A visit to Lourdes Shrine on Tinian

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TINIAN—Just a few meters down the road past the Northern Marianas College campus on Tinian and just beyond rows of pine trees is a turn with a sign pointing to one of the very special and considered holy places in the island—the Lourdes Shrine.

If you see the wooden signboard and a small altar made from a pile of stones, with two smaller statues on both sides of the altar, you have come to the right place.

Take the grassy right turn and the scenic short drive flanked by coconut trees on both sides leading to the Korean Memorial, and the Japanese Crematory a few meters away and going straight all the way to the end of the road will lead you to the Lourdes Shrine.

I had been to this place for a quick stop about four years ago but IMG_2597I never had the chance to go in and explore the area, until some weeks ago when friend Susan took me to another quick drive around the island.

The Shrine for Santa Lourdes is considered a holy place to many especially the devotees, Susan said. She said she often visits the place to pray and meditate.

The Shrine is located inside the huge gaping stone cave with vines hanging from the ceiling. If you go in, you will feel dwarfed like the whole cave is going to swallow you. I followed a small enclosure at the side of the huge cave thinking it was leading to an exit, but it was a dead end. The cave has lost its natural feel because of the electric bulbs installed in the ceiling around the statue of the Blessed Virgin, and the wide tarpaulin erected just outside the mouth of the cave to provide shelter for those who want to visit the place, but despite the modern touches, you can still feel the sacredness of the place.

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The Lourdes Shrine is just a few meters away from the main road and you don’t need to wear hiking shoes or anything. You can bring your car right up to the mouth of the cave which we did. Somewhere near the Lourdes Shrine and the Korean Memorial is the Japanese Crematory which was just pointed out to me to be behind tall bushes. I didn’t have a chance to go near it for the two times that I have been to the place, but there is always a next time.IMG_2602

If you divert away from the popular tourist attractions like beaches and historical sites, where every visitor usually goes to, you can discover that there is still so much more to see, discover and rediscover of this small island that has played a big role in one of the bloodiest wars of the Pacific during World War 11. For more adventures on Tinian and the CNMI please visit www.studiof6.com or https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/

Long-exposure photography at Banzai Cliff

DSC_6581YOU should visit Banzai Cliff at night to see a totally different aspect of one of the most frequented places on island.

Recently, I was there with five other photographers. We wanted to learn time-lapse photography and we were told that Banzai Cliff was the best spot to do it. We arrived just before 8 p.m.Setting up our tripods and cameras, we studied the sky. Only a few stars were visible and I was beginning to get disappointed, but I followed what my companions were doing and set the timer on my camera and left it to do its work. We kept repeating the process and paid more attention to the food and drinks that we brought with us.IMG_2196

Banzai Cliff was so different at night. It had an eerie feel and the silhouettes of monuments seemed sinister. My imagination was running wild, as usual. I thought the statues would come to life at any time, and I could almost hear the screams of the people who died in that place during the war.

Half an hour and several gigabytes later, I scrolled back to have a glimpse of what my camera collected. I was in for a big surprise. I saw only a few stars but the camera showed more — in fact the sky was filled with glittering dots and I had to check if my camera was not playing tricks on me. I peered at the screens of my companions and discovered that yes indeed, there were more stars in the sky than we saw.DSC_9006

Fascinated, I repositioned my tripod to face the area above Suicide Cliff and turned it to the widest angle to capture the silhouettes of the monuments with the stars.

My images did not come out good as well as the time-lapse images of the other photographers. I need more practice, but the experience taught me a lot about the wonders of the sky.IMG_5663

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60119-time-lapse-photography-on-banzai-cliff

Rota: Visiting a prayer mountain

It was a place I never knew existed here and we reached it by taking the first left turn off the highway on the way up to Mt. Sabana one hot afternoon.
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We were on the rough, bumpy road w  hen our tour guide, Jack, instructed my buddy photographer, Pat. to take the grassy path on the left for “a surprise.” I looked at Jack and then at the road doubtfully. There was no sign that cars had been on that road for some time as it was almost completely covered with grass, but he was our guide and he knew the island like the back of his hand, or so he said.There were portions of the road where we had to slow down and listen to the creaking and groaning of the car as Pat maneuvered around deep potholes and kept going. After several minutes, there was a fork in the road and Jack pointed to the right.IMG_7156 The road became grassy and less rough as we headed to a clearing with coconut trees on the roadsides. From a distance, I saw objects that looked like white crosses and asked Jack if it was a cemetery but he shook his head. I decided not to ask any more questions and just waited to see where the road would lead us.

Soon, the road ended and then we saw it. A long flight of steep stairs painted bright pink and white leading to a grotto where three huge crosses were erected. The grotto was a natural enclosure in the mountain wall.

The bright paint stood out among the green shrubs and flowering plants. If it was late in the afternoon or early in the morning, I might have been tempted to climb the stairs up to the top, but not in the sweltering heat of the mid day.

IMG_7190There was no one around, but Jack said that during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday, the place was filled with people from Songsong and Sinapalo. He said people camp out on Thursday night and make the trek up to the crosses along with other Catholic devotees.

The place is Rota’s equivalent to Saipan’s Mt. Tapochau where people go on Good Friday. The only difference is that here, you get to the top by climbing comfortable and well-maintained stairs.

The drive to this place of prayer is rough but the view along the way is worth it. Far to the other end of the cliff wall were more enclosures similar to the one where the grotto was located. These were caused by bombs during the war.

If you want to visit this place when there are a lot of people, do it during Holy Week, but if you want silence, you can go at any other time of the year and have it all to yourself.IMG_7188

First published at the Marianas Variety HERE

Exploring Saipan’s seldom-frequented roads

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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.
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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

‘Shooting’ a Japanese cannon

IMG_4657THE first time I saw this Japanese cannon at Naftan Point, Saipan’s southernmost tip, was in 2009 when I went for an early morning hike with my co-workers, and I vowed never to return to that place. For someone whose only form of exercise was going up and down the stairs at the office, another hike from Dandan to the very edge of Naftan was a nightmarish proposition.
That vow was broken some months back when an unplanned drive around the island with three photographer buddies took us to the rough road beyond the airport where we ended at Hawaiian Rock.
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Luckily, this time we were in a Rav-4 and Donna at the wheel was courageous enough to drive in the area. I broke my promise because I was not hiking and I was not driving either.The road in the jungle heading to Naftan Point was like a dried-up river with portions so deep and some so rocky we had to hold our breath wondering if the car could make it. But Donna navigated through the potholes with grim determination. And that was how I found myself again at the cliff overlooking Tinian on the right side, and Forbidden Island on the far left. And unlike the first time I was there, I got the chance to enjoy taking photos because I was not panting and trying to regain my breath. Soon we all got so busy clicking away we almost forgot each other.

From the Naftan Point ledge, the tip of the Japanese cannon emerged from behind the bushes so we all trooped toward the World War II relic, slowly picking our way through the grass and sharp rocks. There was really no path that led to the cannon. We had to create one. When we got to it, we all went to work immediately. Pat took video footage with his steady cam while Ems, Donna and I used our Canon cameras to take photos of the cannon.IMG_4644

There were no visible changes to the Japanese cannon, except for the rust that was eating at the entire structure. According to historical accounts on the internet, the roof of the bunkhouse that housed the Japanese cannon was blown off during the battle of Saipan.

The cannon was strategically placed, hidden in the thick undergrowth but with its tip facing the ocean.

Naftan Point remains a perfect site for hikers and bikers as well as for World War II buff and daring explorers. There are numerous trails and forks in the road that lead to caves, more war relics, bunkers, and anti-aircraft enclosures which are scattered all over the jungle.

Except for a biker every now and then, you rarely see anyone at Naftan IMG_1446Point. It is so out of the way and the almost impassable road for small cars is enough to discourage anyone from going there.

But the Naftan peninsula is a photographer’s dream, with its enchanting jungles, rugged terrain, steep cliffs and plateaus.

No matter how many times you’ve been there, there is always so much to see and explore at Naftan Point.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Peace memorial on a mountaintop

IMG_7286At the island’s highest elevation stands a stone structure that few people visit: a World War II peace memorial.
I made attempts to see Sabana Peace Memorial Park on my first visits but failed. On my first try, I and a companion drove the rocky and dusty road and stopped when we reached a rusty gate. A huge board by the roadside announced “Welcome to Sabana,” but on the other side of the board obscured by tall bushes was a notice stating that the gate would be closed at 5 p.m. It was already 4 p.m. and we dared not risk getting locked in.On my second try, I decided I couldn’t do it alone so I drove back to the village.During my most recent visit to Rota I finally got the chance to reach the mountaintop because I was with two companions, and I was not doing the driving.The road past the huge billboard became narrower and the wind picked up as we passed acres of fields and vegetable gardens. We seemed to be driving on and on until suddenly, there was no more mountain to be seen, which meant we had reached its peak.IMG_7314IMG_7289The road was barely visible and was covered with thick bushes as we drove on until we reached a clearing with a well-manicured lawn leading to two man-made stone walls on Mt. Sabana.

Everything was so quiet and peaceful as we got out of the car and headed toward two jutting rocks that provided some kind of shelter. They were remnants of the rock wall which Japanese soldiers used as a shield during the war.

A marker with the paint peeling off stated that the Sabana Peace Memorial was erected on Sept. 16, 1973 by the Peace Memorial EreIMG_7241ction Committee headed by Rota Mayor Antonio Atalig and Rota Rep. Prudencio T. Manglona to honor Japanese nationals who lost their lives during World War II on Rota.

According to the marker, “May this gesture promote friendship between the people of Japan and the people of Rota.”

A Japanese translation was engraved on the marker beside the English text.

There was nobody around but we could see the place was well-maintained. We took photos and went around the rock walls to see gently rolling hillsides covered with green vegetation.

A concrete shelter with tables and benches was erected on the left side of the area, providing visitors with a place to relax and enjoy the fresh mountain breeze.

I was glad I wasn’t alone. It would be weird and scary to be the only person in that place, and if you had a car problem you would have to wait a long time before another vehicle showed up, if at all. But the long drive was worth it. It’s exhilarating standing on top of the island’s highest peak at 1,627 feet.

We didn’t stay at the peace memorial for long. We decided to try our luck in finding another road that would take us down to the other side of the island. We plowed through bushes taller than our car hoping a road existed beneath them. We had to go back several times after hitting dead ends, and had to finally give up when we saw that what used to be a road was covered with thick foliage and there was no way we could go through even if we had been using a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we were not.IMG_7211

We drove down the same road going to Sinapalo and headed for the nearest store to quench our thirst with cold water, a necessity which we failed to bring on our Sabana trip.

If you’re on Rota, you must visit the Sabana Peace Memorial.For more articles about Saipan, Tinian and Rota go to https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com.

First published at Marianas Variety

The Shadow at the Bell Marker

IMG_9219IT started with a red arrow on a rusty sign beside the path that proclaimed: “The Bell of Peace and Love…anyone who rings this bell will return to this special place someday again.”
It was the red arrow pointing to a wooded area some 80 meters ahead that kept me going despite the knot of fear that was forming in me. It was almost dark and I never feel comfortable being alone at Sugar King Park but I couldn’t resist the sign. I kept going with hesitant steps, looking furtively behind me as I did so.I followed the stony pathway strewn with orange blossoms from the flame trees that snaked around the grassy areas and came upon a structure in the midst of a mini-forest that I hadn’t seen before — a hexagonal building of sturdy wood on a concrete platform.
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No one was around and there was silence except for the chirping of the birds in the trees and the crunching of the leaves on the ground I was stepping on. I tentatively moved toward the structure and tried to peer through the windows barred with steel but I couldn’t see a thing inside. The roof was covered with fallen leaves. Three big padlocks hung from the door so there was no way to check what was inside.Then I remembered what I was there for — the bell, and there it was, on the left side as you face the prayer house.I saw a marker with the inscription: “The Bell of Peace, The Bell of Love. Anyone who rings this bell will vow the eternal peace and love. Anyone who rings this bell will be blessed with great joy and happiness. The sound of the bell filled with peace and love will lead them to this special place someday again.” The sign was translated into Japanese.I was about to press the shutter and take a photo of the marker but I freaked out when a shadow fell on it. I felt my hair stand on end and was poised to run when I realized it was my own shadow, complete with the camera hanging from my neck.

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I dared not ring the bell. I had no wish to hear a prolonged ringing echoing through the woods. My imagination was playing havoc on my mind and I had visions of waking up the souls of the dead. A mossy trail ran up the hill just behind the house of prayer, but I dared not follow it. It was almost dark and I felt weird trying to fight off the feeling that I was being watched. I left the place, vowing to return soon in broad daylight and with companions.

According to information on a board near the prayer house, the construction of the hexagonal hall of prayer or the Saipan International House of Prayer (Nanmeido) was made possible by Reverend Shinryu Akita of Shizuoka, Japan and the families, relatives and friends of the Japanese soldiers who died here during the war as well as the Marianas Visitors Bureau (now known as the Marianas Visitors Authority).

A completion ceremony was held on October 4,1990. Built of fine Japanese cypress, the prayer house was dedicated to Jibo Kannon, Goddess of Mercy who has the power to draw near all the deceased spirits in hopes of eternal peace and prosperity for Saipan. The prayer house was designed by Kameyama Construction Company of Seki, Gifu Prefecture in Japan. Professor Naito Akira of Nagoya Technical College, an authority on traditional Japanese wooden structures, supervised the construction work.

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If you haven’t been to this part of the Sugar King Park before, just follow the path of the Pai Pai Hill Nature Trail that runs to the right of the Saipan Katori Jinja temple and you will get there.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Exploring Tonga Cave

20130515_160840Right in the heart of Songsong Village on Rota is a huge cave which I tried to visit the first two times I was here but just didn’t get around to it. First, I ran out of time, and second, I was all alone and kind of scared to go in. –
My chance to go into this huge cave came last month when I finally had company and I got a bonus because he’s a photographer too.Tonga Cave is just a few meters from Rota Breakfast & Bed, beside the IT&E office, and very near the residential areas. Follow the sign on the road and the grassy drive will lead you straight to the cave.The first time I visited the cave was one late afternoon. I went up as far as the main entrance but got scared and went back down, promising myself I’d go back as soon as I had some company. A couple of kids were on their way to the cave but they were called back by their parents halfway up.

20130515_161301Just before climbing up the hundred or so rough concrete stairs to the triangular mouth of the cave, there were two small holes just big enough to let a small person in and they led down into the darkness below. I wanted to explore those holes but not when I had my heavy cameras with me.

I pulled my buddy Pat away from the small enclosures and watched him race up the steps to the entrance. I was short of breath when I finally caught up with him.

Tonga Cave is a mix of the natural and the artificial, with the concrete steps providing easier access to visitors, and with stalactites and stalagmites that made it look like a huge yawning mouth with uneven teeth.

There was no one else in the cave and our steps and voices echoed in the vast chamber. Tonga Cave is not like other caves where you go deep into the bowels of the earth. This cave is open at the other side and the entrance is covered by rocks and hanging vines casting eerie shadows.

Perched on a rock in one part of the cave, I felt like I was looking down at another planet with the small stalagmites covering the cave floor. The cave was damp but not wet. Huge vines hanging from the rocks above the cave entrance added to the charm of the cave. You can almost imagine Tarzan swinging up above.

I heard from Rota residents that the cave was turned into a hospital by the Japanese   during World War II. The residents used the cave as shelter during typhoons, and it was once home to a colony of Mariana Fruit Bats.

It was easy to imagine hundreds of people taking refuge in the huge cave. The cave’s high ceilings dwarfed us. There was hardly any air flow inside the cave and pretty soon, we were sweating despite the open air, forcing us to hurry up taking photos and go out to get a breath of fresh air.IMG_0735

I lingered for a bit longer at the entrance to the cave while Pat went to explore another crevice among the stone formations a few yards down. We met some new friends on Rota who told us there was another bigger cave somewhere on the way to the Bird Sanctuary which would require an experienced guide and flashlights. There’s always a next time.20130515_160927

The next time you’re on Rota, check out Tonga Cave, a piece of history that adds to the allure of this island.

First published at the Marianas Variety

Remains of a sugar mill

IMG_7070 I still haven’t figured out how I missed seeing the remains of the old sugar mill on this island during my first two trips, but the dilapidated structure did not escape my lens during my most recent trip last month. Buddy Pat and I had been driving around the commercial seaport looking for just anything to photograph when he pointed out the ruins that I may have seen before but never paid attention, if at all just outside the port gate.

The mill, which is also known as the Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha Sugar Mill. Pat parked our rented car beside the road and proceeded to the remains of a red train in front of a quaint but dilapidated brick structure. The ruins looked great with the lush green surroundings in the noonday sun. IMG_7031 IMG_7035

With cameras slung on our shoulders, we crawled through the tunnel-like brick structures and made our way to the base of a ruined of chimney and toward the back of the mill. I was using a 250mm zoom lens and had to move a good distance away before I can shoot.

Huge slabs ofIMG_7028 cement hung precariously in some parts of the tunnel, held in place by a few steel bars that appeared they might give way at any time. But despite the huge holes in the brick walls of the tunnels and the mill, the structure seemed to have defyed the elements quite well.

Thick shrubbery enveloped the rest of the mill behind the neatly preserved façade but that just added to the charm of these dilapidated remains of a once glorious industry.

The mill was built in the late 1920s to early 1930’s. According to the information printed on the sign, Haruji Matsue, who studied agriculture at Louisiana State University, established a successful sugar industry in the Northern Marianas in the early 1920s. There were two sugar-cane operations on Saipan at that time but these had failed and Matsue bought the companies, paid the back wages of the farmers and imported additional labor from Okinawa. Matsue cleared the forests of Tinian and Saipan, facilitated sugar-cane production and extended it to Rota in the 1930s. Rota was the last to be developed as its land was less suitable for growing cane. All the sugar produced on the three islands was shipped to Japan.

Most of the sugar on Rota was grown on the relatively flat eastern region of the island. From the fields, the cut cane was brought to the factory on narrow-gauge rail cars pulled by an engine which is the sole remaining silent witness of a once flourishing sugar cane industry.IMG_7021-001

A third sign at the site provided information on how sugar cane was processed in the factory.

If you visit Rota, don’t miss stopping by the remains of the old sugar mill and let it transport you back to the island as it was in the 1930s.IMG_7042

First published at the Marianas Variety

Tranquility at an abandoned park

ROTA — Delightfully situated on a prime spot along the coastal road just before you enter Songsong is one paradise that you should not miss when you’re here —  Pinatang Park.

It is a huge boulevard with an entrance made of cement but designed to look like natural logs and intricate woodwork.

The gate leads straight to a long arch bridge connecting to a smaller island, a small park complete with a pool and spiraling water slides, picnic tables and benches and other amenities that makes up what perfect picnics areas should be.

I stopped by Pinatang Park one cloudy afternoon a couple of months back, drawn to the sense of peacefully quiet but scenic park overlooking the ocean and bordered by islets that serve as natural fences against the giant waves.

I had the whole place to myself and I couldn’t help but conclude that if there is one spot on the beautiful island of Rota that can make you sigh with deep regret, it is this place. Something is missing in this beautiful park —people and sounds of laughter and everything that parks are supposed to be.

The long boulevard stretched endlessly, each slab of cement, posts with missing lights, crumbling or missing balustrades, rusty benches with pieces of steel sticking out, and everything else telling its own sad story.

At the far end of the park, a beautiful cottage/bar or what’s left of it, with round cement stools around it tells its own sad story of glory days gone by, a testimony that this beautiful park has been exposed to fend off for itself against the harsh elements of nature.

A Rota resident said the park requires too much money to maintain and the municipality has no funds for it, hence its present state.

Only the profusion of colorful flowers and the chirping birds refuse to acknowledge the fact that the park is left with no one to maintain it, and that visitors can come and go as they please, at their own risk.

I got scared to cross the bridge and explore the other side of  Pinatang Park. I regretted that decision and wouldn’t miss going there if I get another chance to come back to Rota.

Soon, a school bus dropped off some students on the roadside and the silence was broken. One little boy ventured down the stairs to hide from his companions and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of him.

It’s funny but despite the dilapidation and sense of abandonment surrounding the park, I find it appealing and would have stayed longer if not for the huge, fat raindrops that started to pelt on the deserted park. I ran for the car hugging my gear, and with heart still heavy with regret, drove away to Songsong for a late lunch.

Tranquility at an abandoned park | around-the-island.