McDonald’s Story

So.. had to post this. This is such a typical Saipan story it doesn’t seem to stand out — but here goes! I was just out running and errand and (the power of advertising, after watching a video where someone was talking about McD’s sweet tea) decided to swing by McDonald’s for a sweet tea. (I know I know, sugar sweetened beverages are from the devil supposedly)

As I pulled into the drive thru, I saw that there was a ‘out of stock’ sign over the sweet tea. Drat! But I was already in the line and couldn’t get out of it so decided to settle for regular unsweetened iced tea. I asked the lady thru the speaker — there is no sweet tea? ‘no, we don’t have it’ oh.. okay, well then I’ll get iced tea. ‘you know that has no sugar in that’ yes I know but you said there was no sweet tea ‘yes, we don’t have any here’

I don’t frequent McDonald’s  — in fact, I can’t remember the last time I went — so as I pull up to the window to get my unsweetened drink, I say, how long have you guys not had sweet tea? it’s just not available here anymore in Saipan? (clearly, I really wanted this sweet tea and was trying to figure out when I might be able to get it again). As she took my money she says, ‘oh, we have it over there (pointing towards the main counter). we just don’t have it in drive thru because we cannot walk over there.’ Ooooh, well, can I switch my drink now? The other person told me you didn’t have it and I came here just for that. ‘No, we cannot walk over there (she points — I can literally SEE the container of sweet tea less than 5 feet away from where she’s standing)’ Well, can I come to the front counter and switch it then? ‘No, once you’ve touched the cup you cannot return it, we already filled it and the ice is starting to melt’ ….. HURUMPPHH… really? the ice is starting to melt in my unsweetened iced tea so I better stop holding up the line!

Oh dear. Well, if I want sweetened iced tea I better not get it via the drive thru next time. Or I just don’t get it ever. :) Haha, as I sip on my unsweetened iced tea, I realize it’s all okay! Saipan customer service, only the best.

IMG_0822.JPG(sunset from yesterday).

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Special About Saipan ?Part One

Part of the way my mind works nowadays is that I am somewhat hyper-attuned to things that I think are special or unique about Saipan. So, I’ve started making a mental list of them and will share periodically as my time marches on here. (Perhaps there will be more than a part one)

  • being able to hear about a particular teacher at an elementary school and knowing who that teacher is personally. I’m a pretty good pediatrician (haha or so I think), but it makes me seem above and beyond when I ask a kid who their teacher is and I KNOW that person.
  • being able to draw a map to someone’s house. yeah, my uncle once asked me if I’ve been on every street in Saipan — definitely not every street, but perhaps every street that has the center lane marker. being able to receive (not just give) Saipan-style directions — mostly centered around various grocery store landmarks, important stoplights (there are not that many of these), different colors of houses, etc.
  • I don’t appreciate this enough so today I walked around my complex and took pictures — flowers everywhere. Flowers of various colors and blooming all over the place. They bloom so much that people just bush-whack them away as if they are weeds getting in the way.

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  • Bush-whacking. I am pretty sure I would have thought this was a bad word when I first heard it. The act of cutting down .. pretty much anything.. with what might be considered a weed whacker or edge trimmer in the States. Often done while wearing head to toe (and neck and mouth and ears) coverage to protect from the sun (while sweating profusely inside)
  • having a beach chair in your car. Yes, it could be considered a necessity. I actually was thinking about whether I should ship my chair home until I realized how ridiculous that was. When in my stateside life have I ever owned or thought about owning a lawn/beach chair? much less leave it in my trunk and use it regularly?  (in addition, having a bottle of water in your car… not a little bottle of water, like a Liter or bigger size one to rinse yourself off (At least the sand on your feet) prior to getting back into your car)
  • Recognizing people’s cars. This is borderline ridiculous but I know the cars that my friends’ drive. I can tell sometimes who is in a restaurant just by driving by. No, I’m not a stalker. There just aren’t that many cars — aka, I have one of three bright red Mazda 2’s. I know where the other two bright red Mazda 2’s frequent because people tell me they see me at other places and I have to assure them that no, it was just my Mazda 2 triplet that lives semi-close by to me so you THOUGHT it was me turning onto that road. I am pretty sure when I’m stuck in traffic in San Francisco, I will never look around and recognize that my friend happens to be on the same road as me (if it wasn’t a planned car-following-each-other-excursion)

Alright, that’s it for now — all those things came up TODAY. I’m sure as I keep thinking about it, more will come up.

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Leaving Saipan

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It’s true. There are constantly rumors flying around about people leaving and coming to Saipan — it’s part of life here. There are always welcome dinners to attend to bring people into the fold and there are always farewell beach parties to send people aware with warm sunsets and hugs. After what will be a total of three years in Saipan, I will be leaving at the end of July to move back to the States and work at a hospital there doing pediatric hematology/oncology work.

While I have experienced this before (and ended up coming back to Saipan soon afterwards), it does not make it any easier. It’s hard to know when to tell people because I know how heartbreaking it is to be on the recipient side of that news. You also know acutely why they need to leave. You see both sides of the coin but it doesn’t make it any less bitter or any more sweet. The nurses at the hospital that I work with were the first to find out, mostly because I knew they would need some months to process the news! You wonder when to tell people — and I hesitated for awhile mostly because I wasn’t sure myself, my plans weren’t set in stone, and I honestly didn’t want to admit it to myself either. Sharing this kind of news with everyone brings about a barrage of questions but also this muted understanding. It was hard for me because I don’t have what feels like really good answers to the questions — you try to answer the questions and explain why but it never seems to come out right. There are and will always be reasons that Saipan is the best place which is what makes every answer to every question about why I’m leaving unsatisfactory.

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But it has come. The feeling that I have now is a mix of everything: a mix of nostalgia (but then the feeling that I shouldn’t be nostalgic — I haven’t left yet people — don’t start missing me now!), a mix of ‘fomo’ (fear of missing out) — Is this the last time I’m going to do _____? should I go do that because if not, I might not do it again?, a mix of anxiety – what does the next step hold for me? will the grass be greener looking back? the other side is always greener! i should just stay on this side for while!, a mix of busy and wanting to slow down — I have to figure out how to send this and this, what am I going to do about this or transition this responsibility to some, but let me just enjoy some time without having to worry about the hecticness, etc.

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The next step will hold different challenges but also different things to be grateful for. I am already trying to proactively look forward to those things — even if they are unknown to me right now. I see the growth and changes my time in Saipan has had in my life and cherish this. I’m thankful that I have attempted to record some of my feelings (and a million and one sunset pictures to tide me over) on this blog so thanks for sharing. Saipan will forevermore be a home to me with people here that are my ‘family’.

While I wade thru the next however many days it is before I leave (I don’t want to count — it’s too emotional), I will try to remember all the things that are funny/weird about Saipan (freaking out when your phone is dying because there is no Apple store here, enjoying an afternoon on the beach with your ukulele because the internet isn’t working anyway, driving at sunrise down a practically deserted road to get to a beautiful place for a morning run). I hope to enjoy rather than regret my departure and in the meantime will capture as many sunsets as Saipan will allow :)

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24 hours in Rota (Luta)

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Welcome to Rota! Rota, also apparently known as the ‘world’s friendliest island’, is the southernmost island of the Northern Mariana Islands and is a short 20 minute flight from Guam. (I literally timed it from wheels up to wheels down as 20 minutes). I went for a short trip and spent a full 24 hours on this island. From the perspective of people in Saipan, Rota is known as a really quiet place. That’s usually the first comment out of people’s mouths that it is just so quiet. I’m not sure I felt that way – I would just say that it is beautiful (as is Saipan). It was a bit of a different breed of beautiful and I’m so glad I went to check it out.

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When I arrived, the airport had a handy map of Rota — basically it’s an island with a bay at the bottom and consists of two villages – Songsong to the south by the bay and Sinapalo in the north-central region near the airport.

I had a friend staying in Rota also for work so she picked me up at the airport for a whirlwind trip. We went directly from the airport to the famous swimming hole. This natural swimming pool is protected by coral formations but apparently there is some connection to the ocean because you get waves in the pool. There supposedly even may be a natural spring that feeds the pool because the water is not the usual bath-water warm but rather, a nice cool temperature — just what you want at a pool!

Watershot CameraAs you can see from the picture, the water in the swimming hole is the usual beautiful clear and you can sit on the ‘beach’ portion and have the waves wash up on you. The swimming hole is a good depth, at about 5 feet at the deepest portion. Over the sides of the ‘pool’ there are little waterfalls from the waves crashing over the edge. It’s far enough away from the water that there’s no concern about any of the ocean waves coming over and so it makes for a great place to just hang out and relax.

After a little bit there, we went in search of a snorkeling spot that we had heard about. This was on the property of a friend and was some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever had — and so easily accessible! We drove towards the Japanese canon which is along the Songsong Bay.

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Here you can see the whole bay — we went snorkleing off those rocks to the lower left of the picture. You can see what is known as ‘wedding cake’ ahead on the peninsula of the bay just ahead. This is apparently where Rota’s grotto is which takes a hike to get to. (You can’t do it without a local guide though)

Watershot CameraSee? At least 15 feet deep with beautiful fish and perfectly clear waters!

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From there, we went to Small Island — a little island connected by a small driveway to the peninsula of the bay. This little island protects a little bay of its own to the south of the island and the contrast between the colors to the south and the north of the island are stark. There were some kids playing there on that Saturday so it was clear it was a fun hang out spot.

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(Look! A bird!) Here’s the little bay from Small Island looking at the other side of the wedding cake formation.

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From there after a little work pitstop, we went back to our hotel at the Valentino — this is really the place to stay. I guess you can also stay at the Rota Country club but it seems the Valentino is really your only other option. We found out that the PROM was happening. The population in Rota is something close to 3000 (or maybe closer to 2000) but suffice it to say, I think there are less than 30 seniors attending prom.

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So, you can see our balcony just behind the backdrop. Fortunately, being in a small town makes prom much more sedate (and really fun to watch). We grabbed a delicious dinner at the Tokyo En (sashimi platter, delicious homemade shumai, fried tofu, local sweet potato croquettes)! and then came back to crash prom. The kids were all dressed up and they looked like they were having such a good time. Talk about a great location for prom. Here was the view if you turned around from the stage.

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This is one of my new favorite pictures!

We also had some local sweet potato chips as a nighttime snack.

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Rota is known for its purple sweet potato and they did not disappoint. Prom ended at around 9:30 PM (again, small town) and after many selfies and a few awkward dances, the kids went their merry way. You can tell the group was just such a good group of kids who grew up in a wholesome environment. At the end of the night, they all helped stack up the chairs and clean up a bit before parting ways!

The next morning we went for an about ~3 mile run to Songsong overlook. This beautiful overlook looks out over the small peninsula at the south of the island. You can see the contrast between the color of the sea on the right and the left. This was my first glimpse at ‘Rota blue’ — the lovely shade of blue that is really unique and captures your attention like a rare diamond.

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It didn’t hurt that a small downpour led to a perfect rainbow from the overlook!

From there, we went towards the northern part of the island and went to an overlook nearby the Sinapalo village. The views really cannot be captures with a camera — expansive cliffs covered with trees and birds and the vast expanse of blue out beyond.

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We ate our breakfast there (a chicken turnover that we had reserved in advance from the cafe at Valentino hotel – this turnover is so popular it has to be reserved the day before — if you show up at 6:30 AM they are usually all gone already) while looking out over the scenery. From there, we took a short drive to the Latte Stone park. You have probably seen some pictures of latte stone’s before on this blog. This iconic thing is a symbol of Chamorro culture (see my Tinian post about the House of Taga here). But, no one knows how they were made or excavated. This all happened in the time period between 1500 BC to 1500 AD. What tools did they use? It was fun to walk around these humongous stones and conjecture.

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See the stone structures there (this picture from the airport) — those are mini version of latte stones.

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IMG_0624.JPGThere were a plot of so many of them — you can see how they basically ?maybe are trying to dig them out of the ground but it’s so unclear how they moved them from there.

We drove from there to the nearby Bird Sanctuary. This area is a protected area that has a great pathway to explore around.

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Of course, the views from the Bird Sanctuary (see above) are gorgeous!

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You may be able to barely make out the white dots on the trees below in the picture above — those are all birds making their homes. It was fun to see the birds fly around and they really were quite close to us on the cliff.

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From there, we made our way back to the hotel for a final cleanup and we stopped by an old abandoned ocean-side water park. I guess it’s hard to upkeep this with so little tourism so it was a combination of eery but also cool to see – here you can see the water slide that goes into the pool but looks out over the reef on the west side of the island.

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We then made a stop at Rota bakery for a coconut pie (aka a boku pie) with fresh coconut meat and headed to the airport.

Rota, you are gorgeous and offered so much in a short 24 hr trip. I hope I can be back to see the Rota blue waters again. This picture below is NOT filtered or adjusted in anyway — it was the one picture that really captured the blue that is Rota blue.  (Taken from the backyard of Valentino hotel)

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Sound of Music Trail

This was a little bit ago, but was just looking thru my pictures so wanted to show you the sound of music trail. IMG_9638.JPGYou start out on the road to Mt Tapochau — and if you don’t have a four wheel drive (or aren’t adventurous with your car), it’s best to park on the dirt area before you hit the very steep uphill curve.

IMG_9643.JPGWhen you get up to the top, turn left at Chief Aiken Trail (aka, the road that’s before Tapochau which I’m not sure anyone knows as Chief Aiken trail). You follow that road down and it’s in that area that is known as the ‘Sound of Music’. This are is part of the Xterra biking course and is beautiful with great views.

This area is an open field of long grass with a small trail cut out of it, ready for a short hike or mountain bike. If you want to do the full loop, you can continue along the trail thru the jungle and end up back near the portion of the Mt. Tapochau road before the very steep hill. On the way, we found some orange trees — see the leaf in my hand? that smelled wonderful. I will just leave you guys with a picture dump of the hike! Wish I had more details of where to go – but you should be able to relatively follow the path once you get down this original road off of Tapochau road.

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(You can spy some old Xterra signs still up on the trees sometimes)

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See? Gorgeous views of the Southern and southeastern part of the island. You can see the runway for the airport in the picture above!

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And then you get to a big open expanse of field with waving grass — hence the name, sound of music! The hills are alive!

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You can see how the trail could easily be grown over without much use here.

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This area is close to the As Matuis area — I think there is some off road ATV tours that go to this area.

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The orange tree. (the actual orange we picked was quite sour though!)

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Beautiful morning glories in bloom all around.

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I don’t know what these plants are called — not sure if I can accurately call them palms. Basically, when I see these I think of Jurassic Park and the velociraptors moving in these types of bushes!

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There was also bamboo on the trail and we took some fun pictures here.

The full hike ended up being like 3-4 miles so it wasn’t exactly a quick walk, but, as you can see, definitely worth it!

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Bird Island Hike

I’ve been down to Bird Island twice in the last few weeks — both times bringing people who hadn’t been.

If you want directions to the trailhead, see this post. For pictures of the fishes there, click here!

It’s always such a good encapsulation of what Saipan has to offer and is a pretty easy trip and is suitable to people without much hiking experience (as opposed to Forbidden, which I was recently reminded can be quite strenuous).

So, in light of not so many posts here recently, wanted to share some recent pictures from these hikes. This is a bit of a conglomeration of pictures.

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This is Bird Island — a little island that is part of a marine and wildlife sanctuary to the Northeast portion of the island. Most people go to the viewpoint and take pictures but there is a trail that is hard to find without someone who knows that leads you down to a generally secluded beach. If the tide is low, it’s an easy (but water shoes are necessary to protect your feet!) walk out to the island for a snorkel and a little exploring. Please don’t step on the coral though!

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To get down, there is one tough spot where you have to do a little repeling down the hill – well it’s more that the dirt is loose and you really have to rely on the rope to go down. Once you reach the bottom, duck under some trees and you are at the beach!

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That’s me walking on the beach — it helps to bring friends because they take pictures of you! You can see the island to the left obviously.

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From there, you kind of wade out to the base of the island — this isn’t a great picture but you can see one of my friends in the distance — see how shallow it is?

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At the base of the island, there are some rocks that protect a little habitat of coral and that’s a good place to snorkel. Then, you can climb onto the island. It is important to stay on the shore-side of the island, do not try to go around the island! The other side has huge waves coming in from the Pacific Ocean (remember, this is the east side of the island, not the west where the lagoon is protecting you from the Philippine Sea).

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From there, you can come up to this great perch and see all the birds flying around the island and the views of the ocean.

Looking back at the beach, this is what you see.

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You can see on the left side of the picture near the bottom left the coral (unfortunately, not looking so vibrant) under the shallow water.

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I always remember I saw my first blue starfish during my first trip out to Bird Island — still one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Saipan. You can see here the urchin that’s hiding under the coral in this picture too.

IMG_0028An artsy picture I took..

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Bird Island — always worth the trip and gorgeous every time!

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Tsugaru Shamisen Performance

So, you may remember my Japanese experience with sumo.. chronicled here – click for more. Another recent cultural experience was put on at the local Himawari Hotel. Himawari is a great umm… hotel/restaurant/bakery/store all combined into one. I actually stayed here for two weeks when I visited in 2013. The store portion has groceries as well as what may be known as traditional ‘dollar store’ items from Japan, easy to-go lunch boxes, and random appliances even. In addition, it has a bakery that has fresh baked Asian breads on the daily. The restaurant is often visited, especially by doctors because Himawari is pretty much across the street from the hospital. They are open for lunch and dinner.

It turns out the owner of Himawari’s brother is a member of a professional Japanese traditional music troop from the Chi-fu area (I think) of Japan, and he was able to arrange a concert in Saipan! It was held and the dojo on the 2nd floor of Himawari and it was quite a nice cultural experience.

I have never heard of shamisen in my life so didn’t really know what to expect although I’ve heard traditional Taiwanese music and kind of expected it to be similar in style.

I didn’t take as many pictures or video clips because my phone ran out of space!!! I have never had this happen before and was a little bit distraught since basically every picture on this blog is from my phone. But, anyway…

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Here was the setup of the room.

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They put up a makeshift curtain and stage and were ready to go!

They started with two pieces and I thought it was so cool to see. I took this image from a website to show you the instrument up close.

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They basically held these instruments which must have been at least about 3 feet long in their labs and strummed them with this thing that kind of looked like a comb that fit in their hands.

They were able to produce quite a variety of sounds and it was like watching a synchronized dance since they mostly played in unison.

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The lady in the middle was their teacher and performed a solo near the end of the concert that was very very impressive — I swore that multiple players were playing at one time but it was just her!

They then showed a 30 minute animation film about the origins of the music which was a little dramatic but enlightening. Turns out the instrument is called the shamisen and it is traditionally played in a pretty sedate manner — kind of like what you may imagine from traditional music. In the mid 1800, a young motherless boy (named Nitaboh) who went blind from some epidemic was raised by his father in the Northeastern part of Japan (supposedly it is quite cold there with 3 m high snowdrifts in the winter). At age 11, his father passed away in a storm while fishing as was his job and then this boy went around playing his mother’s old shamisen to support himself. He eventually made a style all his own that is much faster and what may be now known as the rock and roll version of shamisen or the more upbeat, fast paced, technical kind – it is referred to as a genre of shamisen music. This is known as tsugaru shamisen which was what the performance was today.

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This video was actually very informative and you could tell that this group was quite professional and had played a big role in traveling internationally to teach about the music style before. They had a costume change and performed some much more complex songs, some of which included lyrics from famous Japanese folk songs. Apparently they had had a performance earlier in the day at the manamko center (aka the elderly folks center here in Saipan that does a great service to the community) and there, many of the folks sang along or danced to the music because it was the sound of songs they grew up with in childhood before World War II.

Besides the group of Shamisen players, sometimes the head teacher would dance or sing and there was a male singer (heard in this second video) as well as a drummer who would take the stage.

It was quite an interesting performance and I was glad I got to see it! There were a good number of people in the audience too which was encouraging. I sent links to the above videos to my grandmother via my mother who also grew up under Japanese colonization and may recognize some of these songs.

The night ended with a traditional song where they taught everyone a traditional dance and encouraged audience participation — it was so fun to see some little kids really get involved as well as some older folks in the crowd.

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Thank you to the group for coming and visiting Saipan and teaching us about your music!

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