A Bright, Palauan Christmas Day

Ungil Kurismas! All week long, Palauans have been sporting their best red t-shirts, decorating the heck out of everything, and doling out nightly gifts to kids in Bethlehem park, which is glowy with angels, ornaments in the palm trees, and an artificial Ponderosa Pine planted in a hole in the dirt for the occasion. Brian and I have been learning traditional Palauan dances for the Supreme Court’s annual holiday party this Friday, which will include grass skirts and a lot of shouting and booty shaking before the entire judiciary and House of Delegates. In case you’re wondering what traditional Palauan booty shaking looks like, consider this from one of Brian’s coworkers, offered as a tip to improve our sub-par moves: “Pretend you’re wiping your butt on the wall. That’s what they told us when we learned in elementary school.” I have a feeling it will be a memorable performance.

Xmas Bethlehem Park

Brian photo bombs an angel in Bethlehem Park

Brian photo bombs an angel in Bethlehem Park

Christmas wasn’t quite the same without snow and sub-zero temps, but we made do with what we had: sunshine, beach, and Spam, which made for a shiny topper on our last-minute makeshift Christmas tree, constructed with leftovers from the move.

Island Xmas Tree

We spent the day at the beach, reveling in the company of good friends and visiting relatives, and wishing we could import all of our family and friends for the occasion.

Wishing you all merry holidays. Be good, ok?

Tree Decor-Be Good Ok

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Blond Vs. Lawyer

Palau–or at least one of its two biweekly newspapers–has a thing for blond jokes. Twice in two weeks, the “Jokes of the Week” section of Tia Belau has featured a crack at the expense of the fair-haired. The fairer sex–and wives, especially–are also common fodder for the joke mill around here. I should note that Palau prides itself on being a matrilineal society, and that although the Pacific Islands are notorious for gender inequality in politics and a whole lot else, Palauan women exercise some authority over clan land, money and chief titles. (In Making Sense of Micronesia, published in 2013, Francis Hezel notes that women make up 4% of the total congressional representatives in Micronesia–in Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, only three out of seventy-six legislative members are women.)

Accustomed to my regular rants in response to the derogatory and unsubstantiated attacks against blonds, Mr. Brian Quirk, Esquire, was particularly pleased to present me with the following joke recently. I have to admit, it’s a pretty good one. Click for a larger view and to find out who gets the last laugh:

Blonde vs Lawyer 2

A Walking Tour of Koror

It’s Vodicka family tradition to take a long walk after the Thanksgiving meal–get some fresh air and let the sweet potatoes and stuffing settle so you can make room for pumpkin pie. I thought it appropriate this week, then, to lead you on a walk through downtown Koror, the commercial center of Palau and our home for the year (technically speaking, we live in the state of Koror, but our neighborhood is on Ngerekebesang Island–pronounced “Arakabasang”–outside of downtown Koror and physically set apart by a causeway, which Brian drives on his way into town every day).

The tour won’t take long: suffice it to say that folks don’t visit Palau for its urban offerings, shopping or otherwise. But I find a few spots quite photogenic, and hope this gives you a sense of “metropolitan” Palau, where we do our grocery shopping and mail your letters, go for Thai and Indian food and sit twice a day in some mind-boggling two-lane traffic–if it’s Pay Day Friday, forget it!

After Haiyan

It’s been a strange week around here, punctuated by a bright sun (always strange when the mood on land is one of recovery) and the sounds of rebuilding: hammers, heavyweight trucks, the buzzing of chainsaws. Like the rest of the world, we’re watching for updates from the Philippines. Palau’s service industry labor force is powered by Filipinos, so in addition to the reports we read in the newspapers, everywhere we go we see folks with cell phones in hand and looks of either distress or relief.

The morning after...

The morning after…

Strange cloud action after Haiyan.

Strange cloud action after Haiyan.

For us, thanks to a barrier reef that buffers most of Palau from typhoons and tsunamis, Super Typhoon Haiyan felt a lot like snow days or summer tornado watches back home. We knew it was coming. Businesses closed early on Wednesday so folks could board windows and stock up at the grocery store (by the end of the day, the Spam and potato chip aisles were ransacked and signs read “Out of Ice” and “Sorry, No Water”). Police made rounds at the bars, enforcing a 7 p.m. curfew, and by late evening the lights around the islands went dark. We made dinner with our upstairs neighbors, Megan and Scott, and played board games when the power went out. At midnight, right on schedule, the weather took a distinct turn (turns out even tropical storms are more punctual than Vodickas), and we stood on the balcony to feel the rain and wind grow fierce. Then we went to bed. It was a crummy nights sleep, but aside from the wind howling all night through a crack in the window, and a little water under the door the next day, the storm eluded us.

If you’ve ever been to northern Wisconsin in the wintertime, you have seen the efficiency of a people who know their climate—before a blizzard has even begun, the four-wheel-drive trucks stand ready, the plows are in place, and there’s a whole crew of magical elves who go to work clearing the roads while you sleep.

So it was in Koror the day after Haiyan: when we woke up, the road below us was filled with coconuts and palm trees, but by the time we’d brewed a pot of generator-powered coffee, the chainsaws were roaring, the rakes and brooms were out, the brush was piled. Things are still a little off, but for the most part, recovery was swift.

Things are just a little bit off...

Things are just a little bit off…

Miraculously, no one was hurt, not even the 59 local residents who refused evacuation (I’m told the area’s chief is endowed with power over the weather, so he and his clan were exempt). The President has declared a state of emergency for Kayangel, and efforts are underway to restore power and start the slow process of rebuilding.It’s going to take a lot more time to repair Kayangel, Palau’s northernmost state, a coral atoll located about 100 kilometers north of us, about an hour’s boat ride from the tip of the island. Kayangel is well known in these parts for its distinct natural beauty—serene, uninterrupted beaches, beautiful marine conservation areas, a great variety of banana trees, friendly locals who often invite visitors to stay, and pretty much total quiet. Until Haiyan. Under the eye of the storm, Kayangel suffered total devastation: 100% loss of power, water, and subsistence farming, including taro patches and fruit trees, and almost total destruction of residences and public facilities.

Sending love to Kayangel and the Philippines this week, and feeling grateful that most of Palau was spared. Let’s hope Haiyan was the last typhoon the region sees for a good long time…and that that crew of magic elves likes the tropics.

Update: Typhoon Haiyan

Quick update to let you know we weathered the storm. The typhoon (upgraded to a “super typhoon”) passed through between midnight and 7 a.m., so we slept through most of it (with earplugs). The power is still out. The wind is whipping outside. Rain is off and on. We can see a few signs hanging on their hinges, but not as much debris around our place as we expected. We hear downtown Koror is debris central, and wonder how the northern part of the island, where the eye of the storm passed, fared. But for now, we’re okay, houses seem intact, we have one teeny bar of cell/Internet service and we’ll wait for more news from the outside world as it comes. Thanks for sending good thoughts our way!

And Then We Were In A Tropical Storm

So, remember how Palau is out of the typhoon zone, and with the exception of Typhoon Bopha— which ripped through last December, snapped boats from their anchors and hurtled swaths of sandy beach into the jungle—we leave the tropical storms to Guam and the Philippines? Well, yesterday we heard a rumor that a hurricane was maybe on its way.

This morning, the sun was shining like every other day at the tail-end of the wet season, with the occasional sheet of rain sweeping through for ten minutes and disappearing. A couple of maintenance guys on staff at our apartment building whistled while they worked on our leaky sink and rusty windows (in fact, at one point, I was writing on the couch in the living room, and they simultaneously started whistling and humming Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” which was pretty much the highlight of my day).

They went on lunch break. The sun was still shining.

But just now, Allen, the one who hums while chipping paint on the balcony, knocked on my door to inform me he is going to stop repainting the rusting wrought iron over the windows and instead tie down all of the outdoor furniture on the deck because the hurricane is coming.

And just like that, the skies turned. It’s a grey, cloudy world out there. The Management came by with a memo “To All Our Valued Tenants Re: Tropical Storm Haiyan.” Brian texted to say that work is off tomorrow and Thursday, and we, along the rest of Palau, are going grocery shopping tonight for supplies.

According to the memo, the storm is expected to pass through Palau “12 pm tomorrow night” (other reports have all mentioned Thursday, so I assume that means midnight). You can check WindGuru for weather updates, and we’ll keep you posted here when we can, but since the already-hit-or-miss phone and Internet connections will no doubt be affected by weather, we wanted to let you know that we’re in good hands at our apartment; we know where the U.S. Embassy is located and have friends at both the U.S. Military base and Australian Navy (because they’ll know what to do, right?); we have a good stockpile of supplies: candles, flashlights, guitars, a deck of cards, a bottle of vino; and we’re hoping this will all shake out like a northern Wisconsin snow day. Stay tuned…XOXO

The Good News & The Bad News

The Good News is…

1) While Brian’s dream of flying remains distant, we are regularly suiting up, strapping heavy metal on our backs, and leaping into spaces unknown to participate in what he calls “the next best thing to a jet pack.” We were promised that the scuba diving in Palau was some of the best in the world, and six dives in, we’re believers. Brian Quirk is even more relaxed underwater than he is on land, if you can believe it. Anna is grateful for such a competent diving buddy, especially since it looks like those white tip reef sharks have a thing for Blue Finned Blondies. (We’re told they’re harmless, but when they’re swishing under your elbows and looking so…sharky…it’s a little nerve-wracking.)

2) Anna has some exciting stuff happening on the writing front:

  • Her essay “As Seen On TV!,” originally published in Ninth Letter (a hip little journal out of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champagne), was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013 by the venerable Cheryl Strayed (guest editor) and series editor Robert Atwan. The essay is available in print only through the 9L link above. If you’re the instant gratification type, you can watch a super cool chick named Diane Park do an ambidextrous drawing using excerpts of the essay here.
  • “On Modesty,” an essay she published in Shenandoah, was shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize and received Special Mention in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses 2014 anthology.
  • What this means: Twice in two weeks, Anna did a little dance in the living room—she didn’t make the final cut, but she did manage to rise up through the slush pile into the company of some of her favorite writers and writer-friends—and we popped the bottle of champagne we bought for a special occasion. (The $18 Barefoot brand was a splurge, second shelf up from the $16 Andre. That’s right. The stuff we bought for $2.99 in college has a 500% markup in Palau.)

The Bad News is…

Come to think of it, “bad” is relative. We are out of the typhoon zone. We don’t have ticks or cockroaches or geckos taking up residence in our apartment (well, the occasional gecko, but those guys are pretty cool). Our previously-clunking car got totally fixed up for a mere sixty bucks. We hear that the U.S. even managed to avoid a government shutdown! (Trust us, it looks even more absurd from a distance.) And while Brian has taken to wandering the apartment singing “What does the fox say? I don’t know, ‘cause I don’t have the Internet,”* we are happy to report that we have no idea what Miley Cyrus is up to these days. Life is pretty damn good.

*While we appreciate your YouTube links, songs, audio clips, etc., we can’t stream them. We hereby request that all viral videos be translated and reported to us in written form. Keep us posted.