Booktrotting in Kiribati: The Sex Lives of Cannibals

From the shores of Latin America, I’m setting sail for Oceania and the Pacific island chain of Kiribati, in the company of journalist J. Maarten Troost and his 2004 travelogue, The Sex Lives of Cannibals.


Now this was the South Pacific of my dreams. Stunning natural beauty. Challenges to test my mettle as a manly man. Sharks! Extreme heat! The pounding surf! I would thrive here, I felt.

Amateur adventurer and perennial idler, J. Maarten Troost is unsuited to the modern world of recruitment agencies and financial responsibility. So when his partner Sylvia is offered an NGO post on Tarawa Atoll, capital of the remote Republic of Kiribati, he jumps at the opportunity to uproot himself from Washington D.C. and set up shop at the very edge of the world.

But under the glare of the Equatorial sun, his romantic notions of white surf and sandy beaches quickly pass. As the realities of life in the Pacific hinterland set in, Troost learns that paradise can be a lot harder to stomach without the luxuries of modern sanitation, reliable utilities, and regular shipments of beer…

Kiribati by Vladimir Lysenko / CC-BY-SA
Kiribati, Vladimir Lysenko / CC-BY-SA

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Keer-ee-BAS) is an island chain comprising over thirty atolls and coral reefs, all dotted across the Equatorial Pacific roughly halfway between Australia and Canada. It has a permanent population of little over 100,000 and covers just 310 square miles in land area (about 1/300 of the UK), but with another million square miles of ocean joining it all together.

As you can imagine, Kiribati is not the kind of place to have made much of a mark on the global literary stage. When I started mapping out this Booktrotting project last summer, I knew that I would struggle to make many stops in Oceania’s myriad island nations, where a tradition of written literature has simply never had the right soil in which to grow.

So when I discovered The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost’s memoir of two years spent amongst the Kiribati islands, I knew it had to go on the list. Although Troost is the first to break my Booktrotting pattern of indigenous authors (being the American son of a Dutch-Czech family), I knew that was a compromise I would have to make if I wanted to visit this part of the world at all—a tinted window is, after all, better than no window at all.

And in a way, Troost’s perspective as a total outsider turned out to be an advantage rather than a limitation. Considering how little I knew of Kiribati before reading Sex Lives (besides its being a good answer to most Pointless geography questions), it helped to have my crash-course in life on Tarawa Atoll conducted by someone discovering things from the same lack of foundation as myself.

Maneaba in Babaroroa, Rafael Ávila Coya / CC-BY-SA
Maneaba in Babaroroa, Rafael Ávila Coya / CC-BY-SA

For a book which weighs in at under 300 pages, Troost leaves few stones unturned. Most of Sex Lives‘ twenty-something episodes centre on Troost’s attempts to navigate the many customs, conventions and taboos of the I-Kiribati, and the ways in which they differ from and are similar to his old American lifestyle. From the importance of communal dance to the proper way to sit in the village maneaba, and even how best to confront one’s noisy neighbours—if you were ever thinking of embarking on your own Kiribati adventure, you’d be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive and practical émigré’s guide to your new home than this.

But as fascinating as those details were, what really interested me about Troost’s Pacific sojourn was the picture of the I-Kiribati which emerged between the lines.

Before starting this book, I’d expected the biggest of Troost’s difficulties on Tarawa to be in earning the trust of the cautious, conservative locals. You can hardly blame me: having lived my whole life on the British Isles, it’s difficult to shake the assumption that islanders the world over share our inherent national resistance to change and fear of “outsiders”.

But although the I-Kiribati have and are happy with their way of doing things, the locals in this book showed none of the insularity I was anticipating. As well as Troost and his partner Sylvia, the background of Sex Lives was littered with immigrants of all sorts—doctors and aid workers, government advisors, wanderers laying down roots—and, to hear Troost tell of it, all were as welcome as the next.

You might even remember the bizarre story from the late ’90s of Danny Wilson, the Northampton man who wrote to the President of Kiribati applying to be his nation’s first Poet Laureate. Expecting his request to be laughed straight into the bin, Wilson instead found himself invited out to Kiribati, received by the President himself, and given a hut overlooking the Tarawa lagoon in which to practice his art. And although the President eventually asked Wilson to leave Kiribati, their disagreement only came after the global media attention surrounding Wilson’s appointment (not to mention Wilson’s drunkenness and lack of poetic output) became too much for the I-Kiribati’s liking—had that not been the case, it’s easy to imagine the Poet Laureate would have been welcome on Tarawa as long he liked.

Air Kiribati Harbin Y-12 at Tabiteuea North Airport, Steve Bolton / CC-BY
Air Kiribati Harbin Y-12 at Tabiteuea North Airport, Steve Bolton / CC-BY

Of course, it’s all too possible that Troost may have glossed over any underlying tensions between the I-Kiribati and their foreign neighbours, but nonetheless the relaxed hospitality of Tarawa Atoll felt like a rare fresh breeze in our current climate. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a recurring theme in my following Oceania reads, or if Kiribati’s far-flung location makes its people uniquely amenable to any and all who come wandering through.

Either way, I’ll find out soon enough as I leave Tarawa Atoll and head both southwards and back in time, to the Gold Rush-era New Zealand of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries.

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