Palau is so much more beautiful than I remembered. I knew it was breathtaking. At least, that's how I described it when people asked. But coming back here and waking up to the calm reefed waters dotted with vibrant green jungled islands in every direction has caught me a little off guard.
The place is calmer--happier than I remembered it, too. I know a lot of that probably has to do with the eyes through which I'm viewing it now. I'm not totally surprised by this. When I returned to Ukraine a few years after living there I had a similar experience. The revisit softened some of the rougher edges that clung to every ounce of nostalgia. I think there's something about seeing a place that didn't kill me and realizing that all that's really left beyond that are some sweet memories and scars I wear with pride.
Skylar thinks Palau is lovely. He has joked a few times about moving here with me. Since he only weighs around 30 pounds and is perpetually shivering, the equatorial heat and suffocating humidity is more like a welcome warm blanket on a holiday sleigh ride for him. But also, he has devoured the hiking to waterfalls and kayaking through dramatic island canyons to find secluded blue bays for snorkeling.
The other day we went on an all-day tour where we swam with dozens of sharks, hung out on a remote white-sand beach and then snorkeled in Jellyfish Lake.
Jelly-Fish Lake is a salt-water lake in the middle of one of the hundreds of uninhabited Palauan islands. You have to climb about a hundred stairs and then descend a hundred more to get to it. The lake is surrounded on all sides by high jungle hills so you feel like you've nestled down into a tropical bowl.
The lake is full of thousands of jellyfish that have evolved to lose their stingers, so they're completely harmless. You can swim with them and handle them and it feels truly other-worldly. I wrote about it and shared photos and videos when I lived in Palau--you can find that post here.
Today was Sunday and I felt like I really needed to go to the Mormon church and say hello. I am so glad we did.
I obviously have a much different relationship with my old religion now, and actually, that complication was starting to hit its stride while I was in Palau. Friends have asked me about that from time to time. While I was in Palau I was extremely active and involved in the local Mormon congregation despite privately having a foot out the door in some ways. I've had people ask me if I felt dishonest or like I was misrepresenting myself through that.
I've rarely felt like anyone was entitled to an explanation about this, and so I've usually not bothered to try to give one. But I suppose I'll say now that on the list of things in my life I don't regret, my time spent with the Mormons of Palau is absolutely one of them. That was a group that unequivocally loved me (and frankly, they put the pieces together then and had no qualms about who I was--they could probably teach a master class to a good number of people in this world about valuing what matters and minding your damn business about the rest).
The feeling of love was mutual. Being with them was the greatest comfort I had during what was probably my darkest period. I sobbed my eyes out when it finally came time to say goodbye to them in 2013. I'll probably go the rest of my life trying to find a group of people I can love as much.
They welcomed me this morning the way they did in 2012. With tight hugs, firm grips, and harmless island "gossips." Teenagers who were hooligans I tried to tame then are parents of young children now, running up and down the aisles. The elderly are still elderly. The small air-conditioner above the windows is working slightly better now.
Walking into the church building this morning was like stepping into heaven.
Skylar loved meeting all of the people he has heard me talk about endlessly over the years. It was wonderfully surreal to have those worlds collide. I guess that's the point of marriage.
~It Just Gets Stranger