Palau Weh (months late)
May 13, 2002
Palau Weh is well known for malaria and other tropical diseases. I was afraid of getting sick there. It's ironic that I got really sick (dysentery) on the boat up there. Looking at a thermometer that read 41.5 - it maxes out at 42. Numbed by fever, my reaction was curiosity rather than concern. If my temperature goes about 42, how can I know how high my fever is? I should have been concerned and if your fever goes about 42 (108F) you shouldn't care how high it is, you should be well on your way to a hospital. Fortunately, after a few aspirin, my fever drops down to a much less serious 39 degrees.
There is no way that Palau Weh was going to meet my expectations. Three months of waiting and growing anticipation would be hard enough, but Palau Weh has also to compete with the movie "The Beach". The comparison is hard for me not to make. The Beach - a paradise that no one goes to because its location is a secret. Palau Weh - a paradise that no one goes to because they are scared of malaria and/or the civil war in Aceh.
I knew that Palau Weh wasn't going to meet my expectations, but from the 1st impression things looked very bad. It's good that 1st impressions aren't everything. I was still sick and feverish which put me in a foul mood and that didn't help. You arrive at the port and the local taxi mafia (everything in Indonesia is run by a mafia of some sort) forces you into the shared tourist taxi at the extortionist rate of 20,000 rupiah (US$2). The price should have been one tenth of that! So much for paradise. Then you arrive at your destination and find that the beach is very un-impressive. Three months of building expectation, and there isn't much of a beach. Quite a let down.
From there Palau Weh grows on you. The view is gorgeous. Through the trees, across the turquoise water and over to jungle covered Rubiah island. Then you stick your head in the water - fish and coral everywhere. Too good to be real - it's like a really really big phenomenally expensive aquarium. It's amazing. Wade a few feet off shore and you've already seen anemone fish, trumpetfish, fusiliers, damselfish and probably some surgeonfish, triggerfish, parrotfish or lionfish. 15 minutes in the water and you'll likely see blue-spotted rays, trevally, barracuda, boxfish and pufferfish. 5 weeks later and you're not in the least bit bored of hanging out in the water and watching the fish. The diving is also spectacular, and if you have the money go for it. Otherwise, the snorkeling is good enough that you need not bother diving.
The view and the fish sell you on this place. The relaxed atmosphere traps you. US$7/day and there is absolutely no responsibility. It's a good life and a number of people live it full time. I have fond memories of them, but no good stories. If there were bank robbers there, they didn't mention their past lives. Instead, I'll tell you of some of the short-timers. Beautiful Scandinavian Wenche's story amused the hell out of me. Before coming to Palau Weh she had only dry-suit dived in the freezing waters of Norway. Then there is "Unlucky Simon" from England. a mystery ailment causes his arm to swell up - that sort of thing is expected in Asia. A mosquito coil falling into his backpack melts his camera, burns some clothes and singes his passport - that sucks. Then he has a low speed motorbike accident caused by swerving to avoid a cat, leaving the cat untouched and Simon with a bad scrape across his chin and lip. Over a year these events would be unfortunate, but over two weeks it is a disaster. Unlucky Simon.
Life in the 3rd world. You live in a hut. The luxury accommodations have a bed instead of a mattress on the floor. You shower, not quite naked, at the well which is quite a novelty for a city-boy. The wrist flick used to fill the bucket is difficult trick for a novice and pulling up bucket after bucket of water is quite a workout. At one time, Palau Weh had reliable electricity, but Indonesia is a mess and before I arrived two of the three generators melted down. The story behind the meltdowns surfaces slowly. Rumor has it that instead of changing the oil for the generators, the workers in the power plant sold the oil and took the money home leaving most of the island without power.
There is quite a mix of wildlife. Dogs and cats inhabit the restaurants. Goats are everywhere climbing every rock they can find. There is a gang of monkeys swinging from tree to tree, hut to hut, causing trouble. You stop thinking moneys are cute after you spend a while near them. They have been known to keep tourists hostage in their rooms for hours. Growling and bearing their teeth if approached. They have a fascination with mirrors and alarm clocks and will steal either if they can find them. I had one confrontation with the monkeys. I return to my hut and they are on my porch. They walk off and I notice that papa monkey has something in his mouth. I follow them to find out what was taken. Papa monkey apparently doesn't appreciate my company. He turns, arms out, fangs out (huge fangs) and runs at me hissing. I had already learned that monkeys can smell a bluff. You fake trying to hurt them and they'll bite you just because they can. So, I throw my nearly full water bottle as hard as I can at the approaching monkey's head. He dodges the bottle and runs away. I follow the monkeys, more carefully this time to discover what was stolen. There is the monkey, sitting on top of another hut, checking out his teeth in my mirror. I wait for a while, hoping he drops it, but I never see that mirror again. And finally in Palau Weh there is the 3' tall snarling bolt of brown lighting that lives in the high grass behind the huts. Not much scares me, but I lived in terror of an encounter with Palau Weh's wild boar.
Five weeks in Palau Weh, and I could have easily stayed much longer, but mountain fever had set in. I suddenly had this great urge to leave the water and beaches behind and go climb some mountains. Five weeks was the most time I could spend in Palau Weh and still make it to Nepal before the monsoons. I was supposed to go Mandalay, Myanmar as a part of my Vegas quest. Comparing Vegas hotels against their counterparts in the real world. Now it doesn't look like I'm going to make it to Myanmar. It was a tough decision, but I chose mountains over Vegas quest. I feel terrible about it. I'm betraying the absurd, and what do I live for if not the absurd. Maybe some day I'll make it to Myanmar, but for now I'll have to live with a 2nd hand review of Mandalay.
"Mandalay is a concrete shit-hole, but the people are nice" -- Martin from Palau Weh
There are two ways out of Palau Weh. The boat which I took up here nicely avoids the problem areas of Aceh. The bus is always stopped by army roadblocks and sometimes stopped by rebel roadblocks, but it will be a new adventure. Are you mad? You cannot make a habit of putting your life and/or possessions at risk for a little adventure. Take the safe route. I arrive for the boat just in time, but find the boat has left a day early. The next boat isn't for another week so that makes my decision for me. A new adventure - a bus ride through a civil war zone. It really shouldn't be a problem, not a single tourist has been killed in 35 years of civil war - at least that's what I was told. The bus is stopped 3 times during the night. Not a great night's sleep. At the 1st stop I'm padded down. At the 2nd stop my bag is searched. And at the 3rd stop we all line up in front of the bus to have our identification checked. In Medan, I find out that bus ride was really very uneventful. Friends who took the bus a few days earlier tell me that their bus was shot. One passenger (not a tourist) was hit in the shoulder and the driver in his hand. Amazingly enough, the bus was only delayed for one hour. Drive by shootings - not really a new adventure - it reminds me of home, Oakland.
Hey Adam -
Long time no talk. I just went through your archive and found the article where you describe your goal to become a writer. Very cool! Your other articles are all very well written and interesting...I definitely think you have the makings of a travel book, here.
I have to ask, though - don't you get lonely and depressed? I mean, as interesting and intriguing as your travels and life experiences have to be, do you miss some human companionship?
I'm not trying to bring you down, I'm just being nosy and curious.
I'm very jealous of your opportunities for exposure to different cultures and experiences, and very appreciative of the small window into the various countries your writings have given me. Good luck and keep up the good work!
Lonely and depressed. Rarely. Here are my thoughts about traveling and loneliness.
[ Traveling alone and loneliness ]