Turning Japanese

Brown Booby at the Rota Bird Sanctuary

   I spend the morning in the "office", i.e. our field station, i.e. the second story of a two-deck apartment building on the tiny island of Rota. The view is a somewhat surreal vista into the infinity of the Pacific and Philippine seas, framed by limestone cliffs and coconut palms. I cannot complain about this. But what we reap in scenery we pay for in ventilation. The building is a concrete shoebox, nestled in a windless eddy beneath two towering rock faces. None of the windows on the ocean side open, effectively stunting any remaining hope of air circulation. One quickly learns the art of moving from fan to fan (we have seven), like a napping cat chasing a patch of drifting sunlight across a living room floor.

   Juniper had gone out in the field this morning, volunteering to show Adrienne (a visiting grad student) some of the radio-tagged birds. She'd come with Renee and Jim, our Principle Investigators, to spend ten days conducting public opinion surveys around the island: an attempt to decode the perception of our work and the importance of endangered species. There were still hundreds of surveys to sort through, but a lurking sense of apathy among the Chamorro locals was becoming clear. Everyone I'd encountered in town and in the jungles had been positive, speaking with grandeur on the island's birds and animals, but perhaps this image was a narrow one.  On these islands truth often hides behind false images.

   But we were glad for the company, if nothing else, and their stay had been more than interesting. A string of dinner parties, bar nights, and birthday get-togethers had colored the week, making for a run of social events that is rare on such a small, sleepy island. Wednesday night was the capstone, culminating in a cross-cultural karaoke party at Barefoot, the bar across the street. I'd invited Yamamoto, our scuba guide, as well as Renee and company.

   Our party of seven was fortified by Yamamoto's all-Japanese crew of six. We were at first segregated by the language barrier: each group making polite outreaches into foreign territory, but mostly keeping to itself. A few drinks closed the gap and I wedged into the center, turning back and forth between conversations with Renee and Yamamoto to get everyone talking.

   My efforts were not in vain, but it was the arrival of the microphones and karaoke songbook that sealed the deal. By eight o'clock the whole place was howling along to our distorted versions of Hotel California, Pretty Woman, and Suspicious Minds. It's a sure stereotype, but Japanese people really do (really really) love their karaoke. Yamamoto had transformed from all-business scuba sensei into karaoke clown, singing duets with himself, complete with silly high-pitched voices for the female verses.

   He'd brought his guitar and  played some blues in between songs, with me accompanying him on the harmonica. The biggest surprise came half-way though the night when one of the girl's mothers, who had been sitting quietly the whole time, opened her purse to reveal a six-inch long harmonica and several pages of sheet music. She had a beautiful voice, and played the harmonica slowly in between verses. It was a sweet Japanese tune that she said she'd used to woo her husband during her college days.

   We went home with a warm feeling, our Japanese friends honking their horns at us as they drove back to their hotel. Except for the part where I'd accidentally summoned a Japanese ghost by whistling (I was previously unaware that I'd possessed this power), it had been one of the best nights on the island. Some mix of the heat, and the sweat, and the sea breeze lends these islands a magic quality, and the world is again as mysterious and wonderful as it was when we were children, looking out from our backyards into the untrod woods that lay beyond.

Senahom Point, or The Rota Grotto


Saipan Dumplings, or Moped Birder Rides the Rain

They were worth it.

   The monsoon rains were here, emboldened by the gathering typhoon in the west. Layers of hard rain beat against the windows of the our hotel suite, drowning out our afternoon plans to ride north and look for Micronesian Megapodes (a rare sort of scrubfowl living on Saipan). I looked longingly out the window at the silver vespa scooter I'd rented a few hours before, and cursed the gray weather.

Micronesian Megapode

   By the end of the hour we were starving, having finally recovered from the heavy doses of Japanese sake and Korean soju the night before. Blue had called to invite us on a hike out to the Forbidden Island, but we got the message a few hours too late, so we spent the afternoon lounging on the porch, watching the rain over cigars and fried crickets (tastier than one might imagine).

   But now it was dark, and the hunger had come. Our Saipan itinerary revolved around a long hit list of restaurants, culinary excitements that we'd lacked during the last four months on Rota. It was going to be tricky to squeeze all of them into our short four-day stay, and unexpected rains weren't helping. Next on the list was a new Chinese cafe that served fresh dumplings, promised to us as the best we'd ever had. The rain seemed to intensify every time I looked out the window.

  Screw it. There were fried oriental dumplings to be had. I tossed J her helmet and strapped on mine. She put on her new black dress and I slid into a pair of shorts and sandals. It was laughable riding gear at best, especially for an after-dark ride through a tropical storm, but if we were going to be damned fools, we weren't about to half-ass it.

   I'd rented the moped from a seedy Chinese man with a parrot on his shoulder. The steering was loose and it wobbled a bit more than I'd have liked, but it ran. I cranked the starter and we took off The rain blasted us the whole way up the Middle Road, and I could barely see. J was silent, sure that survival was impossible. The spray of the rain reminded me of the Texas storm that had nearly ended me on my cross-country ride last Spring.

Good job, little moped

   The lights of the dumpling shop suddenly appeared ahead. We'd made it one way at least. We parked and went in to order, shivering as the heavy air-conditioning chilled our soaking wet skin. We went outside and stood in front of an exhaust duct to warm up, laughing like idiots. Our heaping order came quickly, and we strapped it to the bike. A fool's miracle got us safely back to the hotel for hot showers.

   We spread the food out on the bed and popped our chopsticks apart. The dumplings were still steaming; tender, delicious, and worth every rain-soaked mile.