December 30, 2017: Landing in Guam, Difficulties and Making Friends
United flight 154 departed Pohnpei, Micronesia heading west. After a brief stop on the Micronesian island of Chuuk- home of the Japanese ghost fleet of the Pacific- we landed in Guam right around sunset.
Guam is a US territory located in the far western edge of the Pacific Ocean. It is part of a larger island group chain called the Mariana Islands. The rest of the island chain, called the Northern Mariana Islands, function as a separate US territory. The most famous of the Northern Mariana Islands is Saipan.
Guam is a very popular destination for Asian-specifically Japanese travelers. It is only a 3-4 hour flight from most major Japanese cities. Citizens of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and a few other rich Asian countries do not need visas to visit Guam. At least 75% of all the flights going in/out of the Guam airport were headed to Japan. Most signs in the airport were also in Japanese.
I turned off my phone’s airplane mode and to my surprise discovered that I was on Roaming. I asked a few people and everyone said that Mainland USA phone carriers do not work in Guam even though Guam is part of the US. My collect call to AT&T confirmed that Guam is not part of their network- it functions just like any foreign country. I had clearly made a mistake by assuming that US Territories function like US States- Hawaii has full AT&T coverage. Unfortunately, this mistake had some consequences.
The surprisingly large Guam airport does not have working WiFi, so I had no way of downloading the map to my AirBNB. All I had was the blurry map sent in an email that morning (in Chinese), a picture of the apartment building and the un-downloaded Google Map of Guam. Some of the highway numbers were visible.
I had a general idea of where I was on the island, when I got into my rental car and drove in what I thought was the right direction. As I drove down the busy road,
After struggling for about 45 minutes, I eventually found what appeared to be the building. I parked and walked up to the unit, but there was no keybox. I walked around the building and eventually found an unsecured wifi network at another unit nearby. There, I confirmed that I had indeed found the correct building. I messaged my AirBNB host for the location of the lockbox and the unit’s WiFi password, but got no response. I noticed that there was a tiny hole in the steel window covering. I looked in and saw someone in the unit! I knocked on the door and after a short conversation was let in.
It turns out that I had rented a room in 2 bedroom unit shared by 3 people. One of the other guests- a lady from the Philippines instinctively took the keybox inside. I suppose that the Manila metro area is a much more dangerous place than Guam-I had quite the day there back in 2013. In addition to the Filipina, there was an Indian man working in Korea also staying here. Both of the other guests were vacationing to Guam.
We quickly became friends and decided to get beer and randomly good Jamaican food together in the nearby town of Hagatna, capital of Guam. We shared stories and had a great time.
I invited them to both go exploring with me around the island the next day. The Indian man was heading home, but the Filipina lady agreed to tag along. We all went to bed and rallied for the next day.
December 31, 2018: A Full Day Around Southern Guam
Guam (like most of the Pacific Islands) has a very complicated history. The original inhabitants of the island are called the Chamorros, who still have a large presence on the island. In the early 1500’s the Spanish arrived and used Guam as a refueling station for their galleons sailing across the Pacific.
In 1898, the United States captured Guam as part of the Spanish American War. During World War II, the Island was captured by Japan on December 8, 1941 (it was during the same attack at Pearl Harbor, but due to the International Date Line the history books have it as occurring a day later). 3 years later, the Americans returned and recaptured the island in the extremely deadly Second Battle of Guam. The airfield in Guam was the launching point for the missions that dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly after the War, the Chamorros became US citizens.
The first stop of the day was the town of Hagatna, the capital of Guam. There wasn’t much open on a Sunday morning, but we were able to stop by the beautiful Cathedral as well as a park housing the remains of the Spanish governor’s palace.
15 minutes south of Hagatna is the War in the Pacific National Historic Park which tells the story of Guam during World War II- specifically the battle to retake the island in 1944. The battle primarily took place on two landing beaches on the western coast of the island. After the Americans took the beaches, they then captured the nearby Japanese air field (now the Naval Base Guam) then finally the entire island. In total nearly 20,000 soldiers and an unknown number (but estimated to be about 30,000) Chamorros were killed.
The two landing beaches (and a few other scattered sites) are both run by the National Park Service. The most prominent sites are Asan Beach and the Overlook, which houses the main memorial. The museum and visitor center is located at the midpoint between the two beaches. The other landing beach, Agat, contains some Japanese guns and caves.
15 minutes away from Asan, at the crest of the island, we went for a hike to Tarzan Falls- one of the more popular hikes on the island. Unfortunately, the trail felt like an unmaintained dirt road and was not pretty. The jungle scenery on the way to the falls was ugly and lined with non-native plants like pine trees that must have been brought over by the US Army at some point. Luckily the area immediately adjacent to the falls was quite pretty.
Non-native species have been an enormous problem on Guam. The most famous invader is the brown tree snake, which hitchhiked its way on US Navy boats from Papua New Guinea. With no natural predators, there are well over 2 million of these snakes on the island today (which works out to 13,000/square mile). The snakes have killed off all but two species of birds on the island. The lack of birds has contributed to a degradation of the plants since birds spread seeds. Birds also kill off spiders, so there are multitudes more spiders on Guam than ever before. The introduction of non-native species has resulted in some of the worst environmental damage of any place in the world. It is doubtful that the ecosystem can ever recover
Driving across Guam is not a lengthy task and 7 minutes later, we arrived at Jeff’s Pirate Cove on the eastern shore. The restaurant is probably the most famous in all of Guam and is a tourist hotspot. It also happened to be the place where a Japanese holdout soldier from WWI formally surrendered in 1971! I also got to meet Jeff, the owner of the restaurant, who was very nice.
From Jeff’s we continued south along the peaceful two lane coast road and eventually reached the tiny town of Inajaran. While the coast was very rough, the town had a very cool protected natural swimming pool that was swarmed by both locals and tourists.
The road continued along sleepy seaside villages. This part of the island was nice and laid back, but I was disappointed that there were no beaches anywhere. Eventually, we rounded the southern tip of the island and reached Umatac Bay. It was here in 1521 that Ferdinand Magellan, the famed Spanish explorer, set foot on his ill-fated expedition around the world (the crew would make it but Magellan himself got killed in the Philippines). The monument commemorating the visit is quite worn and nearly unreadable. Luckily, the Spanish later built a castle with a beautiful view of the bay. Today it is a popular photo spot.
10 minutes later, we reached Cetti Bay. For some reason, people built an observation platform here. Unfortunately, the platform actually has a worse view of the bay than the side of the road. Quite disappointing.
Cetti Bay also marked the trailhead for Mount Lam Lam. At 1,332 ft above sea level it is the highest point in Guam. However it also has another distinction: tallest mountain on earth. Guam (as part of the Mariana Islands) sits right next to the Marianas Trench, the deepest trench in the ocean. If you count the rise from the trench as part of the height of the mountain, it would be about 37,000 feet tall. Obviously this claim is dubious, but I’ll take it!
Not only is the mountain fairly short, but the parking lot is almost 2/3 of the way up. The hike to the top took only about 30 minutes. Unlike Tarzan Falls, this hike was actually really pretty.
At the top, I ran into some Navy sailors stationed on Guam. They climbed the mountain to see the sunset. I asked them how life was on Guam and they said hot. I happened to arrive during the coldest time of the year- it was only 85 degrees with 90% humidity out.
To celebrate the final sunset of the year, the sailors brought up a bottle of cheap champagne and asked me to take a slo-mo video of them popping the bottle. In exchange I got a glass of the champagne and an awesome picture!
I hiked down and drove back to the AirBNB to get ready for the big Double New Years.
Guam was certainly not my favorite destination, although I definitely did not dislike it. Due to its location and history, I understand why it is a US territory and why it is so important for the US military. However, the war, military and its indirect actions have pushed away the native Chamorro culture and the indigenous plants and animals.
As an American tourist, I believe there is little reason to visit Guam unless you are interested in WWII or have a desire to see all the US territories. It is so far away, expensive to reach, and less-interesting than closer islands like Hawaii. And if you are traveling this far, it would make more sense to visit somewhere more exotic like Micronesia. As it is the regional air hub, I am fairly certain I will be back in Guam someday as it is the easiest way to reach Palau, Yap, and Saipan.
I do understand the appeal of Guam for Asian tourists. The warm weather, the beaches in the tourist town of Tumon, and the thrill of visiting the United States without a visa or a 12 hour flight are all worthwhile reasons to go. For someone without the time or means to fly across the ocean, Guam is a good way to get a taste of American culture without prejudice or too many language barriers.