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Hafa Adai Saipan!

February 22, 2013

Saipan – Tuesday, February 5

Wow – Saipan! Up until January 2010 I had no idea Saipan was a U.S. territory – I had heard of it, but thought it was some exotic Japanese place! And I had never heard of the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan is the biggest of them) until I saw the state quarter come out of the old drink machine at the studio. And now I’m here – unsure of what to expect. I don’t think most of my family knows exactly where I am either!

I actually felt a little apprehensive about this week. I’ve never aspired to travel to Asia, and I knew this island was going to seem very foreign. I just hoped there’d be enough English spoken that I could get by! And it didn’t help that I was arriving in Saipan still very conscious about what I’d lost in Guam. In fact, I canceled my car rental reservation because, as my brother pointed out, it was unlikely that anyone would be willing to rent a car to someone with no identification, no driver’s license, and no credit card. So I had arranged for the hotel shuttle to pick me up instead, and they were very kind in waiving the typical fee (they are not close to the airport) because of all my troubles. In the end though, Betsy, the TV broadcaster from Guam, had a friend who worked for National Car Rental, and when she heard what happened, she was willing to let me rent a car as long as I provided her with some information. So I know I should be able to get a car later in the week.

I arrived in Saipan in the middle of the night, and the shuttle picked up me and one other person. I couldn’t really see anything on the 20 minute drive to the hotel, and didn’t even have any sense of direction, or where the hotel was in terms of the layout of the island. About all I could see were lots of poker places! It was after 4:30am by the time I got checked in and ready for bed, so I slept til about 10:30 and I felt like I’d slept half the day away! The first thing I had to do was figure out how to call the lady in Guam who might have some of my things. The people at the front desk told me I could get a phone card in the adjoining poker room, which was full of cigarette smoke. Then when I figured out how to use it, I thought I’d look out my window to see where I was, and all I could see was rusty corrugated rooftops! Between the smoky poker room and the rather dismal view out my window, I did begin to wonder what I’d gotten myself into! But then I called Guam, and spoke with the woman who had my passport and driver’s license and quite a few other things – that made my day. She works for the mayor of Dededo, and assured me my things would be safely locked up until I was back in Guam. So with that good news, I went downstairs to the restaurant that’s part of the hotel lobby, and got a good late breakfast. Then I studied a map, asked some directions, and set off to get my bearings, and find the beautiful walking/jogging path that several people had told me about. I had heard it was a path that ran for several miles along the coast, but I had a little trouble finding it. The hotel was about 1/2 mile from the ocean, but there were still a bunch of shops and buildings. I found some dirt road that went closer to the ocean, but it was just a private road. I got back on the sidewalk that was right next to the busy street, and could only see a glimpse here and there of the ocean. But as I continued on, the buildings disappeared, and the sidewalk turned into a wide path that got closer to the ocean, and then I was on it – an endless sidewalk next to a picture-postcard turquoise sea, with palm trees and ferns and a gentle breeze on a hot day. It was wonderful, and I walked and walked until I’d gone about 4 miles, and the trail seemed to end in a park. I was out in the heat of the day, so I was happy some of the trail was shady, and I got a cold drink and just sat on one of the benches and admired the calm view. There must be a reef about 100 yards out, because the waves were breaking way far out, and the water in between was shallow and full of shades of blue that don’t seem to exist anywhere else. There was also an enormous ship anchored out there – it looked like some kind of navy ship. I walked back, feeling more comfortable now that I knew I had a good place to walk, and had figured out the hotel was kind of in the middle of the island, and I wandered into a couple of the Japanese markets just to look around and people spoke English! I’ve never seen rice sold in such quantities – huge sacks of many varieties of rice stacked up like pet food displays, and so many kinds of soy sauces and other sauces! Back at “my” end of the trail, people were setting up a farmer’s market and hot food booths. I had also seen people selling fresh fish at makeshift stalls in several places along the beach – all in big stacks of coolers, and quite a variety of fish – lots of it for under $3/lb. I wasn’t quite ready for dinner but I bought some more little bananas, and it occurred to me that I have bought bananas from a farmers market on the first day of each of my island visits! I wish we had the variety of bananas that the islands do! The farm market was only about 3/4 mile from the hotel, so I knew I’d come back later to try a few things.

I was tired and hot from my 8 mile walk, and was happy to just get unpacked and a little more settled in. I started researching some donation opportunities, but there weren’t very many things popping up. I knew I’d eventually find some places, but the computer wasn’t going to be a big help.

As it was getting dark, I decided to wander back to the farm market. The fresh roasted corn was gone, but there was still a plentiful supply of things to choose from, and it was very similar to the farm market in Guam and I was happy about that because there were other things I wanted to try. I got BBQ-on-a-stick – very popular both here and in Guam. Then I tried some thick tortilla-like bread that was slightly sweet and had little pieces of corn in it – very good. And then there was a tapioca/coconut mixture that was spread on a green leaf and roasted – it was warm and kind of chewy and not quite what I expected. I wasn’t hungry enough to try the big meals, but luckily there’s another farm market on Thursday. I bought a couple bags of sliced mango and papaya and knew those would be tasty first thing in the morning. It was dark by the time I had to walk back to the hotel, and they do not have a lot of street lights, and the shops that were still open didn’t use much light outside. Since there were still lots of people out and about, I didn’t feel too uncomfortable, but it was kind of strange to not have a little more light at night in a busy area. I had discovered there were little markets on both sides of the hotel – one was called the Happy Market, and one was called the Lucky Market. Lots of shop names seem to start with Happy, Lucky and Pretty!

So I ended my first day in Saipan feeling much better about everything – some of my stuff had been recovered on Guam, I liked my hotel and the staff had been helpful with my questions, I now had a basic idea of where I was, and there was good stuff to look forward to. I was more than ready to call it a day after the short night last night!
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