Saipan Part V

Time to wrap this story up with the embarrassing parts, but first I’ll mention Wild Bill’s. Wild Bill’s 2 is on Guam and is a pretty decent little bar. They will serve you alcohol and also bar food. Wild Bill’s 2 is the second one because the first one is on Saipan and is called Wild Bill’s. Wild Bill’s is a Thai restaurant that will also serve you beer. The success of my bar hopping attempts should have been an indicator for the rest of the night.

Having struck out, like I mentioned a while ago, with my Shanghai connection (but not after a conversation that included the un-memorable line “You’re not into cuddling, are you?”), I decided to sample the night life on Saipan. The only obvious strip club I spotted on Saipan was a place called “King’s Club.” I thought this place was terribly quaint. When I first walked in at nine, an hour I usually consider perfectly reasonable but is apparently way too early for the rest of the world (kids these days), I was the only guy in there and I thought they were closed. I took my seat and soon after a sizable mass of Chinese tourists walked in and the show began. Eventually things went as they usually do in strip clubs and I started talking to Angie. Angie was from Mongolia. When she first started talking to me she thought I was Russian. I think this whole experience is demonstrative of the effects of globalization and the efficacy of racial profiling. To give you a sense of the Saipan economy, stripper drinks cost $25 and the VIP area was $100. She related to me that her friend had gotten a visa to Guam where the opportunities were reported to be fantastical. I confirmed for her that the strippers were better paid. I eventually left when the place closed at four in the morning somewhat poorer, but, you know, when in Saipan.

The next morning, or more accurately mere hours later, I woke up with the obligatory headache, as much from my sunburn as the meager amount of booze. I am getting old. I took a shower and gathered my things and went out to face the day. I went for breakfast at a cafe by the park called Cafe by the Park. It featured a cute waitress in high-wasted jeans. I got the fried rice. I regret not getting the banana crepe. I paid with the remainder of my stripper $1s. For entertainment that morning I checked out the American Memorial Park, across the street from the Cafe it lent its name to. It is a very nice little park with a high-quality museum and was apparently recently hit by a typhoon. The Carolinian thatched hut was not there, presumably showing the one weakness of thatched-hut living vis-à-vis typhoons. I bought a lapel pin at the gift shop and checked out a Japanese pillbox until it was time to head to the airport.

Note the tanks.

Places like Saipan amaze me. Who has even ever heard of the place? To answer my own question, apparently tons of Asian and Russian tourists. The amount of tourist traffic to the Marianas kind of blows my mind. On one hand, I enjoyed the island entirely. The island is smaller than Guam but didn’t feel small while I was visiting. Saipan has a great deal of natural beauty, the upswing of being underdeveloped. The abruptness of how the cliffs of Saipan meet the ocean gave you a sense of power that Guam doesn’t quite have for me. On the other hand, it’s a tiny out of the way spot where the airport has all of two airline counters but somehow manages to garner enough tourist traffic to warrant a luxury brands shopping mall. Just to shoehorn in this reference, by the way, the mascot of Saipan is a panda with a weird nose. It is called the “Saipan-da.” I didn’t get it at first, but when I did I was all like “ha, okay.” I’m on the side of the Asian tourists here though. I liked Saipan. It is out of the way and has that somewhat run-down tropical feel that I love. If you ever have a weekend free and find yourself in the Marianas give it a go.

Bye Saipan

Saipan Part IV

I apologize again that I’m the sort of person that thinks it is okay for me to milk one weekend in Saipan out into what looks like it’s going to be five parts. Thanks for sticking with me. Just think, with writing this good, you don’t even have any need to go to Saipan yourself. It’s like you lived it. To save myself some space, and to skip over some more forgettable parts of this trip, I’ll volunteer the following: I went to Tank Beach where the only really memorable thing was a giant penis made out of rocks, and, despite my best efforts, I was unable to find the purported but I’m convinced mythological botanical gardens of Saipan. Exciting stuff.

The internet had told me that the drive up to Mt. Tapochau would be treacherous and that I should have a good car. The place wasn’t hard to find at all due to some conveniently placed spray-painted signs. I figured I would keep going until the road was too bad, but I got all the way to the top and had the place to myself for a while. The wind was very strong the day I went up there and I had to hold onto my hat lest I lose it in all it’s stupid-looking glory. The views up there are pretty magnificent. Although it reveals the depth of the research I did before going to the island, I didn’t realize that Tinian was so close to Saipan until I got to the top of the mountain. Up on the mountain there is an obligatory shrine and some signs talking about the American invasion of Saipan. The most notable thing I learned is that the Japanese were aware that if they lost Saipan, it would open the floodgates to American attacks on the Japanese mainland. The Japanese were told to fight to the last man. We all know how the story ended, but that gives the reasoning behind the fierce suicide attacks staged by the Japanese. To bring us back to the mountain, however, you can see the whole south end of the island and see as the island stretches into the north. There were plenty of houses up towards the top of the mountain, and although I don’t imagine that any of the cars I usually drive would make it on a daily basis, it must be a really nice view out their window every day.

My driving tour of Saipan complete, I decided it was time to hike down to Forbidden Island. This is one of the classically picturesque spots on Saipan, featured in the influential “Islands of the Marianas” calendar, available at an ABC store near you. The island is forbidden because it is supposedly haunted. After the hike, I think this was a clever trick by Chamorro moms not wanting their kids to break their necks on any sharp cliffs leading down to the place. But except for some steep rocky bits the hike isn’t too bad, and offers very nice and increasingly close views of the island itself. I suppose I didn’t do the math before the hike, but I got over to the beach and was somewhat surprised that I couldn’t manage to get over to the island itself. You know, because of the water that makes the thing an island. It looked closer from farther away. The beach was a nice place to wander around and I quickly discovered a Chinese couple. They were snorkeling. The man saw me taking pictures of the place and offered to take one of me. I had worn my stupid-looking hat for this hike, but since it looked stupid I took it off and struck decided to strike a pose for some reason that was somewhere on the low side between “Napoleonic” and “somewhat dazed.” My newly selected photographer, for his part, crouched to get a good angle I guess and decided to frame the picture not with Forbidden Island in the background, but another random large rock. I’m not one to criticize other’s artistic choices, but between the two of us Ansel Adams we ain’t. It was nice to get a picture that wasn’t a poorly shot selfie though.

Wandering the rest of Forbidden Island Beach, I looked at tide pools and watched as the waves crashed over some rocks a little offshore. I also spent more time marveling at the geology of the island, with the entire cliff-face looking like it was cast out of concrete. The water was incredibly blue and there were many colorful fish swimming about. “Very beautiful,” in the words of my beachside artistic accomplice from before. Eventually I steeled myself for the hike back up the cliff and walked away from the experience with a sunburn. Wiped out from a now rather full day of Saipan sightseeing, I headed back to the hotel and took a shower before dinner.

Saipan Part III

The view from Suicide Cliff

Not to half-ass my journey through Saipan locations famous for mass suicide, I next drove up to Suicide Cliff. The background information is the same for Suicide Cliff or Banzai Cliff, except like I said in Saipan Part II (this is getting long for one weekend to Saipan, I know, I’m sorry), Suicide Cliff is inland and below it is a thin strip of jungle and Last Command Post Park. Reaching Suicide Cliff just requires an easy drive up the back side of the mountain, and there is a small park with a parking lot and several small shrines and memorials. Walking up to the cliff, the views are fairly spectacular. At Banzai Cliff you could feel the power of the ocean, but at Suicide Cliff you can look out over it for miles. The land between Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff used to house a very large airfield, but is now mostly jungle, interrupted by a Veteran Cemetery with no dead people and a landfill. Despite the landfill, the view is well worth the short drive.

Although it’s not my usual habit, shortly after landing in Saipan I had fired up Tindr. By this point I had started chatting with one woman who was on Saipan out of Shanghai on a company trip. To avoid any cliffhangers, we didn’t see each other, but she did mention that the Grotto was “so amazing.” She mentioned this about three times. She related how Saipan was pretty boring for her, except for the Grotto, which, like I mentioned, was “so amazing.” I’m not a diver, so I didn’t dive the Grotto, but I did stop by to see if I could find out what all the fuss was about. The Grotto itself is a pool that is protected by a rock overhang and connected to the ocean via an underwater passage. I drove to the site and walked down a set of fairly steep steps. It was nice to see, with some colorful rocks and some weird tadpole-looking things and water rushing in and out with the waves. Upon further pressing, my Shanghai connection said there was a shark and some coral stuff underwater, if that wets your tastebuds. Above the waterline, however, the Grotto’s Entertainment value was spent and I headed out.

To round out my tour of northern Saipan, next up was Bird Island Overlook. I’ve waxed and waned about the cliffs of Saipan, and of Bird Island I can say the cliffs continue with earnest. Bird Island itself looks like a broken-off edge of a crater, and it provides a nice focal point for more gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. I did see some birds, but no more than were to be seen on the rest of Saipan.

Prior to leaving Guam I had gone to the ABC store to buy a hat. It was a stupid hat. I did not set out to buy a stupid hat, and normally I have an array of adventure-appropriate hats, but these were packed away and I needed a hat to keep the sun off my head and the ABC store isn’t known as an ample purveyor of fine hats. So I bought a stupid hat. I ripped off the stupid-looking hat band to make it a slightly less stupid looking hat, even though that left a bead of hot glue around the crown. All of that to say, at the Bird Island Overlook I spotted an opportunity to wear my stupid hat in the form of a sign saying “Kalbera Cave.” At the time I didn’t know what it was. Further internet research has revealed it’s a largish cave where the natives at one point possibly hid from the Japanese and subsequently American invasions, but on that Saturday I was forging into unknown territory. The direction which the sign alluded to was down a dirt road, and since I didn’t know the condition of the road or the exact contents of my SUV rental agreement, I decided to take off on foot towards Kalbera Cave. My morale on this hike quickly degraded, however, with every pickup truck that slowed down next to me to ask if I was alright. The journey was pleasant enough I suppose, with me gawking at cliffs and avoiding carabao dung, but with more and more road and no Kalbera Cave to be found, I turned around and decided to just drive to Kalbera Cave. I made it back to my SUV, but my Kalbera dreams were thwarted by the site being an active construction zone. It looks like it might be a really nice attraction someday, but today was not that day.

Thirsting for excitement nonetheless, I forged on past Kalbera Cave, over increasingly deteriorating road. This is where I was glad to have an SUV, cresting over hilltops, forging across streams, bouldering in some nice air conditioning, thinking that maybe I should have read that rental agreement after all. Eventually, despite getting lost only once, I made it back to a paved road. I could have, of course, just stayed on paved road the whole time and had the same effect, but I’m not one to take the logical, sensible way out.

Saipan Part II

After an excellent night’s sleep in Saipan, I was out the door the next morning at 7:30 to explore the island. Since I only really had Saturday to see much of anything, I headed out that early to make sure I saw it all. I probably could have slept in a little later. Leaving town, I hung a left and headed north towards Banzai Cliff and eventually the Grotto. From my various tourist maps obtained from the car rental place and the hotel, I surmised that if I just kept driving north I would find Banzai Cliff. Neither of the maps I managed to pick up were in English, so I had to just take my best guess based on the pictures. The first place I came across was Last Command Post Park. It is not hard to find, as it is right next to the road and beneath a towering cliff.

I noticed the cliffs first, which isn’t really an impressive feat of observation. These things are massive and rise nearly strait up 650 feet out of a strip of jungle at their base. We don’t have anything like them on Guam. The other major contrast from Guam is that I noticed all sorts of birds flying around. Due to the brown tree snake infestation, Guam has been de-birded, leading to the famed spider infestation. There are still some birds on Guam, but unless you count roosters wondering around listening to bird song isn’t really a thing. The pleasantness of the bird song was contrasted sharply, however, by all the trash littering the Last Command Post Park. I don’t know how regularly the place is cleaned, so maybe I caught it at a bad time, but the place had those tourist coconut drinks all over the place. Clearly more than one bus full of tourists had been dropped off here after coming from the beach and decided that “anywhere” was an appropriate place to deposit their finished coconut, straw and all. Beyond the trash, the park was perfectly pleasant and about what you would expect. The signs weren’t too explanatory, but you could walk into what I assumed was the eponymous command post. It was at this point a bit of a fixer-upper, but you could tell at one point it was a fairly fortified place and would have been imposing to attack. Also around the park, in various late stages of rust and decay, were all the usual examples of military hardware including a torpedo, a small tank, and antiaircraft guns. Exciting stuff for students of corrosion.

For those of you looking to enter a new field, you could probably make a comfortable career for yourself by moving to Saipan and setting up a peace memorial construction company, if Last Command Post Park is anything to judge by. There were examples from at least Japan, Korea, and Okinawa. I had the place to myself early on a lovely Saturday, and they were therefore in fact quite peaceful.

I managed to find Banzai Cliff, but only because curiosity sent me down a random side road. If you’re coming from Garapan, Banzai Cliff is a left turn across from Last Command Post Park. As I alluded to in Saipan Part I, I think most people are familiar with Saipan as that place where many Japanese committed suicide in the face on the oncoming American invasion. According to the museum I visited on Sunday, the Japanese had spread propaganda among their population on Saipan that the Americans would commit atrocities to the Japanese population if the invasion was successful. Instead of face that, many Japanese chose to take their own lives both at Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff. Suicide Cliff was the cliff that buttresses the Last Command Post, and Banzai Cliff ends in the Pacific Ocean at the north side of the island. To take a step back before I tell you about the place itself, my major thought that calling the place “Banzai Cliff” is probably a bit insensitive in the first place, and that putting a sign that in all caps says “WELCOME TO BANZAI CLIFF” is jarring. According to the aforementioned museum, enough people committed suicide from Banzai Cliff to impede boat traffic, bodies were so thick in the water. But, you know, welcome! My other impression of the place is that there were less beautiful places to end it all.

The location is beautiful. There is no reef around this portion of the island, so a sheer cliff drops into the deep, royal blue of the Pacific Ocean. It was windy the day I visited, and that was kicking up waves which were crashing all along the cliff. When the waves hit at the right angle a geyser of water would shoot out of a cave to my right, sending water into the sky and reminding you of the power of the ocean in front of you. The view is nothing but unbroken Pacific Ocean and gorgeous Western Pacific sky. The deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean lie off the Marianas Islands and if you contemplate that, it makes it all the more magnificent that these islands rise out of those depths. Given its history, Banzai Cliff is lined with small shrines and memorials, and with those in the background the location is a powerful if not peaceful spot to sit and think for a while. Or fish, as one dude I spotted as I was leaving was doing. I don’t know if he caught anything.

The view from Bonzai Cliff

Saipan Part I

The weekend before last I traveled to Saipan. It exceeded all of my wildest dreams. I credit that statement to my low expectations going into the trip, but it was an exciting trip for me nonetheless. When I put in my preferences and got my home port, I was most excited about the travel opportunities. Out of the lovely A.B. Won Pat airport, there are flights to Japan about every two hours, we have a direct flight to Australia, and to get to places like the rest of the Marianas or the Federated States of Micronesia you’re probably going to fly through Guam anyways. I had imagined frequent trips to exotic locales like Hong Kong or Laos, but that was before I faced the harsh reality of submarine life and my own laziness. So finally in my last month on Guam, assigned to squadron without any responsibilities and without anyone really caring if I showed up to work at all, I committed to finally going on a trip. I chose Saipan.

I think nearly everyone in the good ole’ U.S. of A. has heard of Saipan but would have no idea where to begin looking if presented with a map. It’s a trope for “having no idea where to being looking on a map” to be true for Americans no matter what map or location is named, but it’s a little more embarrassing when it comes to Saipan because we own the place. We won it fair and square back in World War II (as an aside, I think the boldest thing I’ve ever seen one of my fellow Americans do is wear a “Back-to-Back World War Champs” shirt in Japan), which is why I think most people had heard of it. For the record, it’s about 100 miles north of Guam. If you still don’t know where Guam is, start at New Guinea and head north until you find it. Back to Saipan, if you mention the Japanese people jumping off cliffs in the face of American invasion I think that will ring a bell with anyone at least passingly familiar with the war in the Pacific.

All of that was to say that I had no real clue what I was getting into when I decided to visit Saipan. Saipan’s web presence is not robust. In a solid afternoon of Googling the day before I left I only identified 5-6 spots I was going to try to find. After visiting Saipan that speaks more to reality than poor internet brand marketing, but my list included Suicide Cliff, Banzai Cliff, and several other places not known for massive amounts of death. Bird Island and the Botanical Gardens were also on the list. I am the sort of man who enjoys going to Botanical Gardens, and not to spoil the engrossing “Saipan Part II,” but I was to be disappointed. Out of the 3-4 flights to Saipan from Guam every day, I set off on one of the later ones in case I got stuck at “work” for longer than my now-customary one hour. Join the Navy, people. The flight on a sweet little turboprop included some cookies and a bottle of water. It was an extremely pleasant ride and I stared out over the Pacific.

Upon landing in Saipan, I was downright elated. I was so pumped to have finally traveled somewhere while stationed on Guam that everything had a sparkly sheen to it. The airport was cute, with the roof all pointy and curved like it was. The customs station was cute, how it spit you right out onto the street like that. Buoyant, I waltzed over to the car rental hut. When I entered, I smiled at all six bored-looking car rental attendants. I walked over to the first one that made eye contact and discovered the only car left was an SUV. I went for it anyway and the man was apologetic enough to give me a special rate. It wound up serving me well over the weekend so I was glad to have it.

Departing the airport with my swank new rental car, I got some of my first real impressions of Saipan. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that Saipan is very well marked, at least for the major tourist destinations. This is in contrast to Guam, where street sign technology hasn’t really made a big splash. Saipan is also tiny enough where finding your way isn’t really a problem anyways, because if you drive more than about 20 minutes you’ll probably wind up wherever you were going no matter what. That made it pretty easy to get to the Capital Hotel where I would be staying. If you’re in Saipan on a budget, the Capital Hotel is a suitable place to sleep. It’s got a lobby atrium thing and a desk clerk that isn’t too excited to see you. As I was soon to discover about the rest of Saipan, it mostly caters to an Asian clientele, as evidenced by those awesome disposable slippers I always like and the TV remote that had no English on it. That wasn’t too much of a stumbling block because once I discovered they had Al Jazeera English there wasn’t any need to change the channel.

So here I was! Landed in Saipan! Out in the world! Seeing things! Here somewhat illegally because I didn’t exactly tell squadron I was going to be leaving the island but that’s no matter! It added to the excitement! The first order of business was dinner! I set off on foot in Garapan (the main town) and I should probably continue with those first impressions I mentioned earlier. If you think Guam is run-down you haven’t been to Saipan. That’s probably unfair, as Saipan has some up-scale places. It has a few resorts right in downtown Saipan, and nearby the resorts were plenty of reputable-looking establishments servicing the resort crowd. Also, I presume, gambling is legal in Saipan, leading to at least one nice-looking if small casino. But the island has that “under-construction” feel and it’s clear not everyone is getting rich off the tourist market. I’m going to write another post one day about why I love the tropics (weather) but Saipan hit all the wickets of easygoing tropical living. The other major thought I had while wondering around and analyzing my dinner choices was that I couldn’t tell which of the massage parlors were brothels. On Guam, it’s easy: they’re all brothels. That’s not quite true, but unless you’re at a hotel spa or one or two other locations, they’re going to offer you a something extra at the end. But the massage parlors on Saipan had nicely-dressed women outside. In suits! It threw me off. I can’t report on the fact of the matter, however, because eventually I found a pizza place and then headed back to the hotel to prep for an early morning.