It’s a nice word, “Guam” – kind of like an amalgamation of “guava” and “balm”; a word that conjures images of a sundrenched tropical island laden with fruit. Which, at the risk of mixing metaphors, is Guam in a nutshell.
Before my recent visit, I was ignorant of this footprint-shaped island, the largest in Micronesia. For me it was one of those places like the Maldives: you’re aware that it has high-end beach resorts, spectacular diving and hoards of honeymooners, but you wouldn’t want to get a Trivial Pursuit question about it.
The first thing I noticed about Guam is that it’s firmly part of the United States. “Where America’s Day Begins” is the island’s catch-cry. And whereas many tropical islands feature a sparkling ocean lapping against white sand with thatched huts lining the shore, Guam has plenty of sea and sand … but not so many huts. Instead, a very American infrastructure rises up behind the dunes: Planet Hollywood, Wendy’s, luxury shopping, aquariums, go-kart racing, hot dogs and 7-Eleven stores serving sodas in plastic containers so big that a single one would slake the thirst of a zoo.
All of these will be of great comfort to some, mildly appalling to others, depending on individual taste.
What you won’t find – and this came as a surprise – is much indication of a military presence on the island. Okay, outside the airport I spied a banner reading “We Support Our Troops”, and there are two military bases on the island (one Air Force, one Navy), but the soldiers seemed generally occupied with activities in their compounds.
Having said that, Guam’s military history is conspicuous. Well worth a visit is the new War in the Pacific Historical Park overlooking Asan Beach. In 1944, this beach was stormed by 180 landing vehicles of American troops during their successful mission to reclaim the island from the Japanese. Caves, pillboxes, foxholes and guns remain dotted across the landscape. Guam was also the second-last stop for the Enola Gay before its devastating bombing mission over Hiroshima.
Perhaps the most interesting military story from Guam relates to Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi. In January 1972, two local hunters discovered Yokoi living in a cave in a thick and remote section of Guam’s jungle. He’d been hiding there, surviving on a bare diet of nuts, berries and snails, since the Japanese surrender in 1944 (and no “Wilson” to keep him company). That’s 28 years! (Rumour has it that a 7-Eleven soda kept him going for the last decade.)
The bewildered soldier returned to his home country where he became a national hero, known as “the man who never surrendered”.
While few of them stay as long as Yokoi, Japanese continue to flock to Guam. In fact, more than a million tourists arrive from Japan every year – well over six times the population of Guam. But these days they come not to dwell in caves but for the beaches, diving and dolphins.
And to get hitched. The main resort beach of Guam, Tumon Bay, is lined by prominent international hotel brands – Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Hilton, Marriott, Westin – and each of them boasts some kind of elaborate, beachside chapel. Now Chinese couples are getting in on the act, too. I met a friendly bride and groom from Hong Kong, all smiles as they prepared to walk down the aisle. Vegas in the Pacific.
This recent fad of beach weddings in Guam has certainly boosted tourist numbers. Yet people have been travelling to the island for centuries. The first European was Ferdinand Magellan who, on 6 March 1521, stopped to get supplies before continuing westward. He probably should have stayed a bit longer: just six weeks later the Portuguese explorer was killed in battle in the Philippines.
One group of people has watched these comings and goings for centuries: Guam’s indigenous population, the Chamorros. Well over a third of the island’s population is Chamorro, and it remains an official language. In fact, it’s hard to walk far in Guam without hearing a friendly shout of “Hafa adai”. This typical greeting is pronounced “half a day”, which prompts many locals to make jokes like: “How long are you staying? Hafa adai?” (Suggested response: “Less if I hear that joke again.”)
Aside from the linguistic influence, the traditions of the Chamorros – their arts and crafts, music and food – continue to have an impact on the cultural life of Guam. The best place to experience all of this is in the Inarajan Historic District, a 30-minute drive from the resort centre of Tumon Bay. This quaint strip of traditional houses on a protected bay not only provides a welcome respite from the fast-food-lined streets of the capital, Agatna, but houses the Gef Pa’Go Cultural Village. There, visitors can get involved in recreations of Chamorro daily life from a century or more ago. I unskillfully tried my hand at weaving, making rope and flour, and cooking with coconuts. More adept visitors can take their handiwork home.
Food and Fun
Coconut features heavily in the Guam diet, of course. Don’t miss the local delicacy, kelaguen: chopped chicken, grated coconut, lemon juice and chillies. And if you like the sound of coconut-and-macadamia cookies, just around the corner from Inarajan is a cookie factory called Coco-Jo’s. This flourishing small business operates out of a beachside shack, producing bags and bags of delicious, buttery biscuits.
Guam has more obvious charms than all of these, and a quick look at any tourist brochure will tell you what they are. The diving here is among the best in the world, with impressive reefs, submerged wrecks and amazing animal life in the waters beyond the reefs. Don’t forget, either, that not far from Guam is the deepest point on earth, the “Challenger Deep” section of the Mariana Trench. Scary stuff – no doubt full of those glow-in-the-dark beasties with distended eyes and piranha-like teeth. And while Guam’s highest mountain, Mount Lamlam, is a mere 406 metres, if you consider that its base actually begins almost 11 kilometres below sea level, then it’s arguably the tallest mountain in the world (depending on how well you argue).
If on the other hand, you’re not interested in diving, or getting married, and if military history, indigenous culture, high-end shopping, marine life and ethnic food don’t take your fancy, then just lie under a coconut palm on the white sand of Tumon Bay and soak up the rays.
Half a day probably won’t do it justice; 28 years might be a fraction long. A week, perhaps?
Getting There: Singapore Airlines and Philippine Airlines fly from Singapore to Guam via Manila.
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