Peleliu, we didn’t find anyone from Storyboard waiting for us at the dock. Peleliu being such a small island, we weren’t so worried, and started exploring, including the pillboxes and the extensive “thousand man cave” between the village and the dock. Walking down the street, we ran into a guy in a van who was clearly looking for us, and wanted to take us back to our hotel–it was Tangie. By this time, we were quite set in not wanting anything to do with him, and so refused to get into his vehicle. He kept asking about land tours, which of course we did not want from him either. When we checked into Storyboard later that day, we found Tangie loitering about and asking again about land tours. We knew for certain that he was crooked by this time because our room rate was USD 60, for which he had quoted us USD 100 (presumably to pocket the USD 40 difference). After learning that the state boat the next day would leave much earlier than anticipated, due to delays earlier in the week owing to weather, we decided we better sightsee in a hurry. We didn’t have the time to find another tour guide and were unable to rent a car.

Starting about 1 PM, after skipping lunch, we set out on the coral top road in the hot sun for our self-guided Peleliu tour (in terms of history, we were aided by much previous internet research, although our maps were incomplete). After some hitchhiking and mostly thanks to the help of a Palaun-American woman who happened to be near the key sites and gave us excellent directions, we managed to see all the key sites, including the old Japanese communications facility and the headquarters, leftover American and Japanese tanks and guns, and the caves and memorials on the top of Bloody Nose Ridge. We ended our tour at Camp Beck Dock around sunset, where we fortunately caught another ride back to town.

But Tangie wasn’t finished. The next morning, we received our bill from Storyboard, to learn that Storyboard was charging USD 50 for our ride from Carp to Peleliu. We had never been quoted a price for the ride, and understood from everyone else that it was provided as a courtesy to customers, and so we could not understand why we were being billed this somewhat outrageous rate for such a short ride. We refused to pay the full amount, but offered USD 22, which we thought more fare (Carp had earlier offered us this ride for USD 30). After paying, we learned that Tangie was behind the boat transfer and the USD 50 fee. To make a long story short, Tangie showed up at the dock with police right before the state boat’s departure to attempt to coerce additional money out of us. Throug a protracted discussion between us, Tangie, the policeman, the captain of the ship and the governor of Peleliu state, as well as helpful bystanders, we convinced all that Tangie was the guilty party, and we returned to Koror.

We raised our concerns to all the people we ran into in Koror and learned from Sam’s Tours that they used to use Tangie for their Peleliu tours, but stopped because Tangie was ripping of their customers with false add-on charges. Instead was recommended Des Matsutaro (email, phone (680) 345-1154).

Peleliu was great–it’s simply amazing to walk around such a small, peaceful island and imagine the hell that so many Japanese and American soldiers lived and died through sixty years ago. It’s also a beautiful little island and would be nice for a longer visit, either to spend more time exploring old Japanese caves or as a base for diving Peleliu’s famous dive sites. Consider the various transportation options that may be available to you, though, and avoid Tangie Hesus like the plague!


23 SEP CO955 from Palau to Yap

Yap is one of the states of the Federated States of Micronesia, a sovereign nation in the West Pacific which is connected to the United States through a Compact of Free Association.

Most people, it seems, come to Yap to dive. It’s close to Palau, one of the world’s premier diving destinations, with frequent connections via Continental Micronesia, and boasts some of the easiest sightings of manta rays, which can have a wingspan of up to three meters (~10 feet). We dove one day with Beyond the Reef, and saw one manta ray, a shark, a stingray and a turtle.

Coming from Bali, everything seemed horribly overpriced, but the reality I suppose is that it’s not more expensive than mainland United States, from where much of the goods (abundant selections of Oreo cookies and processed meat were available at the local grocery store) have to be imported. Oddly, there was also one Chinese grocery store, where most of the goods were of Chinese origin.

Yap is most famous for its stone money, which is still used as a sort of social currency as compensation for social injuries, weddings and gifts for other celebrations.

Meriting special mention is our hotel, O’Keefe’s Waterfront Inn, run by Don Evans, an American who has lived in Yap for the last 37 years. It’s amazing that someone who’s been on a small Pacific island for most of his adult life can put together such a well-executed period-style inn, especially at such a remote location. According to Don, some of the furnishings/fixtures are recreations of pieces he saw in old movies.

Babeldaob Road Trip

20 SEP CO901 from Bali to Guam, long layover in Guam, 21 SEP CO893 from Guam to Palau

Our funny itinerary had us layover in Palau for about 32 hours on our way to Yap, and we decided to spend it on a road trip around Palau’s “big island,” Babeldaob. It turned out our timing was excellent, as the new “Compact Road” circling Babeldaob had finally opened a few months previous, after years of construction. The Compact Road is named after the Compact of Free Association, the agreement between the U.S. and certain Micronesian states under which the island states receive money and certain U.S. services (U.S. mail, FDIC, FEMA, etc.) in exchange for certain rights granted to the United States, primarily military.

The jeep rental ran USD 65 with insurance. Starting in Koror, we went in a clockwise direction. Our first stop was to see the ruins of a village and terraces in Aimeliik state. We skipped the two waterfalls, though we caught Ngardamu waterfall before our trip was over, which was a beautiful though muddy hike. Our second stop was in Ngarchelong state to see the monoliths of Badrulchau. Apparently, these stones were to serve as a foundation for a large bai, which was never completed. Nearby are some stones with very rudimentary carvings of faces. Even more interesting than these monoliths, we walked through some of the extensive stone pathways of Ngarard state.

The last stop was Melekeok, where we saw some ancient carved stones and the newly built capital of the Republic of Palau, built with the assitance of money from Taiwan (Palau is one of the few states that recognize the Republic of China).

Bali Road Trip

minivan to Probolingo, train to Banyuwangi, ferry to Bali

Sure, driving is a little stressful, but having lived in New York and Hong Kong for the last twelve years or so, driving also has a novelty–it’s not something we have to do every day to get to work, but something we get to do on holiday.

We discovered that Bali is not only a pretty good place to have a car (reasonably good roads, easy navigation and relatively poor public transit, though horrible traffic and aggressive drivers around Kuta), but also possibly the cheapest place in the world to rent one: our Suzuki ran about 75,000 rupiah (~USD 8) a day, for seven days, plus a little extra for insurance coverage. A weak but pretty reliable, air-conditioned car.

Seven days gave us a relatively relaxed road trip-style vacation around maybe half of the island of Bali.

We started our seven days by driving up from Legian, where we spent our first night (might have been fun to go out on somewhat seedy Jalan Dhyana Pura, but we were too tired), through the coastal road to the east which opened in 2006, stopping by at Pura Masceti and Pura Goa Lawah, two of Bali’s nine “directional” temples. We spent the second night at Padang Bai, where the ferries to neighboring Lombok, across the Wallace Line, leave. In Padang Bai we learned that Bali also has perhaps the best value accommodations of any country in the world. For 50,000 rupiah (~USD 5), we got a cute little cottage in the form of a Balinese rice granary, with an open air living area on the ground floor and a rustic bedroom upstairs (no a/c, but a real bed). Included was a decent breakfast delivered to our cottage, which faced a decently landscaped lawn (albeit one in front of the small parking area). Padang Bai, maybe because of the ferries, has quite a good selection of lodging and restaurants, which we also found to be reasonable value (though we initially found food in Bali shockingly expensive, relative to incomprehensively cheap and delicious street food available all over Java).

Our third and fourth nights were up in Amed, where I completed my PADI diving certification at the nearby U.S.S. Liberty wreck with Vicky at Euro-Dive. In Amed we stayed at the formerly quite grand and still very comfortable Indra Udhyana, where we had an oceanfront bungalow with nice open-air bathroom and the more modern comforts (television, a/c, etc.) for 300,000 rupiah (~USD 33), with breakfast delivered to our terrace just feet from the calm waters. The Amed coast was dry and peaceful, and the snorkelling excellent. Restaurant selection was somewhat lacking, but we were able to get some basic local food for more reasonable prices on our final night.

Our last three nights were in Ubud, where we arrived after a detour to see Pura Besakih and the Danau Batur area. The first night was spent “downtown,” off of Monkey Forest Road, and the last two nights in Sayan. Looking around for hotels the first night, we found that centrally located, comfortable rooms with basic conveniences set in beautifully landscaped gardens could be had for less than USD 10. At first we questioned the value of our hotel in Sayan, Sayan Terrace, for its relatively simple though spacious rooms, but the view remains with us. Tourist dance performances in Ubud were far better than expected, although the shopping was much worse than expected. Spa services are not to be missed.

Before we our flight, we saw the sun set on an odalan celebration at Pura Masceti on the beach north of Seminyak.

Gunung Bromo

overnight train from Solo to Surabaya, train to Probolingo, small bus to Cemoro Lawang, on the crater rim

Gunung, or Mt., Bromo was the highlight of our trip in Java (the food coming in a close second). To get to Bromo (or, more precisely, Cemoro Lawang, the small town that most tourists use as a base for exploring the Bromo region), you have to fight away quite a large number of transport touts in the town of Probolingo. Certain shady individuals in Probolingo have come to the realization that a key asset of their town is its location as a transit point to Bromo, and have decided to milk it for all it’s worth. But patience and skepticism eventually led us to a relatively cheap public bus (for which other tourists grossly overpaid).

Cemoro Lawang’s location is spectacular–it is at the very rim of a ten kilometer wide crater (the remnant of ur-Bromo’s eruption), most of which is flat and sandy but from which rises little Mt. Bromo, all ashy and belching gas, and Mt. Batuk, a dormant but pretty cone. We did as most tourists do and went to the high viewpoint by jeep for sunrise (negotiated directly with a driver for best value). From the viewpoint, one sees not only Bromo and Batuk, in the center of the crater, but also Mt. Semeru, the tallest peak in Java, in the distance.

Someone had told us that Gunung Semeru would erupt at sunrise. We thought she was kidding, but sure enough–right around sunrise, Mt. Semeru let us a huge plume of steam, which blew away as dawn arrived. The view was truly out of this world, one of the best in all our travels.