Saipanpreneur profile: Daniel D. and Remy Babauta
Saipanpreneur profile: Daniel D. and Remy Babauta
The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!
Uniquely Saipan Coconut Handicrafts
On a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean that many people have never heard of, a unique artist is hard at work. Daniel D. Babauta is sitting on the verandah of his home in the town of Puerto Rico, Saipan, using a set of specially made tools to carve something quite unique. In a little less than two hours, he’ll finish, and he’ll take his creation inside. There, Remy Babauta, his wife of 31 years will give it her approval, and something uniquely Saipan will be ready for public display and sale.
It’s a Thursday morning, and in a few hours Daniel and Remy will load up their Toyota 4-Runner for the short ride to Garapan on Saipan’s north end. Every Thursday night for the past 10 years, Garapan’s Paseo de Marianas is host to what residents call the “Street Market” where thousands of residents and tourists alike gather starting at sunset to stroll, gaze, eat and be entertained by vendors and performers.
Daniel D. Babauta, however, is not selling food or performing. He is selling a unique collection of decorative carvings. What makes his sculptures unique is that a few of his pieces, which appear to be comprised of multiple elements glued together, are actually expertly carved from a single coconut! Yes, Daniel D. Babauta is a coconut sculptor, and thanks to him, you can add one more thing to the list of uses for ubiquitous tropical coconut.
The coconut is known as the tree of life, and for centuries, people throughout these islands and around the world have used it for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Daniel uses it to make one-of-a kind works of art to brighten others homes, offices and lives.
I met the Daniel and Remy at the recent Flame Tree Festival—an annual gathering of vendors, food, fun and festivities which coincides with the spectacular red/orange blooming of the locally abundant flame tree. Daniel has been a Flame Tree regular for 23 years—almost as long as the event itself has been hosted on Saipan.
As I passed his “Coconut Handicraft” tent, I was drawn in by the uniqueness of the items on display. Remy, seated behind the table, flashed a welcoming smile, and I asked her who the artist was. She pointed to the back of the tent, and I spotted Daniel for the first time, coolly holding court among his coconut creations wearing dark glasses, a baseball cap, and a “Let Freedom Sing” t-shirt.
We chatted briefly, and I learned a bit more about the man, his craft, and his “sales agent/wife” Remy. Daniel is Chamorro and originally from Saipan. Remy is originally from Pampanga, the Philippines, and came to Saipan 33 years ago, and now speaks Chamorro. The two have three children: a daughter—Jally Marie Camacho—who’s currently in San Diego, USA; a son, Jervy Babauta, who has a daughter one year and six months old; and another son, Lufo Don Babauta, who has two boys of his own. That makes three children and three grandchildren.
Daniel worked as a supervisor for the power company, where he retired in 1992.
I also discovered that he is an international emissary of sorts. Beyond the streets of Saipan, he’s been to Japan three times, Korea three times as well, and also to Palau, Guam, Rota and Tinian to present his work at various art festivals and displays.
How did you get started carving coconuts?
Daniel: “When I retired, I basically had nothing to do, so I tried to carve something, you know. I carved wood. At first I did bamboo and driftwood. But doing it with wood is a lot of work, you know. Have to go around and look for good wood, know when to cut it. It’s a lot of time and work, so when it’s done, we have to raise the price. The first time they started the street market, they called me up to display my work. That’s when I found out the wood carvings are not really sellable. That’s why I switched to coconut.”
How did you learn to carve the coconuts?
Daniel: “I taught myself. It took me a few months to find the right tools, and the best way to burn it.”
What other animals and objects do you carve?
Daniel: “I do dolphins, monkeys, sharks, cows…I do snakes, too, fish, sting ray, any kind. People used to ask me, ‘Are there monkeys on Saipan?’ So I learned that they really wanted [carvings of] what we have here on the island. So the really sellable ones are the turtle and coconut crab, and the coconut flower. Customers really like those. That’s what I’m doing right now.”
Who are your customers?
Daniel: “Actually, most of my customers are locals. Lately Russians, they really buy, too.”
How long does it take to make one of these? (pointing to a turtle.)
Daniel: The turtle? Only about an hour and a half. Depends on what kind of design is on the back, you know.
It’s then that I noticed that the turtles’ shells have various designs like latte stones, the words “Chamorro” or “Saipan” as well as other unique images emblazoned on them.
How did you end up in Japan, Korea and the other islands?
Daniel: “The trip to [an international arts festival in] Japan was sponsored by MVA [Marianas Visitor’s Authority]. The trips to Palau and Guam were sponsored by the Arts Council. They paid for four of us to go to represent Saipan and show and sell our work—mwaar, canoe carving, and other things. (A mwaar is a wreath of flowers that Carolinians wear on their heads.)
The Coco-Turtle: Saipan’s symbol of sustainability
As Daniel explains to me the process for “finishing” the sculptures, I still can’t help but be amazed that this multi-element creation was carved from a single dry coconut. It’s so simple in material, and yet so profound in meaning.
The modern world would call him a “green” artist, using natural, bio-degradable materials and sustainable processes to make his art, but Daniel D. Babauta is simply doing what has always made the most sense to conscious people for centuries.
A local historian I met the same day at the Flame Tree Festival told me that in many indigenous languages, there’s no word for “trash.” It makes sense, when you think about it. When your food, clothing, shelter, tools, toys and even the decorations for your home all come directly from the earth, there’s nothing unnatural left over, nothing to throw away, nothing that simply cannot return to the soil from whence it came. There are no energy-intensive, resource-depleting, environmentally unsustainable, formaldehyde-emitting, chemical-infused plastics and materials to clutter, congest, confuse or clog your existence, or your language. You eat a mango, and seed and skin are not trash—they return to the soil to feed other animals and plants and also to create life anew. You drink a soda, however, and you’ve got Styrofoam, or perhaps an aluminum can and straw to contend with, and find ever-inventive ways to dispose of.
As the modern world awakens and quickens its efforts to slow, halt and hopefully reverse the effects of decades of ill-conceived decisions in the name of progress, what I call Daniel’s “coco-turtle” takes on more meaning than just a tourist keepsake. It’s a symbolic representation of a man’s passion, a people’s connection to the land, a culture’s consciousness, and a roadmap for the future, carved in the most basic of ways, with the most natural of materials. It’s a reminder of the centuries-long tradition of “original sustainability.” Associated in many cultures with longevity, wisdom, patience, protection, at home within itself, and adaptable to land as well as sea, the turtle is full of symbolic meaning. Daniel’s turtle becomes a symbol of long life carved from the tree of life, with respect for life: Saipan’s Symbol of Survival and Sustainability!
Own a Piece of Paradise
Saipan is a unique place. It’s a part of America that many Americans have never heard of. It’s a land of contrasts and contradictions. It represents hope for many, hardship for some, but home for all. It boasts the most beautiful sunsets, the warmest people, and a gathering place for people from many places around the world. On any given Thursday night, Daniel finds himself showing and selling his uniquely Saipan carvings to Russians, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Americans Filipinos, Bangladeshis Australians and a dozen other nationalities that interact here on Saipan.
If you’re a visitor to the paradise islands of Saipan, Tinian or Rota, you can bask in the sunshine, dive in the deepest, clearest waters on the planet, sail, surf and snorkel to your heart’s content. You’ll leave with memories, but those memories may eventually blur, your tan will fade, and your photos, while great, will fail to capture the reality of the moments you spent there.
However, if you’re lucky enough to visit Daniel D. Babauta’s table at the end of the Paseo de Marianas, in Garapan, Saipan, CNMI, USA this Thursday night, you can leave with something more. You can leave with something fed by the same soil, nurtured by the same sun, quenched by the same rain that fed, nurtured and quenched this man and his people for generations. You can show your family and friends the unique work of a humble artist on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean who brings together past, present and future with, of all things….a single coconut. And, if you can’t make it to Saipan, don’t worry. Daniel and Remy will be happy to send a piece of Saipan to you wherever you are!
Daniel’s pieces of paradise creations are available online at www.Saipancrafts.com, and include the following, which range in price from $15 to $25:
“Saipan Coco-Turtle” ($15), “Sailboat Island” ($25), & “Mom’s Long Life Flower Pot” ($25). (Get mom a Mother’s day bouquet that won’t ever wilt--a pot of flowers made with coconuts and chopsticks!)
If ordering by mail, include $8.95 for Priority Mail shipping (to the US mainland, Guam and Hawaii) and send to
PO BOX 5033, CHRV
Saipan, MP 96950
Call 670 322 3027,
Or, if you stop by this Thursday, you can get them little cheaper from Daniel himself!
Calling All Crafts
Inspired by my interview with Daniel, and in an effort to provide sources of income to local artisans, if you have or know of someone with unique handicrafts to sell on the SaipanCrafts.com site, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Details for sellers are provided on the site.
Note: For more tips on acting on your ideas, changing the game, and creating a passion-centered lifestyle, visit www.passionprofit.com!
* * *
Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!
Check out Walt's Saipan-Specific brands
Breaking News from Walt:
A few weeks ago, a former workshop attendee and coaching client revealed that she nominated me to be considered for this year’s Governor’s Humanities Award here on Saipan. I thanked her, but I didn’t really believe I qualified because...(read why at www.jamaicaninchina.com/humanities-award)