The Remnants of War: A Meditation on Peleliu

A new essay of mine inspired by my first trip to Peleliu was published as an exclusive essay on Longreads this week. Peleliu is one of Palau’s outer islands, about an hour south by boat, and was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in WWII’s Pacific theater. On Peleliu, the remnants of war live on, even 70 years after the war. We followed Cleared Ground Demining around to understand the work they do to safely retrieve and detonate unexploded ordnance, and to educate locals on recognizing potentially dangerous UXOs. You can read more about it in “The Remnants of War: A Meditation on Peleliu.”

Longreads

Anna Vodicka | Longreads | January 2016 | 12 minutes (3,051 words)

On Peleliu, the roads are paved with coral—a once-living thing, a hardy animal. The coral came from the inland ridges and valleys of thistwo-by-six-mile speck among specks in the island nation of Palau, in western Micronesia, an almost invisible scene in the shadow of bigger acts in the Pacific, where land itself is a kind of debris, cast from the ocean by tectonic clashes and shifts that left things topsy-turvy, bottom-up, fish-out-of-water. Before: an underwater reef, an ecosystem of competitive individuals. After: a coral atoll bleaching into a future island paradise. Something new under the sun.

During World War II’s Pacific theater of operations, the coral was harvested, carted, crushed, and laid at the feet of foreign militaries that took turns stripping Peleliu from the inside out. The Japanese landed first, evacuating locals and engineering a complex subterranean…

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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

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…

Japan, for Shino

In my heart, February is for Dan Shinozaki, a close friend I met during my freshman year of college and who remained a dear friend ever since. Dan grew up in Japan, and moved back after college, and he always promised me I would love it there, and I always promised him I would visit. I thought I had all the time in the world to do it.

Dan passed away in 2010 from aggressive colon cancer. He’d had polyps removed in the Fall, I knew, and had gotten a clean bill of health. When he sent me a typical goofy and heartfelt message on my birthday, in January, he mentioned nothing of his recent relapse. I was starting my final semester of graduate school–thesis defense time–as if I’m ever on time with correspondence anyway. When I logged on to Facebook a few weeks later to reply, Dan had died.

En route to Palau, Brian and I booked an extra week layover in Japan. We biked from temple to temple in Kyoto. We visited Mashiko, a traditional pottery town, where we watched artisans dye fabric by hand in a hundred shades of indigo, which fermented in vats in the ground. We rode the Shinkansen bullet train. Best of all, we stayed at the Shinozaki farm, where horses train on a gorgeous track of land surrounded by rice paddies in Tochigi Prefecture, two hours north of Tokyo. Dan was right: I loved it there. I only wish he’d been around to see it with us, his face lighting up with the world’s best smile lines (he inherited them from his father, I learned).

To Koji and Corinne and Sarah and Ben: Thank you. He was the best.

To Dan, with love.

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Mai Tai Challenge Redux

We’ve had our fair share of challenges over the last four months. Typhoons. Flat tires (two and counting). Stolen cars. Quarter shortages. Produce shortages. Internet and phone connection shortages…

Of all the challenges we’ve faced, however, few have been as refreshing as Dave’s Mai Tai Challenge! With Visitor’s Season in full swing, we’ve been slacking on the blog, but not on mai tais. Here are some highlights, including the Mai Tai costume, mai tai photo bomb, guest challengers, and a drawing sketched by our talented artist friend Chris Yorke one night when none of us had a camera handy.

More updates to follow. In the meantime, Cheers! Especially to Dave, in -30F temps. We hear Wisconsinites are thawing beer on the grill these days.

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.

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

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.

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Palauan Meeting Space

We are used to the window as an object of easy metaphors, a symbol of openness, clarity, gateways to the soul, etc., etc. But Palau blows that metaphor right off its hinges: if you walk down the street here, you’ll find most people leave the doors and windows of their homes wide open—if they have windows at all. The more common structures have wide open spaces where you would normally see a window pane or a wall. Every neighborhood has a gazebo-like common space—generally a thatch roof propped up by wooden pillars and equipped with long benches, where people stretch out on lunch breaks and hold customary family-wide picnics on weekends. If it rains, they pull a shade. Otherwise, they are open to the world.

This is, in part, for obvious reasons. It’s hot here, people. Not oppressively so—not the perpetual steam room of guaranteed skin cancer my overactive imagination had prepared me for—but a reliably humid 80-something, 365 days a year. (Thanks to some nearby typhoons, we may even be experiencing a “cold spell” which basically means a breeze and a few clouds overhead.)

But it’s also because concepts of “personal space” and “alone time” as we Westerners know them aren’t part of the island psyche. Families share land. They share bedrooms. They share kids. (Palauan adoption and family structures warrant their own post, so more on this later.)

“I lived in Baltimore,” a Palauan woman named Julie told me as we stood in an open-air cafe, “and my father-in-law was always yelling at me for leaving the doors unlocked and the windows open.” She gestured toward the view of coconut trees and empty beach outside the hut. “Why even have windows at all?” she said. “Why close yourself off to the world like that?”

So, when you walk by a house, maybe you see a man stretched out thinking on his cool stone floor, or a woman hanging her underwear to dry, or kids fighting over who gets to smack the mangy dog around. Either way, everyone’s business is all out there—on an island this size, we’re quickly learning, it all comes out eventually anyway.