The onset of heat in the morning is always startling. It shouldn’t be: it was hot and humid all night; add one blisteringly bright tropical sun, and what do you expect? But it still is. Mac has briefed us on the day, much like every day: paddle, snorkel, paddle, eat, snorkel, paddle, probably snorkel again, and get picked up by Cap’n Jeff to where we’ll camp tonight. Or maybe we’ll paddle there.
I’ve lost track of the days and names and places. Was it yesterday that we explored Long Lake? Paddled the sinuous, overgrown mangrove swamp inland, riding the incoming tide through cool dappled shade to the blisteringly hot saltwater lake – or is it a lagoon? – at its end. Liz and Adam and I drifted to the back of the line, snaking our paddles through the roots to try and retrieve the bits of flotsam that seem to wash up everywhere, making a game of who could snatch the most improbably-wedged water bottle or flipflop. You find every sort of plastic or styrofoam trash washed up on the beaches and waterways here, but the vast majority is water bottles and flipflops. And Mac confirmed our empirical observation that, for some reason, left-footed flipflops seemed about 50% more likely to be lost right-footed ones. Grist for the conversation mill, that one.
I think we’d just emerged from the mangroves when Mac scooped a sea cucumber the size of a butternut squash up from the shallows and asked “Anyone ready for a snack?” He handed it without explanation to Katie, where it proceeded to pee out its interior in a more than vaguely phallic transformation to flaccid blob. We watched and waited, a bit too nervous to ask what was supposed to happen next. “Got to wait until it’s all done,” Mac said.
When it was…”done,” Mac took the little guy back and gave it a squeeze. [Note: the squeamish may want to skip a bit here.] You see, sea cucumbers have a unique form of self-defense: when threatened, they self-eviscerate, literally spilling their re-growable guts in hopes that the predator will decide to eat those instead of the threatened cuke itself.
And much as advertised, the hapless blob in Mac’s hand, once squeezed, started ejecting…well, let’s call it “slimy stuff.” Mac draped some over a hand and offered it to those of us rafted up around him on the water. “Who’s first?” he asked.
I know Steve – Devon’s father – well enough to have not been surprised when he was the first to reach in for a fingerfull. But I wanted to see Mac eat some himself before I was going to brave it. To be honest, I had no desire to try the, well, slimy goo, but I wanted to want to. Having spent so much of my adulthood telling people how I wanted to experience all that the world had to offer, it was kind of my obligation to put up or shut up, so in I went.
I’ll confess: I only slurped down about half of the six-inch-long strand that Mac draped over my finger. Maybe you could get used to it, but the taste and texture and frankly unnerving visual was not something I’d call love at first bite. I quietly let myself drift back from the snack line and casually dipped my hand into the water to wash it clean of what remained.
[You can stop skipping now. I promise: no more gross stuff.]
Of course the lake itself was spectacular, damn-near vertical walled, like everything else in Palau. We followed, tucked as much as we could into the ever-present rock overhangs, crowding in to hear Mac’s discourse on the zebrawood tree, the pitcher plant, the elegantly-flowered fish-poison tree and dozens of others that lined the lake. Or we drifted back to bask in the unearthly silence of the place.
Or maybe that was the morning before.
Maybe yesterday was when we paddled out to Pterodactyl Cove, this beautiful little two-beach cove, formed by one of the ever-present mushroom mini-islands just the right distance offshore from the main island. We pulled our kayaks up on the windward side, had an early lunch, and strategized how and where to plant our baby giant clams.
That’s a new thing that Paddle Palau is doing on their trips: planting baby giant clams. The not-so-baby giant clam can grow to over 400 pounds and live over a hundred years. But they, um, can take a hundred years to do that, and they’re apparently rather tasty (more so, I expect than sea cucumber). So to stave off their becoming endangered, some groups have begun farming anbd planting juveniles back into the wild. Mac had acquired eight of them – one for each of us, to place at some appropriate depth in the sand around the cove during our post-prandial snorkelings.
But first, he said, we had to name them.
“I’m calling mine Mac,” said Liz. I opted for Alexander. Alexander Clamilton (and there’s a million things it hasn’t done). But the naming of clams was quickly overshadowed by the naming of the cove. Mac explained to us that among the almost uncountable little bays and coves and hidden beaches, this little spot was apparently yet unnamed. And if he was going to be able to tell people where the clams were, he needed a name to tell them.
As just demonstrated, I’m not particularly good with names, and couldn’t come up with anything better than “Two Beach Cove.” Someone suggested “Clam Beach,” but I think it was Liz, always spot on, who suggested “Pterodactyl Cove.”
“Wait – what?” asked the rest of us.
“You want something people are going to remember, right?” she said. “People are going to remember that. A hundred years from now, people are still going to be wondering why the heck it’s called that.”
And so it was. We dove back in and snorkeled a bit before it was time to paddle on to whatever Mac had in store for us for the afternoon.
But maybe that wasn’t yesterday morning either. Maybe yesterday was when we…oh, you get the idea.