Palau – the worlds best diving and super friendly people at the heart of Micronesia……..
Palau is an interesting place….if all you ever saw was the main street of Koror, you would think you were in some dodgy craphole. All but the extraordinarily expensive tourist hotels are little more than grubby doss houses, largely catering to the migrant Philipino and Bangladeshi workers who are here en mass serving the largely asian tourists. The number of Chinese tourists has increased ten fold in the past five years and as a result there has been rapid growth in chinese businesses. 40% of visitors come from mainland China, 25% from Japan and 15% from Korea and Taiwan. Similar to Yap, the antagonism towards the chinese tourists, who are perceived to only ever spend money in chinese establishments, runs high. By contrast the Japanese are very popular (and they did own the country up until after ww2, where Palau had one of the bloodiest battles in th pacific). The government has cut the number of charter flights from china by half since last year, and is focussed on attracting only high end tourists from now on.
Its a slightly weird place. Koror has some charm, a couple of decent coffee shops, several supermarkets (each and every one with out of date dairy products for some reason), and some decent restaurants. But it isn’t somewhere you would want to spend a lot of time.
Things to do
Kayak the rock islands
I did two kayak tours with Sams Tours, though there was a lot more snorkelling and sitting on the boat than paddling. Apparently they used to do real kayaking tours for 6-8 hours but the tourists used to be exhausted after an hour so they changed to a lazier approach. It is a nice day out but not a work out
snorkel and dive
Snorkel – even if you don’t dive the snorkelling lets you see plenty of fish and wonderful coral. If you don’t want to go out on a boat, the snorkelling under the Japanese bridge in Palau is excellent
Diving – I don’t dive, but Palau is apparently one of the best places in the world to do so.
Take a land tour of Babeldaob island
See the Badrulchao monoliths and stone faces – these have been here for 2000 years and no one actually knows what they are for
Visit the Bai – men’s house at Elechui. Note that unlike most of the Pacific, Palauans have a matriarchal society. They still have men’s houses, and the chiefs are men, but importantly the chiefs are chosen by the women and will be fired by the women if they are not doing a good job. And while the men have a men’s house, normal houses are actually referred to as ‘Blai’ which is the feminine version of the word for men’s houses i.e. all the normal houses are women’s houses and the men are only in charge in the men’s house
Swim under Ngardmau Falls – if you fancy you can pay $40 to ride the ‘monorail’ down, but it is only 15-20 minutes walk each way
If you go with Malahi, you also get the botanist tour, we stopped for soursop, limes, kalamansi, imsur (a type of star fruit). She was awesome – it was like been driven around the island by a friends mildly eccentric granny
If you have time you can also take the Land tour to Peliliu – I didn’t go but you can get a local ferry there and back for about $5, although it requires an overnight stay. Apparently it is super interesting for history buffs
Work out on the track –
By far the most fun thing I did in Palau was go to the free fitness class at the track behind the community centre (Mon, Tues, Thurs at around 5.15pm). The locals were incredibly friendly and welcoming, which was great as busting out burpees in 90% humidity is easier with company. For the rest of my time on island people I met at the class kept saying hello in the street. Alternatively the track is the place to run in Palau, as the roads are a bit dangerous.
Palau is eye wateringly expensive. I stayed at Pinetrees hostel, $80 for a room with shared bathroom (one shower for up to 17 people). I would recommend it, as it is the best value on the island – get used to Palau pricing.
Sams tours are good for everything you need but assume every tour will cost $150. If you are canny you can find a cheap kayak to rent at a gas station for ten bucks a day, you can also find rental cars for $30 per day, ask a local or Baba at pinetrees
Eating is overpriced – best supermarket was Surangel & sons, although also try Payless for rotisserie chicken. Thursday morning market next to gymnasium for fresh fruit. The sashimi and bento boxes at Yanos were also good. Every meal I ate out was disappointing at best and vile at worst (and pricey), and this included three of the top five restaurants on TripAdvisor
Yap is one of the rare places in the world where instead of going to on a tour to ‘see what life used to be like in the traditional culture’, you can walk around the island and experience the traditional culture alive and kicking…… go now while you still can.
Boarding the flight to Yap was a curious experience. United called for a passenger by name to board before everybody else, as he was a ‘global services’ member. And they did mention (loudly but in a friendly fashion) as he boarded, that he was slightly more relaxed than the average premium customer. Visually, he didn’t appear to be the standard business class passenger – his teeth were bright red and largely rotted away, he had a flowery pair of board shorts, a faded t-shirt and some beat-up flip-flops. He wasn’t alone, the business class cabin was entirely stacked with board shorted young dudes with red rotten teeth. Hmmmm, it was a mystery that was solved after a few days on the island. He was one of Yap’s most active betel nut runners who carry the world’s best betel nut from Yap to Guam, carrying the maximum legal personal allowance on every single flight. Yap isn’t well connected, so there are only flights twice a week, and only from Guam. Everyone in Yap is addicted to the nut, and when you first start to talk to people, you wonder why they are slurring their words….., their mouths are stuffed with the nut…. and most people over 40 don’t have a lot of teeth.
Getting off was even more curious. It was pissing down with rain, but there was insufficient space in the immigration hall for all the passengers, and not quite enough umbrellas for everybody, so half the plane stood in the torrential downpour waiting for the two immigration officers to process us at all at a rate of 1 person every 4 minutes (largely due to their inability to type or spell correctly as they manually inputted all the details into the computer). There was no rush, as it took them an hour and a half to unload the luggage. The delay was somewhat compensated for by the wonderful Yapese welcome from a young traditionally dressed lady who presented every arriving passenger with a wonderful lei. It was an apt introduction to Yap.
For those of you not familiar with Yap – it is one of the four federated states of Micronesia, together with Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kohsrae. Yap is extremely traditional. Women (including tourists) are not allowed to show their thighs, but boobs are just fine. Everyone belongs to a village and a caste. All land on the island is owned by the villagers and while there are wonderful beaches, tourists are not allowed to access them without permission, which is rarely granted. However, I did get to spend a wonderful afternoon on the beach when I was there thanks to Jenn at the Oceania hotel.
What to do in Yap?
Visit the stone money banks – Yap’s is the self proclaimed “ Land of Stone Money”, and these limestone disks can be found across the island, but nowhere else on earth. The stones were brought by bamboo canoe to Yap from Palau as early as 500 CE. They remain the currency in the negotiation of marriages, land ownership, and village alliances. The nicest example on the whole island is at Mangyol, where they have applied for Unesco world heritage status.
Hike on the stone paths, including the Tamilyog trail. These traditional paths are beautifully crafted and are maintained in the mandatory monthly community clean up.
See the villages. I walked a 15 mile loop of the main island one day, and was interrupted multiple times by locals offering to give me a ride or say hello. Make sure to carry a green leaf in one hand to convey to the villagers that you mean no trouble (seriously!!!)
Try and visit on Yap Day (early March)- an annual event with traditional dancing. Note that if you go, you are requested to wear traditional dress, and yes ladies that does mean going topless (although you can pretty much cover up everything with a well placed lei). Book well in advance as Yap fills up with those coming home plus visitors from the outer islands.
Go diving – I don’t dive but apparently Yap is the best place in the world to see the Manta Rays
Hang out and have a beer at the Mnuw, the famous bar in Yap on the boat in front of the Manta Ray Hotel.
Stay at the Oceania hotel. It is a wonderful wonderful hotel. Blissfully tranquil! Mark and Jenn, the owners, are extremely cool, their hotel is the best on the island, the restaurant is amazing and outrageously cheap, and I could have stayed forever. (see my review on trip advisor)
Truthfully there is bugger all to do in Yap, but it is a blissful place to while away a few days. I could have happily stayed for weeks. There is a wonderful oddball collection of expats on the island, all of them just slightly bonkers. These included a kiwi who was literally shipwrecked two years ago, an american couple who were moving there to set up a disaster relief capability, two New Yorkers who are running the nicest hotel, several well meaning mormons from Utah, some Australian peace corp workers and a lot of passionate scuba divers. All of them congregate at the MNUW and the Oceania restaurant. I can see the allure of hanging out in Yap, although the isolation (and lack of a wide variety of foodstuffs) would drive me bonkers.
Many thanks to Jenn, Mark, Tara, Spencer, JR, Deb, Cecelia and Mars for making it a memorable visit.
Note, if Yap is of interest I would recommend going sooner versus later. Sadly the day I arrived, so did a fleet of Chinese long liner fishing boats, the first in over a decade. They were fishing right on the reef with government permission and if this continues it won’t be long before the marine wildlife is decimated. I am hopeful the locals will mobilise against this awful infringement of their traditional fishing rights before it’s too late.
Convoluted layovers used to really annoy me….. I still don’t love them but I have learnt to better exploit the opportunity to spend some time somewhere interesting. As part of my 51 hour trip to Yap in Micronesia I spent a lovely 23 hours in Seoul. Blissful!
Seoul is a fantastic town and you can get a lot in in less than a day. My top tips….
See the palaces – Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Deoksugung
I saw the outside of all three but only Gyeongbokgung was open (it was a Monday) to go inside. Be amused by the beautifully dressed guards and more amused by the Chinese tourists who hire traditional Korean costumes and take endless selfies. Changdeokgung looked the nicest from the outside, so if you are short of time, focus there.
Visit the museum of modern and contemporary art and the surrounding galleries
Seoul is blessed with world class art and galleries. Start with the mmca Seoul! It’s terrific (plus has free wifi, water, lockers and a great cafe). If you have time also see the smaller sister museum at Deoksugung. Then pound the pavement around Bukchon taking in some of the wonderful smaller galleries – Gallery Hyundai and PKM galleries in particular. I didn’t make it to Leeum Samsang museum as it was the other side of town, but apparently it is good too.
Walk, walk and walk some more
I covered 24k easily on foot taking in all of the above as a lazy long loop from Seoul station up to Gyeongbokgung past city hall and Gwanghwamun square.
Than I wanderEd through Bukchon traditional village to Changdeokgung and back down to do some shopping at Eujiro 1 intersection after a stroll along Cheonggyecheon stream (a stream which used to be underground and is now a delightful pedestrian thoroughfare). Then take the cut through Namdaemun market to get back to Seoul station
Go food shopping
Nothing helps you understand a culture more than going grocery shopping. Koreans are tough…. they use their trolleys like bumper carts. Watch your butt! If you time it right you can eat for free, there were over 40 women handing out free samples of dimsum, bread and noodles at the Lotte mart at Seoul station at 5pm. There was a whole aisle for dried seaweed. I played Russian roulette and bought a random assortment of stuff to try. I won some, I lost some.
Getting to and from incheon is a piece of cake on the airport train for £5, although it does take 45 minutes. I stayed at the small but perfectly formed Kpop hotel which is 30 metres from the exit of Seoul station for a bargain £42.
Lagos is undoubtedly the beating heart of West Africa. Whatever you get elsewhere in West Africa – the smells, good and bad, the beats, the hisses, the traffic…. you get so much more of it here. This is Africa with the volume turned up to full – not surprising given Lagos’ status as the largest city in Africa, although no-one knows how many people actually live here.
Driving around the mainland shows you Lagos and West Africa in all its glory, with all its contradictions – chickens for sale in a wooden cage out the front of the the brand new gas station, a goat wandering in front of the shiny ecobank, shanty shacks squished up against gated buildings, and women selling bananas at the traffic lights to drivers of extremely expensive 4wds. I liked the mainland, it was bonkers, and given the time I had already spent in Africa, I was acclimatised to the noise and the pushing and shoving. I should have stayed on the mainland, but Lagos reputation for violent crime meant I had booked a hotel on Victoria Island…….
Arriving on Victoria Island was a little like landing on Mars, or being time shifted instantaneously to a parallel universe. It’s like a Stepford version of West Africa. You can tell you are in West Africa from the heat, the light, the occasional waft of raw sewage and the musical lilt of the people around you, BUT everything is a bit sterile, the cars are all new, the roads have not too many holes in them, and people obey the streetlights. I went into some of the shops and almost fell over. Extremely expensive french delis and international supermarkets, stuffed to the gills with delicious things, all at prices which well exceeded the average ticket price at Selfridges food hall (a small total greek yogurt was $5). These shops were heaving with well to do Nigerians, dripping with posh jewellery, often accompanied by a helper, and who had ridiculously large 4wds in the carparks to lug their purchases home. The is a wealthy oil rich town in spite of 85% of the country living under the poverty line. This isn’t really the West Africa I had come to know and love, so in spite of luxuriating in my hot shower today, I felt a bit lost here amidst all this conspicuous wealth.
I went for a long wander, ‘walking the mean streets of Lagos’. I had a loose goal of visiting some art galleries and changing some money. Its ironic that this is the first time in weeks I have needed to change dollars and I had to walk for an hour to do so. In any other city, I would have fallen over a money changer meters from my front door and could never walk around town without hearing the perpetual hiss of ‘dollars, dollars, euros, euros’. Nigeria’s corrupt government is not managing the currency well. The official bank rate, that which I would pay if I withdrew money from the ATM is $1 for 315 naira. The publicly acknowledged parallel rate, which you can read in the paper every day is 490. It was worth the hour stroll to make everything 40% cheaper during my stay. The average person that I met on the streets were extraordinarily friendly, and after asking a few people, I was directed to a big hotel, where I was told to ask the security guard to point me in the right direction. Indeed he did, and a nice lebanese man sorted me out with some cash (the lebanese really are everywhere).
I made a few friends at the spar supermarket which was a bonkers riot of people stocking up for christmas. I spent $2 there to buy enough water and diet spite to last for my stay, rather than pay $2 per bottle in the hotel (yes I am cheap). And I made a few friends with random security guards, street side cooking ladies and a couple of policeman who stopped for a chat on my wander. Honestly, am not sure I have ever met friendlier people.
I did make it to a few of the art galleries – the Nike Art Gallery and the Red Door. I actually preferred the Red Door – smaller and more intimate. Lagos doesn’t really have that many sites, and apart from the art galleries, the main ‘sights’ are shopping malls, which really aren’t my favourite place to hang out.
I have always had a theory that NZers are nicer than the rest of the world as we have more space per person…., and in big cities people are grumpier because they have less space. Lagos has utterly disproven that hypothesis!. I love Lagos. The people are friendly and full of life. Without exception the people I met are chatty, smiley, friendly and welcoming. I am looking forward to coming back to hang out with Las Gidis
To be honest, I had been dreading this part of the trip from the get go! Not Lagos per se, but having to cross the border between Benin and Nigeria. It is apparently one of the most corrupt and stressful border crossings in the world.
I had done my homework – there is nothing but bad blog posts describing the harassment and compulsory bribery and random detention that is part of the experience. All of the guide books recommended taking an international inter-city bus, as while expensive, they deal with the formalities at the border so you don’t have to. Ok, so that had been my plan.
So, when I arrived in Cotonou, I headed up to the ABC bus company to buy a ticket. It was expensive, but that wasn’t the problem. The only bus they had going was going to leave Cotonou at 5pm (which means 7pm) and arrive in Lagos sometime around 10pm (which means probably 1am). The schedule makes sense to them because these buses actually come from Accra at 6am and pass through Cotonou on the way to Lagos. But, like hell was I willing to be dropped at a dodgy bus park 10k from downtown lagos in the middle of the night. Not to mention, the drivers here aren’t safe during the day time (they trust god to keep them safe rather than vehicular maintenance and defensive driving), but they are totally nuts at night-time. I rang a few other recommended bus companies, and same problem – all late afternoon departures. When I did some research later, apparently many of the passengers sleep in the terminal when they arrive to avoid having to navigate Lagos at night. I don’t want to sleep in the bus terminal.
OK, so next option is take shared taxis all the way to Lagos. This would entail getting up at 4am and heading to Dankopta and waiting for a full taxi. This is not the fast way and the driving normally isn’t particularly safe. A bit of googling later and I had read quite a few reports of Yovos (white people) not being able to get in the shared taxis, as the drivers find us a pain. Fair enough, we take longer at the border and expose them to more risk of bribes – and the driver has to pay the bribe. So that is out.
Next option, hire a private car to take me all the way there. Hmmmmm, I emailed 8 agencies and called 4 and no-one is keen to take that job on. Apparently the customs issue of taking cars in and out is bonkers. Even the shared taxis don’t go all the way, instead they have a mate meet them on the other side and exchange the passengers. The beninese don’t like the Nigerians so no one wants to go there.
I also considered flying, but the only direct flight (it is only 110km) is with the highly disreputable Arik Air.
Alright then – I am going to get a private taxi to the border and then see if I can find a not too dodgy fixer to get me across the border with a minimum of stress. I have figured out how to properly hide all my cash around my body with some safety pins and various bags, and will make sure I look as grubby and poor as possible. On the bright side, while lots of people have described the stress and harassment, it doesn’t appear to be actually dangerous, just difficult. I will keep telling myself that. Once on the other side, I am sure I can pay someone to take me to Lagos. Fingers crossed!
After the fact!
I was up early getting ready! Most of my cash went down my bra, and my spare passports went down the back of my pants. I prepared a wodge of $1 bills ready for bribes.
Things started well when the car was early. When you book a taxi in Africa I only calculate a 50% probability they will arrive. We headed off and I was surprised by his speed. The car had seriously misaligned wheels so every time we went above 50 we wibble wobbled like crazy. And then he started going 30. Bizarre – I have never been in a west African taxi that went slowly. Then I figured out we were running out of gas. So we stopped to buy some off a lady with bottles on the side of the street. Apparently the fuel at the border is 30% cheaper than town and so he had deliberately kept it on empty so he could stock up when we got there. He redeemed himself by helping me navigate the bonkers town to Seme and helping me change money. We pulled up at a spanking new Benin immigration building but apparently it wasn’t yet operational. So we headed down some dodgy dusty back streets to the variety of tin shacks that still make up the frontier and I braced myself for an ordeal.
30 minutes later I was clear of both sides of immigration and had found a private driver to take me direct to my hotel in Lagos at a reasonable rate of $40, given it was 80k and took 3 hours. Most anticlimactic border crossing ever!!!! I did get asked for three bribes (phrased as ‘what do you have for me?’ Or ‘it’s Christmas, do you have a present for me?’) and to save myself time I gave them each $1, which was more than enough. There were two more steps to go through than normal as the police register you also and some other random shack took my details. There was also some negotiation about only giving me a 24 hours on the visa, but when the senior guy left the junior guy gave me two weeks. I did lie about my profession – I am going with teacher these days as it sounds vaguely respectable but not wealthy! I was also very smiley and respectful – a ‘good morning sir, how are you?’ always goes a long way in Africa
My new friend Emmanuel – the driver of a very beat up car with a cracked windscreen and windows that didn’t close (all the better to make us look like a poor target for thieves) was a pro and managed to negotiate all 27 checkpoints between the border and Badagry (about 15k), without paying a single naira – impressive, particularly given he has a yovo in the car. My favourite of his responses to the question ‘what do you have for me?’ was ‘I have gods blessings for you!’ Some of the checkpoint guys were pretty serious, they all had guns or sticks or hammers. I saw one guy smash a pretty big dent in the side of a minibus who he wasn’t happy with.
Emmanuel eschewed the normal road to Lagos and took me on a circuitous 3 hour journey skirting the outskirts of town, getting as far north as the airport, but he assured me he was an expert at avoiding the notorious ‘go slow’ traffic jams in Lagos. I amused myself on the journey by marvelling at the varied goods on sale from the guys at the traffic jams. My favourites were a fire extinguisher and a blender. I understand the hats, water, food, watches and dvds. Bug bombs and new windscreen wipers were also pretty practical buys. Even the Christmas trees made sense! But who the hell goes out for a drive and randomly buys a blender. Thankfully once we got on the expressway which floats above Lagos and the lagoon and heads out to the posh islands the traffic moved.
Am now happily ensconced in the lobby bar drinking a cappuccino as am too early for check in!
Lagos, December 22, 2016
Note: I am far to sensible to take photos anywhere near a border, that is a recipe for ending up detained in a dingy shack. All of these photos are from google images.
While I could have been a totally lazy tourist today and hung out in Cotonou drinking coffee and surfing the internet, i figured I should break with tradition and be a good tourist. So off I headed to Ganvie – the Unesco stilt village. It is a village entirely built on the lake, originally to help the inhabitants avoid the continual threat of being kidnapped by slave traders.
As is often the case on these adventures, it is the getting there that is (more than) half the fun. I have been surprised by how honest the mototaxis are here. Most of the time they quote me the same price the locals have already told me. And more importantly, they mostly make sure that I end up where I need to go. My nice chap this morning charged me 50 cents and took me to the right place to stand to catch the shared taxi to the roundabout at Abomey Calavi. It was an amusing taxi ride. I was wedged in the middle of the back seat with three generously proportioned Beninese ladies. I couldn’t move anything, but I felt relatively secure as even if the car had crashed into something I was well cushioned and firmly wedged for protection. The taxi driver didn’t really know where to drop me, but the ladies in the back did, and he got a bit of a telling off for dropping me off 200m past the turn off.
I avoided the offers of a moto taxi, and walked the 800m to the port where boats go to Ganvie, to the non-stop soundtrack of Yovo yovo (my new word for white person) from passersby. (Side note, I have given up trying to explain to Africans that I am polynesian and therefore brown and not white…..).
And then it began. I haven’t had this level of hassle before on this trip. Two guys intercepted me before the port offering to sell me a tour, and when I asked them to leave me in peace, one told me to f’ off back to my country. At the port, I had four guys yelling at me telling me I had to pay 20 euros for the boat. When I said I wouldn’t pay more than was on the sign (where all the prices were quite clear) they said I couldn’t go. All right then. So, I started with tactic no. 1 – I sat down and relaxed and took some photos of the ladies in the boats for 5 minutes. Before I had to advance to tactic no. 2 (getting up and walking away), they acquiesced to the right price on the sign.
Off we went. It was a pretty tranquil morning and a pretty quick ride to the village. It was fascinating watching village life, and I was most impressed with some of the 5 year olds paddling themselves to school. Unsurprisingly, the locals are not at all excited to see tourists and yell at you/ask for money/cover their faces if you try and take photos. Fair enough, if I had a bunch of foreigners walking round my neighbourhood trying to take my picture, I wouldn’t like it either. This is a working village, and most of these folks still have to paddle 8k each way to sell their wares. The guide said they are worried people will sell their pictures and that is why the villagers don’t like it, but he told me not to worry. In the end, I only took pictures from a distance However, it is a bit odd to be trying to increase tourism here without figuring out how to ensure the villagers also profit from the relatively expensive fees the tourists are charged….. the trickle down effect clearly isn’t working. I would recommend visiting, but don’t expect a warm welcome.
Getting back was also amusing. We picked up half the village to give them a ride to town on the boat. I don’t mind this at all actually, we had space. They were friendly folks and one of them offered me a ride to the roundabout on the back of his moto, but I wandered up instead.
Then I stood on the side of the road with a lady I found who was also headed for Cotonou. Interestingly she ignored the first three offers of rides in minibuses, she obviously didn’t like the look of those, and I trusted her judgment. We eventually hopped in the front seat of a minibus. Unfortunately she was a bit skinny, so while there was a smidge more space, it was a bit boney. I nonchalantly had my arm out the window, holding on to the door. That is until the side view mirror got smacked off by a passing car. After that, arms firmly inside!!! My new friend gave the driver continual performance feedback with tuts and pointed fingers. I got off the minibus at the first stop in Cotonou, given the traffic was heaving, and I was pretty sure it was faster to walk the 2.5k back to the hotel. A fun day.