TUMON BAY, Guam – It’s a tropical island where the streets have no names and the trees have no birds.
The place “where America’s day begins” (as they like to say), Guam is a Micronesian dot 1,200 miles east of the Philippines, known mostly to those Americans who served in the Pacific during World War II, or to Vietnam-era military who passed through.
A U.S. territory since it was ceded after the Spanish-American War, hot and hilly Guam is small (180,000 population) and manageable (30 miles long and 9 miles wide), 18 air hours from the East Coast.
“Why Guam?” friends asked when I told them I was headed there. “Why not go to Hawaii?”
Well, I’ve been to Hawaii, more than once. Guam has a different culture, different history, and learning is a part of my travels. The island has been the home to the Chamorro people – then farmers and fishermen – since 2,000 B.C., when Guam’s first era began.
It enjoyed splendid isolation until 1521, when explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s “discovery” of the place paved the way for Spanish colonization – the second Guam era – that lasted from 1668 until 1898. Then the U.S. Navy took over, beginning the third era.
The fourth and worst era began when the Japanese invaded after attacking Pearl Harbor. The people of Guam, ensnared in a war not of their making, resisted the occupiers and suffered for it – forced labor, rape, mass executions. That ended on July 21, 1944, when U.S. forces landed to reclaim the island in an intense three-week battle. Last week, July 21 was celebrated as Liberation Day in an even bigger party than July 4, which Guamanians also celebrate. They are U.S. citizens.
Today, a great majority of Guam’s 1.3 million annual visitors come from Japan, 31/2 air hours away. (Koreans and Russians also visit in large numbers.)
A dozen modern hotels ring Tumon Bay, Guam’s heart of tourism, and the street that parallels the bay is San Vitores Road, but no street signs mark it. Marine Corps Drive, the island’s six-lane thoroughfare, has very few street signs. When I asked why these streets don’t have signs, the friendly answer was something like, “We know what street it is.”
Even without signs, driving around the island’s well-paved roads is easy. One must stop is Two Lovers Point overlooking Tumon Bay.
In a Chamorro version of Romeo and Juliet, two star-crossed lovers climbed a cliff, tied their hair together, and leapt into romantic immortality. At the point, a shop sells colorful foam hearts and red combination locks that tourists attach to a chain-link fence, to “lock” their love. People get married there, too, as a sign of devotion unto death. The point offers superb views of Tumon Bay and the Philippine Sea.
Another must stop is the War in the Pacific National Historic Park, south of the capital of Hagatna, which has more acreage underwater than above and where swimmers and divers can see 200 species of coral and 3,500 kinds of fish. The park’s low-slung museum tells the story of the war, which doesn’t put Japan in a good light.
The museum gets a mixed reaction from Japanese tourists, a staffer says, with emotions ranging from shame to anger.
Tumon Bay, just north of Hagatna, is broad, warm and shallow. You can walk out almost a quarter-mile and still stand with your head above clear water while small fish play at your feet. About a dozen modern hotels ring the bay, on or just off the beach. There are smaller (and less expensive) hotels inland. I stayed at the 20-story, 15-year-old Outrigger Guam Resort, where every room has an ocean view (and my room had a perplexing paucity of drawers).
The grass-plotted sidewalks of Tumon Bay are lined with stores such as Gucci, Coach, Dior, Rolex, Bally, Prada, and Cartier. The shopping might put you in mind of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki – so, again, why not Guam?
Before contact with Europeans, the Chamorro people, who are innovative, adaptable, and proud, invented seaworthy outrigger canoes. Seaworthy doesn’t mean they don’t capsize, I was told by Frank Cruz, a retired university teacher who now builds them by hand in the ancient way.
Chamorro adaptability was proven during more than 300 years of Spanish colonization, which introduced Spanish language, culture, and the Catholic Church that planted deep roots. After centuries of intermarriage, Spanish surnames predominate, but people whose families have been here for many generations bristle at being called “Guamanian,” a word invented to include everyone on the island – Europeans, Filipinos, Thais, Vietnamese, Koreans. They prefer Chamorro.
Its heart may be in the past, but Guam is in the present, as almost all development came after World War II and most of it in the last few decades. While you do see outriggers in Tumon Bay, the young men in them got to the water by car, not by carabao, a type of water buffalo that used to be in common use for farming. Most Chamorro work indoors today, with many employed by the military, which has sprawling bases on the island.
Guam is not as lush as Hawaii, but prices are lower, the sun is hotter, the traffic lighter. It’s like the Hawaii of 50 years ago – and like Hawaii, the language is English and the currency (both electrical and spending) is the same as at home. While Hawaiians say “Aloha ,” the universal greeting on Guam is “Hafa Adai” (pronounced like “half-a-day”).
Hawaiians may be be keen on Spam, but Guam consumes more Spam per capita than anywhere else. While there are good fish restaurants all over, Guamanians just love barbecue.
Glorious ocean views are available at every turn and you never have to fight for a place to lay your blanket on Guam’s beaches – and there are more beaches than you can shake a snake at.
No Guam story would be complete without mentioning the brown tree snakes that arrived after World War II, established a foothold, and killed off the songbirds by eating their eggs. In the words of University of Guam entomologist Aubrey Moore, “The forest here is totally silent.”
Tourists would not notice, but Guam is a laboratory for invasive species, says Ross Miller, another entomologist at the University of Guam.
Visitors are unlikely to see the brown snake, but they do see cylindrical snake traps attached to fences around military bases.
An imaginative program has made progress combating the snakes. Dead mice are shot up with an ingredient used in aspirin and parachuted into the trees where the snakes live. The snakes eat the paratrooper mice and die.
That’s yesterday’s news, Miller says. Today’s news are the rhinoceros beetles that threaten the island’s coconut palms, the fire ants, and the Asian cycad scale that attacks the island’s lovely flame trees.
These are serious concerns on Guam, but invisible to visitors.
Just say “Hafa Adai” and head for the beach.
Guam? Why not?