I think I saw a reference to this book in the Wall Street Journal a couple of months ago. I needed a break from the usual books. The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost is light, a quick read, and quite entertaining. Several times I caught myself literally laughing out loud (“LOLing” for those of you under 30). My daughter is reading it now and also loving it.
The backstory is that back in the mid-90s Troost and his wife (who I would guess were mid-to-late 20s at the time) decided to stop racking-up graduate degrees and bouncing between thankless jobs. His wife had an opportunity to work for an agency that was working to improve lives in various parts of the less-developed world. They ended-up in Tarawa, an island in the Republic of Kiribati. That’s where the fun begins. Troost does a fantastic job of explaining the day-to-day life in Kiribati, and how it didn’t exactly live up to his romantic expectations of exotic island life.
The book is as interesting as it is entertaining.
Here’s how the author describes Tarawa and Kiribata:
“Located just a notch above the equator and five thousand miles from anywhere, Tarawa is the capital of this country of thirty-three atolls scattered over an ocean area as large as the continental United States. The total landmass of these islands is about three hundred square miles, roughly the size of the greater baltimore metropolitan area.” pg. 15
The book is full of interesting and hilarious anecdotes and side-stories, but this one about trash, recycling, and government was my favorite, Troost talks about the waste disposal problem on the small island:
“Waste disposal on an overcrowded island like Tarawa was an enormous problem, and while the governments elsewhere in the world could be expected to do something about it, the government of Kiribati carried on as it always did, blithely passing the time between drinking binges.
Actually, that’s not fair. They did do something about it. Once upon a time there was a can recycling program. Kids gathered all the beer cans that were strewn about the island, and there were many, and carried them to a privately owned recycling center, which had a can crusher that molded the cans into exportable cubes. The kids were paid. The beer cans were recycled in Australia. Excellent program, one would think. Income was generated. Trash was disposed of in a pleasantly green sort of manner. But then the government, displaying the brain power of a learning-impaired anemone, decided to institute an export tax. Never mind that the product being exported was the rubbish that was fouling the island, the government, as a minister explained to me, ‘deserved its cut.’ He sounded like a Staten Island capo. The tax put the recycling program out of business. The island remained awash in beer cans.” p. 98
I guess governments are the same everywhere.
There are two follow-up books that I plan to read: Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu & Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation. Troost also mentions one of my other favorite travel writers, Paul Theroux.