Guam is the southernmost (and maybe largest?) of the Marianas, a string of islands that arc north through the equatorial Pacific as a sort of geological ski jump out of the Marianas trough just before it plunges to the eponymous Trench. A good string of islands to invade if, for example, you were Japan and wanted to hopscotch your way south to invade Papua New Guinea and Australia, pillaging and traumatizing the local cultures on the way. That’s happened a lot to the good people of Guam: getting invaded and pillaged by someone just on the way to somewhere else. And it’s still what most Americans think of when they think about Guam: Didn’t they get invaded by Japan? And they also say, Oh yeah, isn’t it also now part of the United States without really being part of it? (yes – the technical, and rather condescending colonial term is that it’s a US “territory”).
But onboard United 157, westbound and away, I can say that I now know a hell of a lot more about Guam than that, and a lot more when I did when I got here just over 24 hours ago. And most of what I know I learned from Bob.
“Bob” isn’t his real name. I’m sure I could find his real name if I put my mind and a bit of internet time into it, but we needed a name for the disembodied, annoyingly cheerful and confident voice that chimed in from Devon’s phone at the most inopportune times as we rolled our way around the island in the wrong direction.
Remember how I said yesterday that this whole trip was planned out for us? That’s once we actually touch down in Palau. For Guam we were still on our own, so it seemed like a good idea to rent a car for the day and download an app that would guide us through a tour of the island. The promise was that the app would use the phone’s GPS to figure out where we were and guide us to the next point of interest, entertaining and educating us along the way with bits of relevant culture and history. I’m sure it scored great on Shark Tank, or whomever they pitched the idea to.
But oh the devil in the implementation details. For starters, “Bob” continually, cheerfully and assertively told us “Turn left! Turn right!” onto ostensible roads that weren’t actually there. And whenever we had to circle back, or take the next road over, insisted on regaling us with that it-was-maybe-interesting-the-first-time anecdote for the third or fourth time, like that uncle at Thanksgiving who is repeatedly reminded of the thing Aunt Margaret did with the cranberry jelly when they were kids. Trying to find the turnoff to our first landmark, we heard the bit about Father Diego enough times that I feel like I grew up with the guy.
We quickly abandoned relying on the app for navigation and reverted to Google Maps and the comforting voice that I have come to refer to as “Jane” in honor of the omniscient voice that whispers into the ear of one of Orson Scott Card’s protagonists. Of course we had to keep the other app open to figure out where to ask Jane to guide us, so the narration quickly began to sound like an app-family roadtrip from hell. “In 300 meters, turn left,” says Jane. “Turn right!” exclaims Bob, hot on her heels. Then, “Turn left,” he’ll say seconds later, before we’ve had a chance to even twitch the wheel, no doubt trying to take credit and think, credibly, that we’ll give the idea more gravitas because it comes from him.
On the upside, Bob at least gave us some ideas on where we wanted to go, if less than helpful on how to get there. Working our way clockwise from the airport, we did eventually make it to Two Lovers Point, the impressive precipice from which the doomed pair is supposed to have leapt, and which has since provided a clearly healthy business in sales of little hearts you can buy (padlock included) to stick on the fence that discourages you from repeating their feat. From there, he talked us into making our way (again, with Jane’s help) to Ritidian Point, at the north end of the island in the National Wildlife Refuge, where we dipped our toes in the white coral sand beach waters, and ducked no-nonsense spiders to tromp through the coconut palm foliage and peek our noses into ominous-looking caves. We know they’re coral sand beaches because every time we tried to advance to the next stop on the automated tour, Bob chimed in with, “Did you know that there’s no actual sand here?…” getting only about that far into his increasingly annoyingly enthusiastic factoid before Devon slapped the mute button for the umpteenth time.
Things got even worse when we decided to reverse direction for the southern half of the island, crossing over and taking it counter clockwise after lunch. We’d long since given up following Bob’s cues chronologically, but there was no way to look up information for the next site without getting interrupted by his urgings to “Look at that unusual tower ahead on the left!” Meaning behind on the right, because Bob’s programmers couldn’t conceive of anyone doing things the other way around. Somewhere around Inarajan, we just shut the poor guy off.
But it was a good day. Working past Bob’s increasingly desperate sounding pleas for relevance, we found our way to breathtaking beaches, Spanish forts, hidden pools and Guam’s largest mall. Bob had nothing to do with the mall; it was just that, whenever we asked anyone on the way in – the cab driver, hotel reception – told us that going to the mall was the thing to do. Yeah, it was…a mall. But in Guam. Which, I have to admit, was an educational cultural experience.
But as Cesare Pavese wrote, we do not remember days, we remember moments, and rather than give you a blow by blow of the whole day, I want to see if I can give you the little cluster of moments from around noon, when jetlag be damned, we realized we were more than ready for lunch. We’d just made our way off Ritidian, delayed by the road being closed briefly to some sort of (BOOOOOM!) artillery practice and found ourselves cruising the main strip of Yigo, on the northeast of the island.
There were the usual by-now expected KFC, McDonalds (“McRib is back!”) and Von’s Chicken, but we were hoping for something a little more local. We struck out a couple of times with quirky, promising-looking places (Tsibugan Kitchen, Viet Bowl) before falling back to the generic-sounding Uptown Pub and Grill. Generic, but at least not McDonalds, so we wandered in and grabbed the first table we saw. It was what you would expect of a small town Pub and Grill, with Bud Light lampshades, a pool table, and basketball going on four out of the five screens adorning the walls.
The young woman who seemed to have run of the place excused herself from the Army guys at the bar and brought us menus, asking if this was our first time here. Yes, we said. First time at the Uptown? First time in Guam. How long had we been here? This would be our first real meal. She seemed pleasantly incredulous. What should we order? Oh, she began to wax eloquent on the local specialties – tinala katne, chamorro bistek,… I made the mistake of trying to understand what each was. Steve, a world traveler who I have so much to learn from, cut to the chase: “There are three specialties? Let’s get one of each.” Our server was delighted.
It was only when the first arrived a couple of minutes later that we realized a potential flaw in our plan: the “ham hock with mongo beans” alone could have easily fed the three of us. But by the time the table was tiled with our ordered bowls and plates, I would have been hard-pressed to choose which I would have left out. Our gracious and charming server kept the water coming – the dinanche sauce that came with the bistek could take the chrome off your bumper, but was too tasty to skip. By the time we’d made a respectable dent in the offerings we were too stuffed to move. The total came to not much more than a sack of Big Macs would have, and we didn’t ask about dessert.
Bellies full, southbound again, even the annoying pop up blare of the app’s insistent “Did you know that there’s no actual…” didn’t faze us anymore. Shhhh, Bob. Don’t stress. We’ve got this.
THanks for the vicarious travels
I’m enjoying reading these accounts of your travels. I’ve traveled with Bob, or maybe his cousin Bert on some wild rides myself. Thanks for sharing them.
Yo, have some sympathy and compassion. You’re opening statements about the island show little to no respect for the indigenous people of the islands who suffered from Japanese occupation and, like my family, continue to suffer from generational trauma. Show some sympathy. Your words are hurtful and play to the same agenda as the colonizers who rape and pillage people and natural resources. Have some respect. Shame on you.
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First of all, apologies for taking so long to click the “approve” link on this comment; I only noticed it in the “pending” section this morning.
Second: guilty as charged. You’re absolutely right – I was flippant about my ignorance of the island’s history. Guam, and most of the island communities of Micronesia have suffered helplessly and horrifically for centuries at the hands of conquerors and colonizers from every corner of the earth, including my own.
Thank you for calling me out on this. I will try to do better to not use my attempts to be entertaining as an excuse to be so casual with the history of others.