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From Iraq To Samoa: The Traveler's Guide To Outposts Of The American Empire

by Robyn Johnson Oct 14, 2008
The American Empire still stretches around the globe. Learn how modern day colonists can best experience each destination’s unique bounty.

Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be rubbing his hands over what he claims is the death rattle of the crumbling American Empire, but ‘Merica still boasts some significant holdings around the globe.

The following guide gives a brief summary of how each region came under US dominion and how modern day colonists can best experience its unique cultural and geographical bounty.

Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Colonized by Spain in the late 15th century and then acquired by the United States as a spoil of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico’s political status is rather nebulous.

As a self-governing non-incorporated territory, citizens enjoy a relatively large amount of autonomy, similar to that of a state. Their government consists of an executive branch headed by a governor, a legislature, and a judicial branch.

Unlike a state, however, Puerto Rico has no voting representation in the US Congress-even though the citizens are still subject US federal law and taxes. In addition, Puerto Ricans are disenfranchised from presidential elections, only voting in primaries.

This vague political standing has created divides among Puerto Ricans; there are those who favor independence; those who want closer ties to the US as a full-fledged state; and those who support continued commonwealth status. Although a referendum is held every few years to revisit the island’s status, it remains a commonwealth.


A popular tourist destination in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico benefits from mild maritime tropical climate and exotic geography, if not economic prosperity.

Common recreational activities include horseback riding, scuba diving, rainforest exploration, and boat tours of bioluminescent bays.

While the locals are friendly and sociable, it’s generally not recommended to engage in political discussions, especially in regards to the United States.

And the rare upside to being a commonwealth? Drinking age is 18. Spring-breakers can start on those famous piña coladas a few years early.

Okinawa Prefecture, Nippon-koku (Japan)

Accounting for one-percent of Japan’s land mass, the Ryukyu Islands of the Okinawa Prefecture host over 25,000 U.S. soldiers-that’s two-thirds of the amount installed in Japan after WWII. Before being annexed into Japan in 1879, the islands were an autonomous kingdom, the remains of which have been sadly effaced by the mid-century military campaigns.

Already somewhat resentful of Japanese colonialism, the citizens of Okinawa outright oppose the US occupation of the islands, citing noise pollution, environmental damage, and crimes committed by the US military against civilians.

Despite their repeated appeals to the mainland government, the US still maintains a significant presence in the strategic position near China and Taiwan.


The only subtropical region of Japan, Okinawa has a perennially temperate climate and excellent waters for all types of sports and activities, such as surfing, diving, and fishing.

For those seeking adventure, the Iriomote National Park contains lush Amazon-like jungles and mangroves. Canoeing and guided cruises up the Urauchi River also prove quite popular with visitors.

Exploring the Ryukyu historical sites presents some problems as there are little traces left, but the restored Shuri castle and the village of Taketomi offer insights into the islanders’ heritage.

Factoid: Karate originated from Okinawa, a synthesis of Chinese kung fu with indigenous martial arts

United States Virgin Islands

Passed along from one colonizer to the next since the 17th century, the US finally came into possession of the Virgin Islands after buying them off Denmark in 1917.

By this time no indigenous populations remained, killed off by disease and massacre after first contact with the Europeans. Most of the existing population descends from the African slaves brought over to work on sugar plantations and are part of the Afro-Caribbean culture throughout the region.

The Virgin Islands have a system of government similar to other US territories but unlike the others, most citizens are quite apathetic towards self-determination and therefore remain a territory by default of lack of voter turn-out on referendums.


This is resort country. With tourism being the main generator of economic activity, the islands are geared for your (expensive) pleasure: golf courses, casinos, scuba diving, horseback riding, white sandy beaches, four star restaurants, and designer goods can all be found. Kind of like giant stationary cruise ships-in fact, this is on what many of the tourists arrive.

Republic of Korea (South Korea)

Originally part of a unified country that was conquered by Japan in the early half of the 20th century, South Korea was severed from the northern region due to bungled Soviet and American attempts at de-colonization.

While the division was never intended as a permanent solution, the outbreak of the Cold War and subsequent Korean War ensured reunification remained a distant hope. Throughout its existence, capitalist South Korea has depended quite heavily upon the US, which effectively created the nascent nation.

Although Korea has emerged as an independent first world country within the last 20 years, the US still maintains 29,000 troops throughout its territory and uses what some observers call manipulative diplomatic/ economic tactics to influence its protégé.


As the fourth largest economy in Asia, South Korea offers all the luxuries of most modern countries. Museums, theater performances, resort hotels, nightclubs, sports stadiums, and consumer goods abound in the urban areas.

For more touristy destinations, visit Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom. Tombs, temples, and other archaeological sites serve to enrich visitors’ knowledge about Korea’s distant past.

Or if you’re feeling courageous, take a tour of the world’s most heavily guarded border, the Korean Demilitarized Zone near the 38th parallel. An observatory offers binoculars to view into the neighboring totalitarian state.

You can also take a peek at the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of the many tunnels North Korea clandestinely dug under the DMZ for a possible future invasion.

South Korea is also a popular and lucrative destination for teaching English.

American Samoa

Comprising the eastern part of the Samoa Islands chain in the South Pacific, American Samoa was made into a non-incorporated territory in 1899 after Germany and the US agreed to divvy up the archipelago.

Although officially listed by the UN as a non-self-governing territory, American Samoa maintains its own representative democracy. However, day-to-day government is rooted in time-honored customs which often supersede the edicts of federal law.

Villages consist of several extended families, or aiga, and are headed by fonos, or village councils. The fonos in turn are made up of chiefs, matais, which head each family. The matais and fonos primarily supervise communal property, as there is no real ownership within the family, and keep peace in the villages.

This sense of collectivity extends so far that traditional Samoan house are built with no walls, only blinds to be lowered during bad weather and intimate moments.


Given the American Samoans’ deep cultural beliefs based on courtesy, called fa’asamoa, visitors should follow some simple rules of etiquette.

Always ask for permission before doing anything within a village, no matter how inconsequential it may seem. Dusk is reserved as a moment for prayer, so if you happen to be within a village during that time, stop all activity and wait for the ritual to end. Do not eat or drink while walking around in a village. And always take off your shoes before entering someone’s home.

Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary and National Park of American Samoa allow visitors to explore biologically diverse rainforests and coral reefs where you can see flying foxes, sea turtles, and an assortment of colorful tropical fish.

If you want a more relaxing activity, just take a walk along the gorgeous beaches or watch the traditional Samoan dance, the Siva, in which dancers’ delicate hand and food movements weave a story.

Republic of Iraq

The cradle of some of the oldest civilizations on the planet, Iraq possesses a rich and varied history. Unfortunately, much of this unique heritage has been erased as archaeological sites and museums were destroyed and plundered during the initial years of U.S. occupation.

After 24 years of a brutal dictatorship, Iraqis again got the short end of the stick as the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein ushered in an unwelcome foreign occupation and violent political instability.

Even though control has been officially handed over to the installed democratic government, the US maintains a heavy military presence with nearly 150,000 troops and no clear intentions towards departure.


Speaking English, driving cars late at night, being in city centers, traveling without armed security, and not wearing body armor in Iraq proper are not recommended as these actions can get you killed.

Although some optimists are already planning tourist resorts near Baghdad, it will be several years before those dreams are realistic.

However, if you absolutely have a yen to go, the northern region-Iraqi Kurdistan-experiences very little of the upheaval of the war-torn parts.

Distant Horizons offered the first organized tours earlier this summer and other intrepid travelers have made the trek without too much hazard to life and limb. With ancient citadels, Roman ruins, gorgeous mountainous terrain, and friendly locals, some consider it well worth the risks.

Territory of Guam

Like Puerto Rico, Guam was ceded to the US as spoils of the Spanish-American War. Unlike Puerto Rico, however, Guam doesn’t experience the same relatively high level of self-government as a commonwealth, instead relegated to territory status.

Guam does, at least, have the popularly elected government following the typical Western three-branch structure. And while generally happy to be a part of the US, most Guam citizens still desire more autonomy, which the US has denied due to doubts over Guam’s solvency.

The fact that nearly one-third of Guam’s land-surface is covered by federal military bases might also play a significant part in the US’ decision.


A hotspot for tourists, Guam has all that you would imagine from a tropical island destination: excellent diving (you can see WWI and WWII shipwrecks), ecologically rich forests and oceans, and paradisiacal beaches.

The prevalent Chamarro culture, a blend of Micronesian, Spanish, American, and Asian traditions, offers a unique fusion cuisine with fresh seafood delicacies, world famous BBQ, red rice, Filipino noodles, and coconut and taro based dishes.

An aside-much like their neighbors the Samoans, the Chamarro are fairly devout and have a culture strongly rooted in respect. Try to err on the side of modesty and utmost civility and you will avoid any major faux pas.

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

The other theater of the two-front war on terror, Afghanistan has pretty much gotten the shaft for the past 30 years. Suffering from internal conflicts exacerbated by foreign meddling, chaos and violence have become routine for Afghans.

After the Soviet retreat in 1988 failed to stem civil war, the resulting power vacuum allowed the despotic and religiously radical Taliban to seize power. And unfortunately for the US, who spurred the Soviets into invading in the first place, the Taliban’s rise to power also aided the success of al-Qaeda training camps-as evidenced by the 9/11 attacks.

After enduring six years of draconian rule, Afghanistan was again invaded, this time by US forces intent on destroying the terrorist home base. It’s been seven years of near anarchy ever since.


Non-essential travel to Afghanistan is not recommended, especially in the southern and eastern regions where bombings occur on a regular basis. Dangers typically include remnants of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, roving bandits, land mines, clan warfare, drug traffickers, and US air strikes.

Guided tours may be your safest bet for first time excursions, but they shouldn’t be considered impervious to the political turmoil. Situations can shift in an instant and it’s advised to be aware of your surroundings at all times.

Keeping that in mind, essential sites to see include the effaced Buddhist statues of Bamiyan, the Blue Mosque in Mazari Sharif, and the archaeological-site rich cities of Herat and Balkh.

Those seeking less of a thrill are advised to attend the traveling exhibition of the newly revealed Bactrian Hoard. You’ll learn about Afghan culture without putting your life in peril.

Any of your own tips for visiting these American outposts? Share in the comments!

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