Welcome aboard Hello Kitty airlines

TAIWAN—Forgive me if I start this article by saying that growing up with so many cats in the household, I’ve had my fill of them and don’t want to do anything with them anymore, not even if they are cute kittens.

via Welcome aboard Hello Kitty airlines.


Trekking on Edge

A TREK toalt Naftan Point was not on my mind when I joined a group of six others on a late Saturday afternoon. We were in the parking lot of American Memorial parking lot flipping coins to decide where to go for a shooting adventure when I remembered the Rabbit Hole in Naftan. I had only seen pictures of the place but had’t been there yet.

Without hesitation, we boarded two cars and off we went to Saipan’s southernmost tip. Turning at the intersection of Obyan Beach, we began driving on an unfamiliar rough road and ended in someone’s driveway. First try. We went back and followed another road, this time much smaller and rougher than the first one, and ended up on a small clearing with barely enough space for the cars. We tried again and finally found the right road — a tree-lined single lane grassy road that went narrow and narrower as we inched deeper into a jungle of tangan-tangan.

We reached a point where Mervin and Tony had to go down and start clearing protruding tree branches so we could drive through. It was agonizing to hear every squeak and scrape of the branches and shrubs under and on the sides of the car. I was just waiting for the final thud that would make us stuck in that jungle. It went on for the next half a mile or so as we plodded on, finally reaching a small clearing to park our cars.alt

Our trip was not over yet. Carting our heavy cameras and tripods, we slowly inched our way in the jungle — this time parting thick shrubs with our hands and ducking under roots and branches and avoiding one of the hundreds of spider webs along the way.

Emerging into the open, we followed pale pink ribbons tied to waist-high shrubs as we looked for the Rabbit Hole.

The sun was relentlessly unforgiving, beating down on us who had no shelter. Groping our way along the cliff and finding secure handholds and footholds was a real challenge. One wrong step could send us hurtling down into the rocks and the churning waters below.

We reached a cliffside where a spectacular panorama awaited us. Way down below and nestled between sharp cliffs was a cove with a small flat surface but with rugged edges resembling a stage. It was mesmerizing to watch huge waves crash on the “stage,” before rolling back to the ocean in rivulets.

I was too engrossed taking photos and video I did not notice Mervin making calls on his cellphone. We were lost. We were not supposed to be on that dangerous cliffline.

The sun was beginning to set, and we had to head back. I did not relish the idea of getting stuck in a jungle at night and share my blood with thousands of mosquitoes. None of us was prepared for that trek — we were wearing too comfortable sandals, carrying too much gear and were mentally conditioned to shoot photos in friendlier and nearer areas.

We failed to find our destination, and Tony ended up with a torn eyebrow after hitting a protruding tree branch. Our cars suffered a hundred or so minor scratches but we got the photos we wanted, and the adventure we did not plan.

The Rabbit Hole, will still be there, somewhere, next time.

First published at the Maaltrianas Variety

Escape to a secret garden

THERE is one secret spot which I consider a refuge when I want to get away from it all and just forget everything without driving far or spending anything.

Time and again, I find myself heading toward this spot in Garapan—at the Club Elan inside the Hyatt Regency just to listen to the relaxing sound of the splashing water cascading down from the a man-made falls and flowing to the swimming pool.

The way to the water falls through the reception area is an adventure itself—it is like venturing into a dimly lit stone cave which forks into two directions—one leads straight to the bar and one straight to the pool.

Here is one place where you can sit and daydream while staring at the cascading waters and listening to the soothing, therapeutic sounds for hours, and forget about daily deadlines, pressures and the routine of work.  It is one place where you can have a mini vacation for an hour or two without having to go far—one where you can watch butterflies flitting among the flowers and the birds flying around unafraid of people, where the cool breeze from the lush gardens will caress you and bring you to state of relaxed bliss, where you will sheltered from the scorching heat of the sun beating relentlessly outside.

If you want, you can sit at the bar and order your favorite drink or take it to the tables by the poolside and just relax and while away the time. I call it a secret spot because it is not visible to anyone who visits or passes by the hotel gardens. I have been one of the frequent visitors at the hotel gardens for the past four years as it is one of my favorite destinations for taking pictures of both natural and manmade attractions but I didn’t discover the waterfalls until late last year.

When the pressures get high, try to plot an escape to this secret garden to unwind and experience what wonders an hour or two will do for you. You’ll come back to work refreshed and there’s no need to book plane tickets, spend gas to drive anywhere or file a leave from work.

(First published HERE)

Adventures behind the thick shrubbery

AN unplanned drive to Lower Base last Friday afternoon led me and a friend into a place I hadn’t explored before.

Armed with cameras, we left our car on the roadside and we made our way toward the jogging track, looking for some way to get near the shore. We finally found a small clearing where we were able to crawl beneath tangles of hanging vines and clamber over protruding roots and trunks to discover a small paradise.

Cloaked behind rows of thick foliage was a clearing that gave one a new perspective of how  Smiling Cove Marina looked like. Picking our way so as not to step on soft sand, we started shooting photos of anything and everything that caught our attention.

It was a real challenge to  watch your steps and your head at the same time so you wouldn’t get entangled in a spider’s web or hit your head on the trees and branches while slapping mosquitoes and other insects that seemed angry at our intrusion.

This was one spot where life seemed to stand still. It felt almost a sin to talk and break the silence. The tide was out and hundreds of crabs big and small were scrambling out of their holes in the sand. The surface of the water looked so smooth under the hot rays of the afternoon sun, broken only by the occasional flash of flying fish.

My companion Donna, who was wearing high heels, ventured farther out to a small “island” of sand but I stayed safely on the shore, standing on a half-submerged tire. I had no wish to get my flat sandals wet.

We stayed for a long moment and crawled  to another portion where a small boat was pushed under some trees — a perfect place where the owner could easily pull it out to the water the next time he wanted to use it.

Under more trees, we saw a broken boat — or the rusty remnants of a boat. Oh the stories that boat could tell! To the regular individual, the rusty ruins were an eye sore, but not for one with a camera. It added to the beauty of the place.

Very soon, we had to move on and look for another nook to discover. Back at the jogging trail everything was normal — men and women, most of them wearing headphones, and lost in their own world, as they jog. They didn’t know that if they would stop for a while and cross those few steps beyond the cemented trail, a whole new world awaited them.

First published HERE

One afternoon at a dive site

FOR a non-diver, an afternoon spent at a popular dive site means sitting on the beach watching those small red buoys bobbing up and down, like small flags in the far distance, indicating that there are divers beneath the waves.

I had the luxury of an afternoon off a week ago, and got the chance to sit on the warm sand, munching on a bag of chips and simply enjoying the occasional spray of waves on my feet while breathing in the salty breeze from the ocean.

The parking lot of the Laulau dive site was almost full, which means that a lot of divers were out enjoying the underwater wonders of Saipan. I and some friends found a small shaded spot on the beach and settled down to throw pebbles at the water.

From a spot where a red buoy was floating, a couple clad in wet suit emerged. With heavy tanks strapped to their backs, they wobbled their way across the knee-deep rocky waters, looking so tired. But satisfaction was clearly written on their faces, and it just made me green with envy.

Diving is one aspect of adventure I haven’t ventured into yet, but one that is on my bucket list. I’ve tried scuba diving at Mañagaha before — a giant leap for one who doesn’t know how to swim.  But I survived, and found the experience exhilarating.

A few minutes later, two guys emerged above the water from the spot where a buoy was floating, and they made the slow, weary trip back to shore, dragging the buoy behind them while rolling the rope. Two ladies who had emerged from beneath the waves were busy rinsing the sand off of their wetsuits a few feet from where we were.

Down by the rocky shore, a little boy and girl carrying a small pail started to search for crabs. Further down, a fisherman with a net slung on his shoulders stood at the end of the rocky strip left uncovered by the water, surveying the sea and mentally calculating the best spot to cast his net.

To our right, a Japanese tourist sat on a fallen log, staring out into the deep blue expanse of water, looking lost in thought.

Very soon, all the buoys were removed and dragged to shore as all the divers emerged from the deep, reminding us that our brief mini-afternoon vacation was almost over and that we had to go back home.

The Laulau dive site is considered by divers to be one of the best sites on island. Stories and pictures posted by those who have been down there tell of the glorious experience of meeting a school of fish, turtles, carpet anemones, eagle rays, coral and other marine life, as well as rusty pieces of historical remnants buried underwater for decades.

These are more than enough reasons to make one take up diving lessons. In the meantime, I just contented myself with watching the shoreline teeming with life and people, with the hope that soon, I will be telling stories straight from beneath those waves. It will be a whole new world.

First published HERE

A rusty red piece of history

IMAGINE this piece of small car chugging running around the island on narrow railroad tracks transporting sugarcane from the fields to the processing plants and contributing its small share into what made Saipan’s sugar industry boom in the late 1920s.

This piece of red rusty sugar train displayed at the front part of the Sugar King Park in Garapan has always been there for as long as anyone remembers.

Lately, this sugar train relic has been reclaiming history as a site for couples on pre-nuptial or wedding shoots or as backdrop for fashion shoots. Thousands of images of this historical piece are posted in popular networking sites such as Facebook, photoblogs, and other websites—all taken by tourists, amateurs, hobbyists  or professional photographers.

Last Saturday, I finally got the chance to to inspect this sugar train up close. It was not one of my stop-shoot-run errands but I had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the park.

Rusty as the pieces of steel are, they still look sturdy. The single trailer attached to the train looks like it could still do a lot of work despite its exposure to the harsh elements of nature.

Slowly running my fingers on parts of the train, I couldn’t help but imagine what it looked like when this train was in its heydays—when it was always loaded with sugar cane running along the tracks, handling sharp curves wihtout letting go of its precious cargo.

History tells us that sugarcane became the economic backbone of the CNMI throughout the 1930’s, and this little red rusty car had played a big role in that economic boom.

This rusty yet powerful piece of history stands proudly in its place today—a reminder of the famous Sugar King Haruji Matsue who saw a bright future in the islands.

On a sad note, although the rustic volumes of history in this little car is appealing, some people just don’t care. Bottles and soda cans and plastic wrappers always adorn this piece of historical ‘junk.’

Got some spare time in your hands? Why don’t you stop by and have a few minutes to board a time machine and take a trip back to the 1920s and 1930s where the very ground you are standing was a huge sugar plantation? The key to the time machine is within your reach—through a red rusty piece of history called the Sugar Train.

First published HERE

Sailing Slow

THE invitation to go sailing in one of the sailboats peacefully tied to the dock of Smiling Cove Marina was one I did not hesitate to jump at a couple of weeks back.

The bright afternoon sun shot painful rays in our unprotected skin but it was one adventure I was not willing to quash with the fear of a few sunburns. We drove to the Smiling Cove and for the first time, I had the chance to walk on the floating docks—a chance that only boat owners and their friends usually have.

At the end of the long dock wedged in between two other sailboats was the Zen, owned by friend Matt from NMC. I eyed the boat doubfully as I calculated there were six of us and it was not a big one but honestly, I was more concerned for my camera since I conveniently forgot to bring a plastic cover for it.

Friend Donna maneuvered the sailboat smoothly out of the cove and toward the open water of the Saipan lagoon. Matt and one other companion, Jason started unfurling the sails and suddenly the wind caught—which caught me by surprise. The sailboat tilted to a precarious angle which honestly alarmed me. I have boarded boats of different kinds even under the angriest of waves in the Pacific before, even survived an inflatable boat ride over Saipan’s choppy waters but that time was different. I was not prepared to die. Or drown my new camera which had me scrimping for a long time saving money to pay for it.

Matt removed one of the sails and the boat went upright again, this time sailing straightly on the not-so-calm waters.

With only single ropes acting as handholds around the boat, it was quite challenging having to jump to the other side when the boat tilts to one side and maintaining your balance so as not to fall off the sides but that added to the thrill.

As the sailing trip was unplanned, Matt didn’t have a GPS to guide us so we just sailed back and forth in the lagoon, enjoying the view from the sea and watching schools of fish swimming near the boat.

An hour later, we were rewarded with one of nature’s gifts bestowed on this side of the planet—a spectacular sunset which we raced to capture with our cameras. When the last rays of the sun was safely tucked beneath the horizon for the day, we slowly made our way back to the dock.

The cruise boats offering sunset dinner cruises for tourists and locals also started gliding back toward the dock. From a distance, we could see the passengers of the Stars and Stripes waving at us as they joined the festive dancing on deck.

With shaky feet, I jumped on the floating dock of the Smiling Cove Marina after the boat was securely tied, glad for the experience albeit unplanned. One day, look for the right time to experience slow sailing around Saipan’s waters. You will be surprised at what lies in store for you.

First published HERE



Silhouettes at dusk

IN a small island surrounded by beaches, chances are you would have taken for granted what it is to watch the sun sink into the horizon at the end of the day, especially at the beach.

Oh, everybody knows the sun rises and sets every single day but have you ever really spent a few precious minutes watching the descent until it disappears beneath the waters in the distant? Have you experienced the blissful minutes that follow after the sun’s disappearance?

Those few minutes referred to as the ‘blue hour’ is my most favorite time of the day. It is that time where there is neither full daylight nor complete darkness and everything seems to come to a standstill.

I try to spend time at the beach to capture the sunset and blue hour as much as I could, but the chance to hang out with office mates is rare. It came one afternoon at the Micro Beach.

A handful of people were taking advantage of the remaining light, swimming and frolicking in the warm and gentle waves. Slumped on the ground some distance away, I set the zoom lens in my camera to start capturing silhouettes of everything.

The next minutes rolled by swiftly with the sun setting and me trying to capture as much as I can with my camera the everyone and everything around in amazing silhouettes. My buddy did an exhibition and away I clicked.

I only got to appreciate the spectacular sunset and silhouettes later when the photos were uploaded to the computer and I saw the amazing results.

If you are at the beach just to enjoy the sunset and the blue hour, then take your time. This spectacular routine of nature could happen so quickly you may look somewhere else and it would be gone before you know it.

A lot of people from other parts of the world would give a lot to experience what we take for granted every day. If you got some spare minutes, or better yet allocate a few minutes at the end of the day to be at the beach and see for yourself this wonder of nature free of charge for all to see. You too, can capture silhouettes in your camera or in your minds to treasure forever—one of the bonuses of living in a tropical island.

First published HERE

The other side of Tinian

HAVE you ever seen or wondered what the other end of Tinian looks like from up in the skies?

Airplanes plying the Saipan-Tinian routes only fly above the North Field and into the airstrip, and if you search, you can find aerial images of these areas online posted by thousands of passengers who have flown to and from Tinian for decades.

Some weeks back a rare chance to fly above and around the whole island came up and I did not waste a single minute to grab the chance.

We flew from Saipan toward Tinian late in the afternoon, and since we took off, my finger never stopped pressing the shutter. I’ve taken hundreds of photos from the plane window in this route countless times before, that flight was different. Instead of landing at the Tinian International Airport, my pilot flew over and made circular route around Tinian. We talked to each other though the headsets from time to time, but most of the time I was

It was a totally new experience for me. For the first time, I saw the beauty of the southern end of the island with its lush green vegetation creating a wonderful contrast to the pristine cerulean waters of the sea. The access road snaking across the deep jungles toward the Suicide Cliffs was completely deserted. We flew directly above the cliffs and I couldn’t help stop a slight shiver that ran up my spine. If the Suicide cliffs look menacing when you stand on the view deck, looking down on it from the skies increased the tremor at the pit of my stomach tenfold.

From up there, the cliffs look ten times as dangerous and the waves crashing on the rocks seem to scream of death. Maybe it was because of the tragic history connected to the Suicide Cliffs where thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their deaths, but still, I couldn’t stop but gape at the postcard-perfect scenery below.

It was also my first time to see what the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino looks like from up there, and the coastal areas.

The sun was slowly making its way down to its resting place for the day and the golden reddish skies added more drama to the images I was capturing—both with my camera and with my memory.

We circled Tinian several times before we headed toward the direction of Managaha Island where another stunning wonder awaited us. I watched the sun setting behind the fiery skies with Managaha in the foreground. I had to remind myself to keep shooting and stop gaping at the amazing streaks of colors the sunset left along the Beach Road and all over Saipan. Sometimes you have to see the place you’ve always taken for granted from different perspectives. You just don’t know what surprises await you.

Exploring a Japanese bunker at Laolao Bay

NESTLED amid thick foliage and tangan-tangan trees at Laolao Bay is one historical site that not a lot of people know about—a Japanese bunker with its canon aimed straight to the bay.

I’ve been to Laolao Bay countless times before and heard about the numerous cultural and heritage sites but I never knew where they exactly are. Until one afternoon a couple of weeks back when I went on a quick tour with Herman Tudela of the CNMI Historic Preservation Office.

Driving along the Laolao road and several meters past a cave where the last phase of the ongoing construction work is located, we took a left turn and followed a rough road until we came to a small clearing where we parked. Following a small footpath, we passed by several blockhouses made of latte stones—blockhouses which was covered by thick shrubs yet still remained intact and withstood the long years of exposure to the elements of nature.

Going further down, we came to a thick cemented archway that houses on of the Japanese canons used during the World War 11.

I stooped and entered the arch and emerged into the humid chamber of the bunker. It was clean inside and the only structure there was a rusty Japanese canon with its tip protruding from a rectangular outlet and aiming straight toward the Bay. The bunker was made of thick cement, so strong that shows promise of staying around for a long time.

If you are not familiar with Laolao Bay, you will not find the place easily. The area outside the bunker is clean but the top is covered in vines and shrubbery, and if you are not trained on detecting bits and pieces of historical artifacts, what would appear as regular stones to the ordinary eye would tell an expert volumes of stories about the past.

Going down a few meters from the bunker, one gets a superb view of the Laolao Bay. It is hard to imagine that back in the 1940s at the height of the World War 11, the place teemed with activity.

The Japanese canon at the Laolao Bay is just one of the many historical sites that get a fair share of tourists each year. All over the area are remnants of pillars of latte stone houses, and other signs of ancient villages. Centuries ago, the place that is now thickly populated with tangan-tangan used to be a habitat for the early Chamorro settlers.

The OurLaolao Campaign organizers are stepping up efforts urging the community to be aware that these historical and cultural heritage treasures exist, and there is a need to preserve them for the future generation.