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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Would you trade a 1995 Nissan for this 1945 Japanese Tank?

Wednesday November 10,2003

The Internet Cafe - note the goose!
Well here I am in Saipan!  A mere 24 hours after I left Seattle.  Why is it that all flights to the South Pacific seem to land at midnight?  I'm in a combination Internet cafe/fishstore/livepoultry store around the corner from my hotel. It’s one of the few places that has internet here is Saipan!

[New Jeff here.  One year later when I returned there was wifi everywhere!  Amazing how quickly things change!]

My flight arrived shortly before 1:00am this morning. It was a long flight: first from Seattle to Tokyo, then from Tokyo to Nagoya (in Japan) then on to Saipan. 

Summer Holiday Motel
I took a cab to my hotel named The Summer Holiday Motel. I was a bit worried given the name of the hotel since it was November; but I had nothing to worry about as the motel was airy and my room large.  I didn’t bother unpacking but just fell on the bed and tried to sleep since it had been nearly 24 hours since I left Vancouver.

Amelia Earhart - 1928
An interesting thing happened during the last leg of the trip.  I asked an older American gentleman sitting next to me if he had served in the Marianas during WW2 - which was indeed the fact.

He along with some of the locals who had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese during their occupation of the island had worked loading bombs onto B29's. One of those locals showed him a grave where he claimed the Japanese buried an American woman flyer who had been captured then executed - obviously Ameila Erhart!  The local told my seat mate that he had been on burial duty that day.  Nobody believed the old guy until recently, and now a team has been put together to dig up the grave and try to get a genetic sample. Evidentially the Mariana Government wasn't very supportive; but members of the team got the US State Department to put pressure on the Mariana's government to let them exhume the grave.  

[New Jeff again:  I followed up on this story when I got home – it turned out that my seat mate’s memory was a bit off and after searching for several days the team never found the supposed grave.]

More next time, the smell of dog and geese here in the internet cafe is getting to me.

Thursday November 11th

I woke up this morning around 6:00am (which would be about noon Vancouver time).  My first order of business was to rent a car.  The locals recommended Cars Unlimited, so off I went.  They rented me a  1995 Nissan Sentra (which was the most modern car they had). It made the Corolla  I rented last year in Rarotonga look like a 2004 Mercedes.  

I had to go through the ritual of going out with the guy and marking on the diagram where the car was already damaged.   I suggested it would speed things up if we just marked the diagram with parts of the car that WEREN'T damaged - which essentially meant nothing!

I was also warned not to park the car in any 'bad places' as the car wasn't covered for vandalism.  I wanted to know if there was anything left on the car to vandalize?  If this car was left in the worse neighbourhood in Watts they'd actually put parts BACK on it!!  I was given a map to find my way back to my hotel and told it was physically impossible to get lost.

I got lost.

Because it's a small Island, I eventually found my way back to my motel. (No,I did not go around the island twice!) Driving along the road I was overwhelmed by the amount of Poker Parlours and Pawnshops, which sort of makes sense in a weird sort of way.

Saipan was home to some of the most horrific battles in WWII.  In the space of one week in July 1944, over 30,000.00 troops lost their lives (approx.. 30,000 Japanese and 8,000 Americans) – and that’s just one Island. The scars and memorials of the battles are everywhere here, both above and below the sea.        

Suicide Cliff
I decided to get into my luxury chariot and do a little sightseeing: If you have a yen for suicide then Saipan's the place for you - with colourful places like  Banzai and Suicide Cliffs to name just a couple.  These are places where the Japanese occupants of the island threw themselves off of such places  during the war rather than surrender to the Americans.  Today I nearly witnessed a re-enactment as a Japanese tour group was lining up at the edge of Banzai cliff to have their picture taken. I offer to to take a group picture for them.  
”I can't get you all in the shot. Everyone take one step back.”
And who says the Japanese don't have a sense of humour?  

Speaking of Japanese tours, they make up about 90% of the tourists to Saipan. It’s only about 4 hours from Japan – so they look at it as their Hawaii.

[New Jeff again: “That suddenly stopped the following  year, when the Saipan government gave an ultimatum to  JAL to pay the highest landing rights in the Pacific or have their landing rights revoked.  JAL told them to stick it and pulled out of Saipan.  Now the Japanese only make up  a small portion of the tourists.  The Chinese have replaced them.]

The Last Command Post
My next stop after the Suicide Cliffs was at the “Last Command post.”  This is a ruin built into the rock where the last Japanese commander committed suicide.  What I want to know is what happened to the “Second Last Command Post?” Was there a penultimate Command Post? Maybe if that General held out one more day, he'd have been famous and have people lighting memorial candles and lighting incense in his honour for sixty years. I posed this question to the Japanese Tour leader who either ignored me or feigned he didn't speak English.  

I was taking a picture of a destroyed rusted out Japanese tank in front of the  Last Command Post when one of the Japanese tourist asked me, “Is that a Japanese Tank?”
“No,” I told him, “It’s an Israeli tank. They were big during the Pacific War.  Weren’t you guys there??  What does it look like? A 1995 Nissan?” I said pointing to my car.

Irony doesn’t seem to be a Japanese trait.  At this point the tourist was whisked away by the tour Leader who was considering   offering to take my picture at  the Banzai cliff.

Japanese Tank or is it a 1995 Nissan?
I also had a small problem with the park security guy.  He was not happy with me trying to move my rusted out Japanese Nissan next to the tank thereby giving a graphic illustration that the Japanese haven’t made much progress on rust prevention in 60 years.  I seriously considered leaving my car there and driving the tank back to the motel.

I kept meeting people I had met on the flight from Nagoya.  I began to feel we were on some sort of pictorial scavenger hunt with whoever getting the most pictures winning.

If the projected monsoon holds off I’m going to take a boat over to Manyagaha Island for some quality snorkelling.

NEXT:  Float like a cork - Sink Like an Anchor: My first Micronesia dive experience

Saturday, April 12, 2014



Where the heck is Micronesia
April 12, 2014

Ten years ago buoyed by my success in surviving my trip to the Cook Islands, I planned something far more adventuresome – three weeks in Micronesia.  I would be visiting the Islands of Saipan, Guam, Rota, Tinian, Palau and Yap.  For those of you who don’t know where Micronesia is, it’s approximately half way between Hawaii and the Philippines.

I had always wanted to go Micronesia since I was 12 and saw pictures of wrecked WWII Japanese Zeros and topless women in a copy of National Geographic.  It only took me about 45 years to get there.

Micronesia is a  series of tropical islands in the North Pacific, a spit away from the equator, and a hop away from the Philippines.   Palau, along with Yap was one of the I’d be visiting.  Technically speaking, Palau isn't part of Micronesia: In 1978 it withdrew and became an independent republic despite the fact that the entire population would into fit into a good size hockey arena. 
Battle of Midway in the Pacific

Some of the biggest naval battles in WWII took place in the waters surrounding Micronesia and the ocean bottom is strewn with wrecks.  I had taken an “introductory” dive in the Cooks and thought it couldn't be much more difficult to get my certification and explore the wrecks for myself.

It wouldn't have been challenging if I had taken the certification thirty years earlier – but at 59 I was the oldest person in my scuba class.  The next oldest student was 25!   Somehow I managed to huff and puff my way through the course and a few weeks later was awarded my “open water” certificate.  I would be off to some of the best and most challenging diving in the world with a total of two (my qualifying dives) under my weight belt.

Most divers can make a tank of air last more than an hour.  My personal best at that time was about 15 minutes.  The thought of being trapped underwater with a limited supply of air, and being reduced to number two on the food chain tends to make me hyperventilate and it’s difficult to breathe into a paper bag underwater.

To help compensate for my inexperience my son, Elan, an experienced graciously offered to accompany me – as long as I was paying – a decision he would soon came to regret. 

I spent several months during the winter researching my planned trip to Micronesia - costing my options on wear to stay, how to travel between the islands and the best dive sites.  One dive company I contacted was MDA in Guam.  When I explained to them the scope of my trip they offered to cost out the whole trip (minus the trip to and from Saipan) including accommodation, flights, and diving.  I figured it was a lot cheaper arranging it myself online - but thought what the heck- it’s not going to cost me anything to find out.  I was shocked to find out that MDA could do it a heck of a lot cheaper than I could – almost a third cheaper!  It was a lesson I learned and put to work on future trips as well.  I found that dealing with a travel agency based in the country I was going to visit could put packages together better and cheaper than I could – and if anything went wrong they were on site to fix it.  This worked extremely well for me on later trips to Africa, the Philippines and Vietnam.

To make this trip a bit challenging I planned to travel standby via Seattle-Tokyo-Saipan.  However I learned from my previous trip to the Cook Islands not to chose an airline that go out of business before  I planned to return.

So, without further ado, I give you my Adventures in Paradise.

Monday Nov 8, 2003


Best Value Motel Seattle
My flight to Saipan leaves tomorrow.  Right now I’m in Seattle.  I decided to take the Airport shuttle to Seattle and spend the night in a “budget” motel near the airport.    Looking online I found the “Best Value Motel” near the airport which looked like a good deal. Now here's my question?  If it's called the “Best Value Motel" is there a “Least Value" Hotel?  What would it be? A packing crate under an overpass?

The Shroud of Tinian
Actually it isn't too bad - except for the scary stain on the sheet.  I think it's blood. It's not a big blood stain - just a few drops dribbled out along the top right hand corner.  It's my own shroud of Turin, or should I say “Shroud of Tinian?" That’s because it looks strikingly like the Northern Marianas where I’m headed.  I can see the islands of Guam, Saipan, Rota and even tiny Tinian.   I’m not too concerned because it’s a king size bed and I can always sleep on the left hand side.  I settle the matter by covering the stain with bath towel.
The Northern Mariana Islands

Now I know most of you are asking why I don’t just ask the Better Value folks just to come up and change the damn thing.  Well that would mean I would have to take down the barricade I've erected in front of the door.  I put that up after I paid a visit to the office to complain to Rasheed, the night guy, about a non-functioning TV remote control.  

 “No problem, man,” he says. “I’ll come up to your room and reprogram it.”
“Can't you do it here?” I asked, not wanting him in my room.
“Nah, I need to have the remote and the TV together.”
I seriously consider carry the TV down to the office.  About a half hour later Rasheed shows up with my remote and piece of paper with the programming instructions.  He's distracted by the MP3 player on the desk.
“So how much did that cost?” he asks.
“I don't know,” I respond. “It was a gift.”
I can see the wheels turning inside Rasheed's head.  He notices my camera on the bureau and picks it up.
“Nice Camera.”
'Yeah, but it's old.” I say, trying to make it seem that it might not fetch a good price at the Sport's Bar up the street.  

Rasheed finishes programming my remote, tosses it on the bed, and with one final appraising look around my room leaves.  That's when I decided to erect the barricade in front of the door with the
heaviest object I could find, which according to the airlines, is my luggage.

Well tomorrow morning it’s off to Saipan!


Sunday, April 6, 2014

I Finally Escape from Paradise - heading out of the Cook Islands

This morning I woke up to the strains of Island music- again. Music I initially found novel and refreshing sounds like Sonny and Cher's "I've Got You, Babe" from Groundhog Day. And just when you think it can't get worse, the Island’s one ATM machine is down. I’m trapped on a tropical Island with no ATM! Am I going to be forced to forage for food? I’m revisiting the Cook Island pig laws – now if I can wrestle the gun away from Alberta Rose…

But there is some good news! Last night I heard the Aloha plane land. Depending on whom I want to believe, the plane is either totally full or totally empty. I guess I won't find out until I get to the airport tonight. It’s going to be really iffy about getting all the way through to Vancouver - what with it being American Thanksgiving and all!

I decided to walk into town earlier today and check out the weekend town fair.  Evidently New Zealand's Governor General was supposed to be there – maybe she needed to buy some melons. I don't want to say security was lax, but there was one Rarotonga Police guy there who had an earphone trying to look very official - except it wasn't attached to anything! The rest were still in the office selling driver's licenses to the tourists. 

I ran into the Governor General while she was looking at local handicrafts and got her to pose for two pictures with me. Imagine trying to get our Governor General to pose for pics. He’d probably charge me a hundred bucks a photo!

I spent rest of the day sitting around the deck shooting the breeze with folks I'd met during my enforced stay. Finally it was time to head to the airport - again. This time it was open and there was an Aloha plane on the ground.

Check-in at the airport is novel here. First there are no computers and only ONE check-in counter My stand-by status caused much head scratching, looking at all sorts of lists and numerous trips to the corner office for consultations with the supervisor. After 20 minutes I was finally issued my boarding pass and headed over to security.

My Palm Pilot mystified them. Evidentially they'd never seen one before.
"What does it do?" the security guy asked?
I explained to him all the marvelous things it could do.
"Can't you just use a pad and paper for most of that?" He asked.

A short 3 hours later (it took them that long to check in the 20 people on the flight) we were on our way to Honolulu. The plane was so empty nearly everyone had their own row. 

[New Jeff- which is why Aloha dropped the route soon after I returned and shortly thereafter ceased to exit]

Once we landed in Honolulu the adrenalin really started running. Would I get on the rest of the way home? I hadn't really thought this out when I was planning this tip.  I was traveling on American Thanksgiving Sunday - the busiest travel day of the year.

I cleared American Customs and had to drag my bags about a block to the Aloha terminal. Once I got there I went to the ticket wicket and did my best to shmooze the ticket agent. I must have done a great job, because she gave took my ticket and gave me a standby boarding pass and told me to go to the gate and check there about availability. I must have really impressed her because she also circled the highest security alert on my ticket, which resulted in me being taken out of line by two large security guards wearing rubber gloves and given a thorough, and I mean thorough checking. (Incidentally my shoes have been x-rayed so many times on this trip that they glow in the dark). However, there were four no shows on the full flight and I did squeeze on.
I guess I've done it all during this trip - except get home on schedule. It was very hot and humid in the Cook Islands the last few days so even Vancouver rain was inviting – at least for a day or so. Now that it's all over, people ask me if I'd change anything if I had it to do over again. You know what? I don't think I'd change a thing.

So where to next?? I’m thinking maybe Guam and Saipan.

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