Many a young man has had a yearning for adventure, and I was no different. Eager for travel and new experiences I jumped at the chance to be stationed overseas after joining the US Navy. That wish was granted when after boot camp when I was assigned to a helicopter squadron on the south pacific island of Guam. At 30 miles long and only 10 miles at her widest point, Guam was to become my home between deployments for the first 4 years of my naval career.
Guam has been continuously inhabited for over 4000 years starting with the migration of Austronesian people, known today as Chamorro Peoples. With the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, this began a 300-year period of heavy Spanish influence which can still be seen on the island through the remains of forts, missions, and architecture. Language, food, and religion of local island culture still reflect the Spaniards traditions that were imprinted. After the Spanish-American war of 1898, Guam became a territory of the US, a status that remains to this day.
At the outbreak of WWII the Japanese occupied the island until being defeated by American forces in the Battle for Guam campaign of 1944. The war had lasting effects on the island, with many relicts still visible such as sunken ships, tanks, and airplane wrecks. One Japanese soldier, Shoichi Yokoi, fled to the jungle in 1944 during the battle for control of the island. He survived undetected for nearly 30 years until being found in 1972, still believing that the war was not over.
(This is only a quick overview for the fascinating history of Guam. I highly recommend furthering one’s knowledge through the links provided.)
How do I describe the feeling of arriving to a new country? It may as well have been a new planet. To go from the pine forests of East Texas-to a tropical island with endless blue stretching out to the horizon was almost visually unreal. I recall that the airline arrived late at night so the trip to the base did not give me much clue as to what the surroundings were like. Waking up and stepping outside of the barracks to the sight of palm trees and blue crystal water was a shock. The ocean depths surrounding Guam are some of the clearest in the world, attracting many divers to explore the pristine coral reef.
With over a century of American influence, many things on the island were similar to what one would find on the mainland, but with a twist. There are plenty of US restaurants as dining choices; from Outback Steakhouse, to McDonald’s. Major hotels line the shores of Tumon Bay, and tourism makes up a significant part of the economy. Yet it is the little differences that are interesting. One example is that you can order local dishes at major franchises like Spam & Eggs at McDonald’s. A popular local ice cream is literally packed with a vegetable medley including carrots, potato, and beans. Yes, beans. The story goes that this was invented to encourage island children to eat more veggies. The blend of culinary diversity gave one ample choices.
Not long after arriving I was able to purchase a ‘Boonie’ car. This description is for an old vehicle that has seen numerous owners, mostly due to military personnel transferring off-island. So, essentially a beater car. Mine was a well-loved 1980s something black Camaro that set its own schedule as to if and when the A/C would work, which was seldom. She also had semi-electronic windows that refused to roll up when it rained…which was every day. Great combo for an island that gets an average of 95 inches of rain a year. At one point I kept more towels in the car than in my bathroom for these occasions. Did I mention the roads? Can’t forget that. Having limited building materials, Guam incorporated ground-up coral reef into the asphalt road construction. Not too big of a deal…unless it rains. This forces the oils up to the surface of the roads making them slicker than an ice rink. Even with most posted speed limits at 35 MPH this doesn’t help when everyone ignores that speed limit. The major road, Guam Highway 1 ran north to south of the island and was menacingly nicknamed ‘Guam Autobahn.’
Even with these transportation challenges I enjoyed exploring different parts of the island. Most weekends were spent checking out the latest place of interest I had read about or heard from someone who had visited. Swimming in underground cave pools and visiting 17th century Spanish Forts were a highlight of my time spent in Guam.
The villages held festivals for saints and holidays throughout the year. It seemed that every weekend a different village held a fiesta so myself and a few guys from the base decided to check one out. The best comparison would be to a small town county fair atmosphere, with carnival games and attractions. The friendliness of the Chamorro people cannot be overstated and we soon found ourselves invited to get something to eat from one of the local villagers. He had an elaborate setup in his front yard with a large canopy that shaded a set of folding tables and chairs. The food was arranged on a couple of tables to one side that reminded me of Sunday dinners after church back in Texas. After getting a plate of ribs and vegetables, we found our seats and dug in. After a while, our host came over and inquired if we were enjoying the food. He was especially interested in what we thought of his ribs. When I told him they were good he asked, “Would you like to see my stock?” I replied sure and he motioned for us to follow him around to the back of the house. Now, being from Texas, I was expecting to see a pig pen, or possibly an enclosure with goats. Instead, we were greeted with a large kennel…of dogs. The realization of where the ribs had come from was interrupted by one of my companions saying, “So that’s why they were so tender?” Always check the menu became my new motto that day.
Guam is a special place to me, even after traveling to 20+ countries during my naval career. It was the start of my world travels and was the first experience of how vast this world truly is. But remember: Always check the menu.