Wednesday, January 9, 2008

180. Chalan Memorias (Memory Lane)

At Boni's request (that tag thing), I'm taking a trip down Chalan Memorias. I arrived in Saipan on December 1, 1984, heading into my "new" job as Directing Attorney of the Marianas Office of MLSC. I stayed a week in the Hafa Adai Hotel, courtesy of MLSC, attended my first MLSC staff conference (which was then an annual event), and gradually overcame culture shock to put down roots here.

Some of the things I remember:

1. The first breath of hot, humid air. It had already snowed in Cleveland, Ohio, where I'd been living. The inside airplane temperature had been chilly. When I walked outside of the airplane and got my first breath of tropical air, I felt as if I were being suffocated. I was greeted by an entire office of people, awaiting me with a beautiful mwar mwar and lei. And the woman I would be replacing said, on the way to the hotel, something about how I'd chosen the "best" time of year to arrive in Saipan, when it was "cool" and "pleasant." I thought I wouldn't last.

2. Local directions, island time. I have a ton of these stories, but they all include going to the large breadfruit tree, or mango tree, or coconut tree, and turning there-can't miss it! And never being late. The first one occurred my first week here, when I had a u-drive, and two Chuukese women (one a secretary in the Chuuk office, and one her cousin) in the car, heading to Tank Beach for an MLSC barbecue. All we knew was to turn off some road on the back road--we went down the road to Old Man by the Sea, and later down the road to Santa Lourdes, and finally down the road to Kagman. We saw a whole family at a house on the road, and smoke rising, and yes-they knew our assistant director Eugenia Cepeda (it was her house!), and pointed the way-couldn't miss it. A half hour or more later we finally arrived, at least 4 hours after the time "scheduled" for the barbecue. There were only a handful of people there before us, and more arriving regularly. Our timing was great! The food would be there soon. Have a beer. (BTW, I love island time--I need to be told to arrive hours early so I can get there when I really should be there!)

3. fanihi--I eventually moved into a house at Eugenia's. Because I lived in Kagman in the 1980's, everyone thought I lived "far" away. The road down to Kagman then was just a coral lane that washed out in heavy rains and became deeply rutted. But I loved it back there, where Eugenia's family gathered for family parties--it seemed every day, but probably was just 2 or 3 times a week! At one of these, Eugenia was very happy because they were having fanihi soup, I really should try it, it's delicious, can't ever get that in the states, etc. Another MLSC attorney (Clara) and I considered, feeling game for a new, Chamorro dining experience. Eugenia described how fabulous this soup tasted and smelled, and eventually a big pot was brought to the picnic table. Clara and I wrinkled our noses. Eugenia was saying how it smelled like some animal in the states she remembered from her days in Louisianna, what was that animal, she forgot the name. Clara and I looked at each other and said "skunk?" and Eugenia said YES very excitedly. Fanihi soup was sounding bad. They took the lid off of the pot and there were these little creatures, their dead eyes staring up at us, looking for all the world like dead rats with wings, floating in murk. Ah--fanihi--fruitbat. (and learning the art of politely declining).

4. nightlife 1--The 80's had a whole host of nightlife offerings--not unlike those still operating. The 19th Hole, Angel's, the Southern Cross, the 4 Aces, the Palauan bars (Marianas Inn, I think, being the fave), and more. Some of these bars moved to new locations, and so we moved with them. My kumaire (well, she wasn't my kumaire then) would say, pick me up at 10, and Clara and I would arrive, to find that she hadn't even started to get ready, still needed to shower, etc. We'd get to the dance floor about midnight and stay to closing or beyond. I met Paz Younis on the dance floor of the club across from the Hyatt (and I'll be darned, I've forgotten what it was called then, or now.). Paz was a mother, teacher, respected citizen (and former nun), but on the dance floor, she was a maniac! I also learned quickly some very specific requirements--always ask "are you married?" answers like "I'm single for tonight" mean yes. answers like "no" mean go back to your office and ask your local staff what they know about this guy before agreeing to a date. (one time--yes, he's married and has 5 kids; half hour later, same co-worker--I should correct that answer-he may not be legally married, just living together, in case you're asking about legal status. No, you got it right the first time, thanks.--5 kids!)

5. nightlife 2--driving home from one of the bars about 3 in the morning with island friend in tow, heading down the back road toward Kagman road. STOP! STOP! There's a monster coconut crab crossing the road. (This before limits on taking/hunting, I think, but since I'd never seen one before, I'm not sure). Friend-Let's get it, got anything to catch it with? Me--a screwdriver? Friend--that works. Minutes later, coconut crab with pincer tightly clasped to screwdriver, is on floor in car. Later, it's in a pot of boiling water. Yum! After that, I noticed coconut crabs out at night, crossing the roads, a lot. Occasionally there would be a sickening crunch where I accidentally hit one. I never stopped to catch one again, though. The other creatures most frequently seen on the road at night were frogs. Saipan had TONS of frogs. And then, I stopped seeing the coconut crabs. And then frogs only rarely. sigh.

6. my first Xmas--1.--I hadn't moved to Kagman yet, but was house-sitting in Gualo Rai. The office had a party planned. Everybody cooks for the party. I was told to prepare taro and yams. (Um, I'm American, what are taro and yams?) Never one to shirk responsibility, I went to the farmer's market (I think it was across from the post office then) and bought those fingered-style yams and bulging taro roots (or do I have that backwards? still don't really know), and when I got back to the house, I tried to peel them. Slippery, slimy, hard--how many would I need? I'd been told how to prepare them by another American haole--what did she know? I boiled those things and couldn't tell if they were done. I'd never eaten them, were they supposed to taste like this? I finally put them all in a large tray, covered with foil, and then waited to be picked up. (This after the u-drive and before I had my own car. This, also before I knew that island time was a universal concept applicable pretty much everywhere but in court.) Waited, waited, waited. Hours went by. What had I done? I was on a tropical island for Christmas, having cooked taro and yams instead of cookies, and was stuck in a house without transportation, just me and those damn taro/yams. What kind of Christmas is this? I had just started to cry when Frank showed up. It was pretty hilarious. I've NEVER cooked taro or yams again (and don't plan to).

7. my first Xmas-2. More silly stuff for that first Xmas. The ex-pat community (because this was not the US yet) had a party. Bring a gift-less than $10, silly, kitsch, whatever. Every gift got numbered on the way in, everyone pulled a number from a bowl, gift handed over, but not opened, then swap meet, in numerical order, the last number being able to swap for anything preceding it. I gave a huge flag from Panama (don't remember where I got it), that was much loved by its recipient (forgot his name-he was Peace Corp), and received two champagne glasses with pale blue stems in the form of naked ladies (one still in my kitchen cabinet). Same ex-pat community had a hike--I was too new, but we hiked forever I think along telegraph ridge. It was hot and scratchy, but it wasn't snow or cold, so I liked it.

8. Typhoon Kim--12/4/1986. This is one month after the "end" of the TTPI (11/4/1986). I still lived in Kagman. I still had no phone or cable television. The road was still a coral dustbin. Another MLSC attorney who had been living in Chuuk and who was moving to Saipan had shipped his right-hand drive truck and all his belonging to Saipan. I had it sitting on my "carport", the bed of the truck and contents covered with a blue plastic tarp.

I hadn't a clue there was a typhoon coming. I didn't go to work because I didn't feel good (I think that might have been due to the drop in barometric pressure that brought the storm to us. or something.) I sat on my stoop and watched the sky go dark, noticed the birds stopped singing and everything went silent except for the wind in the trees. I watched the wind bend banana plants to the ground and whip coconut trees to a frenzy, with coconuts sailing through the air. (It was beautiful in Kagman where I lived.) The power went out. Eventually the rain came, and I shut all my louvred windows and closed the doors. The rain came through. I got out my towels and started tacking them up around the windows to try to keep the rain out. (I had no idea what a typhoon really meant, and learned the hard way to keep those towels dry, going to need dry towels later, let the rain in if need be, you can sweep it out afterwards...). Hours and hours of onslaught. A break. The sun came out. The storm had passed. Still standing.

A few hours later, night now, more rain, more wind, more typhoon. The typhoon had done a u-turn and come back to say hello. another six hours or so of rain, wind, the sound of roofing tins crackling in the air, along with trees. A friend banging on my door-his house completely flattened in the storm, can he and his roommate come in? Where's your car? Somewhere on the road down, abandoned-the Kagman road is partially gone, and a "river" forming alongside it's northern edge. By the next day, the storm was gone, the sun was blazing hot, and we had no power, no city water. We set up tin gutters send water in rain barrels, mopped out the house. I took hundreds of books from my Chuuk friend's truck and set them up in the sun to dry. The office was a mess, and we set up our legal library books in the sun there, too, to dry. I went to visit different staff. Frank's house (one of those Joeten houses in Fina Sisu) had flood water higher than the electrical outlets--time to move. A former co-worker (Randy, with his wife Nahid) had their beautiful glass wall facing Managaha completely blown out, expensive rugs drenched. We used their swimming pool as a community bath.

Did I mention I hadn't done laundry for a few weeks before the typhoon? So I had no clean clothes. I packed three suitcases of dirty laundry, hopped a plane to Guam, went to a laundromat from the airport, and returned with clean, dry laundry. Aah.

I was without power and water about 2 weeks. I remember Maria in the office was first to get power, but took a long time to get water. Maggie went six weeks without either. The island looked brown for months. And houses that no one knew existed were revealed on the hills and in the valleys everywhere.

9. Cablevision--remember when we had a weatherwoman?

10. Bar Association meetings--we used to meet and eat at Chamorro Village in San Vicente-road to LauLau Beach.

11. deaths and funerals--John Leonard C. Cepeda was shot and killed at the age of 16. He died on 3/9, I think the year was 1986, but I could be wrong about that. He was the son of Eugenia and Calistro (Kelly), my neighbors, landlords, and local family. I learned about the Chamorro custom of forgiveness--the boy who killed him (it was an accident, but not a nice one) and his parents came and begged forgiveness from the grief-stricken Cepedas. They accepted the sincere apologies and did not pursue any legal recourse.

I learned about Chamorro funerals-all 18 days (9 days public, 9 days for family). I opened my house (it was theirs, after all) to whatever relatives wanted to stay there, and ended up having hordes of teenagers camp in my living room. I listened to the rosary and other prayers, said at 8 AM, 12 noon, 8 PM and midnight for all of the first 8 days, with funeral on the 9th day, and then more daily rosaries (I think just at 8 PM ) for the second 9 days. I learned about "mesngon"--being stoic, and also about the Chamorro funeral wail on closing the coffin.

I've gone to many funerals since that one. The songs, especially at Carolinian funerals, connect directly to the soul. I love when the Bishop sings the "in paradisum---requiem." I usually stay through the tossing of flowers and dirt on the coffin in the grave.

And I've come to understand why the old ladies cry at funerals of people they hardly know, cry for distant relatives they may not have liked very much, cry at the least and the most important funerals. Now, each funeral connects to that spot of grief, and ritual, for every other death of someone I know, someone I cared about, and those I love.

When my father died in 1991, people in Saipan gave me money and helped me get on a plane and deal with the mechanics of living through the grief. For all the humor we can find in the island funeral (like Angelo's hilarious short film of ladies fanning the food to keep away flies), they are, imho, something blessed.

12. driving--I hated when they installed traffic lights. I liked the old days where people usually knew every car on the highway and who it belonged to. I still like the Rota wave.

13. Samoan housing--it still existed in Kagman and Garapan when I got here. I knew people who lived in those houses. I liked the style, the breeziness--but because of the architecture, you could hear anything being said in any part of the house, so better be careful!

14. Night fishing--I was one to stay on the beach and wait. When the fishermen came out of the water with their boxes filled, we knew to wait for the last man. He would be the one with the lobster! And then I would help clean fish (not my forte) to slap directly on hot coals or keep a stick (or tongs) on a still-moving lobster, also on the coals, to sear it for some of the best eating in the world.

15. The (other) Southern Cross--Mike DeSmith, I think, had a telescope-or was it the Kirby's? We stood on the cliffline in Koblerville and watched for the elusive moment when the Southern Cross came up across the horizon and was visible from Saipan. Aaah!

16. Banzai Cliff at night--before it was roped off with chains at night, you could drive right to the monument. I liked to go there to "cool off" and wonder at the most amazing night sky, accompanied by the rush and tumble of the ocean.

17. George Bush Sr.--when he was Veep, came to Saipan. Must have been before 1987--Clara and I stood on the highway leading from the airport, two lonely protestors, with signs. No one saw us (except someone later said it was improper to protest, not the "island way.")

18. Executive, Legislative, Judicial branches. The legislature was in the buildings on the beach (one, green--still standing) in Susupe. The Governor (Pete P) was in the southside of Civic Center, along with lieutenant governor (Pete A). The court-Superior then called Commonwealth Trial Court was in in the civic center buildings, north side--used by DPS and the passport office now. (Judge Hefner and Judge Soll on the bench.) Appeals went to Judge Laureta of the district court, in the Nauru Bldg. And there were still occasional hearings up on capital hill by the Trust Territory High court (Judge Munson, among others). MLSC Marianas Office was in the building where Marg's Kitchen is now (until 1986, weeks before Typhoon Kim, when we moved to an old building where the Guma Hustitia is now).

19. 360 degrees--only then it was the top of the Nauru Bldg, and I forget the name of the bar/restaurant. It was a favorite haunt for lawyers and other office workers, for happy hour. Alex Castro and Eddie Manibusan wrote out dirty Chamorro words on a paper napkin for me, as part of my local education. The Palauan waitress, who was known for being surly, turned into a complete sweetheart when my aged parents visited in 1987 for their 50th wedding anniversary. The drinks were great, the music greater.

20. local medicine, local practice--I went on a hike in Laulau, I forget the woman I was with (I want to say she was from a family in As Teo, but I'm not sure). I was tagging along as she collected medicine plants. I'd ask stupid questions like "what's that one for" and "how do you use it" and I kept getting answers like, for stomache ache, made like tea. Everything seemed to be the same. She couldn't just say, it's family lore and not information for sharing--too rude. I eventually learned small bits--the heartshaped leaves on the bushes along the walk by American Memorial-used for headache, just tucked into a bandana wrapped around the head; camias leaf, chewed and slapped on open cut (camias are those sour, green long fruits, also good for pickling); popcorn plant leaf--crushed and ground, used for dry skin; and of course the ubiquitous coconut oil-rubbed on achy tummy, dry skin, congested sinuses. When you're in the boonies and need to use the "facilities," say "Guelo yan guela" forgive me, I'm going to pee on your face. Always respect the ocean, and Don't shout at shoreline [is this only at sunset?] (raises the sea's anger?). Don't sweep the house at night (chases away friends, visitors). I know there's more and more and more.

But the lane is closing and it's time for lunch, I mean, work.


Tamara said...

Wow, I never knew you've lived here for that long. Your post gave me goose bumps!!!!

Leonard Cepeda was one of my best friends. Infact, his sister now works for me. She's just as nice of a person as he was. That was a tragic and great loss!!!

I remember the weatherwoman on cable tv too..wasn't her name Barbara Snow?? or something like that

Souther Cross was the first nightclub I even snuck into..ha ha..I was 15 years old..a couple years later I ended up marring the lead singer of the band..yikes!

Tapei Restaurant was the former name of 360, and the palaun waitress was my Auntie Bobbie and my uncle Singeru sang and played his guitar for happy hour.

Great memories, great post! I really enjoyed it! Thanks!

Saipan Writer said...

The Tapei, Singeru, Bobby--yeah, that's it.

So do you work with Lenora or Delia? I think China (Elsie) is still here in Saipan. I have amusing stories about them all. :-)

I forgot to include Chamorro names, nicknames, clan names, secret names--the whole art of knowing people in a zillion different ways, always starting with who's your mother, your father, etc.

And not down memory lane, but that name thing and knowing people--just last year, when dd was just 12, some boy telephoned her about 1 AM. I asked for his name, his mother's name, his father's name (out of the picture), where his mother worked--and in true Chamorro fashion, used to answering these question, this boy on the phone told me everything. Smile--okay, got who your mom is now firmly fixed--if you EVER call my daughter at this hour again, I'll be talking with your mother. Yes ma'am, won't do that... Later, dd--mom, you're ruining my social life. You bet-that's my job. :-)

Tamara said...

Elsie, I work with Elsie. So her nickname is "china" huh? he I will have to rib her..ha ha!

Boni said...

Wasn't Hyatt the Continental Hotel before? I remember so many baby frogs, catching and playing with them with neighborhood boys. I watch the Sablan Construction roof peel away during that typhoon. More clubs? Foxfire and Dragon night club. Geez, there isn't a coconut crab in sight nowadays. This is amazing stuff. I will never look at Paz the same again:)

Saipan Writer said...

I can't believe I forgot to mention in my 20 memories sitting at CK beach for the arrival or departure of the Satawalese in those lovely flying proas/outrigger canoes. Mau Pialug was there (years before the fateful trip with Angelo's dad, Ramon G., although I remember that trip, too). This one was around the feast of San Jose (the fisher, not the farmer one), I think. CK beach by Pacific Gardenia was crowded with well-wishers. It was about 1985 or 1986, I think, but possibly later. The idea of men sailing the open ocean in those tiny, fragile craft still amazes and awes me.

Dan said...

I very much enjoyed Chalan Memorias. It brought back many fine memories from my own seven years on Saipan. My time there ended about four years before yours started, but there are many points of coincidence in the people, places, and experiences you describe.

Best regards to you and all your readers who may remember me.

Cheers. Dan MacMeekin

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks, Dan. Hello back and of course we remember you. Have a happy New Year.

lil_hammerhead said...

You actually lived in Kagman.. before the homestead and pavement? :) To all of us who only visited there once a year or less, Kagman was way way out in the boondocks. That coral hot dusty road down to the housing was terrible.