For Strangerville this week I decided to share a story about Palau. The written version of the story may be found below. Please enjoy. And also, don't forget to grab your tickets to Strangerville Live, July 12. Meg has decided to tell a story. Please come sit on the front row and clap really enthusiastically. Grab tickets here.
This time in Strangerville, Meg and Eli talk their weird phobias, Eli shares a story about what moving to “paradise” really looks like, and then there’s an unexpected therapy session for which we don’t apologize.StoryLife is Always Sunny in Palau, by Eli McCann (including the cruddy music)Production by Eli McCann & Meg WalterAudio Playe
It always surprises people when I tell them how hard it was to find fresh produce in Palau. There were some exceptions, of course. Banana trees grew like weeds on the islands and until Typhoon Bopha sliced through them like a hot butter knife in December 2012, the miniature bundles of mushy potassium baking in the equatorial sun were truly ubiquitous.
Coconuts were abundant as well, although not particularly accessible unless you were supernaturally tall or had very calloused feet and no more than a small fear of heights. Or dying.
There was this root vegetable that was foreign to me. I don’t remember what it was called and I don’t care enough to look it up to find out. I was told you have to boil it for 24 hours before it becomes edible, and frankly, in a place that is perpetually one hundred degrees and so humid you can actually swim to the mailbox, boiling something for 24 hours was exactly twice as miserable as starving.
And that was sort of it. Nothing else grew on the islands.
If we wanted fruits or vegetables, we were left to the mercy of The Weekly Dump™.
I knew the island nation was remote before I moved to it in 2012 because I had access to google. I discovered its location during my extensive research into Palau, which I performed only after I accepted a job there when I was armed with nothing other than some unverified assumptions that the entire country looked like a 1950s beach movie with cool youth surfing and dancing to the devil’s music.
What I learned when I zoomed in on google maps and held my fingers up to the map scale in the bottom left corner, biting my lip and squinting in scientific concentration, and moving my fingers over to the green dot that represented my soon-to-be-home, was that the island I would live on was only one square mile. One square mile. It was connected by a causeway to an only slightly larger green dot, representing the more populous island where my office would be.
And it was remote. Truly remote. But that didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter that I was moving to a sea-level nation so close to the equator that the rotation of the Earth actually makes your hair stand up. It didn’t matter that that same nation had almost no air conditioning anywhere. It didn’t matter that the nation had been battling a severe spider infestation that had recently been declared a “national emergency.” It didn’t matter that the spider population had precipitously increased only because a certain breed of dangerous snakes had accidentally been imported to the country on a cargo plane and those snakes had started depleting the severe rat infestation that used to be the only thing that ate the spiders. Also, there would be basically no functioning internet on this island, and I know that sounds like a silly thing to complain about considering the previous sentences, but even Job got a verse about someone calling him a bad name.
None of that mattered, because I was about to move into a 1950s teen beach movie where apart from the snakes and spiders and rats and lack of Youtube or air conditioning, there was probably sun and palm trees and ukuleles. And also, because there would surely be an abundance of exceptional fresh food.
Except there wasn’t.
I discovered that there wasn’t while standing in one of the country’s two grocery stores 24 hours after landing in the airport.
I don’t know why, exactly, and this is sort of hard to explain, but the feeling of rot hit me harder than the smell. It was almost more like a mood than a circumstance. In front of me lay a pile of onions that were the texture of bananas, strawberries that were the texture of pudding, and oranges that were, well, the texture of onions. And that was pretty much it for the produce section, called that only because of the sign and not because of the contents.
“But where’s the food,” I exhaled more than said, standing in a sweaty t-shirt that covered me like a dress and flip flops that were seven full sizes larger than my feet. All of my luggage had been lost on the two-day journey to this 1950s teen beach movie set. I had moved to Palau with a friend who was technically a giant and his luggage had not suffered the same fate as mine, although it did arrive with a very large and unexplained sticker of Jesus stapled to one of the handles. Daniel and I were grateful for the divine protection and spent the next few weeks sharing his clothes until I finally lost hope that my luggage would arrive and bought myself a new island wardrobe.
Daniel was actually the one who heard about The Weekly Dump. It was whispered to him one Monday afternoon on a beach where teens in modest bathing suits were neither dancing nor surfing to the sounds of classic rock.
“The Weekly Dump is the best time to buy produce,” he told me in a hushed voice when I got home from work that day. He looked over his shoulder after he said it, like he was implicating me in insider trading. Daniel explained that he had been told that once a week the cargo flight that shipped in food from other islands dropped off its bounty, which was then divvied up among the two grocery stores. The next hour was crucial. The population of much of the nation flocked to the dispensaries like Black Friday at Walmart, cleaning out the whole. The “good” produce was only slightly better than the bad, but better nonetheless—and good enough that it was worth competing to get it.
The tricky part was relying on the forecast for the edible deluge. The Weekly Dump happened at unpredictable times and on unpredictable days. Sometimes it would show up on a Monday morning. Sometimes on a Wednesday evening. Once, I heard, there was no Dump for three weeks, and then there were three Dumps in one day.
“This is madness!” I shouted at Daniel. Although I’m certain this isn’t true, in my memory I did this in a transatlantic accent while clutching my pearls.
It was madness, Daniel agreed, but there was a fix for this problem, and he had been let in on the ground level.
Someone had gotten in with an airport worker who promised in exchange for something hopefully not illegal to announcewhen a shipment had arrived, but this service would be provided only for a small group of people. A secret society of islanders who would eat like kings, or, at least like peasants having a good year, were added to an exclusive list of insiders.
The announcement would come via text message. Nearly everyone in the country had a 2003 Nokia phone for which the primary use was to play Snake and then brag about your top score at every social gathering. But the secondary use was to receive the occasional text, which cost 25 cents apiece. Truly, Snake was the main reason for these phones.
If you knew the right people, you could have your number added to the Weekly Dump list. A text would be sent: “WD” for “Weekly Dump.” And then you’d have only minutes to sprint to one of the two grocery stores in order to make those 25 cents worth it. Show up even an hour after the makeshift emergency broadcast system alert and you might as well dumpster dive for your dinner.
Daniel was added to the list, the lucky bastard. He couldn’t get me in, as he was a newcomer himself without even the beginnings of the requisite social status to effect change, but he did promise to alert me second hand of his own first-hand alerts—something of a sloppy seconds situation that I was in no position to reject. We lived together, anyway. What was good for the goose was good for the gander. Or something like that.
It was only two days later when we first tested the efficacy of the Weekly Dump system. Daniel and I only had one car between the two of us. It was a Suzuki with the steering wheel on the right side and no functioning air conditioner. We called it The Stormtrooper because it was white and boxy. The windows no longer rolled down, and because of this, we had to drive while pressing the doors open, against the wind resistance, in order to avoid suffocation. Daniel used the car during the day while I was at work at the courthouse. He drove around the island tutoring teenagers in math and teaching health classes at the roofless community college.
On this particular Tuesday Daniel had apparently been at home in the shower at our ant-infested apartment when he received the Weekly Dump text. At least, I assumed he had been in the shower when he drove by me in the Stormtrooper, soap suds dripping down the sides of his face from his soaking wet hair, as I was walking to the town’s only café for lunch. I saw him coming for a while on the nation’s single paved road. He was holding the right-side-driver’s door open, pressed against the wind resistance as I walked toward him on the baking sidewalk.
“WEEKLY DUMP” he screamed, like an addict eager for a fix. And then he yelled, “THIS BUS ISN’T STOPPING,” which was more of a warning shot than a declaration, or so I discovered when I jumped through the passenger’s door of the still-moving vehicle just before it peeled back into the national speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
Moments later we sprinted into the grocery store. Daniel and I implicitly ran to opposite sections, sliding our arms through the mediocre bounty and collecting onions, apples, and grapes into our giant-sized shirts. We fought off the crowd of 15, like it was 1996’s Black Friday and Tickle-Me-Elmo’s were on display.
Daniel and I reconnected at the checkout line. “WHAT DID YOU GET” we yelled at one other, before showcasing our relatively unimpressive bounties.
We climbed back aboard the Stormtrooper, both of us silent, as the reality set in. The bar for our best-case scenario had been lowered in this nation with rats and spiders and snakes and rotting produce. That night we would wander into our suffocating apartment and chop some mushy onions and peel rock-hard oranges we were supposed to be grateful to have because at least they weren’t more mushy or rock-hard. For the next year the Weekly Dump would turn into our weekly routine—a fight for forage, a battle for basics.
But also, there would be sun and palm trees and ukuleles.
So maybe it was worth it.
~It Just Gets Stranger