J. Maarten Troost and his girlfriend, Sylvia, leave the corporate world for an island home in the equatorial pacific. The Republic of Kiribati is made up of 33 atolls and has its capital on Tarawa. The atoll is small, overpopulated, and dirty.
There is no arable land, and as a result, the coconut is king. Fresh vegetables are hard to come by. If you’re wondering what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the answer is fish, salted fish and boiled fish. The weather is so hot that Hawaii’s temperate breezes feel icy.
There is no septic system (people use the reef). There is no television. The people suffer from worms, bacterial infections and vitamin deficiency. The island’s CASA plane has masking tape to connect the wings to the engine.
The upside is vivid sunrises and sunsets, extreme body boarding on waves that could smash you to bits and wind surfing.
Troost has an easygoing narrative. It’s leisurely but not simplistic. Interspersed with stories of every day life, Troost adds in geographic, demographic and cultural facts about Kiribati and its culture.
If I had one criticism, it was that the author’s meandering style could bog down the reader. His self admitted penchant towards digression was most evident (for me anyway), in the first two chapters. After that, I either got used to it, or it worked. I think it was a little bit of both.
The book is funny. Laugh out loud funny. Upon seeing a Thresher shark while boating to a neighboring island, Troost recalls:
I suddenly noticed how small our boat was. I remembered that it was made of plywood. Thin plywood. Thin and old plywood. Thin and old and rotting plywood. Imperceptibly, I moved to the middle of the boat. What were we thinking, washing fish blood off the deck in shark-infested waters?
One other strength of the book was the active versus passive descriptions:
Venturing into the turquoise water, we swam among coral and fish of dazzling color. An incoming tide taunted us by spitting into our snorkels and hurling us perilously close to the boulders that cropped up in the most inconvenient of places. We turned to swim back to the beach, when suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by dolphins, a school of twenty-some intent on displaying a playful form of perfection, gleefully leaping into the air, twisting and turning, before falling back into the sea, and as they swam around us they seemed as happy to see us as we them, which could not be possibly be true.
After two years, Troost and his girlfriend leave the island and travel back to the United States. The description of culture shock elicited more chuckles from me. You would think it would be easy to acclimate back to toilets, air condition, and 32 different kinds of pancake syrup. That was not the case.
In reading about the Kiribati lifestyle, it’s hard not to think “thank gawd I live in civilization.” But as the author points out, no culture (island or continental) is a complete paradise. Saints and sinners abound in people and policy. Common sense is worth cultivating and beware of snakes.
- Author spotlight: J. Maarten Troost (threebookishgirls.wordpress.com)
- Country Profiles: Kiribati (trifter.com)
- Entire nation of Kiribati has to move to avoid rising seas (grist.org)