Saturday, June 30, 2007

where one ends and the other begins

Our first day in Saipan, we went swimming in a still lagoon where the tops of two World War II tanks peek out of the water like turtles. Drunk on a combination of jet lag and the stunning physical beauty of the island, we stood shoulder-deep in the lagoon watching storm clouds develop offshore over the ocean. They rolled into form, grew into a tall column, and then the distinction between cloud, sky, and ocean was obscured. It was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
Shortly thereafter, the rain made its way to us. We stood in the perfectly still waters in a spirited downpour. The drops bounced off the water as if we were in a giant puddle.

The car we are borrowing for the week belongs to Pam, a Canadian physical therapist. It's a Toyota, I'm guessing early '90's, stripped and weather-beaten, taped and rigged, but nevertheless a hero considering the brutal roads and salt in the air. She said, "It's insured...If you get pulled over [by one of the three functioning police cars], tell them we're working on the registration." The license plate was last updated in 2004. It will be hard to part with "Lightin' McQueen"--its obvious nickname--but hopefully we'll find something with a similar union of flare and disrepair.

There is a point on the northern part of Saipan called Suicide Cliff. It is so-named because hundreds of Japanese civilians committed mass suicide by jumping (or being thrown) off the cliff in the last hours of the United States' invasion in 1944. They were convinced by propaganda that the Americans would torture any civilians they captured, so they chose death over such a presumed fate.
Today, Lightin' McQueen took us to Suicide Cliff. He was running hot after climbing the hills, and some of the sounds emerging from the hood were discouraging.
Others were there, mostly Japanese tourists. It was an interesting moment to gaze down at a breathtaking view with such intense and dark history together with our brothers and sisters from Japan.

We dined in a surreal restaurant in Garapan, a gaudy district apparantly geared toward the dwindling number of tourists. The Country Saloon is fashioned to resemble a log cabin. It is decorated with frames of John Wayne and Babe Ruth next to faux taxodermy and cigar store Indians. Willie Nelson's "Willie and Family Live" was playing, and the Phillipino waitresses all wore cowboy hats and western wear. We were the only non-Japanese family dining, and Nicholas and Morgan entertained and were entertained by their Japanese peers sitting in neighboring tables.
Sticking out like sore thumbs and feeling like a foreigner, driving a Japanese car in a US Commonwealth, digesting that 50000 Japanese and 15000 Americans died here in a few days of war, trying to figure out where one ends and the other begins, I asked Nicholas about the family sitting next to us, "Where do you think they're from?"
"St. Louis," he replied.

I start work Monday. I will be doing outpatient clinic combined with a few ER shifts (they call it "Emerg") and some work at the Saipan jail. In a couple of weeks, the hospital will fly us to Tinian, an island separated from Saipan by five miles of shark-infested waters. I will work there for one week while the family is "put up" at a resort hotel/casino approximately one mile from the runway used by the Enola Gay to drop the bomb on Japan to end WWII.

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