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.