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Guam is an island in the North Pacific, about one quarter of the way between the Philippines and Hawaii. Not known to many, it is a destination I very much enjoyed and a place with lots to see and do. Because it is such a remote place, it is unlikely that you have ever heard about it. Even if you have, there are probably lots of things you didn’t know about Guam.
1. American but without a vote
Since the end of WWII, Guam is an unincorporated United States territory. That means that its people have U.S. citizenship and a non-voting delegate in congress. The Chamorro cannot vote for the President and their delegate has no say in policy making or political decisions. In turn, the central government also has limited influence in local Chamorro policy. This is a similar situation to American Samoans, only that they are not US citizens, only US Nationals (and they are the only ones) so they cannot vote even if they move to the US, where they would have to apply for citizenship just like any other “alien”.
2. “Where the American Day begins”
Long time a slogan of this US territory, Guam is the first place where the sun rises on US soil. Located right by the International Dateline, Guam is one of the first places to welcome every new day and American Samoa, who changed their clocks in 2009 from the East of the Date Line to the West, is the last one. This means that Guam is about 14h ahead of the US East Coast, so when the sun sets on Guam it has yet to raise in most of mainland US.
3. Closest to Spain, furthest away
Guam was a Spanish colony for over 300 years, and it shows. At times I was so confused about the language and traditions that I felt as if Guam was a province in Spain. Chamorro language is so close to Spain it often looks and sounds like an archaic version of Spanish. So much so that I even asked my guide from Discover Guam if some of the signs were actually written in Spanish. This is quite surprising considering how far away Guam is from mainland Spain, and how long ago Guam was a Spanish territory. Spain lost Guam, the Philippines and Cuba in 1898, so that is over 100 yeas ago and yet the culture is still so strongly related that it is a constant amazement for a Spaniard like me.
4. Closest US Soil to Asia
Guam is about 3,5h from Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea and, as such, it is the closest US soil Asian travelers can find. The Tourism Board told me that this is a sort of attraction for Japanese and South Koreans who may never make it to far away mainland America and who are proud to have stepped on Guam instead. Who knew people would have that on their bucket list!
5. The biggest consumer of SPAM
When this canned meat turned 75, TIME magazine wrote an article about a few unknown facts, including that Guam had the highest per capita consumption of SPAM. Fret not, most of the food you will find and eat will actually be much healthier (hopefully) and fresher with BBQ meats, coconut, ceviche style recipes and fruits high on the menu.
6. Chamorro, not Guamese
Although you would be forgiven for thinking that the locals are called Guamese, they are actually called Chamorro. The Chamorro are the oldest civilisation in the North Pacific and inhabit the islands of Micronesia including Guam and Saipan. Local Chamorro culture and traditions are alive and well in Guam and are proudly preserved. Chamorro customs today are a mixture of the many countries that were invaded or colonised, especially Spain under whose control Guam was for over 300 years.
7. Very Catholic
Linked to the previous point and Spain’s dominance over the island for such a long time, Chamorro people are very religious and 85% are Catholic. This is something that the Spanish missionaries brought with them and has stayed strong, much stronger than in today’s Spain. The Philippines is another country where Spanish Catholicism traditions caught us hard but I found Guam’s Catholic Spanish influence to be even stronger than those of the Philippines. For example, Easter is celebrated in a big way and is when kids are off for Spring Break and there are a couple of holidays in Guam that we celebrate in Spain like All Saints Day on the 1st November or Immaculate Conception, on the 8th December.
8. Duty Free Haven
To date, Guam has been known to the Far Eastern countries of Taiwan, Korea and Japan as a great sun & sea destination and a Duty Free Shopping Haven. This is in fact one of the two things I was most sure of when I decided to visit: The Duty Free and the Naval base presence. All the major shopping malls and luxury brands are available on Guam and some of the malls are even open 24/7.
9. Massive Army Base
And this was the second thing I knew about Guam before visiting: a quarter of the island’s land is owned by the Military for the Naval and Air Force Base, the largest US base in the Pacific. It is estimated that about 10-15% of the population of Guam belong to the army. Truth be told, you wouldn’t know if it wasn’t for the occasional fences you find that close off large part of land. You do not see army personnel walking around unless a large ship docks on the island, and the areas closed off are properly hidden. From the sky, the bases are visible so look out the window when you land or take off.
10. One of the farthest places Americans can visit without leaving US soil
As an an unincorporated United States territory, all American citizens can travel to Guam without a passport. Although Guam is not the farthest place Americans can go without leaving the country’s borders, it is the second one. You guessed it, American Samoa is the farthest and, arguably, the hardest to get to as Guam is a major connecting hub in the North Pacific and served by United and other airlines whereas American Samoa receives less than 5,000 visitors a year.
11. Not a “Banana Republic”
I am even ashamed to write this, but I have heard it from a few people when I mentioned I was going to Guam so I will leave it here. Contrary to the perception of some, Guam is a pretty developed place much resembling mainland America. No, people do not live in huts like they do in Yap and they do not walk around wearing loin cloths. The roads aren’t completely potholed like in Chuuk either. The island is a major tourism center and has tall skyscrapers, great infrastructure, roads, shopping malls and high-end hotels. As it is prone to typhoons, people’s houses and buildings are made of concrete. Expect Hawaii not Solomon Islands.
12. No tipping
To my incredible happiness, despite being part of the US, tipping on Guam is not expected nor encouraged. Tips are usually included in the bills and you don’t have to carry around small notes for pretty much anybody you cross paths with that does something for you, anything. I hate the US tipping culture with a passion, as you can probably tell. To a European living in Asia, this constant nagging and worry about who you should tip and how much is really disturbing and taxing, it makes me not want to interact with anyone or go to the US altogether. Not because I don’t want to tip people but because I would rather the stress was taken out and the service included in the bill, for everyone’s peace of mind. I don’t want to upset anyone or take away anyone’s salary, but this extra unnecessary stress on those of us who are not used to it is really selfish. I totally welcomed and applauded Guam’s approach.
13. The only double wreck in the world
Guam is good for diving although it is not at the same level as neighboring Palau, Yap or Chuuk. It does however have something pretty unique that cannot be found anywhere else: Two ship wrecks stacked on top of each other sunken during two different wars, WWI and WWII. The German SMS Cormoran sank during WWI when the captain of the ship, which had been living on Guam for two years prior to the American declaration of war on Germany, decide to send it to the bottom of the ocean. This is the only hostile encounter between the US and German forces during the Pacific campaign of the war. The Tokai Maru was sunken by a US Submarine in August 1943 after another one failed to sink the ship 7 months before. The wrecks are easy to dive as they are only 10min from the port and are in relatively shallow waters.
14. Happy potpourri of cuisines
Chamorro food is delicious if often coming in very large quantities. Food is a key element of Chamorro culture and you are likely going to be invited to a Fiesta of sorts or to people’s houses if you happen to walk past any celebrations. I found the food to be very interesting in flavour and influence. There are tortillas and an interpretation of ceviche from Mexico, probably as a result of the Spanish trading links between Mexico and Asia which used to stop on Guam. Spanish food is present with red rice coloured with a seed brought by the Spanish missionaries and pork as main staples. Asian, and in particular Japanese food, make an appearance. How else would SPAM be so famous? Soy sauce is the main ingredient in the local dipping sauce, finadene, eaten with pretty much anything and the marinade for the BBQ meats. Filipino food is widely available across the island, not least because 20% of the population are from Filipino origin.
15. Lots of good but only one great
Until recently, there were no 5* resorts on Guam. There are a lot of great 4* hotels and resorts, most of which are in Tumon’s main beach and have direct access to the beautiful turquoise calm waters of Guam’s protected beaches, but until the Dusit Thani Resort opened, there were no true luxury options.
16. An unknown paradise
As I was saying, Guam is only known and visited by Korean, Japanese and, recently, Russian and Chinese tourists. However, despite the few nationalities, this island of around 160,000 people receives about ten times that amount in visitors every year. To the rest of the world, you don’t know what you are missing! Guam has so much to do and see, it is well worth a trip. Despite its small size, you could still occupy a whole week and never get bored. There are countless water sports to try, diving and snorkeling, dolphin watching tours, waterfalls and treks, WWII relics and museums, cultural sites and activities to partake in, foods to try, beaches to explore, shopping opportunities and ways to pamper yourself. I was surprised to see and do so much in just the few days I was there with Marte from Discover Guam and wished I had more time to explore the rest.
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