Exploring Saipan’s seldom-frequented roads

I THOUGHT I had been everywhere on Saipan until I discovered roads I didn’t even know existed. Recently, my buddy Pat and I decided to pay a visit to the radar tower in San Roque, a site I had visited and photographed several times before so we decided to make this trip different. Bordering the radar tower on the right side was a huge stone pile with some tangan-tangan trees. The pile — or wall — of stones looked dangerous to climb but my companion was unstoppable and I was not about to stay below.

Finding footholds and handholds while protecting my camera was a real challenge but I slowly made it to the top. And there, I gasped. We were at the very edge of a high cliff and one wrong move could send us hurtling to our deaths below. I held my breath. I was too scared to move. Spread out before us was a glorious panorama of jungle and cliffs bordering the endless blue ocean. A narrow road snaked its way through the jungle, and I was disoriented, not knowing where we were.

We decided to find out where that road below us began and ended. Ever so slowly, we picked our way down, quaking in fear when a stone just stepped on rolled down. Finally, we made it back to the radar tower and were soon inside the cool safety of our rented RAV-4.

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Driving down from the radar tower, we turned left at the fork with the sign “DPS Shooting Range” on the roadside. I’d never been on that road before but the thrill of the unknown kept us going.

The road was wide enough for one car only, but we were the only ones there. The roadsides were thick with bushes that would have made it impossible to park anywhere.

We drove on down the mountainside until we passed the DPS Firing Range, a place I hadn’t seen.IMG_8404

Past the firing range, the road got steeper and, at times, almost impossible to find, but there was no going back now. We knew we had to keep going and find out where we were headed. After several minutes, Pat decided to make a left turn at a fork in the road, expertly dodging huge boulders. It was a short road and, finally, we couldn’t go any further.

Then I looked up and stared at the gaping mouth of a huge cave. Only then did I discover we were at the Kalabera Cave. I had driven several times to the area from Bird Island but never went beyond the Kalabera Cave crossing before. The road would discourage anyone who values his car.IMG_8379

Anyway, it was an exhilarating afternoon and we got back home, memory cards loaded with new photos of this beautiful and ever surprising island.

First published at the Marianas Variety


3 Christmas ‘giants’ in the islands


30-foot Christmas tree at the Multipurpose Center in Susupe

CAN you imagine Christmas without Christmas trees?

Each year in December, Christmas trees with brilliant twinkling lights and other ornaments are installed in homes, parks, stores, schools and offices.

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30-foot Christmas tree at the Paseo de Marianas in Garapan, Saipan

On Saipan and Tinian, the three tallest Christmas trees can be found at the multi-purpose center in Susupe, at the Paseo De Marianas in Garapan and at the Tinian Dynasty.

At 41 feet, the Christmas tree at Tinian Dynasty should be the CNMI’s tallest. It is made of multi-colored blinking lights topped by a “star.”

Christmas tree at the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino gate towering at 41 feet

The Christmas tree outsider the multi-purpose center is 30 feet high and was lit up a day after Thanksgiving. The tree comes with a nativity scene and is an annual project of the First Lady’s Vision Foundation.

At Paseo de Marianas, the 30-foot Christmas tree glitters with ornaments from recycled materials, and near it are the 9-foot trees decorated by elementary schools that competed in the recently held Christmas tree decoration contest.

In daytime, these Christmas trees look ordinary, but in the evening they turn into something magical — and festive.

Dancing for luck and good fortune

THE beating of the drums started and the lion dancers fall into position. Despite the noonday heat, a small audience gathered taking photos and videos to capture another brilliant, wickedly energetic Chinese traditional dance to welcome the New Year.

Chopsticks were suspended in mid-air as diners at the Gourmet Restaurant in Garapan gaped at the two “lions” with ornately decorated heads and bright eyes trying to squeeze their long bodies into the restaurant, entering every room to bring good luck for the coming year.

The lion dancers prance back outside, performing acrobatic stunts with agile movements before ending the performance by eating the green vegetables hanged outside the restaurant door and spreading the rest of the fresh vegetables at the doorway and inside the restaurant.

Chinese Association of Saipan director Rose Chan said that the vegetables represented good health and life.

For early morning until late last night, the lion dancers of the Chinese Association of Saipan visited several hotels, restaurants and business establishments all the way from Susupe to Garapan and distributed goodies to the children for health and prosperity for the Year of the Rabbit.

Two individuals enact the lion dance. One dancer handles the head while the other holds the tail, and together, they move in a specific rhythm blending with the beating of the drums and the cymbals.

Each year, the lion dancers always amaze the community with their colorful costumes and lively dance moves as they try to mimic a lion’s movements.

“The lion dance has always been a part of the Chinese culture and heritage to wish for good luck and prosperity,” Chan said.

Yesterday, the world witnessed colorful presentations from lion dancers all over the world as the Chinese community welcomed the New Year, summoning luck and good fortune.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Welcoming the New Year with fireworks

AS early as 8 p.m. tonight, the countdown begins for a lot of people and the anticipation builds up as the night goes deeper. When the clock strikes 11:30 p.m., the skies start to brighten as firecrackers start to explode in a glorious splendor from home and buildings all over the island.

Nothing beats those few minutes of magic and excitement in hearing those loud whistling sounds as firecrackers shoot up into the air and explode into a thousand explosions, booms and fizzes amid bright lights, displaying spectacular shapes and colors that you would want them to stay up there forever.

For the past two New Year’s evenings I’ve watched the splendid firework displays from the parking lot of Hard Rock Café in Garapan, but I learned that one of the best places to watch the skies lit up in wondrous colors is at the Navy Hill.

Fireworks are popularly associated with Independence Day celebrations, but its original use was during New Year’s celebrations. Fireworks are said to originate in China over 2,000 years ago. One legend has it that a Chinese cook accidentally spilled saltpeter, an ingredient used in gunpowder, into a cooking fire which produced an interesting flame.

Exploding firecrackers were believed to be produced during the Song dynasty by a Chinese monk who placed gunpowder inside bamboo shoots and exploded them on New Year’s eve to scare away the evil spirits. By the15th century, fireworks have become a traditional part of celebrations.

Across the world, many countries spend millions of dollars in lavish firework displays.

In the CNMI, the thinner wallets and meager household budgets brought by the economic downturn is not a hindrance for the people to welcome the New Year with fireworks. Thankfully, firecrackers come in different sizes and shapes and price range, making it affordable for everybody. There are available firecrackers for as low as a dollar and as expensive as hundreds of dollars, but no matter what kind of firecrackers you can afford, it is the spirit of the celebration that counts.

New Year’s Eve just would not be complete without fireworks. If you don’t want to light fireworks, you can go out before the clock strikes midnight tonight and bask in the glorious experience of watching multi-color fountains of light, flashing stars, cracking strobes and willow-bursts light up the dark skies.

Warning: A reminder to state the obvious, fireworks can be very dangerous if not handled correctly. Use fireworks with proper caution. Kids should have adult supervision when lighting fireworks because you would not want to spend the first day of the New Year swathed in bandages, minus a finger or two and writhing in pain at the hospital.

Have a blazingly spectacular firework-filled New Year to one and all!


Magical nights at the SandCastle

THE lights go off, signaling the beginning of another night to witness “The Magic of Saipan.”

Two magicians saunter on stage to begin one of the crowd’s favorite illusions – sawing a woman in half, a performance that never fails to have everyone in the audience holding their breaths and holding on to the edge of their seats.

From there, everything flows smooth and fast as the magicians Chris Zubrick and Ryan Makowski and the dancers carry the audience from one scene to another with a dizzying speed of magic and wonder.

All eyes were glued on stage as Ryan performs his signature performance—the award winning dove act where he makes eight pure white doves appear, disappear and transform in mysterious ways.

One crowd pleaser is the “Table-Of-Death!” where Ryan gets chained down to a table with twenty-five steel spikes lit with fire looming overhead, giving him just seconds to free himself before the spikes plummet.

Adrenalin gets higher as a live Bengal tiger in a cage joins them on stage. The team works with two tigers Tumon and Ellie, a performance which they said is quite risky.

Watch the duo as they perform their classic style of very Las Vegas stage magic in a spectacular blur of colorful costumes, dazzling display of lights and fantastic mix of sounds, the graceful dance moves, the superb dinner and everything add to the enchantment of the magic that is Saipan.

It is one hour where international barriers are forgotten and everybody, young or old watches in wide-eyed anticipation to the unfolding of the universal language of magic which everybody understands.

Ryan is from Edwardsburg, Michigan while Chris is from Laingsburg, Michigan. Both had been performing magic for 17 years.

Ryan’s career started from a magic set he received for his 5th birthday, and he was hooked. Chris got enchanted by a magic toy he found inside a cereal box and that started everything.

”The Magic of Saipan,” has been voted “Best Show on Island!” and boosted Saipan as a premier travel destination for mainly Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Russian tourists.

Visit http://www.ZubrickMagic.com for more information, or join the long list of friends at Facebook, follow them on Twitter, or watch videos of the show on their YouTube Channel!

I had been planning to watch the Magic of Saipan for the past months but only got the chance to do so with a buddy on Tuesday evening. I regretted not watching the magic earlier.

The Magic of Saipan is one hour of must-not miss jaw-dropping thrill punctuated by non-stop adventure, comedy, suspense, drama and non-stop excitement.

Sandcastle Saipan, LLC., operations manager Ravenal Jojo Valencia SandCastle Saipan said that they offer two packages for locals —the Deluxe Dinner Show and Deluxe Cocktail Show.

Enjoy a sumptuous dinner prepared by the Hyatt Regency’s chefs as you watch the magic unfold before you. Start with the lobster bisque soup, followed by salads, a delightful assortment of crispy garden greens. Move to the main entrée of grilled fillet mignon served with black pepper sauce, roasted rosemary, potatoes and seasonal vegetables or baked lobster tail with grilled Mahi Mahi, in aromatic herbs crust with lemon dill butter sauce.

Go for the Deluxe combination plate of Fillet Mignon & lobster tail or additional lobster tail for your seafood plate for a $15 additional, and cap your dinner with tiramisu and strawberry cream profiterole with fresh tropical fruits.

The Dinner Show is from 6pm – 8:15pm, while the Cocktail Show is from 8:45pm – 10:00pm. SandCastle Saipan is open nightly except Monday and Thursday. For package prizes and group discounts, please call 233-7263, fax 233-6565 or visit http://www.saipan-sandcastle.com.


Takeshita street

As early as 10 a.m., crowds, especially the younger generation start to flock to Takeshita Street to see visit the long line of stores. The crowd gets thicker throughout the day and until 9 p.m. when most of the stores close.

TAKESHITA Street, or Takeshita-dori in Jarajuku, Tokyo is a hub for the city’s younger population. There you can find McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, The Body Shop and a wide assortment of small fashion boutiques, cafés, restaurants and what-have-you.

The Takeshita Street is a pedestrian-only fashion street which starts from JR Harajuku Station’s Takeshita exit to Meiji Street (approximately 150 meters).

The stores on this street are mainly flashy fashion boutiques for young people including a variety of lineup from accessories, miscellaneous articles, character goods, and fast food and they are always crowded with mostly junior high and high school students. There also are many small-sized pioneer stores closely following the latest trends which indeed reflect Tokyo’s trend itself that changes rapidly. There also are many stores selling crepes with people standing in a long line in front of every one of them. Takeshita Street indeed lures a large number of people on weekends and holidays.

The first time I passed by the place was past midnight during my first night in Tokyo. Misako-san’s house is a few blocks up. Takeshita street looked like any regular side street with lots of colorful graffiti on the walls, so narrow that I was worried if the taxi we were riding could fit in the road. Miraculously, it did and we arrived at Misako-san’s condo unit.

The next day around 9 a.m. I got the chance to walk on the street on our way out to pick up the kids from their apartment in Koenji.  A few of the stores were preparing to open and the street started to spring to life. No cars were allowed in the street during the day.

Takeshita Street throbs with so much color and life and activity that there is barely enough room to move around.
By 11 a.m., I head the street gets really jam-packed, and you have to literally rub or jab shoulders with strangers to pass or get around. I got the chance to explore the street on my third day when I Misako-san told me we were free for the morning. Eagerly, I browsed the shops, getting in my fill of the sounds, sights, colors and smells of everything.

If you hate crowds and would rather not want to rub sweaty elbows with students and tourists from all parts of the world, this is not the place for you. But then, you will miss seeing the most extraordinary blend of hip-hop or punk fashion, vintage or the latest clothing trends, weird but nice- looking footwear especially those from a store named “Out of the World,” inexpensive trinkets, fancy jewelry and accessories, food, beverages and more.

Takeshita Street is home to the most unique sights especially on weekends. Individuals wearing red, green, pink or multi-colored hair and fancy costumes are a common sight.

Although the street is short, one day is barely enough to go around and browse the shops squeezed in. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring even the narrowest doors on the sides, and don’t fail to follow steep stairs that will lead you to the basements of the stores. You don’t want to miss a lot.

I spent two mornings on Takeshita Street during my week-long stay in Tokyo last month since it was just a block away from the house of Kinpachi Restaurant owner Misako-san’s where I stayed. Time was never enough. Except for buying some necessities such as a 700 yen wristwatch and some trinkets for friends, I spent more time taking photos than browsing in the shops.

I delighted in spending 400 yen on a glass of Hawaiian blue-flavored shaved ice and dug into it with gusto. I also went to a pizza joint located in the basement of a three-story store and paid 530 yen plus 10 percent tax for a pizza meal.

I ventured inside one of these corner stores displaying a wide selection of new and used knick-knacks– wigs, boots, shoes, bags, clothes, costumes and hordes of other items. Flipping through the jeans, a light blue maong jeans  with tattered knees and legs caught my attention, and even before I looked at the price, I knew i was never going to leave the store without it.

Going inside the fitting room, the jeans fitted me perfectly, as though waiting for my arrival. I blinked at the price tag–uhuhhh Y1,990 yen. Doing a mental calculation, the jeans costs about  $24 and I closed my eyes when the cashier rang up my purchase.

Squeezed among the stores and fast food chains and all the commercial hullabaloo going around, there’s this one house that breaks the tone, its tranquil facade presenting a total contrast to the hubbub of activities going on around it. The house should belong to a peaceful village somewhere with rivers and peaceful lagoons or fountains around it.

Everyday is shopping day at Takeshita Street, or so I learned during the week I was there. I grabbed every spare time I had to explore the street, taking photos of everything and anything, trying foods I’ve never tried before, and yet I never got my fill of everything. There is just so much to see and do but I was able to grab some items for pasalubong for friends in Saipan–a couple of shawls for an office mate, a watch for my roommate, rugs for my room, bracelets and other knickknacks for friends.

One notable thing about Takeshita Street is that despite the narrow space and hordes of people flocking the road, there is not a single piece of trash or even a cigarette butt on the sidewalks or anywhere. The street is notably clean.

Brightly colored shoes are among the most saleable merchandise at Takeshita Street.

Your Takeshita Street experience will never be complete if you will not try one of these world-famous, must-try ice cream crepes. Crepe stalls are everywhere and you can try the various fillings from Y350 to Y500 and even up to Y1,000 if you go for a combination of fillings and toppings. I tried the creme with fruits and nata de coco

Planning a trip to Tokyo? Don’t miss visiting Takeshita Street. It is located directly across from the Takashita exit of JR Line Harajuku Station.

Good turnout for Chief Aghurubw’s 40th memorial tribute

AFTER four decades, the zest of the younger generations in paying tribute each year to the Carolinian leader Chief Aghurubw whose remains were buried in the small island of Managaha did not wane.

Chief Aghurubw Foundation president Kodep Ogumoro-Uludong told the Variety that the young people belonging to the clan Jhatoliyool clan were as enthusiastic as ever to come to Managahan each year.

“This year, I’m very happy for the huge turnout,” Ogumoro-Uludong said.

He said that their focus is to strengthen all the 14 branches of the clan and get more participation in the memorial tribute in the years to come.

“We acknowledge our grandfather, Daniel Ogumoro, now 84 years old, who erected the first monument to honor Chief Aghurubw,” Ogumoro-Uludong said. He added that when the chief’s remains were buried, Managaha was considered a sacred land.

He said he was glad families from Rota were able to make the trip this year for the event.

Ogumoro-Ulodong added that the ferries made four trips carrying over 150 passengers on each trip on Saturday to transport passengers to Managaha Island for the memorial tribute.

Father Rey D. Rosal of San Vicente Parish conducted Saturday’s mass in front of Chief Aghurubw’s monument. The event was also attended by Governor Benigno R. Fitial and other leaders.


History states that Chief Aghurubw, together with Chief Nguschul led their people from the Caroline Islands that was ravaged by typhoons in 1815 and resettle on Saipan.

Guests partook of the free island food provided after the mass.

Ogumoro-Uludong said the foundation extends their thanks to the supporters for their generous donations for the annual event which includes David Igitol and Frank Murokani of Tasi Tours, Inc., John McClure of Pacific Subsea, Tony Pellegrino of Saipan Sea Ventures, Juan Pan and other sponsors.

A colorful cultural exchange

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I WAS watching a young Japanese guy reach out for an apigigi from the Hula Girl booth. It was obviously his first time to try it because he peeled it all the way down before taking a tentative bite. I saw the surprise registered on his face as he obviously liked what he ate, took another bite and another until there was no more.

Turning around, he talked excitedly to three other companions and they all trooped back to the Hula Girl stall for more. When that guy goes back to Japan, I’m sure the taste of apigigi will stay in his memories of Saipan.

At the next booth, a little local girl was concentrating as she tried to throw a ball into boxes with drawings of Japanese costumes. She squealed with delight when her ball landed in the box with the drawing of a girl wearing a Japanese kimono.

Immediately, she was whisked into the back of the stall and Japanese assistants donned a kimono on her for picture taking, a photo I’m sure she will treasure.

American Memorial Park’s usually serene atmosphere was transformed into one colorful, lively and spirited ground as over a thousand people— a mix of young businessmen from Japan and island residents stamped their feet in time with the lively beating of the drums.

By sunset, the friendship party hosted for the visitors for a cultural exchange was in full progress.

The locals got a taste of Japanese culture through the dances they presented, games and entertainment.

Kids were delighted in playing all games the visitors introduced to them.

In exchange, the over 800 visitors got a glimpse of the island life as cultural dance groups and Saipan’s dynamic Awaodori Team presented their winning dance steps.

Right after the presentations, everybody rushed to the food booths where you get to try a mix of unlimited Japanese and local specialties, unlimited beverages including beer, juices, soda and bottled water, as long as you have a yellow band on your hand— your passport to the food stalls.

All too soon, the party has to end, with everybody sated and happy. The visitors went back to Japan via the Fuji Maru cruise ship yesterday afternoon. Island officials who welcomed the guests said “till we meet again.” Sayonara.

Goin’ bananas

More than 20,000 sticks of cardava bananas were grilled over 658 grills or (gang-gangan) which stretched for a kilometer of the circumferential road in Kapalong, Davao del Norte as they celebrated the first Musa Banana Festival lastAugust 1.
It was the first time that I ever laid eyes on so much grilled bananas. At the ceremonial go-signal from mayor Dominador Cruda, participants from the town’s 14 barangays lit up their fires, undeterred by the drizzle as they bent to showdown the main product of the place.It was a free-for-all grilled banana feast as the parpticipants handed grilled bananas to all passers-by.
Bananas were everywhere: on motorcycles, trisikads, stores and houses, at the gymnasium, on the streets, trampled under people’s feet and literally everywhere! People from all walks of life went to join the feast.My companions tried to outdo each other on how many sticks of ginanggang they had eaten but I kept silent because I was unable to eat any. I was too emersed shooting photos of banana eaters with the heavy camera I was carrying that I forgot to eat.
Highlighting the celebration was the unveiling of the biggest-ever three-meter long Cavendish banana cake covered with green and yellow icing. Stuffed with 4,000 banana cupcakes, the gigantic cake was set on steel stilts on top of the three-by-five meters base cake made of 377 loaves of banana cake.The whole cake consumed 1,000 eggs, one sack refined sugar, flour and 30 boxes of bananas supplied by Dole Stanfilco.
Kapalong municipal information officer Edna Parcon said it took them two weeks to set up the frame of the cake, three local bakeries to bake the banana loaves, another baked the cupcakes and another bakery owner volunteered to coat the cake with icing which took them nine hours to finish.Keeping hands off from the cake, especially kids’ hands, was the hardest part while the program was going on.

Expectedly, when pandomenium broke loose and a confusing tangle of banana loaves, cupcakes, white, yellow and green icing, kids and adults swooped all over the cake to have a taste.A sticky war of icing followed (yucks!), hitting anybody even those far away from the cake. At the end of the celebration, everybody went home banana-satisfied and happy.

Fantastic 9th tuna festival

Who would ever say no to an invitation to be at the only tuna festival in the world, and instead of being cramped in a passenger bus enjoy a trip within the cool comfort of Ford Philippines’ latest model, the Ford Focus? No one in his right mind would, I guess. And for someone blessed (or cursed) with an itchy pair of feet, I grabbed the chance not only with both hands but feet, too.It was my first time actually to be at the Tuna Festival even though it was their 9th celebration.
We were met by General Santos Chamber of Commerce executive director Pilar T. Afuang and Manila-based media coordinator Shane “Ayo” Gunting for a huge dinner in one of the restaurants in the city before retiring for the night. We were billeted at the ABCD Stars, a luxurious resort on the outskirts of GenSan, far away from the noise of the partying people and the concerns. It was like renting the whole place to ourselves, a rare place in the city where birds chirped outside my window and crickets lulled me to sleep but despite the semi-provincial setting, I locked the windows out of habit.I had a room to myself, a cozy single with floor to ceiling lockers, cool wood panels, and a huge mirror on the dresser which I had a hard time covering when I went to sleep at my usual 3 a.m. bedtime.
It was hard to part with the bed when my cellphone alarm shrilled at 5 a.m. and with eyes still closed, I stumbled to the bathroom.After a complimentary breakfast from ABCD Stars owner, we proceeded to the center of attraction where the tuna float parade was about to start. This year’s contest brought in 15 colorful floats, each float a showcase of art and craftsmanship displaying the vibrant tuna industry that has propelled the lives and livelihood of the people. However way they were decorated, the floats conveyed the common theme “One pulse, one force, one cruise”, a message of unity among the people despite the diverse cultures.
Adventures of an amateur at the lensI was having a field day being with the two professional photographers Rhonson and Jojie and watching them as they took photo after photo with their “high-powered Canon cameras”.
The protruding lenses seemed like an automatic pass because crowds always gave way for us (comment from a by-stander- hala taga National Geographic siguro sila). I tagged along with my toy camera, a 7.2 megapixel point-and-shoot Sony which had served me in the past with my photography needs. I love this camera even though this got me ‘arrested’ by Task Force members at the Ecoland bus terminal but that’s another story.Back in Davao I had a grand time laughing when I downloaded all the contents of the two 256 MB memory cards into my laptop. Only then did I discover General Santos has so many electric wires. In some of my pictures, the floral floats were carrying huge billbords advertising fertilizers, feeds, and fastfood outlets. One tuna float was even carrying a huge haplas billboard sticking out in my photo.
When I joined famous photographer George Tapan’s f-45 photography workshop last month, I heard something which concerns electric wires but I was too busy texting and you caught me, I was not paying too much attention, and I had to learn the hard way.Ah one more thing, I made the second mistake by riding when the heat and my feet were killing me and took photos from the comfort of the Ford Focus window, and had the guts to wonder later on why my photos seemed blurred and milky.
Our hosts pampered us with food but alas, sad to say I went to the tuna festival but we hadn’t tasted even a tiny weeny slice of tuna at all… I went home carrying only a mouth-watering vision of tuna in all its glory—sashimi, inihaw na panga , palikpik (the meat near the tuna fin) or tiyan (belly) dripping in its juices over live coals, kinilaw, sushi, bagaybay, tuna longganisa or sitsaron…a reason to be back for the future celebrations of the tuna festival.