Friday, December 18, 2009

10 Years Revisited

Under the Pala Pala V

This week’s Under the Pala Pala is a personal reflection on my life over the last 10 years. If that sounds incredibly narcissistic and boring, stop reading now.

I know that people out there will say that the new decade doesn’t begin until 2011, but Under the Pala Pala and the Saipan Blog hereby declare the new decade to begin in 2010. There, wasn’t that simple?

It seems that every TV channel, magazine and website is doing a look back over the last ten years. This is mine. Like I said, this is going to be incredibly self-centered, so you should probably stop reading right now.

Who could have predicted in 1999 that in 2009 we’d have a black president of the United States of America? It is amusing to think of what life was like ten years ago. The economy was booming because of the dot com bubble. Too bad it burst. I didn’t have a cell phone in 1999; I didn’t get one until 2001. There was no wireless Internet back then, either. That meant you couldn’t take your laptop down to the local restaurant or coffee shop and use it to check your email. In fact, I didn’t get my first laptop until 2003. There were no such things as blogs or social networking websites; the main thing I used the Internet for was to send emails and download music off Napster.

The last 10 years coincided with my twenties and looking back there isn’t too much I would want to change about my life. Sure I’ve had my ups and downs financially and in my career. I’ve also had failures and successes in love and friendships, but life is about taking the good with the bad, right?

I started this decade at my stepmother’s mother’s house in Garapan. I was 21, five months away from graduating from the University of Richmond, and spending my first Christmas on Saipan since 1981. I was younger than the adults and older than all the kids at the party, so it was an awkward night. I remember not being too concerned about the Y2K bug although I remember there being a blackout during the night. The two were predictably unrelated.

I had no concrete plans for the future back then. I knew I wanted to go back to Florida after college and work at Disney, with medical school or graduate school a possibility down the line, but the last ten years turned out so different from what I expected, even if I never really expected anything.

I never thought about a career in the environment until I took a Tropical Ecology course during my last semester at Richmond during Spring 2000. We spent a week in the Peruvian Amazon as a part of that course and it, along with a summer I spent in Costa Rica in 2002, completely changed my life.

I’ve always loved the outdoors. I’ve got plenty of stories on my blog of fishing and hiking with my Dad and brothers on Saipan as a child (and with friends as an adult), but I also spent a lot of time outdoors when I lived with my mother in the mainland. When we were very little we used to pick blueberries on a hill behind Grandpa J’s house in Ashburnham (I can remember finding frog eggs almost every time we came to a swampy area along the trail) and when we moved to Florida we would canoe down the Wekiva River on weekends (always keeping a very accurate accounting of the number of alligators we saw).

It was that Tropical Ecology course that led me to go back to school. I wanted to do something in the environment field and at the time I didn’t think I’d be able to get into grad school, so I went for a second bachelor’s degree at the college where my mother worked.. I’m so glad I did what I did. The two and half years I spent at Rollins College were very productive and set me on course for my career in the environment.

I really love the work I’ve found and I don’t think I’d want to do anything else. Like a professional athlete who says he gets to wake up every morning and do what he loves, my work is something that I would do for free if I didn’t have to worry about paying bills. In fact, the most rewarding, successful “work” I’ve done on Saipan hasn’t been work; it was done as a volunteer.

My biggest success this decade was the role I played in the creation of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, which may eventually end up being the greatest success of my lifetime. During the first meeting I had with Jay Nelson of Pew Environment Group in January 2007, I suggested that the islands to the far north protected in our constitution would be suitable for a monument and that since it was so near, it could be called the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. That area and that name were ultimately used and all we had to do in the intervening two years was hammer out the details and get the governor, both houses of the legislature, the Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, and a majority of the people living here on board.

The success I’ve had with Beautify CNMI has been a different kind of success, one of personal growth more than accomplishment. For four years I’ve managed to keep that coalition together and I have learned a lot about dealing with diverse people from diverse backgrounds. We’ve survived arguments, criticism, jealousy, and certain persons trying to sink the organization and along the way picked up a few national and regional awards as well as plenty of local recognition.

To keep it going, I just kept it going, if that makes any sense. I sent out the weekly updates and made sure we did something almost every weekend. I may not have participated in every cleanup, but I made sure those that were volunteering had supplies of bags and gloves; I may not have planted every tree, but I knew where to obtain saplings and tools; and I may have not adopted a single boonie dog (Oreo and Snowhite don’t count), but I helped raise money and visited classrooms to talk about proper pet care.

Beautify CNMI literally moved mountains, mountains of trash. I don’t know how or why I became so hyper-involved in somebody else’s idea, but I did. I had a strong desire to help these islands when I came back after so many years and I guess that is just how that desire manifested itself.

Being a college student in the mainland and an environmentalist in Micronesia has allowed me to do a fair bit of traveling over the last 10 years. In Peru I learned first hand the natural wonders of the Amazon as I watched mixed species flocks of birds take flight from a tree top canopy walkway and searched out poison dart frogs in the middle of the night.

In Costa Rica I talked to farmers and local leaders about sustainable development and how to create jobs without destroying natural resources. I explored the tropical dry forest, got lost in a cloud forest, and got really wet and muddy in a tropical lowland forest.

I visited China and England on school trips, too. I drank beer in a pub and caught about a dozen shows in the West End. And about a year into my relationship with her, I fought with my girlfriend Emily all across China after buying and incessantly wearing a brown cowboy hat in a Beijing mall. Oh yeah, I went to Mexico and Grand Cayman, too.

Midway through the decade I made the decision to move to Japan with Emily, the story of which is so famously chronicled on my blog, Our time in Japan only lasted a few months after which we moved to Saipan.

From my home base of Saipan I traveled to Hawaii, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Marshall Islands, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Tinian, Rota and Guam for work and all of the Northern Islands, Florida, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos for pleasure.

There were some disappointments this last decade, too. I was fired from two jobs, both at restaurants. The first time hit me hard, the second time I had another job within two weeks. Some of my disappointments were opportunity costs. I wish I had spent more time in Japan, but if I had done that I would have spent less in Saipan.

The death of my father was the single event that had the greatest impact on my life this decade. There are still times, like when I hiked down to Old Man by the Sea last weekend, when I visit a place and think, “the last time I was here I was with Dad.” One of my uncles told me that my father was a real disappointment. Most people who knew my father probably have no idea what my uncle was talking about, but I do. I’ll leave it at that. All I can do now is to learn from his mistakes.

Saipan in the last ten years has seen a steady decline in quality of life and abundance of natural resources, which is probably the most disappointing thing of all. The government hasn’t paid into the retirement fund in four years, the life and health insurance policy for government workers was canceled this week, and the governor is threatening to cut everyone’s paycheck by 20%.

I don’t think things are going to get any better in the next decade either, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to leave. Had I been elected mayor I would have taken the low salary, dealt with the life and health insurance issues, non-payment of retirement, and the political back stabbing and done my best to provide community services and programs to the people here. Unfortunately, I did not win. I am not independently wealthy, don’t have any educational opportunities here and I don’t see much opportunity for meaningful environmental work while Fitial is governor, so I am moving to where the opportunities lie with a government more receptive to sustainable development.

Looking forward, in the next decade I plan to earn my Ph.D, buy a house and start a family. I also plan to visit Africa, Australia, and Antarctica, completing my goal to step foot on all seven continents.

Under the Pala Pala is the weekly commentary of Angelo O’Connor Villagomez. To subscribe via email visit

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Carry on Uncle Angelo!