I love Saipan, and you will, too!

Saipan is a gorgeous tropical island. White sand beaches, palm trees, more fish than you’ll ever identify, fragrant plumeria, hibiscus, palm trees, orchids galore, feral chickens, kingfishers, and did I mention palm trees? (I love palm trees.) The beauty takes your breath away.

  • Forbidden Island from the lookout

Like most places on planet Earth these days, it’s also broken. Smashed by typhoons, challenged by impossible to maintain infrastructure, damaged by shortsighted politics and corrupt business and political manipulations. I don’t want to show you those pictures right now, but you’re familiar with brokenness in our world, are you not?

Nevertheless, Saipan a sparkling gem in the midst of the sea, and I love living here. Long-term residency might not be for everyone. You have to be comfortable with sweating. And I mean really comfortable. You have to be okay with cooking based on what’s in the markets this week, rather than that new recipe you wanted to try. You can’t count on sour cream, for example, being available on demand. You must accept that anything and everything you own will begin deteriorating rapidly the moment you arrive, until it’s rusted, mildewed, brittle, rotted, corroded and shorted out in less time than you can possibly believe. The climate is brutal on every substance we’ve encountered. (Wear sunscreen! You’re of substance, too!)

We have got our head around all that, most of the time. The stuff that rots, it’s just stuff. Daring to buy local, and choose food with almost no English on the packages is an adventure, and a worthwhile one. (But use caution! See picture.) And the sweating…well, let’s just say that though I was never a fan of AC (or aircon, as we say here), I’m now a die-hard convert. And fans work really well in tandem with sweating–that evaporative cooling mechanism, you know.

And we are in the 21st century here. Mostly. We have electricity, almost all the time. Hot and cold running water…you just can’t drink it (it’s brackish and messes with brown dyes in your clothes, go figure!). I can work from home on high speed internet, publish books on Amazon, talk to my kids on Whatsapp and Facebook and by phone. We have a hospital (not really recommended, though) and a theater, a college, concerts, a hideous casino, all the comforts of home, really. Just not exactly like home, which is fabulous!

One of my favorite things about Saipan is, wait, there are two main things…no…ack! I’ll just tell you one today. Given how hard the climate is on every single thing, I love how ingenious Saipan’s splendid people are at making do with what’s on hand to work in the heat, and maintain and repair what’s needed. A couple of examples:

  • Heavy rainfall, and perhaps some of that political stuff I mentioned earlier, mean the roads are perennially under construction. They’re built and repaired using modern road paving machines. But the men working on them wear long sleeved T’s tied strategically around their heads, necks, and faces to protect them from sun and dust. Dampen it and you have that evaporative cooling thing. Throw it in the wash and it’s fresh for tomorrow. Cool beans! Now if I could figure out how to do that for our next hike…I need a tutorial.
  • Recently I saw an ancient man holding a fat rope, leading his cow along the shoulder of the under-construction road. The cow pulled a small homemade cart carrying…a stack of brand new, neon orange traffic cones for the construction zone. I just never saw that in Idaho, or even Hawaii.
  • Grocery carts are repaired with nylon twine.
  • Cars are repaired with nylon twine. And random bits of wire. And foam tubing. And re-purposed plastic bits of endless variety. And that’s just what I’ve seen on our own car.
  • An employee of our local utilities company fixed a blown transformer in front of our house. On Sunday afternoon. He pulled up in his personal truck, wearing board shorts and flip-flops, and used a nifty extend-a-pole dealybob. I’m sure he was a fisherman, too, because he caught the the popped foot-long fuse bar on the first try and fit it back into place in less than a minute. Then he drove off–to go fishing, maybe. Electricity restored, no muss no fuss.
  • My current favorite: the events and announcements marquee in front of our neighborhood elementary school looks like this:
    Now if you think about it, this is pure genius. An electric marquee would corrode and short out in no time. Your old-fashioned felt-and-push-in-letters board needs a glass front vulnerable to storms and moisture getting in. Plastic letters that slide into trays? They’d be gone the first windy day, and we have a lot of those. This board has the advantages of a white board with serious durability added: instead of an eraser, a coat of white paint gets you a clean slate. You can paint whatever message you want, and there it will stay unless a serious typhoon sends it into the next town. In which case all bets are off about report card conferences. Message out of date? Paint it over and start again. Whether it’s because fancy signs are too expensive to ship here (don’t get me started on THAT), or the fancy sign long since bit the dust, the people who need to inform everyone about what’s going on figured out a practical, cheap way to do it. I love it.

Okay, next time more favorite Saipan things!

Culture Shock: From the USA to Saipan

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Or Idaho, or even Hawaii. Even though “Saipan is where America’s  day begins,” there are shockers here having nothing to do with the island’s sweet people, perfect weather and gorgeous beaches. Here is a random selection.

1. Saipan is not America…

Saipan has voluntarily and enthusiastically associated with the USA as a “commonwealth in political union with the US.” The residents drive on the right side of the road, use dollars, speak English (mostly), vote in some US elections (not presidential elections) and are US citizens.

But Saipan has its own culture; a glorious mix of Chamorro, Carolinian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Pacific Islands, German, Spanish and American with many other influences thrown in. Many things you might take for granted in the states are just not how things are done here. The differences range from the trivial to the extreme, and will make you laugh, cry, grind your teeth, or get back on an airplane, depending.

2. Packaging with no English text.

Let’s start with the trivial. Often, images on packaging are enough. A can or bottle of translucent liquid with a picture of a coconut on the label is probably coconut water, my favorite. But other times the pictures are remarkably unhelpful. A vague chip form–is it animal or vegetable? Vegetable or fruit? Perhaps not actually a food…a sponge? Little gadgets are often a mystery. Is this a personal care item? Or is it for household repairs? A toy, even?

On the other hand, packaging with English text can be quite entertaining (when it’s not mystifying or horrifying), see the “Washing Ball” text (look closely).

3. Food, with or without packaging.

The Japan Snacks aisle at our local grocery features, among a thousand other items, Tara Snacks, which are (and I’m not kidding) layers of “cheese and codfish.” And no, you don’t want any, guess how I know.

You can buy cans of Chrysalis in every market. Yes, chrysalis, as in “quiescent insect pupa, especially of a butterfly or moth.” To eat.

On the other hand, I could eat Wasabi Peas all day long. And the sushi, the noodles, the bananas, the fresher than fresh fish, the oh-my-gosh-how-have-I-never-eaten-this-before Chicken Kelaguin! I won’t be going hungry any time soon.


4. Food again–and the price thereof.

I recently paid $8.99 for a pint of sour cream, almost on purpose. At the other end of the spectrum, a giant mound of fresh bean sprouts can be had for a dollar. As can a clump of green onions, a thick rope of long beans, or a bag of the best tomatoes anywhere.

And then there’s the age-old question: $14 for a slab of yummy prime rib? Or $17 for this lovely fish head? In this neck of the jungle, not as many people would go for the steak as you might think!

5. Black or white, you’re a tiny minority.

We got a taste of this in Hawaii, but here it’s absolute. Brown in its splendid chocolate rainbow of shades dominates. Long, thick, shining black hair, dark eyes…you get the feeling this is how human beings are meant to look. My distant ancestors trudged over mountains and through blizzards to live in frozen northern wastes (why??) and had to abandon beautiful cocoa skin in favor of maximum absorption of Vitamin D. I have melanin, sure I do. In little dots. A spatter of spots. A flurry of freckles. Ah, well. Maybe in Heaven I’ll be brown.

6. First, pay the cashier.

Need car insurance? It’s cheap here: as of this writing about $180 for a year. But first, go get a Traffic Clearance (But I’ve only been here two weeks! No matter!). The clearance (an official assurance that you haven’t broken any traffic laws) costs only $2. BUT, you must pay the $2 at the cashier’s window and bring your receipt to the traffic clearance office before making further progress. Need a driver’s license? Car registration? Utilities? Any official service at all? Go find and pay the right cashier first, get your receipt, then see the man and fill out your forms. I’ve never before lived in a place that does it like this, but perhaps I need to get out more.

7. We’re out of stock.

We love Fresca. We can buy it here, once every few months. Need sour cream (even at $8.99 a pint) for a recipe? Don’t count on it. Butter? Maybe next week. Need a truck? Could be a while. Wanting a sofa for your new place? Boy, that’s a tall order, unless the one on the left is what you had in mind.

A water dispenser to dispense the 5-gallon jugs of purchased water you can drink? If the two or three places that carry them are out, you might think about fetching one from Guam. Or, you can of course just wait for the next boat. (Ordering from Amazon is a whole ‘nother adventure…)

One time a government office we had to deal with ran out of ink for their the printer, FOR SEVERAL DAYS. Which meant we could not do our business FOR SEVERAL DAYS.

But on the other hand, there is always plenty of fresh local food. And so far, the best carrots in the world, imported from Korea, have never been out of stock. (You’ll perhaps be disappointed to learn that we eventually found a brown corduroy sofa, and so did not need to dramatically revise our decorating style to…uh…bohemian casino?)

8. Betel nut

The tree is gorgeous. The chewing habit is disgusting. Think of chewing tobacco, but then imagine not just baseball players and grimy old codgers gnashing a nasty chaw, but also beautiful 16 year old girls, mouths brimming with rusty brown slop, spitting it in any convenient corner. Picture a trim and polished police officer, sporting a shiny badge and crisply pressed uniform, stepping out of his spotless cruiser and letting loose a stream of betel nut juice on the pavement. Completely aside from the reasons why people use it, and the horrible possible effects on one’s health and appearance, it’s just really gross. And yes, I am judging it. Not all things that groups of people do are equally wonderful. I can give you a list of especially egregious examples if you need one.

Signage prohibiting the chewing and spitting of betel nut is ubiquitous on the island (Saipan doesn’t like it, officially!), but judging by the abundant supply of little $1 baggies of the wrapped nuts on every market and gas station counter, and by the stains of brown spit splats on the ground everywhere, the problem is not going away anytime soon.

Well that’s an admittedly random list of things that have impressed me one way or another since moving here. There are many more to tell you about another time.

What is the oddest/best/worst thing about where you live?? I would love for you to tell me.