Some call Guam the jewel of Micronesia, the Marianas’ newest paradise, a Little Hawaii where America’s Day Starts.
I dub it Little Philippines – a “forever summer” sister island small enough for trekkers to “boonie stomp” end to end in a day – minus the traffic, the pollution, all that rush – a perfect place to dream and dive.
Filipinos account for at least a third of Guam’s 180,000 population. But its kinship with us goes deeper, from shared history, culture and faith.
When Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first circumnavigated the earth, he discovered Guam in 1521, a few days before he discovered the Philippines. A Filipino saint, Pedro Calungsod, was martyred in Guam in 1672, slain by Matapang, a native Chamorro chief, for preaching Christianity. Like the Philippines, Guam suffered much during World War II, a conflict not of its own making – and recovered.
Countless other things we share with the Chamorros who settled Guam 4,000 years ago, migrating from Southeast Asia in their swift “proa” canoes. They kiss the hand of their elders, celebrate fiestas – fandangos and are mostly Catholics.
They have palms, mangoes and Bougainvilleas, coconut milk and rice, wrens and carabaos, Spanish churches – too bad most had been bombed to oblivion in the last war, white beaches like Palawan, squat buildings like Clark’s to withstand gale-force winds and earthquakes.
Every typhoon that ravage the Philippines visit here first. Volcanoes lurk under its ocean and its low mountain, less than 1,400-foot Mt. Lamlam, is the world’s highest peak as its base rests beneath the Pacific, in the world’s deepest abyss, the over 36,200-foot deep Marianas Trench, where you can plunk in Mt. Everest, with plenty of room left.
While we don’t use latte stones like the Chamorros for the foundation of our homes, we have the same words with the same meaning for their mushroom-shaped national emblem. The latte is a two part rock pillar made up of a capstone called “tasa” – the Filipino word for cup. The post is called “haligi”, which means the same in our native tongue.
Those latte are big enough to see from my plane window, along with the endless stretch of Tumon Bay’s coral beaches, the hotel row of Paradise Island, the stone forts and cannons, Two Lovers Point, where a couple forbidden to marry tied their hair together and jumped from the 400-foot high cliff – a famous landmark included in Guam’s flag.
Finally, at the end of Cebu Pacific Air’s (CEB) three and a half hours flight from Manila, Guam floated below me, a giant footprint between the Pacific and the Philippine Sea.
Under the arch of water cannons, our plane came to halt. What a salute. After all, this is CEB’s maiden voyage to its first destination in the U.S.
Funny, we arrived too early – an hour in advance. Everyone welcomed us with leis, cheery words and smiles. It’s like home. We have Filipino greeters, guides, drivers, receptionists and chambermaids.
I stayed at Bayview Hotel, a ten-minute drive from the airport and ten-minute’s walk to the heart of the action at Tumon beach. The lobby swarmed with Koreans and Japanese guests in sunhats and flowery prints. “They come here for the water sports – diving, snorkeling and the like,” one of our guides shrugged. “Filipinos come here to shop.”
Our area in Tumon is the hub of Guam’s duty-free shopping universe, abounding with boutiques within several stores – The DFS Guam Galleria, The Plaza along The Pleasure Island strip and the Tumon Sands Plaza. They also have three huge malls: The Agana Shopping Center in Hagåtña, Guam Premier Outlets in Tamuning and Micronesia Mall, owned by Filipino-Chinese tycoon Lucio Tan.
However, I was baffled by the absence of backpackers.
“Maybe they skip Guam because we’re laid back – unlike Hawaii and Mainland U.S.A.,” another guide surmised. “Public transport’s not that good. You’re better off renting and driving a car. There’s no traffic here but only old folks ride the buses. They’ve designated stops and schedules. Service only runs in nine routes, from 6:30 AM to 7:30 PM. You pay only $1 per ride but you have to do a lot of walking. Good news is, you can stomp across the whole island in a single day. It’s so small, anyway.”
Food’s good but not cheap. Lunch sets you back by $30; dinner, $40. “We have no agriculture in this island. Most food is imported. Our seas teem with fish but we grant the Taiwanese license to trawl our waters so we can buy fish from them. Tourism’s our number one bread and butter,” our guide explained.
At the Bayview Hotel’s Delmonico Kitchen and Bar, I sampled “Da Bag” – a medley of shrimps, rock lobsters, salmon and clams with French fries on the side. More grilled seafood and spicy sausages for dinner at nearby Westin Taste Restaurant, Westin Resort Guam. The following day, it’s Brazilian lunch at Churrasco – all-you-can eat steaks, pork shoulder, spicy sausage, marinated chicken and grilled sugared pineapple. But the only thing I remember from my Lotte Hotel dinner was the melt-in-your-mouth “leche flan”.
To be honest, I’m not that adventurous with food. But Guam’s fresh coconut, “sashimi style” intrigued me. They scoop out the flesh from the shell and serve it with soy sauce and wasabi. (In Europe, my roomies ate avocado as a veggie, with salt and turkey slices. They were shocked when I sugared mine and drenched it with milk.)
Sampling native fare, I didn’t have to go far. KFC serves Chamorro chicken and red rice with pepper sauce if you order the Fiesta platter. They also have this spicy dessert – hot chocolate soup topped with black pepper-flavored ice cream.
Next day’s city tour was a crash course in history.
We drove through Hagåtña, past the Chamorro Village to Plaza de España, which housed the governor’s palace during the Spanish times. I even glimpsed a mermaid – actually a statue of Sirena – under the San Antonio bridge.
Legend says Sirena’s mom cursed her because she’d rather swim in the sea than run errands. But before Sirena can turn into a fish, her godmother intervened.
We stopped at the Latte Stone Park, with its eight ancient lattes. Chamorros have been using them as foundation for their homes since 500 A.D. They also buried their ancestors, their treasures and their canoes under the stones. Legend says that the spirits of the dead – “taotaomona” moved the latte stones in place.
The park sits beside other landmarks – the rotating statue of Pope John Paul II, made in his honor when he visited Guam, the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica and the Academy of Our Lady of Guam.
Next stop was the T. Stell Newman Visitor Center, which houses exhibits about Guam in the Pacific War of 1941-45, interactive displays, oral histories and touch bins. In its theater, we watched a documentary of the Battle of Guam in World War II, the largest and most violent armed conflict in the history of mankind.
World War II was fought in two theaters – Europe and the Pacific. However, the Pacific war was most brutal and deadly. Guam, ringed by reefs, cliffs, and heavy surf, presented a protracted challenge for liberating forces. When American soldiers and marines assaulted the beaches, their Japanese foes dug in bunkers and fought until they were killed. They almost never surrendered.
Driving by Agat Beach afterwards, I can’t imagine how its turquoise waters literally turned red with blood in that war, 71 years ago. No trace of the carnage now, only people racing kayaks, tumbling in banana boats, spreading picnics or bumming on the coral sands.
Strangely, I can’t have enough of the island.
This early, I’m checking off a wish list in my head: paint the landscape at Tanguisson Beach Park, soak in the nearby sinkhole – Lost Pond, snorkel along Gun Beach and pray I don’t get caught in a rip, dive the 300- foot Blue Hole to ogle at the resident moray eels, maybe explore the nearby Crevice too for dolphins, barracuda, sharks and tuna.
If my budget allows it, I’ll take a submersible to the bottom of the deepest abyss on earth – the Marianas Trench. It’s only 338 kilometers Southeast of Guam.
And I can’t ever leave again without swimming and dancing with the mantas of the reefs.