Saturday, July 9, 2011
In the late Sixties, my parents moved to Guam, the southernmost of the Mariana Islands, to teach local children in English-speaking schools. They worked under a program that brought educators from the mainland to this tropical United States territory, and remained there for several years- until just a few days after I was born. This summer, my parents kept a long-standing promise to take me back to my birthplace, showing me the island where their young marriage was forged.
The island is remarkably remote, closer to the Philippines and Papua New Guinea than to any part of the United States. Guam’s indigenous people, the Chamorros, thrived on the island for nearly 4,000 years before Magellan discovered the place in the 1500s, at which point their fortunes would change. The Spanish conquered and converted the local population for hundreds of years until losing the island to the United States after the Spanish-American War. The Japanese captured the island mere hours after the raid of Pearl Harbor, committing unspeakable atrocities against the Chamorros. Three years later, the United States bombed the shit out of the island, ultimately winning it back from its Axis foes and making Guam a remote stronghold for both the Air Force and Navy; a military presence deep in the Pacific.
While Guam’s people were exploited and exterminated by other nations, its wildlife was ravaged by invasive species, both plant and animal. The only birds you’re likely to see on the island now are sparrows, stowaways from visiting ships long forgotten. The indigenous birds were almost completely wiped out by the brown tree snake, another invader from foreign lands- so new to the island that the local species had no instinctive fear of the serpent. Almost gone as well is the once prolific fanihi, or Mariana fruit bat- formerly a local delicacy, but now a protected species.
Wondering why Man and Nature should have all the fun, the Elements jump in every now and then, thrashing the island with typhoons that destroy homes and cripple businesses, scaring away foreign investors, leaving the modern landscape an almost post-apocalyptic mess of abandoned hotels, storefronts, and unfinished construction sites.
So basically, God has a grudge against Guam. And yet the island survives. The Chamorro people are gradually rediscovering their historical identity after centuries of cultural and genetic dilution. The United States government is slowly opening up more land for civilian use. And the tourism industry still manages to survive, almost exclusively catering to young Japanese and Korean couples wishing to wed on an erstwhile tropical paradise.
Guam is the home I never knew. Join me now, as I endeavor to explore this humid little pile of coral in the sea.
We stayed at the posh, modern Westin Resort on Tumon Bay. Like all other hotels in the area, the Westin has a wedding chapel, and it hosted up to six Japanese weddings a day while we were there. I could see three other wedding chapels from my balcony, although two belonged to a resort which has been abandoned for some time and is now only populated by squatters.
In response to an article in the Pacific Daily News about our arrival (long story), Guam’s Governor, Eddie Calvo (R) invited us to his offices for a quick visit. He treated us to lunch at a “Chamorro fusion” restaurant, and also to a visit (a couple of days later) to the Fish Eye Marine Park nearby, where we saw some aquatic wildlife and enjoyed a dinner show.
After lunch with one of the governor’s cabinet members, we visited the Guam National Wildlife Refuge at Ritidian Point, were we saw a cave that once housed Chamorros thousands of years ago. It was eerie to be in the middle of the jungle and not hear anything but wind, the ocean, and the occasional distant car.
Before retiring for the night, we visited the Guam K-mart for supplies. It was huge, and a surprisingly popular tourist attraction.
On the next day we met up with the author of the Daily News article for a tour of Pagat Cave and the site of an ancient Chamorro village in the jungle. Mom almost didn’t make it back. Later that night we dined a Kinney’s in Agana, where the food was all right, but the view was amazing. I really cannot emphasize how hot it felt at times during the trip- the short daily rains were pleasant, but as soon as the rain stopped falling, the sun would steam it all away, leaving the air thick with humidity. Not optimal mountain climbing conditions.
We met Filamore Palomo Alcon, a fascinating artist, at his establishment, the Guam Gallery of Art.
In the evening we visited the Fish Eye Marine Park observatory, an underwater structure positioned in a so-called “bomb hole” in the ocean, where you can view the local fish in their natural environment. (Note: The bomb hole wasn’t created by a bomb, although many locals seem to believe that. It’s really an underwater sinkhole.)
After admiring the fish, we went across to the restaurant to eat some of them and enjoy a “Polynesian Dinner Show.” Guam is actually part of Micronesia and there’s no evidence that the ancient Chamorros even knew about fire- much less juggled flaming torches- until the Spaniards arrived. But it was still a good show.
We took a drive around the island, spending most of the time on the southern and eastern coasts, where the mountainous landscape has kept these areas of the island mostly untouched and unpopulated and beautiful. Mom got to ride a carabao and we ate at a place called Jeff's Pirates Cove, which is definitely the most happening location on that entire side of the island.
We explored the Latte Stone Park in downtown Hagatna, Guam. The Chamorros used these stones to support their houses long ago. The park is also the site of some caves that Japanese forces commanded Chamorro and Korean slaves to build during World War II. The caves are vast and completely open to the public, surprisingly enough, but we didn’t have flashlights, so only ventured as far in as sunlight would allow.
Mom and Dad got their Masters degrees in Education at the University of Guam before having me. While exploring the campus we encountered a large pack of “boonie dogs.” In Guam, the word “boonie” refers to anything derelict or abandoned. As well as dogs you can find boonie cats and severely rusted boonie cars scattered all over the island. The word derives from the Tagalog (the language of the Philippines) word, “bundok,” meaning mountain, and implying a place that is far from civilization. You’ve probably already realized it’s where we get the word “boondocks.”
We then visited Two Lovers Point, perhaps the most famous legendary landmark on the island. It is the site where the mythical lovers jumped off a steep cliff into the waiting sea, to escape their parents. It is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story that involves the unwelcome union of a Spanish and Chamorro family, and to me represents the sad history between those cultures on the island.
While on the island we also found the first school where Mom and Dad taught, as well as the houses where they lived- including my first home. All the buildings are still standing, although the two apartment buildings would likely be condemned today by Mainland standards. The hospital building is apparently new, but operates at the same site, its once beautiful view now permanently marred by four huge unfinished apartment buildings that were abandoned about halfway through construction.
Here's some stuff I couldn't manage to work in elsewhere. The city of Tumon, where we stayed, is an odd mix of high-end, expensive merchants and seedy Asian massage parlors. The tourism economy is so focused on international visitors that some stores don't even have any English on their signs or windows; only Japanese. There are places with names I wish had been in Japanese (a strip club named The G-spot and a billiards hall called Ball Scratchers), and a number of hilarious looking "gun clubs" that seemed to cater to foreign tourists' warped views of American history.