Not The Sharpest Tool
The site belonging to writer-like person Alex Sheshunoff
Copyright 2008-2012 Alex Sheshunoff

Based on the idea that anything you do yourself, whether it's making dinner or babies, is more meaningful than just buying it, Sarah and I decided to build a house.  We lacked only skill, money, labor, and land. 

For skills, we signed up for one of Home Depot's free building classes. After two hours a man missing at least a thumb taught us how to build a lovely flower box. Skills - check.

Lacking much in the way of a budget, we decided to build abroad, specifically an outer island of Palau in the western Pacific where we used to spend weekends together. Out there, we thought we could  avoid the kind of extra costs associated with such things as walls and building codes. (We figured zip-up canvas would substitute for walls; hope for engineering.)

For labor, we sent an email to everyone we'd ever met asking if they'd like to help us build. The subject line - "Swiss Family Robinson Meets the Jackson Five" - must have worked.  About a dozen friends would eventually come out to help us. 

Finding land was the most difficult. Foreigners aren't allowed to own property in Palau or just about anywhere else in the Pacific but they can lease.  It took us months of negotiation with an extended clan and the blessing of the island's matriarchs and chiefs, but we eventually secured a twenty-year lease on a few acres of coastline.  

House on Angaur, Palau, Micronesia
It lacked electricity or water, but the property had it's own beach, fantastic snorkeling on the reefs out front, huge banyan trees, and views up and down the coast. Except for the resident long-tailed macaques, the closest neighbor was over two miles away.t lacked electricity or water, but the property had it's own beach, fantastic snorkeling on the reefs out front, huge banyan trees, and views up and down the coast. Except for the resident long-tailed macaques, the closest neighbor was over two miles away.

Turns out the hardest part was simply getting supplies to the site - the closest hardware store was 75 miles away - by boat - and frequently was out of such basics as ladders and wheel barrows. ( At one point we had to mail ourselves 12,500 deck screws.) The holes alone took us a month to dig. "Welcome to paradise," was a sweaty refrain among the volunteer labor as they whacked crowbars into rock, "Welcome to paradise." 

Five months later, we had a house. Or at least a bungalow. Maybe just a deck with a roof, but in any case, we finished.  WWe designed it to be as close to nature as possible - but in retrospect, we built a little too close. Salt spray blows through the bedroom. Five-foot long, monitor lizards wander through the living room. Monkeys, including our pet, Gomez, rummage through the kitchen cupboards.  But at least there's running water. Courtesy of a roof-catchment system, solar panels, a little pump, and a propane heater, you can take a hot-water shower next to the sea. 

According to the terms of our lease, we are not allowed to rent it out, but there are two great ways to go:

1.) Register to win a free, two-week stay at the house by signing up to receive an email when my little book comes out.  (Note, I will never sell or trade your email address - that would be shitty.)

2.) Apply to be a caretaker.  

Caretaker Position
Dec. 1st, 2011 Update:

We are looking for a caretaker, ideally but not necessarily, 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. The minimum commitment is one year.  A small stipend is available to offset personal expenses.

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.

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
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 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 a little more than 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's two large grocery stores will put dsphone-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 (he's new) 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.

Also, 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 about late July to early 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 finished her assignment 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 house ourselves we know first hand how hot and humid the island can feel. By hot we mean 85 to 90 degrees and 80-90% 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 for about half an hour 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 Angaur's five beaches. All of the local residents live in a small cluster of cement houses on the other side from our house. 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 from bed. 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, sharp rocks, 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, by teaching, by 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 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.

About Us
Sarah and I met on a full-moon kayak ride in Palau in 2001. Sarah 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 got a masters in creative, nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. We've recently moved back to Alaska where I am finishing my book - a nonfiction book about what happens when you buy a one-way ticket to a small Pacific island and take with you the 100 books you were most embarrassed not to have read during college. 

For several years we lived on various islands teaching high school and working for non-profit organizations. In 2003 we moved to Anchorage, Alaska where Sarah worked as a public defender and I started the local chapter of Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group. After a stint with a marine conservation organization in Baja, Mexico we decided to return to Angaur where, in the fall of 2004, we built the house with the help of a dozen friends. (I wrote a small peace about building it that appeared on the cover of the October issue of National Geographic Adventure.) In the spring of 2004 we got married in Todos Santos, a small town in southern Baja California. We now live in Spain.

To Apply
If you are still interested despite all of the above, please email a cover letter and resume to (please put “Angaur - 2012” in the subject line.) We don't mean to be dramatic about the distance, remoteness, lack of health care and such but it would be unfortunate for someone to end up all the way out there and decide after a few weeks that they'd rather be somewhere with air conditioning and closer to home.  

We'll contact the most qualified candidates to arrange a phone interview. Thank you for still reading if you've made it this far.


Alex & Sarah

p.s. - A few questions have come up...

-Can I have a gun?
No. Yikes. There is virtually no crime on Angaur and guns are illegal anyway. Creepy.

-What about mail service?
It is possible. We had 12,500 screws shipped to us during construction. Mail is sent to the Angaur State Office in Koror. Someone there will then put it on the ferry for you. If properly labeled, air mail takes about five days to get to Palau. By the time it works its way through the system, you can count on 2 weeks to get a package. Not terrible, considering where it is.

-Can I bring pets to Palau?
Getting pets out of Palau is pretty straightforward but bringing them in is tricky. The Palauan government is a better source of information.

-How long a commitment are you looking for? How about less than a year?
Well, we are pretty stuck on the one-year minimum. If we had people cycling in and out every few months, it would make it difficult for future caretakers to establish meaningful relationships on the island. Of course, if it was working out, someone could stay on for longer. The Peace Corp. volunteer we know lived on Anguar for 26 months and loved it. We've had six caretakers so far and, with one exception, all seemed to have really enjoyed it and stayed for the entire year or extended. The one woman who didn't underestimated the heat, distance, and isolation and left after a few months. 

Monkey Photos
Construction Photos
People Photos
Island Photos
Site Photos
House Photos
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