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“Hafa Adai!” When arriving in the northern Pacific island of Guam, visitors are greeted with this traditional Chamorro welcome as they step off the plane and begin their journey into the island’s ancient culture.
Located in the Western Pacific Ocean between Japan and Australia, Guam is one of the U.S.’s five inhabited island territories. It sits on the edge of the Marianas trench, the deepest surveyed point in the world, and is only 900 miles north of the equator in the region known as Micronesia.
First settled more than 4,000 years ago by people arriving from the Philippine Islands to the west and subsequently from the Caroline Islands and Southeast Asian islands including Indonesia, the ancient Chamorro culture that evolved from those early settlers is still much in evidence today with 37% of the population identifying as Chamorro.
Chamorro Culture of Guam
There’s no better place to experience the food, music, arts and crafts of the Chamorros than at Guam’s night markets and village festivals that bring together residents and visitors alike to celebrate the culture of this far-away but accessible tropical island.
One of the most popular night markets is held every Wednesday night in Chamorro Village. Located in the capital city of Hagatna, it’s open every day of the week, but Wednesday evening is when the mouth-watering smoke of barbeque permeates the center court where Guam food trucks and stalls offer a veritable buffet of local foods and fresh fruit juices amid the Spanish-inspired buildings.
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Farmers sell their produce and dance groups often entertain the crowd while a karabao, or water buffalo, one of the most well-known images of Guam pulling a two-wheeled cart, is on hand to give rides to children and stand calmly chewing its cud for selfies.
Originally from the Philippines, karabao were Introduced to Guam during the Spanish occupation (1668-1898) for farming and today are the image of a slower-paced and less populated time prior to World War II.
Join the crowd and swing and sway to a local band that plays both modern and traditional island music in the village’s main pavilion where families and friends gather to enjoy the warm night air.
Chamorro Village in Guam
The mission of Chamorro Village is to promote made-on-Guam products and small businesses that are much in evidence among the shops and booths where handmade jewelry, clothing, food products including locally produced honey, bath products like fresh-pressed coconut oil, and arts and crafts are on display.
Some of the island’s master wood carvers also sell their artwork and furniture made from the durable ifil tree with its rich, dark red wood that is the territorial tree of Guam.
The authentic Ancient Chamorro crescent-shaped sinahi, or moon, necklace is also available at the market and comes in many sizes and materials including giant clam shell, whale bone and basalt.
Just look for the “Made on Guam” label and strike up a conversation with the friendly artisans to learn more about their crafts.
Each of Guam’s 19 villages also has its own lively, annual feast day, or fiesta, to celebrate its patron saint.
Malesso’ Gupot Chamoru-Crab Festival
One of the most popular fiestas is the Malesso’ Gupot Chamoru/Crab Festival in the southern village of Merizo.
A three-day event starring the local land crab, it’s held annually in March and features great food and barbeque, live music and dancing, carnival games, culinary competitions and contests that includes a crab-catching contest.
More than 2,000 crabs are released and contestants ages 8 and up scramble to catch as many as they can. Children receive small cash prizes, and the adults get to take home their haul.
Get there early because the stuffed crab and crab cakes sell out before the end of the day.
Other festivals throughout the year include Agat’s three-day Mango Festival in late May that celebrates Guam’s unofficial fruit. Whether pickled, juiced, or straight off the tree, this festival is dedicated to the juicy, red-gold fruit.
The donne’, or hot red pepper, is a staple of Chamorro cuisine, adding heat and spice to almost all dishes from pickled mango and papaya to barbeque marinades and the signature dipping sauce, finadene. Mangilao’s Donne’ Festival takes place in September with cooking competitions challenging everyone to see who can stand the most heat. The hotter, the better.
More Fun Guam Festivals
The village of Talofofo is a favorite place for hikers where cascading waterfalls rush through green valleys into rivers that run past caves full of stalagmites and ancient cave drawings.
Held annually in April at Ipan Beach Park, the Talofofo Banana Festival celebrates the village’s signature fruit. Among the favorite offerings is a deep-fried banana wrapped in a crunchy lumpia wrapper and covered with caramelized brown sugar.
The coconut, or niyok, is the star of two festivals that take place in Agana Heights in March and Inarajan in May. The fruit is one of Guam’s most important native plants and appears on the Guam seal and flag.
Inarajan is known for its historic district with narrow streets lined with houses built over a hundred years ago.
Residents fill front yards and porches, and music pours out as they walk to Gef Pa’go Cultural Village along the sea where vendors, tours and games take place. Buy a young coconut bursting with fresh coconut juice and sip the refreshing nectar.
At the height of the festival, a Coconut Queen is crowned and seated at the center of the parade on a Coconut Throne pulled behind a truck to the cultural village where families cheer on their relatives as they compete in various competitions.
Among them is coconut husking with adults racing to tear apart coconut husks using a traditional husker, or heggao, made from a pointed wooden stick.
If You Go
Although Guam is now a melting pot of many cultures including Filipino, Micronesian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American, Mexican and Spanish, as a U.S. Territory, English is spoken everywhere, and the American dollar is the currency.
The popular markets and festivals were on hold during the pandemic but are now coming back. For more information and a current calendar of events, contact the Guam Visitors Bureau at www.visitguam.com.
Author’s Bio: Writer/photographer Joyce McClure joined the Peace Corps as a Response Volunteer in August 2016 and traded the island of Manhattan for the island of Yap after a long career as a senior executive in marketing communications. When her service ended, she stayed on for five years and recently moved to Guam.