Episode 11: Saipan
ABUNAI YO: The following episode contains explicit descriptions of a tropical paradise and is not suitable for depressed people slogging away through another boring day of work in cold, rainy countries. Fear not, the Things That Suck episode is scheduled for next week.
Having decided that it too was fed up with regression testing, my
flu made a comeback on Wednesday and, until Friday morning,
I laid in bed sick as a dog (sleeping for 17 hours straight at
one point).  Fortunately, this did help considerably in getting
up at 5 in the morning so I could get to Narita on time with
the cheap-ass local clunker straight from my home Takanawadai,
passing through 42 gazillion places with names like
Shinfurukitaminamiuchisotokomonnobokobashimae along the way.
I still managed to show up 30 minutes late, but things were already
operating on Island Time and I got aboard just fine.  Three hours, a
Japanese movie and a lunch of microwaved eel (singular: the
pieces were so small the whole airplane was probably eating the
same one) later we landed on Saipan and as soon as we exited the
boarding tube thingamajiggy, boom, the wave of humid 29-degree-C
tropical air hit us and we were duly in Saipan, Commonwealth of the
Northern Mariana Islands, Micronesia, United States of America.

A quick bus ride later we checked in at our hotel, the impressive
multi-starred Diamond Hotel where a night in a single would've
cost $195 for somebody stupid enough to pay the list price.
(We paid a little over twice that for 4 nights and the flight.)
As you would expect from a hotel frequented by Japanese people
with too much money on their hands, hotel prices were exorbitant
(can of beer $4, breakfast $17, barbecue $50...) and the first
local we met was the inimitable Swing, an affable hustler whose
second sentence to us was -- and I quote -- "I give you discount
no problem."  And I always thought that was a trademark of the
Bazaar Carpet Dealers Union.  Hustler or not, he was a damn
good one and most of our group thoroughly enjoyed being weaseled
out of hundreds of dollars of American play money (as opposed to
yen) for various Swing-organized activities.  Jet ski, parasailing,
scuba diving, restaurants, bars, you name it, Swing got it.
In the end, largely thanks to Swing, food (& drink) ended up being
our single largest expense with the nightly dinner tab clocking
in between $15 and $50 every day.  Not that I'm complaining:
I had my best Thai, Chamorro and Filipino food to date during my

But what about Saipan itself?  It reminded me of many places,
yet always mixing them in unexpected ways.  The palm trees,
warm waters and sunny skies of the tropics, yet dry and sandy like
the Middle East; the slightly run down shops and signs of Florida,
yet with Japanese lettering added everywhere to serve 80% of Saipan's
tourists; purely American shopping malls filled with purely
American products but without a WASP in sight; dusky whores
leaning languidly against the doorways of Mexican-style adobe houses,
as drunken karaoke rang out from bar next door...  not a beautiful
place by most measures, but a drastic change from Tokyo just the same.

For me at least, the biggest attraction of Saipan was concentrated
in a ribbon a few hundred meters wide circling the island,
the stretch of ocean between the surrounding coral reef and the
white sandy beaches.  Our hotel provided free snorkeling gear
and kayaks, so every day a group of us would row out to one
of the numerous rusting tank hulks sitting in the middle of the
bay since WWII, attach our kayaks there, and spend hours on end
exploring the underwater world.  Since the depth of the crystal
clear water never exceeded two meters, the lowly snorkel alone
was more than sufficient, and tropical fish would gather in
numbers to wonder at these strange flippered and masked apparitions
floating above them.  Zebra fish, Picasso fish, tigerfish,
million fish and dozens of others whose names I won't even pretend
to know swam around, some slowly, some quickly, some alone, some
in groups, some hiding beneath the coral, some bravely out in
the open...  a few memorable moments: two Picasso fish taking
turns to look at each other, than me, until finally one came right
up, planted a wet fish kiss on my mask, and swam away.  (I can just
imagine the dialogue the the two had before this.  "Hey, Bob!  You
give that monster a smooch and I'll buy you a glass of phytoplankton!")
At another time, I was floating in front of a large school of
impossibly colored light blue fish, when they spontaneously decided
to swim right at me...  and for a few seconds I was surrounded on
all sides by a cloud of giant glittering fish-snowflakes reflecting
the sunlight coming from above me.

And whenever you got bored of this, you could windsurf, or go sailing,
or just tan yourself on the beach or atop one of the tanks, which
over the years had rusted into smooth, solid, contiguous chunks of
oxide red metal.  And then there were the daily games of beach
volleyball, water polo in one of the three pools, and the
inevitable mass restaurant excursion and equally inevitable
inebriation.  And afterward, when the moon shone in the tropical sky
with stars in strange places, it was time for a midnight pool dip,
a swim in the ocean, or -- another personal favorite -- just
floating in the hammock suspended between two palm trees, swaying
gently in the warm sea breeze and watching the stars high above.
People congregated out on the hotel lawn, drinking cheap store-bought
beer in blatant violation of Hotel Regulation #7 and discussing
this and that; one reader of J2J will be glad to know that one
night the discussion extended to Finnish land mine policy and
the group's consensus in favor was unanimous.  Another night stands
out: we were returning from a Chamorro restaurant in Swing's big
pick-up truck, racing down Saipan's sole big road back to the hotel.
We were about to get off, but then Sheela shouted, "Swing, my man!
One more round!"  "You got it!" was the reply, and we roared off into
the night, off the main road and onto one of the tiny dirt roads
circling the island, careening down the tiny path at obscene speeds,
everybody standing up, holding on for dear life and yelling as the
greenery on all sides just rushed by and millions of stars shone all
around...  too soon, we turned around, but this time we returned via
the beach, driving slowly through the sand and water as tiny little
crabs skittered out of the way and the few late-night swimmers
looked on in astonishment.

One day, we visited nearby Managaha Island, paying a mere $40 for
a 5-minute boat ride and a KFC lunch (might Swing have been involved?).
No matter, here the reef was right off the island itself and the
snorkeling better than ever, there even being some introductory
scuba trails laid out in rope on the sea bed which also made for
great snorkeling sightseeing tours.  The KFC lunch was at least
partly compensated for by that evening's barbecue, not exactly
cheap at $40, but not too bad either for all the lobster, beef,
chicken, sausage, salad, baked potato and more that you could
eat and all the San Miguel you could drink.

Not that we spent $40 on every meal.  The breakfast buffet was
replaced by a considerably more affordable diet of Corn Flakes
(immensely expensive in Japan!).  The nearby hu-u-u-u-ge
supermarket (by Japanese standards) also fulfilled cravings for
all sorts of products that made America great, like Starburst candy,
Oreo cookies, Bugles corn chips and so many other natsukashii
things that I hadn't eaten in years.  On the more practical side
of things, Saipan was also an omiyage-buyer's dream come true,
with yours truly picking up lots of handy-dandy ever-ready items
like white socks and underwear (do you have any idea how difficult
buying stuff like this is if your shoe size is not the Japanese
Industrial Standard of 10?).  Plus enough macadamia nuts to cause
an upward blip in Hawaii's exports (Saipan has no agriculture
whatsoever, so close enough).

All too soon, the dream ended, and after a tear-wrenchingly good
B.L.T. ($2.95) in the nearby deli it was time to mosey off to the
airport.  As the plane rose, we waved bye-bye to paradise, and
later that night I crashed in bed with my new trendy Saipan T-shirt,
colored a truly peculiar shade of orangey brown, with my hair a
tangled mess from 5 days of salt water and chlorine baked in the sun;
shoulders, forehead and things sunburned to a crisp; and feet
lacerated with bleeding flip-flop and snorkeling flipper burns.
What can I say?  'Tis better to have lived and lost than not
to have lived at all...

Hafa adai,

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