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Over thirty years ago, a woman I loved informed me I was crazy, because while I was sitting on one of the best beaches in the world, all I could think of was traveling as far away as possible, and trying to send myself to North Guam (it sounded far away, she said, and she loved the sound of the word). Needless to say, when I stepped off the airplane at Hagatna Airport on that far-flung island, my thoughts turned just momentarily back to her as I beamed proudly.

But Guam was a mystery to me then, and it remains a mystery to me today. I don't think I've ever been to a place I struggled as much to get a feel for. To wit:

It's Micronesia, but it's the largest and most developed of the islands, more of a commercial and industrial center than a remote atoll.

It's technically a Pacific culture, but the Spanish ships that colonized it in the 1500s nearly totally obliterated its native culture. It's full of Spanish surnames now, though I found traces of other cultures too (including, to my astonishment, Indonesian). These are the Chamorro people.

The Americans turned it into an important military outpost afterward, and American culture sits shakily on top of Chamorro culture. Guam is teeming with young, active duty American military and their spouses. Breakfast at the hotel cafeteria looked like the mess hall of a boot camp, with uniforms and jargon, and a hush-hush around plans and orders and activity. It's all on a need-to-know basis of course, as it should be, which means I never really knew much at all, and never will.

Like all islands, it's expensive as hell: everything comes in on ships from other places. But the shops cater to young military personnel, all in all a very American mall-like experience.

Guam was overrun cruelly by the Japanese during World War II, who immediately enslaved the Guamanians, basically. Many died, were tortured, starved, and were killed in combat. Warfare on, around, and over Guam led to tens of thousands of bombs dropped, many of which remain in place, unexploded. Off the roadsides are section of forest that very clearly receive no foot traffic. There's a good reason why: unexploded bombs.

These days though, Guam is very much Hawaii to East Asia, and the hotels are full of Japanese and Chinese package tourists, wedding parties, and wealthy vacationers wearing fancy dresses and expensive watches.

I have no conclusion to neatly summarize the contradictions, not even one for myself. It's a strange, interesting, perplexing place. But it serves as one of those cultural entrepots that brings together people of many different backgrounds, languages, ideologies, and world-views. And out of that mix, good things usually emerge. For that reason alone, I'll be happy to go back.

Oh, as well: the beaches were gorgeous. Almost as good as that one I sat on, the summer of 1989.


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