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.
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!