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Sunday, May 18, 2014

I'm a Scratch for the Rota Triathlon

Northern Mariana Islands
[New Jeff here:   A little context is needed for my Rota adventure.  While in the “Big Smoke” of Saipan there were one or two Internet Cafes - on Rota there were none!  Nada! So I had to keep my journal on a USB stick (they weren’t called thumb drives then) and send them when I arrived on Guam.  When I returned to Rota a year later there were not only more Internet Cafes, but many places had wifi!  And all this was only ten years ago!!!

I should also point out that almost nobody goes to Rota (or at least back then).  Bin Laden thought about hiding there but decided he’d be too lonely.  I decided to go because I’d travelled half way around the world to visit Micronesia and it was only a twenty minute flight from Saipan.]


Rota is known as the “friendly island” – However I might have to wait a few years till it’s safe for me to return.  It all has to do with a misunderstanding regarding my participation in a local triathlon – as absurd as that may seem. 

Deserted Saipan Airport
My trip didn’t start off well. The whole thing was reminiscent of a Marx Brothers movie.  My driver dropped me off at the wrong Terminal in Saipan – the old domestic one.  It was totally empty – no one there. So I dragged my bag – the one with the square wheels) over to the big new International terminal and guess what?  No one was there either - except for me and five government employees.  Even though  I’m the only person in the entire terminal it takes them nearly half an hour to process me and issue me a hand written boarding pass to the wrong destination, which the immigration guy who is standing beside them watching them fill out the card rejects as soon as I hand it to him.  I hand it back to the airline guy and he writes me out a new pass which the immigration guy accepts.  Total time for them to process me – the only passenger there is one hour.  Even Air Canada can’t do that!

I make my way to the boarding gate where I find one other older couple in the waiting room. They tell me they arrived two hours early to make sure they got processed okay.  The three of us
get on the commuter plane, a 46 seater.  I settle into my seat across the aisle from the older couple  in the front of the aircraft and a few moments later  the flight attendant comes up and asks if all 3 of us would mind moving to the rear of the aircraft to compensate for the  luggage. I point out there’s only three bags!  Why not move the bags?

The three of us move to the back of the plane and sit on either side of the aisle to “equalize” the load.  As soon as the plane lurches into the air one of them asks me if I’m going to Rota for the triathlon.  I have no idea what they’re talking about, so I just smile at them.

[N.J. here:  Currently one of the few airlines flying between Saipan and Rota is Arctic Air Service – seems they’re a bit far from home!  In fact I think Rota is way closer to the Antarctic then the Arctic!]

Coral Garden Hotel in Rota
Twenty minutes later we’re in Rota. I’m met at the airport by a driver who looks eerily like the guy who drove me to the airport in Saipan.  I given him the name of my motel and we head off down the road.  He asks me if I’m here for the big Triathlon that coming weekend.  I just smile and shake my head.   It takes about ten minutes to drive from the airport to my lodgings at the Coral Garden Hotel.  It’s clean, but a little more threadbare than my motel in Saipan.  But it has a million dollar view.  

As I check in the receptionist asks if I’m here for the Triathlon.  This is the third time I've been asked whether I’m here to compete in the Triathlon, I’m actually flattered.  Here I am, a slightly overweight middle aged guy – and everyone thinks I’m some sort of international athlete! 

But now it’s getting a bit tedious.  I explain I would be happy to compete, except I have a bit of a problem with some of the events - namely the running, swimming, and biking.  If they want to build a Triathlon that includes a three legged race, a sack race and a potato and spoon event, I’m their man.

Rota has no tourism at all – except for two events a year: a large Church function commemorating Saint San Francisco de Borgia – - somehow given the bloody history of these Islands I’m not surprised there’s a feast honouring a member of Borgia clan.    The other event is a triathlon the island hosts every year where athletes come from all over the Pacific to compete. By some quirk of fate my arrival seems to have coincided with this  latter event.

Songsong, Rota Micronesia
I decide to acquaint myself with the tiny main town with the picturesque name of SongSong.  It’s about the size of Ganges in Saltspring Island back home - about 40 buildings in total, many of them falling apart – a combination of typhoons and the bad Japanese economy.   It comprises of about four restaurants, two garages, and about 8 convenience stores.  I decided to drop in and buy some small cheese snacks for my hotel room.   The lady in the store inquires if I’m here for the Triathlon.  At this point I just smile and go about my business.

Dinner is at one of the three restaurants, “Ah Paris” – sounds French –  but it’s definitely not.  It’s run by people who have probably never eaten in a Chinese restaurant - but read about someone who did once. 


My first visit is to the dive shop to meet Mark who the dive operators on Saipan refer to as the “Dive Nazi”. (ala Seinfeld’s soup Nazi).  They say if you do or say the slightest thing wrong he won’t take you diving.
“No diving for you – One year!  Next!”
Old Japanese sugar plantation locomotive
 He seems nice to me – particularly since he’s the FIRST person who hasn’t asked me about the Triathlon – I almost feel insulted!  He informs me there’s no one to go with me that day – come back Thursday. 

Rota Resort & Country Club
I rent a car from Avis.  I will have to wait until the afternoon when “the car”  (singular) is returned.  After my experience on Saipan I’m not looking forward to what ‘the car’ might be.  I’m pleasantly surprised to find it’s an almost new version of the car I had on Saipan (A 2004 Nissan Sentra).   I spend the next three hours touring the island, and only get myself lost once on my quest to find an old Japanese locomotive on an old dirt road that circles the airport.     When I thought I discovered a 2nd locomotive I realize I had missed the exit.  Rounding a corner on the far end of the island I come across one of the most beautiful golf courses I’ve ever seen - absolutely breathtaking and the only people I could see on it were the groundskeepers.  This is definitely a case “if you build it they will NOT come. 

[N.J. here.  The resort has changed hands several times in the ten years since I was there but is still in operation.  If you’re thinking of getting a foursome together for a weekend of golf here’s where you can book it.) 


I visit Mark, the Dive Nazi, at 8:00am as arranged.  He hasn’t arrived yet.  While I am waiting for him to arrive, Rai, a member of the local constabulary pedals up on a shiny eighteen speed bike and inquires what I’m doing standing outside the shop.  I tell to him I’m waiting for Mark to arrive so I can go diving.  Rai informs me he is gearing up for…. What else? The triathlon.    During our conversation he asks if I have a bike.  I inform him I have a 40 year old Raleigh three speed.   I tell him I only need three speeds.  I have no idea how this innocent comment is going to cause me so much trouble later.

My dive partner Nanette
Mark finally arrives and tells me that he’s arranged for me to dive with a Japanese dive group and he’ll provide an English speaking instructor to dive with me.  A short time later an attractive blonde woman arrives and introduces herself as Nanette and she’ll be my diving buddy.   Mark equip me with diving gear and Nanette and I leave to join the Japanese group at their shop.  When we arrive there is some excited talk in Japanese.  I can make out the word “Canadian”.   I ask what they’re talking about.    One of them speaks a little English and tells methey’re excited about meeting the Canadian who will be doing the Triathlon on the antique bicycle!!!   Evidently news travels fast on Rota – especially when it’s delivered by the police.   Given the language problem I haven’t a hope in explaining to them that I’m not actually participating in the triathlon.

Nanette told me that we would be doing a negative buoyancy entry from the boat because of the high surface current.  Did I know how to do this? No, was my answer.
Well it’s quite simple, Nanette explained.  You sit with your ass on the edge of the boat facing in, then you do a backward somersault into the water, and to make it more interesting, you don’t come up to the surface to get your bearings (or in my case to clear my mask) but you continue straight down to the bottom at 45 feet.
Jeff in the Blue Grotto

The visibility was stunning.  I could see for hundreds of feet in every direction.   Our destination was an underwater cave, which was a bit scary getting into, but with Nanette’s encouragement it wasn’t that bad.  The top of the cave had collapsed ions ago, so once inside the cave it lit up a brilliant blue.  It was magical and awe inspiring.   BTW I can now manage my air so I can stay down nearly half an hour. The other Japanese diver can stay down an hour or more!  I still have to work on relaxing and not thinking about things like: I’m 80’ underwater and there are large animals around here that could eat me.

That evening I go to the local bar for dinner where I’m greeted with much bowing and ceremony by the contingents from Japan and from other Pacific Islands.  They are all here for the pre-triathlon dinner.  They want to see my bike, and suddenly it becomes apparent to me:  All these people think I’m here to participate in the triathlon.  My innocent remark to the constable about my bike has been taken out of context.  I need to come up with a face saving excuse – and that’s when I come up with a brilliant idea. 
There’s a super typhoon in the Pacific
Super Typhoon Nanmadol
and I tell them that I’ve just received the tragic news that the container containing my bike  has been washed overboard.  Buoyed by all the disappointed groans from the assembled group I decide to improvise further.  Not only my bike was lost, I tell them, but my special supply of seal blubber we Canadians need to slather all over us before we can swim was lost as well.  I’m afraid I won’t be able to race this year! The rest of the evening I accept drinks to help drown my disappointment.

[N.J. here: This little "fib" will come back to haunt me big time in a few days!]


The swimming event in the Triathlon
Today I went down to the Dive shop to offer to help with setting up buoys etc. for the race and that’s when I was deeply touched to find that the race committee had met and decided to call me an honorary entrant and present me a race t-shirt.

I took Nanette to lunch to thank her and then headed off to the airport to meet my son, Elan, in Guam.

[N.J.: When I was editing the original entries I decided to go on line and see what’s changed in Rota in the past ten years – evidently not much!  If you want to go somewhere different where no one else has been Rota’s the place!  And where else can you play a round of golf on a gorgeous golf course (and probably have the course to yourself) for about forty bucks?  Check out the Website!]

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