Published: October 15th 2008September 27th 2008
My stopovers in Brisbane and Cairns, Australia, brought me back to a world that, over the past two months, I had almost forgotten existed: vast sprawling cities, flashing lights, people who do not say hello to each other when they pass in the street because there are simply too many of them, tour agencies advertising expensive “half and full-day rainforest treks”, the sort of meaningless experiences bought up by gap year students feeling the need to take a break from their year-long booze cruise around the world.
Guam, an overseas territory of the USA, is also highly developed, although it has retained much of the laid-back atmosphere and physical beauty that is inevitable on a small, jungle-covered Pacific island with beautiful white sand beaches, transparent blue waters and a mountainous interior. My host in Guam was Charles Wei, a Taiwanese immigrant to the USA who now served in the military. I had contacted him through www.couchsurfing.com, a website where people from all over the world volunteer to let complete strangers sleep in their house or apartment. As we sat in a beach grill restaurant, surrounded by fifty heavily tattooed bikers eating pizza and raucously drinking beer, he described society on
"We have the highly developed towns in the centre and north, full of expensive hotels, shopping mals, bars, restaurants - this is where most of the Americans live. In the south it's so different though - I almost feel like I'm in a third world country. Everyone there is Chamorro [the indigenous people of Guam] and they live in these poor little shanty towns. People from the south don't come to the north and vice versa. Even if they have relatives there, they simply don't see each other."
His apartment was was neat and tidy and furnished with every convenience and modern appliance you could wish for. The bookshelves were lined with self-improvement books and recipes for success. He was highly critical of Americans and their lack of interest in the outside world, having himself traveled to several destinations already. What struck me about him, however, was his sheer normalness and stability but then again that is hardly surprising after the places I had been in over the previous few months. Perhaps anyone remotely ordinary would have had the same effect on me.
He took me for a drive around the south of Guam to see
these Chamorro settlements. What I saw reminded me of how relative everything is and the vast differences that exist between societies. What he had described as third-world shanty towns were made up of concrete houses that would have been used only to house the Highest of High Chiefs in Vanuatu. Each settlement was connected to the next by the most perfectly smooth tarmac road. Small shops, restaurants and hotels were everywhere. The sun was beating down and everywhere families lolled on the grass, picnicing or having barbecues, some relaxing in the clear blue sea or the occasional enormous rock pool on the outskirts of a village.
My stay in Guam was a pleasant one, and reminded me that civilisation can also be beautiful and that hospitality and kindness towards strangers, although rare, can also be found in a Western culture.
I spent all of my three nights in Palau in an Indian restaurant called Taj on the main street. The bar was always being propped out by a crowd of ex-pats and the owner, a thirty-something man called Robert from Delhi, loved to party and always had small parties after the restaurant had officially closed.
having spent all day touring Babeldaob, visiting vast mysterious standing stones and a quarry where for hundreds of years stone was extracted and taken east to Yap by canoe to produce their vast circular wheels of money, I asked an American political consultant about something I had seen that day.
"What do the people think of the new White House at Melekeok?" This recent construction just outside a nondescript fishing village was the creation of a powerful chief who by all acounts must be slightly loopy. Not much smaller than it's American counterpart, it stands atop a small hill just outside the village of Melekeok which the chief has decided is to become the new capital.
"Well, most people aren't too happy," Dustin, the political consultant, drawled in his southern accent. "This guy spent tens of millions of U.S. aid money building the place and now only a hundred people work there. It's crazy, you've seen it - the place is like a palace. What's more, when this Melekeok as capital thing kicks off a hell of a lot of people are going to have to commute there, which they don't want to, or in some cases can't, do. Then there's going to need to be a whole lot of money poured in to the place for facilities for these workers, it's all just a giant waste of money."
Besides U.S. aid money, another major source of income is the tourist industry. Many people from elsewhere in Micronesia and South East Asia come as temporary workers to attempt to save up some money to take back home. The waitresses at the restaurant, although all dressed in traditional Indian costumes, were, in fact, from the Philippines, as were a quarter of Palau's population. They had come over to be bound to three or four-year contracts in the restaurants. They were the lucky ones; many others had been bound into working as prostitutes.
I asked Evelyn, one of the waitresses, why she had come.
"To save money for my future," she replied. "Back in the Philippines you work and you only make enough to feed yourself. Here I can save."
"Do you like it here?"
"No, I miss my family very much. But it's OK!" she said, forcing an almost convincing smile onto her face and heading off to take another order.
Others seem to have it better, such as Irena, a Filipina who owns the dive shop that took me out on a boat tour of the Rock Islands to the west of Palau. Nevertheless, I had the impression that Palau's booming tourist industry is supported by an equally booming quantity of silent suffering that lies almost unnoticeable beneath the surface.
Click here for advice on independent travel in Vanuatu
including Malekula, Espiritu Santo, Pentecost and Ambrym