Tuesday, February 02, 2016

We Will Plant Trees

Skinny Angelo with Aya Matsumoto and Morgan Rose
It's been too long since I've planted a tree, so tomorrow I'm going to plant two of them with some of my closest friends.  This article talks about flame trees, but we're actually going to plant Pacific almond tomorrow.  It's a native tree that's salt tolerant.  If you are reading this and you are on Saipan, you are invited to join us.  Here's the info on Facebook.  The Saipan Tribune also wrote a story about our activity:
Beautify CNMI to plant commemorative tree tomorrow
Beautify CNMI will have a tree planting project tomorrow, Feb. 4, as one of their first projects as the group has just been revived.

According to one of Beautify CNMI’s founder, Angelo Villagomez, the tree planting will take place near the Oleai Beach Bar at 5pm.

The native tree that will be planted will commemorate the first decade of Beautify CNMI and kick off a second decade of community service. Interested members of the public are invited to attend.

Beautify CNMI, a diverse group of like-minded individuals whose common ground is to take care of the environment, was established in 2006.

They were also responsible for some of the several hundreds of flame trees around the island, most of which are now gone because of the devastation of Typhoon Soudelor.

“We’ve planted several hundred flame trees along Beach Road also in Koblerville and several other places around the island,” Villagomez said.

He also credited those who came first to plant the trees that have become a trademark and identity of the CNMI.

“The flame trees by the beach were actually started many, many years ago, in the ’60s, ’70s,” Villagomez said, “Somebody has always stepped up and planted flame trees but it’s actually something that’s existed for 30 years.”

Villagomez said that while it is sad that those trees were gone, it is our responsibility to beautify the CNMI again.

“They were blown away. It’s really sad how much this island lost from the typhoon. People lost their homes, and we lost one of the naturally beauty. But as caretakers of this island, it’s our responsibility to fix up that which was broken,” Villagomez said.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sustainable Shark Diving in Saipan

The kids look somewhat interested, don't they?  Check out my awesome slide in the background.
I'm in Saipan this week to talk to speak at the Marianas Tourism Education Council Tourism Summit about shark diving.  I shared the stage with Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr., my cousin former Lt. Governor Diego Benavente, my old soccer teammate Dr. Peter Houk, and future island leader Mary Grace Tiglao.

I need to work on my character voices.
After my talk I had the chance to do one of my favorite activities -- reading The Adventures of Shark Stanley and Friends to a group of kids.  Actually, I read it to 5 groups of kids.  Something happened where one of the presenters for the breakout groups didn't show up or had to leave early, so I jumped in with a moment's notice and invented a lesson plan on the spot.  I gave the kids two minutes to name as many species of sharks as they can and then I read the book and told them to visit the Shark Stanley website.  Boom! Conservation achieved!  Strangely, the older students from Saipan Southern High School seemed to like being read to the most..

I also met new Saipan Tribune reporter (well, new to me) Frauleine Villanueva-Dizon at the summit and we had a good chat about my talk.  She did a great job of writing of the story.  Here it is, reposted without permission from the Saipan Tribune:
Sustainable shark diving industry is possible for Saipan
Sharks, often misunderstood and stigmatized creatures, and their economic values were brought to light at the Marianas Tourism Education Council Tourism Summit held at the Pacific Islands Club Saipan yesterday.

Angelo O’Connor Villagomez, an officer of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy project, said that about 100 million sharks are killed every year.

“We fish them faster than they can reproduce,” Villagomez said, “As result of this, half of all sharks are threatened or are near-threatened.”

Villagomez, who has helped the passage of more than two dozen shark conservation laws in small Pacific and Caribbean island states, shared to the hundreds of students in attendance how sharks can be protected and how they can be part of a more sustainable industry.

He also offered materials for guidelines and best practices in sustainable shark diving such as the ones featured in www.sustainablesharkdiving.com.

Villagomez said that Saipan has an opportunity to protect its sharks and have a great shark industry.

“I have been swimming in these waters for 30 years but actually diving for 10 and we’ve got some cool species,” Villagomez said in an interview after his presentation.

He added that Saipan has whale sharks, tiger sharks, and reef sharks such as the gray, black-tip, and white-tip. There could also be sharks outside the reef such as the silky and blue sharks.

Shark diving on Saipan, he said, could be an option.

“With a little bit of investment, a little bit of work probably could develop a shark dive,” Villagomez said, “It’s something different to do. It’s a growing part of the industry and it’s definitely a niche part of the industry.”

Not only would tourism benefit from this kind of activity, it could also help fishermen.

“If the CNMI were to look into feeding sharks, it’s something that the fishermen could benefit from since they are the ones who will catch the fish,” Villagomez said, “There could be a really great partnership where the fishermen could actually benefit from the protection of sharks.”

However, there should be safeguards established also.

“It’s something that the government should really look into. When you’re playing with big animals, big predators, things could go wrong so the government should look into the best regulations to make sure that it is safe and sustainable,” Vilagomez said.

For Villagomez, sharks are the coolest animals and they are, most of the time, what divers want to see in their natural habitat.

“We think that they’re scary,” Villagomez said, “They are actually not really scary. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

“Show me somebody who’s afraid of sharks and I’ll show you somebody who has not been in the water with them,” he added.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Beautify CNMI! Meeting Set For Monday

The Beautify CNMI campaign will hold their first organizational meeting of 2016 next week. The once highly visible coalition was founded in 2006 and spent several years organizing beach cleanups, planting trees, painting over graffiti, and recycling. There is hope among some of the former volunteers to revive the campaign and to join it with other environmental initiatives taking place on the island today.

“Our goal is to enhance the work of the community,” said Beautify CNMI founder Cinta M. Kaipat. “We’re not looking to replace existing efforts, but to lift them to new heights.”

According to their website, Beautify CNMI! Is a coalition of concerned citizens, private groups, and government entities united to enhance the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ natural beauty and foster community pride in its residents and visitors. They have been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Congress for their volunteer work, and were the Saipan Tribune’s 2006 Person of the Year.

Interested participants are invited to a meeting on Monday, February 1 at 2 PM in the Chamolinian Room of the Hyatt Recency.

Kaipat will chair the meeting and lead a discussion on how now is a great time to reinvigorate the coalition. Co-founder Angelo Villagomez will make a presentation on how the campaign was created in 2006.

For more information about Beautify CNMI’s ten year history, please visit www.BeautifyCNMI.org.

Who: Beautify CNMI coalition kick off meeting
What: A meeting to discuss Beautify CNMI
Where: Hyatt Regency Chamolinian Room
When: February 1, 2 PM
Why: To enhance the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ natural beauty and foster community pride in its residents and visit

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Highlights from 2015

Is there anything more American than giving your hard earned money to Disney?
I started this blog 11 years ago this month when I was planning on moving to Japan to teach English.  It was a blog about getting to Japan for about a year and then a blog about living in Japan for only a few months.  In the years since I've lived in Orlando, Takaoka, Saipan, Orlando again, Vienna, and now Washington, DC.  At one time I had thousands of readers every day, but that has trickled down to a few hundred (by comparison I get between 3,000 - 30,000 Twitter readers every day).  Yet, for some reason, some of my readers are still there (thanks, Mom).  I still get lots of traffic for my old blogs Famous Chamorro People and Buying a Car in Saipan, but most readers are checking out my recent writing -- which I admit is mostly pictures these days.  Of the 40 blogs I published this year (compared to 489 blogs in 2009!), Early Shark Conservation Has Been an Astounding Success, Running Again, Vacation, and Typhoon Ink were the most popular.

Over the years I've done a look back towards the end of December.  I didn't do it last year, or the year before, but here you go, a few highlights from 2015:

I swam with sharks (again)
Somehow I landed in a career where I get to do really cool things. It was purely by accident. Everyday I worry that they're going to find out and make me put my science degree to work doing what I was meant to be doing: paperwork. Earlier this year during a mission to Bimini in The Bahamas at a meeting where Richard Branson encouraged some Caribbean elected officials to protect sharks, I got to go swimming with my first great hammerhead shark. It scared the hell out of me -- at first. Imagine a giant swimming cow with rows of sharp needle-like teeth moving slowly towards you with mouth open. It's frightening at first, until you realize it's just a cow. Being in the water with living sharks continues to be one of the greatest thrills of my life.

I got a new job
The five years I spent in shark conservation were amazing. I had professional success, gained experience working in the Caribbean for the first time, and made contacts and friends all over the world. Just this year we saw the completion of the Micronesia Regional Shark Sanctuary and new shark policies in the Cayman Islands, Turks & Caicos, Saba, and Bonaire. And we defended policies in the CNMI, as well as California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington. My time in the shark world came to an end this year when I rejoined Pew's Global Ocean Legacy Campaign, the team I worked with when we created the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. In the few months that I've been on this new team we've seen the advancement of some of the world's largest marine protected areas in Palau, Chile, and New Zealand.

We bought a condo
You're not a true grown up until you have the crushing debt of a mortgage. About this time last year, on a whim I filled out an online form to see if my bank would pre-approve me for a home loan. I was shocked to see how much they were willing to loan me. Our rent was set to make another huge leap when our lease expired in the summer, so Edz and I decided to start the search for a new home. We considered three basic variables when we looked at homes: size, safety, and distance to work. We could afford only two of them. I argued for size and safety and thought we could get a nice two or three bedroom outside of the city. Edz wanted safety and distance to work, and she won, so we put in an offer on a one bedroom condo in Southwest Washington. The seller did not accept our offer. Neither did the second. Our offer on the third home was $60,000 over the asking price, yet we still lost out to another buyer. The offer on the fourth home was accepted and on July 15 we signed a mountain of paperwork and turned over about half a year's salary in exchange for the keys to our new home.

We paid off the car
While not as big a deal as having a new income and new mortgage to suck you dry, we paid off the loan on our car this year. That car is the biggest and most expensive thing I own (the bank owns the condo). Now that I don't have to make payments, my plan is to run it into the ground and not buy a new car for as long as possible. This includes not making life choices that will require the purchase of a minivan.

I ran a marathon
I ran the Disney Marathon in January and the Washington, DC Rock N' Roll Half Marathon in March. I did not recover well from either. Between the marathon and the half I only trained for 3 days. And I don't think I trained more than 10 days after that race -- although I ran the Orlando Turkey Trot in November and the Saipan Christmas Island Relay in December. I'm ending the year fatter, but not at my fattest. Weight loss is going to have to be a resolution for the new year.

We traveled a lot
Edz rung in the new year with family in the Philippines, while I was in Buffalo with the Ruszalas. Work took me (in no particular order) to The Bahamas, Turks & Caicos Islands, Saba, Sint Maarten (and Saint Martin!), Fiji, Chile, Samoa, Saipan, Guam, Curacao, Bonaire, Grenada, Puerto Rico, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Edz tagged along on three trips, plus we went to Florida for Thanksgiving.

Edz is almost a US citizen
Edz received her 10 year US green card this year and applied for US citizenship. She's finished with the biometrics and we're waiting for the government to schedule her interview, which she studies for every day. What's in the interview, you ask? There are a list of 100 questions and she'll be asked 10. She has to answer six of them correctly. Then she has three chances to write a sentence in English and three chances to read a sentence in English. She has to do each correctly only once. After that they'll schedule her naturalization ceremony. If you're reading this, you're invited! Stay tuned for details.

I started a new network of island conservationists
As part of my new job I've started a learning and networking group of conservationists from 8 Pacific countries called The Island Voices. It's the new Shark Defenders. Or Beautify CNMI. I'm going to get to work with these amazing people to advocate for the creation of new marine protected areas and to reduce pollution in our oceans.

We spent Thanksgiving as a family for the first time
Most of my immediate family members (except for Tiana!) spent Thanksgiving together for the first time since the kids started getting married. This was Edz' first Thanksgiving with my family and she survived it with minimal scarring. During our week in Florida the brothers ran a 5K. Edz and I also spent a day at the Disney Hollywood Studios.

I made new friends, and reconnected with old ones
I've kept myself busy these last few years and haven't always made time to spend with friends and family. I made more time for them this year. It was great ringing in the New Year with Brad, Kathy, the kids, and the family in New York. I saw a lot of Kevin and Mom this year. I went to Florida three times and they came up to Washington, DC the week we bought the condo. Speaking of the condo, sitting on the porch and drinking beer in the late afternoon with whoever will come over (but especially Ian) is just about the best thing ever. We saw Brian and Joelin four times this year, including a fun night at Universal Studios in Florida. The Filipino mafia remains strong. We visited Vince, Lynn, Necole, and Lucy on the Eastern Shore twice, Aileen and the kids at Jolibee in Virginia Beach twice, and Mike and Maricel came for cherry blossoms -- and later in the year we saw them in Saipan. And then in late December I had my longest visit to Saipan since I got married (there was also a short trip in July). I rode around in Uncle John's Jeep and I spent hours with Cinta, Gus, Laurie, Ike, Horiguchi, the Ruszalas, and saw Star Wars with the McKagans, Dearys, Goodridges, Ernests, Hasselbacks, and Matsumotos.