Saturday, October 30, 2010

Day 3 - The Best of Saipan

I'm not sure how to summarize the last day of our trip. Whimsical exploration? Farm animal tour of Saipan? The day started off slow as we woke up to typhoon-looking skies. From our hotel balcony, we could see nothing but dark, gray thick clouds that were still sprinkling from the night before. We decided to hit the ground running and found a really cute coffee shop to get us started. While sipping our lattes we noticed a gradual transition from doomsday to cloudy day to getting-hot cloudy day. Finally, small patches of blue sky emerged (!).
Our first stop post-caffeine was a view of the northwest tip of the island. Looking out to the coast were beautiful cliffs where waves surged over sea-level rock ledges.
The runways where the A-bombs took off from
One thing I knew about Saipan was that it was rich in World War II history. Some of the biggest battles in the Pacific were fought here. The Enola Gay, armed with a war-ending atomic bomb, took off for Hiroshima from a runway on Tinian island, which you can see from Saipan's south shore. All over the island are remnants of tanks, guns, and military bases.

Looking inland we had a perfect view of the Kamakaze Cliffs, or Suicide Cliffs. I'm still a little fuzzy on how everything went down here, but did learn that these cliffs are where Japanese soldiers jumped to their deaths once the Americans took over the island. They thought the Americans were going to torture them in prison camps, so they decided it would be better to jump than endure that fate. Sadly, they also convinced many of the local indigenous population to jump, so whole families were seen holding hands, stepping off the cliffside. Pretty unfathomable to picture.

View from the top of the Suicide Cliffs
We saw some Japanese tourists doing this and naturally had to steal their idea.
The next stop on our island tour was out to the gorgeous overlook of Bird Island. This places definitely makes you feel like you're on vacation.

 This random Japanese family insisted on getting a picture with us, so naturally we got one with them too. We are guessing it's because we are blond?
Oh the cows - We ran into a ridiculous number of cows on our drive up to the top of the suicide cliffs. Some people in our party happened to be animal lovers, so we had to stop. (We also had to stop for goats and mangy dogs at various points on the drive).
At one point the cows were right by the road, and some people in the car insisted on stopping to try to feed them. We weren't expecting the cows to come up to the car like this, and I happened to catch the whole encounter on video. 
The only thing we had to offer was carrots, which we soon realized cows in Saipan do not eat carrots.

Kate apologizes for her potty mouth. Gonna have to fix that before baby comes!

We left the cows to their grass and now that the sun was out in full force decided to do some snorkeling. Our first stop was this old tank our guide Harry pointed out. It's not far off the west shore, and it rests in about four feet of water. Definitely a unique snorkeling destination!

 Having seen the north, west, and east sides of the island, we rounded off our visit by hitting up Obyan Beach on the south side for some afternoon snorkeling. This beach had some large breaking waves and lots of colorful corals and even some new species of fish I'd never seen. Because of the strong currents here, we did a drift snorkel, which means you basically float on the surface and look at stuff while the ocean pulls you down the coastline. We got out at the end of the beach and walked back. It was nice to hear the rushing of breaking waves for once. Guam's coastline is pretty flat in most places.

For our last night in Saipan, we went to the Thursday night street fair in Garapan village. Dinner took a little longer than expected so we only caught the tail end of it, but it was enough for each of us to find some worthy souvenirs. Kate also found these tiny bananas, which ended up being really good.
Couldn't resist being true tourists :)
Pretty sure I have managed to find a Texas flag in every country I have ever visited. Saipan was no exception.
Our last stop in the town center area was an outdoor bar that was right by this Egypt-themed club. We toasted to our fabulous girls visit together and recapped the many fun and funny things that had happened. Who knew that an island smaller than Guam would amount to 300+ pictures and three blog posts worth of stories? So glad I got a chance to explore this beautiful island. And where my first trip off Guam was to visit old friends, my second trip was spent getting to know new ones. Turns out island hopping is just as fun either way :)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Saipan Day 2 - Forbidden Island

After a memorable day of diving, we were thrilled to have a great offer from our guide Harry to take us hiking to Forbidden Island. I'd learned from my research that this was one of the signature hikes on Saipan but a difficult trail to find and complete without the expertise of a repeat hiker. We were grateful Harry offered to take us, so we got up first thing Wednesday morning (or, uh, 9:30a), and headed out. We didn't know at that point there was more in store for us on that hike than we were expecting.

The hike starts out with a relatively gradual slope down through the jungle. The trail was pretty slick... I ate it and scraped up my forearms in the mud on the first 10th of a mile. This is becoming somewhat of a recurring pattern on hikes out here and my backside and palms are paying for it! Everyone was having a great time and we were taking plenty of pictures, especially once the hike opened up out of the jungle to a gorgeous view of Forbidden Island. 
No question there were a few more strenuous downhill stretches towards the bottom of the hike. Harry was great about helping prego Kate down. About to enter her second trimester, this was her first strenuous anything since finding out the happy news, so we were taking it easy a bit. The hike starts out high, slopes down through the jungle, then goes down steeper through some rocky cliffs. There's a fairly defined trail until you get to the beach, then it's a bit of a scramble to find the other trail that leads back up and over a boulder field, which was yet another scramble. The weather wasn't great that day, but we were pretty happy about that. It wasn't raining, but the sun wasn't blazing down on us either, which made it easier to keep moving. Plus, we were glad we weren't wasting a beautiful sunny morning not at the beach (although I guess we were kind of at the beach... actually it's hard not to be near the beach on this island!).
Forbidden Island

Crissy & Kate trekking up from the beach towards the cave pools
Kate and Crissy boulder hopping

After hiking up from the beach a short bit and climbing over the boulders, we arrived at our destination - but to get all the way there, you had to lower yourself down into this cave-like area. Once at the bottom, there was a big opening within the rocks that housed a small pool that the surge refreshed into periodically. The cool part of the hike is when you get down to this pool and get to chill out in the water for a little while before heading back up the mountainside. Little did I know our relaxing hike was about to take a different turn. 
Right after taking this picture, I walked over to see if Crissy and Kate needed help lowering down through the hole into the cave area. At that point, I heard a loud, terrifying yell that echoed across the cave walls. I turned around to find our guide Harry laying on his back on the pile of rocks in the front left of this photo. He was screaming in pain with his eyes closed. At first I had the horrifying thought that he'd hurt his back. When he told me it was his knee instead, I at first wasn't sure whether that was any better, as the long, steep hike back up flashed across my mind. At this point, we were all a bit dumbstruck as to what to do. Here was this big 6-foot plus 200-plus pound guy who inured his knee at the absolute farthest point away from our transportation, cell phone and first aid kit--and only us three weakling girls and a couple backpacks of snacks and water there to help him.

The first initial steps Harry took to get out of the cave were painful for all of us. He could put weight on his right foot, but every time it would twist the slightest bit left or right, it would buckle and he would collapse in pain onto the rocks again. The whole scenario definitely made me wish any of our husbands (who get trained in this kind of stuff... and are super strong) were there to help. I kept thinking Nick would know what to do or would be able to help carry him out of here. After watching Harry wince his way over the rocks and back onto the beach, we took a break and assessed the situation. We had a long, steep hike up the hillside between us and the car. There was no way to call anyone and medevac flights didn't even exist on the island. Harry could, in fact, walk on his bum leg, he just couldn't put weight on it if his knee shifted. Knowing all of this, we decided to try to pull a Bear Grylls and use the resources at hand to make a splint, hoping to stabilize his knee so he could still use the leg and go uphill. Using goggle straps, my shirt, two sticks, and a long, thick vine, we made a make-shift splint that kept Harry's leg straight as we started the uphill. I have to say, it worked at first, but after a while the vine just wasn't sturdy enough to hold the sticks in place and keep Harry's knee from bending. So after a portion of the hike up, we ditched the splint and poor Harry just powered through, using our shoulders as a crutch when the trail was wide enough to allow it. We made it to the car and reunited with the cell phone and the first aid kit. Of course at that point, we didn't need either. I hopped in the driver's seat and we took Harry straight to the hospital.

Crissy @the ER: We brought Harry Subway :)
During the hike, one of the main thoughts circling in my mind was the emergency preparedness message that I got sick of preaching to people when I worked at the Red Cross. Things like 1) know first aid, 2) have a first aid kit nearby, 3) come up with a plan for emergencies before they happen. It dawned on me and the other girls during the hike that we were so lucky this injury wasn't any worse. Had it been a heart issue or more serious injury, we would have had no resources or time to react. When we talked about it later, we decided one of us would have had to run back up to the car to call for help, then wait for help, then start the hike back down with them. That's a lot of time spent that someone in a true life-threatening emergency situation might not have to spare. All this to say, I was reintroduced to those once annoying Red Cross safety mantras, and I'm actually thinking of reincorporating them into my life and the many adventurous things we do. I'm sure all the moms reading this will be happy to hear it. There's just nothing worse than feeling helpless when someone else gets hurt.

After that unexpected turn of events, we decided our first 24 hours in Saipan had been plenty adventurous, and that our fun, carefree girls weekend should officially start immediately! After picking up our rental car and with clouds still thick overhead, we decided to hit up a featured girls trip activity: Shopping! We went to the town center area and immediately ran into the quite famous "Saipanda." Don't be fooled, there are no panda bears in Saipan. Regardless, Saipanda is too cute a gimmick to just walk by. We went into a couple of surprisingly nice boutiques (the shopping in Guam is pretty bad so we didn't expect much from an even smaller island). Turns out they had some pretty cute stuff, some of it even worth buying :)

Not all of it was worth buying! (visor with fake hair coming out of the top??)
After a strenuous morning hike and a fun afternoon of shopping, we took our time getting ready then ventured out into a downpour to grab some dinner. We went to the highly recommended Godfathers restaurant and pub, where I had a deliciously fresh tuna steak (yum!). We were pleasantly surprised to find some fun nightlife on this sleepy island. Guam's location dynamics and lack of city planning just don't make it possible. Another point for Saipan.

I can't believe I'm going to say this since it was such a short trip, but I am going to have to leave Day 3 for another post. Even after all of this diving, hiking & hanging out, we went the most places and took the most pictures on the third day. So stay tuned for more pictures and stories from what I thought was going to be a really laid back, uneventful trip to the small island to the north. Who knew?

Oh, and just a quick update on Harry. He emailed to say he got a brace from the hospital and later that week he and a friend went on a slow-paced trek back down the Grotto steps and he was able to do the dive okay. He said his knee is starting to feel better. Thank goodness!

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Weekend" in Saipan - Day 1

When I found out Nick was going to be off island the last three weeks of October, my mind immediately started scheming. I love Guam and all, but that's a long time to be here without him, since I definitely have the most fun when we're together. So during our snorkeling outing with my friend Kate (center), I blurted out, "Hey, we should go to Saipan while the guys are gone." Without hesitation, she said, "Sounds great." We grabbed another friend Crissy (right), and just like that, a trip was in the works.

Beach in front of our hotel... Vacation!!!
I realize many of you still don't really know where Guam is, so locating Saipan would be even more of a stretch. Well, Saipan is 70 miles north of Guam, which amounts to a 35-minute flight. What I knew going into this trip is that there were far fewer people on this smaller-than-Guam island and pretty good diving. I expected it to be a lot like Guam, so I didn't get my hopes up that this would be the trip of a lifetime. Turns out the trip was so much better than I could have imaged in terms of adventure, beauty, cuisine, and (oh yes) even shopping.

Over the course of the trip, we kept referring to it as a getaway "weekend." What makes this ridiculous is that our trip actually spanned a Tuesday to a Friday. Of course, in the real world, most people travel on weekends, but in this pseudo reality we are all living in, Crissy a substitute teacher, Kate a boutique owner back in the States, and me a very part-time youth director, were magically all free mid-week.  
Entrance to the 112 steps down to the cave
As soon as our plane landed we hit the ground running. In two hours we checked into our beachside hotel, bought groceries, ate lunch, and were ready to dive at 1:00p when our guide Harry picked us up. Our first stop was the Grotto, the signature dive on Saipan. The Grotto is a giant cavern that opens up toward the land. You have to walk 100+ steps to get down to it and once at the bottom, you are surrounded by a huge rock ledge that barrels into a deep blue sea interrupted by surging waves. There are three passageways out of the cave into the bigger ocean, and all three openings are painted in the most mesmerizing blue I have ever seen. Once we swam out of the cave we were surrounded by gorgeous fish, many of the same species as Guam but so much larger and more numerous. We also had the opportunity to swim through a bunch of tunnels and passageways which felt like an underwater obstacle course. I loved every minute of it and my only regret is that Nick wasn't there to experience it with me.

Entrance to the Grotto. Kate is at the end of her first trimester so no diving for her. You can see where the other divers are about to jump in off the big rock in the middle. Pretty awesome dive site :)
About to enter another cave

Gorgeous fan corals amid the cave openings
This crazy thing is a rare find but one of its only known places of existence is the Grotto
Crissy and me. Poor prego Kate had to sit this one out... the main reason why I'm still on track to wait a few more years
At the end of this dive we had only been on Saipan for about four hours, and already we knew the trip was worth it! The best part was that our next dive was coming right up. For this one we went to an absolutely gorgeous place called Wing Beach. It wasn't until we pulled up to this dive site that I finally put my finger on why Saipan seemed so much more gorgeous than Guam. Looking around, it was the same plants, same color water, same color sand. But the unmistakable difference is that Saipan did not have ungodly amounts of trash on the side of the road and on its beaches, nor did it have graffiti decorating its public structures. Such a refreshing site!

That cliff ledge is the start of the dive. You have to wade through the surf and there's a rope to hold on to.
Excited to start dive #2!

Left to right: Me, Kate (snorkeling), Crissy. Thanks to Harry for taking these awesome pictures!

Wildlife on this dive was so much more abundant than any comparable dive site in Guam. Among the countless other fish, we saw two sea turtles (!), three different kinds of moray eels (one of which was out of the rocks feeding), and a gorgeous octopus (left) that had camouflaged itself into the reef. As I was drifting around under water looking at corals jam-packed with beautifully colored life, and discovering species I had never seen before, I couldn't help but realize that Guam too could still be like this if it weren't so overdeveloped. I've heard the rumors that Guam's reefs are shrinking in size and population, but it wasn't until seeing this thriving ecosystem on a sister island so nearby that made it all sink in. Thinking about it made me sad for Guam, angry at the locals for throwing so much trash on their beaches, and frustrated with the military for overbuilding and destroying homes for these beautiful sea creatures. It also forced me to consider my own impact to these ecosystems and what I could do differently to change things.

And right there... this recap of my underwater thought process is one of the reasons I love diving so much. I think that's what people who haven't dove the depths don't understand. Diving isn't just about swimming around ogling colorful fish and posting braggy photos. When you're under water, time stands still. There's you, water, earth, life, and the breath. Nothing else really matters, and no words can be spoken. It is relaxing and terrifying. It is time to think, and time to let all thoughts escape. It is time to appreciate how big this earth is, and how insignificant my life is in the big scheme of things. It is humbling and energizing all at the same time. For as many hours as we spend wondering aimlessly on land, it is a privilege to enter the ocean for a short but intentional time to refresh and renew.
Dinner: The bar/restaurant also sold clothes, jewelry & shoes!

All this and I've only covered our first six hours on Saipan! So much more to share, but I will leave those stories and pictures for next time, when the adventure continues. And (cue cliffhanger) let me assure you, it was an unexpected turn of events yet to come.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Night Dive at Pete's Reef

I'm waiting on some dive pictures to come in from our trip to Saipan (not film or anything, just waiting on our dive guide to post the pics he took!). So in the meantime, thought I'd share these beauties from a night dive we did with our friends Steve and Andrea a couple weeks ago. Night dives are generally more exciting than day dives for a couple of reasons. For one, the water around you is pitch black, and you can only see what you shine your light on. So there's a looming eeriness about what you're swimming near. But the real reason night dives are more exciting is because so many sea creatures come out at night that you never see during the day. And since you can only see them by spotlighting them against a black backdrop, the colors underwater are so much more vibrant.
Corals open up at night
Lion fish are easy to find at night
This is a crab. It is amazing that this is a living creature... so much creativity under here!
This was a new one for me. Looks more like underwater artwork than a crab.

We got to see this eel out of its coral. Usually they hide the majority of their bodies in the rocks, but tonight he was out.
Parrot fish are my favorites during the day. So gorgeous and easy to find. At night they spin a bubble sack around themselves and actually go to sleep in the rocks. They can't feel anything because of the bubble, so they sleep soundly. That is, until someone sticks a finger in there and breaks the sleeping bag open, then it's a full sprint!
Yet another unbelievable crab. It looks like a walking circus with all the stuff all over its back.
I had a blast in Saipan with two girlfriends of mine last week and look forward to sharing those pics with you soon. We took about 300 of them so I'm going to have my work cut out for me in choosing the best ones.