More Tales of Guam

by Brenna Lorenz


Talofofo Beach

Photograph of Talofofo Bay.One of our best beaches is Talofofo Beach on the southeast coast of Guam. It occupies the end of a long, narrow bay bordered by limestone cliffs. The beach consists of fine, chocolate-brown sand deposited by the river at the northern end of the bay. The sand and silt give the water in the bay a murky orange color and prevent reef animals from building a reef there.
    The lack of a reef combines with the orientation and shape of the bay to produce some of the best waves on Guam. Talofofo Beach is the most popular surfing spot here. The kids of Guam have nicknamed it "Surf Side." Under ordinary conditions, the waves there wouldn't knock over a toddler, but it's the best we have. It has the added advantage that if you fall off your boogie board, you land in soft muck and not on the jagged rocks of the reef.
    The one time when Talofofo Beach has truly excellent waves comparable to those of California or Hawaii is during typhoons. Every time we get a typhoon, a couple of young hotdogs attempt to remove themselves from the gene pool by surfing the monster waves at Talofofo Beach.
    Most people dislike the sand of Talofofo Beach, referring to it as "mud." Technically, it is not mud, but true sand, at the fine-grained end of the spectrum. The sand is brown and sticky. When you walk on the wet sand, your feet sink down into it and squeeze water out of little holes that appear in the sediment. The dry sand displays beautiful wind ripples that glitter with tiny black crystals. (Click here to see a photograph of the wind ripples.)
    If you visit Talofofo Beach, take a magnet with you. Put the magnet in a plastic sandwich bag. Run the bag with the magnet in it through the dry sand. The shiny black crystals leap to the magnet and cling there; they are crystals of the mineral magnetite.
    A bucket of Talofofo Beach sand, together with the magnet in the bag and a few sheets of paper, will keep a child occupied for hours.
    Under a simple microscope, the sand is transformed into gleaming black octahedra of magnetite, shiny green fragments of peridote, pure white calcite, glass-clear quartz, ruddy jasper and orange fragments of ancient Chamoru pottery. People are awed by this view of the sand. One lady kept comparing the view through the microscope to the sample under the lens. "Is this really the same stuff?" she finally asked. "Down here it's just dirt, but through here it looks like jewels!" (Click here to see a photograph of the beach sand's colors on the beach.)
    The best part of Talofofo Beach, however, is the quicksand under the bridge. It is never more than waist deep. The kids love to walk along, pretending that they don't know it's there, and then scream when they suddenly fall into it. Then they wallow in it. We used to have quicksand fights, but after it got into eyes a few times, we had to give that up. It's also fun to send students into it. We go there on field trips and I send them innocent and unsuspecting out onto the river mouth bar. (Click here to see some photographs of the quicksand.)
    Unfortunately, after Supertyphoon Paka hit Guam in December of 1997, Talofofo Beach began to erode away rapidly. A long stretch of the beach has now been replaced by a wall of giant boulders to protect the road. The rest of the beach is disappearing rapidly, although the river mouth is extending outwards. Probably in a few years, the beach will be gone.

See another picture of Talofofo Beach!

 Fafa'i Beach

    Tumon Bay is a concrete jungle now, but if you want to know what it used to look like, go to Fafa'i Beach. Enjoy it while you can. This beach is also scheduled for demolition... I mean, development.
    To get there, you go to Gun Beach. Getting to Gun Beach is an adventure, because the road past the Nikko Hotel has been allowed to decompose rather badly. Actually, it's the kind of road you'd think twice about taking a four-wheeler on, but if you're really careful, you can get there in an ordinary car if you can manage not to fall into a crater. This is one of the reasons why you should only take a really old and ugly car, a Guam bomb, to Gun Beach.
    The other reason is that an attractive car will be broken into while parked at Gun Beach.
    I always warn my students about this when we have a field trip to Gun Beach. "Leave your low-riders and your sports cars at home," I tell them, "and get a ride with someone else."  Last year, a pair of students, a married couple, brought a really fancy car to Gun Beach and left the wife's purse sitting on the front seat. It was like dousing themselves with housefly pheromones and walking into a dump, and expecting the flies to leave them alone.
    To get to Fafa'i Beach from Gun Beach requires a short hike through the water, in order to get around a small promontory. The water is never more than chest deep, and usually shallower, but the students are always somewhat anxious about the idea of getting wet, even though they had been told what to expect. There is always at least one female student who has her period and is worried about how deep the water is. Most of them are rather diffident about it, taking me aside and saying, "What should I do? I have my... you know... " But a couple of years ago, I had a student who was not at all shy about this subject. As we assembled on Gun Beach, she announced. "I've got my period. Will that be a problem?"
    "It shouldn't be," I answered.
    "But I don't have a tampon, just a pad," she elaborated. The guys stared at her, bug-eyed.
    "You know, when you go into the water, your flow stops," volunteered another female student.
    "This is more than I ever wanted to know," I heard a guy mutter.
    "And there aren't any dangerous sharks around here," I added.
    The promontory is jagged limestone, and I urge the students to stay away from the cliff so that waves will not push them against the sharp rocks. I walk around well away from the cliff wall, but most of them cling to the cliff in spite of my advice. On the other side is beautiful Fafa'i Beach.
    Once it started to rain while we were making our way around the promontory, and as soon as we got to the beach, the students ran for the shelter of the caves in the cliff behind the jungle. They didn't want to get wet.
    The sand of Fafa'i Beach is peach-colored, a light orange pink. The pink color comes from the foram shells that wash in from the reef. Foraminifera are protozoans with calcium carbonate shells. These guys, when alive, have long spikes sticking out of them like stickleburrs. In death, the spikes are worn off by wave action, and under the microscope they look like little land mines. The rest of the sand is composed of shell fragments and coral pieces.
    In their reports, the students are supposed to describe organisms that they observe on the beach. One student described it thus: "On the beach I saw many organisms such as crabs, ants, butterflies, coral and footprints."
    Fafa'i Beach is such a nice, quiet, out-of-the-way beach that people often go there to sunbathe nude. The beach is so big that they have plenty of time to scramble for cover when they see us piling around the corner, but some of them just don't care. The students care, however. They find nude sunbathers quite disconcerting.
    When we get to the end of the beach under Two Lovers' Point, I send the students into the water to look at reef organisms. At least, I try to send the students into the water to look at reef organisms. I only seem to succeed when I happen to have a T.A. with military experience. A few years ago, this reef was filled with staghorn-type coral, but those are all gone now and all we have left are a few of the big head-type corals. There aren't many fish anymore, either. We used to see blue chromas and black-and-white-striped humbugs, but now we're lucky if we see a couple of blennies and puffers. There are lots of balates (sea cucumbers), though, including the argus balates that discharge their tubercles of Cuvier when disturbed. Most of the students who do wade out are reluctant to put their faces into the water, even with a mask, so when possible, I hand them organisms to look at. If you pick up an argus balate very gently and cradle it in your arms like a baby, it won't tubercle you. I cuddle the balate, then hand it to a student, who takes it gingerly. The balate must sense the fear, because it inevitably blows. But the students love the brilliant blue starfish. These are big starfish, about 30 centimeters across, and they look like they're made of blue plastic. We also see sea urchins, but I don't pick those up. The most common ones on this reef are the ones with the long black spines and the iridescent blue and orange eyes. At least, those things look like eyes.
    We then make the long trek back and look at the wave ripples and current ripples in the sand under the water, and the wind ripples up above the high water line, the crab burrows, crab tracks, swash marks, rills, foam impressions and other beautiful sedimentary structures.
    The students soon discover that the beach is covered with tiny springs, called bo'bo' in Chamoru, where fresh water trickles out of the island's freshwater lens. The water seeps up out of the sand and runs into the sea. The students sometimes dig into the sand to see where the water is coming from. Sometimes, if they dig deep enough, the water starts to bubble up like a water fountain. They are intrigued with the idea that our aquifer leaks so copiously and conspicuously.
    One student from Ulithe disappeared into the jungle for awhile and came out with a basket woven of coconut fronds and a harvest of several green coconuts.
    Once a student said, "I'm glad I'm a science major and not an English major, because if I were an English major, I wouldn't be going on field trips like this and learning about these things." Then he added, "But, if I were an English major, then maybe I'd have the words to describe the beauty of this place and how I feel about it..."


    People here love to argue about which is worse, typhoons or earthquakes. Some people say that typhoons are worse because they last longer and there are more of them. But most people think that earthquakes are worse because they hit without warning. At least with typhoons, you know they are coming.
    According to Paul Hattori, our local seismologist, Guam actually has several earthquakes per day, but  most of them are too small to be detected by humans. Every few weeks we get one that is big enough and close enough for people to notice.
    One of the coolest things about earthquakes is how different they are from each other. Some are noisy and some are quiet. Sometimes you can hear them coming, sounding like a distant freight train, or a great stone door sliding shut. Once they are on you, of course, you can hear the stuff in your house rattling. Some of them last a long time and you can feel them vibrating for ages, it seems. Others feel like a single, simple lurch. You feel the displacement of the Earth's surface; you feel your latitude and longitude changing slightly. Others produce a rolling sensation, as if you were on a raft out on the open sea. If you are outside during one of these, you can actually see the ground rolling. Some, like the Big One in August 1993, are a combination of all these.
    On the night of the Big One, we were visiting some friends. We had just watched a videotaped documentary about Typhoon Omar, which had hit almost exactly a year before, and we were speculating on when we were going to get our next natural disaster. I was sitting on the couch and I felt a low vibration. "Hey, do you guys feel that?" I asked. "It's an earthquake."
    No one answered me. Then the vibrations abruptly notched up to a higher amplitude. "Don't you guys feel that?" I asked. "It's an earthquake!" Still, no one answered. Then the shaking really started! It felt like the whole earth was flinging back and forth like a rag in the teeth of a giant dog. The power went out. Someone grabbed Malachi, who was just three years old; he had been sitting on the floor playing with some toys. He let out a howl, crying, "My toys!" It wasn't the earthquake that was of concern to him! Everyone else sat quietly and listened to things rolling around upstairs. A vase on top of the television wobbled back and forth alarmingly and finally fell off, but didn't break. The shaking went on for minutes.
    I was so excited that when the shaking stopped, I started jumping around and shouting, "Wasn't that fantastic? Wasn't that great?" Then I realized that everyone else was just sitting there shaking, and that sobered me up. "Oh," I said. "You guys didn't like it, did you."
    We went home soon afterward, and found our apartment in shambles. Our big bookcase had fallen over, as had the television and the bird cage. One bird was still in the cage, but the other had disappeared. Later we found her under the cage, unhurt.
    There was a fair bit of broken glass around, so we sent Malachi to bed just to keep him out of that. He was not pleased. A bottle of Mercurochrome had broken in the hallway and stained everything a malevolent, poisonous red. We cleaned up by flashlight, listening to K-57, the local talk radio station. We mainly listen to them during disasters. They are a comfort in the darkness. We finally went to bed but slept poorly as a steady stream of aftershocks made the earth writhe beneath us like the skin of some giant animal.
    Over the next few days, I was in much demand as a geologist who was willing to talk to the press. I even got a phone call in the middle of the night from some Stateside TV correspondent. His first question was about deaths. I told him there hadn't been any. What about damage? Some, but not all that much, considering the earthquake had been an 8.2. "What??" he shouted. "No deaths? No damage? What kind of a disaster is that?" And he hung up. But the Japanese realized that an earthquake that size with no deaths and little damage was quite remarkable. They spent the next year trying to figure out how we did it.
    One of our friends was driving to UOG when the Big One hit. He didn't realize that he was feeling an earthquake; he thought something had gone wrong with his car. By the time he pulled over and got out of his car, the earthquake had stopped. He examined all of his tires, looked under the hood, and then tried out the car again. It worked fine. When he got to UOG he noticed that the power was out, but that was nothing unusual for Guam. When he got to his office, he found everything in disarray and thought that vandals had broken in. He went to the secretary's office and found it in the same condition. By then, he began to suspect that an earthquake had occurred.
    Another friend said that he tried to lean against the wall for support during the earthquake. But the wall reared back and then smacked him, knocking him over.
    Another friend was taking a shower when the earthquake hit. His immediate reaction was that he wanted to run outside. But he didn't want to go outside naked (although lots of other people in similar situations didn't worry about nudity during the earthquake), so he tried to find his pants. But the power had gone out and he couldn't locate his pants in the dark. By the time he found them, the earthquake was over. "From then on, I always shower with my pants on, in case it happens again," he tells me.
    One of my friends told me that the reason we had this big earthquake was that Mother Theresa was ill. "And when she dies, the world will end," she said.
    A few days after the earthquake, all of the kids at one of the high schools were in a state of frenzy because a girl had reportedly floated around the classroom prophesizing that on October 10, we were going to experience an earthquake of magnitude 10, and Guam would fall into the sea.
    Although it is true that we can and inevitably will (someday) experience a worse earthquake than the one on August 8, 1993, Guam will not fall into the sea. Probably the reverse will happen: Guam will rise (about a meter) out of the sea, as has happened in the past.
    Paul Hattori is pretty sure that our big earthquake was actually two earthquakes with different foci, occurring about 7 seconds apart and on different sides of the island. The epicenter(s) couldn't be located precisely, partly because Paul's equipment was knocked out by the earthquake, but he's pretty sure that the epicenter(s) were not directly underneath us. The focus was fairly deep.
    If it had been shallow, and if it had been right under us, it would have been a lot worse.

Weird Plants

    Here on Guam, we are blessed with some truly weird plants.
    One of the most malevolent is an imported monster called Cuscuta or dodder. It looks like yellow plastic string spread in a messy pile over other vegetation. It has no leaves, no chlorophyll and no roots, although it does have rather pleasant and innocent-looking little yellow flowers. You might wonder, how does a plant with no leaves or roots survive? The horrible answer is this: Cuscuta is a vampire.
    If you look closely at Cuscuta, you will find little knobs on its stringy stems. These knobs are called hyphae, and they are the fangs of the Cuscuta. It sticks the hyphae into other plants and drinks their sap. Needless-to-say, it isn't very good for a plant to be encuscutated. If you are a plant reading this, I have some advise for you: acquire some purple pigmentation. Cuscuta doesn't like plants with purple leaves!

Photograph of one of Guam's indigenous euphorbs, showing leaves and flowers.We also have a whole bunch of euphorbs. Most euphorbs are considered by humans to be weeds, although Poinsettia is a euphorb and is considered quite respectable. Most of our euphorbs are rather humble and close to the ground. You wouldn't give them a second glance. But put their flowers under the microscope and then you'll get to see how weird they really are. As you probably know, most plants have boy parts and girl parts together in the same flower. Euphorbs have segregated the sexes somewhat. Some plant species, such as gingkoes, keep their boys and girls on altogether separate plants. Euphorbs aren't that extreme. They have boy parts and girl parts on the same plant, but in separate flowers. It's rather like my old college dorm. We had one building with two separate towers connected by a common lobby. That was considered quite daring at the time.
Pencil sketch of parts of Euphorbia hirta.   In most of our euphorbs, the girl flower forms first. Then the boy flower grows out of the base of her. By the time the boy comes along, the girl is already pregnant, the developing seeds growing in three fat lobes. The flowers are connected to big, cup-shaped glands. The overall package looks like something alien. You can imagine one, if it were larger, replacing you as you slept...

    We also have an interesting tree called in English "strangler fig" or "banyan," but in Chamoru it's "nunu." It occupies a special place in Chamoru culture. The belief is that the spirits of the ancestors, the taotaomo'na, reside in the nunu trees. The trees are treated with tremendous respect, because no one in their right mind messes around with taotaomo'na.
    The trees are enormous. There are some in Hawaii that are the size of a city block, although typhoons, war and development have prevented our Guam trees from getting that big. They send roots down from their branches and form an extensively spreading maze. You could live in one.
    But these magnificent trees have a dark side. They all begin their lives as a little seedling growing in a hollow or crook in the branches of some other tree. The little nunu, over the years, sends down a bunch of long roots into the soil around the host tree and grows around it. Eventually the older tree is surrounded, covered up and strangled. Hence the name "strangler fig."

    We also have another cool tree called Casuarina, or ironwood. It is called ironwood because the wood is so dense it sinks in water. Many people here erroneously refer to ironwoods as pine trees, because that's what they look like. But they are not even conifers. They are a primitive kind of flowering plant. The "needles" are actually stems, with tiny, scale-like leaves on them. The plant has separate male and female flowers on it like a euphorb. The males produce enormous volumes of yellow pollen. The females look like a tuft of little purple strings. Their seeds look like miniature pine cones.
    Here on Guam we have an ironwood miracle. She is an ironwood carving of the Virgin Mary who floated to shore escorted by two crabs, where she was discovered by some fishermen. These fishermen knew it was a miracle because ironwood doesn't float. The crabs were another clue. They took the figure to a proa shed. That's a canoe shed, also called a camarin. For that reason, the figure is called Our Lady of Camarin, and she resides in the Hagatna Cathedral. Camarin is a popular name for girls here, and it has no relationship that other Cameron, used mostly for boys.

    But of all the cool plants on Guam, probably the coolest and definitely the most fun is sleepy grass. In the US it's called sensitive plant or sensitive mimosa. In Indonesia, they call it putri malu, which means shy maiden. Why would a plant be called "sleepy," "sensitive," and "shy"? It is called these things because its leaves respond to touch.
    The plant is a low-growing ground plant with pretty, compound leaves and purple fuzzball flowers. If you touch the plant, its leaves rapidly fold up like praying hands. If you carefully touch the last couple of leaflets on a compound leaf, it folds itself up slowly, starting with the leaflets you touched and moving down the length of the leaf. It's fun to see what happens if you touch one leaflet here, or one there, or tweak a stem or a flower...
    Many people don't like sleepy grass because it has thorns. Well, I can't blame it for having thorns. If I were picked on as much as sleepy grass is, I would want some self-defense, too.

Published 8/13/98. Updated 11/5/99.

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