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Our Continental Airlines flight came in at the most ungodly hour. By the time we reached our hotel, the Pacific Islands Club, I was ready to crash. But my pillow had been barely warmed by my weary head when the alarm went off. It was time to head down for breakfast. There was going to be no sleep for me that night and the many nights to come in Guam, I later discovered. For in this tiny island in the western Pacific Ocean, an island that can be circled in a day, where supermarkets are open 24/7 and the Chamorros chant in the middle of your dreams, the old cliché stays true: so much to do and so little time.
Cruising and crinkly smiles
And so without wasting a second, we were off through the open wide roads of Tumon, the center of Guam’s tourist industry. A drizzle had just let up, leaving the glass and concrete buildings a sparkly sheen amidst the greenery. Funny how a sun stream and a light shower can paint the world a different color. There was excited chatter in our tour van as if we had had enough snooze time. Anticipation was our adrenaline.
Soon the smooth road gave way to a quarried stone-paved street lined with palm trees (or were they coconut?). Christian Dior, Bulgari, and Louis Vuitton beckoned silently behind perfectly tended bushes. My heart leaped and I thought I heard the dollar coins in my pocket jingle. What could I possibly buy with the little currency I had in my pocket, I mused. But worries, like sleep, should not be in the itinerary. We were on a holiday, after all. We were in Guam, I reasoned, as we drove past the premier shopping district I could have easily mistaken as a street in Beverly Hills. It was almost exactly the same except for one difference: the smell of the sea.
A drive farther along Pale San Vitores Road led us to the beaches of Tumon Bay. “I love driving through here everyday on my way to work,” Charlene, our host, chirped as we cruised along. Her eyes crinkled into a smile as she pointed at Mata’pang Beach before us. The park opened into a long stretch of sandy cove where kayakers and jet skiers dotted the baby blue waters. Cars zipped by quietly, and I thought I understood where the enthusiasm for work came from.
Home in a strange place
Charlene, like most of the locals, shares the same happy disposition, the same smile. Maybe it is the air, the kind that invigorates and incites excitement in spite of the lack of sleep. Maybe it is the lullaby of the island, quiet but merry, like their greetings, Hafa adai (hello)!
And like Charlene, many of the locals in Guam are Filipinos or part- Filipino. As a visiting Pinoy, it was hard to feel like a stranger this side of Micronesia. Everywhere was new yet surprisingly familiar, including the busy retail sections. At the Guam Premium Outlet – a mall that sells brands for less – in Tamuning, we rummaged through a rack of Levi’s jeans with a sign that said, “$3.99″. Just to be sure, we asked which ones exactly were on sale in English. “Ito lang,” replied an attractive saleslady. She hardly even looked at us as she folded pants in neat piles. It was hard to tell a Chamorro from a Filipino, both sharing the same dusky features. How did she know? Was it our accents that gave us away? Or was it simply assumed that only Pinoys go for the bargains?
Ask anyone for directions or assistance – a sales personnel, a waitress, a hotel receptionist – in English, and one out of three times, you’ll probably be answered in Tagalog — with a warm smile, of course. A third of Guam’s population are Filipino descendants, a majority of which are American citizens. Many of them hold positions of power: lawyers, senators, entrepreneurs. Some of them we were privileged to meet, including Senator James Espaldon. He regaled us with stories of the world of politics, including his triumphs in spite of being part of the minority. Although the Fil-Am senator has lived in the United States most of his life, the Filipino pride in him was evident. It is the same in almost every Filipino that co-inhabited with the Chamorros or Guam locals.
The menus — diverse with American, Chamorro, and Asian cuisine — also have its strong Filipino smattering: arroz caldo, pancit, longaniza — oh, and don’t get me started on the kilawin (raw fish or meat marinated in vinegar and other spices). The Chamorro version is called kilaguen made by pouring vinegar on almost anything they fancy: pork, fish, chicken, beef, deer, shrimp and yes, Spam. The idea may seem odd at first, but the vinegar and the lemon did a nice job tempering the saltiness of the processed meat. Grated coconut, onion, and red pepper added an interesting flavor that I still dream of even in my sleep – well, half-sleep, in this case.
Sleepy but happy in a new pair of sandals
I am guessing that the figure $3.99 is still flashing before your eyes. You’re probably thinking, wait a minute, forget about Spam kelaguen, I’m sure it’s heaven to the palate, but a pair of Levi’s jeans for $3.99? The figures can keep you up. despite of the lack of sleep, we agreeably woke up bright and early the next day, knowing that shopping was in the agenda.
Guam, like many islands in Micronesia, is well-known for its beaches. But another thing that Guam is famous for is the shopping — cheap shopping, might I add. Again, $3.99 for a pair of Levi’s jeans? Who could argue with that? An international travel hub, Guam has a reputation for being a tax-free port. Known as the Paris of the Pacific, this side of paradise is the perfect place for Christmas shopping as it can offer you a good bargain anywhere from the supermarkets to the high-end stores like the Duty-Free Shop. Having been informed about this beforehand, I looked up the catalog of perfumes on the flight to Guam so I could compare prices. At one of the stores, I was able to get a bottle of Burberry Touch for half the price. Ahh… the sweet smell of a great deal.
One night, after a fully packed day, I was ready to retire and catch up on much needed ZZZs. My tour mates, however, although running low, still had enough battery to get them going while we waited outside K-mart. Eager to call it a night, I volunteered to go look for the last errant ones. After a few minutes, I was the last one out, renewed with a beaming smile, and a new pair of sandals. I had found one of our companions lining up at the counter with a pair of pretty pink sandals. The tag said $14.00, reduced from $24.00. Forgetting our waiting caravan outside, I rushed to the shoe aisle looking for the same pair and found the last one on my size. Oh joy! But even more joyous was the fact that it was half off the reduced price. I got a new pair of sandals for $7.00! Oh and did I mention that it was tax-free?
Dreaming of whirling men in skirts
Once in a while, in the middle of a deep slumber, you will find yourself flying in the air, chasing feathers, and dancing before tigers. These are what dreams are made of, kind of like how the shows in Sandcastle Theatre in Tumon are. The show Dream, in particular, is a front-row pass to your fantasies, featuring Las Vegas-style routines and costumes, world-class illusionists, and whimsical acrobatics.
The act that moved me most was a couple’s dance midair while suspended in ribbons. I’ve never quite seen anything so graceful, romantic – and pardon the unimaginative term – dreamy. Tethered in streams of cloth, they pirouetted, sprinted, and whirled in fluid motions, unhindered by gravity, thrust by the rush of wind and the silence of their passion. Drawn together by desire, their bodies were weightless, lissom, and unified. They exchanged silent vows with the supple sway of the hips and the impossible stretch of their arms.
After the dance, we raised our glasses of wine and were rendered speechless. In complete contrast, a group of bald men suddenly made an entrance. Wearing nothing but balloon skirts, they twirled around to a powerful beat like whirling dervishes. Halfnaked women appeared from nowhere and birds exploded into a confetti of colors while white tigers lay majestic but indifferent.
Under the shade of the huts
Under the baking sun, the dream is raw but no less powerful. At Ypao Beach on the West coast of Guam, dancers, weavers, and dreamers, some half-naked and donning flower wreathes with intoxicating fragrances, converge to give locals and tourists a taste of the islands. While December is the best month to visit Guam for the Christmas festivities and the holiday shopping, October is also a good month as this is the time when the Guam Micronesia Island Fair is celebrated.
Here the different Micronesian nations – Chuuk, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Phonpei, and Yap – showcase their art and culture under native huts of mangrove and banana leaves tied together by cobra strings. Under the huts, tribe members sit around chewing on betel nut, dancing in bright-printed lava-lavas (island dress), while others busy themselves dressing a butchered pig with citrus and coconut juice for the stone pit. Under makeshift stalls, they display their crafts and wares: woven baskets, flower wreathes, and seashells. Guam is a cosmopolitan tropical paradise, a nation of modern infrastructure and facilities, yet the locals proudly hold on to their traditions. Although they live in concrete homes and sleep in air-conditioned rooms, they still look back to the past when their ancestors inhabited ancient homes raised off the ground in stone pillars called latte. Today, although these lattes no longer hold up structures in Chamorro villages, they still stand proud, some at the Senator Angel LG Santos Latte Park, the others in jungle areas, as a reminder to the younger generation of their roots.
The call of the sea
Another reminder that stands still today in Guam is Two Lovers’ Point in Tumon Bay, a monument that honors love and devotion. The park sits on a cliff line that overlooks a heartbreaking view of the Philippine Sea and Tumon Bay. Here, where walkways hang at the side of the cliff and lookout points offer a view of infinite possibilities, lovers come to lock in their promises symbolized by heart-shaped combination padlocks bolted on the fences. Here, too, couples come to be married, exchanging promises while white waters crash into the rocks, inspired by the tale. Legend has it that two forbidden lovers tied their hair together and jumped off the cliff into the jagged rocks in the hopes that, in the afterlife, they shall be together.
Their vows are as haunting as the call of the island’s sea, gentle yet lingering. It does not want me to sleep. Even while I sink deep under the covers, hoping to escape the light and drown in oblivion, the island air is persistent, rousing me from my half-sleep, tempting me with the salty air that wafts in through the balcony until I wake up and give in.