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.