We are looking for a caretaker, ideally a couple, to look after our house on Angaur, an outer island of Palau (a former-U.S. territory located about 1,000 miles south of Guam.) This is a difficult, challenging, and unpaid assignment not dissimilar in its intensity and remoteness to the Peace Corp. Primary responsibilities include general maintenance, maintaining good relationships with the community and preparing for visitors.
1.) HOUSE MAINTENANCE
The main responsibility of the caretakers is to keep corrosion and termites at bay. The salty air causes extensive corrosion and is a constant problem for metal brackets, solar panels, water pumps, the propane refrigerator, etc.. Termites are the other big concern. Tree branches must be trimmed, and termite spray applied to the posts below the house on a regular basis. Non stinging wasps also constantly build their nests so these need to be removed daily.
2.) COMMUNITY RELATIONS
As we are guests on their island, it is ESSENTIAL that we have a good relationship with everyone on Angaur. This means, for example, that when the ferry arrives you need to be there to help people unload. If you’re not there, they will remember it. Though there are only about 80 people living on the island (all English speaking), there are also weekly events at which your attendance may be expected. These range from birth ceremonies to funerals, chief swearing in ceremonies to school painting days.
When we or our friends come out to visit (about four times a year) you will need to remove all your personal items and move (at our expense) to a rental house (with air conditioning and cable!) on the other side of the island and generally tidy up before and after guests arrive. Most folks will not stay over two weeks but it is essential that all systems (hot water, fan, refrigerator, etc) be working properly before they arrive.
About the Living Conditions
Conditions are basic. This is definitely off-the-grid living. We use propane to power a refrigerator, freezer, and hot-water heater. Solar panels and batteries run a water pump, small overhead lights, and a fan. There is a composting toilet (that works surprisingly well) and running water for the kitchen and outdoor shower (on a wooden platform near the ocean). There may be cell phone access within the next few months, but we’re not certain we’ll have reception (no one else lives on our side of the island.) Plan on borrowing someone’s phone when you need to make a call. Accordingly, receiving incoming calls will be nearly impossible. For internet, you will have to go to the school to use a VERY SLOW dial-up connection (it’s shared by 16 other schools throughout Palau.) In theory, a satellite phone would solve some of these problems but at considerable expense. Also, there is no car so you will need to either buy a car (and bring it out on the ferry) or use bikes (which we relied on for four months during construction.)
This is an unpaid position so you will need some savings before heading out. Beyond air fare (flights from the U.S. cost about $1,300), food will be your primary expense. Expect to pay what you would in an average-sized city in the United States. In season, you will probably given lots of fruit by people who live on Angaur. The cost of the ferry from the capital is $5 each way. Note too that Koror is not exactly a major metropolis. There are no stop lights, movie theaters, or book stores. It does have two large grocery stores which will place phone-placed orders on the ferry for you.
About the Remoteness
Though stunningly beautiful we cannot emphasize enough that this is a REMOTE Pacific island. We define remoteness as distance from definitive medical care. There is a nurse on island but we don’t know how thoroughly trained he is but we do know the office is not well equipped. An Emergency boat ride to the capital (1.5 hours away by speed boat) can be arranged (for $300) but not at night and not in rough weather. Even in the capital, seventy-five miles away by boat, medical services aren’t reliable. For good medical care you will need to go either to Guam or better yet, Honolulu. The best solution, therefore, is not to get sick or hurt.
Sometimes the water is rough and the ferry can’t enter the harbor for weeks at a time. Other times, the ferry leaves the capital only to have to turn around at the entrance to the harbor and make the four-hour trip back in hope of trying again the following day. Access to Angaur is especially difficult from June to mid September so you will want to stock up on food, just in case. There are no restaurants or hotels on the island – only three very basic stores that sell mostly beer and betelnut.
During the four months we built the house, only one tourist visited the island – a once-famous Japanese sumo wrestler who stayed only for the afternoon. Currently, no foreigners live on the island. There was a U.S. Peace Corp but she left last November. (This May she is marrying a friend of ours who helped build the house!) Though sophisticated in many ways, only a few of the locals have been to college. Many are wary of new people until they get a feeling for what you’re like.
About the Weather
Having built the place ourselves we know first hand how hot and humid the place is. By hot we mean 90 degrees and 90% humidity – day and night, year round. Though a fan helps cool things, there is no air conditioning (the walls are made of canvas imported from a South African safari tent manufacturer) and you’ll need to use a mosquito net. (Mosquitoes aren’t a problem during the day but they do come out in the evening. Fortunately there is no malaria in Palau but there is occasionally dengue fever.)
About the Island
We’ve lived on various islands in the Pacific (Yap, Fiji, The Cook Islands, and Tahiti) and chose Angaur because we thought it was the most beautiful. The island is eight miles around with hills rising in the center and lakes in between. A path lined with giant banyan trees connects the island’s five beaches. All of Angaurs residents live in a small cluster of cement houses on the other side from our site. The island is also home to a few hundred monkeys, monitor lizards, and though we have never seen one, saltwater crocodiles.
Our particular site occupies about a quarter mile of coastline. To avoid sand flies we chose to build on a small cliff above the water rather on a beach. That said, access into the water in front of our house is reasonably straightforward. Depending on how ambitious you are, steps could also be built into the water. We spot dolphins almost every morning in front of the house. The clarity of the water is spectacular and the snorkeling is some of the best we have seen anywhere. Expect to see large schools of fish and small reef sharks every time you get in the water.
Who We’re Looking For
The ideal couple will have good mechanical skills and excellent people skills. Though long-term construction experience isn’t required, a working knowledge of electrical systems, pumps, and power tools is strongly preferred. The ability to thrive in a remote setting within a foreign culture is essential. Given the lack of railings and the thirty-foot cliffs directly in front of the house, it is not suitable for young children.
It is one thing to visit a place like Angaur for a few weeks but another to live there. Beyond house maintenance, snorkeling, and reading, there is very little to do. We would strongly suggest that you get involved with the local school either by helping them with their computers, teaching, coaching, etc.. This will need to be approached delicately, however, because the island’s few teaching jobs are in high demand. There is a danger, therefore, that you will be viewed as threatening someone’s job, even by volunteering. They are right to be concerned: the third grade, for example, has two students. In the end, it is likely that your time with the locals, especially the kids, will be the most memorable and the most meaningful.
We met on a full-moon kayak ride in Palau in 2001 and were engaged three years later. She was working as an attorney for Palau’s Supreme Court and I was recovering from five years of running an internet company in New York City. Sarah grew up in San Diego and attended Berkeley for both undergraduate and law school. I’m from Austin, Texas, went to Yale, and am currently finishing his MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. For several years we lived on various islands in the Pacific teaching high school and working for non-profit organizations. Later we moved to Anchorage, Alaska where Sarah worked as a public defender and I started the local chapter of Common Cause. After a stint with a marine conservation group in Baja, we decided to return to Angaur where, in the fall of 2004, we built the house with the help of a dozen friends. (A story about building it should appear in the October issue of National Geographic Adventure.)
If you are still interested, please email a cover letter and resume to email@example.com (please put “Angaur” in the subject line.) We will contact the most qualified candidates to arrange a phone interview.
Alex & Sarah