Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Northern Marianas: Saipan and the Second World War

The Northern Mariana Islands were witnesses to the poignant events of the Second World War. From shipwrecks and rusted tanks off its shores to the sites of fierce battles and tragic episodes, the Marianas stand as a memorial to this sad chapter of world history. Among these sites is an airfield on the island of Tinian, where the B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay set forth on its mission to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Today, we visited several sites and memorials on the northern tip of Saipan. After breakfast at the hotel, the group first made its way to the Marianas Visitors Authority where we met with their managing director, Perry Tenorio. After the brief courtesy call, it was off to the Last Command Post in Banadero Cave, which is next to the Okinawa Peace Memorial, just below high cliffs. It was here that General Yoshitsugo Saito ordered his men to take seven lives for the emperor, then committed suicide. In front of the memorial are World War II relics including a light Japanese tank and several guns.

From the Last Command Post, we went to Suicide Cliff, an 800-foot cliff where hundreds of Japanese soldiers jumped to their deaths rather than surrender to the invading American forces. Simply looking down at the bottom of the rock face and imagining the drop was eerie.

The group then made its way to the Bird Island. Known as Islan Maigo Fahang or "island of sleeping seabirds" to the locals, it is a small stone islet in a secluded emerald bay that offered a stunning view to visitors.

We made a brief stopover at the Grotto, a deep limestone cavern which is connected to the ocean by several passages. It is a thrill for scuba divers who are out for adventure. The entrance also forms a natural pool that is also a popular swimming area. As locals say, it’s like swimming in the ocean sans the sunburn. It was quite tempting to take a dip, especially seeing the other tourists having so much fun. But we weren’t there to swim though and moved on to our next destination which was Banzai Cliff.

A breathtaking bluff overlooking the ocean, visitors to Banzai Cliff would be oblvious to its tragic past if not for the markers and memorials commemorating the sad event which took place there.

Japanese civilians, encouraged by Japanese troops who told them that they would be killed and raped by the Americans, committed suicide from this sea cliff. Women and children plunged to their deaths in plain sight of American soldiers who pleaded with them in Japanese not to jump.

Lunch was at a popular restaurant and cafĂ© called Coffee Care. One thing I liked about the place was its picturesque view of the ocean and Managaha Island, a really great place to relax and unwind. It’s also a haven for web addicts like me, since there is free Wi-Fi Internet access.

For my meal, I ordered Blackened Chicken, which was pan-fried boneless chicken breast seasoned with cayenne pepper, Cajun seasoning, garlic and wine, served with fresh tomato salsa and linguine aglio olio. As we were waiting for our meals, they served us cream of broccoli soup while we played around with the crayons on the table, unleashing our creativity with the doodles we made. After that filling lunch, they brought us gargantuan servings of their mouth-watering desserts.

We then made our way to the south of the island, right beside the airport to visit the remains of the Bomb Storage Magazine. While the rest of the group was taking shots around, I was initiated by the staff of the Historical Preservation Office into the betel nut chewing culture of the islands. Known as nganga to us Filipinos, the betel nut, mixed with lime and pepper leaves is a potent source of euphoria for those who like chewing on it. After a minute or two, I felt a surge in my body temperature as my body released a sudden flash of sweat.

I was floating as we made our way back to the hotel. We just had a few minutes to freshen up and get dressed since we had to rush to the port for a dinner cruise on board the yacht Stars and Stripes.

We arrived just in time for the 5 p.m. departure. What a way to cap the day, watching the sunset on a cruise! On board, a Filipino performer rendered some songs in various languages since we had Koreans and Chinese on board. The guy really knew how to entertain and we had so much fun listening.

The food was great too! They had salads and chicken, beef and fish on the buffet table. While the bar served flowing drinks such as soda, juices and beer. Dancing followed dinner and it was obvious that all the passengers were having a blast!

We then made our way back to the Saipan Grand Hotel to get some rest for even more activities the next day.

Photo credits: Karlo de Leon who took most of my photos, Jodi Madridejos and Cheche Lazaro.

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