Passport, passport, passport, military ID card, passport.
I inch forward in line.
P assport, passport, passport.
Two more people to go.
My turn. I hand the agent my driver’s license.
“Are you only going to Guam?” asks the United employee.
“Yes, only Guam,” I answer, implying that, “No, I am not visiting a foreign country.”
She waves me through, onto the flight from Honolulu to Guam, from U.S. state to U.S. territory.
Nearly 113.5 million Americans hold passports, including the person writing this article, but more than half the country’s population doesn’t possess the all-access pass to the world. In addition, sometimes your passport isn’t available. Perhaps you lost it, or it was stolen or is in the temporary custody of a foreign embassy. In my case, I was awaiting a visa from the Burmese embassy when I was struck by an urgent-care need to go far, far away. My birthday, which falls on New Year’s Eve, was approaching, and the last square on the 2012 calendar was suddenly empty because of a rogue beau. I wanted to treat my splintered heart to an adventure (she deserved it) but was limited by circumstances — until I looked more closely at Uncle Sam’s family tree.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (Sts. Thomas, Croix and John) are the most obvious passport-free destinations, because of their proximity to the mainland and the ease of planning a Caribbean vacation (e.g., frequent flights, package deals). Yet these getaways, so familiar after repeat visits, wouldn’t satisfy my craving for an escape steeped in the unknown and the undiscovered. I wanted to meet the travel analogue of the exotic cousin who enlivens the annual clan reunion. Guam was the long-distance relative who answered my call and invited me over.
The U.S. Postal Service is a surprisingly good source for no-passport-required research.
On the agency’s Web site, click to the page where you ask to have your mail held. Pull down the “State” tab and scan the alphabetical list that follows “Arkansas.” You’ll see “American Samoa,” “Federated States of Micronesia,” “Guam,” “Mariana Islands (Saipan, Rota)” and “Palau” intermingled with our 50 states.
Use this information for inspiration only; don’t book a flight based on USPS mail delivery. The legislative intricacies and arrangements between the U.S. government and these locales are tricky and determine the travel requirements for U.S. citizens. For example, Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia share political ties with our government but are sovereign states. This means that I would need a passport to visit the islands and to re-enter the States, because our government regards the islands as foreign destinations.
American Samoa, an unincorporated U.S. territory, regrettably tripped me up. After the island’s tourism office informed me over the phone that I must have a passport to enter, I crossed it off the list. But it could have stayed on it. I later learned from the Customs and Border Protection Web site that U.S. citizens “who travel directly between parts of the United States, which includes Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), without touching at a foreign port or place, are not required to present a valid U.S. Passport.” If I only I had met this paragraph before the New Year.
I finally settled on Guam, whose requirements were as translucent as its waters. I even learned (secondhand) of people who had successfully traveled to the Pacific island without a passport.
“It’s part of the U.S., not a foreign country,” said Kelly Toves, press secretary for Madeleine Bordallo, who represents Guam in Congress. “Staff from our office have traveled to Guam through Honolulu with just a driver’s license.”
The largest, southernmost island of the Mariana archipelago has been a U.S. territory since 1898, a golden ring grabbed after the Spanish-American War. Like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Pacific isle sends a delegate to Congress, although one with limited voting powers. Other hallmarks of its Americanness: English is one of two official languages (the other is Chamorro); the U.S. dollar is the main currency; and the outlets happily accept your phone charger and hair dryer. Also, the radio stations play classic rock, plus Taylor Swift.
Though Guam is isolated geographically — 1,500 miles east of Manila and 3,700 miles west of Honolulu — it isn’t the lone American cowboy in the North Pacific. The nearby gumdrop islands of Rota, Tinian and Saipan are part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, which is a commonwealth of the United States. In other words, we have so much in common.
For the passport-free plan to work, I had to agree to one condition: I could fly only through domestic airports. No transiting in Tokyo, despite the tasty airport food. United, my hero, flies from Reagan National to Houston to Honolulu to Guam, and also between Guam and Saipan. With this itinerary, I could keep my travels within the extended family.
Despite the advance prep work, I started to miss the warm security blanket of my passport as I neared the 20th hour of travel time. I shivered, but maybe it was just the air-conditioning in the Guam airport.
I was first in line at customs, eager to advance from the idea of Guam to the reality of Guam. I handed the agent my agriculture declaration form, which included a cheery greeting in both the native Chamorro and in English: “Hafa Adai! Welcome to Guam, U.S.A.” The petite woman in the CBP uniform glanced at the form and then filed it, satisfied that I wasn’t carrying any item capable of sprouting or hatching. I was free to go — almost.
“Guam is very small, but it is adventurous,” she said with genuine warmth. “Be safe.”
And that was it. Easier than getting into the U.S. Capitol.
Guam is three times the size of Washington, D.C., but the island shrank significantly after I X’d out certain areas. About a third of land mass consumed by military bases, for example, and the seven McDonald’s restaurants and three malls, including outlets and a Beverly Hills-style duty-free emporium. I kept Kmart in reserve, strictly for its claim to being the world’s largest store of the chain.
The major commercial areas stumble over one another in the northern portion of the island, leaving the south in a state of natural bliss. The Chamorros, who arrived in outrigger sailing canoes 4,000 years ago, constitute nearly 40 percent of the population, and their culture stands proud against the American trappings.
The Japanese, who occupied the island from 1941 to 1944, have also nudged their way into the multiethnic soup. In Tumon, the main hotel and shopping district, stores offering ramen noodles, gimcrack souvenirs and massages display signs written in large Japanese characters — the language of 75 percent of Guam’s tourists. More recently, Russians have started to reappear on the Marianas’ shores, after the United States federated the islands in 2009, granting them permission to travel under a parole provision. I quickly learned that if you are blond and burn easily, locals may mistake you for Slavic.
“Are you Russian?” a store employee in Saipan asked me as I looked at beauty and health products made from a native plant. In crisp American English, I told her that I was from the States. She handed me a brochure written in Cyrillic, adding, “The Russians love the noni lotion.”
Of all three foreign languages, I put the most effort into learning Chamorro, which is still taught in schools. I practiced with a group of loincloth-clothed men.
“Half-a-day,” I said upon entering the Lina’la’ Chamorro Cultural Village in Tumon.
“Hafa adai!” responded Guelu, one of the educators, adding a lilt at the end of the greeting.
“Half-a-day!” I repeated, more upbeat.
“Yes, that’s it,” he said, evidently pleased with my linguistic progress.
The cultural center features a spread of buildings and gardens, including a jungle trail, a small museum with ancient tools, and a model village with bamboo huts topped by sun-crisped palm roofs. The attraction, which opened last year, aims to preserve the Chamorro culture through demonstrations of cooking, dancing, weaving and coconut-hacking.
“This instrument is made of shell and is thousands of years old,” said Guelu as he removed the sweet white coconut meat with a tool resembling an ice scraper. “They found it at this site.”
Guelu, whose name translates to “Spirit of the Past,” wore his ancestors’ legends on his legs, chest, back and arms. Using his body as a PowerPoint presentation, he explained the traditional form of canoe navigation vis-a-vis the tattoo on his right calf. He showed me inked images of a fish, a star, a wave and a bird, but no GPS unit.
A large group of Japanese arrived, signaling the start of the tree-climbing and stomp-dancing show. I took a seat on a back bench beside Guelu. He was preparing a betel nut snack, and I asked for a taste. He guided me through the process: Crack the nut with your teeth, add some limestone paste, roll it in a leaf, chew, spit, chew, spit, chew, spit, swallow if you dare.
“You are the first lady to chew betel nut,” said one of the men after the show.
For this honor, I was enshrined in the pantheon of memorable guests, taking my place beside a 96-year-old Japanese tourist, the oldest man to climb the rickety stairs to the chief’s lair.
Before parting ways, Guelu handed me a gift of a palm-woven frigate bird and left me with these poignant words: “This is about forgiving.”
I heard that refrain repeatedly, often uttered by islanders who suffered significant loss of life, land and liberties during World War II.
In the Pacific War, Guam and Saipan were the prized king and queen in a brutal game of chess between U.S. and Japanese forces. Lose them, lose your advantage.
Remembrances of WWII hover like heavy dark clouds over both islands. In Guam, the National Park Service operates a visitors center plus multiple points of interest where pivotal action occurred, such as Agat Beach, site of the first Marine landing on July 21, 1944. The agency also runs the American Memorial Park on Saipan, which includes exhibits and a cramped room of artifacts (glass bottles, pit helmets, bullets, etc.) that civilians have discovered on beaches and in the jungle. (You know how some beaches warn of jellyfish and rip currents? On Saipan, signs alert visitors of live munitions.)
Even after I performed my patriotic duty, visiting the NPS attractions, I continued to stumble over remnants of the war: a corroded Japanese cannon at Gun Beach in Tumon, tanks and a bunker at Saipan’s Last Command Post, a pillbox at Jeff’s Pirates Cove in southern Guam — and Jeff himself, who had met Shoichi Yokoi, the Japanese army sergeant who hid in the jungle for 28 years, on three occasions.
At the Suicide Cliff in Saipan, I peered through a screen of flowering cactus to see a wide green vista of palm-dotted hills color-blocked with the blue ocean. A scene of beauty today, the cliff was in July 1944 the staging ground of an unimaginable tragedy. After the Americans secured the island, hundreds of Japanese civilians and soldiers chose death over surrendering to the U.S. forces and dishonoring their emperor. (Similar jumps also occurred at nearby Banzai Cliff.)
In the twilight, I was only one of three visitors standing at the precipice of history. While the two Japanese girls took photos, their guide came over to me. He was friendly and chatty, a common trait among locals. When his guests were ready to go, he handed me his card. It advertised a Thai massage parlor near my hotel.
Apparently, you can forgive and have your back muscles kneaded.
She did not just say that to me, did she?
“Passport,” the airline agent repeated.
“I don’t have one,” I explained as I tried to check in for my flight from Guam to Saipan.
“We just want to make sure that you can get back,” she responded.
My fear had come true, but I was prepared: With a flourish, I produced a copy of my birth certificate. The document appeased the employee and every official thereafter who requested proof of citizenship. Because, friends, there is more than one way (the passport way) to prove your citizenship.
For the entire length of my trip, I’d interacted with only two immigration officials, one when I was leaving Saipan for Guam, the other when I was departing Guam for Honolulu. At both outposts, I reversed the roles, peppering the agents with questions.
I wanted to know why the agency requested proof of citizenship when I had never left U.S. soil. The officers explained to me that they’re trying to stop foreigners who don’t have the legal right to enter Guam or the States, such as travelers who might not need a visa for Guam but require one for the United States. Many foreign workers in Saipan also do not have authority to visit Guam, such as the kind man who’d rented me a car. The Filipino native has lived in Saipan for more than 10 years but has never visited the sister island to the south.
In hindsight, the birth certificate was unnecessary as well. I’d fallen under the spell of CBP’s suggestion: “It is recommended that travelers bring a government issued photo ID and copy of birth certificate.” I shouldn’t have doubted the power of my driver’s license to open fairy doors to borders.
“They could look you up,” said an immigration officer at the Guam airport, referring to the driver’s license. “It may take us another five minutes, but you could do it.”
Back in Honolulu, I handed the customs agent my declaration form. In the section that asked for my passport information, I’d scribbled down my driver’s license number. The ID had gotten me into Guam, and it would get me home.