The plane screeches to a halt. The lady I helped do a kiosk check in back in Osaka says good luck. Outside my window, there are three Japanese 747s parked next to each other. I’m not sure if I will like a small island that can land this many jumbo jets at any given time. The 737’s forward door opens, and the tropics greet me like an old lover. Charming and familiar, but oddly dank-smelling. Then the symphony of tour buses, clicking cameras and confused Nihonggo. Uh-oh.
I have no itineraries planned on this trip, no reservations to confirm, no friends to rendezvous and catch up with, no map. The only idea I have of Guam is that it is tropical, can be comfortably circumnavigated in less than three hours, and there is a Payless car rental agency very close to the airport. Oh, and Grace, a dive buddy I did egg rolls into the ocean with back in college, grew up here.
If I rent a car and drive long enough, I’m bound to end up where I start from, which is the Antonio Won Pat International Airport. The capital, Hagåtña (which by the way is cut and pasted for the reason that I do not know how to find special characters in my keyboard) reminds me of a small Hawaiian city with all the fancy stores only wealthy East Asian tourists go to. It begins to drizzle a little and the sun sets early, so I decide to get a hotel room away from the water and close to the K-mart. I figure, if I start early tomorrow, I’d still make it on time for my 6:30 PM flight out. I get some peanuts, juice and munchables to tide me over. The store is so crowded it feels like K-mart circa 1992.
In the morning, I head south from Tumon and its beaches filled with bathers in long-sleeved lycra suits and gardening hats. I have never seen so many pale-skinned swimmers so terrified of the sun. The streets are lined with Armani Exchanges, Guccis and Hermeses, which give way to facades with Japanese and Korean frontages, more white sand beaches and then the working downtown. The center is charmingly low-rise and navigable. I visit the Chamorro Village and listen to strange and familiar languages being spoken in corner restaurants. Filipino, Japanese, Korean. And the strange and familiar at the same time, Chamorro.
I leave for the Plaza de Espana, the remains of the former seat of government during the Spanish period. It surrounds the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica, originally built in 1669. Prior to this visit, I did not know Ferdinand Magellan came to Guam first before “discovering” the Philippines. So, I hastily decide this trip will be about parallels rather than the differences. The Cathedral itself looks like a neater, leaner brother of the San Agustin Cathedral in my hometown, Cagayan de Oro. I instinctively look for the little tents selling this morning’s freshly trucked mums from Bukidnon but there aren’t any. I shrug and walk a bit east to marvel at the Latte Stones scattered around a park. These are stone stilts with significant cultural importance for the Chamorro. A recurring theme all throughout the island, these structures are composed of limestone, basalt or sandstone trunks (haligi) and cup (tasa) that serve as foundations of pre-colonial houses dating all the way back to 800 AD. Beneath, ancestral bones and personal items are believed to have been buried. I hope your ancestors did not have osteoporosis or your house will fall like a deck of cards, I think quietly and in bad taste.
I make a beeline back to the Chamorro Village and buy a Banana Turon, a manifestation of the prevailing Filipino minority in Guam. Quite possibly the most expensive Banana Turon I have ever had. I jump back into my car and head south, and hopefully, counterclockwise.
The drive is relaxing, the potholes familiar, and the occasional drizzle reminds me of home. Too much, so that I turn on the radio and before getting to my Chamorro station, a Tagalog language one interferes with the ubiquitous and annoying baby-voiced station ID. I stop by Two Lovers Point park and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. You know the drill–star-crossed lovers, Spanish daughter is betrothed to another but is in love with a native, a chase ensues, they tie their hair together/they tie their clothes together/they hold hands, and jump off a cliff. Why is it that every time the Spaniards come, star-crossed lovers are created and then made to jump into their grave?
I head further south and drive past Asan Beach and the War of the Pacific National Park, the huge naval base, and then stop by a convenience store that looks extremely provincial and unapologetic next to the old stone Spanish Bridge to get some orange juice. The San Dionisio Church ruins are eerily quaint in wrist-thick root mid-swallow. But further uphill is a newer pastel church looking victorious. Turning around from where I stand next to the road, I notice an obelisk marker and a cross. I come closer and find out this is the Magellan Monument. No pomp and circumstance. No neon lights. No gift shops. He must not have been loved.
I drive up mountains, snake around hills, smile at the pretty little coves and the distant islets until I get to Inajaran where I jump into the ruins of the Salaglula Pool. Each time a typhoon comes, it is rebuilt. But after the last one, the people just gave up and let the sea reclaim its stake. I think I like it this way.
Going north now, ample forests give way to little villages, hanging laundry and slightly hefty kids being let off school buses. By one of the side streets I notice a sign that sells sweet Tuba, a coconut based alcoholic drink from the Philippines. Sort of like tropical moonshine. I am liking Guam even more because it advertises moonshine. I stop by a gas station and wince at the price. $4.89 a gallon. I guess that’s affordable if you are an island in the middle of nowhere. And if it isn’t affordable to you, then you go get yourself some sweet Tuba and worry later.
Towards the Northern tip of the island, next to the Andersen Air Force Base (and the most terrible American road I have ever driven through), a fitting reward awaits me. Ritidian Beach is quintessential. The water is warm and invisible, fish nibble at you like slimy water puppies, and there is no one, absolutely no one, trying to sell you a trinket, a massage, colorful souvenir, a memory. Maybe because the tour buses can’t navigate the road down here? While I do my beached whale bit and read a book as though my flight for Manila is not merely three hours away, I sip on my warm OJ and decide I like Guam. Because no one should have to buy a memory.
(All photos ©M. Sanchez)