My research begins at 5:45 this morning, as I explore the Yap airport facilities before my 7 o’clock flight to Palau. The airport, I solemnly note, has restrooms, a gift shop, and a cafe-bar where Budweiser is $3 (though it’s not sold before 9 a.m.) and coffee is $1. There’s also an “exclusive” and gapingly empty lounge where, for $5, you can rest in air-conditioned coolness, drink complimentary coffee, and wait for your plane. Not much point in mentioning the lounge for Lonely Planet–at the rate business is going, the place will disappear long before my book comes out. Much better anyway to hang with the locals at the cover-free bar. I don’t bother to inquire about the bar or lounge hours, because it’s obvious that all airport services are open exactly twice a week–on Wednesdays and Sundays, the only two days that Continental flights touch down in Yap.
I spend the flight reading reader mail on Palau. Lonely Planet has cleverly installed a strong incentive system to get readers to send in their tips: If a tip is used, the contributor will be thanked in print and (more important) will get a free book. Consequently, some readers go on multi-page diatribes, re-rating the hotels and restaurants we have listed in the book or describing new hot spots. Others drop us a line about what dive shops are the friendliest, which companies rent kayaks, and where our maps need adjustments. Of course, you can’t trust readers entirely–on Saipan, one reader advised me to park beside the red fence at the end of the lane of new coconut trees before taking a particular hike. I did exactly that, and when I returned after the hike a farmer was threatening to chain my rental car to the red fence because he thought I was about to steal his cow. But in general, reader letters provide a very useful heads-up.
Palau from the air is a mesh of phenomenally lush islands. When the plane lands, an enormous rainbow spreads out through the clouds–as if to confirm that this is indeed Paradise. I see the brochure-laden airport tourist counter but I ignore it because I am too sleepy to do my Lonely Planet thing. I catch a ride downtown in a creaky Toyota to the DW Motel, a place described in Lonely Planet’s 1995 edition as “a bit tired.” The intervening years clearly crippled the DW with exhaustion; among other no-nos, the sugar jar beside the lukewarm and instant “free coffee” is awash with suspicious black flecks. I’ll move out tomorrow, I resolve.
Today my plan is to catch up on my Yap writing backlog. Doing this “Diary” for Slate has made me fall dangerously behind; I usually research by day and write at night, but this week Slate has occupied my night-writing slot. I really need to type in Yap before I forget my impressions or lose my brochures and scribbled notes.
While I’m on the subject of writing, I’d like to dispel the myth that “travel writing” is some kind of to-die-for journalistic experience. It’s not. For all I complain about researching Laundromats, it’s even more deadly dull to write them up. About three quarters of my prose consists of unexceptional declaratives such as “The Laundromat is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It costs 50 cents to wash and 75 cents to dry. It takes quarters only.” Restaurant listings at least include exciting food nouns: “Pancakes, eggs, and bacon are just $4 at Bobby’s Cadillac, the best breakfast spot in town.” When I worked at Let’s Go (the Harvard-student-produced travel guide rival to Lonely Planet), we’d get so deranged from semantic boredom that we’d spice up the prose to say, “The Laundromat whirls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and guzzles 50 cents for a wash, 75 cents for a dry.” Phrases that make you cringe when you see them in print.
But enough of my gripes. Tomorrow I’ll explain how I escaped the dismal DW Motel and ended up in a windswept mansion overlooking some of the most gorgeous islets of Palau, miles away from all Palauan Laundromats.