This adventure was a Guam USO tour, originally published in "Pacific Crossroads," Commander Naval Forces Marianas newspaper, February 1982.
Photo, right, a tracked vehicle destroyed in World War II lies rusting in Saipan's jungle
In front of the airport on Saipan, two small pickup trucks in the final stages of deterioration awaited us, along with a subcompact car in reasonable condition. The 12 of us, our luggage, and case after case of assorted canned sodas shipped from Guam waited on the sidewalk by the vehicles.
After loading we moved out in caravan formation. One truck was stacked high with unsecured luggage of every possible type, the small car was crammed with large people, and the other pickup held a nearly-terminal overload of campers.
We headed for a house owned by the Villagomez family. We had been told we would be living on a ranch all weekend. We stared around as the caravan would along the two-lane road, eager to absorb the scenery and get our first glimpse of the ranch.
About a mile from the airport, the road ended at a "T" intersection. We careened to the right at 15 miles per hour, falling over each other in the back of the truck and getting bruised in the process. This would become familiar in the days ahead. Every few miles we turned off onto another road, each bumpier and less well paved than the one before.
Turning left into a barely-visible dirt track, we jounced and lurched up a mountainside between barbed-wire fences. Foot-deep holes were eroded in the drive. Between ducking tangantangan branches, we glanced nervously at potholes that could quickly end the misery of the rusted-out hulks we were riding in. A tiny tin house appeared on the right side of the drive just as the truck hit an especially steep rise in the middle of a left-hand turn in the road. Tires spun, the rear of the vehicle stewed right, and we took off toward the left, leaving the tin house behind. Obviously that was not our destination.
Further up the hill a sour but not unpleasant smell assaulted us -- cattle! We must be getting near the ranch. We expected at any moment to find ourselves in a meadow and see barn, fences, herds of animals grazing. Instead, we lurched up one last steep slope in the pitted road, spun 90 degrees to the left, and slid to a halt.
An ancient mango tree dominated the clearing. Pieces of rusty corrugated siding alternated with barbed wire and growing tangantangan stakes to fence in areas where banana trees and large pigs were isolated. The small pigs and the chickens ran loose everywhere. Rusted pieces of at least two expired subcompact pickup trucks lay around the edges of the cleared area. A still-intact jeep lazed under brush lazed under brush shade next to a 300-gallon tank set flush on the ground.
The house itself was built of fairly new tin sheets with a bright new roof. A system of gutters led to a barrel where rainwater collected before being put into the large tank. On one side of the house leaned a sort of kitchen area made of much older materials than the main building, with a raised barbecue area for a stove and a strong table for food preparation. Stones littered the rough dirt floor of the kitchen. The house floor was plywood, raised off the ground. Through cracks where the plywood sheets joined together, small pink pigs could be walking or napping under the floor. An occasional homey "oink" sound would drift upward into the house.
"You're kidding," was the consensus, with a sprinkling of "This can't be for real."
It became very real when we received orders to unload the truck. The house had three rooms, each about seven feet wide and the depth of the building (about 12 to 15 feet). Windows allowed cross ventilation and let in daylight. Nothing was painted or finished with a shine, but it was serviceable and as clean as conditions would allow.
The first room was about 18 inches above ground level and seemed to be a storage or dining room. There was a cabinet with screened doors at one end, a few open shelves on the wall at the other end, and a strong, plain table against the wall.
The second room was about five inches higher (a split level! someone remarked hysterically), and we could see the pigs staring at us through the space between the two levels. They were curious but not too tame, and they knew they could stare at us from there without getting caught and served for dinner. This room was basically empty and was designated the men's bedroom. The men promptly filled it with their luggage. The third room had a door in front and a window with real glass louvers at the back. There was an iron bedstead and mattress, a cabinet similar to a dresser, and metal clotheslines at jugular level strung all over the place. This would be the women's bedroom. We tried not to think about where 12 people were actually going to sleep in that tiny house.
Time to fix lunch so we could go to the beach. As the food was prepared it became obvious that it was an advantage to have your kitchen outdoors. The pigs would dart in the back door and out the front, dodging feet and snuffling like vacuum cleaners as they went. No small scrap ever went to waste. Sometimes a chicken would try the same maneuver, but panic at the last second and disappear with a flurry of small feathers and frantic cackling. The pigs were at the top of the pecking order here. Any chicken that found a choice bit of food was soon discovered by the pigs, who chased it back through the kitchen and out into the front yard to get the morsel away from it. We city folks thought this was an exciting way to cook.
Back into the trucks now, draping ourselves so we weren't likely to be bounced out, and off down the long unpaved driveway. The road looked familiar. We all cheered when we recognized the airport cutoff -- it's nice to have at least some idea where you are!
Soon we were riding alongside a beautiful two- or three-mile-long sandy beach with a shallow reef extending nearly a mile out to sea. The capital village of Garapan was strung out along the road. The stores and buildings were similar in type to those in Talofofo, back on Guam, but there were more of them and a few additions such a JoeTen Shopping Center (named for Joe Tenorio), the legislature building (which looked like a small school) and the magnificent new capital building.
We made a fast stop at a T-shirt tore to order Saipan T-shirts for pickup on Monday. Then off again ("Head 'em out, Joe") down a bumpy road. A few bushes grew in the center of the street along the way. Jokes now about Saipan's "divided highway."
North, around the tip of the island, we found high cliffs well back from the road on the right-hand side. One dirt road gave way to another until we were thoroughly lost. Then the road we were on abruptly ended in a tiny traffic circle with a circular bench in the center. We were there. Ninety or so concrete steps led over the edge of the seaside cliff and down to water level. There, a large cavern had collapsed at some time in the past, leaving a natural amphitheater with a watery floor. An opening to the ocean beyond allowed the surf to surge through at regular intervals. Luminous water on the far side of the cavern showed where the opening to the ocean led underwater and then back up to the light on the other side.
Snorkel equipment appeared on practically everyone immediately. The water was 20 to 40 feet deep and very clear. There were fish swimming in several areas of the amphitheater, and tiny bright-colored tropical varieties gathered in the lighted area near the outer edge.
I had never snorkeled before, but a camper with more experience helped me adjust the equipment, explained its use and turned me loose. It wasn't effortless, mostly because it takes some nerve to go ahead and breathe with your face in the water. Then it's hard to see where you are going, face down like that. But I could see the technique had good possibilities and enjoyed what little I saw that first time.
One of the nicest things about this place, called the Grotto, is that you can spend as much time there as you want without getting sunburned. The remaining cavern roof protects the interior completely from the sun. This also allows many small organisms such as lichen to live on the rocks, which are brilliantly colored -- magenta, shades of yellow, chartreuse.
The cold water exhausted the swimmers soon, and they trudged back up the stairs to the cliff top. A cool breeze swept across the open area; the benches beckoned. Soon campers were sleeping in the shade, waiting for the swim call to end and the pile-back into the trucks.
After two more stops and a birthday party fiesta, we split up into two groups -- those who wanted to go back to the ranch and sleep, and those who wanted to check out the island's night life.
Most of us piled into the most ancient and venerable of the two trucks and started out up a long incline toward home. We gradually became more and more alarmed as the truck made stranger and louder noses, began obviously smoking a LOT at both ends (steam in front, oil behind), and eventually refused to move even in first gear. We stopped.
The teenaged volunteer driver seemed to think this was nothing out of the ordinary or to worry about, but the tourists were convinced the engine was about to blow up. We told him to go back down the hill, without our weight in the truck, and get the night owls to come rescue us, or at least put some oil and water into that poor machine before coming back for us. We were by a crossroad of some sort (there was no street lighting) and had flashlights to flash when he returned so that he could find us.
Then a strange interval began. Nine of us sat on the edge of a culvert and faced the road and waited. We didn't know where we had been. We didn't know where we were. And we didn't know where were going. We were completely dependent on that truck had sent away. If anyone stopped and asked if we needed help, we wouldn't know what to say to them.
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