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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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.

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!

And Then We Were In A Tropical Storm

So, remember how Palau is out of the typhoon zone, and with the exception of Typhoon Bopha— which ripped through last December, snapped boats from their anchors and hurtled swaths of sandy beach into the jungle—we leave the tropical storms to Guam and the Philippines? Well, yesterday we heard a rumor that a hurricane was maybe on its way.

This morning, the sun was shining like every other day at the tail-end of the wet season, with the occasional sheet of rain sweeping through for ten minutes and disappearing. A couple of maintenance guys on staff at our apartment building whistled while they worked on our leaky sink and rusty windows (in fact, at one point, I was writing on the couch in the living room, and they simultaneously started whistling and humming Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” which was pretty much the highlight of my day).

They went on lunch break. The sun was still shining.

But just now, Allen, the one who hums while chipping paint on the balcony, knocked on my door to inform me he is going to stop repainting the rusting wrought iron over the windows and instead tie down all of the outdoor furniture on the deck because the hurricane is coming.

And just like that, the skies turned. It’s a grey, cloudy world out there. The Management came by with a memo “To All Our Valued Tenants Re: Tropical Storm Haiyan.” Brian texted to say that work is off tomorrow and Thursday, and we, along the rest of Palau, are going grocery shopping tonight for supplies.

According to the memo, the storm is expected to pass through Palau “12 pm tomorrow night” (other reports have all mentioned Thursday, so I assume that means midnight). You can check WindGuru for weather updates, and we’ll keep you posted here when we can, but since the already-hit-or-miss phone and Internet connections will no doubt be affected by weather, we wanted to let you know that we’re in good hands at our apartment; we know where the U.S. Embassy is located and have friends at both the U.S. Military base and Australian Navy (because they’ll know what to do, right?); we have a good stockpile of supplies: candles, flashlights, guitars, a deck of cards, a bottle of vino; and we’re hoping this will all shake out like a northern Wisconsin snow day. Stay tuned…XOXO

Dave’s Mai Tai Challenge

Meet Dave:

Meet Dave

Dave is my brother-in-law and all-around Exceptional Human Being—the kind of guy who comes home from a long day of work and tutors his needy 8th grade sister-in-law in algebra (algebra was hard), plans magic tricks and Mudder runs, charms the heck out of old ladies at the pharmacy, and knows all the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight,” which he blasts while leaning up against his sports car in your driveway (okay, okay, it was the ‘80s). Basically, whatever team you’re on, you want Dave on it.

Before we left for Palau, Dave challenged Brian with a top priority assignment, something you could really only do while living on a tropical island: Drink a mai tai a week for a year. It’s a tall order, but Brian is up to the task, and I’m here to offer all the emotional support, encouragement, and rides home Brian needs in order to see this one through to the finish line (and, of course, I will be documenting the results).

Monthly photos to follow. For now, rest assured that we are grabbing the bull by the horns on this one. We know Dave would do the same if he were here:

Dave & Brian Grabbing the Bull by the Horns

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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.