Life on a tropical island has got to be the ideal for most Westerners. Warm sun, nothing to hear but the surf, nothing to see but palm trees, white sand, and the occasional sexy bathing suit. Think of all those Corona ads—paradise, right?
According to Maarten Troost, the reality is far from the ideal. On the island of Tarawa, that warm sun bakes to daily temperatures around 100 degrees, and air conditioning isn’t an option. The surf is drowned out by “La Macarena,” which the i-Kiribati (as the residents are known) play nonstop. The white sand is littered with debris, including guns and tanks destroyed during the 1943 invasion of the island. The i-Kiribati tend more to the plus size, and, as Troost puts it, it’s too hot to think about …well, anything else. And as for beer, it is imported from Australia. If the shipment gets on the wrong boat, chaos and public grieving quickly follow.
Space is at a premium. Tarawa is only about 350 square miles, strung out along eight islands, some of which are barely wider than a four-lane highway. Remove the uninhabitable portions, and Tarawa becomes one of the most densely populated places on Earth. There is no place to put the trash, the water table is too high for wells or plumbing, and the coral of the atoll cannot be cultivated. Still, Tarawa is the place to be for the i-Kiribati, who come from all over the country to live in its glory. (In this instance, all over the country means from islands in both hemispheres and across the International Date Line. As he describes it, Kiribati is like Baltimore, divided neighborhood by neighborhood and spread from DC to LA. You can’t even get a good satellite photo of the whole country.)
In a setting like this, you’d expect the book to be depressing, but there is at least a chuckle if not a belly laugh on every page. Troost went to Tarawa with his girlfriend, who was hired by an international aid organization to develop health and agricultural programs, a Sisyphean task that she performed with dedication. With nothing much to do himself, Troost began working on his novel (the chapter dealing with that is hilarious in its understated approach) and foraging for their daily meals. He also learned to boogie board, tried snorkeling, hung out with other Westerners, and generally lived at loose ends.
Most of the book’s humor comes from Troost’s self-lacerating wit as he stands at the cultural crossroads. That means he doesn’t hold back from spotlighting the aggravating habits of the i-Kiribati (like the aforementioned national love for “La Macarena”). Mixed in with Troost’s sardonic observations are stories of his travels to smaller islands and the experience of sailing on the Pacific. Those sections have a sense of adventure and a kind of timeless bliss that approaches that Western ideal of the tropics —but even they aren’t immune from his zingers.
Check here for Rebekah’s review of Troost’s Lost on Planet China.
Check the WRL catalog for The Sex Lives of Cannibals. We’ll also be adding it as a Gab Bag sometime in the Summer of 2010.