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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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!

The Case of the Missing Clunker

Everyone told us we’d never have to worry about our car getting stolen in Palau because, hey, it’s an island! Where are they gonna go with it?

Which is why I was so surprised the other day when Brian called and the following conversation ensued:

“Hello?”

“Hey. You’re home, right?”

“Yes…” Koror is a mile and half away, and it’s hot out there–unless I ride in with Brian in the morning, I’m usually home.

“So you didn’t take the car anywhere?”

“No…?”

“That’s what I thought. Well, I’m standing in the road where I parked, and the car is gone.”

Conveniently, the Court Marshals were on the case (who steals a car from the Supreme Court parking lot?), checking their surveillance videos and running the plates of another Honda CRV parked nearby. It’s a common car in Palau, so it would be an easy mistake to walk up to a lookalike. The Marshals recommended Brian try his key in the door. No luck. Besides, the lookalike had black tinted windows and plush seats, and probably a passenger door that opens, and operable shocks, and non-screeching brakes—if a driver somehow missed the great swaths of rust stains on our silver paint job, then surely, he or she would have noticed daylight coming through the windows and a far less cushy ride.*

The Marshals found the owner’s name and number and called him. He’d sold the car a few months ago, he said, and gave them the new owner’s number to try. No answer.

Two hours later, two guys pull into the court parking lot in our car, looking sheepish. They apologized. One of the guys owns the other CRV. His key worked in our door. That’s reassuring.

“No problem, man.” Brian said, shaking his hand. And the Mystery of the Missing Honda was solved. We had our beloved car back. Until…

Two nights later, we discovered the car had a severely flat back tire. Brian went to work cranking bolts and jacking the frame, but when the flat tire came loose, the jack slipped, the car gave way, and it sounded like a stack of metal pipe spilling onto the concrete. We’re not sure how this works, but it seems the entire back undercarriage of the car came crashing to the ground.

We’re told there’s only one tow truck on Palau, and we’re told we really don’t want to have to use it.

So, to the dude who stole our clunker: we’re at the Belvedere Apartments. Come and get it!

 

* I should note, in all seriousness, that by Palau standards our car is considered reeeally nice. We can take it off-roading. The A/C cranks. It’s not infested with ants or cockroaches (sorry, Becca & Suz!).