Let me all introduce you to one of my new favourite travel writers: J. Maarten Troost. I’ve seen this book on the shelves of various bookstores over the past few years, and although the title has always caught my attention (honestly, how can it not?!), I never went through with the purchase. I would always pick it up, read the back, find myself dreaming of the South Pacific, then put it back in its place. But now that I’ve read it, I’m officially hooked.
Published in 2004, The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific documents Troost’s two years spent living in Kiribati — a small nation in the South Pacific made up of thirty-two atolls and one coral island. Settling down on Tarawa, home of the nation’s capital, Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia find themselves emerged in a world quite unlike their own back in Washington, D.C.
Feeling stuck in a regime of daily subway commutes, unfulfilling office work, and an unending desire to find an island paradise far, far away, the couple set out for Tarawa in order for Sylvia to accept a position with the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific (FSP), meanwhile Troost’s goal was to devote his time to writing.
They faced a number of distractions, however. From the sweltering heat, to the lack of food diversity given the atoll’s inability to produce much in the way of organic farming (a lot of fish was consumed during his residency), to the nation’s unceasing obsession with playing Macarena, life on the atoll was anything but boring.
With time, the couple adjust to their new world and eventually find themselves living like the locals. They even (unwillingly) start their own brood of five stray dogs and one cat. They adapt and integrate into society and find out that “island living” may not have been the paradise that they were dreaming of, but in the end, it was the paradise that they needed.
I love this book. In fact, I loved it so much that as soon as I was finished I immediately began reading Troost’s follow-up novel Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (aka what I’ll be covering for next week’s TLT). Troost’s writing is wry, smart and entertaining. He does an amazing job at providing the reader with a memoir that’s equal parts history lesson and anecdotal storytelling.
Events like the “Great Beer Crisis” in which a shipment of beer to Tarawa was accidentally rerouted to another atoll, causing the island to be without their Victoria Bitter for about a month; or his experience with flying on Air Kiribati (the landing strip at the airport also acts as a pitch for daily soccer games played by school children); or him quickly learning that riding a bicycle with no brakes while carrying a large fish through a town packed with stray dogs is not a good idea, despite how much you try to swing at the mutts using the fish as a weapon in an effort to deter them from stealing your dinner (just pause right here and take a moment to picture this) — the telling of these accounts of daily life on Tarawa are magical. It might have taken a while to get used to it, but as the couple learn once they return to America, once you become an islander there’s no going back (hence their return to the region just a few years later).
If you’re like me and you’re obsessed with the South Pacific, then read this book. It would seem that Troost is also just as obsessed with that part of the world as three out of his four books written to date take place amongst its islands. All the better for me!
And just in case you’re wondering: no, there aren’t any debaucherous scenes or cannibalism in this book, but he had you fooled didn’t he?