Saturday, April 17, 2010
After an interesting but definitely not relaxing trip to Thailand over the Christmas Break, Jeff was looking for some much need R&R and suggested Saipan for Spring Break. “There’s beautiful beaches and World War II history” … just perfect I thought to myself, maybe I could go get a Pedi while he takes the kids on the war tour?
With a work schedule to dance around we were only able to get away for 5 days – but they were five wonderful days, filled with lots of water sports and some much needed rest. Jeff’s one request was to make sure his “levels” didn’t get too low and to keep the Margaritas coming on a 90 minute cycle. I think we were able to meet his request … he was the most relaxed I’ve seen him in years.
PIC – Pacific Island Club
Our family has never stayed at an all inclusive resort so this was a new experience for us. It worked out perfect – they kids all did what they wanted and I basically said “I’ll be right here, under this umbrella, if you need me this is where you’ll find me.” Off they went. Snorkeling, windsurfing, paddleboarding, rockclimbing, tennis lessons, archery – enough to keep them busy for a few days. The lagoon off of the western side of Saipan is huge – over 20 square miles – with coral and beautiful fish to see, lots of time in the water.
The question came up almost as soon as we started talking about going to Saipan – how exactly is it connected to the U.S. – good question I said, but truthfully I had no idea. Hoping that when we arrived I would be enlightened I only got a bit more confused – seeing CNMI around the island – we all learned this stands for Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, there are 14 islands but Saipan has 90% of the population. They became a commonwealth and entered into a political union with the U.S. in 1978, they are a democracy with an elected governor and a U.S. House of Representative (who can vote in committee but not on the house floor – I am not sure what good that does). The defense and foreign affairs are the responsibility of the U.S. Saipan is about the size of Washington, DC – 13 miles long and 6 miles wide. It is the furthest point from the west coast of the United States to be protected under the U.S. flag and is as far from the west coast as Washington, DC is to Cairo, Egypt.
On our last day in Saipan we rented a car and traveled the island hitting some of the high points (and trying hard not to be so shocked at the extremely depressed economy that was evident everywhere we looked). Our first stop was at the CNMI Museum of History and Culture. Clearly not as well funded as the NPS American Memorial Park, it was still quite interesting and is housed in the former quarters of a Japanese Hospital. There we learned that Saipan has been ruled by the Spanish (who brought God in the form of the Catholic church), then Germany (who brought business), then Japan (who brought agriculture and over 30,000 immigrants – Koreans and Okinawans who worked the sugar cane fields) and then the U.S. which brought democracy … and a whole boatload of other problems. There was also an interesting a quite poignant exhibit from the seniors of the local high school– they digitally documented Saipan through their eyes. Through their images you could see their hope for the future, the dismay at the present, and the very clear understanding that this beautiful island is at a fork in the road (as one photo depicted) … which path will they take? For more on the history of the island go to http://www.cnmi-guide.com/history/
Our next stop was the NPS American Memorial Park, which was very well done and incredibly interesting … yes, even if it was mostly about the war. One of the pieces of history that I just couldn’t really wrap my head around was why there were so many Japanese casualties during the 3-week Battle of Saipan. Nearly all of the 30,000 Japanese defenders were killed, less than 1000 remained alive at the battle’s end. And over 10,000 civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle. Why? I found the answers although I’m not sure my western brain can quite grasp it – one of the interviews I read in the museum was from a Japanese POW who said that as a soldier they were never told or trained in what to do if you became a POW (vs. the U.S. service members who follow the Code of the U.S. Fighting Force, based on concepts and traditions that date back to the American Revolutionary War). Fighting to the death was expected and would bring honor to the soldiers family. Emperor Hirohito, sent out an imperial order encouraging the civilians of Saipan to commit suicide, the order promised civilians who died there an equal spiritual status in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat. Over 10,000 civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle some jumping from Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff, many with their children in their arms. For more about the museum and/or the history of Saipan go to http://www.nps.gov/amme/index.htm or http://www.cnmi-guide.com/history/ww2/4/
After going through the museum we headed out to the northern tip of the island to see Banzai Cliffs, Suicide Cliffs and whatever other war sites popped up along the way. The cliffs are stunning and quite the popular spot with the Japanese that were there by the busloads. Mitchell and Walker were even corralled into having their photo taken with some of the Japanese. We also stopped at the Grotto, a naturally formed area popular for diving. As I was waiting for everyone to come back a native Saipanese taxi driver came over and we started to chat – I asked him about the economy and he said it’s bad, very bad. When I arrived home I did my research and found out that the problems there are many, the garment industry which used to have numerous factories including Gap, Lord and Taylor, Levi Strauss, and WalMart by 2009 had all closed up shop – due in large part to immigration violations that permitted questionable work permits with little oversite to the working conditions. The last statistics I could find were from over a decade ago, at that time the unemployment rate was 14% and the poverty was at 35% - that’s before all the garment factories closed. With that the crime rate has increased and thus tourism has declined.
The island is beautiful with its turquoise waters and huge lagoon. The PIC was fun and interesting. The cliental was Japanese, Korean, Russian and American military families. It made for interesting buffets with a variety of international foods to try at each meal. And there will probably always be the memory for Mitchell who played a nearly 3 hour chess game against some Russian kids about his age – they couldn’t speak English and he couldn’t speak Russian but the game of chess crossed the language barrier (in the end he lost but I’m darn proud of him for holding out that long).
We’ll have great memories from our trip and I think we all learned a lot, more than just about the battle or enjoying the beach activities, but also about cultural differences that impact decisions and choices. We saw beautiful fish that we’d only seen in books or on Discovery Channel and I’ll always remember hearing Wrenn through her snorkel going “OOOOOHHH, OOOOOHHHH” as she saw some beautiful fish go by.
Till next time, sayonara.
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