Seeing Saipan


   Things are different in Saipan. This became immediately clear as we dropped into the airport after our 30 minute flight on Freedom Air direct from Rota. There were four lane streets choked with cars, billboards and flat topography; scores of restaurants, and high rise hotels. A line of cars sat motionless in the road, stopped for no apparent reason. It took me a minute to realize what was happening: there were traffic lights here.

   Rota suddenly seemed like a blissful paradise of simpler times, and I felt a pang of nostalgia for the jungle-strewn mountains we'd just left. But, we were here for a change of pace, and it seemed that we'd done right in finding one. After all, we hadn't come for beaches or jungles or quiet living. We'd come for the restaurants and movie theaters and late night discos. After a few months in paradise, one begins to crave the ugly, exciting parts of civilization.

   We dove in headlong. The hotel room was perfect: a two-part suite with a sprawling bed and cozy kitchenette seated in the center of Garapan, Saipan's gaudy commercial district. Juniper and I walked the length of town, stopping in every store to marvel at the array of purchasing choices. The grocery store had brightly-lit aisles loaded with brand upon brand of treats we hadn't seen in months. Not only were there chocolate bars, there were fourteen types of chocolate bars to choose from. It was magnificent and dizzying all at once.

Thai Food, a nice change from the usual
So many choices...
Cigars and Sapporo

   We stuffed ourselves with Thai food and went back to the place for a cup of sake. The room phone rang. It was Blue, one of the biologists on island we'd planned on meeting. Another field tech we'd met on Rota, had tipped us off that Blue was a party boy, and would be the ideal host for our Saturday night in Garapan.

   We met at Godfather's at 11:30, already hours later than our regular Rota bedtime. We scanned the crowd and found him with little effort. He was, as he'd promised, easy to find, being the only blonde in a four block radius. We swapped life histories over lagers, shouting over the loud cover band that was playing in the next room.

   A couple friends of Blue's showed up around one a.m. and joined our crew. Bernie, a 22-year-old Filipino with heavy black mascara rattled on about his dream of acting in LA and partying every night with famous celebrities. "I just want to, like, meet some guy, you know, who will take me on his boat and sail to Greece," he said, "We can party all night and drink champagne and wear wonderful clothes forever, you know?"

   We bottomed our drinks and made for GIG Discotheque an hour before last call. It was the only dance club left on the island, and inevitably packed. The building rose to a point, fashioned into a Vegas-esque pyramid, complete with hieroglyphic murals and faux-sandstone block walls. I paid my five bucks and slipped in past the pair of Sphinx statues guarding the front door. Bernie lost himself in the crowd, so Juniper and I took to the dance floor with Blue and his friend. We bounced around in a sweaty rhythmic frenzy until the lights went on and we were forced outside.

   Somewhere between the club and our ride home, we decided on a swim. Suddenly we were all racing through the Hyatt main lobby and out onto Micro Beach. We stripped off our shirts and shoes and dove into the cool dark water. Juniper was slow, shouting about the possibility of deadly stonefish and other threats of the dark. Blue was out to our side splashing around in the shallow surf. I dove out flat and pushed my hands into the sand, bringing my head above the water just enough to sing a few bars: "Tall and tan and young and lovely, that girl from Ipanema goes walking…"

   We swam and watched the shapes of the oil tankers on the horizon. I could see the flashing white lights from the resort district a few miles south, the reflection spreading across the water in waves. This was the same ocean that touched Rota, but in the novelty of the night our tiny island felt a world away. I stretched out and floated on my back, mingling like flotsam in the slosh of the sea.



Lost in the Pacific

The crew out for J's birthday

   While I wait for my beer and yakisoba noodles, I think about diving. Three dives today, as is becoming the usual fare when we visit Yamamoto, our  Japanese Scuba sensei here in the Marianas Islands. I felt a wide sense of peace and euphoria when we hit 90ft below. I like to think that I'm slowly becoming a part of this ocean, but more than likely it's just a case of mild nitrogen narcosis.

   It tends to set in around 100ft and fills the diver with an uncanny feeling of intoxication, not unlike opium. Divers have been known to take regulators out of their mouths and try to "breath" the water. This doesn't usually end well. I visualize the scene and am reminded of hypothermia accounts where dead victims are found naked in the snow, having felt so "wonderful and warm" that they didn't need clothes anymore.

   TJ brings our drinks and puts a movie on the big screen. The tavern has become a second home, due to it's cheap menu and minimal distance from the field house. If we shout loudly enough, we can call in orders from our porch. Salem is here, waiting on us. He'd been expecting Renee and Jim, our University of Washington leads on the project, who'd just flown in from the mainland. But they'd cancelled the dinner meetup last minute, so Juniper and I strolled over to keep Salem company instead. 

   Most nights the lack of tourism turned the bar into our private club and we could lounge and watch movies and stare into the surf as we ate. It had a ceiling but no walls, and you could watch the open sea from every table.

   There was, of course, karaoke, but we'd burned ourselves out on that business a month ago, when we drank all night with some visiting Airmen from Guam. I'd never seen anyone keep a round of karaoke going for so long. Four hours later (and about ten songs to my name) I'd thrown in the towel.

Air Force Guys + Karaoke = "You've Lost That Loving Feeling

   The yakisoba was terrific after a long day of diving, biking, and sun exposure. We chatted on a while, until gentle fatigue gave way to heavy eyelids, and we made our way home (i.e across the street). Renee's grad student had brought us some good beers from the mainland, so I popped one open, excited for anything other than Budweiser or cheap Filipino suds. I lay back, my feet on the kitchen table, listening to the waves, and wondered how tomorrow's tides would be.

J with a friendly (and endangered) fruit bat
Ready to Dive

Underwater Archway