The Beauty and Culture of the Island of Guam

By Leo Babauta

A number of you have asked about my home island, Guam — what it’s like, how a blogger like me emerged from a tiny island, stuff like that. So today I thought I’d share a little about Guam, just to give you some background on me and my home, and share a new resource for learning all about Guam.

My Home
While I was born in Portland, Oregon and have lived in Seattle and more recently in the SF Bay Area (Sunset District of SF and Vallejo), most of my life has been spent here on Guam. It’s a fairly small tropical island in the middle of the Pacific, a U.S. territory since 1898 (except during World War II, when it was occupied by Japanese forces), a very Catholic but very American island.

I spent most of my childhood here, and have lived here my entire adult life. My mom is Irish/German-American (originally from Wisconsin) but grew up here since elementary school. My father is Chamorro, the native ethnicity of Guam, and part Filipino too. Guam is home, the only home my children have known.

I will probably live in other places — I’m contemplating a move to California in the fairly near future — but Guam will be my final resting place, I imagine. While not all of the 160,000 people here know each other, we are a fairly close-knit community, and you can’t go anywhere without meeting several people you know. If you meet someone you don’t know, it only takes a minute to find a connection — you are related to them somehow, or you used to work with their relative, or your neighbor is their godbrother, or something like that.

I love Guam and its people, although I don’t love everything about this island. We have our problems like anywhere else — we have government corruption sometimes, but have mostly honest government workers. We have problems with potholes and trash sometimes, but usually things run fine. There is a lot of trash and things that can be cleaned up and stray dogs in some areas, but above all the natural beauty of the island shines through. It can be very hot and humid here, but mostly it’s just stunningly gorgeous weather in the 70s and 80s and sometimes 90s.

America in the Pacific
Think of Guam as a little slice of America, but Pacific Island-style. Guam is a lot like a small town in the U.S., with malls and fast food restaurants (we have most of them, but not all), Kmart and Home Depot and Internet access practically everywhere. We have roads and power and American-style schools and everyone speaks English (though perhaps with a Chamorro accent many times). And while we don’t vote for president, we are democratic and as patriotic as any American small town — we have a higher rate of enlistment in the U.S. military, per capita, than any other place last time I checked, and a higher rate of war casualties by our men and women in the military in most wars than other places in America.

But if we’re very American in many ways, we’re also not in others. We have a very Spanish, Catholic tradition, for example. We celebrate Catholic holidays, and have fiestas all the time, and many people speak Chamorro, a blend of our native language and Spanish. We are very family oriented, but not in the American nuclear family way — in a very extended family way. This focus on family — including not only second and third cousins and more, but a very extensive system of godparents and godbrothers and sisters — actually conflicts with the American system of democracy many times. We want to help our family in any way possible, but when that means giving them government jobs or government favors, that’s illegal and results in corruption.

More than just being Spanish, though, we are native islanders. We have a long tradition of being connected to the sea, of being connected to the land, of being very tribal in many ways.

And so we are none of these things completely — American, Spanish, islander — but all of them at once. We are a changing community, from the more traditional elders to the more modern youngsters, with their Nintendo DS and MySpace and texting cell phones and Wiis and XBoxes.

What this means for me as a blogger and more
Most (but not all) people on Guam are unaware of what a blog even is. That said, there are a small number of us who are not only into technology but into blogs. I’m one of them, of course, and as you know I started a blog in early 2007 and it has taken off. No one on Guam knows this, aside from family members (and even some of them don’t really understand blogs yet) and a few friends. It’s interesting that I can connect with thousands and thousands (even millions) of people worldwide, but here at home I’m basically anonymous. I like that, actually, as I’m a shy person in real life.

So on Guam, we have computers and broadband and even wireless Internet access, but not a lot of awareness. It’s interesting, though, because as a writer, my market has always been limited to this small island of 160,000 people, through the local newspaper or the small local magazines we have here. To go beyond this small audience, until recently, I would have had to leave and go to a big city like San Francisco or L.A. or New York to try to compete with all the other writers over there. However, with the rise of blogs, I’ve been able to reach a global audience without leaving home. That’s an amazing change, not only for me but potentially for anyone here on Guam (and in other limited areas around the world) who have the talent and desire to reach above our previous limitations.

Aside from blogging, Guam is an interesting place for a person like me. I’m a vegetarian, and Guam is a very, very meat-based culture. People here can barely conceive of what it’s like to eat a meal without meat (that’s a generalization, of course, as there are other vegetarians on Guam but in a small and scattered way). There is meat and starches and sweets at every gathering, and Spam is almost a national food. Everything is fried or barbecued. There are some healthy restaurants, but they are few and far between, and eating vegetarian in most places means eating pasta.

As a runner, Guam is great, because it is warm all year round. It’s humid, which I think means that we run slower, but that’s not a big deal. It does rain a lot during the rainy season (Guam has two seasons: wet and dry) but it’s actually nice to run in the rain when it’s warm outside. There are stray dogs, but not so many that you can’t run through most small village roads or find a nice park to run in. There’s a very active running community, from the multitude of 5K races to the more hardcore Guam Running Club.

I could actually write about Guam for days, but I’ll stop here and answer any questions you have in the comments. In the meantime, I wanted to share an exciting new resource for learning more about Guam.

The Launch of, and More About Guam
I’m excited to share with you the launch of, an online encyclopedia about Guam and its history and culture. Not only is this an amazing new resource for people on Guam and elsewhere, but it’s exciting for two more personal reasons:

  1. It is the personal project of my mom, Shannon Murphy, an amazing woman who is my life’s inspiration and who has guided this project from the beginning. She put this together, with tons of help of many talented people and a great, great staff, and the awesome support of the Guam Humanities Council. Congrats, mom, and all the Guampedia and GHC staffers!
  2. I helped. I wrote a bunch of articles. I was supposed to write more, but this darn blog took up too much of my time. :)

Anyway, go over there and take a look, if you’re interested in more about Guam. It’s a great resource that will continue to grow in the years to come.