We wake before the sun crests the horizon behind our back porch. The roaming roosters begin their calls while the myriad dogs rest from their late night spars. Our morning cup of tea requires milk, less for flavor or heat than for assurance that we’ve removed any ants who may have drowned in it. Most days after breakfast, we sweep up – sweeping to remove any ant-bait crumbs, and sweeping quickly such that the pile doesn’t crawl away before we get it into the dust pan. It’s not bad most days…or maybe it’s just the dim light and ants’ small size.
Zoe loads her backpack for school into our “Dingo” and I climb in behind the steering wheel most days; I’m re-acclimating to driving from the right side of the car, which is illegal here, but common practice. We really like our Dingo. Small enough for maneuvering in the cramped spaces yet big enough for two bikes, two strollers, two car seats, two kids and two adults (sort of). Rolling down the hill from our apartment, I balance carefully between the center of the road where the car goes when the driver is in the “right” place…and the car-eating size gutter which feels dangerously close when the car is actually in the right lane. On good days, I also minimize operation of the windshield wipers when trying to signal a turn (on a right hand drive car wipers and signals are reversed).
Driving Zoe to school, I’m struck by the contrast between the natural beauty of lushness watered daily by showers and humidity, and the rusty, dingy, rundown shacks called homes here. My favorite is two 20-foot containers placed about 10 feet apart and supporting a regular-looking upstairs. Right beside it is a site-built, cinderblock home complete with decorative railings on its wrap-around deck.
Contrast is everywhere on every level, it seems. The people I drive past on the way to Zoe’s school range from American to Islander to Japanese to European. English is a common language, but for many it is closer to Greek. Income levels vary crazily, from $500/month with no days off to owning huge chunks of town. Of course the vast majority live in the former category, very few in the latter and even fewer in between. Yet a glance in any store reveals prices that make New York look cheap. How the indigent survive here we have no idea.
Even as I’ve considered these things, we’ve moved from threatening skies and blustery wind to nearly calm with bright sunlight. The two things that remain constant are hot and humid.
Reflecting on the day, I couldn’t help commenting that it is more African here than it was in Africa. Many details are similar: water must be filtered; many things we can get are imitations and just “not quite right”; cheese must be sliced or grated by hand; dirt invades continuously even though shoes come off at the door; mail is slow and customs lurks over every package; sunrises and sunsets are special gifts that speak to the heart. But even more details take Palau a step beyond Africa. There, we had to wash fruit and vegetables in bleach water; here, they’re just rare (the resorts snatch them up). Nairobi was cool in the evenings and long pants were doable even during the day; here heat ranges from ready-set-sweat to an impenetrable wall just outside our door. In Kenya, one could find and buy just about anything one wanted; here also we can find it – it’s just too expensive to buy! There, we ordered pizza out every “two-for-Tuesday” for $10; here we eat home-made pizza: there’s not a single pizza joint, let alone delivery (nor is there a McDonalds or any other chain). In Nairobi, internet (aside from power failures) was fast and somewhat affordable; here it’s simply non-existent. In Africa, it’s a foreign and slightly dark culture outside the compound; here, it’s right outside the door.
Granted, we expected Africa living to be a challenge and didn’t expect that here, and expectations influence a lot. For example, there, in the land of safaris, we expected to see lots of zoo animals. We saw them and it was great: zebra herds beside the road, wildebeest, giraffes and water buffalo on Crescent Island, elephants in the orphanage. Here we expected to hang out on tropical beaches, but there are only three without significant travel involved: two private ones at palatial prices and one public where the sewage overflow drains.
Nevertheless, we’re very thankful for our Africa experience as it has prepared us tremendously for here. And Palau definitely has its advantages, like the fact that we’ve been flying since the day after we arrived and in just two weeks were certified as full-up pilots. While our skin still marks us as walking dollar signs, we don’t find hands continually thrust our way. Though there is only one main road through town and no traffic lights in the entire country, traffic here moves at least. Not always as fast as the national speed limit of 25mph, but it does move. Furthermore, the baggers at the grocery store load the bags in to the car for free and with a cheerful attitude. In fact, we’ve found the Islanders to be very friendly and welcoming in general. One even returned Donna’s lost wedding ring.
Now that we’ve adjusted the expectations and found some work-arounds, we’re very much enjoying life on a remote Pacific Island. Wanna visit? We know a terrific beach (for $50 per person per day)!