Law Clerk on Gilligan's Island
Chapter 9- Payday
I am Paddle-to-the-Sea. Please put me back in the water.
O glorious day! O great Gods of Finance, we exalt the fiscal bounty thou bestow upon us! It's Wednesday, and that means paycheck time.
I've been without a paycheck since Sept. 18, and things are starting to get very, very tight. I had left Buffalo with, for all intents and purposes, no savings. On the day I left Buffalo, I had sent out the last payment retiring a huge pile of credit card debt that Michele and I had run up since moving out there. My parents had stuffed me with some traveling cash, and I had gotten the check for my plane fare and shipping costs from the Court with 48 hours of arriving, but laying down three grand on a car pretty much did away with that and then some. Not to mention that my student loan payment for October-- about $500-- was due in Delaware a few days ago. I sent them a check from my account at Bank of Hawaii, figuring that by the time the check got to Delaware, the loan people processed it, and it made it all the way back to Hawaii to clear, I'd have cash in my account that wasn't there right now. And I'd floated the cable people here a check for another $20 or so and one of the local dive shops another $50 over the weekend, hoping that they wouldn't get it in to the bank for a couple of days.
But all that was behind me now, because it was payday. Most Palauans got paid every other Friday, but for unclear reasons, payday at the Court was the Wednesday before. Not that I was complaining-- the extra two days meant the difference between fiscal responsibility and sproingy noises at retail operations all over Koror from my checks bouncing. Jill fetched my check along with her own from the business office, and delivered it to me in my office:
Net pay: $ 800.56. Umm. Frankly, I had been hoping for something a little more substantial. And with not quite as many typos. (A caption at the top reminded employees that "Excess leave for 1998, will lost at the end of Pay Period #26.") I knew that I was taking a big pay cut coming here, but the combination of a long delay in processing checks-- the payroll period ended nearly two weeks ago-- and the relative pittance that the Court paid made for a pretty lame paycheck, especially considering that I had already dispatched more than $700 of that sum to various creditors.
Apparently, it was written all over my face. "Kind of a shock, huh?" Jill asked. Unlike me, she had a full 80 hours in during this pay period, but it still didn't make for the kind of checks we were used to getting in private practice. Our salary at the court was $35,000 for the year, or about 60% of what I had been making in the states. Granted, with court-provided housing meaning we were relieved of a rent payment every month, and the tax rate here was supposed to be much lower.
We each pulled out calculators and did some quick bursts of math. (Well, o.k. First I made the calculator spell out "boobs" when the display was turned upside down, but then I got down to business.) After a few minutes, I came to the conclusion that I was actually making more in real dollars in Palau than I was at home. In Buffalo, my $57,500 salary was eaten up by 35% in state and federal taxes and another $7000 a year in rent, leaving me just over $30,000 in take home pay. Here, the Palauan government took only about 10% in taxes, and no rent payment meant I was netting just over $31,000. But the actual take home amount on my paycheck still seemed shockingly small.
After talking about it, though, things didn't seem quite so bleak. We realized that, other than a slightly higher food and gas costs, and about $50 every weekend that was spent diving, there really wasn't anything to spend money on in Palau. It wasn't like you could head down to Borders over the weekend and blow $100 on CDs or books or something. In a lot of ways, despite the fact that a lot of things were overpriced here relative to the states, there really wasn't anything to spend money on. Sure, if you were determined to blow all your money on something, there were ways to do it-- after all, prostitution isn't against the law here (yet; but the legislature is thinking about it), and the strange looking used-to-be-a-gas-station near the courthouse was rumored to be a brothel full of Japanese prostitutes--but if you wanted to spend every penny of your income, you'd pretty much have to work at it.
Jill and I tossed some figures back and forth, and came to the conclusion that, even accounting for $500-$600 in student loans every month, it was probably possible, with a little self-discipline, to save one out of every two paychecks here. That's a cool $15,000 at the end of the year that you can take home, tax free. That's right-- the U.S. tax code exempts from taxation foreign income if you're overseas for more than 300 days in a 12 month period. One of the few nice things the IRS ever did for me.
Of course, as soon as you start thinking about traveling, the idea of saving money goes out the window. Continental nails you for almost $600 just to fly to either Guam or Manila and back. There are no other direct flights from Palau. Trips to Indonesia, China, Vietnam, or any of the other common destinations of itinerant expats could cost you another couple thousand bucks. Take two vacations, and it's goodbye savings. Since I don't have any burning desire to see Asia, at least not right now, that's less of a problem for me. I figure I might make a trip to Australia for a former co-worker's wedding, but that's about all the traveling I'm considering.
The measly paycheck did provide a nice incentive to seek less expensive weekend entertainment, though. Since I only had about $60 to tide me over for two weeks until the next payday, blowing nearly all of that on a weekend of diving was out of the question. Instead, Steph came up with the idea of going kayaking.
A few nights earlier, I had been invited to dinner with two Canadian anthropologists I had met. (You've never met an anthropologist? You've never been to Palau. There is actually a specific statutory provision creating an anthropologist-subject evidentiary privilege, similar to the attorney-client or doctor-patient privilege.) Because they lived up in Babeldoab, and the dinner guest didn't have a car, I was asked to pick her up. She turned out to be a kayak tour guide with one of the local dive shops, and had a lot of interesting information about the way business is conducted here. Although it's a detour from the kayaking story, it's worth mentioning now, before I forget and have to hold it 'til the next "Miscellany" chapter.
I'd often looked enviously at the dive guides on our scuba trips. Think about it-- every day, you get to cruise around on a boat, bask in the sun, and spend all day diving in one of the most perfect diving environments in the world. It's not a very taxing job, since most of the divers that come here have a fair amount of experience and aren't likely to get in too much trouble, and the main drawback is that you've got to schlep the empty tanks and stuff off the boat at the end of the day. Perfect, right?
Not according to Kara. She came over here as a tourist from Guam, and decided she liked it so much, she'd stay a few months. She got her divemaster's certification, and managed to wrangle a dive guide job with one of the local dive shops. (I didn't ask how lshe managed to learn how to do dive briefings on the 50 or so different dive locations that are common in Palau, as she had only been here a couple months. Since I rely on the divemaster's briefings when I got diving, I guess I'd rather not know.)
The job clearly had it's upside, but according to her, the downside was pretty steep too. Dive guides made about $45 a day. Not per person, but per day. A boat with 8 divers paying about $100 each (most dive shops cut the rates in half for locals. It's the tourists they want to gouge.) means a lucrative profit for somebody, but it ain't the guide. After all, there are probably dozens of people qualified enough to be dive guides, and thus, it was a buyer's market when it came to hiring. She said that sometimes the American, and less often, the European tourists might throw a tip her way at the end of a day of diving, but otherwise, that was it.
And although diving is big here, a guide might only get about 11 days worth of work a month. The total income of $400 a month was barely enough to make rent, she said. I posed the question of where the profit went to, since it wasn't going to the staff. She acknowledged that the fuel alone for the boats cost her company $10,000 a month. A big chunk of change, but even a small dive shop with three boats, each going out 11 days a month with 8 divers was still clearing a good $15,000 in profit after paying off guides, boat drivers, and gas.
After a month or so of diving, Kara had switched to guiding kayaking tours, which netted her about the same amount of money. Her dive shop actually loaded ocean-going kayaks on a boat and motored everyone out to certain Rock Islands, thus saving a good two hours' worth of paddling time to get there and back. That sounded like a pretty nice day. Michele and I had rented a kayak on our honeymoon in Hawaii and had spent a day paddling up a river there, and it was one of the most peaceful, pleasant experiences we had ever had. And since the kayaking tours cost the same as a diving trip, I figured it would make a nice alternative to diving some weekends.
So when Stephanie proposed a kayaking trip the next day, I was definitely interested. Even better, Steph had learned of a place that rented you just the kayak and paddle for $12, leaving you to your own devices to figure out where to go. Since we were both pretty tight on cash, that seemed like an even better option. We each rented single kayaks-- which in actuality turned out to be slightly curved, barely aerodynamic slabs of injection molded plastic with spaces hollowed out for your rear end and and feet-- loaded our bags full of snorkeling gear precariously on the flat bow and stern, and headed off.
I had forgotten how much work kayaking can be. It's slow, methodical, muscle busting effort. You're sitting straight up with your legs stuck out straight in front of you, and without any point of leverage like you get from oarlocks in a rowboat, you're stuck with generating all of your power with just your shoulders and arms. We spent nearly an hour and a half slowly inching our way around the eastern shore of Koror towards some of the northernmost Rock Islands, baking in the tropical sun and struggling to keep moving forward in the slightest of opposing currents. The aerodynamics of the cheapie rental kayaks didn't help, and we were passed by at least one guy in a more professional looking kayak, gliding effortlessly across the lagoon on the sharp prow of his vessel, while we had to rely on brute force to move our snub-nosed craft ahead.
By the second hour, we still weren't quite sure how close we were to a sandy beached island we had seen from shore on a sightseeing trip a few weeks earlier, and decided just to glide into a cove and have lunch sitting on the trunk of a tree that improbably arched out just over the surface of the water. We tied the kayaks under the tree and enjoyed a light sushi lunch Stephanie had conned me into getting at a local market before leaving, and then headed off to do a little snorkeling in the coral around the island.
The setting was incredible. We were probably not more than a mile from the coastline near my house, but having paddled around to the far side of one of the Rock Islands, it was as if we had paddled off the end of the earth. In every direction you looked, all you could see were lush green islands, rising out of the ocean, covered with trees. White birds with incredibly long tail feathers swooped back and forth across the sky, and the exotic chirps of strange birds up in the island forests was the only aural competition against the rippling of the water brushing against the limestone base of the islands. Although Steph made a nice enough companion for the trip, I really wished I had someone special nearby to share the experience with. The already leisurely pace of life back in Koror seemed like rush hour in Manhattan compared to the unhurried solitude we enjoyed as we lazily bobbed around on the surface of the warm salt water and dove down to check out the elaborate, brightly colored coral formations. So far, it was the nicest few hours I've spent here.
By the time we swam back to the kayaks, something looked different. They seemed to be wedged under the tree much more tightly than we had left them, and the cooler Steph had brought was now jammed against the tree trunk, tipped precariously over the water, ready to dump the banana bread and thumb-sized local bananas we had gotten for dessert into the sea. What the hell had happened?
They don't have tides in Lake Erie. At least not big enough tides to worry about. As a result, landlubbers like me never give much thought to the fact that ocean is constantly rising and falling. Although I was only a thousand yards from my house, I had to remind myself that I was out in the middle of the ocean. While we were busy playing, the tide had risen enough to jam the kayaks firmly under the tree trunks, and the kayaks responded by tipping this way and that, trying to keep their buoyant center of gravity above water. Fortunately, my bag, including the video camera I had sealed in a ziplock bag and tucked in with my snorkeling gear, had managed to stay dry. With some careful tugging and balancing, we managed to free the kayaks without spilling anything, and we were able to re-stow the cooler and our gear.
We took a couple of minutes to gather up some other junk--plastic noodle bowls and the bottom of a bleach bottle that had drifted into a cove in the island and gotten trapped there-- along with our own garbage, and paddled back out to head home. The trip back, although aided by what minimal current there was, taxed our remaining strength, as our muscles began to stiffen under the endless push-pull of the paddling rhythm and the relentless tropical sun continued to beat down. We skirted the shady sides of the islands on our way home, trying to sneak into as much shade as possible.
Steph, who was having her first kayaking experience, had gotten proficient at maneuvering the bulky craft on the trip out, and was taking advantage of her new-found skills to scoot in and out of narrow channels cut in the limestone of some of the islands and breaks in the mangrove swamps that bounded the land on the final half of the trip home. Paddling up paths through the long corridors of mangroves had an eerie, Deliverance-like quality to it. We could hear voices chattering deep in the bushes and would eventually come out in a small cove where some Palauans had built ramshackle tin huts near the swamp's edge. But even then, besides the voices tittering off in the distance, the only sounds we could hear were the quiet splash of the paddles slicing into the water, and the tinkling of the tiny vortices of turbulence left behind in our slowly meandering wakes.
By the time we finally made it back to the rental place, it was nearly 5:00 p.m., and we were both exhausted. The rate of paddling had slowed dramatically the closer we got to the dock, and the frequency and length of the resting periods increased. It was during one of these breaks from paddling when I readjusted the cooler that was tied behind me and provided a nice little back support when I realized that one of my diving booties had tumbled overboard at some point on the way back.
The neoprene boots--indispensable for wetsuit diving in colder water, but here, mostly just helpful to keep the fin straps from chafing your ankles and protecting your feet when walking over jagged coral-- were the last item I took off after leaving the cove. Since the bottom there was old, broken coral, the booties were essential until you had gotten yourself situated in the kayak; without them, any loss of balance requiring you to put your feet down on the bottom underwater was an invitation to come home with nicely scratched and cut feet. And, once you were in the kayak, small, conservative movements were the rule, so once I took the booties off, it made more sense just to stuff them in the area behind the small of my back than to grapple with stuffing them in my gear bag that was sitting on the bow, well beyond the tips of my toes. Somehow, one had worked its way out during the trip back, and had decided to take its chances in the open sea, rather than subjecting itself to a lifetime of being stuffed full of my odd, lightbulb-shaped toes.
They weren't a huge outlay of cash; I think the pair I bought back in Buffalo had cost me about $40, but they weren't free either. Since I had no idea where in the last 2 or 3 miles of ocean I had lost it, and since I barely had the strength to make it back to the marina to return the kayak as it was, it was clear that my Christmas list just got its first major entry. I got a laugh by telling Steph that I had lost a boot, and that I was just going back to get it. She displayed the appropriate reaction by recognizing the preposterousness of paddling a single extra stroke in any direction other than towards the dock, and she gave me a polite chuckle. She also expressed just the right amount of sympathy over my loss ("Oh no. That sucks."), which I appreciated.
Of course, etiquette didn't demand that she also make fun of me, but she did it anyway. "What is it with you and footwear?" she called across the open water. So I deducted all the credit I had given her for the sympathy. She's lucky she laughed at my joke-- at least she still had that going for her.
Bit by bit, we finally inched around the seawall to the small wooden dock that we had started from. We got out, stretched our aching backs, and weakly dragged our bags up the gangplank and across the parking lot to the car. We threw our bags in the car and compared blisters and sunburns. '
I won on the blister count-- the one on the lower joint of my right middle finger was just starting to show its red core while Steph's lower thumb was still just a puffy white, but I gave her a provisional win on the sunburn part. Later, I reversed my earlier decision and awarded it to myself, as my thighs, which I had forgotten to put sunscreen on during the trip out, had turned a bright red that was on its way to purple. I dropped her off at home and, after rinsing the salt off myself in the shower, flopped into bed for a good hour's nap.
This Chapter uploaded on 11/6/98.