There's nothing like having a voluntary local chauffeur.
How did I swing this good fortune? I have happened into the midst of a wonderful Palauan family, the Tmetuchls, who had close association with my grandfather when he was helping Palau win independence (among J.K.G.'s more obscure distinctions, he is an honorary citizen of Palau). This family has very kindly taken me in; they whisked me away from the decrepit DW Motel when they heard I was staying there and resettled me in their stately house, where I have a vast three-bed room with a view--what a view!--all to myself and a maid to do my laundry. I'm in a state of slight culture shock (from shoestring traveler to pampered houseguest) but am managing admirably.
Despite my strongest protestations, the youngest son, Ngirai, 26, insists on driving me around to do all my work. I tell him that he shouldn't neglect his job, that I wouldn't wish travel-guide research on anyone else, and that I'm perfectly accustomed to renting a car and getting around myself. He just ignores me, asserts that Palauan P.R. is his job, and asks, "When do we start? What's first?"
Hotels are first. I dislike researching hotels, as I've mentioned in this space before, and I want to finish them off as quickly as possible. Ngirai and I move at phenomenal world-record speed. Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., despite a stop for fresh fish sandwiches at the Rock Island Cafe, we cover all 17 of Palau's palatable hotels. I tromp up countless paint-chipped staircases, bounce innumerable beds, snoop through rustic bungalows, and robotically fire off questions about mini-bars, payment by major credit card, airport pickup, morning coffee, and handicapped access. My next research should probably be the insane asylum.
It's actually great fun to have a companion along. Ngirai is a sport--he has traveled a bit in Europe with Lonely Planet, so he understands exactly what I must do and how establishments should be evaluated. He does all the driving and navigation, which is an unbelievable blessing because if I were driving, it would take three times as long since I would get lost at every turn. He provides relevant running commentary along the way (the Palau Hotel is a sleaze-case; Hotel Nikko is affiliated with Japanese Air Lines; the Palau Pacific Resort has an overpriced restaurant redeemed by its a fabulous Sunday buffet), and he bounces the hotel beds with me and needles the flustered desk clerks (his favorite question is whether the hotel will provide free taxi service to the nearest breakfast spot if there is--gasp!--no restaurant on the premises). It's a nice change to have someone else along to lighten things up.
I emerge from my research a porcupine of hotel brochures and business cards (which I collect so I can make sure the phone, fax, and e-mail address are correctly listed). I am also utterly exhausted and cannot bear the thought of visiting any more tourist establishments today. So I check my e-mail at Ngirai's office (and send off yesterday's Slate "Diary") and then head back to the house for the day to go for a long, therapeutic run through the coconut groves.
In no time I am feeling revived--I have eight more days in Paradise and they are all hotel-free. Tomorrow I am going snorkeling in the best spot in Palau. After all, that too is part of my research.