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Micronesia 11: Kayaking Rock Islands of Palau. Universal Automatism.

Yesterday I went on a kayak tour in the rock islands, it was called “Jake’s Tarzan Tour.” It was one of the best days of my life.

Our guides were three Palauans: Jake, Ding and Rayna. They were great: wild black natives, talking rapid-fire Palauan to each other all day, Jake was the very image of the old-style Polynesian chief, though later I found out he’d gone to college, started a career as an accountant, and thrown that over to be a tour guide.

There were five of us tourists. They loaded up five single-seat hard kayaks on a boat and motored out to our starting point. For the rest of the day, we kayaked in stages: we’d get to a location and the motor boat would be waiting there, we’d tie our kayaks to the boat, go snorkeling, climb up the ladder to the motor boat, replenish our supplies, and then remount our kayaks. Jake had six waypoints for us: a hidden underwater tunnel leading to a tree-lined lagoon filled with giant clams, and a sunken ship from the 1930s.

And then a little point where Jake speared a fish, a large lagoon with a beach where we had lunch, an underwater tunnel leading to a cave filled with blue light coming up from the water, and an arch connecting two bays with soft corals growing on the sandy bottom of the arch.

We must have skirted the edges of two dozen islands, none of them were all that large. Their edges are eaten away by the ocean so they stick out of the sea like muffins. In kayaks we could get far under the ledges of the islands. Little stalactites hung down, the turquoise waves lapped at the rocks, tree leaves drifted about. The islands themselves are less lush than I’d realized. From a distance they’re solid green, so one thinks of a jungle. But the greenery is more like a thin layer of icing on a base of stark and toothy gray rock, porous limestone that’s been eaten away into thousands of little blades and spikes. As humus collects in the pockets of rock, seeds take root and grow trees, some of them quite large.

Coming into the lagoon for lunch I felt quite weightless; the water was so clear and unrippled, and the sand below it so white. It was as if my kayak were gliding through empty space. And quiet, quiet, quiet all around. Not a whisper of wind in the trees, only the gentle lapping of the waves, the occasional calls of birds and, of course, the sporadic whooping of the Palauans. I had such a wave of joy, wading around that lagoon, and a profound sense of gratefulness, both to the world for being so beautiful and to God for letting me reach this spot. I had another wave of these feelings a bit later when we were kayaking through a maze of small islands in shallow water, bays that no motor boat could reach. Peaceful, peaceful. Eden. The world as it truly is meant to be. Thank you, God. I’m glad I lived long enough to get here.

High in the air above one of these sunny backwaters, I see a large dark — bird? It’s the size of an eagle, and, no, it’s a fruit bat, the sun shining through the membranes of its wings. The islands look like green clouds come to earth; mirroring their fluffy white brethren above.

In the last snorkel spot there are lovely pale blue and pink soft corals, branching alveolar broccolis on the sandy bottom of the archway connecting two bays. Fractals, in short. Swimming through the arch, I encounter a shoal of maybe ten thousand tiny tropical fish, like the fish you’d see in someone’s home aquarium, little zebras or tetras. With my snorkel on, I marvel at their schooling motions, their bodies moving in a unison like iron filings in a field, their ropes and scarves of density emerging from the parallel computation of their individual anxieties. The turbulent water currents compute, the clouds in the sky, the cellular automaton reaction-diffusion patterns on the mantles of the giant clams, the Zhabotinsky scrolls of the shelf corals, the gnarly roots of plants on the land.

And I’m thinking that maybe, yes, maybe after all everything is a computation. Universal automatism gives me a point of view from which I can make sense of all these diverse forms I’m seeing here. Maybe Wolfram is right to chide me for “taking it all back” at the end of Lifebox. But what about my thoughts, can I see those as computations too? Well, why can’t they just be fractal broccoli, flocking algorithms, class four turbulence, cellular automaton scrolls. I ascribe such higher significance to them, but why make so much of them. Are my thoughts really so vastly different from the life forms all around me in these lagoons? Why not relax and merge. All is One.

And if I find it useful to understand the One’s workings in terms of computation, don’t think that this reduces the lagoon to a buzzing beige box. The lagoon is not reduced, the lagoon is computing just as it is. “Computing” is simply a way to speak of the dance of natural law.

Speaking of dance, when we got back to the dive shop, Jake and Rayna were kidding around with this nice, cute American girl who’s just moved to Palau and is supporting herself by working at the shop — I met her the other day because she came along on the Blue Hole dive on her afternoon off. And Jake and Rayna start dancing and chanting, crouched, facing each other, their hands shaking in their air, slapping their thighs, vital and joyous as a pair of indestructible cartoon characters. Archetypes.

I mark this day with a white stone.

(Which is what Lewis Carroll used to write in his journal on his very best days.)

9 Responses to “Micronesia 11: Kayaking Rock Islands of Palau. Universal Automatism.”

  1. r.s. Says:

    I like the god talk.
    I am coming to the conclusion that life is a computation, but like you allude to in “White Light” it is a computation over inifinite sets.
    It seems to me that as we look carefully at life it has just the wholes that a simulation would have. Where do the moments go when our attention is not there?

  2. Edwin Says:

    After reading this I’ll put Palau on the recommanded kayak holiday spots. Thanks for sharing it

  3. Emilio Says:

    I agree with edwin
    i’ll put Palau on my list of kayaking spots..

    thanks for the post!

  4. Lacey & Steph Says:

    This is beautifully written. We will be traveling to Palau next month and will definitely take this trip…we are SO looking forward to it. Thanks for your blog! 🙂 Any other recommendations for excursions, things to do, places to eat while we are there? 🙂

  5. Marek Bialas Says:

    Greetings from Poland!!!
    Postcard from Micronesia!!!

    Marek Bialas
    ul.ksiecia Witolda 12/19
    21-500 Biala Podlaska

  6. Jamie Says:

    hi there! im glad that you enjoyed your trip to Palau! its nice to see that you have such great appreciation for all of Mother nature’s wonders, i’ve stumbled upon your journal and i had to comment! i’ve never heard more beautiful words used to describe my home. I miss Palau dearly, and just arrived to the states about 3 months ago…i am glad that you made the most of your journey and hope that you have an opportunity to return once again! godbless!
    Originally from Koror, Palau.

  7. Rudy Says:

    Jamie—Thanks, bro. I hope to get back to Palau this year or next. The trip there influenced my novel MATHEMATICIANS IN LOVE somewhat. Good luck here in Babylon!

  8. Lynn Collins Says:

    Check out my website of Palau. Also the following story, I want to illustrate. I was so happy to find a picture of Jake!

    Lake Jake

    Now Jake was a man
    And Jake had a plan
    And some kayaks that he tossed into the sea
    Now he climbed in one
    And some others climbed in some
    And the kayak that remained there was for me

    So I grabbed an oar
    Though I didn’t know what for
    But I did know we were rowing far away
    We rowed side by side
    And we rowed far and wide
    And we rowed for a good portion of the day

    I paddled to the left
    And I paddled to the right
    And I paddled just as fast as I could go
    And now there was a gap
    As I fell behind the pack
    And I realized I was rowing much too slow

    And so I fell behind them
    Not so far I couldn’t find them
    And I reveled in my world upon the sea
    There were dolphins swimming ‘round
    I could hear their high pitched sound
    And when I smiled at them they smiled back at me

    Then our guide Jake
    Took us straight to Lost Lake
    And we paddled through a tunnel to get through
    We paddled all around
    And we could see right to the ground
    As the lake reflected aqua skies of blue

    The lagoon was turquoise
    And I heard a strange noise
    As Jake began to whistle at the sky
    Out of thick dense trees
    Came diurnal bats and bees
    And all assorted creatures that can fly

    We then stopped to see
    All the arches in the sea
    Soft Coral Arch was where I snorkeled down
    Jake also went to see
    Leather Coral Arch with me
    While Lover’s Arch we kayaked all around

    Next I saw a crown of thorns
    And a fish that had long horns
    And some coral at the bottom of the sea
    I had to free dive down
    To see this thorny crown
    And I stared as all the fish stared back at me

    We kayaked a short while
    Then approached another isle
    And Jake said, “See that tiny crack down there?
    We must snorkel down
    Through a tunnel underground
    Then we’ll surface in a pocket full of air.”

    I swam through a tunnel
    That was shaped like a funnel
    And I swam right up to get a breath of air
    I opened up my eyes
    To such a nice surprise
    Stalactites were dangling everywhere

    They sparkled real bright
    When I turned on my light
    In three chambers of this cave inside the isle
    We swam into the womb
    Of the cave Jake called Blue Room
    And admired the formations for a while

    Then our kayaks we tied
    All together side by side
    And we snorkeled through a hole into a lake
    And he followed she
    And she followed he
    And I swam right behind the fins of Jake

    We made it to the lake
    That was named after Jake
    Millions of jellyfish abound
    There were clear, fringed moon jelly
    Others settled on their belly
    And looked like cauliflower on the ground

    Now Jake dived down
    To take a look around
    And picked up a jellyfish that he had found
    He gently set it free
    So all of us could see
    It slowly pulse its way back to the ground

    Some were very small
    Some weren’t small at all
    Some were speckled, some were fringed and some had tails
    They pulsed in and out
    As they drifted about
    And I couldn’t tell the females from the males

    They lost the thing
    That enabled them to sting
    As they evolved in marine lakes without the fear
    Of predators that’d prey
    If they’d not been kept at bay
    By the fortress that encircles them here

    There’s a swing made of rope
    That you climb up and grope
    And swing out over rocks into the lake
    I know that everyone
    Had a real lot of fun
    But no one there enjoyed it more than Jake

    Eventually Jake
    Said, “We must leave the lake
    But don’t be sad because we still have things to do”
    We snorkeled outside
    To our kayaks side by side
    Then we went to see a plane from World War II

    The tail was in a tree
    The rest was in the sea
    We dived down with a pony tank of air
    A plane under the sea
    Seemed very strange to me
    And I didn’t know what it was doing there

    When we surfaced in the tide
    As we’d finished our ride
    A double rainbow cast its glimmer on the sea
    There couldn’t be a better way
    To end a perfect day
    As the rainbow cast its shimmer trail on me

  9. Lisa King Says:

    Hi – I just found this blog.

    I was the person whose job it was to promote kayaking as an alternative tourism activity in Palau back in the early 1990s. I was a University of Hawaii Sea Grant Extension Agent in Koror for three years between 1993-1996 and brought the first kayaks into Palau. It was a great job and I paddled everywhere in my kayak in Palau…it was fantastic…

    You can find an article I wrote about developing kayaking in Palau in the Proceedings of the 1996 World Congress on Coastal and Marine Tourism starting on page 145.

    I did much of the initial exploration work up the rivers via kayak and encountered a few crocs back then and amazing sights. You could still find old WWII empty saki bottles in the bottom of the shallow stream beds in perfect condition…had to throw my kayak over lots of fallen trees and such and it was a blast – usually had two additional people with me on the ‘exploration team’.

    I am thrilled everyone is enjoying it! Just be careful with the fragile environment out there!!

    Cheers, Lisa King, Hawaii

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