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Edge of America


Underrated outpost Guam, with diving as fantastical as its local lore, is brimming with surprises. DUNCAN FORGAN braves the vengeful ancestors, and explains why you should crave coconut-milk cheeseburgers. Photographed by AARON JOEL SANTOS.

Published on Jul 5, 2017

 

Although it lies a distant 9,331 kilometers from the California coast, Guam
nonetheless brandishes super-sized portions of American bonhomie.

A statue of the pope
A statue of the pope welcomes visitors to the roughly 95-percent Catholic island.

Due to its location just west of the international dateline, the U.S. Pacific territory is, as its garrulous inhabitants waste no time in pointing out, where America's day begins. Up until now, my guide Ron Laguana has acted as a self-appointed ambassador for this seemingly insatiable sunniness. He lays down an extensive 101 on the island's colorful history and only draws breath to scold me for not taking enough notes and to complain about the inadequate dimensions of my rented Kia. ("Shoulda hired a Tacoma bro," is a frequent refrain heard throughout the day.)

Things take an unexpectedly darker turn though as he steers us towards a favorite fishing spot on the eastern side of the island.

"I remember it like it was yesterday and it still gives me the shivers," he says maneuvering the car through a maze of coconut palms into a clearing by the ocean. "I trapped a wild boar in this very spot," Ron whispers, the sound of the waves pounding in from the Mariana Trench—the world's deepest point—upon the rocky shore nearly drowning out his voice. "Just a single wild boar. Nothing else. But when I opened up the trap, a chicken flew out. It was inexplicable, but I knew it must have been the Taotaomona. Perhaps they were in a playful mood."

Trapping
Your standard trappings of a tropical paradise.

Guam is a surprisingly eerie place.

The island's indigenous Chamorro people fear and respect the Taotaomona, zombie spirits of ancient ancestors. Their presence and mysterious works of sorcery, it is said, can be detected at sacred areas dotted around the island—often at some of its most famous beauty spots—and at mysterious rocks known as the Latte Stones, which date back to 800 A.D.

Latte Stones
Small versions of latte stones near a local hangout in Tumon.

It is doubtful whether any of the million-plus visitors to underrated Guam each year pay much mind to the spook factor. In fact, many tourists who do make it here are lured foremost by duty-free designer shopping—though there's a growing appreciation for the idyllic stretches of sand, and wealth of playable golf courses that include some designed by the game's biggest pros. This is a shiny Pacific paradise with a laid-back vibe, where the diving is as legendary as the island's historic role as one of the most strategically important American military bases in the world. The shores are superstars for plenty of reasons.

As a first time visitor, however, I want to dig a little deeper to get a feel for the island's Chamorro culture. I also want to hear more about the myths and legends attached to Guam—species transmogrifications being a fantastical case in point.

 

MY FIRST MISSION, before I get down to the serious business of mining zombie lore and other gothic tales, is to get a feel for the island's evolution from colonial hand-me-down into the most dynamic tourist destination in Micronesia. The obvious place to start is the commercial hub of Tumon where mass tourism on the island first took root around 40 years ago. Here, the mostly Japanese shoppers flit between glitzy duty-free malls full of brands such as Versace, Coach and Chanel. Lining the main thoroughfare, Pale San Vitores Road, are familiar eateries like Tony Roma's and Hard Rock Café, and the swanky Manhattan Steakhouse—all testament to Uncle Sam's firm caloric grip on the island.

A stone's throw away is the bay's long, curving beach, a dazzling expanse of white sand that slopes gently into shallow turquoise waters guarded by a coral reef. It is an undeniably gorgeous stretch, with the high-rise hotels offering guests a grandstand view.

Surveying the scene from the balcony of my room at the stately Hyatt Regency, one of the island's most prestigious addresses, I can see the appeal. The hotel, with several pools in lush gardens, provides a stylish refuge from which to strike out to nearby bars such as Shamrocks, an Irish joint with a great selection of locally brewed craft beers, and restaurants such as the resort's own signature Italian venue Al Dente, which does an impressive line of giant tomahawk steaks. Between the American conveniences and the paradisaical aesthetic, Tumon feels like a closer, calmer Waikiki.

View over Tumon
A view over Tumon and the Pacific Ocean.

On my first morning, I head for Pika's Café, a lunch joint that specializes in giant sandwiches and salads with a distinct Chamorro twist. I go for the Tinaktak Burger, a giant patty cooked with coconut milk and green beans. Although it doesn't sound enticing, website reviews rave about it. And, sure enough, the eccentric combination works: the coconut reduction imparting an enjoyably sweet, tropical note to the juicy meat with the fresh beans delivering some welcome crunch. I'm a convert.

In fact, dining turns out to be an unexpected highlight of my trip. Native Chamorro food was largely based on what early inhabitants could gather, grow and hunt from the land plus what they could harvest from the ocean. Spanish, American and Filipino influences crept in, producing gems such as kalaguen (a ceviche-like dish) and finadene sauce (a blend of vinegar, soy, onion and hot peppers, a popular marinade used in traditional barbecue cookouts). Other surprisingly memorable meals come at Meskla and Proa, fusion venues where international techniques give Chamorro cuisine a twist, in keeping with the island's cosmopolitan character.

land crabs
When it comes to land crabs, buyer beware—of pincers.

En route to Pika's Café, my taxi driver, who grew up on the island of Rota about 90 kilometers away, expands on Guam's irresistible uptown allure. "It was like the promised land for me," he laughs. "Life is still traditional on the other islands and there are few prospects. On clear nights, I used to stare at the glow from the buildings on Guam and wish I could live there someday."

Ron, my guide, also encapsulates the island's unique hybridization. His hale and hearty demeanor—and his preference for gas-guzzling beasts—could hardly be more American. But he is a proud Chamorro, a teacher and an authority on the culture, who co-authored a book on the native tongue and has promoted its use in schools. He is a font of knowledge on the legends and traditions that add a depth of flavor to Guam's heady gumbo.

As we strike out from Tumon towards the wild palm-backed beaches and rolling, grassy hills that characterize the south, he delivers a crash course in Chamorro lore. I discover that the island was once at risk of collapsing in the middle when a monster fish was devouring its center. Fortunately, the women of Guam captured the fish with their hair and the island was saved.

Coconut palms
The tranquil War In The Pacific National Historic Park.


The story chimes nicely with the matrilineal nature of the Chamorro. Although the men are built big and have traditionally assumed the hunter-gatherer role, family lines are traced through mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

The Taotaomona are capable of mysterious, sometimes macabre, works of magic. Ron tells me that Chamorro are taught to ask permission from these ancestors to proceed wherever they set foot. "Over the centuries, lots of outsiders have come to Guam," he says. "Many of them don't know—or don't care to know—about our traditions. They've trod on sacred land without asking permission and they've developed sicknesses, and unexplainable injuries have been inflicted upon them.

"We [the Chamorro] respect our ancestors. If you show them courtesy then no harm will come to you."

 

RON'S TALES ARE INTERESTED by visits to significant spots such as Umatac, where explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521. The fateful visit was the precursor for a history of colonialism—by Spain, the United States, Japan and the U.S. again—that is the longest among the Pacific islands.

Also memorable is the Valley of the Latte, a nicely realized eco-tourism venture that features a boat ride up the tranquil Talofofo River and demonstrations of basket-weaving and fire-starting by local Chamorro men.

Chamorro
Young Chamorro men in the Valley of the Latte.

There's also a small museum dedicated to the life of Private Shoichi Yokoi. As U.S. forces retook the island for the Allies during the bloody dying days of the Pacific campaign, Private Yokoi and a handful of his Japanese comrades retreated to the undergrowth. There they held out for an incredible amount of time, subsisting on a diet of venomous toads and river eels, determined to avoid detection at any cost. One by one they succumbed to illness or the elements, or were seized. Only Private Yokoi survived. After eight more years in the jungle with only the Taotaomona for company—a chilling prospect—he was found by a group of local hunters in January 1973, by which point Private Yokoi had been fighting the Second World War for nearly three decades.

Private Yokoi's tale and travails sound so horrific that I suspect the spirits kept him as punishment for encroaching on their turf. So I make a mental note to seek clearance at each of my stops on my last day on the island, which is devoted to its natural highlights.

In the morning I ascend Mount Lamlam, said by locals to be the world's tallest peak. Though it rises a modest 406 meters above sea level, the theory is that, with its base at the foot of the Mariana Trench, its real height is some 11,000 meters (more than 2,000 meters higher than Everest). Whether or not that's actually a legitimate case, the summit offers breathtaking views of the luminescent green hills of southern Guam pouring into the Pacific.

Rock formations
Rock formations off the west coast of Guam.

For me, however, it is the beaches that steal the show. The pick of the bunch is Ritidian Point in the far north of the island. Accessible via a pot-holed road through some of the thickest jungle on the island, it is not the easiest place to get to. But chalk-white sand and mirror-clear water make the arduous journey well worthwhile. I divide my time between bobbing weightlessly in the Pacific and staring off into the powder blue horizon. The thought occurs to me that perhaps if I meditate long enough, I can transform into a bird and hover above all this beauty. Maybe that'll sate the ancestors.

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

GETTING THERE
From Southeast Asia, direct flights to Guam International Airport leave from Hong Kong, Manila and Taipei. Visa and entry requirements for Guam are the same as for any U.S destination.

HOTELS
Hyatt Regency Guam With a private stretch of beach, several swimming pools and a fine selection of restaurants—including signature Italian venue Al Dente—the Hyatt is Guam's top hotel. Rooms offer coffee machines, choice toiletries and king-sized beds. from US$250 per night.
Outrigger Guam Beach Resort Due to its onsite mall and proximity to DFS Galleria, one of the island's premier duty-free retail outlets, Outrigger is ideal for shoppers. Try to snare a room with an ocean-view balcony—the turquoise expanse of Tumon Bay is truly special. from US$260 per night.

The Westin With seven on-site dining options, two outdoor pools and a day spa, this resort is a one-stop shop for leisure. Rooms are spacious and many enjoy ocean views. from US$275 per night.
Dusit Thani One of the luxe options in Tumon, this resort feels fresh. Everything from the Thai-inspired rooms to the huge swimming pool benefits from stylish attention to detail. from US$320 per night.

RESTAURANTS
Pika's
Café Excellent, friendly breakfast and lunch venue in Tumon. The Chamericano tortilla wrap panini is stuffed with Chamorro sausage, cheddar cheese, red potatoes, scrambled eggs and the special house sauce. meal for two from US$50.
Meskla Chamorro fusion is the name of the game at Meskla. For newbies, the Chamoru Platter is a good bet: fried reef fish, tinala katni (dried beef), kelaguen (a ceviche-like starter), salad and red rice. meal for two from US$85.
Proa Guam locals pride themselves on being masters of the barbecue. If you can't get yourself invited to a cook-out, the meaty offerings at Proa make a worthy alternative. meal for two from US$100.

ACTIVITIES
Mangilao Golf Club Widely considered the best course on an island full of great ones. greens fee from US$200.
Blue Persuasion Diving
Guam Visitors Bureau private tour guide day rates from US$100.

Art in Tumon
Public art in Tumon depicting Guam's cultures.

 

 

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A painted bus stop in downtown Tumon, the nexus of Guam's tourism industry.
  • Star fruits.
  • A coconut tree on Ritidian beach in northern Guam.
  • A traditional Chamorro sinahi necklace.
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