Friday, December 7, 2007

Saipan - Island of Dreams

Imagine a place surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see. Some days it is black and glassy, some days it is frothy and cobalt, sometimes gin clear, and others, some shade of crystalline turquoise. Then picture a 50 square mile rock draped in rich, tropical green, that you are looking out from. You cannot see any distant shores, only horizon. Mainland Asia lies over one thousand miles to the west. To the east, scattered pinpoints of northern Micronesia, and then open water until Hawaii. This is Saipan – island of dreams.

Floating way out in the western Pacific, the island has endured a tumultuous history. Coveted at times for its slaves and farmers, sugarcane and coffee, runways and radios, white sands and blue waters, the island survives. In 1972 it was voted to commonwealth status. A commonwealth may have a definition, but the reality is more nebulous. Saipan today is floating in a dream, hard to define, attracting a collection of drifters and dreamers, while the indigenous people work to reclaim their homeland and culture from the plunders of the past. The population is a melting pot, consisting in roughly descending order of Chamorro/Carolinian, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese American/Canadian, Korean, Russian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, and Thai.

It is an island culture full of bananas, papayas, and mangoes, big rats and wild dogs. There is sushi flown in from Japan, local tuna sushi, and SPAM sushi. There are deserted beaches and luxury golf courses. There is a big Hyatt hotel where people take refuge from typhoons, and there are tin roofed shacks that blow away. There are nightclubs and strip clubs, and my yard has pigs and chickens wandering through it. There is even one of the tastiest Thai restaurants in the world. You can function pretty well without shoes or even a shirt, and only get rare glimpses of neckties on the misplaced missionaries. There are betel nut stains, and a case of Budweiser cans cost 24USD, and at some point, Saipan drank the most of it per capita in the world. There is poverty with some people struggling to eat, and there are riches, mansions, welfare and corruption.

The island is a microcosm of the world at large, everything is happening, and nothing is. When you stare out at the lagoon after a long day, or watch another amazing sunset, all of the negatives seem to fade like a bad dream. And when you return from the outside world, after a long flight, like going to outer space and back through re-entry - you step out of the airport, the tropical humidity envelops you like a warm blanket, and the songs of the night insects are the loudest sounds you hear.

Suspended in a dream, the clouds float by on the trade winds, and the ocean sparkles. This is the island of dreams; full of people dreaming – living their dream, escaping their dream, realizing their dream, deferring their dream, lost in their dream, searching their dreams, dreaming big, dreaming small, or not even aware of their dreams at all. When you sail away, the island dwindles to a speck in the sea, and you wonder if it ever existed. There is a small sand and coconut palm islet in the lagoon, and when you stand on its fluffy, white sand beach, you can’t help but feel as if you are in a dream. When you wander into the jungle, and realize you are lost, an eerie dreamlike quality hangs in the still air. There are spirits everywhere in Saipan, all you need to do is take a walk in the moonlight and you will find them.

Like a dream, sometimes a lot of things happen, sometimes nothing does, and when you wake up, you never are quite sure what was real and what was dream –and still sometimes, you are not even sure if you are even stopped dreaming.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Magic Island

If you are seeking true magic, you need not look further than the once and future popular Bali. Lying just below the equator, the Indonesian island of Bali assaults the senses with dazzling arrays of color, smells, foods, and spirits. Look once and it's a tourist hot spot, replete with sunburns, Bintangs, beach-front villas, and perfect waves. Look again, and you aredeep in the animist jungle, face to face with monster-like deities and mystical temples. Or were you looking at a colorful Hindu funeral procession, or waking to prayer call from the neighborhood mosque? That is the magic of Bali. The moon looks different here, there are ylang-ylang trees aromating the air, and fried shallots stimulate the appetite on every
corner. You can drive from the heavily touristed and populated Kuta beach, through the more upscale beaches and shopping at Seminyak, then suddenly you are in the hectic bustle of Denpasar, then suddenly surrounded by quiet and
vibrantly green rice paddies, then warming yourself by an outdoor wood fire on the rim of a volcano, then lost on the back jungle roads, among wooden homesteads with outdoor kitchens, coconut palms, and you realize that time
has suddenly stopped. In Bali, if you are not paying attention, you can find yourself in ten places at once, or lose yourself in one place ten times over.

Bali has so many layers that the deeper you look, the more mystery you uncover. Magic here is staring you in the face and is hiding behind every corner. You find it in the exotic, and in the ordinary. Riding in a Denpasar bemo, sarong clad passengers grin with betel stained teeth, as the wafts of durian entice you. Or you may find yourself at midnight, entranced by the sounds of gamelan, surrounded by the surreal community temple, and thousands of fruit offerings. The volatile mix of animism, hinduism, and islam, on a volcanic tropical island, flanked by crystal turquoise waves, the shoreline dotted with temples, the air fragrant with incense and flowers - this is the recipe for magic. Head out to a secluded beach, a mountain jungle, or community temple, and immerse yourself - it is very intoxicating.