Editor's note: This is the first in a series following Rep. Sheila Babauta as she travels aboard the Super Emerald on a five-day voyage to Agrigan, Alamagan and Pagan.
SAIPAN – This month, Rep. Sheila Babauta traveled aboard the Super Emerald on a five-day voyage to Agrigan, Alamagan and Pagan. According to chief of staff Valentino Taisakan at the Northern Islands Mayor's Office, Babauta is the first female Precinct Four House member to visit the Northern Islands while in office.
"When I got into office, I made it a point to create a relationship with the Northern Islands Mayor's Office," she says. "Because they're part of my precinct, I wanted to ensure that I heard everyone, not just the Saipan residents."
Babauta has since made it a habit to drop by NIMO, educating herself about projects up north and offering assistance when possible. She says NIMO's hopes to repopulate the Northern Islands have been bolstered by the new Department of Public Lands Pagan agricultural homestead regulations, but remain restricted by limited transportation opportunities. Until Northern Islands Mayor Ben Santos can find a way to repair the partially destroyed airstrip on Pagan, the primary way north is by sea. And as Babauta discovered, that commute is tough enough to turn away all but the most adventurous.
"That's the longest I've ever been on a boat," she says. "It was strenuous. ... Not just physically, but emotionally."
Because voyages north require delicate and unpredictable windows of good weather, boat trips tend to launch into action opportunistically, with little notice beforehand. Rep. Babauta received her invitation with only a day's notice, and in the flurry of preparation she neglected to take her nausea medication an hour before departure. She spent the 17-hour sail to Agrigan plagued by seasickness, but was awestruck nonetheless.
"The first island I saw was Anatahan. And I was just so amazed because it was this huge silhouette of the island, and the stars were out, you know, shooting stars! It was magical. I was so grateful to be introduced to the North that way. It was so beautiful."
As the Super Emerald passed Guguan, Alamagan and Pagan, Babauta spoke with crew members and NIMO staff about their experiences living and working in the Northern Islands.
"Why are you interested in coming up here? Why do you want to stay?" she asked them.
"I like it up here," was their simple response.
"I guess that lifestyle just fits for them," she says. "But I wish we saw more women."
She added that many Northern Islands residents and staffers have wives and children, but they're reluctant to bring their families up north because of the lack of educational and medical infrastructure. She also spoke to them about how the military buildup in the Marianas may render the islands of Gåni inaccessible.
"We had a great conversation," she says. "It just brought me to tears because it was such a beautiful place and experience and the very thought of destruction by our own military was heartbreaking."
They dropped anchor by the coast of Agrigan on the early morning of June 2. Babauta says she grew increasingly restless as she waited for the crew to sort out some mechanical issues that came up while attempting to lower the boat's dinghy. She could see Agrigan's trio of residents – Eddie Saures, A.J. Saures and Christopher Kaipat – gathered at the shore with staffers of the Northern Islands Mayor's Office.
"You could see all the men that were waiting for our arrival and they were swimming, and they were racing on the beach," Babauta remembers. "They were just running on the beach, keeping themselves entertained while they waited."
She says, "I wanted to jump off the boat. I can see them, and I know I can swim to them. So I asked the captain and he said, 'No, the sharks. ...' So I went and asked a crew member, 'Can I just jump in?'"
He told her, "Oh no, you don't do that. Because there's sharks around here."
"So then I went and asked Keli (Tenorio)!" she says, laughing. "I was just trying to find a 'Yes'! But everyone said no. I was like, 'OK, fine, I'll wait.'"
"I was even more excited to step foot on the longest black sand beach I've ever seen."
Sophia Perez is a features writer for Marianas Variety.