Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Baby, Can I Do Shot?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Get Out of Town

Edz and I had a busy day out and about yesterday. We spent most of the morning at the Manila Ocean Park and then spent a few hours exploring inside Fort Santiago. I thought I'd try making a vlog, a video blog, and this is my first attempt. My skills need some work.

Right now I am packing up my things and Edz is taking a nap. I'm going to wake her up in about an hour and we are going to head to the airport. The Best Western La Corona Hotel (which I highly recommend for price and location) offers a shuttle to the airport for P400, but Edz says that is too expensive and that we should just hail a taxi from the road. At 3:30 AM.

This trip has been great, but I've already started thinking about the pile of things I have to take care of when I get back to work. I really needed the break, though.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This is Why I Blog

I know Brad Ruszala knows why I think this is funny. To the average Filipino, Rusty Lopez means a relatively fancy shoe store in a relatively fancy shopping mall. To the average American, at least to the average American that grew up the way I did, Rusty Lopez conjures up drunken joke telling during college. I'll leave it at that. I will refrain from explaining out of respect for my younger readers.

My Big Fat Filipino Adventure is coming to an end. However familiar I thought I was with Filipino culture before this trip, I still found myself taking pleasure in noticing the small everyday things that are so different from my own culture. I find myself thinking about how I would write about all these things if I were to write about them, but I'm not sure if I'll get around to doing it.

After living in Japan and then Saipan, and now back in the mainland, blogging doesn't hold the same excitement for me that it once did. Still, the beauty that is the world I live in and explaining it through my words and amateur photography are why I still blog.

Maybe 2011 will bring a resurgence to the Saipan Blog. Or maybe I'll stop blogging all together.

Books About Saipan

If you are doing research about Saipan, the Saipan Blog undoubtably comes up in Google search after Yahoo search after Bing search. Over the last six years I've written about nearly every environmental and political issue under the sun, explained how to get your Saipan driver's license, given tips on buying a car, and even posted a hard to find photo of Justin Bieber kissing Miley Cyrus. I also compiled The Master List, a woefully outdated list of all the blogs on Saipan. Posted below is a list of recommended books. There are other books I would add to the list, but for whatever reason the publishers or the authors don't make their books available online (thus limiting their readership to the 37 people living on Saipan who read books regularly). These books are all available online and can be delivered anywhere in the world:

Nonfiction:

Jamaican on Saipan by Walt Goodridge
Chicken Feathers & Garlic Skin by Chun Yu Wang
Nobodies by John Bowe
Our Northern Islands by Dennis Chan
World Peace, a Blind Wife, and Gecko Tails by David Khorram
The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank
Battling for Saipan by Francis O'Brien

Fiction:

Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy
Warriors in the Crossfire by Nancy Bo Flood

Thursday, November 25, 2010

50% Off for Christmas

Our Northern Islands is available for 50% off the regular price for the next two weeks for shoppers who would like to give the book as a Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa) gift. In order to receive the discount, the book must be purchased on Createspace.com and when prompted the following discount code must be entered: DPQ5DC28.

Our Northern Islands is a book about the first expedition to the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument and contains over 70 full color photos of the uninhabited islands north of Saipan. Written by recent high school graduate Dennis Chan, the book details the 10 day expedition taken to the newly created Mariana Trench Monument just months after its declaration by President George W. Bush on January 6, 2009.

Chan joined the expedition after winning an essay contest sponsored by the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument, "Why I want to the visit the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument."

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will support the educational programs of the Friends of the Monument and create more opportunities like the one given to Dennis.

What people are saying about Our Northern Islands:

"Youthful enthusiasm and neophyte adventure jumps out of the pages of this book.”
-Jaime Vergara
Saipan Tribune

"I am so proud of Dennis for putting this book together at such a young age."
-Delegate Gregorio Sablan
United States Congress

Thanksgiving in Batangas

We decided to spend an extra day at the dive resort and this morning finally made it to Edz' familiy's house. I met Dad, big sister, brother-in-law, and son, Elvin's wife and two kids, and of course, Edrian.

We've decided to not try to fit another trip into the weekend. We are going to stay in Batangas City tonight and tomorrow night and then head back to Manila on Saturday. I board an airplane back to the land of Freedom and Sarah Palin first thing Monday morning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

To Eat or Not To Eat

longfin spadefish philippines
Longfin spadefish (Platax teira) at Daryl Laut dive site in Batangas.
I am not one of those environmentalists calling for an end to all fishing.  On the contrary, I want to see better managed oceans, mainly through the creation of systems of marine protected areas.

The science of marine protected areas is conclusive: marine protected areas lead to more fish, bigger fish, more biomass, and greater diversity. The specific increases vary depending on a number of factors including enforcement, size, and even things like unforeseen cascading interactions within the ecosystem.

One of the benefits is the spillover effect, wherein fish who can't read (like Nemo's dad, Marlin) wander outside the boundaries of a marine protected area and into the nets of local fishermen. I learned recently that the spillover effect has its limits, though, and that on average extend only 600 meters past a park's borders (which suggests to me that optimal marine spatial planning would place a marine protected area every 1200 meters).

longfin spadefish fish market
Longfin spadefish (Platax teira) at a fish market in Manila.
So the point of this ramble is that with properly managed marine protected areas, divers like me can contribute to economic development by traveling to coral destinations to scuba dive and local fishermen can continue to sell their catch in local markets.

Also, turtles are awesome!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Holy Great Scuba Diving, Batman!

Edz and I are spending a couple of days on a peninsula just north of Batangas City called Mabini in a small town called Anilao. We are staying at a resort owned by a member of the Philippine Congress that is right on the water. I'd say it's a mid-priced place, but for the American traveler it is positively a steal. My only complaint is that the neighbors are burning garbage and microscopic plastic particles are slowing killing my brain cells as I sip on my Nescafe.

It took us six hours, three buses, two jeepneys, and a motor tricycle to get from Tagaytay to Anilao. After checking in we ordered lunch and set up for two late afternoon dives.

The hotel has its own dive shop and everything we needed to go diving. We met our dive master, Jason, down at the dock at 3 PM, readied our gear, picked our dive spots, and loaded onto the double outrigger bangka.

Our first dive was at Twin Rocks, which has been a marine protected area since 1991. There is some government information about Twin Rocks here and here and a socioeconomic study of the area here.

I thought I'd seen coral diversity before, but from what I've seen so far Saipan has nothing on the Philippines.

Edz thought the same.

That's going to have to do it for the underwater photos for now. I bought a housing for my Canon PowerShot SX210 IS before I left, but no strobe. Let's just say that I'm still figuring things out.

The sun was setting when we descended for our second dive at Koala dive site. Right before we went under, Jason told us, "We'll do a sunset dive. We can probably get about 30 minutes."

While the water was completely still at the surface, when we dropped to about 20 feet we got caught in the current whipping around the peninsula. There was no need to kick at all; the current zipped us along as it got darker and darker and darker. 10 minutes later we were in near darkness flying through empty space. There really wasn't much to see with no flashlights, so we surfaced and got back on the boat. We all agreed the dive was a thrill, even if we couldn't see much.

We have two dives planned for this morning. We'll see how things go from there. We'll either spend the afternoon by the pool or go out again. Edz has a one dive limit most days and making her do even two dives is a stretch.

Fat Haole Pricing Structure

After two days next to Taal Lake, one night spent on the shore and the other on the rim of the ancient volcano, we have traveled to Anilao, Mabini to partake in some scuba diving. The plan is for two dives this afternoon and two dives in the morning. I may have to go to Manila on Thursday for a meeting (work is taking advantage of my vacation), and we are still discussing what we'll do after that.

Taal was a great experience. Please enjoy some photos and some random thoughts:

Eden and her brother, Elvin, are my guides on my big fat Filipino adventure. The experience I'm having is something that I never could have without them, well, unless I invited one of my 500 Filipino Facebook friends to accompany me.

I've been on trips to other countries in Asia where the tour gives us a taste of local transportation. Here in the Philippines I'm doing the real thing, and although the thrill of sucking exhaust and hitting my head on the ceiling of every jeepney will eventually fade, for now I'm having a blast!

It is worth pointing out that I've been subjected to Fat Haole Retail everywhere we go. Without Edz and Elvin, I'd have a lot less cheese in my pocket and the middlemen and drivers would be planning for early retirement.

I'll probably dedicate a full blog post or book chapter to Edz and Elvin's tag team negotiating skills, but as an example, the first offer to rent three horses for a guided tour of Taal Volcano was P7,750 ($180). We ended up paying only P3,500 ($81) after about 20 minutes of negotiations.

During the negotiations I try to pretend I speak Swedish (learned as a child from watching the Muppets). It makes things easier.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Commute

I'll eventually stop posting photos of myself and get around to posting photos of the things I've been seeing. We've been using public transportation to get around. In this photo I'm standing at the bus stop waiting for the, uh, bus.

While we were in Manila we hopped on jeepneys for 7 pesos a piece to get around. To get from Manila to Taal Volcano we took the public bus. The 90 minute trip cost us 77 pesos each. To move around the city on the rim of the volcano, Tagaytay, we've been hiring what Edz calls tricycles, motorbikes with a covered sidecar.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Taal Volcano

While wading close to shore of the lake inside the volcano inside the lake on an island, I noticed one of the other visitors brandishing a pistol high above his head.

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Reload.

"He's just showing off," explained Edz.

Nevermind. I just stayed in the water until he put the gun away.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fishy Photos in Manila

My flight was late leaving Nagoya and it was about 1:30 AM by the time I got through immigration, out of the baggage claim and through customs. Edz was waiting for me outside in the waiting zone, which was split up alphabetically according to last name. A-M takes the ramp on the left, while N-Z goes right. They both go to the same place. At 2 AM the crush of people was manageable; I'm guessing it's busier at other times of the day.

Edz and her brother, Elvin, already had a hotel for us and we took a taxi there. Not having to worry about checking in after my 28 hour flight was a blessing.

I had told Edz that I wanted to visit the fish market in Manila before we left for Batangas, and I assumed that meant we'd be going at 6 AM or 7 AM.

Boy, was I wrong.

We left the hotel for the market at 3 AM, and the streets were as busy as Washington, DC in the middle of the day. We walked for a bit, then took a jeepney. When the jeepney dropped us off, we took a bicycle taxi and all had a good laugh as the driver struggled to get the bike moving with my fat ass weighing down the seat.

The market was right around the corner and even at 3:30 AM was busier than any place, literally any place, back on the East Coast.

The ground was wet and fish guts were being splashed everywhere. I'm glad I decided to wear my boots rather than my slippers.

The market was right along the water. As boats unloaded their catch, merchants would buy their fish and then carry them in buckets to their stalls. Or something like that. Honestly, I don't really know. There were so many people calling for people to buy their fish, fishy water being splashed around, and general madness, that I'm sure there was a lot more going on that I didn't understand.

fish market filipino

Some of my favorite fish can be found on this table...not fish to eat, though.  The fish with the stripes are sweetlips, which are on a conservation poster back on Saipan.  The round shaped fish are longfin spadefish, which I think are really cool looking underwater.  The steaks along the top of the photo are shark.

shark market
Speaking of which, we came across only two merchants selling sharks. I don't know the species name, but this guy was being sold whole. Another merchant, photographed above, was selling three or four that had been chopped up into pieces. The fins were attached and it was being sold as meat.

giant yellowfin tuna
This was the biggest tuna at this morning's market, a yellowfin that probably weighed as much as me, all right, let's not exaggerate, as much as Edz.

moray eel food
I'm not a big fan of eating eels, never have been. The grey eels in the tide pools on Saipan always grossed me out and I think of them when I see eel on the sushi menu. Same goes for mussels. I hate mussels. But anyway, this merchant had some moray eels for sale.

blue spotted ribbontail rays and blue spotted stingrays
The blue spots don't come out very bright in these, but I think this is a bucket of blue spotted ribbontail rays (the round ones) and blue spotted stingrays (the diamond shaped ones). I recognize them both from Google Ocean stories I wrote for the Smithsonian in the last month. I can now confirm that people eat them.

******
I slept a lot on the plane coming over, so maybe I'll have an easy time with jetlag. We got back to the hotel room at about 5 AM and went straight to bed. I was wide awake two hours later. I'm crossing my fingers that I can stay awake.

Edz has plans for my credit card at the Mall of Asia today. She says she wants to go ice skating there.

By the way, did I forget to mention I was going to Manila?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guess Who I Saw Today?

I saw Katie Busenkell!

I emailed Katie to introduce her to a colleague and she wrote back a quick message saying that she wouldn't be able to get to it right away because she was in Washington, DC. Washington, DC?!

Where?

Turns out she was two blocks away having dinner!

Long time readers of the Saipan Blog will recognize Katie as Saipan's queen of the boonie dogs!

Verizon Wireless Racketeering Continues

The drama with the joke that is Verizon Wireless customer "service" continued today. I got a courtesy call from them this afternoon to inform me that my account was past due. Could that be because I canceled my contract, I wonder?

"Sir, we have no record of you canceling your contract."

God, I hate, hate, hate you, Verizon Wireless.

Saipan Sharks

The Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives voted today 18-0 to pass a ban on shark fins that would "prohibit any person from possessing, selling, offering for sale, trading, or distributing shark fins in the CNMI."

So what kind of sharks live around Saipan?

pew environment group
A tourist took this photo of a whale shark just outside of the Grotto. I lifted the photo from Mike Tripp's Saipan Scuba Diving Blog.

pew environment group
Whitetip reef sharks are a much more common sight than whale sharks. Harry Blalock photographed this little guy inside the Grotto.

I have never personally seen a tiger shark on Saipan (I was always disappointed that tiger sharks aren't half shark, half tiger, with frickin' lasers on their heads), but NOAA snapped this photo in the waters west of Saipan.

pew environment group
pew environment group
Grey reef sharks (top) and blacktip reef sharks (bottom) are also seen around Saipan.  Juvenile blacktips sometimes school around Managaha.  Mayuki Kebukawa of Heart of Gold Divers took these two photos during a dive at Farallon de Medinilla.

So yes, Saipan has sharks.

And yes, they deserve full protections.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Na'gatbo

I don't keep up with Beautify CNMI! as much as I should anymore. I know some of the cleanups continue. Paseo de Marianas Promoters cleans up the Garapan area every month and Friends of the Mariana Islands do their weekly cleanups all over the island.

I've been gone for over a year and I am happy that things keep on keepin' on.

This photo of Laurie, Cinta, and the Governor with Susan Castro-Cabrera was in today's Marianas Variety. Susan's boys designed these shirts and donated 40 to the coalition.

I've got one of them in a drawer down in Florida (I need to go pick up some clothes I left down there when I moved to DC, including my winter jacket). Thanks, Susan for your generosity.

T-shirts are a currency for Beautify CNMI's volunteers and I'm sure they will appreciate them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fuck you, Verizon Wireless

Well, I finally did it. I cancelled my contract with Verizon Wireless and am getting rid of my Motorola Devour, the Worst Phone Ever.

The last straw was the roaming charges I received from spending three days in Guam. I was careful not to use the Internet on my phone while I was there and thought I had turned off the data to the phone. Verizon disagrees and charged me $1400.

$1400!

I had a long conversation with the customer service representative this morning and she claims their high usage team or whatever sent me three texts when I hit the $100, $200, and $500 spending thresholds. I never received any of them, of course, which I tried to explain. I even offered to take my phone into a Verizon office or show her my bill which shows no texts being received.

The compromise? She offered to take $80 off my bill and set up a payment plan, which I declined.

I chose to break my contract instead.

It was not a pleasure doing business with you Verizon.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Last call for submissions to island writing anthology

Saipan, CNMI – The deadline to submit a piece for the upcoming anthology of local writers is fast approaching. The last day to submit original work to Stories from Wild Bill's Cafe: Life, Love and Spicy Tofu in the Northern Mariana Islands is December 15.

“We received a lot of interest when we announced the anthology back in September,” said Angelo O’Connor Villagomez. "The editors have received works from a dozen writers so far, but we've also heard from many others who expressed an intention to submit. We just want to remind everyone that there is about a month left before the deadline.”

Submitted work will be blind reviewed by a panel of editors. The lead editors of Stories from Wild Bill's Café are Jane Mack, Joe Race, Jaime Vergara, and Villagomez.

The inspiration for the name of the anthology comes from Wild Bills Café, a popular restaurant on Beach Road in Garapan.

Writers interested in submitting work for the anthology can contact the editors at WildBillStories@gmail.com. Submission guidelines are available upon request. Writers whose work is chosen for submission will receive two (2) copies of Stories from Wild Bill's Café.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Google My Ocean

I've written about World Heritage Sites when I come across them (I've been to 27), so long time readers know what they are and there is no need for me to explain them. Right now I am finishing up on a joint Smithsonian-UNESCO project to put the Marine World Heritage sites on Google Earth.

My colleague in Paris needed something for a powerpoint presentation she's giving tomorrow, so I mocked up a short video of the Google Earth program bouncing between the Marine World Heritage stories we've been collaborating on.

And now I'm sharing it with you...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Old Rag Mountain

Today I was invited by an old friend from Saipan to tag along for a visit to Shenandoah National Park to hike up Old Rag Mountain. The trail is a nine-mile long one-way circuit up the side of a mountain, over a rock scramble, and back down the other side. We thought we could do it in three hours, and so we each brought a bottle of water and a tangerine.

Quick, can you identify the white oak, red oak, tulip polar, and sycamore leaves? Yeah, neither can I. Is that sassafras?  The leaves were turning, and they were beautiful.

This is what I think of when I think of a forest. East Coast rules!  The first section of the hike was through some forest along a well-worn trail that was not very steep.  There wasn't much wildlife to be seen, but there were a lot of beautifully colored leaves.

One sad note to my life is that I am colorblind. I have this sneaky suspicion that I'm not seeing the whole picture when it comes to changing leaves. Oh well.

And I saw pine cones!  It has been years since I've seen pine trees. Florida has pine trees, but Saipan doesn't. I love pine cones! I wanted to take one home, but I think there are rules about removing plant life from National Parks.

Two miles into the hike we started to be high enough to start taking in some great vistas. The weather couldn't have been better, with blue skies and hardly a cloud to be seen.

The temperature changes along the hike were intense. It would be freezing one moment, then we'd come around a turn and be on the other side of the mountain facing the sun and the temperature would go up 15 degrees. It was also windy at times, but something told me it could get a lot windier.

Around this time is when we got to the rock scramble, a mile long stretch of boulders that had to be climbed over, sometimes on all fours, and every once in a while crawling through tight crevices.

Sure the leaves were pretty, but the rock scramble was the best part of the hike. This rock fell as we were walking through this ravine, and I had to hold it up so that we could get by. Everyone had to crawl through my legs.

Along the rock scramble were several lookouts, including this one.  In this picture I was wishing that Edz were with me!

As this sign attests, the summit is only 3 miles from the start of the trail. Getting there took us four hours, though. About two hours to get to the start of the rock scramble, and another two to traverse it.  Man, we were slow.

The summit delivered 360 degree crystal clear views of the surrounding valleys. I think we missed the peak of the leave changes by about a week, but what was left was still beautiful. It has been years since I've experienced autumn and I've missed it.

Weakley Hollow Fire Road
The hike from that point on was pretty, but somewhat boring.  It took us two hours to hike down and around and not once after leaving the summit did I feel like my life was in danger, although I freely admit my legs were cramping and I really had to pee.

And although these photos don't show it, there were a lot of people along the trail.  Hundreds, perhaps.  Hiking along the East Coast is not a solitary affair and gets to be shared with hundreds of trendy backpackers with disposable income.

At one point we came to some rocks along the rock scramble that had about 50 people waiting their turn to climb.  I joked that it felt like i was waiting in line to go to Starbucks.  We cut around them and pulled ourselves up a steeper place in the trail, but yeah, so the take home message on Old Rag is cool rock climbing, great vistas, tons of yuppies.