Posted On: December 13, 2018
Yes, it’s true. In early January, our son, Jody, and I will be traveling to Saipan, my island home during my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer.
But first, some background. And feel free to send me your comments on this. Just click the “Contact Tom” link on any page of the website.
The Borja Family
I left the Peace Corps in 1970, saying farewell to many good friends and to my neighbor family the Borjas. The Borja family is described in some detail in Chapter Six (page 120) of Seasoned. In the years since then, I’ve been able to maintain contact with the Borjas thanks to Rosalia Borja, who reached out and telephoned me nearly every year around Christmas time to catch up on my family and fill me in on hers. In December 1997, Rosalia made sure to phone me so I could speak with her mom (nana in the Carolinian language of Saipan), Olympia, a few weeks before Olympia passed away from cancer. Here are Olympia and her husband, Carlos, at the time when I lived next door to them.
The Story Continues
My memoir Seasoned concludes with a scene in the Epilogue (pages 217-219) that takes place in November 2012 in the cemetery where my brother and my parents are buried. The book ends with the line, “I am a child of winter no more.”
But that’s not the end of the story. . . .
A few months after that scene in the cemetery, I had the opportunity, accompanied by our son, Jody, to make a return visit to Saipan. Through my regular contact with Rosalia Borja and other friends there, I knew we’d be welcomed back. But Jody and I were blown away: the Carolinians welcomed us like long-lost family members with hugs, fragrant flower leis, laughter, music and singing. Here is the Borja family with Jody and me in June 2013:
Here’s a short (6 min.) video that gives you a taste of the sights and sounds of that visit five years ago. When it was over, I returned to North Bay, filled with fond memories and wondering if I’d ever be able to visit the island again.
Keeping in Touch
I continued to hear from Rosalia about her family. All of her sisters, her children, and her grandchildren were doing okay. Her father (tata in Carolinian) was in good health and went for walks along the beach every day. Last fall, our Carolinian friends, Lino Olopai and Joe “Ping” Limes, came from Saipan to join our Peace Corps reunion in Santa Fe, NM.
It was the first time they got to meet my wife, Beth Hewson. Lino and Ping returned to Saipan with copies of my book to bring to the Borja family.
The News in 2018
This past summer, I learned from Rosalia’s aunt, Florence Kirby, that Rosalia had been diagnosed with cancer. Accompanied by her sister, Doris, Rosa traveled to the Philippines in September for her cancer treatment. Florence e-mailed me in November that Rosalia is back on Saipan and is doing much better.
I began to feel a strong pull to go back to Saipan while I still can and while my dear friends are still there. When I proposed the idea to Jody, he immediately replied “Yes!” He has a 4-week mid-winter break from his teaching job in Quebec City, and January was an appealing time to go: we’d get a break from the Canadian winter on a sunny, warm tropical island; we’d again get to visit with our many friends; and Tata Carlos Borja’s 82nd birthday will be on January 9th. We began looking at air fares and dates. And then, on October 24th, . . .
. . . this happened:
“Super Typhoon Yutu decimates homes, kills 1 in Pacific islands: – CBC News
“Super Typhoon Yutu Hits Tinian, Saipan as ‘Most Intense’ Tropical Cyclone Observed Worldwide” — Newsweek
The typhoon’s devastation of the islands raised serious doubts about our plans. I waited and watched news updates from Saipan about the massive recovery work by the US Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the military, volunteers from other Pacific islands as well as local residents. By mid-November, the word from friends on Saipan was to “come in January. Just being here will mean a lot to everyone.”
This visit will be vastly different from five years ago. Saipan may only vaguely resemble the “island paradise” description of the tourist brochures.But the enduring beauty of Saipan for me is more than the scenery, the beaches, and the tropical fruits and flowers that grow so abundantly. It is the warmth, welcoming and love of the people.
Jody and I will leave North Bay on Thursday, January 3rd, fly to Seoul, South Korea on the 4th/5th (crossing the International Dateline), and arrive Saipan on the 6th. We’ll be back home in North Bay on Tuesday, January 15th.
Look for updates from our adventures right here.