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.

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*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.

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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

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!