Friday, April 13, 2012

Secret cove beyond the rocks and waves

BELOW the rugged cliffs and ledges and beyond the rocky shoreline of Marine Beach at the eastern coast of Saipan is a cave-like spot that would catch the eye of adventurers.
I’ve been to Marine Beach several times before but did not think that behind the huge rocks is a cove perfect for a photo shoot, until a week ago.
The small cove is concealed and you won’t even know it’s there. The tide was out when I and a couple of buddies waded through ankle-deep water at the very right end of the beach facing the water. Picking our way through the slippery and moss-covered rocks was a challenging feat, especially if you are protecting your camera but the hardship made it all the more appealing.
When we reached the very end of the first rock, it seemed like a dead end and there was no more way out except to wade in deeper water and go around but to the left was a small narrow enclosure—so narrow that we have to crawl our way out. The opening led to another section like a small rocky chamber which goes all the way up to the top of the cliff. Direct sunlight poured down from the small opening above, making the area look like a small grotto.
Framed by the huge rocks, the view from the enclosure was stunning. You can see the huge sprays of water on the cliffs at the far end of the beach, a contrast to the soothing splashes of the rivulets flowing around the toward the enclosure we were in.
There was more beyond, but we dare not venture further. It was too dangerous. A few meters from where we were, huge waves go up as high as the cliffs and roll back to the sea with such force that threaten to carry off anyone and anything in its path.
For a moment, everything suddenly seemed to come to a standstill and suddenly, the tide was slowly coming in. We hurried back to the shore before our entrance point will be filled with water.
I’ve seen what Marine Beach was like during high tide and during times when the wind blew so strong that standing on your feet became almost impossible. I’ve witnessed members of the rescue team holding on to ropes and fighting a losing battle the strong current in search of a lost fisherman. It was hard to imagine that the peaceful and still beach we were on that Saturday noon was the same beach that shows unimaginable fury at times.
Marine Beach is an ideal place to spend a day out. The place has picnic shelters and tables, restrooms, an outdoor shower and BBQ pits and a long stretch of white albeit rocky beach line but the waters speak differently.
There is none of the gentle splashing of the waves on the shores to lull you to relaxation there but waves so strong and huge that could sweep you out to the sea any minute.
And oh, if you dare adventure to that secret cove beyond the rocks, make sure it is low tide and as the locals say, ask permission from the spirits of the land and water first before venturing there.

Friday, April 6, 2012

History behind the stones

DRIVING on the rough and dusty road toward Laolao Bay is not really  extraordinary — until one learns about the rich history of the area.
Vehicles carrying students and guests stopped by the roadside a few miles away from the dive site in Laolao Bay yesterday to explore one of its cultural heritage sites.
Photos by Raquel C. Bagnol
There was nothing spectacular about the site, except for the interpretive sign with English, Chamorro and Carolinian translations posted by the Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. National Park Service.
Beyond the sign, huge boulders of stones scattered in no distinguishable pattern lay around the area so that they looked like ordinary boulders between thick vegetation.
But those boulders had more stories than anyone knew —stories that went back 3,000 years, when the very site we were standing on was an extensive village that thrived with life and people.
Our guide, Herman Tudela, an archeologist with the CNMI Division of Historic Preservation, told us that archaeologists who investigated the area, known as Bapot, discovered signs of earlier prehistoric occupations that lay buried below the surface.
Tudela said ceramic analysis has helped archeologists a lot in their studies to determine the age and other information about any site.
He said Bapot is one of those intact sites that are uncommon and provide rare opportunities for scientific studies about pre-historic  Marianas.
He said  the areas around Laolao Bay still have many cultural heritage sites that could disclose what the island looked like and how the early Chamorros lived. These are sites that are waiting to be explored and identified.
It was hard to imagine a village full of people a long time ago at that very site we were standing on yesterday.
The heritage sites of Laolao Bay are more reasons why there is now a campaign to preserve the area and keep it free from littering.
Seasons come and go, people can change the course of the future, but history cannot be changed.
It felt eerie to think that each piece of the latte stones scattered at Bapot contained volumes of rich history whose valuable pieces the present generation ought to preserve.
This was first published here

Crabs out, the race is on!

WHAT do you get when you release hermit crabs inside cramped spaces with nowhere to go but toward the end of narrow alleys? They would all head toward move forward for sure, and how fast each one do it is what counts.
Each year, children and adults on Tinian look forward to winning attractive prizes in the annual hermit crab or umang race during the Hot Pepper Festival.
This year was no different. For the two-day event, kids and adults held on to their prized hermit crabs for the races, crooning to their crabs to make a go for it and win.
Boards with partitions in between to separate the race tracks were placed near the main stage and crowds gathered around to cheer on their bet toward victory.
The countdown begins, and the contestants release their hermit crabs on the track to the shouts and cheers from the crowd.
It was fun to see the crabs enjoying their freedom from the confines of their containers where they were kept prior to the race, then scrambling off to the only destination available—toward the finishing line. Some hermit crabs try to climb up on the partitions, while others simply refuse to move so owners had to coax and poke and beg them to move on. Maybe they were terrified or confused by the shouts from the crowd.
Some kids work in teams, bringing buckets of crabs and releasing them on the race tracks before the final event to check which crab would move faster. Others only have one, and hope for the best.
It takes only a few minutes of anticipation and excitement before a winning crab makes its way to the end of the track, and the winner gets the prize. Individual participants and teams then prepare for the next round, using the same or a different umang from their buckets.
Each year, owners of the fastest crabs receive cash prizes, gift certificates and other attractive prizes. Hermit crab race is common in several parts of the country, but you don’t have to go far to witness one.
The next time you attend a Hot Pepper or Pika Festival on Tinian, don’t miss watching or even joining the umang or hermit crab race. No festival there is ever complete without one.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Aboard the Asuka 11

FOR the past couple of years, this section has brought you to familiar and unfamiliar nooks and crannies of Saipan, Tinian and Rota — from spots that you have always taken for granted to areas that you have never thought existed here.
Today, put on your sea legs and take a glimpse of what’s inside one of the luxury ocean cruise ships which has visited Saipan every year for the several past years — M.S. Asuka II which is previously known as M.S. Crystal Harmony.
A text message from Commonwealth Ports manager Mary Ann Lizama sent me flying into a frenzy and leaving everything at a moment’s notice to grab a rare chance of exploring Asuka 11 which docked at the Saipan port that morning.
An upscale medium-sized cruise ship that provides western-style luxury, Asuka II, is known as one of the biggest luxury cruise ships in Japan. Its 790-foot long frame almost occupied the whole Saipan port for another one of its regular visits.
Atrium of the Asuka 11
Asuka II’s first purser Yukiko Shindo took four of us on a tour of this mighty ship which I had only seen from a distance while it was docked in the port in past years.
We started the tour at the third deck of the mighty ship where we were asked to leave our IDs in exchange for visitor ID’s. I got #004. We made our way through a narrow alley with royal blue curtains on both sides and resembling  a spa and headed to a flight of stairs before riding an elevator to the sixth deck— and that’s where you forget you are on a ship.
The hallway opened into a spectacular two-deck centerpiece atrium with artfully designed furniture and sala sets in the center.
Our guide transported us to a luxurious five-star hotel with lush carpets and wide glass windows offering superb panoramic views of the sea and the island.
Time was never enough as we took photos of everything and anything while trying to take the grandeur of it all in. It was like cramming and wanting to take in everything in at once into a very short time. We wandered through a glorious haze and maze of plush carpeted hallways decorated with contemporary d├ęcor and an exquisite art collection emphasizing 20th century western works.
We went past designer shops featuring fashion items, jewelry, and upscale items, to coffee shops and restaurants, elegant lounges and high-end bars.

We waltzed through the Hollywood Theater, which can seat 260 persons, dance halls and conference rooms, a library with huge glass windows offering panoramic views of the ocean, an internet cafe and  computer shop, more shops than I can remember. Whew! If only I had one day to fully explore the ship and take photos at my own leisure.
From the 6th deck, we rode the elevator to the 11th deck and wandered into the poolside area. There, a Seahorse Pool sat at the center of the area, its clear blue waters reflecting the blue of the skies above and the ocean around.  Beside the pool and up six wooden steps with neatly arranged planks a circular Jacuzzi bubbled merrily, overlooking luxurious sun beds that provide passengers a place for relaxation.
Outside the pool a door lead to the Wimbledon Courts. We picked our way toward the other end of the 11th deck past more restaurants and emerged into a wide spacious area with glass windows called the Palms Lounge. Here, wide solar panels allowed natural light to pour into the lounge.
It was not our destination. Shindo led us on until we reached the area directly above the ship’s bridge—the Vista Lounge.

It became my instant favorite and I later learned that it is one of the best features of the Asuka 11. Uniform pillars adorned the front end of the lounge while a huge blue dome occupied the center of the whole area. It was like stepping into the future. Shindo told us that when the sky is totally dark, hundreds of pin lights are seen on the dome, making one feel like he is gazing up into the skies on a starry night. We didn’t experience that because it was still 2 p.m.
We had coffee at the Vista Lounge, sampling the best latte that slid down our throats to add to memories later but I didn’t get to relish in my coffee. I was still too busy taking pictures of everything, wanting to capture it all.
Going up to the top deck of the ship was an experience beyond description. The aqua blue soft carpet stretched endlessly until your vision meets the blue of the ocean and the horizon. The view from up there was breathtaking — the whole of Lower Base spread below with Mt. Tapochao in the backdrop. A few flowering flame trees added touches of fire to the green forests and blue skies and seas.
I asked Shindo on the possibility of hiding in the ship and going down anymore but that was of course impossible. Haha!
We went back to the third deck, surrendered our visitor IDs and out the gangway and discovered we were not in Europe or any exotic part of the world. We were still at the Saipan Port with the blazing sun beating relentlessly on our unprotected skin and with it, the reality that we have deadlines to meet.
The Asuka II tour appeased our frustration for not being able to get onboard the Queen Mary 2 earlier.
This was first published HERE