Micronesia: Guam's Glitter Gulch & Pohnpei's 'No-Service' Atoll

Unbeknownst to most of us Guam has had much of the same history as the Philippines, first coming to the world’s attention during Ferdinand Magellan’s famous booty call to the region in 1521.  I suspect he found more in the Philippines because he died there and Spain didn’t get around to formally colonizing Guam until 1565. That’s the way it stayed until the Spanish-American War, when ownership passed to the USA.  After WWII the Philippines became independent while Guam stayed American.  As such it has many of the things most superficially American, the most obvious being US currency.  But that’s also used in FSM (Micronesia) and the Marshall Islands, too, which are technically independent, except in matters of defense, and full members of the UN.


Truth be told, Guam does not feel especially American, much less than American Samoa down south, I’d say.  That’s probably because of its large Japanese presence and high level of Asian tourism in general, not to mention its own homegrown Chamorros and immigrant Filipinos and others.  Thus it has more of a generic Asian feel, and English-speaking in much the same way as, say, Malaysia, English as a second language, though Guamanians are full American citizens.  Out on the main tourist hotel strip at Tumon it feels like something of a cross between Las Vegas and Ginza, with Japanese maybe even predominating as a written language. 


For the Japanese Guam is a convenient tourist destination, a little piece of America only a few hours away by flight time, and dirt cheap by their standards of food and accommodation.  Throw in reasonable prices for Louis V and Giorgio A and you’ve got a business plan, good enough to bring in over a million tourists a year, and family-friendly, too, something lacking in much of the region.  Throw in a few American divers and surfers and you’ve got an interesting mix.  The restaurants are Asian; the bars are American.  At a lower sea level, Guam might even be connected to Japan, or at least one of its shimas or jimas, according to regional taste, though culturally it’s traditionally Micronesian, albeit the largest and most modern of a fairly diverse lot.


That doesn’t keep them from marketing Guam as somehow “Hawaiian,” of course.  That’s an easy marketing hook, so references to it are used liberally, maybe because for many Japanese families, this is the budget alternative.  There are even Jamaican juke-joints, so I guess all islands are game for the game of tourism.  The vastness of the Pacific region is hard to visualize.  The distance from the Asian mainland to thinly settled Micronesia is equal to the length of the US or China.  The distance from there to Hawaii is that much again, ditto Hawaii to the mainland US.  It’s almost like another dimension, one of water…and fish.  The fact that Micronesians and especially Polynesians mastered this dimension is one of the most phenomenal—and most overlooked—facts of history, and a blind spot to the understanding of it IMHO. 


But if Guam is a good place for Japanese people to get a quick cheap taste of America, likewise it’s a good place for an American to get a quick taste of Asia, especially Japan.  It’s unfortunate so few avail themselves of this opportunity, because there are real opportunities here.  A Japanese-speaking American might quickly find himself a very popular guy.  Speaking Chamorro might not be a bad idea either.  But I don’t have time for any of that, not now anyway.  I really have just a two-night stopover, so one full day.  I pretty much decide to just chill on my one full day here.  Whatever I could accomplish with a $100 rental car on a Sunday in Guam I should be able to accomplish several times over down the road in Pohnpei, FSM.  But If I were a younger man…


I approach all my travels as if I were looking for a place to live, not tour.  That means buying groceries and doing laundry.  So that’s what I do on my Sunday in Guam, only $2.50 a wash/dry load one flight up in my hotel, cheap as any laundromat back in the US; you don’t want to know what it costs in the UK.  Groceries are another story.  If there any supermarkets in the Tumon hotel district, then I haven’t found them.  Fortunately the ABC convenience stores have—in addition to hot dogs and other fast food—sushi, which is where sushi belongs IMHO, befitting the fast food that it really is. 


Now I love sushi, but I never bought into the concept of it as a double-digit-dollar delicacy.  Can you imagine tipping a hot dog master ten bucks as he fashions the perfect split-bun weenie wrap while wowing the crowd at some high-price hot dog bar downtown, squirting ketchup and mustard over relish and onions with a flair for the dramatic?  Me neither.  They also have other Pacific favorites, including (drum roll, please)… SPAM!  Spam f**king sushi!  Don’t they know that was a bad WWII joke?  Don’t they know that the word is now synonymous with “junk?”  I guess it’s an acquired taste… and otherwise Japanese have such good taste…  So I assume it’s an island thing…  Oh well, at least the Burger King has Wi-Fi, so I’m good…     



Pohnpei, FSM, is the exact opposite of Guam, even though both are considered to be Micronesia.  Kolonia on the island of Pohnpei is the metropolis of FSM, topping out at over 30,000 souls in a country of barely over 100,000.  I deliberately avoided its sister FSM island Chuuk because the good book says that you can’t walk the streets there at night.  Sounds like a ‘tude problem.  That won’t work for me.  It’s not like that here.  People seem friendly, if not effusively so, and rather healthy human specimens.  Even more inspiring are the presence of ruins here, Nan Madol, perhaps second only to Easter Island in importance to Oceanic archeology.


But the ruins will come tomorrow, if at all.  Tourist services here in FSM are almost non-existent, and that includes archeological tours, which scarcely exist, or tours of any kind, for that matter.  Apparently they don’t realize what a gold mine they’re sitting on, one of only two major sets of ruins in an area of civilization larger than Eurasia.  So I’m scheming and scamming, trying to come up with something less than an $80 taxi charge.  It’s not like I really want a taxi tour anyway … but that’s the deal.  That’s the reason I’m here really, especially a full four days.  Otherwise I’d be better off elsewhere, especially since the power’s off every day for four to six hours.  Even when it’s on, nothing works.  The toilet’s not bolted down, so almost threw me for a flip.  The microwave oven is but decoration.  Only one out of four burners on the stove works.


Pohnpei represents a stereotypical island mentality as accurately as I’ve ever seen, that “manana” attitude toward life, that’s not laziness so much as just lack of initiative.  I don’t think these people wake up wondering, ‘What’s the plan today?’  I think they see every day as largely the same, something to be endured and tolerated.  They come alive at night, when the ice chests roll out on to the sidewalk and everyone starts drinking the brown gunk called sakau.  It’s like kava, but seems stronger.  No ceremony is required either, though that seems a matter of individual preference.  It’s sold in bottles up and down the street starting around sunset, but it seems there are purists who will only drink it in the communal fashion.  I don’t think they exclaim “bula!” after every drink like Fiji. 


Here kava/sakau seems more of a contemplative medium.  It’s supposed to make you sleepy, but doesn’t have that effect on me at all.  I find it stimulating.  I’m drinking it right now.  One improvement is that the bottled version here comes chilled.  They should add cinnamon, just sayin’…  Daytime is for betel nut, the source of the red teeth gums and spittle so common to the South Pacific.  When my taxi driver offers me some I can’t resist.  Seems they like to mix it with tobacco and lime (the powder not the fruit) to release the effect.  The first time doesn’t do much, but the second time does.  I felt a lump in my chest and everything stops—lights sound action—including my heart.  There it’s back now, lub dup lub dup lub dup.  I’m good, got my $50 ride to the ruins, too, good thing since cars drive on the wrong side of the road.  No, I don’t mean the left side; I mean the wrong side, because the steering wheels are on the right side.  So if they drove on the left side, then that would be the right side; I mean the correct side, I think.


The ruins of Nan Madol have got to be some of the most under-visited in the world.  When I finally go, I am the only one there.  We get stopped and asked for money three times by people whose property we are apparently infringing upon.  I have to take off my shoes and socks to wade over to the main site.  You get the idea.  If/when fully reconstructed, it’d be one of the most beautiful and exotic in the world.  These are some 100 multiple islets rising up out of the water, mind you, with oceanic canals connecting them.  Use your imagination.  But I doubt that the gubmint will ever get its poop prepared for this.  They seem too inept.  I mean, rolling brown-outs as energy policy? That sucks.  Not many places seem inclined to provide their own either.  I suspect it’ll get worse when the US pulls the plug in a few years.  They might score a few points as China’s bitch, but that usually comes with a price.  We’ll see.  China have many girlfriends already.


If I’d known about the power sitch, I wouldn’t have planned a full four days—that’s for sure.  But it was either two or four, since, like the bus from Coban to Sebol in Guatemala, UA/CO flies back and forth every other day.  So there’s nothing to do now but endure.  I’ve had a lot of practice at that.  Next stop is Majuro, Marshall Islands.   C U there.




images:  Luke,MaGargoylepniNOAA Photo Library

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