Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Spirits of Guam

The jungle – and the flight line – can be a creepy place
by Tech. Sgt. Mark Kinkade
photos by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

Senior Airman Jeannine Hattig talks to trees. More precisely, she asks trees for permission to pass when she heads into the jungles of Guam. It’s the respectful thing to do.

“I always ask for permission,” the Guam Air National Guard personnelist said. “I also ask forgiveness in the jungle for disturbing ‘them.’ ”

The “them” Hattig refers to are the Taotaomonas, the spirits of the long-dead first people who lived on Guam, well before Spanish explorers claimed the island for Spain. The Chamorros — the native people of Guam — believe the spirits of the ancients live in Banyan trees that flourish in the island’s jungles. When passing a Banyan tree, Chamorros ask for permission, as they might ask a parent or elder. If they don’t, the spirits might punish them.“People say they’ve come out of the jungles with bruises, or pinch marks,” said Hattig, who was born on Guam. “It’s never happened to me, but many people have told me about strange things happening in the jungle.”

Guam is a spiritual place where Chamorros believe in a vigorous spiritual presence melded with Catholic dogma taught by the earliest Spanish missionaries. Whatever their religious beliefs, many Chamorros still recognize the ancient superstitions as part of what Hattig called “hale-ta,” or “our roots.”

“It’s not that we believe the stories that there are spirits in those trees,” she said. “It’s more like it’s part of our culture, the way we do things. And you never know, right?”

If the Taotaomonas are the spirits of ancient elders who simply want respect, the Duendes are the mischievous Guam versions of leprechauns.

In the Onedera Store, a small Chamorro grocery not far from Andersen Air Force Base, Carmen Stiers and a handful of co-workers and customers recalled tales of tiny elf-like creatures that like to play tricks on adults — especially drunken adults — and play with children. They are pranksters with a mean streak.

“They are the ones children see, but adults usually don’t,” she said. “If you make them mad, they’ll shrink you and put you under a coconut, or so the story goes.”

Agnes Paguio, a worker in the store, said she has an uncle who has seen a Duendes, and a distant relative who claims the tiny human-like creatures snatched him away from his home one day. He was found the next day with scratch marks on his arms.

She also tells a story of a relative who was shrunken by the Duendes and imprisoned under a coconut. The relative can remember people looking for him, but he was too small to be seen.
Paguio knows the stories are the stuff of legends and superstitions. Still, she said, part of her hangs onto the beliefs.

“[The Duendes] are part of our culture,” she said. “We have learned [the legends] all our lives. We believe in God and the teachings of the church, but there’s a part of us that holds on to the old ways.”

The old ways and the modern world have combined to create spiritual myths of their own on the island. Many islanders know the story of the “White Lady,” a local legend of love lost and yearning.

Ask 10 Chamorros about the story, and you’ll hear surprisingly similar tales. In it, a mysterious woman in a ghostly white wedding dress or gown is seen near a bridge or on “Mystery Hill,” a long sloping hill near the capital of Hagatna. In most recountings, her fiance didn’t show up at the altar. In some tales, he jilted her. In others, he died in a car accident before the wedding. But most stories say she likes to push cars up the hill and peer in car and home windows.

Paguio said she has had personal experience with the White Lady.“I know as a child I saw a white figure running around a bush, but I never feared her,” she said. “A friend of mine said she was in her home one night and thought she heard her brother calling. When she looked out the window, she saw the face of a woman staring back at her.”

Jireena Blas, a customer service assistant at the War in the Pacific Memorial in Hagatna, said the White Lady has been seen by locals and military people alike. In 1978, two sailors in town for shore leave parked their Volkswagen van near a bridge and saw what they described as a “bride” walking near them. When they returned from a family picnic, they drove past the White Lady who stepped aside. Looking back, they noticed she was gone. When they parked the car later, they saw a series of scratches on the side of the car, like someone had run their nails along the paint.

“The weird thing was,” Blas said, “there were scratches on the [passenger side window] glass also, but you couldn’t feel them with your hands. There were marks, but no depressions.”
The spirits of Guam are not limited to Chamorro legend. In fact, the jungles that host the Taotaomonas and Duendes are also home to at least one ghostly presence at Andersen.

Call it a “fuels section legend,” or just another Guam ghost story, but there are people on the base who will swear an old aviation fuel pump house was haunted by the ghost of a dead pilot.

Staff Sgt. Larry Morrison, a fuels specialist, said the legend dates back to World War II when a bomber crashed on approach to the base. The plane plowed into a cliff that marks the north side of the base, just a few hundred yards from where Pump House 5 stood until about a year ago. The ghost, some said, would visit at night.

“We’ve had airmen working out there call for relief because they got so freaked out,” Morrison said. “It’s also been blown out of proportion. Some say it’s a ghost family, or a guy who killed his family. Stuff like that.”

Or it could be that Guam’s jungles are just naturally creepy. Before it was demolished during an upgrade to the fuels delivery system, Pump House 5 butted up next to very thick jungle. The vegetation grew around the facility, and people working at night usually worked alone.

“I just didn’t like House 5,” said Staff Sgt. Matt Whitman, also a fuels specialist. “The light up there didn’t work half the time. I’d hear stuff, and I’d constantly walk around the building checking it out. You can’t talk to anyone. All you have is a radio. It was a creepy place.”

Since the pump house was torn down, Morrison said he hasn’t heard any more stories about the pilot’s ghost. But “creepy places” still abound on Guam, and the spirits are active.

“This is a spiritual island,” said Onedera Store regular George Treltas, a Guam firefighter. “There will always be stories and legends about the jungles, the spirits and the people who have been here before. If one goes away, another will take its place. Besides, we’re good storytellers.”


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