Stopover on Tinian’s Overlook

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THE first thing that you will think of when you land on Tinian is that there’s nothing in the small island that can entertain you.

From above, the island is just a short stretch of trees and forests bounded by, dotted by a few dilapidated structures.

Looking out from the plane window, the beaches and the giant waves sending huge sprays on the cliffs bordering the island provide a spectacular view from above, but    aside from that, you may think Tinian is devoid of life and activities.IMG_9098

And no one will blame you for thinking that way, until you go out and dare to explore.

Only then will you discover that the island houses a hundred and one scenic spots and a treasure of historical sites that continues to draw visitors from all over the world, the remembrance of a bloody war that took place 70 years ago.

A few miles up from Taga and Tachogna Beach, Tinian’s most popular beaches is a certain spot that you will find refreshingly attractive if you care to go beyond your comfort zones and explore.

IMG_9094Just before reaching Tachogna Beach, take the paved road going left and follow it until you reach the first intersection and follow the paved road to the right. There used to be a sign somewhere on the roadside telling you it leads to the Suicide Cliff but sometimes it is covered with tall grasses and sometimes, you could be busy deciding which way to go you will miss it.

About a couple of miles from the intersection, you will come to a small clearing with a row of empty hollow drums lined up like a fence on the roadside. Walk over to the small clearing protected by a wooden fence and be prepared to take in your fill of a spectacular panorama.

IMG_9097Far below the valley the village of San Jose spread out gracefully. You can even see the old tower of the San Jose Church. The blue skies merged with the blue waters and the gently rolling waves on the far beaches present a very idyllic paradise, contrary to the angry waves you can see from the other side of the island.

The last time I was there was over a couple of months ago when the trees and grass were dry and withered, and the farms were brown waiting for the next planting season. What would have completed the overlook would be a small cottage with benches so people can sit there and watch the sunset, or where runners/joggers and bikers can take a short break to enjoy the panorama.

The overlook is just the beginning of your exploration in that part of the island. Go further and you will discover more breathtaking hiking trails, shrines, World War 11 remnants, historical sites like the Korean and Japanese monuments at the Suicide Cliff.IMG_9073

Tinian has more to offer than you would expect. The island holds its share of more adventures waiting to be tapped. There are more to the jungles, underwater wonders and historic sites and you only need to go out to change your perspective of this island.

For more adventures about Tinian, Saipan and Rota, visit https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/.

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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

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

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.

Brief stopover at Rota’s latte stone quarry

ROTA — The noonday sun beatPhotos by Raquel C. Bagnol mercilessly on my unprotected arms and back was nothing compared to the excitement I was feeling as I picked my way among the tall grasses toward one of the famous latte stones that had claimed a fair share of space on various websites for the past years.

I was standing at the site of Taga latte stone quarry — known to be Micronesia’s best preserved and largest stone quarry, and one of the most unique cultural attractions of Rota. Anyone who visits the place cannot help but take photos and post it online for the world to see.

I had just landed on island for the first time, and friend Ali drove me straight from the airport toward the northern end of the island which had been in my wish list for the past three years.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Rota’s latte stone quarry, also known as the As Nieves quarry, was a sight to behold, and capture through the lens.

The huge latte stone columns and capstones cut from solid coral limestone separated from each other by trenches was a real wonder. It was hard to imagine how the ancient Chamorros carved the gigantic latte stones but here was one real proof of their engineering skills.

The huge latte stones were believed to have been used as foundation pillars for ancient Chamorro houses. I could not stop going around the area and clicking on the shutter to capture these huge stone wonders from different angles.

Standing tall and proud on a pedestal surrounded with flowers and shrubs a few feet away from the latte stones was a huge statue of Chief Taga, who, according to legend, quarried the stones on Rota before abandoning it and building the House of Taga on Tinian.

Here is a must-visit cultural site on Rota that you should not miss. I would have wanted to stay  longer, but we didn’t have the luxury of time. We still had to visit more attractions that the island had to offer.

Brief stopover at Rota’s latte stone quarry | around-the-island.