Friday, December 9, 2011

Rota road trip

IF there is one place in the CNMI that provides the perfect location for driving around at your leisure and following all roads free from the thought that someone from behind will blow their horn, it is the island of Rota.
This untouched gem in the Pacific, which carries loads of character and charm, is about a 30 minute plane ride from Saipan and boasts pristine beaches, beautiful underwater wonders, rich green jungles, cool mountains, cultural and historical memorabilia scattered all over the place.
A trip some months back to Rota gave me the chance to experience what it was to drive at my leisure, stopping every now and then to take photos of whatever caught my attention and just “follow the road wherever it leads,”  things you cannot do anywhere on Saipan or you face the risk of slamming your car into a tree or into another car.
Driving from the airport and heading toward the famed latte stones all the way to the Bird Sanctuary is an exciting experience for any first time visitor in the island.
When you drive from Sinapalo to Songsong village, roll down your windows and grab the opportunity to breathe all the fresh sea air you would want and feast on the beautiful coastal views along the way.
Having a whole day to myself gave me the freedom to drive at my own pace and drive through used and seemingly abandoned roads to satisfy my curiosity to where the roads lead and what was at the other end.
Driving on an unfamiliar road adds to the thrill and often times I reached a dead ends but it was always easy to turn back, retrace your way and venture into another road.
My aimless driving brought me to abandoned hotels and resorts that once thrived with life and laughter.
I roamed around and took images of dilapidated buildings almost obscured by thick vines and shrubbery and left at the mercy of the harsh elements of nature while fighting the goose bumps that one gets while exploring abandoned places all alone, even in broad daylight.
Driving toward the jungles at the foot of Sabana Mountain on the afternoon of my second day put an end to all my illusions that I was brave enough.
As I drove through the road that became narrower as I went deeper into the jungles, I was losing the nerve to go down and just snapped images from my driver’s seat.
The road suddenly took a curve when I reached a portion where thick vines hanging from the trees obscured the way.
I stopped and stared at the road ahead, my imagination playing havoc on me.
With the late afternoon sun casting eerie shadows, it looked surreal, like a scene from a horror movie and I panicked.
The road was too narrow to turn back, and I was too scared to drive on.
Taking a deep breath, I was left with no choice but drive on and as soon as I reached the other side, it was all over and I was able to find a spot to turn back the car.
The experience did not mar my enthusiasm to drive around some more the following day. There are still more roads on Rota that I haven’t explored yet, but I will be back. One day.
rota-road-trip [42354] | Around the Islands.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Movies and popcorn, anyone?

I FOUND it astounding that some people said they have never set foot inside the only place which offers hours of solace and relaxation for people regardless of ethnicity and age—the Hollywood Theater in San Jose.
I thought that was just a running joke, until one day when I dragged a buddy to watch one movie which I had been waiting for a long time and right in the middle when I was totally lost in the movie, he poked me in the side and confessed that it was his first time be inside Hollywood for his 10 years of being here.
Another friend who has been here for over 25 years said she also has never set foot inside the theater but would rather rent DVDs and watch movies from home.
I had been on Saipan but two months when I took the chance to see what this island had to offer in terms of theater entertainment. The name Hollywood would astound any newcomer of course but although there’s no comparison from the theaters back in the Philippines, the seven-screen multiplex located next to Price Costco or Joeten Superstore has eased a lot of ‘bad hair days’ for me and a lot of residents here.
The Hollywood Theater screens the latest first-run movies and I always had to curb the urge to watch on the first day because several times I’ve tried sitting at the topmost row where you can barely stretch your feet, and at the very front where you will get stiff neck afterward and come out of the theater dazed because of a very close encounter with the actors on the screen.
Watching movies perched in your sofa or from your bed is a good option because you can do it wearing house clothes or just a bathrobe, where you have the power to pause the movie if you want to have a restroom break or a few minutes nap but going to the theater is a totally different experience.
Opening the glass doors after you bought your ticket and inhaling the smell of popcorn is bliss, but carrying a huge bucket to munch on throughout the movie is priceless.
The Hollywood Theater is Saipan’s meeting place of kids and parents, friends and relatives especially during the weekends. It is one place here where I never hesitate to watch movies alone and still feel at ease, something I could never imagine doing back in the Philippines. This usually happens when my companions and I don’t agree with what movies to watch so we go our separate ways and meet up after.
When you feel the need to relax, steal an hour or two and make the Hollywood Theater your destination. Try the fun of hopping from one movie to the next when you have the luxury of time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tales from the lonely benches

HAVE you ever tried parking along the Beach Road and actually sit in one of those benches that are scattered far and few along the long stretch of beaches near the walkway?
You may say that these lonely-looking benches with wooden planks and metal feet, facing the sea exposed to the rain, sun and the winds day in and day out have been there forever. So, what’s with those ordinary benches by the seaside anyway?
I can say nothing much, except you’ll find some planks missing and some rusty nails sticking out but if you take a few minutes to sit down and be in for something you’ve always taken for granted.
Oh the stories those benches can tell!
Arriving an hour early for a massage appointment at the Beach Road one evening, I crossed the street and relished the chance to finally sit on one of the three benches facing the sea, stretch my legs, breathe in the salty tang of the ocean air and just let time pass and watch the world go by. It was a chance which I had been dying to do since forever.
I was in a daydreaming state when an angry-looking guy flopped down on the bench farthest from me. Not aware that somebody was there, he broke the silence and started yelling at somebody or whoever he was talking to in his cellphone. I was glued to my seat, not wanting to eavesdrop yet not wanting to get up and catch his attention. After a few minutes, the guy stood up and left, not knowing I was there.
Trying to recapture my earlier bliss, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath when two joggers passed by, pleasantly swapping stories to each other. Minutes later, a couple passed by, bickering about bills and family matters as though they were at home and not on a public walkway.
Talk about peace! The thought of relaxing flew away totally this time, and I began to see the benches in different way—as an avenue to learn about people and their lives. It’s like being given a chance to peek into a window and see things for what they are without the main characters knowing that you’re there. Okay, call it eavesdropping but no one can blame you for sitting there and hearing all those things. In the first place, you were there to sit and relax!
From that time, I never drive along the Beach Road without glancing at these benches which are deserted most of the time but if I do see anyone sitting there, I begin to weave stories in my mind as to what they are thinking and what they are going through.
Many times I see couples or families watching the sunset from the benches and had to curb the urge to stop and snap photos—after the blasting of horns and screeching sounds of the cars behind me of course.
Those benches could indeed provide several chapters to write a book. As for those bench occupants, be careful because one day, you might just find your stories in the pages of a book!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Peace on a marble tablet

A FEW steps behind the Flag Circle at the Court of Honor of American Memorial Park in Garapan is a wide marble tablet which I have always seen before but have not given it any particular notice, until last week when I had time on my hands and I was at the area.
After covering the solemn ceremony of the Veteran’s Day at the Court of Honor, I ventured near the wharf area to cool off and noticed with news eyes this monument that I had no idea played a very big role marking the end of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific.
Stepping on the tiled cement, I approached the tablets and read for the first time what was written there.
The middle tablet bears the following inscription:

PEACE AT LAST. At 6:35 August 15. 1945, the Commander in chief of the US Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ordered all offensive action against the Japanese to cease. All the guns of war fell silent. The long post war process of healing, reconstruction and the building of a basis for mutual trust and lasting peace began. The signing of the peace treaty between Japan, the United States and the Allied Powers on September 8, 1951 at the San Francisco Peace Conference formally brought World War 11 to a close.

Flanking the middle tablet were two tablets signed by US President Harry S. Truman and Japan Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida attesting to their desire for peace and reconciliation.
Joggers and bikers around the area usually pass by without paying attention to this marble tablet, or maybe they already know it is there and thinks no big deal of it.
Here is something that the present and the future generations must continue to be aware of. The tablet is just a piece of marble, yet it is an instrument announcing to the world that although the scars of the war will always be there peace was finally attained. It signifies an end to tragedy, to a war that claimed thousands of both US and Japanese soldiers and civilians, and left thousands more of families homeless.
If you’ve got some free time, try to visit American Memorial Park’s Peace Memorial. It is one place that a lot of people from different parts of the world would give a lot for just to visit this monument of peace. It is right within your reach.

Friday, November 4, 2011

WW11 reminders at the airport

THE minute you emerge from the arrival area and out into the open at the Rota International Airport., a collection of Japanese WW11 airplane engines and anti aircraft guns neatly arranged in a row will meet your eye.
I saw the collection right away at the left side of the airport but had to curb the itch to walk over for a closer look and start snapping photos of these artifacts that continue to attract tourists and history buffs from all over the world. It was my first time to set foot on Rota and I had no spare time because a friend was picking me up in a few minutes. I vowed to come back, which I did the following day when I finally rented a car to do some exploring on my own.
The rustic airplane engines were placed in constructed stone pedestals surrounded by neatly trimmed grass. Albeit rusty, the engines were obviously maintained and oiled because they don’t show the impression that they are ready to fall off into pieces at a moment’s notice.
At the end of the row of airplane engines is an equally rusty yet well-maintained anti aircraft gun still intact after all these years.
I took my own sweet time inspecting the relics and capturing them on the lens to share to the rest of the world who haven’t had a chance to visit the island.
The variety of World War 11 relics scattered all over the island is just one of the many bonuses you get in driving around the idyllic Paradise of this 13km long island in addition to the rich historical sites, the long stretches of white sandy beaches, rich evergreen forests, and the slow, leisurely lifestyle.
History records show that Rota was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II and became an important link for the Japanese to get their supplies from Japan.
In an island where stop-lights are unheard of and where motorists wave at each other on the road, where a remote-island atmosphere rules in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Guam or Saipan 30 minutes hopper ride away, these World War 11 relics feel more at home.
Rota is a jewel waiting for visitors to come and explore its treasures, and these treasures can be seen right from the airport and all over the island.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Peace Memorial on a cliff top

Photos by Raquel C. BagnolSITUATED over 800 feet above sea level is a must-see and must-visit mountaintop on Saipan that has played a very important part in the island’s history.
Standing near the railing at the view deck of Suicide Cliff on a Friday noon was not in my plan but there I was last week, cameras slung around my neck ready to take another batch of photos of the place where thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians choose to jump to their deaths than to surrender to the American troops during the war.
Turning away from the breathtaking views of the Veterans Cemetery and the blue ocean that stretched for miles and miles away, I walked a few paces to the Peace Memorial, a monument that has claimed visits from thousands of tourists, each year. Most of the visitors are Japanese who come to offer flowers and food to their dead ancestors.
According to the sign at the foot of the monument, the Peace Memorial was constructed to console the spirits of those who died — regardless of their nationality — at this historic area and to remind the people of the tragic futility of war. The memorial is built with hopes that everlasting peace and friendship will prevail among mankind
The construction of the Peace Memorial came through the efforts of the people who lived in the Pacific islands and it was dedicated in 1972 during the Trust Territory government.
During the early months of the year, the Peace Memorial takes on a spectacular view as the flame trees blossom where its flaming red and orange flowers provide a wonderful contrast to the blue skies and lush foliage.
Sadly, burglary incidents have been reported happening in this Peace Memorial site and at Suicide Cliff.
With no security in the area and with overgrown bushes at the side of the Peace Memorial leading to the Banadero Trail,  a thief can get away easily after robbing a tourist.
Stakeholders in the tourism industry said the government should look into clearing these bushes and jungle area so criminals will have nowhere to hide. Visitors feel safe and peaceful. After all, this is a Peace Memorial.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Exploring historical pieces at Tinian airport

 STRANDED for over an hour to wait for the next flight in an airport has never been a bother for me, but not when you are not feeling well and the ground seems to shake and your start to see double of everything. Most of all, not if you are stranded at the Tinian Airport where there is nothing to do but stare at the empty seats and the small confines of the departure area.
Fighting the urge to curl up on one of the benches and go to sleep last Monday, I had time on my hands with nothing to do. I left my Kindle at home, which would have come handy that time and it was no use wishing I had called earlier to reconfirm my flight back to Saipan. Otherwise I would have spent another hour in bed in my hotel room.
Walking out of the departure lounge, I stared dully at the deserted roads and the burning heat outside and saw something that I have always seen before but never paid any attention to—relics of the World War 11 located just in front of the airport building.
Fishing out my cameras and my boredom forgotten, I walked over and started taking photos of the Japanese cannon and B29 wheels and an antiaircraft machine gun. These historical pieces were found in a firing position and hidden in one of the caves in San Jose, Tinian and have been moved to the airport to create a historical display.
Innocently sitting there in all its rusted glory is a machine gun with the steel seat still attached was reported to be one of those that inflicted heavy damage on the battleship Colorado and destroyer Norman Scott during the first day of the battle of Tinian.
Beside the machine gun is a plaque erected and dedicated to honor the surviving VPB-116 Blue Raiders airmen who served on Tinian.
Located at the historic west field of the island, Tinian Airport is the third of three runways used by the 58th Bomb Wing of the 20th Air Force and constructed for the B-29 Super-fortress for smaller planes.
That spare hour before my flight gave me a chance to capture on the lens more relics that have played important roles during the World War 2. If you’re on Tinian, take a few minutes to check out these artifacts right outside the airport building. You just don’t know how many thousands of people around the world envy you for having this chance.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Moon shooting at dawn

THE whole neighborhood was already in dreamland past 3 a.m. when I went out of the house to get a whiff of fresh air a couple of days ago. The world was bathed in full moonlight that it was almost daylight. I was unable to resist the urge to go out and try to capture the full round beauty that most of us take for granted. I decided it was time to put one of my dormant investments to work.
Going back in, I unearthed a 1300mm zoom lens that I purchased some months from its box, shaking off the layers of dust that had accumulated from neglect.
Struggling with a heavy duty 6-foot tripod and the heavy lens was a battle. I haven’t found time to experiment with the knobs and bolts and nuts of both tripod and lens yet and it took me a good quarter of an hour before I was finally able to attach the lens to the tripod.
Getting out of the door with the whole thing was a harder battle and I was scared that the moon would have set by the time I finally get out and the sun would be on its way up.
I succeeded after much struggling and positioned the lens toward where the moon was. I saw only total darkness. I twisted and adjusted knobs and the camera settings but still nothing. The lens would not work. There goes hundreds of dollars down the drain, I gave up in frustration.
I was about to pack everything up and start the struggle of getting the whole thing back inside when I found that the lens cover was still in place that’s why everything was black.
Like a child, I peeked into the viewfinder and kept turning the focus until finally I saw my moon, big and full and round with the blotches and craters that I was unable to capture with my standard lens.  Excited, and armed with my Canon SLR, lens and no knowledge of how to take moon photos, I clicked away, experimenting with different camera settings but it was no easy feat. I had to really stretch out my arm to reach the far end of the lens where the focus was.
Tired but satisfied at last, I ended my dawn adventure and downloaded the photos to my computer. I was unable to capture sharp photos but I was happy with a couple of photos I considered ‘passable’ from almost a hundred shots. Talk about the effort and the muscle pains I went through the next couple of days from struggling with the heavy weights.
For centuries, the moon has never failed to captivate people from all over the world. It has always been a fascinating and intriguing subject to shoot.
Yes, you are right. There’s a full moon every month and we see it going through the different phases throughout the month. We enjoy its brilliance and take it for granted but have you ever really taken time to appreciate this beauty of nature?
When you can, try to capture the brilliant moon with your camera. You don’t need to be a pro. Just enjoy what you are doing. Saipan is one of those places that has lots of ideal places to get really good shots of the moon. Happy moon shooting!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Noonday respite at a coral beachside

THE short, rocky pathway that we were following one afternoon a couple of weeks back that was almost hidden by overgrown bushes at the far end of the green golf courses at the Coral Ocean Point resort in Koblerville ended in a small clearing, and the sight of clear blue skies and the vast sea greeted us.
The sea glittered under the hot afternoon sun as I and two buddies surveyed the long stretch of rocky beach. It was my first time to set foot in this beach that I always see from up above every time the plane from Tinian approaches the Saipan airstrip.
The beach was deserted and silent, save for the occasional drone of the planes flying in.
Coral Ocean Point beach is one of those less frequented beaches in the island. The beach can be accessed by passing through the golf courses and we had to borrow two golf carts and walk the short distance to the beach. The beach with its sharp corals and rocky water beds is not that ideal for children and families but on the other hand, adults may find the beach as a romantic getaway, a change from the regular soft, sandy beaches in the other parts of the island.
One good thing about the Coral Ocean Point beach especially for photographers and photo enthusiasts is that there is so much to capture on lens like the beautiful corals and rocks, small cliffs, spectacular cloud formations, the clear blue waters gently slapping on the shores near the beach or the huge waves crashing on the rocky ledges from the distance.
We saw the remains of a barbeque party at a pit near the rocks and knew that some picnickers had taken advantage of the beautiful beach.
A few meters from where we were, a swimmer braved the heat and went snorkeling around. Snapping a few photos, we packed up to leave the area. I wished we had the luxury of time during that brief visit but we had other appointments and that trek to the beach was actually a side trip, not in our original plan. I would have wanted to stay longer.
If you happen to spend some time at the Coral Ocean Point beach, don’t forget to bring a camera.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A few minutes at a deserted runway

The early morning air was still and silent and we coasted along the rough roads going to one of the island’s historic landmarks some weeks back. The day has just begun as we headed for one of the long deserted airstrips at the northernmost part of the island.
Photos by Raquel C. BagnolRubbing my sleep-deprived eyes and trying to fight off a wave of drowsiness, I fished out my camera from my sling bag and started clicking away, capturing landscape and views.
I’ve been to the North Field of Tinian several times before, but it was different this time because first, it was very early in the morning (which means practically midnight for a nocturnal being like me), and second, I was with a professional photographer who knew the place and had a deeper understanding about history than what our lenses could capture.
The sun was slowly making its way up the horizon when we glided smoothly into the Runway A (Able) as my companion Dirk Spennemann started capturing the neglected airstrip with his cameras from all angles. He was collecting photos for an upcoming exhibit about places  that played roles in World War II battles all over the Pacific.
The lonely airstrip constructed of crushed coral and asphalt stretched emptily before us, with weeds and bushes growing in several parts a silent testimony to its state of neglect.
I stood still for a few moments, closing my eyes against the glare of the sun and trying to imagine what the place looked like 66 years ago.
Runway Able was just one of the six airstrips the Seabees and Marines constructed in 1945. They named the four airstrips at the North Field ABCD for Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog. Runway Able is the extra-long runway which was used for the B-29 bomber Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
We didn’t go to the three other runways anymore as Dirk had more places on his list to check out and photograph. We drove out of the Runway Able and proceeded to another historical place nearby — the bomb pits where Japanese soldiers used to store their bombs and fuel.
Those few minutes we spent at Runway Able gave me a new perspective about a place many people on island may have taken for granted. It played a big role in  World War II.
A few minutes at a deserted runway | around-the-island.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Inside a World War II-era blockhouse

DRIVING on the rough path along the lush golf courses of Coral Ocean Point one day last week, I had no idea that one of the island’s historical treasures lies along the coastal area beyond the thick shrubbery that made the road almost impossible to see.
Riding in two golf cars, I and two officemates parked along the side of the path and followed a trail some meters down to the beach and I saw one of those Japanese pillboxes almost obscured by the tall weeds.
The structure, which turned out to be one of the three Japanese blockhouses constructed on island, stood as strong and proud as ever like it was constructed just recently. The blockhouse was perched in a location that provided a commanding view of the beach.
It usually takes a lot to convince me to go inside any of these old structures like bunkers but unexpectedly, an inner battle was taking place as I fought my fear of enclosed spaces and tried to curb my curiosity as I made the few steps down to the door of the structure.
Finally, my curiosity won and for the first time, I stepped inside a Japanese bunker. Ducking to avoid the spider’s web along the way, I took tentative steps inside. Contrary to what I thought, it was well lighted inside, with the rays of the afternoon sun streaming through the small rectangular windows on each of the internal partitions.
Although the walls of the blockhouse were over one yard thick and the ceiling was low, I forgot my being claustrophobic  for a moment as I stood still and surveyed my surroundings for a few minutes, trying to imagine that almost 70 years ago this place housed canons and the walls were the only mute witnesses to the bullets ricocheting from the enemy’s firing line.
The sting of mosquitoes on my arms and face brought me back to the present and I hurried out from the confines of the thick walls and into the fresh and salty air outside.
According to the interpretive sign posted by the CNMI Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. National Park Service, the 20mm blockhouse, which is also referred to as the German blockhouse, was of Japanese design and construction. The other two are at Obyan Beach and Laolao Beach. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
Inside a World War II-era blockhouse | around-the-island.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Inside a burned out fuel bunker

MY conviction that I had explored and written short pieces about every nook and cranny that Tinian had to offer was proven wrong a few weeks back when I went on a photography jaunt with Australian professor and photographer Dirk Spennemann.
After taking photos of the Atomic Bomb Pits, airstrip and the Air Communications building, Spennemann parked our rented car in a grassy portion at the roadside a few meters away from and hauled his giant camera from the backseat. Although I had driven around several times in that area before, the place we were heading to was unfamiliar. Asking no questions, I followed him, pausing now and then to take photos of things that caught my interest.
We hiked through a tree-lined path cut into a coral hill for a few minutes before I saw where we were heading for. A massive concrete building dug into the bedrock and protected with heavy steel plate doors was at the end of the trail, sharp pieces of steel sticking out of its thick concrete roof and walls. The building, although obviously sturdily built, was broken and shattered.
We went just inside the door of the structure. I couldn’t see a thing and Spennemann told me to wait until my eyes get adjusted to the darkness. Very soon, objects like drums and huge pillars began to take shape. I trained my camera at half-shutter in different directions for some seconds before pressing it and looked at the viewfinder. I saw hundreds of burned out drums and pieces of steel inside the bunker, all in disarray at the floor. After taking a few more photos, my being a claustrophobic started to take over and I found it hard to breath. With no exit, it was humid inside. I groped my way outside, thankful for the breath of fresh air when I emerged from the structure.
A marker at the side of the building tells the story that one of the fuel storage structures was ignited sometime during the first days of American invasion and the fire got so intense that Marine battalions nearby were prompted to move to a different position. Because of the heat, huge concrete slabs stripped from the ceiling and in exploded fuel drums.
Picking our way slowly to avoid the slippery and muddy patches on the road, we went around to the other side of the canyon and saw the cement slabs that were the remaining pieces of the fuel drum storage. The Japanese bomb storage and fuel drum storage are among the most remarkable Japanese military structures on Tinian.
We left the place with more gigabytes of photos in our memory cards and an additional piece of history on a relic on Tinian that played a big role during the World War II. If you think that one day is enough to visit Tinian and explore its cultural and historical wealth, you can think again. The island has so much to offer.
Exploring a burned out fuel bunker | around-the-island.

Friday, August 26, 2011

An afternoon at the Tinian Shrine

 I’ve seen the sign on the fork of the road lots of times before, a crudely made piece of wood painted with the words “Tinian Shrine” with an arrow pointing to a rough road leading to a thick shrubbery.
Photos by Raquel C. BagnolThe huge potholes in the road are a big turnoff especially if you are not driving a four-wheel drive or if you are not that adventurous. I had been out exploring and photographing the historical sites of Tinian with visiting photographer and professor Dirk Spennemann from Australia one day a couple of weeks back and the Tinian Shrine was not in our itinerary.
But then, we had an unspoken agreement to “follow the roads and no questions asked until we get there” so off we went.
Spennemann drove all the up to the top of the Carolinas Heights Subdivision, deftly avoiding the huge potholes and the soft portions on the road leading up and stopped at a dead end. Or so we thought when we saw another crudely built sign with an arrow pointing to oh, miracles — a single lane dirt road almost obscured by the thick shrubbery. Hesitant to drive further, my companion said we’d have to walk the rest of the way up.
I was not interested to walk because I was getting tired and my brain was attempting to shut off any minute after working at the computer for the whole night, added to the heat of the 3 p.m. sun blazing down on us and we didn’t even have a drop of water to quench our thirst, my flimsy sandals already gave out from our earlier trek to the North Field that morning so that I had to tie the straps to my toenails, all this added to our heavy cameras and bags.
Visiting photographer and professor of Charles Stuart University Dirk Spennemann aims for a horizontal shoot with his improvised camera.Spennemann finally gave in and taking on a “whatever” stance, took the wheel again. Luckily, the road widened when we were already some meters deep into the bushes and we drove on and up until we reached our destination.
There, nestled amid more shrubbery and green foliage is a wide torii gate and a long flight of slippery, moss-covered stone steps leading up to a stone-built inner shrine at the top. The shrine was deserted so we had the place to ourselves.
Unpacking our gear, we started working and forgot everything else. For the next hour or so, only the clicking of the shutters broke the deafening silence, save for the occasional chirping of birds and crickets.
Although we were just about a couple of miles away from the center of Tinian, I couldn’t shake off the uneasy feeling that we were in another world and were being observed by unseen beings.
I stood still for a few seconds when I reached the small cement house at the top, shrugging off my uneasiness as I glared back at the pair of glaring stone dragons that acted as guards at the entrance of the inner shrine. I learned that the small house was already renovated and renovated after termites the original wood and copper roof.
It was not hard to imagine how Japanese people left offerings in this abandoned Japanese shrine with. An air of solemnity ruled the place and you get the feeling of being intruders and it felt like a sacrilege to touch anything or to even make a slight noise to break the silence.
The small Shinto shrines at the side of the long stairway showed signs of neglect, with several of its smaller stone monuments left shattered around.
The Sumiyoshi Shinto Shrine or popularly known as the Tinian Shrine is one spot that you should not miss on any visit to this island.
An afternoon at the Tinian Shrine | around-the-island.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Revisiting a WW2 structure

A few meters away from the air raid shelters and the monuments erected in memory of the marine battalions is the dilapidated yet sturdy structure used to house the air administrations staff building in the North Field of Tinian. Except for the distant whirring sounds of a brush cutter some maintenance men making as they cleaned the area, everything else was quite and deserted. It was just half past 7 a.m. and we have the place to ourselves.
Add caption
I’ve been to the same building a couple of times in the past three years but those were just for a quick stop to take quick photos, and off to other, more interesting sites in the island.
Last week was different. I flew in to Tinian real early with Dr. Dirk Spennemann, a visiting professor from the Charles Sturt University in Australia to visit the historical places and take photos of the people and life in the island.
What made that trip totally different from my previous trips was that I was with somebody who is not only a professional photographer but one trained to see more than what we ‘ordinary mortals’ see, and one who was willing to share his knowledge.
We spent some time in the kitchen area and Spennemann pointed out where the sink and cooking pots used to be installed, the areas where the washrooms and restrooms were, and gave special attention to how the walls, floor tiles and ceilings were designed.
I paid just a passing glance to a white cloth with Japanese symbols and a glass of water placed on the sink. Alongside it were three pieces of incense sticks. To my untrained eye, those were just objects left by some tourists but Spennemann took his time taking photos of it. Only then did I understand that those objects were purposely left by Japanese individuals as offering to their relatives who have passed on during the war.
We gingerly picked our way through the debris and up the slippery stairs to the second floor, where more traces of devastation awaited us. One can just imagine what a busy office that place used to be.
Spennemann pointed out the concrete walls, floors and pillars, the thick pieces of steel sticking out from what was left of the concrete after bombs ripped through. Honestly, I saw the concrete walls, floors and pillars and the thick steel pieces and nothing more as leftovers of a sturdy building before but never took any notice of how sturdily built the building really was so that it is still standing after several decades and despite having several of its pillars blown off by the bombs.
Spennemann said that the constructors did a commendable job using materials designed to last for decades.
Where before I just saw the ruins of the air administration building as one of the must-visit historical sites on Tinian, I left that building not only with hundreds of photos in my camera but saw it under a different light, not only as a remnant of the bloody war but of the important role it played.
Records show that the air administration staff building used to be the headquarters for the Japanese Navy’s 1st Air Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, and the building was just one of those vital structures that played an important role in the final stage of the war of the Pacific.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Stopover at Teteto Beach

ROTA—Driving along the paved road from Songsong going to Sinapalo Village on Rota will give you a chance to enjoy many scenic spots that may hinder your trip if you are in a hurry, and this includes pristine beaches, lush jungles, historical sites, and more attractions packed into this small paradise of an island.
One of the island’s attractions that you should and could not miss is this long stretch of a usually deserted white, sandy beach called Teteto Beach Club, located about three and a half miles away from the Rota International Airport. I mean deserted in the sense that you will feel you have rented the whole beach for yourself when you go there. It could be because the island’s limited population just takes the beach for granted, and tourists have other activities and places to explore there, except for few minutes’ stopover.
The slight drizzle did not hamper me from stopping by one afternoon some months back to snap some photos. Contrary to what any photographer would have wanted to capture, there was no blue clouds and bright sun shining above. Instead, the weather was bleak and huge, angry waves crash
Nobody was around, and I felt a little bit strange and apprehensive as I parked my rented car a few feet away from the sign board advertising the name of the beach but I decided to be brave and went out. The umbrellas used to shelter loungers were folded as nobody was using them, and I guess as a protection from being blown by the strong winds. I took quick snapshots as I tried to fight off the uncanny feeling that I was not alone and that someone or something was observing me. Scolding myself for entertaining such thoughts in broad daylight, I hurried back to the car and drove on.
On a bright sunny day, the Teteto Beach would have been a perfect spot to relax and unwind, stretch and read your favorite book, or sunbathe on the loungers.
The water at Teteto Beach looks shallow and safe, but I was told the current could be sometimes pretty strong.
Teteto Beach with its pristine shores is ideal for family picnics, for beach activities, for hanging out or for simply communing with nature.
I would have loved to capture one of the stunning sunsets over Teteto Beach from photos I’ve seen online posted by several photographers but my timing was not good because the weather was not cooperative, and I had to hurry to catch my flight back to Saipan. Maybe, next time.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Screaming walls of an old lighthouse

 EXACTLY three years ago, I visited for the first time this old Japanese lighthouse at the Navy Hill and was impressed about the sturdy structure which has played an important role in history, albeit its neglected state.
I grabbed the chance revisit the lighthouse on Tuesday with a friend who, having just returned to Saipan after being away for five years, immediately got busy shooting photos of the setting sun from the second level of the lighthouse. Somehow, I was not interested in the sunset because things caught my interest. I waded my way through the piles of empty beer and soda cans and bottles and hordes of other food wrappings to the top of the lighthouse approximately 50 feet up.
I remember seeing the walls then bathed in graffiti and resembled a freedom wall where a penmanship competition was held and everybody wrote anything using black markers—a sad fate for this helpless structure which could have been one of the best tourist destinations in the island.
The view from up there was as spectacular as I remember it, with the setting sun providing a wonderful backdrop to the whole area of Garapan.
But the artists have been at work again—this time upgrading themselves with a vengeance by painting the walls with huge letters and figures using colored paint. Not an inch of space escaped the hands of the vandals who even had the guts to climb to the circular wall and scribble nonsense for the world to see.
Earlier efforts to preserve this historical place which has been one of the sites in the CNMI that were accepted to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1974 proved futile. Concerned groups such as the Beautify CNMI and volunteers polled their efforts in repainting the lighthouse and erasing the graffiti on the walls from time to time, but it was like a cat and mouse game. As soon as the cleaners are done with their job, the vandals get back to work.
The wind was blowing stronger and dusk was settling in when I descended, this time fishing my small flashlight to see my way down the flight of dark and slippery stairs.
Records show that the lighthouse which was constructed in 1934 to guide Japanese ships arriving in the harbor was abandoned after the U.S. Navy pulled out of Saipan in 1947.
Despite the tall bushes and thick shrubs that threatened to engulf the whole structure, the place still maintains its power to lure visitors to come up and challenge the slippery and dank stairs, the piles of trash.
The lighthouse survived World War 11 and withstood years of exposure to the harsh element, but not against the scum artists who seem to find joy in scribbling nonsense in the walls and destroying one of the best tourist destinations in the island.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sun and Surf on Saipan

WHEN the weather is bleak, or when strong winds start to blow and the sea water begins to roll in giant waves toward the shores, it is time to take out your surf board and head toward one of the most popular destinations for surf boarding on Saipan — the beach behind the Aquarius Beach Tower in Chalan Kanoa.
Saipan is home to numerous pristine beaches with long stretches of fine, sandy shores but this is one of the most favorite hangouts of many during weekends and even during weekdays.
The humid weather drove a lot of residents to the seaside last Saturday so that finding a shaded parking place near the beach was a challenge. It was refreshing to see the usually deserted beach dotted with beachgoers for a change but what attracted the attention of many were the surfers who were having a grand time riding on the high waves and children shouting in glee.
Saipan may not exactly be a surfer’s dream destination but the rolling and crashing waves were enough to bring joy to the swimmers and surfers, and entertain the onlookers who preferred to stay in the shade.
A word of warning to surfers and swimmers — be careful when you swim or surf beyond the reef because the waves could get so rough and the current too strong for you to swim your way back to the shore.
Photo by Raquel C. BagnolLast weekend, the arrival of police and boating safety officers to rescue a swimmer who was stranded beyond the reef scared the kids and adults who were surfing, but with extra precaution, anyone can beat the summer heat and enjoy riding the high waves free. This is what island life is all about.
Sun and Surf on Saipan | around-the-island.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Goat Island from a distance

TINIAN — If there is one place in the CNMI that I really wanted to visit, it is this little strip of an island about five miles southwest of Tinian.
Photo by Raquel C. BagnolYou get a glimpse of Goat Island or Aguigan when the plane makes a turn and prepares for landing at the Tinian airport.
Months back, some friends from Tinian who had been to the island made tentative plans and invited me to camp overnight on Goat Island, an invitation that I knew I could and would never refuse despite the impossible challenges that came with the invitation: swimming against the strong ocean currents or waiting for the right moment when the boat tilts toward the steep cliffside which is the only access to the island then making a jump for it.
None of the options were appealing but I knew that I was willing to brave that jump if I had to since swimming was out of the question. My friend said sharks abound around the island — and they were not the shy type.
On a clear afternoon last week, I got a good view of Goat Island from Tachogna Beach. Using my zoom lens, I saw nothing but incredible steep cliffs extending from one end of the island to the other. My lens were not powerful enough to see the feral goats and birds that are the sole inhabitants of the island.
The 2.7 mile Goat Island is reported to the site of the last of the ancient Chamorro resistance to Spanish colonial rule in 1695. My friend said remains of war shelters and other relics from World War II like bombs and shells still litter the island
Dive operators say  some of the best dive spots in the CNMI can be found around Goat Island, but only a few are willing to venture that far because the currents are just too strong and too dangerous even for seasoned swimmers.
A couple of years back, lawmakers on Tinian offered  Goat Island as alternative site for the planned buildup in the Marianas in the wake of increasing opposition on Guam. Then-Tinian Rep. Edwin Aldan also suggested the need to propose a plan to relocate the wild animals and birds to Goat Island so they would be safe when the military buildup started on Tinian.
Our tentative plans went down the drain when one of my buddies went home to the Philippines for good. The plan will now remain a plan, but someday I hope to be able to write another article after I’ve actually set foot on Goat Island.
Goat Island from a distance | around-the-island.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Of bunkers, tankers and pillboxes

FOR someone who has been here all his or her life, or have stayed for decades here, the structures that you can see scattered all over the islands are just old and buried slabs of cement piled on top of each other with steel bars sticking out, but these Japanese bunkers and pillboxes are one of the unique attractions that draws thousands of tourists each year.
Drive around this scenic island and you will see these remnants, reminders of a bloody war that took place here almost 70 years ago—from Saipan International Airport, Susupe, Beach Road, Marpi Road, Last Command Post in Marpi, Naftan Point, and everywhere else on Tinian and Rota.
I had the chance to experience what it feels to be inside one of the bunkers at the airport one afternoon, trying to imagine Japanese soldiers firing from the shelter of these sturdy concrete structures.
Situated among colorful blooms of Flame Trees, you will not think of guns being fired to and from that point, except for the large bullet holes on the sides of the bunker which serves as actual testimonies of the direct hits from the American tanks.
The nearest I got inside a Japanese Pillbox was the one in Chulu or Starsands Beach on Tinian. Like other pillboxes, it is half-buried in the sand with a rifle slit but I just peered through. Being claustrophobic, I dared not creep through the roots that have grown over part of the entrance.
One of the most popular pillboxes on Saipan is at the grassy area of the American Memorial Park. It offers easy access to anyone who wants to get a closer look. Kids play around and climb over it all the time.
The half-submerged tank at the Invasion Beach in Susupe is one of my favorites. Sitting frozen in an action for attack, this tank gets frequent visits from swimmers which I always find an interesting subject to take photos of.
These Japanese bunkers, tankers and pillboxes are just among the artifacts of war that littered the islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota. Nestled among thick jungles, roadsides and anywhere else are other relics such as rusting hulks from aircraft, helmets, weapons and other tools of war—relics that plays an important role to remind everybody that these beautiful islands were once the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Rough drive to Sabana

ROTA—Driving up the crest of Mt. Sabana on Rota will lead you to one of the island’s attractions that get a fair share of tourists each year—a 12mm cannon strategically located at below and cliff and aimed toward the sea.
It was past five in the afternoon and the sun was making its trip down the horizon faster than we would have wanted to.
I and a friend were driving up the rugged road leading to Mt. Sabana, wanting to see the whole island from the highest point 1,600 feet above and hoping to catch a glimpse of a deer or two along the way, too.
We stopped for a few minutes to quickly take photos of an old Japanese cannon along the way, a quick stop that ate about half an hour of our budget.
Arriving at the gate of Sabana, we slowed to a stop to read a sign which sent our spirits spiraling down. The gate will be closed at 5:30 p.m. and will be reopened at 7 a.m. the following day.
The daring part of me wanted to take the risk to drive on, hoping that the gatekeeper would fail to close the gate that night but my companion said he wouldn’t want to spend the night slapping mosquitoes in the cold mountain or walk the whole way back. We can creep under the gate of course, but we have to leave the car behind and there was no signal so calling for rescue is out of the question.
The drive up to Sabana in broad daylight is a challenge by itself, but driving up in the growing darkness doubles the challenge. There is always the threat of a tire going flat and having no spare, or the car breaking down with no means of rescue as very few cars go up there.
We played it safe and drove back to Songsong in the growing darkness, a little bit disappointed because I was not able to see the Sabana Peace Memorial located at the peak of Mt. Sabana constructed to honor the Japanese soldiers who lost their lives on Rota during World War II, the remains of the man-made rock wall and the site where Japanese Command had once taken place during the war, sites which I have only seen photos of. No deer also crossed our path.
Mt. Sabana is a conservation area under Rota’s local law 9-1. The cool mountain provides a natural habitat for the wildlife and medicinal plants, serves as an area for subsistence farming, and is one of the tourist attractions.
Rota has still so much to offer in addition to its heady mix of natural scenery, crystal clear waters and white, sandy beaches, lush forests, World War 11 memorabilia, friendly people and more—all squeezed into this pocket-sized paradise half an hour away from Saipan by air. When on Rota, try driving up to Mt. Sabana but do it during daytime and have better luck than us.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Afternoon inside an abandoned World War 2 structure

THERE is more to spiders and piles of dust that has accumulated through the years when you enter this abandoned building that has played a big role during the second World War on Tinian.
Driving by this abandoned two-storey building at the North Field of Saipan will give you the creeps, as though you can expect to see someone peering from one of those windows anytime but venturing inside is another story. The sun was fast making its way down the horizon when I and two friends from Tinian stepped into the cemented door of the building some weeks back.
Dodging cobwebs and spiders that scuttled off to safety upon our arrival, we stood for a few minutes just inside the door of the building, getting the feel of the place. My imagination was working wildly as we picked our way and explored the empty rooms, our footsteps echoing through the stairs and corridors.
Climbing the two flights of stairs to the second floor, we explored all the rooms, glorying in the silently eerie atmosphere that you can only get in abandoned buildings but without the fear of stepping into something that will send us falling into the ground below because the building, made of sturdy construction materials, holds the promise of staying around for the next century.
Used for inter-island communication by the Japanese during those years of war, the Radio Communication Building at the North Field of Tinian was recently used by a ranch as a slaughterhouse but abandoned it later.
I imagined how those now-empty rooms served a big role during the war, bustling with activities as soldiers manned various equipment and communication tools for sending important messages from and to Tinian.
Light pouring through the huge open windows of the building serves as natural light to guide the tourists and locals who visit the place.
So rich in history, the Radio Communication Building is among the most-visited tourist attractions on Tinian, drawing hundreds of visitors from all parts of the world each year.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Out with the tide

A DELIGHTFUL respite from the daily grind of life in this beautiful island would not require one to spend thousands of dollars for an exotic vacation far away. You can have a vacation right where you are, with freedom to choose between short breaks of an hour or two or a whole day— it’s all up to you but you keep your eyes and senses open to discover places that people from other places would give a lot for.
A short drive to the far right end of the Smiling Cove Marina one afternoon some days back gave me another spot to write about and share to people who are thinking that there’s nothing interesting in this island anymore.
The tide was out when I and my roommate ventured into the dried out sea bed. I had been to this area several times before, but it was my first time to be there when there was barely any water on the sea at all. I grabbed the chance to explore the other side of the island. With my flimsy sandals, I picked my way slowly among the sharp rocks and corals, pausing every now and then to snap pictures of anything that catches my attention.
Seaweeds which look like small dark patches when the water is high bent to the seafloor as low as they could, soaking up whatever water was left.
The extreme humidity forgotten, I got lost in time as I looked up and gazed at one of the most beautiful sights Saipan has to offer during these times. Against a spectacular backdrop of blue skies and seas, blossoming flame trees dotting the hills completed the picture, making it look like this part of Saipan was in flames, a photographer’s delight.
There was no other sign of life from where I was standing, save for a few crabs scurrying to their holes and some fish stranded in little pools of water and among      the thick seaweeds whose splashes I tried in vain to capture with my camera.
Birds swooping to catch a fish or two from the water added to the beauty of the afternoon. Soon, the tide started coming back, so fast indeed that before I knew it, the spot where I was standing minutes earlier was already covered in water. Returning to the shore to sit on a fallen log, I saw the seaweeds standing up and springing back to life, once again looking like patches of small dark islands as always. Life has returned to normal for the sea creatures, breaking the brief respite they enjoyed when the tide was out.
This island still has so much to offer if you look at it with a new perspective. After all, the best things in life are still free.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tranquility at an abandoned park

ROTA — Delightfully situated on a prime spot along the coastal road just before you enter Songsong is one paradise that you should not miss when you’re here —  Pinatang Park.
It is a huge boulevard with an entrance made of cement but designed to look like natural logs and intricate woodwork.
The gate leads straight to a long arch bridge connecting to a smaller island, a small park complete with a pool and spiraling water slides, picnic tables and benches and other amenities that makes up what perfect picnics areas should be.
I stopped by Pinatang Park one cloudy afternoon a couple of months back, drawn to the sense of peacefully quiet but scenic park overlooking the ocean and bordered by islets that serve as natural fences against the giant waves.
I had the whole place to myself and I couldn’t help but conclude that if there is one spot on the beautiful island of Rota that can make you sigh with deep regret, it is this place. Something is missing in this beautiful park —people and sounds of laughter and everything that parks are supposed to be.
The long boulevard stretched endlessly, each slab of cement, posts with missing lights, crumbling or missing balustrades, rusty benches with pieces of steel sticking out, and everything else telling its own sad story.
At the far end of the park, a beautiful cottage/bar or what’s left of it, with round cement stools around it tells its own sad story of glory days gone by, a testimony that this beautiful park has been exposed to fend off for itself against the harsh elements of nature.
A Rota resident said the park requires too much money to maintain and the municipality has no funds for it, hence its present state.
Only the profusion of colorful flowers and the chirping birds refuse to acknowledge the fact that the park is left with no one to maintain it, and that visitors can come and go as they please, at their own risk.
I got scared to cross the bridge and explore the other side of  Pinatang Park. I regretted that decision and wouldn’t miss going there if I get another chance to come back to Rota.
Soon, a school bus dropped off some students on the roadside and the silence was broken. One little boy ventured down the stairs to hide from his companions and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of him.
It’s funny but despite the dilapidation and sense of abandonment surrounding the park, I find it appealing and would have stayed longer if not for the huge, fat raindrops that started to pelt on the deserted park. I ran for the car hugging my gear, and with heart still heavy with regret, drove away to Songsong for a late lunch.
Tranquility at an abandoned park | around-the-island.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cooling off at the Park

LOOKING for a place to cool off and escape from the humid confines of the house drove me and my roommate to this lagoon a few meters beyond the Bell Tower at American Memorial Park on Saturday afternoon.
There’s nothing really spectacular about this place. I’ve been there countless times and taken hundreds of photos in the past three years, except that when we arrived there, I looked at the place with new eyes. The tide was out, and the lagoon was almost dried out.
My roommate immediately headed for a cement bench under the trees while I headed toward the dried out portion of the lagoon and ventured as near to the water as I can, enjoying the tranquility and peace. Watching small crabs scurrying to their holes and trying in vain to capture them on lens was an impossible feat which kept me occupied for the next half hour.
A solitary fisherman was throwing his line in the water a few meters from where I was kneeling in the sand, casting surreptitious glances at me each time I took a stolen shot at him while waiting for fish to eat his bait.
The tide was slowly coming in, and the sun was getting low in the horizon. Reflected in the calm waters was a spectacular profusion of colors—the skies turning into a reddish-orange haze, the blossoming flame trees, and the gently swaying yachts moored at the dock was a photographer’s dream.
Forgetting the fisherman, my fingers got busy with the shutter as I tried to capture the spectacular view before me. Some minutes and a splash later, I turned and caught the fisherman haul in a squirming, medium-size fish from his pole, in time to capture it all in the lens.
Soon, it was getting dark and water had trickled back filling almost half of the lagoon. Loud music and laughter started to pour out from one of the yachts signaling the start of a party at the Smiling Cove, shattering the tranquility I was enjoying earlier.
I packed my gear and found my roommate on his knees absorbed in a school of small fish trapped in a pool of water under the bridge.
If you have stayed here for several decades or most of your life, you may have taken what nature offers for granted and say that “it has always been and will always be there” but try to get out sometime and you will get some pleasant surprises.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A refreshing stop at a famous swimming hole

ROTA — Come on in, the water’s cool. This unspoken and unwritten invitation is too hard to resist if you are at the Swimming Hole, one of the most popular and must-not miss destinations on this island.
Standing on a huge rock with my camera, I would have given anything for a dip instead of just a short stop at this place which I had already seen in hundreds of spectacular photographs and glowing remarks from different blogs and websites of visitors who had been there.
Surrounded by natural rock formations that fenced off the area from the huge wild waves rolling noisily to the shore a few yards away, the Swimming Hole is a pocket of crystal-clear body of blue water that promises worlds of refreshing satisfaction when you step into the warm waters.
The Swimming Hole was deserted when we arrived there. Under the sweltering heat of the 12 o’clock sun, the temptation to take a dip was too irresistible, even for a non-swimmer like me. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the heat of the sun is not so harsh, you can float lazily around, let stress flow out of your body and enjoy a relaxing time.
Unfortunately, when you step on Rota for the first time and want to see as many places and attractions as you can in one day, you can’t stay long in one area. I had to content myself with dipping my toes to test the water, take photos and off we went to explore more of this island’s tranquility.
The Swimming Hole is just one of the numerous unspoiled beaches of Rota. It serves as a perfect getaway, and with fewer tourists, you can have the pool to yourself like one giant Jacuzzi.
My hosts Ali and Doc Manny from Guam whisked me off for a quick visit to the Rota Latte Stone Quarry before proceeding to the Bird Sanctuary, a fast drive around Sinapalo and a faster drive toward Songsong. With so many beautiful places to visit and so little time, I longed to get behind the wheel and explore the island at my own pace, something which I did the next day.
The island of Rota has lots to offer, and the Swimming Hole is just one attraction. This article was originally published here:
A refreshing stop at a famous swimming hole | around-the-island.