I Lived on Guam for Six Months and Lived to Tell About It....Barely

Monday, September 3, 2012

"Hafa Adai, Guam!" 

That was how I started my sportscasts at 6pm and 10pm at KUAM Island News for six months in 1996 as the Sports Director of the tiny NBC affiliate.  It's the typical greeting for Guam residents and natives, called Chamorros.

When I tell people that my first, full-time on-air job right out of college was on the U.S. territory located below Asia and above Australia there is always an immediate double take followed by questions.

Damn far away

"Were you in the military?" many wonder referring to the Air Force and Navy bases that populated the island with U.S. military families. 

"No," I say.  "I answered an ad from the classifieds in Electronic Media magazine seeking enthusiastic media professionals looking to 'Work in a tropical paradise!' I submitted a tape and got the job."

"You weren't chasing a boy?"  That is typically the next question from those skeptical about a 22-year from Texas traveling across the International Date Line for work.  In fact the island's slogan is "Where America's Day Begins."

"No boy," I'd lament.  I've read novel after novel written by fresh-faced, harried young women living in Europe, typically Paris, who find the loves of their lives along with great recipes for cassoulet.  Not yours truly.  I flew about 20 hours to a remote island where I found a 25-pound weight gain along with a few margarita-fueled island flings.  Thank goodness those island guys like "healthy" women.

I walked here every day!
"So what was it like?"

That's usually the final question which leads to a conversation about professional growth, personal maturity and the birth of a wanderlust for travel that constantly needs to be nurtured.

CBS Sunday Morning's Barry Peterson did an excellent job profiling the island, its issues and its beauty this past Sunday.


 
Some of the highlights that I experienced personally:
The Guam K-Mart is the world's largest.  Really.  Buses from hotels take Japanese tourists to the superstore. I once saw two female tourists from Japan videotaping themselves buying Cool Whip.
The brown tree snakes.  These little suckers are deadly, literally.  They are 2 million strong and have decimated almost all of Guam's native bird species. They hung out on the patio of our tiny station in Dededo.  A stray snake snuck into the studio one evening while we were doing the news.  No worries.  The technical director, a Chamorro, simply wrangled it during a commercial break.
The concept of "island time".  This was a big adjustment for me: the lazy pace at which things get done.  They might get done by the time you make a request.  They might not.  It doesn't really matter.  It will get done when it gets done, regardless what your schedule is.
The language.  It's sort of Polynesian influenced by Spanish settlers.  I spent days trying to pronounce names and cities like Inarajan, Agatna and Reyes.  (It's pronounced "RAY-jes").

Some things the story failed to mention:
Spam. The rumor was that Guam had the highest consumption of the processed meat product per capita than any other place in the world.  Not sure about the accuracy of that but I can tell you it's everywhere: Spam and eggs, Spam served rice with finadene (pronounced FIN-a-den-ee) sauce and the ubiquitous Spam fried rice.  I once sat next to a photographer at my station telling his wife he didn't feel well because he had some "bad Spam".  I wondered if there was really such a thing as "good Spam".  Still wondering....

Spam with finadene. Sauce good. Spam bad.
 

The Japanese influence.  Guam is to Japan what Mexico is to the U.S: a tourist destination.  In the heart of the tourist district, Tumon Bay, marketing material and store signs were in both English and Japanese.  Luxury goods dealers like Prada, Dior, Louis Vuitton all had outposts on the tiny island hoping to appeal to wealthy visitors.  Pachinko could be played everywhere with karaoke bars dominating the area.
Power outages.  We experienced random power outages at least once a week.  This would mean coming home to a house that was thick and muggy with food spoiled from a day of sitting in a hot refrigerator.  Nothing beats cleaning up melted popsicle juice all over the floor at 2am.

At work I covered everything from middle school girls volleyball to the semi-professional baseball and football leagues the island boasted.  There were also outrigger gallade paddling tournaments and pro beach volleyball events that made our airways as well.  My name was Gina Miller.  I hosted the "Miller Lite Sports Page".  I never paid for a beer when I went out at night.  Most people thought I was part of the "Miller" family. 

Interestingly, it was one family that seemed to control the island, the Calvos.  They owned my television station, as well as the affiliated radio stations.  They owned the Miller and Pepsi distributorships, an insurance company, super markets and pharmacies as well as a number of residential and commercial real estate holdings.  The family is still heavily involved in local politics with Eddie Calvo the current governor and former governor Paul Calvo back to running the company.

While I was sent to the island to work, my primary responsibility, at least in my mind was to enjoy the experience and fun.  I was 22, fresh out of college and living a major thoroughfare across from the Philippine Sea, in that tourist district in Tumon Bay.   I shared what was considered a pretty luxurious condo with two other people, that had a view of the island's Two Lovers Point.  Ancient legend has it that two young Chamorros had a forbidden love and leaped to their deaths so they could be together in eternity.  It is still a big tourist draw.

Two Lover's Point
The money was okay. $36,000 a year, about $21,000 in "Dallas" terms.  Better than many first jobs in television today.  The cost of living on Guam was extremely high, similar to Honolulu.  Most groceries and other goods must be imported to the small island that is 12 miles at its widest point, about 30 miles end to end.

I lived through Typhoon Dale in November 1996 and was live on the air during an earthquake in September of that year reporting about Rangers pitcher John Burkett.  Perhaps even more impressive was that I lived through the late nights at local establishments and early mornings on the beach.  My co-anchors and I would hit the local 7-11 following a long night out, pick up some fresh sashimi and watch the sunrise.  The sushi and sashimi are still the best and freshest I've ever eaten.  Yes, even the one from the Guam 7-11.

The people of Guam love to celebrate.  Whether it was the end of a work week on a Friday night or a village Fiesta, the latter being an experience like no other, enjoying the island was on of their basic tenets as well.  Each village like Talofofo, Chalan Pago, Mangilao has a Fiesta to celebrate that particular village's patron saint.  The parties are open to the entire island.  It's a celebration of local food, traditions and the people.  As is the case with many remote locales, the people are what make it so special.



Needless to say, the nightlife was pretty decadent, as well.  I'll save that for the book. 

I didn't flourish professionally because I wasn't ready.  I wasn't mature enough to handle the responsibility of being a young department head in a tropical paradise.  It was a short six-month stint that taught me many lessons.  Primarily the one of consequence. 

Perhaps my biggest regret: not taking more photos.  Alas, this was not the era of cheap digital cameras.  I have only two pictures which are packed away somewhere in my house.  One showcases Two Lover's Point from our condo.  Another reveals the dry cleaner down the driveway from our condo complex.  It was a true sweatshop. 

Latte Stones, thought to be pillars of ancient Chamorro homes

The most important thing I learned?  Embrace the unknown.  I jumped off a bridge and left the comforts of home to live half a world and an entire culture away to do my dream job.  I didn't make that long term professional impact I had hoped but I fell in love with the idea of taking risks and exploring.  The risk taking served me later in my career.  The passion for travel and adventure is something many of us share.  For me, though, it's the fuel that gets me through the roughest days.  Even the days on Guam when there was no power, Typhoon Dale bearing down on us and only one sad can of Spam to feed the masses.

4 comments :

  1. I would have liked to been an "Island guy" at that partIcular time in your life.

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  2. I loved reading your story. I was born and raised on Guam. Its refreshing to read an outsider's perspective about my home. You truly nailed it! Thank you for a wonderful depiction of home....Giovanna Peredo

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  3. very nice article Gina! Come back an visit!

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  4. I'm considering a move to Guam. I need tons of sunshine, little rain and humidity. Love birds so concerned about this person's comments about snakes eating birds. Would like quiet part of island and learn and respect local culture and history. Don't need big place. Does Quam have terrible island storms? Would like temps between 60 to 90 F most of time, ideal. Expensive place to live? Would appreciate ANY insights.

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