Friday, October 26, 2012

Forbiddenly yours

altSEEING it from the lookout, the small island on the east coast of Saipan looks like a little piece of chipped rock pushed into the sea.
The access road to Forbidden Island from the main road in Kagman is quite challenging, especially if you do not have four-wheel drive. Some sections of the road resemble a dried-up riverbed with deep crevices, and thick shrubs cover sharp turns. You may end up narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a vehicle driving in the opposite direction.
Looking down from the lookout, you may think that reaching Forbidden Island is easy and requires no sweat at all, but those who have been down there before know better.
Crossing the small gap of knee-deep water between the beach to the island is something of a major feat as the rocks are sharp and the current strong.
You also have to make sure you’re back on the beach before the tide comes in. Fighting the strong current is no joke. Forbidden Island has already claimed many lives.
The trek, in short, is not for everybody. It is not for the weak of heart or those scared of heights.
You start the downward trail by entering deep into a jungle of tangan-tangan, stepping on loose rocks that may suddenly roll beneath your feet or fall from above.
The final few yards of the trail are the most challenging. The loose earth and rocks almost make it impossible to get a foothold or a handhold. A piece of rope tied to a tree helps hikers, but you can’t hold onto it forever. You have to let go, prevent yourself from tumbling down the rest of the trail and landing on the sharp rocks below.

Then there’s the return trek which is no less challenging. The weather can also play a big role. If you go down on a rainy day, the trail will be slippery and muddy, but if you go on a bright sunny day, the blistering heat is almost too much to bear.
altJust try to forget for a few hours why the island is named “Forbidden” and enjoy the trek. To a lot of people, the island’s name incites curiosity just like anything else that is forbidden.
Designated as a sanctuary for the conservation of wildlife in April 2001 through Public Law 12-46, Forbidden Island offers a superb hiking trail, with spectacular views of an endless stretch of the ocean and blue sky, great snorkeling nooks, pristine hidden pools and a cave which I have yet to explore.
altIt’s an unforgettable experience for hikers, and though you may come home with scratches, bruises and sore muscles, it’s definitely worth it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A walk along the beach

FAMILIES, friends, student and community organizations usually hang out at the different spots along Beach Road from Garapan to San Antonio. They also bike, jog or walk on the pathway while others swim, ride a boat or fish in the lagoon.
All this is a common sight everyday of the week, but have you ever tried a leisurely walk on the beach from the Microl intersection all the way to  PIC? The walk includes a return trek to where you parked your car so it doesn’t sound that appealing, unless you are joining a walkathon.
I did walk from across the Ada Gym in Susupe to PIC one afternoon a few weeks back, taking my own sweet time as I took photos of things and people along the way — the waves gently lapping on the shore, kids swimming and adults  sailing or canoeing. I was having a blast but then it rained hard and I had to run back to my car to keep my camera dry.
A couple of weeks ago, I joined a group for a coastal walk starting from San Antonio, passing by the PIC beachfront and proceeding all the way to Invasion Beach. The walk was brisk and I had to keep running to catch up with everyone while taking snapshots along the way. It was not easy but it was enjoyable. We passed by a couple of fishermen patiently standing with their poles in the water, tourists relaxing in lounging chairs on the beach, kids splashing water at each other.
There are so many wonderful sights to see on the beach — things that a lot of us take for granted.
Why not try a relaxing stroll on the beach barefoot? Enjoy the experience of sinking your toes into the sand while the warm water laps at your feet. Take photos along the way, capture  priceless moments, meet new people or just  breathe in the sea breeze.
Try to do it late in the afternoon or at dawn just before the sun comes up. It’s a heady experience having the beach all to yourself  with no screaming kids, passing cars, smoke from the grill, the smell of barbeque or loud music from a pavilion. Just you and the sky and the vast blue sea and the beach. You can walk all you want and see only your own footprints. This is an adventure that you will not only treasure but one that will refresh and rejuvenate your mind and body.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Into the belly of a ship

WHEN I agreed to join the Bosslift Program of the ESGR last month, it did not cross my mind that I’d have a chance to board a visiting military ship.
ship exteriorI arrived at the dock a few minutes late and was expecting to see the Coast Guard Cutter Washington or a small boat that would bring us to one of those prepositioning ships seen from Beach Road.
Instead, a ports police officer handed me an ID at the gate and pointed me to one of the two military ships anchored at the dock — the USS McCampbell (DDG-85), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that arrived the day before.
Hurrying up the three flights of wooden stairs and crossing a swaying gangplank, I caught up with my companions just before the orientation started.
While off-duty sailors were busy signing log books so they could get off the ship and explore the island, our guide, Ens. Jacob Huntley, identified the equipment and apparatus we saw in the hallways and on the deck. I was unable to give him my full attention. The tour was fast-paced and I was busy shooting photos and videos of everything and anything while trying to watch my steps and catching up with the group.
hangarSoon we were navigating through a labyrinth of narrow hallways and climbing up and down winding flights of very steep stairs with heavy doors at the end that opened to more stairs. I needed more time just to find my way through the confusing maze of narrow cubicles. We eventually reached the navigation room where the ship’s operation took place — a small room full of knobs and consoles that monitored and plotted the course of the ship.
Looking at pictures online and just reading about USS McCampbell cannot be compared to actually going into the “belly” of the ship and seeing how it operates.
We checked out the supply rooms and also got a glimpse of the sailors’ quarters from the narrow hall lined with fire extinguishers.
Unlike luxury cruise ships where everything spells comfort, everyone on USS McCampbell had to move in a single file. The ship only had the bare necessities.
mess hallWe visited the officers’ dining room with its clean and polished wooden tables before proceeding to the mess hall of the sailors with its blue seats and tables topped with cream-colored tablecloths.
But perhaps dining in the general mess hall was more fun. It looked like any regular cafeteria with a giant coffeemaker and huge TV screens on the walls.
We waved at three sailors who were having a leisurely meal at one of the tables before moving on. I had no idea where we were already but once again we went up to more flights of stairs before emerging on the deck.
Huntley took us to our last destination — the place where the helicopter was kept and the deck used as a hangar. The deck was protected by railings connected with thick knotted ropes. From the deck, the Saipan lagoon stretched before us.
We also learned that this powerful ship had a visit, board, search and seizure team to conduct anti-piracy, anti-smuggling and anti-terrorist operations.
Homeported in Japan as part of the U.S. Navy’s Forward Deployed Naval Forces, the USS McCampbell was named after Capt. David McCampbell, the Navy’s leading ace during World War II.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Of WWII bunkers and rocky cliffs

JUST when I thought I had seen all of the  World War II bunkers on island, I discovered another one at a place I had never before visited.
Hidden under a thick canopy of shrubs past the tip of the Coral Ocean Point golf resort were the remnants of a bunker whose small opening for a cannon that was no longer there was pointed directly at the sea and at Tinian.
Looking at the structure from either side, you would not suspect it was a bunker. It looked like just one of the hundreds of abandoned and dilapidated buildings covered with vegetation.
But viewed from the sea, it became something more interesting.
I followed a group of people I was with through the dark narrow opening of the bunker and emerged into the space where the canon should have been. Aside from the few spiders that occupied some parts of the wall, the inside of the bunker was “clean”. Traces of recent visits were visible — mostly offerings that Japanese visitors had left behind, their usual way of honoring their relatives or family members who died here during the war.
We stayed only for a few minutes and emerged through the rectangular opening and headed out to the seaside. I’d seen this area from the plane window several times before but picking my way through the sharp coral stones and watching the huge waves crashing against the sharp cliff lines was a much more exciting experience.
A fisherman sat on the edge of the sharp cliffline with his fishing poles in the water. I would have wanted to stay behind and capture it all on the lens, get wet by the sea spray and just enjoy the ocean mist, but I had to catch up with my group. Picking your way over the sharp coral stones was no easy feat. There was one spot there where you could hear the water gushing  beneath the rock where you were standing on — amazing yet scary too.
The golf course began right at the end of that rocky ledge, and I found a spot with a more stunning view. Where the manicured grass of the golf course ended was another rocky cliff where waves crashed and splashed like a smaller version of the blowhole on Tinian. One particular rock jutted out with its tip hanging above the water — a photographer’s delight.
To get to this point, take the first right turn when you get past the Invasion Beach in San Antonio and you will see this bunker.
This island just won’t run out of surprises. All you have to do is go out and set foot in places you haven’t been to before, and you won’t come home disappointed.