I’ve had my fair share of travel adventures. In Argentina, I survived 3 robbery attempts and a pervy bus passenger who thought it was okay to rub his genitals on me. In Venezuela, I stayed in a roach infested hotel and paid 10 times more than a local for bus fare. In Bolivia I survived tropical fire ants and I flicked llama poop at my cousin. I’ve seen the favelas in São Paulo and a Paraguayan no-man’s-land border crossing where everything is for sale. In Patagonia, I walked so much I had quarter sized blisters on my feet. In China, I watched my husband eat pigeon on a stick and fried scorpions.
My sister has lived on 4 continents and she’s probably got just as many stories. Some will make you laugh, some will make you shudder and some will just make you thankful that you don’t have to live there. I got the same feeling reading J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, a humorous travel memoir of Troost’s two years living on the atoll island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati. The story begins with Troost’s ramblings about a string of dead end jobs and gen-x confusion about what to do with his life. Then his girlfriend gets a job offer in Kiribati. They are both entranced with the idea of living on a South Pacific island—the palm trees, ocean breezes, friendly people, relaxed atmosphere. They were wrong about almost everything.
If you’ve never heard of Kiribati (pronounced “kir-ee-bas”) you’re probably not alone. It’s a tiny nation, composed of 33 islands of which only 21 are inhabited with its less than 80,000 citizens. This is how Troost describes it:
To picture Kiribati, imagine that the continental US were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very blue ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into 33 pieces, place a neighborhood where Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have 33 pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way that 32/33 of Baltimorians will never attend another Orioles game again. Now take away electricity, running water, toilets, television, restaurants, buildings and airplanes… (p16)
Troost narrates incidents with peeping Tom neighbors, stifling equatorial heat, empty rain water tanks, fish, fish and more fish to eat. And if you don’t want to eat fish your option is canned corn beef that is several years past its expiration date.
What I appreciated most was Troost’s explanations of how completely foreign this culture is to anything a westerner can imagine. These islanders’ sense of time, property, order, cleanliness, safety, health, food and just about everything else is 180 degrees from what we are used to. I found myself wondering over and over again, why anyone would choose to stay in such a desolate place. And yet, the way Troost tells the story, you often find yourself laughing as much as you’re horrified at some of the things that take place.
Ratings (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)
Crack Factor – 7.5. This is an entertaining book, not great literature, but enjoyable enough to keep you coming back to the page.
Enrichment Factor – 9.5. Have you ever heard of Kiribati before? Yeah, me neither...Did you think all South Pacific island nations were little slices of paradise? Can you imagine a place where nothing grows, but people still live? Troost also does a great job of going over Kiribati’s history, economy, society, government and examines the social issues and challenges these people face. It was certainly eye opening. I had no idea such a place could exist.
PeopleFactor – 8. Troost, his girlfriend and neighbors make entertaining characters.
Story Telling Factor – 7.5 There’s not a whole lot of plot here. It’s mostly a collection of vignettes; they are well woven and in the end, you get a sense of what he and his girlfriend gained and lost (both positive and negative) by living in this place.
Writing Skills Factor – 8.5 Troost does a pretty good job with the humorous travelogue. I am always impressed with someone who can make a career out of seemingly nothing. For him to narrate his life as a house-husband in the middle of nowhere and turn it into a book is pretty cool. Makes me wonder if I’ve got a novel somewhere in my own life…