It was an uneventful flight to Manila.
I was no stranger to the Philippines. I lived here for 4 years. And even after I moved my base from the Philippines to the urbanscape that people called Singapore, I had visited Manila a couple of times. So, nothing exciting awaited me in Manila, save a couple of planned meetups with old friends.
Owing to some confusion in my seat booking, Jetstar gave me a free upgrade to an exit seat, which is a big deal when you consider that these seats were 30SGD extra. On a budget flight, that was a lot of savings by itself. Arriving at 9pm, the immigration was smooth, and I spent the first 2 hours of my 12-hour transit wading through the Manila traffic as my taxi inched its way to Makati. And the remaining time was spent catching up with some old friends in one of my favorite restaurants anywhere in the world: that food-temple called Ziggurat, hidden away in the shady neon-lit streets of P.Burgos.
Come 6 am, and I was on my way to the NAIA’s terminal 3. If you are familiar with the terminals of Philippines’ most busy airport – which, incidentally, is named after the man who was assassinated here – you would know that terminal 3 is reserved for international flights of carriers other than Philippines airlines, the national carrier. (I have to state on record that I skip PAL as much as I can during my travel, for the simple reason that they are not part of any airline alliance, and hence no airline miles that I can gain from taking one of their flights)
Today, my carrier of choice was from another part of the world. United Airlines may be one of the primary airlines of the United States, but nobody ever heard about their flights in South-East Asia. Unless, of course, you are like me, trying to visit the exotic and rarely visited Micronesian islands. Or, specifically, Koror in Palau.
After the second world war and the Japanese defeat, Micronesia was placed almost entirely under the rule of the United States, except for Nauru and Kiribati, which were administered by the Australians and British respectively. While Guam and Northern Mariana Islands continued to be territories of US – albeit with heavy Japanese populations in both – the other island groups in the region slowly started to gain self-rule. (Its improper to use the word ‘independence’ instead of self-rule, because of the historical circumstances that surround these developments).
In September 1991, Marshall islands and Federated States of Micronesia became official members of the United Nations. But it took another 3 years for the last member of the Micronesian region, to establish its self-rule. In December 1994, the republic of Palau finally became a member of the United Nations.
I have been fascinated with Palau for quite a while. 2 years ago, when I visited Fiji and Vanuatu, I was very tempted to also continue my journey to Palau and the Marshall Islands. But I was on my year-long travel, and very limited on budget. So, I bit my lips, and gave up the Micronesia idea back then. Flying to Fiji and Vanuatu alone had already taken a toll on my finances.
Palau – or Belau as it is locally pronounced – is a dream destination for any diver, with unbelievably clear waters, rich coral life and plenty of ocean-life. But I don’t dive. So, what fascinated me about Palau? For one, I can snorkel. And Palau is home to the Unesco world heritage site of the rock islands. I have read many accounts of the jellyfish lake on Eil Malk, one of the rock islands. Cut off from any contact with the rest of the lagoon, the jellyfish here did not develop stingers, making it one of the few documented places where you can swim with jellyfish without the fear of being stung, the other 2 noticed in Borneo, Indonesia and Siquijor, Philippines. Just for that opportunity, I was willing to take one of the most complicated travel routes that I have ever undertook.
The united airlines flight UA185 was to leave at 9AM, and it did so on time. Not before I had to undergo some heavy immigration and customs inspection. No one requires a visa to enter Palau, but for this flight, I needed a US visa. Because before I land in Palau, I first have to land in Guam, which is still a part of the US.
I showed my US visa and everything was good at check-in. My backpack was checked in all the way to Koror in Palau, and I did not have to take it during transit. I had a 5-hour transit in Guam, enough time for me to explore the small island a little bit. Everything looked as perfect as I had planned. It was at this point, that the cute-looking Filipino lady at the UA check-in counter dropped a curveball.
“Sir, your journey has a hidden leg in Yap, so totally 3 flights. Hope that is ok for you?”
What on earth is a ‘hidden leg’? When I booked my flight, I knew that it was Manila to Guam, and the return was Guam to Koror. Where did a 3rd leg come from? And where on earth was Yap?
“We did send you a notification about this to your registered mobile”
Oh yes, they did! I thought it was a seat-change, so had not even clicked on the link. But again, where is Yap?
“Federated States of Micronesia!”
Until then, I did not even have FSM on my travel plans, but here I was, holding 3 travel tickets, one of them with a stop in the country. Wonder how much time I had there? Was it enough to take a look around, like Guam?
“Unfortunately, its only 1 hour, po. You can either continue sitting in the flight, or you can wait at the transient area. But you cannot exit the terminal. So sorry po.”, she said, adding a ‘po’ at the end to signify respect when giving a bad news, like they always did in the Philippines.
Well, it was just one hour anyway. Maybe I could catch a glimpse of FSM from the window, I thought. (which turned out to be wishful thinking, because I would land in Yap airport at 10Pm later, in the thick darkness of the night)
After check-in and custom clearance (they took my lighter, once again!), I was finally on the flight. There was mild turbulence in the air, but I slept through most of it after my breakfast. Only to be woken up after 4 hours, with the announcement that we were in Guam.
Guam is a complex mix of people. For an American territory – and a US military base – , I expected to find a lot of white Americans there. I found maybe one. Majority of the population was still Filipino, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had left Manila at all. After the immigration at Antonio B Won Pat international airport (hello again, TSA! I missed you!) I was out on the taxi stand, trying to figure out my plans for the next 3 hours before I rushed back to catch my flight.
The one thing unmistakeably American about Guam – apart from the fast food joints and malls – is the infrastructure. Wide streets everywhere with tall buildings on both sides. But to see all this, I had to hail a taxi first. I hailed the first one I saw. To the taxi-driver’s question about where I wanted to go, I told him I wanted to visited the Chamorros village, which is a cultural village inhabited by the original Chamorros people of Guam.
“The Chamorros village is open to outsiders only on Wednesdays, po”. You dont need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that he was a Filipino too.
Dang it! There goes my plan of how to spend the 3 precious hours I had in Guam. What else could I do? I didn’t want to see any of the malls, which were littered pretty much everywhere in Guam. Nor did I have any interest in the beach resorts, which catered to rich Asian tourists from China, Japan and Korea. I was an Asian, but what I definitely was not, was rich.
“There is an open BBQ block party happening today near Tumon bay, about 6 minutes drive from here. The whole street is cordoned off, so it is a big party. Do you want to maybe check it out?”
A savior in a taxi-drivers uniform! I had no other plans anyway, and there was no fricking way that I was going to spend the next 3 hours in this airport which had a giant banner screaming ‘We support our troops’ on a star-spangled background. And it was just 6 minutes, so the taxi rates cant be too bad, right?
Wrong! I got in, and during the 6 minutes, my eyes never left the taxi-meter. I saw it move to double-digits, enter the 20-dollar zone, and finally when I had reached my destination – roughly 10 minutes, not 6 – the taxi far was 28 dollars. 28 dollars!! This was almost New York! But then, I was convinced now that I was in American territory after all.
The BBQ block party was exactly that. An entire block was cordoned off, as competing BBQ houses set up stalls, and barbecued away. And if you want proof of the local love for Barbeque, all you had to do was look at the people. There was not one skinny person that I met in Guam. Except the Asians who were vacationing here, and almost looked like midgets in comparison to the giant Micronesian frame, at whom they always stared in awe. Even the Filipinos had somehow buffed up, some of them resembling Samoans. I wouldn’t even have guess they were Filipino if they had not spoken Tagalog.
I wanted to try the barbeque, but the temperature in Guam today was over-the-roof. I was sweating buckets just walking around, and I only had my camera bag with me. I decided to pass on the food and found a stall that served miller lite (‘the lite beer that invented light beer’) and talked to a couple of locals. The conversation was uneventful, as the local accent was a weird mix of Texan and Filipino, and some Chamorro thrown in. I moved to another stall, and had another miller lite there. Well, there was some better luck with the people there, so the total count of millers soon increased to 3. After that, it was time to go back for my flight.
I took another taxi back (28 dollars again! Atleast I wasn’t scammed the first time!) and checked into my flight to Yap/Koror. Not before I tried a Filipino food stall in the airport that served me Bicol Express and Rice for 12 dollars, which I could have bought anywhere in Manila for maybe 2-3 dollars. But I needed food, because I knew there was only a snack on my next flight.
The second leg of my journey had to go through slightly turbulent skies. Guam may have been hot, but there were rain-clouds forming. And my flight had to go through them. I chewed on some gum (ha! I am not in Singapore anymore), and ignored the swinging of the flight. And just about an hour later – after a snack, of course – I was in Yap.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived in Yap international airport in Federated States of Micronesia. The flight will halt here for an hour. Passengers continuing to Koror may please be seated in the aircraft, but note that the toilets cannot be used during this time. If you need to use a toilet, please alight and proceed to the transient area where there is a toilet.”
Quick! Think! I needed to go out – beyond the transient area – for 2 reasons. 1st was, of course, to smoke a cigarette. And the 2nd was because I was curious about how an arrival stamp for FSM looked like. I scoured through the inflight magazine for the name of any hotel in Yap that I could use at immigration. It mentioned one called the ‘Manta Ray Bay hotel’, aptly named to showcase that Yap was a diving spot too. And with that information, and a huge customs form that I filled out rather quickly, I stepped out of the airplane.
I had not taken 10 steps in the darkness, when I came face-to-face with the immigration officer. Yap is a really small airport, and probably receives less than 5 flights in a whole week, those that are connecting to Koror or Guam. And the immigration office was completely aligned to the size. There were 2 small wooden cabins which seated the immigration officers. One was for FSM citizens. The other for non-FSM citizens. And there were probably just 5 other people, apart from me, in that queue. And all of them were Japanese.
The immigration officer took a quick look at my passport – “An Indian? Here?” – and flipped through all the pages – ok, this guy is a travel nut – with increasing curiosity. And it was after she stamped me with the arrival visa, that she asked the most important question of all; more out of curiosity than any official interest.
“How many days are you staying?”
I had rehearsed this a thousand times in my head. I was to say 2 days, in line with the United Airlines schedule. Yet, when she asked me that question, I froze. I couldn’t bring myself to lie. I’ve been to more than 60 countries, but never had any trouble with immigration so far, except the few times that I was questioned at length about my purpose of visit. I could have easily gotten away with a small lie here. But I didn’t.
“Just about 20 minutes”, I said with a sheepish smile, “I just want an arrival stamp, and to smoke a quick cigarette, and I will be back on that flight, I promise”. I don’t know why I said ‘I promise’, like a little kid swearing in front of his parents. But I did.
I expected all hell to break loose, but the plump Micronesian woman started laughing. She said something in local Yapese (yep, that’s an actual language!) to the guy who handled the FSM citizen queue, and they both continued to laugh together. Finally she spoke to me.
“I am sorry, but I can’t let you go outside the airport. I’ve already stamped you an arrival, so that takes care of one of your request. As for the smoking, you are not supposed to smoke a cigarette in the transient area. In fact, you are not supposed to smoke in any government building in this country”
I must have shown a faint look of disappointment on my face because she continued, “you see those dark bushes outside the transient area. Go and have a quick cigarette there. I am watching you so don’t try to do anything funny. Like running away or something”
Run? To where? All I could see was darkness outside the transient area, and even if I started running, the chances were that I would end up in the ocean, given that the Yap airport runway was just next to the water. I gave her my best sheepish smile again, and went to the bushes behind the transient area. And then I lit my most exciting cigarette ever.
After that, I was back on the United Airlines flight again, on my way to Koror.
Which lasted all of 45 minutes. No snacks were given this time, just some orange juice. And with some mild turbulence which I vaguely felt, I finally landed in Koror international airport.
Koror was similar to Guam, with a lot of Filipino faces everywhere and the unmistakeable Tagalog songs in the few cafes that remained open even at 11pm, which was when I had landed. There were no taxis outside, so I had to ask the information counter for help. I was staying at a budget motel, so did not have the luxury of a pick-up. So, the information counter put me in one of the rides that was going to some big hotel, for a fee of 20USD.
A quick note on the financials
Mind you, Palau is not a cheap destination to travel to, which was one of the reasons why I had avoided it when I visited Fiji and Vanuatu. A round-trip flight from Singapore to Manila cost me 210 SGD. And the round-trip from Manila to Koror, cost me 960 SGD. I had booked my flights very early, so YMMV depending on when you are booking. Also, I could gain some mileage points out of this trip for both Jetstar (Qantas points) and United, which compensated some of the expenses.
As the mini-van left the airport with me and a couple of Chinese tourists, I heard the distant rumble of the clouds. It was going to rain in Koror. And I would have to find out how much this weather would permit me to see and do what I had planned for this country.
That would have to be another post.
To read: My Palau episode. Which turned out to be quite a disaster.
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