I followed the Micronations book with Micronesia: in late 2005 I travelled around the North Pacific for Lonely Planet. I visited Guam, Saipan, Rota, Tinian, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Yap and Palau and updated and rewrote their respective chapters for the South Pacific and Micronesia guidebook (56,000 words in total). I also wrote a Micronesia blog while I was on the road.
I’m only including excerpts from my introductory and special-subject material, rather than the accommodation and restaurant reviews or transport information I wrote.
Selected material by Simon Sellars from South Pacific and Micronesia , Lonely Planet Publications, September 2006.
As Micronesia’s most populous island, Guam is about as ‘cosmopolitan’ as it gets, so it cops a lot of attitude from Pacific snobs who reckon it lacks ‘real island culture’. Sure, American accents are everywhere (it’s an unincorporated US territory and many Guamanian homes fly the US flag) and the Chamorro language isn’t really spoken anymore. And if you never stray from Tumon Bay – the island’s glitzy duty-free shopping and accommodation hub – then undeniably you’ll be over(or under)whelmed.
But the island is currently in the throes of retooling itself. The tourism authorities talk of how ‘Product Guam’ (there’s that American influence) needs a complete overhaul from its current status as a Pacific theme park for Japanese tourists. There may come a day soon when Chamorro culture (long-subsumed by various invasions and occupations) is promoted above all else, with an increased focus on local food and the fascinating stories underlying many of the villages.
You can do your bit by escaping Tumon, exposing yourself to the best of Guam, and then spreading the word. The island, although Micronesia’s largest, is small enough to explore in a day or two. The south is a must-see, with its rural kaleidoscope of sleepy, historical villages, stunning waterfalls and pristine beaches. The north is mainly taken up by the US military’s Andersen Base, but even so it still contains Ritidian Point, a simply sublime stretch of coast featuring swaying palms, azure water, and golden sands.
Along the way, chat to the proud locals who are working hard to restore their culture and you’ll unearth a genuine community with a warm and welcoming attitude towards outsiders.
Box Text: How Not to Build A Local Film Industry
Guam has had a few brushes with the film world, but for all the wrong reasons.
No Man Is An Island (1962), although filmed in the Philippines, tells the true story of George Tweed, a US Navy radioman who hid in a cave on Guam during the Japanese occupation, assisted by the local Chamorro people. The film plays fast and loose with the facts and is generally considered to be a pretty hackneyed and useless affair.
In the 1980s, sometime actor (and fulltime loudmouth) Courtney Love put Guam in the headlines, making a big noise about having to work on the island as a stripper to support herself after she didn’t get the part of Nancy in Sid and Nancy (1986). ‘Courtney – spare us’, an entire island state cried.
Then in 1998 the island was all set to host its first Hollywood production, Guam on the Moon, a comedy about a wealthy industrialist who planned to put Guam on the map by privately funding trips to the moon. Ominously, the production fell through and the project has been in development hell ever since.
2001 saw the release of Arachnid, a low-budget schlocker about a man who arrives at a clinic on Guam covered in bizarre bite marks. When investigators travel to the island he came from, their plane crashes and they become stranded in a forest festooned with killer spiders from outer space. The film sank without trace.
It gets worse. In 2005, Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon was released, partly funded by a $1 million loan from Guam’s government in the hopes that the film would kick-start a new wave of tourism and possibly a local film industry. Many ‘chocolate-box’ scenes are shot on the island, but the film – about a traumatised, retired martial artist who finds the strength to fight again – is beyond stink and has been panned by anyone unfortunate enough to have seen it. More disturbingly, there are allegations that the entire production was a scam, with latest reports suggesting that the producer has defaulted on the loan.
NORTHERN MARIANAS ISLANDS: Saipan, Rota, Tinian (intro)
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is currently undergoing massive change as its fiscally challenged capital Saipan painfully comes to terms with the loss of its lucrative Japanese tour market. But travel trends come and go; the charm of the islands endures. It’s therefore your mission, should you accept it, to seek out the best of the CNMI.
At first glance, Saipan can seem like a package-tour nightmare, a place where Chamorro culture has devolved, tour buses constantly patrol the sights and solitude seems hard to come by. But catch the island at the right time and at the right angle (in the right place) and you’ll be rewarded with some poignant experiences: flame trees in bloom; melancholy historical sights; turquoise waters and white sands; fine diving and snorkelling.
At some stage, you will need respite, though, and that’s waiting just south of Saipan in the form of Tinian. This is a somniferous island, tiny in size but claiming a mighty chapter in world history: American B-29s flew from here to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Tinian, for the most part, has escaped major development (although it does have an ostentatious casino) and its natural charms remain intact, like lovely beaches and rewarding hikes.
But the real jewel in the CNMI chain is beautiful Rota. Actually, Rota is the Diamond Tiara of the Marianas, the crowning glory, an island punctuated by a hilly interior, small farms, good spring water, enough deer to maintain a hunting season and fiery orange sunsets that light the evening skies. And a more friendly place you’d be hard pressed to find; by the time you’ve finished with Rota, your arm will be sore from waving and your heart will be sore from having to leave.
FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA: Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap (intro)
Often referred to as ‘Micronesia’, people assume that the Federated States of Micronesia (or FSM) is simply another island agglomeration, like the CNMI perhaps, with a shared cultural identity. Yet the ‘FSM’ tag is an arbitrary construct, lumping together the four unique states of Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap; about the only element they share is a history of oppression and occupation under various colonial powers.
In actuality, the four states have distinctive cultures, traditions and identities, as colourful and as diverse as the multitudes of coral formations that live in their fringing reefs. Chuuk is renowned for its wreck diving, an underwater WWII ‘museum’ rightly hailed among the world’s ultimate aquatic experiences; Yap is the most traditional state, proudly resisting the onslaught of Western mores with true island spirit; Kosrae is a Pacific paradise, possibly the FSM’s most beautiful island; while Pohnpei is home to deeply mysterious, ancient ruins and a plethora of lush landforms.
Travellers looking to experience a variety of lifestyles are in luck. Kosrae is home to a race of true believers; it’s a state where everything shuts down on Sunday, with full focus given to vibrant all-singing, all dancing church ceremonies (with a relaxed island twist, naturally). Yap’s people retain their ancient culture, their skills, their architecture, their customs, their religions, their gigantic stone money…it’s an eternally fascinating place. Pohnpei retains its system of chiefs and clan titles, a distant style of governance that still exerts significant social and political influence. Then there’s misunderstood Chuuk; although the island is just starting to come to terms with international tourism, the uncompromising nature of the Chuukese still holds firm.
If you can’t find something to expand your worldview in the FSM, check your pulse.
Box text: Four Cups of Sakau and a Pack of Feral Dogs
As a travel writer, my job is to research local culture. So in Pohnpei I did what Pohnpeians do – I got bent; I drank sakau.
Sakau is made from Piper methysticum, the roots of a pepper shrub; it’s like kava from Fiji or Vanuatu, only much stronger. In ancient times, the drinking of sakau had religious significance and it was usually only consumed when the high chief was present.
At Kolonia’s Jungle Bar, a real mellow, open-air bar I ordered sakau and was given what looked like a mud milkshake.
I took in the scene. By the pool table, old and young men sat quietly, watching a game in progress. There was no real conversation; everyone was calm and still. Every five minutes or so a young guy would appear and offer each man the sakau bowl in turn. I loved the communal aspect of this ritual, but felt wistful that I wouldn’t be able to join in.
After a short while, the young lady who’d served me came over.
‘Your first time with sakau? I’ll show you. It’s simple; just close your eyes when you drink…’
I did and I discovered that sakau has a clammy consistency from the hibiscus, not as gritty as mud, but close. But it wasn’t too unpleasant.
We chatted for a while; I finished my cup and ordered another. Sakau is a real creeper; my tongue and lips went numb and I began to feel benevolence and wellbeing. All the stresses of my trip melted away as I sat there listening to the trippy reggae on the sound system. My new friend told me the band was Black Shadow, from Chuuk. No drums, just loping bass runs and fuzzed-out guitar, with a mournful, high-voiced man singing over the top. We agreed it was perfect for sakau.
On the third cup, just like the guys around the pool table, I fell into silent contemplation. Further conversation seemed unnecessary; I felt like I could read minds.
FW Christian, who researched Nan Madol in the 1890s, wrote that ‘after four cups of sakau, one leg struggles south while the other is marching due north’; I was on my fourth cup when I decided to leave. Like Christian, I was soon to test the duality of man: my body went one way, my mind another.
I got completely lost trying to find my way back to the hotel, following what was supposed to be a simple, 20-minute route. It took me an hour to get home; I ended up in Porakiet Village at 1am, with puzzled locals wondering what the hell I was doing out so late.
I couldn’t explain; I didn’t ask directions because I had this powerful determination to get myself home, to try and solve the dilemma of why I was lost. That single-minded focus was from the sakau, I think, which was great, but the fuzzy logic was also from the sakau, so there was a trade-off.
Then the inevitable pack of feral dogs chased me, before a flash storm almost flattened me to the ground and washed me away. I gave up and asked a kind lady the way home.
Back at the hotel, I looked at a map and saw that I’d walked past the turnoff to my place at least four times, going around in circles. Sakau, it would seem, fries the most basic neurological functions.
When I woke the next morning, it was from the deepest sleep – like I’d been buried alive.
And that’s sakau. Nothing more to say, really.
The Republic of Palau is inimitable. Most tourists who come here like to spend their time underwater, for Palau is among the world’s most spectacular diving and snorkelling destinations. It features coral reefs, blue holes, WWII wrecks, hidden caves and tunnels, and more than 60 vertical drop-offs to play with, plus an astonishing spectrum of coral, fish, rare sea creatures, and some outright miracles of evolution: giant clams that weigh a quarter of a ton, for example; a lake teeming with 21 million softly pulsating, stingless jellyfish.
But you don’t have to get wet to enjoy Palau. On land the republic embraces Micronesia’s richest flora and fauna: exotic birds fly around the islands, crocodiles slip through the mangrove swamps, and orchids sprout profusely in backyards.
The Palauan archipelago is incredibly diverse, encompassing the polyglot state of Koror; the marvellous Rock Islands; Micronesia’s second largest island, Babeldaob (the land that Pacific Standard time forgot); Peleliu, once war ravaged, now just ravishing; tranquil, tiny Angaur; the coral atolls of Kayangel and Ngeruangel; and the remote South-West Islands.
Toss into the mix some of Micronesia’s most sociable (and responsible) people, and it’s no surprise that parts of Palau are known as the ‘beginning of everything’, a template the rest of the world would do well to follow.
About that responsibility: Palauans love a good, socially aware acronym, and you can see them everywhere on signs and billboards, like ‘W.A.V.E. – Welcome All Visitors Enthusiastically’ or ‘S.T.A.R.S. – Start Treating Alcohol Related Symptoms’.
You might find yourself playing this game, too. And perhaps you’ll come to the same conclusion we did, that the name of this country is itself an acronym; namely, ‘Palau’s Archipelago: Lovely And Unique’.