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!

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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.

Independence Day

Well, I didn’t have sufficient time, utensils, or ingredients (namely: beer brats) to prepare a usual Vodicka family Independence Day fare, but we made do with what we had: fresh pineapple, garlic-lemon shrimp, and the big winner, homemade ginger beer for an island-appropriate Dark & Stormy. After an afternoon at the Japan-Palau Friendship bridge, where we watched the Independence Day boat races–an annual event that supports the long and healthy rivalry of two of Palau’s most prominent families, who own competing grocery stores located directly across the street from one another, in addition to other business ventures–we had an apartment full of people, sang Happy 19th Birthday to Palau, blew out some candles, and waved mini Palaun flags with newfound pride.

But it was the final event of evening, when our friends Jelga and Nikkita took us out on the town for live music and dancing, Palaun-style, that really cemented my belief that Palau is the stuff of dreams, a place where any dude with a drum machine constitutes a live band, where old men ask you to dance but only so they can sway slowly, at a respectful distance a few feet away from you, and where everyone—and I mean everyone—can sing, and you’ll hear it in the streets or in the aisles of the competing grocery stores, as folks are stocking shelves or doing their daily shopping, but you can’t truly understand it until you witness the ubiquitous and sincere appreciation Palauans have for the fine art of karaoke.

Yep. It’s gonna be a good year.

Anna & Brian Named Attorney Generals of Palau!

That’s right, folks! We haven’t confirmed this yet, but according to a report by the Island Times, Brian, his fellow Court Counsel, Becca, and I are the new “assistant attorney generals” of Palau!

Actually, this is a photo of us registering for visas at Immigration, taken immediately after I returned from a fairly frenzied trip to the bathroom–frenzied because I asked a man at the Bureau where the restroom was located, and this request caused him so much embarrassment that he abandoned the task halfway through, left me standing alone in the hallway, and returned with a female coworker who walked me the rest of the way. By the time I returned and sat down, Becca said, “Smile! This is happening!” and the next day we were on the front page of the paper.

Island Times Close Up

I’m told that Brian was front-page news again this week, but unlike everything else on the island, newspapers actually move very fast here. So while I missed the latest issue, it’s clear that the combination of Brian’s popularity with the paparazzi and his stand-out 100%-Irish looks means he is attracting some attention. A couple of men in Japan asked if he permed his hair, and decided that he must be in a rock band. Last week, a woman approached Brian and said very earnestly, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Sure,” he replied.

“What color would say your hair is?”

I look forward to finding out the answer to that question in a future issue of the Island Times.

PaWow

Well, we did it. We packed up our lives. We sold our cars (thanks, Tim & Sally). We boarded a plane. And then another. And then another. And then we landed 16 hours in the future, in Micronesia. It was pitch dark, because most flights arriving in Palau land between the hours of 1 and 4 a.m., because Palau is an inconvenient place to get to and has to take what it can get when it comes to airplane access and so operates on other countries’ schedules. The downside for the traveler is missing a spectacular aerial view of the Rock Islands (although most Palauans–all 21,000 of them–live on a cluster of four islands, the country is made up of more than 200 volcanic isles and coral atolls scattered over 196 square miles). On the other hand, you get to spend your first night sleeping with a plane full of Palauans, which is a quick cultural immersion experience because shortly after take-off, everyone quietly disperses about the cabin with pillows and blankets, ditches their flip flops, stretches out across the rows and lets it all hang out, snoozing and snoring for the duration of the flight, so that when you get up to use the lavatory (which is often, if you’re a Vodicka), you slalom through an aisle full of bare feet.

But the real upside to a mid-night arrival is waking to view of the place from your apartment on a hill, an utterly spectacular panorama made even more breathtaking by the fact that it was shrouded in darkness when you arrived, and so you open your window blinds and squint in the sunlight and actually gasp in surprise:

View from Home

No matter that all of our kitchen utensils are lost on a slow boat to China (we’re told USPS no longer ships by sea, but I haven’t given up hope that one of these days, our cups, bowls and spoons will wash up on shore). We will suffer through and order mai tais! No matter that, technologically speaking, we’re living in the mid-1990s, those salad days of MS DOS and AOL dial-up. We will unplug! Give our brains some vacation from the screen! Show Brian’s law school professors who promised, during his first quarter of 1L year, that as a lawyer in the 21st century he would never have to use a book! And no matter that I got knocked-out-cold sick two days after we landed. There is a hammock out our front door. There is a breeze coming in off the ocean. Several boxes of books have arrived. Let the Island Time begin.