Apr 25, 2008

Brokedown Paradise

Candles and a book: The power went out in the middle of our last book club on Saturday night, April 12. We lit the candles and kept going. That's life in Saipan for you.

This profusion of beauty is just outside our living room window. This too, is life in Saipan.

It's been a pretty good week here in Saipan. We haven't experienced a single power outage in our neighborhood (though I believe there have been blackouts in other villages on the island) and things are humming along smoothly--so far. Last week was a different story, however with daily two hour plus rolling blackouts and the newspaper headlines screaming impending doom: "CUC Has No Money for Fuel!" "Fuel to Run Out on Friday!" The island was rife rumors of the entire island being plunged into permanant blackout on Friday. Add to that the sudden shock of the closing last Thursday of our one and only multiplex here in the CNMI. The word was that power rates were two exorbitant and the Stateside owners were closing to "reevaluate the Saipan market." I heard the theater was packed Thursday night as people crowded in for the "last picture show." For some reason losing the movies really hurt. Look, we can live with an economy in the toilet, shuttered buisnesses, rolling blackouts, but when you take away our movies? That's serious!

The rumor is that the movie theater will reopen next month with higher prices. We'll see.

Saipan. I refer to it affectionately as our "Brokedown Paradise", and I think the name fits because it captures the contradictions of living here. It's a paradise, yes, but one where things don't always work--where life is sometimes less than convenient and sometimes downright uncomfortable.

With our baby on the way, it appears as if at long last, we'll finally be having visitors from the States. Also, there may be new teachers planning to trying to get a feel for what life will be like in their new home. And finally, there are readers who may be wondering why on earth we continue to live out here. This post is designed to provide a primer of what to expect for those coming out here and to give all my readers a sense of the pros and cons we've weighed out over the years of living here. In keeping with the dual nature of life in Saipan I'm going to list ten things about life in Saipan that are difficult--listed under the heading of "Brokedwon" and ten things about living here that are wonderful, listed under the heading "Paradise."

Brokedown: Power Outtages--CUC (the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation) is poorly managed, perpetually short on cash, and has antiquated power generators that are constantly breaking down. My understanding is that there are something like 8 generators at the main power plant here in Saipan and none of the 8 generators are ever all working at the same time. I heard that one generator has't functioned in two years! Our broken down old generators also use one of the most expenisve means of generating electricty in the world--fuel oil. And I'm sure we all know where the price of oil is at these days. As as a result we pay the highest power rates in the United States--and we should probably be paying even more! For awhile a surcharge was added to our power bills to just to help cover fuel costs, but last year was an election year and so it was summarily revoked in a shortsighted and uncourageous attempt to curry favor with voters--leaving us with lower power bills (and less power, as CUC is once again having trouble paying it's fuel bills to petroleum companies). Put all this together and the result is rolling blackouts that will crop up every now and again. For a week or so we'll have at least two hours without electricity every day. CUC usually posts the load shedding schedule in the paper so you know when your village will be without power. But they don't always follow that schedule. In fact, it seems that every time we gear up for a power outtage, it doesn't happen. And just when we think we're safe, the air conditioner sighs, the lights go out, and the battery backup on the computer starts beeping urgently.

Oh, and while we're on the topic of utilities. Forget about using an electric clock here. Even when the power is working there is so much variance in the electrical currents that electric clocks cannot keep the correct time. They generally speed up over time so that about two weeks after it's been plugged in, the clock gives the time as two hours later than it really is.

And you can't drink the tap water here.

Paradise : The Natural Views. Saipan is full of gorgeous natural vistas. Yes, there are fantastic photo-op locations--Bird Island, Forbidden Island, the top of Mt. Tapochau, Banzai at sunrise, Managaha Island, but in Saipan you don't have to go to one of the tourist spots to experience spectacular beauty. The most ordinary daily errands are full of unexpected, richly rewarding beauty--the flame trees the blaze along the roadsides, the brilliant bougainvillea and elegant plumeria that blossom just outside our doors, the cocounut palms, the white sand beaches everywhere. And the sunsets! Driving along Beach Road at sunset alone is reason enough to live here.

Brokedown: The man-made views. What God has made in Saipan is gorgeous--what man has made on Saipan is, well. . . less so. There are no zoning laws in Saipan so residential structures, mom-and-pop stores, and even hotels and factories abut each other in haphazard fashion. It appears many of the builders here in CNMI gave little thought to architectural beauty. Or to long-term upkeep. Many of the buildings, especially the smaller ones have a ramshackle appearance, and almost all of the buildings even the large ones seem to be plagued by a general dinginess of appearance due to the ubiquitous black mold that slowly creeps up the walls of any building more than a few years old. The entire island looks like it could use a paint job.

Paradise: The Commute. I've almost forgotten what it's like to be stuck in traffic. Our version of rush hour gridlock is when traffic slows up a bit around Marianas High School at 3 o clock. You might end up sitting in bumper to bumper traffic for oh, about 30 seconds. Not only do we lack traffic jams, but the commute is always short, no matter where you're going. For those of us who have lived here on the island for awhile our sense of distance has changed. A half hour drive is considered a long haul out here. And of course, the drive is often a tour of beauty--especially if you take Beach Road.

Brokedown: Empty Buildings. We have quite a few brand-new, freshly painted, modern buildings. . .that are absolutely empty. We don't know why they are built, or who is expected to inhabit them, especially since the horrible state of our economy is well known to all. But there they are--empty--with their newly minted parking lots, big glass windows, and pleading "For Rent" signs. It's kind of sad.

Paradise: The Kids. There are lots of things to love about working in a little mission school on a tropical island, but the most rewarding thing for me has been the kids themselves. Our students are big part of what has kept us out here these many years. Of course, there are kids everywhere but the relationships we build with our students are unique particularly in comparison to my experience in the U.S. Kids here seem to have a certain openness of heart that contrasts sharply with the cyncism and jadedness I often find among their peers in the Mainland. We interact with our students a lot outside of the classroom. They come to our homes on Friday nights, we take them on weekend hikes and outings. It's also been deeply rewarding to watch our students grow up, graduate, go to college and make their way in the world. And because our school is small, I feel like I've had the opportunity to know and care for each one of my students as individuals.

Brokedown: Our Government. A lot of the Saipan's recent economic misfortunes are due to plain old bad luck. The Asian Economic Crisis of the late 90's, 9-11, and the changes in World Trade Organization policy are not our fault. But at least some of the blame for our problems can rightly be placed directly on our government. Our government is bloated, inefficient, incompetent, and wasteful. The vast majority of our leaders do little more than perpetuate the status quo. There are voices of change (Tina Sablan, the upstart community activist and legislator comes to mind) but they are still few and far between. For Saipan's sake, I hope that changes.

Paradise: Interracial Relationships are the Norm. When Babs and I decided to get married we got some well-intentioned solemn warnings about how hard things would be especially for our children. These people (like most people) had obviously never heard of Saipan. There are so many people like us here that we hardly stand out at all. There are no baleful stares, no whisperings, no concerned looks--none of the things we might have experienced on occasion on the Mainland. Furthermore, as a black man I feel completely removed from the particular baggage of racism in America. It's not to say that there isn't racial prejudice here--there is, of course, just as there is everywhere--but somehow I don't feel so much that I am the target of it here. It's nice to be just another couple, rather than the funny-looking "mixed" couple.

Brokedown: The transitory nature of Saipan. Nothing lasts forever, especially here in Saipan. In general, people don't stay here very long. The contract workers go back to the Philippines or China, the missionaries go home, even the local people decamp to Hawaii or the mainland to go to school or work. There's only a handful of people left in our church who were there ten years ago when Babs and I first arrived here. We say goodbye a lot here and that can be very difficult.

Paradise: Travel. Saipan givews us relatively cheap and easy access to Asia and the rest of the Pacific. It's not uncommon to jet off to Bali, Japan, the Philippines, Palau, Australia, and mainland Asia during vacations. The rest of the world is just outside our door and visiting it is easy.

Brokedown: You Can't Always Get What You Want. In Saipan there is no Wal Mart, no Target, no Barnes & Nobles, no Whole Foods. Sometimes you plan to make lasagna and there is no ricotta cheese anywhere on the island. So you use tofu. We do have the internet and Amazon and Netflix are invaluable, but even there you can't always get what you want. Itunes will let you browse the store, but they won't let you buy. The TV networks won't let CNMI viewers watch their programs online. You learn to make do a lot here, and most of the time, as the Rolling Stones sang, "you get what you need."

Paradise: The Pace of Life. It's slower. It's as simple as that. We have cell phones and wi-fi everywhere, yes. But somehow these things just don't dominate life in the CNMI. We are very busy--all the time--and yet the kind of stress I hear about in the States just doesn't seem to be a part of life in Saipan. Ties are only worn by politicians and lawyers going to court. Even the bankers dress in muted Aloha shirts. We drive slower. People barbecue a lot.

Brokedown: No movies or concerts. Even when we had the multiplex, forget about seeing a decent independent film or documentary. The theater specialized in blockbusters, action pics, comedies, and horror. Thank goodness for Blockbuster and Netflix. Also, live music--beyond our local artists (who are quite talented I must hasten to say)--is nonexistent. The whole idea of going to see Michael Buble or Caedmon's Call or even to hear a symphony is completely foreign to us. That's one thing I really miss about the States.

Paradise: The Food. I wrote a whole blog about this already so I won't say any more other than to remind you that four of the best eateries In The World are here on Saipan: Shelley's Pizza, Ebisuya, Spicy Thai, and Coffee Care.

Brokedown: It's Expensive. There are many things that cost more here in Saipan than they do back in the Mainland. There's electricity of course, but also gas (We're at $4.21 for a gallon of regular), food, automobiles, pens, electronics and appliances (generally double what they'd cost in the states), furniture, and the price of a flight to Dayton or Orlando. I should also mention that dishwashers are very hard to come by here. Even if we had one, the water is so harsh, I imagine it'd be ruined in short order.

Paradise: It's Cheap. While some things are exorbitantly priced here, others are a steal. $15 for a day at the Mandi Spa and $3.00 for a haircut come immediately to mind. Here in Saipan, it's common for regular middle class folk to have a housekeeper or a nanny. While getting to Dayton or Orlando might take a chunk of change, getting to Japan can cost around $400 and sometimes less.

Brokedown: Living in a glass house. Sometimes the expectations that come with being a missionary can grow tiresome. You're always expected to lead, always volunteered by others to go up front. You can't miss church without people wondering "what's wrong." Especially with Babs being an administrator, it always seems there is some crisis that needs resolving, some need to attend to, some people we feel responsible not to disappoint.

Paradise: "Where everybody knows your name. . ." The flipside of this glass house existence is that you really do feel part of a close knit community. Everywhere we go on this island we run into familiar, friendly faces. It's a small-town feel with out the small-town insularity. We'll be going over to the annual Flame Tree festival tonight and the feeling of community there will be strong as it always is. Amidst the aroma of barbecue, the stalls stocked with beautiful art by local artists, the rhythm of the dancers and the island music on the mainstage, we'll see people from every part of our rich lives here--students, church members, friends from Marriage Encounter, colleagues from other schools, dive buddies, and many faces that are familiar even if we don't know them personally.

On a side note, I'll add that Saipan feels much safer than many parts of the U.S. do. There is the occasional burglary and there are police blotter reports of violence (usually domestic) or purse-snatchings of tourists, but in general there seems to be less crime here.

Brokedown: We don't own much. Our peers in the States have bought houses, own one or two cars, maybe even a boat. We have very little that is truly ours. Our house belongs to the mission, our car is lent to us by the school. I truly can no longer remember what it feels like to own my own car. Even the bed we sleep on is not ours. Sometimes I feel like we're not living "real" life because we don't have all these adult things like mortgages and car payments, but on the other hand. . .

Paradise: We don't own much. It's really freeing not to own a whole lot. The more stuff you own the more your stuff owns you. The trade off to not owning much is not having to pay for much. We don't make a whole lot of money here but I suspect that we may actually end up ahead financially here because there are no car payments (not even car insurance--school pays for that too), no mortgage--none of the usual expenses that can suck up so much of the ordinary American paycheck. Even with our educational loan and credit card debts we're able to make ends meet and have a little left over to sock into savings, and I would imagine for someone coming out here debt free, it would be even easier.

So there you have it? Is Saipan "brokedown" or a "paradise"? I dont' know. But I do know that California had rolling blackouts a few years ago, and that a major American city was eviscerated by a hurricane and flooding not so long ago. Clearly, a Statesider who thinks they are somehow immune from the vagaries of life by virtue of living on the mainland isn't thinking very hard. We don't worry too much about terrorist attacks or tornados out here. Sure we have other things to worry about. But that's life. And at least for right now, I'd rather live in a Brokedown Paradise than an Unbroken Limbo (that rather bland place that isn't paradise but isn't exactly hell either).
Of course, with a baby on the way, all bets are off. Our perspective will likely change in radical ways once he/she arrives. And that's okay too.


Mai said...

Oh, Saipan! It's so sad, but so true......and yet, so beautiful! I love this place, I'm really gonna miss it!

Anonymous said...

I can't remember how I stumbled on your blog, maybe doing some random google searches of Saipan, and read your Brokedown Paradise, and thought it was wonderful. I used to live in Saipan, 1993-1994 & 1996-1999 (I know Russ and Kanae from PIC), and though I haven't had a chance to make it back since, your writing took me back to the island in the time span it took me to read it. Thank you!

G-rant said...

Great blog. My vote is paradise. Saipan is what you make it. You've been there for a long time, and if you truly believed it was broke down, you wouldn't still be there. Good job, missionary friend. I'm proud of you.