Saturday, May 13, 2006

Welcome to Saipan

Saipan is a beautiful island about a 3 1/2 hour plane ride from Japan. It's quite close to Guam and has quite a turbulent past for such a small island. Erin and I had a great time enjoying the beaches, traditional foods and the company of the friendly locals. This was most certainly a last minute caution throwing to the wind capricious trip. Since Saipan is an American territory no more language barrier and we got to pocket some U.S. bills again, damn this money is small!
Check out that white ghost. On our first day Erin and I went straight to the beach to go for a swim and soak up some much needed sun. The island is actually small enough to drive around it in about 2 hours. We happened to arrive during the Flame Tree Festival, which kind gives the impression that we planned that. Check out this traditional boat design! The indigenous peoples of the island were called Chamorro and Carolinian. For hundreds of years they used this style of craft to sail as far as Okinawa with the stars as their only navigational guide. The guy on the left is sitting in the navigator's seat. The navigator was well respected within the native community. They were raised as navigator's and without their knowledge their civilization wouldn't last. The most interesting feature of the boat is the mast. As you can see there is a triangular sail and also a 'support mast'. When the Chamorro wanted to tack they didn't turn they simply picked up the sail and using the 'support mast' to pivot it's weight moved the sail from bow to stern. If you were sitting in the middle of the boat the sail would pass directly overhead, ingenious I've never seen anything like it. Because of the festival we were able to take it for a spin for free even though the tide was out and I had to help push.

I was only able to pick up one or two Chamorro words. "Hello" = "Hafa Adai" (said 'half a day') and "Wind" = "Angil" (said 'an gull')

Here is beautiful example of one of the many friendly locals. This is Moon from Thailand. We met her husband Ron Smith as well and over the course of the next couple of days they helped us out immeasurably. They tipped us off to all the must see attractions of Saipan and Tinian (neighboring isle), took us out cruising on their catamaran to a small near-by island called Managaha, took me out diving at Saipan's biggest attraction "The Grotto" and even provided us with accommodation for most of the trip. See I told you they were friendly. Some natives with great hats. Apparently the traditional clothing of the Chamorro was the lack thereof which when you think about it is simply conducive to the damn hot climate. However and thankfully we didn't see anybody sporting the traditional dress. Oddly enough these guys were camera shy and refused me to take their picture unless I was in it, hence the shoddy picture. Speaking of fotos I didn't take here we are at Bird Island at the Northern end of Saipan close to "The Grotto". Can ya guess why they call it that? Be wary to not break any local laws when visiting an unfamiliar place. Betel, pronounced beetle, comes from a kind of palm tree and is similar to nicotine as a drug. Popular amongst the locals it's chewed like tobacco and becomes red and stains the floor therefore the sign at the airport. Here's an interesting sight. A Japanese tank from World War II frozen in time seemingly aiming directly at a U.S. freighter carrying American troops. There were about 6 tanks in the shallow waters. Some in not so good condition, but others were still intact. The tank I wanted to see was kinda far out there, but it was well worth the swim. It was in about 12 ft of water gun still mounted, tracks still on and the turret was actually open. I was swimming around it when I saw a grey shape in the water and automatically fear conjured it into a shark, but I just tried to push that notion out of my head. Because this was definitely the most interesting thing I've ever been snorkeling at and I was still well within the reef. But then I saw it a black spotted ray witha 4 ft wingspan just hovering on the ocean floor. It was amazing.

And now for something completely different....this just in Erin Lawrence has been certified as a PADI Open Water Diver!

You heard right. The diving family welcomes it's newest member Erin Lawrence into the other 70% of the World. "A whole new world...a new fantas.....ah nevermind." Yup, she completed her course work and 4 ocean dives. I was lucky enough to tag along with her and the divemaster on each one for a sum total of $25! We saw all kinds of weird and interesting sea life including giant blue starfish, a sea cucumber as big as a small dog, schools of tuna and a flatfish like a flounder with a topside fin mohawk. We dove at two locations. Both were beach entries with impressive 20ft coral formations. The divemaster spent the first dive pulling her down by her BCD. Maintaining neutral buoyancy isn't the easiest thing in the world, but by the end of the 2nd dive she was off exploring on her own. Erin was even comfortable enough to do a swim-through the reef on her last dive. Excellent diving!

Speaking of diving here is a shot of a not so enthused Erin peering down the gullet of the Grotto. Ron Smith, a friendly local I mentioned earlier and dive master, took me diving at the best diving site on the island. This was certainly one for the books. First of all you have to descend a hundred crumbling stairs into the Earth in full gear and then time a surge before crossing over to the entry point. You can see a huge boulder behind Erin from which you have to do a giant leap entry from about 10 ft up. Take a look at a couple of divers timing a high tide surge<<<<. The gaping hole of a tide pool has something nicknamed "the washing machine" which is some place you don't want to be, however local kids use the grotto as swimming hole. After the giant leap entry it's smooth sailing. We descended to 60ft and you can see 3 wide blue light exits ahead. Just fantastic blue light streaming down through this 60ft wide cavern. We actually swam through to the Pacific and went down to 100ft and on into something called the bat cave. It was a huge opening about a 100ft across and only about 100ft deep with great Gregorian fans hanging from the ceiling. I was even lucky enough to spot a sea turtle swimming about 50ft away!! It was an extraordinary dive! Not to mention an amazing vacation! Hope you all enjoyed living vicariously through this travel log. Within the next month or so we will be returning to American soil for Michael & Kendra's big day and a long overdue reunion tour with much rejoicing! See you real soon.

Saipan is part of the Northern Marianas Islands.

Green Kyoto

Green tea ice cream. I can't stand the stuff, but Erin loves it.

(No caption for this one.)

An old bamboo forrest surrounding the Emperor's Palace.