Day Trip: Kayangel After the Storm

Recently, I hitched a ride up to Kayangel, Palau’s northernmost state, an island atoll that was heavily damaged by last year’s record-breaking Super Typhoon Haiyan. I had been enchanted with Kayangel ever since I learned it was the source of Palau’s amazing and many-specied bananas, which are so superior to the mass-produced Cavendish we’re fed in the U.S. I don’t know how I’ll go back. (In his excellent book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed The World, reporter Dan Koeppel aptly terms this bland, mass-produced variety the “the hotel banana.”)

Palau grows four varieties of banana with names like “bungeltuu” and “blangtalos.” Some are pinky-sized. Some are for cooking. All are delicious.

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On an island where tropical fruits are mostly limited to a few hardy varieties of coconut, banana, lemon, and green papaya (heavily leached volcanic soil, it turns out, does not make for ideal growing conditions), the post-typhoon banana shortage, for everyone, was a real bummer. For Kayangel, it was devastating–a primary food supply destroyed, along with every home and building on the island.

It’s a three hour ride to Kayangel by state boat, but my friend Chris and I tagged along with a couple of U.S. Navy guys who were going by speedboat, a free hour-and-a-half ride in exchange for some manual labor. We spent most of the day dismantling a super-high-tech, $1.5 million surveillance tower designed to monitor illegal fishing. No big deal.

View on arrival: the telephone company's tower

View on arrival: the telephone company’s tower

The tiny island—actually, four tiny islands with a combined land mass of 0.7 square miles, according to one of my maps—is definitely still in recovery mode. Before the storm, most of the people of Kayangel were evacuated to Koror, and many have chosen to remain on the “big” island, closer to creature comforts like a high school, grocery store, post office, and other amenities you won’t find on a secluded 0.7-square-mile atoll. As a result, the population of Kayangel has dwindled from about 130 to 53.

Kayangel Shed

Kayangel Shed

I imagine those stalwart locals who remain would find the bustle of Koror (city pop. 11,000–although it’s impossible to get straight numbers around here) overwhelming. Even before the typhoon leveled the place, life in Kayangel was quiet, days occupied by fishing, gardening, and island-style chilling. But it’s even more civilization-from-the-ground-up these days. We passed a few kids on bicycles on the single-track dirt roads, a few men napping in the mid-day heat in a communal open-air summer house, and the typical man-made signs of renewal: a makeshift church…

Interim Kayangel Evangelical Church

Interim Kayangel Evangelical Church

…a single village store that shelves sweets, Spam, and a few household necessities…

Convenience Store

Convenience Store: “Credit Limit $50.00”

…and a basketball court currently occupied by prefab siding and other building equipment. Foundations for several new houses have been laid, and workers are making great progress on a new elementary school, which will double as the island’s new typhoon shelter.

New school/typhoon shelter in progress

New school/typhoon shelter in progress

Along the shoreline, the coconut trees look permanently windswept, hundreds of hardy trunks bent at sharp angles toward the sea. The tallest trees–those that survived–stand stark naked and stripped, like giant scarecrows, a reminder of the 300km/hr winds that ripped through the place.

Windswept trees

Windswept trees

But the jungle has a way of bouncing back. I could see, as the boat docked, a low canopy, lush, green and full. I asked a the first person I met about the bananas.

“Bananas!” he replied, nodding and grinning a huge grin. “Coconuts, not yet. But bananas, yes. Bananas we have.”

Kayangel

Kayangel

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Part 2: Natural Wonders You Never Knew Existed (…and they’re all in Palau!)

Our year in Palau is rapidly approaching its end: four weeks and counting until Brian wraps up work and we head off island indefinitely. With that deadline looming, we are checking things off of our Island Bucket List. And, consequently, slacking on the blog! A few more posts, though, before we go…

This one is Part 2 in a series I started earlier this year on the magical mystery tour that is Palau’s underwater world. Without further ado, our top three natural wonders:

3. Bioluminescence

Some girlfriends and I may or may not have been skinny dipping beneath a quarter moon when we looked down and saw that the lagoon water around us not only reflected the glorious night sky, but was generating a light of its own, illuminating the water around us whenever we moved. Gold dust shot from our fingertips. Our finning arms and legs left a sparkling haze in their wake. Wherever our bodies moved, so did that underwater glow, which on a microscopic level was actually light-generating plankton, a biochemical phenomenon we equate with fireflies and certain luminous deep-sea fishes, but which, at this invisible-to-the-naked-eye size, emitted a kind of magic fairy dust that made us all remember exactly what it felt like to be five again, or whatever age you were when magic fairy dust was real. If you’re ever looking to restore that childlike sense of wonder, go find yourself some bioluminescence. (Skinny dipping works, too.)

Manta ray at the German Channel cleaning station, taken by our friend Keith on a dive this spring

Manta ray at the German Channel cleaning station, taken by our friend Keith on a dive this spring

2. Manta Ray Cleaning Stations

Of Palau’s many natural wonders, my personal favorite is the manta ray, the great magic carpet of the sea. The first time I encountered one underwater, it was gliding toward me out of the deep blue with its enormous wings flapping, and I started to cry. I don’t recommend this—the whole point of the mask, obviously, is to keep moisture out, and hot tears are a great way to fog up the googles. But I couldn’t help it. It was so beautiful, so majestic and graceful and right before my eyes. Manta rays often return to the same places for cleaning and feeding—which includes barrel rolling their up-to-16-feet-wide bodies—so we’ve had repeat manta diving encounters, and every time it’s the same damn thing: I cry on sight.

One cool phenomenon that keeps the mantas coming back is the “cleaning station,” which is kind of like an underwater car wash staffed by smaller fish. When mantas and sharks visit the cleaning station, they call a truce with the small fish and proceed in a cooperative trade. The big guys get groomed by the little guys, and in exchange for this cleaning service, the big guys agree not to eat the little guys (this is a greater feat for the sharks; mantas feed on zooplankton, and only eat fish accidentally, when they get in the way of all that delicious plankton). The little guys also get a hearty meal of parasites out of the deal.

Mantas visit the cleaning station daily, for hours. They stretch out their wings, unfurl their frontal flaps, open their mouths wide enough that you can see their stick-straight, bone-white ribs from the inside, and the little fish swim around, pecking on algae and plankton and whatever’s stuck between the gills and tooth crevasses. When they’re finished, the manta moves on, and another pulls in. Sometimes, there’s a line of manta rays circling the station, waiting their turn. It’s an incredible moment of symbiosis, a little peace treaty in the midst of the otherwise defensive/offensive predatory frenzy that is ocean life.

1. Full Moon Spawning

Have you ever walked in on a bunch of fish getting it on beneath a full moon? Neither had I, until Brian and I joined a “Unique Dive” with Sam’s Tours, one of the oldest SCUBA shops on the island. We woke up at the crack of dawn on a full moon weekend and boated to the edge of the reef where the waves tossed us around like whiffle balls. Just when I thought I was going to wretch into my regulator, we backrolled overboard and descended 90 feet below the surface. For the next forty minutes, we swam against a wild current on the edge of the Philippine Sea, surrounded by thousands of spawning red snapper.

Everywhere we looked, it was fish fireworks: huge, dense clouds of snapper swimming in frenzied masses, until a single fish blazed its own trail, released a cloud of eggs, and others swarmed, forming an explosive fishball of reproductive hysteria. Our guide shouted into his regulator and mimed horns on his head, and I turned to see bull sharks prowling the perimeter of the action for easy meals–at a healthy distance from the human fish, thankfully. (To my nephew Mike, who requested we bring home a bull shark to keep in the pond at the farm: I don’t think they’ll let us take these guys on the plane.)

As we hovered for our three-minute safety stop, sunlight spiked the water and the ocean around us started shimmering. It looked like someone had spilled a giant glitter bottle into the sea. For a moment, I thought it was phosphorescence, that glowing plankton I’d recently learned about. But then it occurred to me that we were surrounded by fish scales, thousands of them shaken loose from all of that frisky friction, and I watched them float around us like blue stars, and listened to the sound of my own breathing, and hung there, suspended between worlds, weightless, having just witnessed a wild act of nature that usually happens behind the scenes. This is the closest I will ever get to a moon landing, I thought, or an alternate universe, or an afterlife-on-earth.

When we came up, it was still Saturday morning. Back on the boat, dripping and giddy, we all looked at each other as if we’d just emerged from the same crazy dream, the kind that makes you want to stay in bed and go back to sleep to see if you can make it last a little longer—which is, I expect, how Brian and I will feel most days after our time in Palau has ended.

Hammock time on the balcony

Hammock time on the balcony

Rick Perry and Kurt Vonnegut in the Pacific

This week, I published a piece in Guernica magazine about a recent visit Rick Perry made to Palau. I’m sharing it here, and hope it offers some insight into the current state of what I call a kind of “new Pacific Theater,” emphasis on the theatrical: island stages for dramatic performances, political and strategic and largely international. It’s been seventy years since World War II raged through the Pacific, but the effects are still felt in the islands — how far and wide run the ripples of war?

You can find the essay here: “Don’t Mess With the Other Texas.”

After I wrote the Guernica piece, I read two books that I found immensely good reads, and quite by accident, very thematically relevant: The Master Blaster, by P.F. Kluge, which is set in Saipan but shares many Palau parallels, and entertains as much as it sharply depicts the reality of the post-WWII U.S. Commonwealth; and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradleone of the 70 books that made the excruciating final cut for shipment to Palau (thank god my sister was there to talk me down).

In Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, we’re given the fictional island nation of the Republic of San Lorenzo, which has been “reorganized” by foreign nations over the years, most recently the U.S., and which every year celebrates the national holiday The Day of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy: “San Lorenzo conscripted a hundred men to fight on the side of democracy. These hundred men were put on a ship bound for the Untied States, where they were to be armed and trained. The ship was sunk by a German submarine right outside of [San Lorenzo’s] harbor.”

Vonnegut illuminates the futility and the ironies of war and colonization, and the ripple effects of the atom bomb–critically, satirically, but not hopelessly. I remember Vonnegut giving a presentation at Tufts when I was an undergrad. He was a humanist; he believed we were capable of more than this. And so I’ll sign off with an excerpt from this fictional speech commemorating the Hundred Martyrs:

“My soul insists that I mourn not a man but a child. I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same. And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind. Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.”

Incidentally, in Rick Perry’s speech commemorating the Battle of Peleliu, the American flag was conspicuously missing. Instead, two flags waved side by side: Palau, and the great state of Texas.

Part 1: Natural Wonders You Never Knew Existed (…and they’re all in Palau!)

We’re hearing all kinds of rumors about Blood Moons and other newsworthy natural phenomena. I thought it appropriate, then, to share a few of the wilder natural wonders we’ve experienced in Palau, which is full of them (this place wasn’t named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothin’). This is Part 1 of a 2-part series…or more, depending on how much the upcoming rainy season puts a damper on our adventuring. For now, when we’re not on the clock, you can find us in…

1. The Rock Islands

There’s something about the Rock Islands that really awakens the inner second grader, the one who wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist and a paleontologist, scanning reefs for shipwrecks and caves for old bones. (With Palau’s World War II history, and with the discovery of supposed ancient cave-dwelling “Hobbit people,” discovering old bones in caves is also something we do on occasion in the Rock Islands.)

As Tufts alumni, we are partial to this one. Go Jumbos!

As Tufts alumni, we are partial to this one. Go Jumbos!

 

Only nine of Palau’s islands are inhabited, but the country is made up of over 250 limestone and coral islands spread across 400 miles of Pacific Ocean. Millennia ago, the Rock Islands were submerged coral reefs formed on the tops of underwater volcanoes. Now, these ancient reefs are uplifted, mushrooming out of the sea in great green mounds: statuesque bodies of rock and jungle foliage in all shapes and sizes. Due to wave erosion and the porous nature of the rock, the islands are cut away at the base, so that from a distance they appear to be hovering, magically suspended above the surface of the water. Through fog, they look like sleeping elephants or brontosaurus, prehistoric giants about to rise up and roar.

An outer reef surrounds this area of Palau, so the water throughout much of the Rock Islands remains protected, radiant turquoise blue and calm. You can kayak or snorkel, hang beneath the lip of the rocks for shade—a great place to examine coral and take in a hundred varieties of palm, white rur and elilai flowers, tropic birds and fruit bats sailing overhead. If you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

Anna kayaking in the Rock Islands

Anna kayaking in the Rock Islands

 

2.  Jellyfish Lake

From Koror, it’s a 40-minute boat ride through the Rock Islands to Mercherchar Island, where you dock, hike over a steep hill, don your mask and snorkel, and immerse yourself in a marine lake full of five million stingless jellyfish—transparent, golden pink globes in every size, some as big as grapefruit, some smaller than a baby’s fingernail, so tiny you can barely see them, and they’re all pulsing and pitching around you in the rhythm of heartbeats, bumping into one another and moving on, feeding on light.

Jellyfish Lake, taken by our friend Joey, December 2013

Jellyfish Lake, taken by our friend Joey, December 2013

If you’ve ever been to an ocean beach, you’ve learned to beware of jellyfish. But this is one of few places in the world where you can ignore that rule, a place where sea levels rose as high as the islands themselves and then receded, forming marine lakes, briny inland environments in which a few oceanic species (namely, jellyfish) remained, predator-free. Sea anemones around the lake’s perimeter provide a degree of population control, and with hundreds of visitors daily during high season, human impact is inevitable. But without a direct threat to their survival, these jellies evolved without strong stinging defenses. Instead, they float innocuously, shifting en masse from east to west with the passage of the sun.

I had my doubts about Jellyfish Lake, one of Palau’s hyped visitor destinations. (In an attempt to deter crowds, Koror State jacked Jellyfish Lake visitor permits to $100 a pop–it’s free for Palauans and “locals” like us, with work permits. So far, the fee has primarily meant income generation for the state.) But if you catch it at the right time, communing with the jellies is equal parts thrilling and serene—you imagine yourself floating through a kaleidoscope, a sky of peachy clouds, a galaxy of pink stars…

Brian gets comfortable with the jellyfish

Brian gets comfortable with the jellyfish

 

If you catch it at the wrong time, then a rowdy tour group starts squealing, slicing the water with kicking fins, and the beheaded remains of jellyfish float past–limp arms, a silent bell. It reminds me of a visit to Machu Picchu, which was magnificent and peaceful at sunrise, but by 11 a.m., a man was shouting into his cell phone, shaking it at the sky for service, and a bunch of teenagers were climbing the ruins behind a “Do Not Touch” sign. Sigh. That’s the thing about natural wonders: they are incredibly attractive to humans.

I can’t stream this video from The Guardian, but the first-worlders among you can visit the lake vicariously here.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Glow-in-the-dark swimming, fastidious fish, and underwater things that go bump in the night…

On Mermaids and Miley Cyrus

Unsurprisingly, Palau has inspired plenty of writing outside of the book I’m working on while we’re here. With this absurdly lucky, lucky gift of one year of writing time while Brian clocks in at the court, I have found no trouble at all motivating myself to clock my own hours (and luckily, our many guests over the last four months have been supportive of me stealing off for the occasion). Instead, I’ve had to work to rein in the feeling that I MUST WRITE IT ALL WHILE I CAN! Old essays! New essays! Travel pieces! The memoir! That short story I’ve been tinkering with…the novel I started in that fiction workshop…because I’m fairly certain that life is never going to get any better than this, and I may never have a full-time writing gig again, ever, and before I know it I’ll be back to squeezing writing in the cracks between jobs, so I must use these remaining 153 days to write all the things.

I try to combat this by taking a lot of deep breaths and indulging in the occasional brief creative flight. Below are links to a couple of short, island-inspired pieces I’ve published recently. Hope you enjoy! Now where was I? Oh yeah, writing that book…

On mermaids: “Sirens” — Sweet: A Literary Confection, cool little online journal out of the University of South Florida.

On Miley: “Making Peace With Miley” — The Mindful Word, great online and print mag on all things mindful.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE ADJUSTING TO ISLAND LIFE WHEN…

Today, we officially hit the 6-month mark, which means we are halfway through our time in Palau. “But…but…,” I’ve been thinking, “it seems like just yesterday we were unpacking our wetsuits and fins! Taking our driver’s test and running to five different government agencies to make it official! Getting our picture taken for our laminated Surangel’s grocery saver’s club card!

But then I started reflecting on the events of the past week, and our recent behaviors, and thought, “Yep. Six months sounds about right.”

I give you a quick Top Ten from last seven days. We must be adjusting to island life when in the last week we have…

10. Gone Cast Away-style on a stubborn coconut.

9. Bought a machete.* (Yes, those two events are related.)

8. Contemplated the best way to hang a hammock.

7. Said “yes” to one another by raising our eyebrows instead of using words. (This is one of those cultural body language things. In the U.S., we nod our heads up and down. In India, it’s a side-to-side head bobble. Palauans, though, have designed the most efficient, minimal-effort response by far: the otherwise-motionless-face eyebrow raise.)

6. Read the following headlines and were unfazed: “Two Men Shot by an Air Gun.”** “12th Annual Shark Week Set.” “Presentation on Betelnut Chewing.” “Have You Seen Any Bombs? On land or in ocean. Please call to report 778-BOMB.”***

5. Had a conversation about what, precisely, is the best way to cook sea turtle. According to my source, you preserve some of the blood, chop the turtle meat into small pieces, mix it with some onion and extras of choice, and throw the blood in stir-fry style at the end.

4. Used five different methods of internet connection in one day, and still couldn’t load WordPress for a blog post.

3. Consoled a friend whose teammate was attacked with a machete—which, of course, the whole island heard about before the newspaper report went to print.

2a. Gone scuba diving, and found the coral more interesting than the sharks.

2b. Said, “We should probably try betelnut, once.” To which the other replied, “Yeah.”

1. Eaten Spam (Brian) and tapioca (Anna) and toasted our 6-month mark with a thoroughly rewarding glass of fresh coconut milk.

All in all, a productive week! And a wild six months. Looking forward to whatever surprising lessons the next six will bring. We’ll let you know how it goes with the machete.

__

*So I’m checking out at Surangel’s, and I ask the dudes bagging my groceries, “Do you know where I can buy a machete?” I’m expecting them to look surprised (because where I come from, I.e. Not the jungle, a machete is a strange request) or to laugh (American chick wants to buy a machete!).

Instead, he says, “Let me check and see if we have any in stock!”

They are fresh out of machetes at Surangel’s. They recommend I check the hardware store, where I am delighted to discover an entire Machete Aisle, and where I spend twenty minutes pantomiming bushwhacking with an employee and discussing the weight distribution and handle strength of various blades. A machete, it turns out, will set you back somewhere between $12 and $20—a small price to pay, I figure, for six months of coconut enjoyment. Now we just have to figure out someplace to put it…

**Guns are illegal in Palau. Air guns are legal and used to hunt birds. Violence, when it happens, is usually the good old-fashioned YOU KNOW YOU’RE LIVING ON AN ISLAND WHEN…fist brawl variety. Or stabbing (not ideal, naturally, but often not lethal). Or, at least once since we’ve been here, bludgeoning by storyboard, a traditional Palauan wood carving.

***Leftovers from the WWII Pacific Theater—some still active 70 years later. In recent years, 30,000 unexploded ordinances have been uncovered. Torpedoes propping up Palauan homes. Bombs under yard burn piles, or schoolyards.

Who Wore It Better? Quirk v. McCain Edition

John McCain was all over the Island Times and Tia Belau when he and his family recently visited Palau for the holidays. Apparently the McCains like to vacation in Palau (world class scuba diving, serious loyalty to the U.S. military—what’s not to love?). And when the McCains visit, they like to stay at the Palau Pacific Resort, the swankiest hotel on the island on a coveted stretch of sandy beach just a 10 minute walk down the road from our apartment.

It may surprise you to know that Palau isn’t all white sands and beachfront property–they don’t call them the Rock Islands for nothing. These babies were built from uplifted reef and volcanic activity. They are coral and limestone. They are jagged. They are edgy. They have been the death of many a flimsy rubber flip-flop. Postcard beaches are easy to come by if you have a boat or time for a drive up the coast of Babeldaob, but around Koror, the hotels have a monopoly on the best.

Brian and I pay a PPR member fee to swim at the beach, so I had high hopes for a McCain sighting. I was thinking Meghan and I could bond over a scuba dive, just two all-American Millennial girls dishing about our conservative dads, marriage equality, her new reality TV show…who knows? Maybe after a few of the PPR’S  signature Shark Attack cocktails I’d convince her that she really is, in fact, a feminist.

Alas, my holiday time was busy with other things, including rehearsals for a dance performance at the Supreme Court’s annual holiday party…which in many ways felt like its own reality TV show…

The Setting: The Sunset Park bar at T-Dock, an open-air establishment perched at the end of a long boat launch. Views of a turquoise bay by day. Black lights and neon strobes by night. And food. So much food. Potluck of bottomless sushi and sashimi, taro and tapioca, and at the head of the table, a roast pig the size of a small car.

The Cast: The Judiciary, the House of Delegates, and the Ministry of Infrastructure. A handful of surly bartenders. Marshalls on duty around the perimeter of the building.

The Challenge: Out-perform your fellow government branch using only a song, a caller, 10-20 coworkers, minimal props, and at least some nod to traditional Palauan moves. Like Hawaiian hula, Palauan dance conveys a story. But why tell a story about rain or sea or sunshine when you could roast friends and delegates in the audience instead? Bonus points awarded for stories that air on the side of total mockery.

There were grown men in diapers. There were government officials dressed in drag, in cropped tops and blood-red lipstick, printed tights and stiletto heels. There were ministers of infrastructure riding neon orange construction cones around the room as if they were horses. There were grass skirts swishing and sweeping the floor (now I understand what “pretend like you’re wiping your butt on the wall” means). There were whistles and gyrating and lap dances and a group of U.S. Military men sweating on the sidelines in polyester bellbottoms and afro wigs—they were told it was a ’70s-themed costume party.

Blurry, but you get the idea.

Blurry, but you get the idea.

The Judiciary’s dance team was a motley crew of clerks, custodians, IT whizzes, judicial assistants, court counsel and court counsel spouses (I’m still not sure how Chris and I got roped into this). By the time we box-stepped onto the dance floor to perform our tame-by-comparison mash-up of Japanese/square dancing/traditional and modern Palauan dance, it was clear that we were out of our league. But we shook as much as we could shake, smiled, marched, clapped, slapped and bowed, and the audience was forgiving.

Unsurprisingly, the Judiciary took third place—booted off the island, in time, I suppose. But we had a good time. Heck, we even made a few bucks. In Palauan tradition, we learned, to dance for someone is to honor them. Those who witness the dance offer money in gratitude for the honor (like I said: forgiving audience).

If John McCain had been present, he would have seen that, surely, Palauans have discovered the solution to government shutdowns and party-line gridlock. Less pontificating on the Senate floor, more grabbing floor! Less finger-wagging, more booty-shaking! Less filibuster, more drag!

He would have also seen that he and a certain someone I know share a flair for island fashion, as you can see by this photo captured the night of our holiday performance. Which brings me to the pressing question at hand: Who Wore It Better: Quirk or McCain? And is Brian, in fact, the new poster boy of the young Republicans? Cast your votes by comment, please!

McCain keeps things simple and chic with minimal accessories, while Brian gets festive with a bold striped scarf and a sassy red undershirt.

McCain keeps things simple and chic with minimal accessories, while Brian gets festive with a bold striped scarf and a sassy red undershirt.

McCain photo courtesy of Tia Belau, “State Dinner,” 12/27. Quirk photo courtesy of Lou Lou. Caption by Susan Reid. Photoshop magic by Chris Yorke.