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.


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.”



Part 2: Natural Wonders You Never Knew Existed (…and they’re all in Palau!)

Our year in Palau is rapidly approaching its end: four weeks and counting until Brian wraps up work and we head off island indefinitely. With that deadline looming, we are checking things off of our Island Bucket List. And, consequently, slacking on the blog! A few more posts, though, before we go…

This one is Part 2 in a series I started earlier this year on the magical mystery tour that is Palau’s underwater world. Without further ado, our top three natural wonders:

3. Bioluminescence

Some girlfriends and I may or may not have been skinny dipping beneath a quarter moon when we looked down and saw that the lagoon water around us not only reflected the glorious night sky, but was generating a light of its own, illuminating the water around us whenever we moved. Gold dust shot from our fingertips. Our finning arms and legs left a sparkling haze in their wake. Wherever our bodies moved, so did that underwater glow, which on a microscopic level was actually light-generating plankton, a biochemical phenomenon we equate with fireflies and certain luminous deep-sea fishes, but which, at this invisible-to-the-naked-eye size, emitted a kind of magic fairy dust that made us all remember exactly what it felt like to be five again, or whatever age you were when magic fairy dust was real. If you’re ever looking to restore that childlike sense of wonder, go find yourself some bioluminescence. (Skinny dipping works, too.)

Manta ray at the German Channel cleaning station, taken by our friend Keith on a dive this spring

Manta ray at the German Channel cleaning station, taken by our friend Keith on a dive this spring

2. Manta Ray Cleaning Stations

Of Palau’s many natural wonders, my personal favorite is the manta ray, the great magic carpet of the sea. The first time I encountered one underwater, it was gliding toward me out of the deep blue with its enormous wings flapping, and I started to cry. I don’t recommend this—the whole point of the mask, obviously, is to keep moisture out, and hot tears are a great way to fog up the googles. But I couldn’t help it. It was so beautiful, so majestic and graceful and right before my eyes. Manta rays often return to the same places for cleaning and feeding—which includes barrel rolling their up-to-16-feet-wide bodies—so we’ve had repeat manta diving encounters, and every time it’s the same damn thing: I cry on sight.

One cool phenomenon that keeps the mantas coming back is the “cleaning station,” which is kind of like an underwater car wash staffed by smaller fish. When mantas and sharks visit the cleaning station, they call a truce with the small fish and proceed in a cooperative trade. The big guys get groomed by the little guys, and in exchange for this cleaning service, the big guys agree not to eat the little guys (this is a greater feat for the sharks; mantas feed on zooplankton, and only eat fish accidentally, when they get in the way of all that delicious plankton). The little guys also get a hearty meal of parasites out of the deal.

Mantas visit the cleaning station daily, for hours. They stretch out their wings, unfurl their frontal flaps, open their mouths wide enough that you can see their stick-straight, bone-white ribs from the inside, and the little fish swim around, pecking on algae and plankton and whatever’s stuck between the gills and tooth crevasses. When they’re finished, the manta moves on, and another pulls in. Sometimes, there’s a line of manta rays circling the station, waiting their turn. It’s an incredible moment of symbiosis, a little peace treaty in the midst of the otherwise defensive/offensive predatory frenzy that is ocean life.

1. Full Moon Spawning

Have you ever walked in on a bunch of fish getting it on beneath a full moon? Neither had I, until Brian and I joined a “Unique Dive” with Sam’s Tours, one of the oldest SCUBA shops on the island. We woke up at the crack of dawn on a full moon weekend and boated to the edge of the reef where the waves tossed us around like whiffle balls. Just when I thought I was going to wretch into my regulator, we backrolled overboard and descended 90 feet below the surface. For the next forty minutes, we swam against a wild current on the edge of the Philippine Sea, surrounded by thousands of spawning red snapper.

Everywhere we looked, it was fish fireworks: huge, dense clouds of snapper swimming in frenzied masses, until a single fish blazed its own trail, released a cloud of eggs, and others swarmed, forming an explosive fishball of reproductive hysteria. Our guide shouted into his regulator and mimed horns on his head, and I turned to see bull sharks prowling the perimeter of the action for easy meals–at a healthy distance from the human fish, thankfully. (To my nephew Mike, who requested we bring home a bull shark to keep in the pond at the farm: I don’t think they’ll let us take these guys on the plane.)

As we hovered for our three-minute safety stop, sunlight spiked the water and the ocean around us started shimmering. It looked like someone had spilled a giant glitter bottle into the sea. For a moment, I thought it was phosphorescence, that glowing plankton I’d recently learned about. But then it occurred to me that we were surrounded by fish scales, thousands of them shaken loose from all of that frisky friction, and I watched them float around us like blue stars, and listened to the sound of my own breathing, and hung there, suspended between worlds, weightless, having just witnessed a wild act of nature that usually happens behind the scenes. This is the closest I will ever get to a moon landing, I thought, or an alternate universe, or an afterlife-on-earth.

When we came up, it was still Saturday morning. Back on the boat, dripping and giddy, we all looked at each other as if we’d just emerged from the same crazy dream, the kind that makes you want to stay in bed and go back to sleep to see if you can make it last a little longer—which is, I expect, how Brian and I will feel most days after our time in Palau has ended.

Hammock time on the balcony

Hammock time on the balcony

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…


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.


*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.

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.

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!

Audio Essay Featured at The Missouri Review

My first-ever attempt at a “This American Life”-style audio essay managed to win The Missouri Review audio competition this year, and it’s now up on the TMR website for your listening pleasure! “In Search of Magic Kingdoms” is about growing up on televangelism–specifically Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL network–and a Vodicka family trip to Heritage USA, the Bakkers’ Christian theme park in South Carolina, just before the ministry fell into scandal.

If you’re not already familiar,  The Missouri Review is not exaggerating when it calls itself “one of the most highly-regarded literary magazines in the United States and for the past thirty-four years.” So while this piece is not perfect–I would have loved to give the writing a final revision–I am thrilled to place it with TMR, had a ton of fun throwing it together, and look forward to trying my hand at more audio in the future.

I’d like to give a shout out to my partner and co-engineer, Brian Quirk. I learned about the contest two weeks before the deadline, so this was a crash course in Logic recording, which he re-learned in order to teach me. He also patiently endured listening to seemingly endless loops of Susie Moppet singing “Jesus takes a frown/and turns it upside down/and oops! There comes a smile.” (Now he knows how my parents felt!) In gratitude, a portion of the proceeds will go toward his pepperoni pizza fund.

I can’t stream it from Palau, so you’ll have to tell me how it turned out! Hope you enjoy: “In Search of Magic Kingdoms”

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.