Older people know Saipan from first hand experiences as it was a major troops transfer base during the World War II and thousands of recruits transited through Saipan. The battles fought on Saipan were bloody and many lives were lost on both the Japanese and American sides. Sadly, with the way history is taught these days the younger generation may never even hear about this island, which is too far out of the typical tourist ways and, like its neighbor Guam, is frequented more by the Japanese tourists. Major chain stores, hotels and malls curiously coexist with the third-world-country looking buildings, small shops and dilapidated barracks, creating a strange look, which is somewhat of a cross between the Solomon Islands and more Americanized Guam.
Getting better at our routine every day, we have finished our work on the airplane today at noon and had a half a day to explore Saipan, the place where we may or may not come again for our projects in the future but that for sure is not a routine destination for any of us. A half a day is a lot of time! Later that evening a friend thoughtfully noted that our global projects are really unique in yet another way, that we are really learning to switch quickly between work and touristing on these trips: you lay out your plans, focus very intently on work in the morning and really use your skills to quickly complete your tasks, and then you are done, and in the next 15 minutes we turn into tourists, ready to absorb everything that the remaining daylight hours are willing to afford us. At the beginning of our journey this was not as smooth as now, we have come a long way in learning to use our time as judiciously as a traveler in the desert uses his water. But today we had a lot of time, and we were on a mission to see Saipan.
I generally prefer to see natural beauty than the traces humans leave on the planet, and who can blame me? What we saw today can’t be described in any other way than very, very sad. To see the beautiful cliffs overhanging lush tropical jungle was exhilarating at first, but the next thing you learn was, during the war the Japanese people jumped off these cliffs to their death to avoid being captured by the advancing American troops, for they were lied to and believed they would be tortured by them if they were captured alive. Who and why would tell their people, including families with children, a lie that would make them jump off 300-foot cliffs? What benefit would that bring a leader?
Fear. That would bring more fear. And if people are afraid you can lead them where you want if they think you will make them safe, that is as much as I can figure out. Cruel satisfaction that you can outwit the people that you, as their leader, are responsible for, and can keep manipulating others, standing in the blood of those you swore to protect. I am not particularly religious but if there is something I’d send souls to hell for, that would be one of those sins.
I can’t really describe the feelings from seeing the memorials on Saipan. Enormous sadness and anger for what had happened, and imagining how the cliffs could have echoed the laughter of people, just like they do today – both Japanese and Americans together, alive with their children, and instead they heard the cries of agony and gun fire, and more of the same, until the sky turned black and the ground turned red. Truly the human history is built on blood and bones. I hope we have learned from that.
I want to show no other photos from this heartbreaking part of our tour of Saipan than the blossoms of the flame trees against the Suicide Cliffs and the inscription that I hope people will read and remember forever.
It is rather difficult to shift your mind from these tragedies onto something else but the time moves on. Everything is a balance, even if a fragile one, and the revitalizing natural beauty helps you get over the sadness and hopelessness of what people do sometimes. We moved on, and Saipan had more to show us. Our next stop was the Grotto, a large cavity connected to the ocean by an underground natural tunnel, which apparently the destination of choice for technical scuba diving. Having no skill nor time for that, we nonetheless enjoyed watching the Grotto as the surges of water from the ocean passed through the underwater tunnel and burst into the opening of the Grotto, turbulent but crystal clear and blue, just to subside and run off the razor sharp rocks in foamy cascades just a few seconds later.
When I say “razor sharp” I mean it; I now realize that the abrasive basaltic lava of Mauna Loa was simply smooth compared to the cruel jaggedness of the high-silica rhyolites on Saipan. Worn down to razor blade sharpness by the constant work of the tides, the ragged spires of the volcanic rock are truly wicked, which I found out in a hurry when I grabbed a hold of one of them, trying to keep balance. That I did, but numerous pinpricks, small cuts and abrasions just from that momentary handhold will remind me of this for a while. I hung my photo backpack on one of the spires and it clung to it like to a giant Velcro made of barbed fishing hooks, with a scary tearing sound that the strong nylon made when it took the bites from the rock. I think the divers going in must be ultra careful getting out of the water, for being thrown by a wave against these walls would be at least the beginning of a very painful trip to a hospital, if not worse.
A long time later and far away from here, I will remember this place and think that as I am busy with the daily hustle and bustle, at that very moment, thousands of miles away, the ocean surges into the Grotto on Saipan, continuing its perpetual work that we possibly will never be lucky enough to witness again.
We saw the Bird Island, a white-walled cliff with lush vegetation on its top, and it was impossible to not stay there for a while, watching the waves run ashore two hundred feet below us and just absorbing the beauty of the scene. Regretably I could not take any pictures that would do the Bird Island justice so you will have to settle for what I have got.
From the Grotto the pavement turned into a single track dirt road with abundant potholes and mud puddles but easily navigable, with certain care, to a passenger car. Following it for a few minutes brought us to a short trail leading a cavernous cave, whose end was hiding in the darkness and even the entrance to which looked pretty gloomy as the sun was beginning to settle to the horizon. The path to the cave was all covered by the red blossoms fallen off of the huge flame tree growing nearby, so that it looked as if you are walking on a red carpet spread in front of you by the welcoming hand of Saipan’s forest.
The sun was setting into the ocean as we pulled over on the side of the road by the Wings Beach, not far past a sign denoting the nesting area of the endangered green sea turtles. We did not see any of these wonderful animals but the view of the sunset rewarded us sufficiently and was a worthy finale for our very long, but full of impressions and memories, day.
It was on the way back to the Hyatt hotel where we stayed when we talked about how our global travel changed our ability to do our work, yet still enjoy the sites we are so fortunate to visit, even in the time frame of just a few hours. If one were to come here just to see the island they would spend probably at least two or three days seeing all that we tried to cram into a half of one. I am sure their impressions would be different from mine. In retrospect I think about how a tourist visits places vs. how we do it akin to what suntanning vs. branding with a hot iron would be: unlike the gradual and casual soaking in of the impressions we get ours via this rapid and sometimes painful process, but unlike the suntan that often fades pretty soon, the burned in brand of memories we get tends to stay with us for a very long time.
Tomorrow we will move on to the next location, the one I have been tempting you with for the last few days. This is going to be a totally unique place that some people wait for many years to visit, and we are very lucky for our work to take us there.