May 29, 2009

REAL Tours Down Under--Australia 2009

REAL in Australia: Our team poses with the Cairns youth after our Edmonton show, Sabbath afternoon, May 16, 2009.

Babs and the Little Feller at the Cairns Tropical Zoo, Friday, May 15, 2009.

We came to be a blessing, but came away richly blessed ourselves. About two weeks ago REAL Christian Theater embarked on its ninth (and my final) off-island tour. Our destination, for the first time ever was Cairns, in tropical north Queensland, Australia. From Friday, May 15 through Monday, May 19, the team performed six times (including a half hour spot on the radio) and also took some time to explore the beauty and culture of Australia. But more than the shows, more than the tours, more than the exotic animals (kangaroos and crocs and koalas), it was the people that made this trip memorable and special. When you work for the Lord, what you get back is always so much more than what you put in.

The blessings begin and end with God of course. The tour seemed almost too ambitious when I first thought of it more than a year ago on the drive back from the Atherton tablelands just oustide of Cairns. I mentioned to Paula, one of the youth leaders, the idea of bringing the drama team to Australia. She sounded interested and the seed was planted. It seemed more like a dream than a plausible reality at the time. Airfare to Australia was pricey and we'd have to rent vehicles to get around as well as pay for lodging. But it seemed like at every turn, God opened doors for the trip to move ahead. The cost of airfare dropped from the 800s to the 700s to the 600s by the time we bought tickets (cheaper than any destination closer to home in Micronesia except Guam). Due to some very generous donations from supporters in the states as well as here in the CNMI. we were able to cover our lodging and transporation costs. (It helped that we were staying at the Bohemia Resort, a hostel that at $15 USD a night for clean, simple rooms, a beautiful resort setting, and five star service has to be the best value for the money I've experienced anywhere). As if that weren't enough, we were blessed with close to $300 in donations while in Australia.

I could go on recounting the doors God opened--how "The Treasurer", our Chinese national team member who had to travel to Australia with Amy via Japan due to immigration restrictions, got her Australian visa; how "J" got her passport renewed just days before we left; how frequent flyer seats just opened up for those of us who had lots of miles but little cash.

But the blessings weren't just in the provision of our physical and monetary needs. What I will remember most about this, my final tour with REAL Christian Theater, is the kindness and openess of the people we encountered. Last year, the Cairns SDA Church opened their hearts to us when we visited with 8th grade class, and this year they seemed determined to outdo their own prior hospitality. They were an enthusiastic and appreciative audience for the various performances we put on over the weekend. They provided us with delicious homecooked meals on Friday night, Sabbath lunch and Sabbath supper. They entertained us with volleyball on the Esplanade after our final performance and took us for another day of water sports up at Lake Tinarroo in the Tablelands. The welcoming spirit of Ken and Ruth Stewart, Tom and Paulo Nelio, Robyn, the folks at the radio station, and all the youth made our time in Australia all the more precious.

God's spirit was at work outside the church as well, though, and His love and care was revealed through the remarkable staff at the Bohemia Resort. After our stay there last year, I didn't even consider staying anywhere else on our return. The price was right and the service was unparalleled. Like our church friends though, the Bohemia Resort staff raised their own bar of service to a whole new level. Not only did they meet our every need, but they anticipated needs before we asked, and offered to fill them. Once they discovered we were a performing group, they offered us a room on the top floor of the hostel to use as a rehearsal space. They allowed us to keep one room for an extra day as a place to store our luggage and a "base of operations" at no extra charge. When Elijah proved to be a bit too noisy at night, they allowed us to split the women into two rooms (Babs, Carol, and Elijah in one, some of the other staff in the other room), again, at no extra charge. They arranged all our tours--more often than not at the last minute, and helped us find the best prices. When Rhonda's dive tour operator failed to pick her up, they quickly arranaged another dive tour so she wouldn't miss out on her once-in-a-lifetime chance to dive the Great Barrier Reef. These are just a few of the most exemplary examples of the fantastic treatment we received while staying at the Bohemia Resort.

The girls dorm: One of our rooms at the Bohemia Resort. The rooms are spare and simple at Bohemia Resort, but they're clean, air-conditioned, and the service is five-star. (Photo courtesy of Megan Mocca)

Every time we walked into the reception area we were greeted with a smile. Not once did I sense that we were a "bother" to them (though I'm sure we were with our many needs and many requests). I'd like to thank all of the Bohemia Resort staff including Darryl, Becky, Peter, and of course Mong Na (I hope I spelled that right) for treating us so well. I can only say God bless you, and I'll be sure to send as much business your way as I can!

Mong Na and one of the other staff at Bohemia Resort. This is the woman I mentioned in my blog last year who was so kind to us the first time we stayed at the Bohemia Resort. I couldn't get a picture of her then, but this time I was able to take a quick snap just before we left Australia, Monday night. Once again, she and her colleagues outdid themselves in looking after us during our stay. She even gave us some small souvenirs from her recent trip to China to share among the teachers.To Mong Na and all the rest of the BR crew, thanks a million!

It was truly special weekend and I really enjoyed getting to know the members of our team better. I feel like we really bonded during our time in Australia. It was a great way to end years of great tours with REAL.

Here's a quick summary of what we did on the REAL Christian Theater 2009 tour to Australia, accompanied by a few photos. For some reason, none of us took very many pictures on this trip--guess we were too busy having fun. As a result, the photos you are here were yanked off various Myspace and Facebook pages. All photos have been appropriately credited.

We did our first show on Friday morning at the Cairns SDA School, a small school (about 50 students) with a beautiful, ultramodern campus on the grounds of the Cairns SDA Church.

REAL waiting to take the stage at our first show, Friday, May 15, 2009 (Photo courtesy of Megan Mocca).

The team pauses for a photo op at the Cairns Adventist School, after our first show, Friday morning, May 15, 2009. Here's the team--as always, most of them, as minors, will be identified only by nicknames: From L to R, "M", "the Kangaroo", Megan, "Old Lady Taylor" (so named after her role in our play The Line Up), "The Invincible", "Miss Em" (our youngest team member at 10 years old), "Ji", "The Treasurer", "Little Sister", and "J". (Photo Courtesy of Jaimie "James" Nickell) .

After our first show we drove out to the Cairns Tropical Zoo and spent a few hours there checking out all those cool Australian animals. Driving in Australia, by the way, was a little nervewracking at first (Carol, Amy, and I each piloted a vehicle throughout the weekend), but we got used to it afterawhile. That fact that we each had a "navigator" (mine was Rhonda) to focus on the map and directions really helped.

"Miss Em" clowning around at the pool at the Bohemia Resort. Friday, May 15, 2009 (Photo courtesy of Jaimie "James" Nickell).

Friday night we drove out to Kuarra Beach where the Cairns SDA church members treated us to a picnic on the beach before our evening performance. We did a few skits as part of the vespers program at the new church plant in Kuarra Beach being spearheaded by Pastor David Gilmore.

Sabbath was a busy day. We did our first show at the Cairns SDA Church youth Sabbath School class. "J", Megan, "Little Sister", "Miss Em" and "Old Lady Taylor" did special music for the church service.

The REAL team leads in worship at the youth Sabbath School class at Cairns SDA Church, Sabbath, May 16, 2009. That's Rhonda sitting at the computer working the PowerPoint, and (l to R, standing) Megan, "Old Lady Taylor", Me, "Miss Em", "Little Sister" and Carol leading in the singing.

Then, after church, we wolfed down a potluck lunch in the van, while on our way to a local radio station, where we were interviewed for about half an hour and even performed one of our skits live on the air.

REAL on the radio. That's me with "Miss Em", and "Ji", who are about to perform the skit "The Two Complainers" on air. Sabbath, May 16, 2009 (Photo courtesy of "J")

"M" flashes a grin as he talks to Cairns on the radio. (Photo courtesy of "J").

After the radio spot, we were off to another church plant in the town of Edmonton. We did a full 45-60 minute show there and were warmly received. It was really exciting because our performance inspired some of the members there to consider starting up their own drama ministry in the Cairns area.

"Little Sister", "M", and "J" perform at the Edmonton church plant, Sabbath afternoon, May 16, 2009.(Photo courtesy of "J")

Performing "Everything" at the Edmonton Church, Sabbath, May 16, 2009 (Photo courtesy of Rhonda Prokopetz)

After the Edmonton show we hustled back to the Bohemia Resort for a little Sabbath rest, before heading back to the Cairns SDA Church for our final performance of the weekend, a production of our latest full-length play, The Line Up.

We wrapped up the evening with some volleyball with our new Cairns friends down on the Esplanade and a late supper at the Cairns night markets.

The Stewarts once again took us out for a day of fun in the sun, waterskiing at Lake Tinnarroo. Despite a couple of carsick moments for the trip up the winding roads to the Tablelands (and back down again), we all had a great time.

A view of the Atherton Tablelands, not too far from Lake Tinnarroo, where we went skiing, Sunday, May 17, 2009. (Photo courtesy of Megan Mocca).

Monday was our "extra" day in Australia. Our travel agent mistakenly booked the main group to return a day later then we'd planned. We didn't realize it until literally days before we left Saipan, and at $150 change fee per ticket, it was more cost effective to just stay in Cairns. Amy and "The Treasurer", who had booked tickets seperately went back home on Monday morning, as did Babs and Elijah. Rhonda and Jaimie, who had also booked seperately changed their tickets to stay the extra day, and I did as well, to help with supervising the students. Carol, "Little Sister" and "J" had already planned to stay in Australia for a few more days so they were with us on Monday too.

The group at the entrance to the Tjapukai Cultural Park on Monday, May 18, 2009. Standing, left to right, "Old Lady Taylor", "J", "Little Sister", "Ji", Megan, "Miss Em", and "The Kangaroo". In front, is me and "the Invincible". Missing is "M", who had already done the Tjapukai/Skyrail tour last year and opted to hang out with Rhonda and James in Kuranda instead. Also, Amy and "The Treasurer" who flew back to Saipan that morning (due to their lengthy layover in Japan they were actually the last of us to get back to Saipan, on Tuesday afternoon, May 19. Babs and Elijah had also left early that morning. Carol was taking the photo. (Photo courtesy of Megan Mocca)

It actually worked out well, because we wouldn't have otherwise had time for the kids to visit the Tjapukai Cultural Park or take the Skyrail up to Kuranda. As it was the kids had a full day soaking up the various facets of Australian culture and the tropical beauty of North Queensland.

By the time we packed up our belongings that Monday night for our red eye flight back to Saipan, we were all sad to leave, and most of us had declared our intention to one day live in Australia.

It had been a great tour--great performances, great people, great memories--all by the grace of our great God. Who could ask for more than that?

Saipan TDL #32: Marianas March Against Cancer

Unfortunately, we forgot to bring our camera so I have no photos of the event, but here's the logo of the Commonwealth Cancer Association, which sponsored the March. The newspapers say that, despite our moribund economy, this was the biggest year for the March Against Cancer, in terms of funds raised!

This item was actually officially added to the list after the fact, but I thought of it almost as soon as I finished and published the blog. I just never got a chance to add it until after the event had already happened.

The Marianas March Against Cancer was one of those events I'd always thought about going to and often half-planned to attend, but never quite made it to. This past Friday, May 22, was our last chance to go and so we took it.

The MMAC, sponsored by the Commonwealth Cancer Association, if I understand it correctly, is similar to many other cancer research fundraisers. I know Guam has something similar called Relay for Life and I'm sure I've heard of similar events in the United States. The event serves to honor cancer survivors and victims, and to raise funds for cancer treatment and research programs. The March began at 6:00 P.M. and went on all night long, ending at 6 A.M. the following morning. The venue was the large field next to Hopwood Junior High School (about a half a mile down the road from our school). Throughout the night people walked or jogged aroudn the course layed out on the field relaying some kind of luminary device. Each sponsoring organization had their own luminary and team members keeping the relay going.

One of the organizations was the World Wide Marriage Enconter. Our local chapter of M.E. had team members in the relay and had a tent set up on the track's periphery (as did all the other sponsoring organizations, many of which were schools paired up with a local business). Several of our friends that are active with World Wide Marriage Encounter are cancer survivors so the March is close to heart of the "ME Community." Since Babs and I have been actively involved in Marriage Encounter for the past five years or so, thats where we spent most of our time.

Obviously with an eight month old in tow, we couldn't keep vigil all night long. We got there about 8:00 P.M. and left shortly after 9:30 P.M. (which was already quite late for Elijah). We didn't do much. . .just watched the presentations of the sponsoring teams which were going on when we arrived, and spent time talking with friends at the ME tent. Still, it was nice to be there and lend our moral support at least.

This is probably one of the last community events here in the Marianas that we'll participate in this year. We missed the Taste of the Marianas (which ends tonight), and while we'll probably go by the carnival this summer, that's an ongoing event that lasts every night through July. This is the last of the special times when it seems like everyone on our little island is gathered in one place. My friend LJ Castro, who seems to be the island's Official Emcee, is there keeping us entertained with his constant Chamorro--accented patter. You run into familiar faces--friends and former students--everywhere you turn. You sit in a plastic garden chair, soaking up the atmosphere, watching the island, young and old walk by. Island tunes and pop favorites pump from the sound system at the stage area between LJ's commentary. The night is warm, the stars are out, the scent of barbecue is in the air, and you feel at home, part of a friendly, caring community. I suppose it's the same in small towns across America, but this small town just happens be situated on a drop of volcanic rock in the Pacific encrusted in white sand and lush with tropical foliage.

Saipan has it's problems, without question. We continue to sink deeper into an economic abyss, and most of our leaders show little will or ability to make much of a difference. But on nights like this, I'm reminded that you'd have to look hard to find a better place to live than the Marianas. This is our home, and we will miss it always.

May 8, 2009

The Saipan To-Do List--Updated

Lately, we'll look back and be shocked to realize that some things that are part of life in Saipan, we've already done "for the last time" and we didn't even know it at the time: New Year's Eve on Mt. Tapochau, Christmas Eve at Carol's, the school's fall picinic, travel to Palau, and so many more.

But there are many more things we still have time to savor. The list continues here.

Time is running down, and I suspect I'm going to have a hard time documenting the items on this list as they're checked off. Still, I'll definitely italicize each item as it's accomplished and hopefully add a photo or two, so keep checking back. (I'll have a reminder and link on my sidebar too).

In no particular order, before we leave Saipan on July 5, 2009, I want to:

2. Have dinner with Rex and Clarie Kosack, and our original Marriage Encounter Steps group. Done, Monday, June 15, 2009 although it was just Rex and Clarie instead of the whole group. It was a lovely evening. Look for an upcoming blog on dinner two of our dearest friends on Saipan.
3. Go to Russ and Kanae Quinn's Bible study. Done. Monday, June 22, 2009
4. Sing karaoke with the Lacortes. Done, May 31, 2009
5. Camp at Managaha. Done, Saturday night, June 20 through Sunday, June 21, 2009. No Capture the Flag though. Just Babs, Elijah, the Paezes, and the Piersons taking it easy. And that was okay with me.

6. Run from one end of Saipan to the other (this coincides naturally with my training for the San Francisco Marathon in July). Done, June 7, 2009.
7. Run with Vince Asanuma on the Beach Road pathway like we used to do back in day.
8. Watch the sun rise at Banzai Cliff and drink an Extra Strength Red Bull toast to the 4Runners!
9. Run to the top of Suicide Cliff
10. Go to San Juan Beach-- the site of the beginning of me and Grant's "lost in the boonies" adventure, and the men's campout--and get washed by the waves if possible. Done, Sabbath, June 13, 2009.
11. Do the tank swim on on a regular basis, and swim to the second tank at least once.
12. Go diving 5 to 10 more times (3 down and 2 to go. Most recent dive was last Friday, June 19 at Obyan Beach. The one before that was Sunday, May 31, 2009 at the Grotto).
13. Go to Tinian and spend time with the Rankins.
14. Spend the night at the Marianas Resort.
15. Spend the day at Pacific Islands Club and eat lunch at the Magellan. Done, Sunday, June 14, 2009.
16. Go to the Mandi Asian Spa at least three more times.
17. Have a picnic breakfast on the beach behind Aquarius.
18. Eat at Coffee Care twice in May, every week in June and every day of our last week in Saipan.
19. Eat at Giovannis, Capriciossa's, Yellow Mango, Len, Casa Urahsima, Oleai's, Spicy Thai, Taste of India.
20. Go to the abandoned Rudolpho's restaurant and shuttered La Fiesta Mall, stand there, and remember the early days of our time in Saipan when these places were alive and vibrant.
21. Have coffee and philosophical discussion with Galvin Deleon Guerrero.
22. Take my last class of graduating seniors out for dinner. Done at Casa Urashima, Wednesday, June 24, 2009.
23. Have lunch with Cliff and Denise Shoemake.
24. Look up Butch Wolf and see what he's up to.
25. Hike to Forbidden Island and climb to the top of the island. Done, Sabbath, June 6, 2009.
26. Hike to Old Man by the Sea.
27. Have sundown vespers at Ladder Beach. Done, Friday, June 12, 2009.
28. Go to Wing Beach on Sabbath afternoon.
29. Go to the Last Command Post.
30. Hang out with Joeie and Virle and watch a bunch of TV and movies. Done, Saturday night, June 13, 2009.
31. Go bike riding with Girlie, Antonee, and Edna.
32. Attend the Marianas March Against Cancer--Done, May 22, 2009

It goes without saying that this list will be edited, added to and updated regularly.

May 2, 2009

The Saipan To-Do List #1: The Flame Tree Festival

When we look back on our last days in Saipan, we want to be able to say that we didn't miss a thing--that we did it all.

In just under two months, Barbara, Elijah, and I will, at last, take the Long Walk ourselves. For Babs and me, it will bring to an end eleven beautiful years on this lovely little piece of paradise called Saipan.

Though we've known since November of last year that this would be our final school year in Saipan, as our time here rapidly dwindles we're becoming more and more aware of how difficult this move will be. We are trying to prepare ourselves emotionally and mentally, as well as practically for uprooting ourselves from this place we've come to call home.

Part of that process, includes fully experiencing the joys of living in Saipan while we still can. We've begun a sort of checklist, a to-do list, of all the things we want to do here in Saipan while we still can. In this blog, I'll share the items on my list.

1. Spend some quality time at the Flame Tree Festival. This one is already checked off the list. We spent about two hours Saturday night, April 25 and all afternoon, Sunday, April 26, 2009 at the 28th Annual Flame Tree Arts Festival. It was time well spent

The Flame Tree Arts Festival takes places every spring in Saipan, just about the time the time the fiery blossoms of the flame tree are beginning to emerge. Along Beach Road, all over the area near the airport, and in countless groves that dot the Saipan hillsides, the trees are bursting into gentle, orange flame. The Festival celebrates this time with a gathering of artists, musicians, and dancers from the Marianas and beyond. The festival grounds are erected on a strip of beach side park. The anchor for the festival is the massive main stage which hosts a constant parade of dancers, bands, and other performers. Throughout the weekend the mainstage provides the soundtrack for the festival--even if you're not watching, the island rhythms, classic rock, and hip-hop beats are always with you. On the beach side of the stage, are the the rows of food shacks run by local restaurants, families, and community organizations: mouthwatering island favorites like barbecue, red rice, chicken kelaguen, apigigi, and fresh coconut juice; Chinese meal plates (7 choices for $5.00); and refreshing treats like pearl shakes, snow cones, and slushes. Of course, there's cotton candy too.

On the road side of the stage, are the artist's booths filled Saipan-made handicrafts, Palauan storyboards, and vibrant paintings and photographs that come remarkably close to capturing the rich beauty of our island home. There are t-shirt vendors, trinket sellers, and always an earnest display by the Chinese religious sect, the Falun Dafa.

The Festival Grounds
The music is good, the food is tasty, and the art is lovely, but what really makes the Flame Tree Festival special is the wonderful sense of community one finds there. It seems practically everyone on the island comes out for the Flame Tree Festival. It's one of the few times that traffic and parking are actually an issue on Saipan. On Saturday night we had to park all the way down at the Joeten Shopping Center and hike a quarter mile or so back to the festival. But the walk was worth it. You're guaranteed to see familiar faces as you browse the artists booths, order some chow, or groove to the music. We'll see our students strolling about in their little packs, church members, teachers from other schools, and island friends we haven't seen in ages. And when you spend some real time at the Flame Tree Festival as we did last year, that close-knit sense of community really sinks in.

I found it remarkable how people would sit for hours passively watching the entertainment come and go on stage. They weren't the most expressive crowd. Generally when a performer would shout out "How's everybody doing tonight", they'd get silence in reply. There was little in terms of applause or cheers. At first, I thought that perhaps the audience didn't care for the entertainment. But after awhile, I began to realize they were enjoying the music and dance, but for them the festival was less about hearing this particular band or seeing that particular dance troupe, but more about just sitting together enjoying one another's company, relaxing, and quietly taking in whatever passed by onstage. People here in Saipan seem to understand the value and reward in just sitting for awhile, without having some purpose they must hurry to accomplish.

After REAL Christian Theater performed on Sunday afternoon, Babs, Elijah, and I spent the rest of the afternoon until sunset at the festival. We'd come the night before too, but it was after eight o clock in the evening when we got there, Elijah was tired and cranky, and I was antsy to get home and to bed since I had an early morning run the next day. So it wasn't until Sunday that I was able to truly slow down and let the spirit of the Festival take hold.

I walked the dusty grounds of the festival, slurping down a pearl shake; browsed the artists booths, beginning to think about what kinds of art we'd want to purchase as keepsakes of our time in Saipan; sat with Carol Paez and her family and watched the dancers; and finally made our way to the car as the setting sun blazed across the water and the through the trees at the edge of the festival grounds.

To think that for years, we skipped the Festival all together! Back then we knew we could "always go next year." This year, we knew that this was our last chance, and we made the most of it.

Carol Paez took the photos you see in this blog and passed them on to me. She took a lot of pictures of the Rainbow Dancers, a large group of women and girls that were performing to raise funds for an upcoming fiesta in their village.

One of the highlights of this year's festival was the arrival of voyagers from Satawal, one of the Caroline Islands hundreds of miles south of us. These men traveled over open ocean in three traditional canoe, without modern instruments, navigating the way Carolinian voyagers have for centuries--using the stars, the waves, the sky. This double hulled canoe actually came from Satawal via Palau. The other two traveled directly from Satawal to Saipan. I find it so heartening that these traditional skills are still being preserved and passed on to the younger generation.

Throughout the festival this boat was anchored off shore and the two smaller ones were pulled up on the beach right at the festival grounds. The voyagers were staying in tradtional, thatch roofed huts right there on the beach.

The Rainbow Dancers. There must have been a hundred of these women and girls ranging from 5 to 75 dancing on the main stage. They danced for a long time and it was one of the few times that the audience really came alive. There was much cheering and clapping. Also, in these types of island dances it's customary for the audience members to dance up to the stage in deposit money in a small woven basket or plastic bag at the front of the stage, or even give money directly to some of the dancers. It was so fun to see people dancing up, shouting, "money,money" and giving their gift.

After the Rainbow Dancers, the voyagers plus some men from our own community got up and did a dance as well, and they were a huge hit. The audience was cheering, shouting, and laughing, and some of the women came forward to mischeviously tuck money into the waistbands of the men's traditional loincloths.

I felt priveleged to be able to be able to share in the rich cultural heritage of the people who've allowed me to call this place home.

Our own performance at the Flame Tree Festival went quite well too. Here's a couple of our actors on the main stage performing the skit "The Box." I was pretty nervous--our group, with its skits, was so different from the typical festival fare. But that turned out to be in our favor, as we drew quite a crowd--especially kids, of course. They were intrigued by something different happening on stage. God blessed us with one of our best shows yet. At the end, a little bit of rain started to come down during our performance of "Everything," and that had the double advantage of bringing additonal drama to the performance and bringing more people under the shelter of the stands to watch the show. At the end, it was clear that many had been touched by the message, and even the emcees commented on how moved they were.