Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Island Hopping [Part I]: Guam

This month I (Mike) was invited to join the Yap State delegation to the National Economic Symposium held in Weno, Chuuk from Feb 7th through 11th. I’ll write in more detail about this conference in a subsequent post.

Chuuk Island is directly east from Yap, and getting there by airplane required a stop in Guam where the regional hub for Continental Micronesia is located. As it turned out, the flight schedule allowed for a 12+ hour layover there. Since we left Yap at 3:00am, some of our group got a hotel room and rested up. Even though I was pretty tired, the lure of all the amenities in fully-westernized Guam was too strong to resist.   

So, after our plane touched down, I raced through the terminal, immigration checkpoint, and baggage claim in record time. Not wanting to waste a precious second of sightseeing, I rented a car, and zoomed out of the parking lot with a squeal of tires and the faint smell of burning rubber. Well, not really, but I was anxious and impatient to start exploring this new place.

It did take me a while to get re-adjusted to driving again. On Yap I usually ride my scooter to and from work, and on occasion our little imported Japanese automobile (which I semi-jokingly refer to as “Miranda’s car”). But driving in Guam is a different animal entirely. First off, the steering wheel and all the controls are on the wrong side (the left hand side). More than a few a times I flipped on the turn signal only to accidentally activate the windshield wipers!

Also, driving in Yap is much, much simpler. There are no multi-lane roads, carpool lanes, bus lanes, circular roundabouts, one-way streets, or yield signs. Just look at the size of that street!

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In Yap, there is a road. Sometimes it is paved, sometimes it is not. The most complex traffic rule to obey is the self-explanatory “Stop” signs, of which there are a total of two in town.

Unlike in Yap, people in Guam tend to drive faster than 25 mph. In most cases, much, much faster. As I puttered along in the right-hand lane at my ‘normal’ rate, I received many dirty looks from other motorists who sped by me unthinkably fast. Some must have been going at least 50 mph, which just seemed crazy to me. Other aspects of driving I had simply forgotten about through disuse, like using a turn signal (preceded by turning the windshield wipers on) to change lanes.  Additionally, at every intersection in Guam, there are these boxes strung above the road with little green, red, and yellow lights on them. When I first saw one, I laughed aloud and said, “Oh yeah! I remember those!” Thankfully, I also remembered what those colors represented, and avoided any accidents.

My first stop in the early morning hours was the Worlds’ Largest       K-Mart, open 24-hours a day.

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Since I hadn’t slept all night, I wandered around the store in a daze. The brightly lit, clearly labeled and well organized aisles and aisles of goods was more than a bit overwhelming. Everything felt so familiar, yet also so alien. It was an extremely weird feeling for me, part nostalgia and part disappointment. I found myself wondering why anyone would need 15 different kinds of peanut butter, or soap powder, or non-stick aerosol cooking spray. While there were so many choices of things I wanted to buy, there wasn’t anything I actually needed (or would fit in my luggage, like a giant television, or stay fresh for a week, like their entire produce section), I wound up not getting anything!

With my stomach grumbling, I left the megastore and headed out in search of food. Soon enough I saw the telltale golden arches gleaming like a beacon in the distance.

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I ordered a huge breakfast of a 2 Breakfast Burrito combo, and 2 Sausage McMuffins. While most Americans would hardly classify McDonald’s as ‘food’, for me, that first bite was heavenly. Embarrassingly, I let out an involuntary “mmm!” so loud I received some strange looks from the other patrons. They must have thought I was crazy. As a side note, the menu was slightly different than in the US. Instead of hash browns, most people ordered rice on the side, and there were little bottles of soy sauce on all the tables.

After stuffing myself to the point of being unpleasantly full, I drove around some more, just taking everything in. I can best describe Guam as a sort of oceanic Las Vegas, minus the casinos. There are all sorts of luxury hotels, restaurants, and retail outlets along a main strip in the downtown area.

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For the wealthy tourist, there were ample opportunities to part with their sackloads of cash. The sidewalks were crowded with people, mostly Asian tourists, all milling around and buying things. I looked in some windows, which was about all I could afford! Of these places, I understand the establishment seen below is quite popular with the ladies.

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Spreading out from the downtown area are a variety of shops all crammed together in multi-story buildings alongside the roads everywhere. It reminded me a little bit of my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with its numerous parking lots and strip malls. At one point, I talked to a Guam resident, who said that there has been an recent explosion of development in the area due to the massive US military buildup as personnel from Army and Navy bases in Japan and elsewhere are being relocated to Guam. It has been a real boon to the local economy, and has brought an influx of new jobs in the construction and retail sectors. 

Later in the day, I stopped at a little public park along the waterfront. There were some people swimming in the ocean, and I was tempted to jump in. The beaches were clean, and unlike Yap, were all open to the public (without a fee) and covered in actual sand instead of crushed coral.

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It was turning out to be a beautiful sunny day. I lounged on the beach a while looking out at the ocean, but tried not to get too comfortable. I was so tired, I was terrified that I would close my eyes for just a second, and wake up in the dark possibly several days later!

I roamed around a little more, but was really just killing time. For lunch, I stopped at Chili’s. I wasn’t hungry, but I felt like there would be too many times back on Yap where I would have kicked myself for not eating there when I had the chance. Their famous baby-back ribs were excellent, but try as I might, I still couldn’t finish them.

Afterwards, I headed back to the airport, and wound up waiting around for several hours until the flight. All in all, it was really good day. I felt refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle whatever Chuuk was ready to throw at me. Or so I thought at the time…  

Guam Panorama

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