A Journalist's Archive

The Sex Lives of Cannibals
J. Maarten Troost
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Never fear! If this book were actually about “The Sex Lives of Cannibals,” this review wouldn’t be appearing in The New Falcon Herald. Thankfully, the title is just a great marketing gimmick, tolerable because “sex” sells, and cannibalism was indeed practiced on Tarawa. But that’s about as much as J. Maarten Troost’s travelogue has to do with sex or consuming humans. Instead, this is a humorous account of a naive individual, who is entirely unprepared for the culture and environment he is about to encounter.
          In 1996, Troost was an overeducated bum who decided an adventure sounded more palatable than a paying job. Together with his more ambitious girlfriend, Sylvia, he sets out for Paradise. Evidently a geography class wasn’t a requirement for his masters degree or he might have known there’s a fine line between Paradise and Hell. And that line is crossed when one reaches an island in the Equatorial Pacific. But we all live and learn; so Troost made the best of a bad situation by turning their misadventures into a remarkably entertaining and educational book.
          Today Tarawa is the capital of the Republic of Kiribati. Those Americans who have heard of it probably know it as one of the Gilbert Islands; the site of a fierce battle between U.S. Marines and Japanese soldiers in 1943. Troost describes the island as: “one of thirty-three atolls scattered over an ocean area as large as the continental United States.” And he assures us that the vastness of the ocean is unimaginable until you’re standing on a flat speck of land thousands of miles away from anywhere!
          Their plane touches down on the island after the pilot artfully avoids a group of pigs crossing the runaway. As the couple exits the plane they are hit with a wall of absolutely-oppressive heat. In his amusing style Troost writes, “It was astonishing, a wonder of nature, a blazing force that left us awestruck.” The heat’s power to immobilize people, turning their brain and muscles into useless puddles, is an ever-present topic throughout this book.
          Surprisingly, the immigration official with tattoos on his forehead was friendly and only asked if the couple had any “ongoing tickets.” “No, we said. Okay, no problem, he said.”           Then a tall woman steps forward to make sure all the appropriate documents have been stamped. She looks gaunt, as if she is suffering from malnutrition, and she has absolutely no sense of humor. Troost quickly nicknames her “Evil Kate,” the woman who insists on bashing all of their dreams of Paradise.
          Kate had a two-year contract as the county director of the “Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific - Kiribati Office.” She is calling it quits after only a year on Tarawa, and Sylvia has been hired to replace her. Calling Kate, “a walking spout of bilious bile,” Troost refuses to let her tirade about the island’s problems get him down. When he comments on the beauty of the lagoon she replies, “It’s polluted.” When he says the locals’ thatched huts were “engineered sensible,” Kate says, “If you don’t mind rats, dogs, and prowlers.” Still, to him, “Tarawa was the loveliest place I had ever seen,” with beaches, palm trees, and blue skies.
          Sadly, he quickly discovers Kate isn’t exaggerating Tarawa’s flaws. Most atolls acquire a junk-heap quality because every materiel object brought to islands will either rot away or become incorporated into the landscape. Troost  writes, “There are few sights more dispiriting than a long seawall built with discarded junk-cars, tires, cans, oil barrels, et cetera - slicing through an emerald lagoon.” Military detritus from WWII still stands where it was last used, and it will, until the metal turns into a heap of rusted powder.
          But the visual pollution is nothing compared to the sewage and water problems on the over-populated island. Sewage treatment takes place during the high tide. Read Troost’s description of the locals “taking to the sticks,” and you’ll understand why sharks aren’t the most feared thing in the waters off of Tarawa.
          Fish, the major source of protein for the islanders, eat the waste. Thus, meals become somewhat akin to game of Russian Roulette. Most of the time the polluted fish only causes stomach discomfort. But the previous year, two children and an old man died after attending a birthday party where the hostess served Red Snapper. Their immune systems couldn’t handle the toxic waste.
          Turning on the tap to get a drink of water is also an unknown luxury on Tarawa. All drinking water must be boiled because the cisterns used to collect rainfall also collect critters, insects, and numerous forms of bacteria. While living on Tarawa is an environmental nightmare, accompanied by high prices and few modern conveniences, Troost’s wit somehow allows him and Sylvia to adjust. Her work includes daily battles with the inefficient government bureaucracy. While she tries to improve living conditions on the island, Troost pretends to be writing.
          But often he must escape his neighbors’ repeated blasting of “La Macarena;” the only song the islanders appear to own. He begins exploring, seeking out islanders who can tell him more about their legends, customs, and origin. Life is good, until the Republic’s unreliable transportation system causes a major crisis, “The Great Beer Shortage.” If a delayed ship means people run out of Spam or canned peaches, they cope. Beer, on the other hand, is a substance without substitute, and any shortage creates chaos on the island.
          Troost packs this book with history, recounting the arrival of the “I-Matang” (Whites), who left a lasting Colonial imprint on the government and culture. He also devotes a chapter to “The Battle of Tarawa.” He writes, today, “laundry hangs from antiaircraft guns,” and children play on the turret of a Sherman tank. But the author believes it’s a downright disgrace that only one of his educated companions ever heard of Tarawa, and that few people know that 5500 men died defending the island.
          We are also introduced to the Tarawa’s strange characters including a “Poet Laureate” who has never written a poem. And like magic, we begin to understand why Troost can tolerate living without modern conveniences as he describes the unimaginably glorious colors of the sky and sea at the equator. So what if Air Kiribati breaks down constantly, or if too many wild dogs roam the island?
          “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” proves humor is a powerful tool. Troost’s adventure will leave you better informed and laughing. Enjoy!

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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