Book Review: “The Sex Lives of Cannibals”

I recently finished reading a great book called “The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift In the Equatorial Pacific” by J. Maarten Troost.

sex lives of cannibals book cover, sex lives of cannibals, j. maarten troost

This book, which is sort of a travelogue-meets-memoir about a guy who travels to “the end of the world” with his girlfriend and lives there for two years, had me laughing out loud every time I picked it up.

After both Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia go through a slew of lackluster post-college jobs, Sylvia accepts a two year contract job with the FSP (The Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific) where she helps create and maintain health, water and sanitation, nutritional and environmental programs for the citizens of Tarawa and the other islands of Kiribati (pronounced kir-ee-bas).

map of tarawa, kiribati
Tarawa: pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Remember the geography books in middle school that featured maps of the world that looked like the world was an orange and someone tried unsuccessfully to peel it and lay the peel flat? I’m pretty sure that Tarawa would be one of the countries that got excluded from that map.

Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, is an atoll, which is defined as a coral island consisting of a reef surrounding a lagoon.

atoll Tarawa map

While Troost certainly does describe the beauty of being on the island such as the extremely deep and vivid hues of blue that he’d never seen before and the freedom that he felt catching waves in the Pacific Ocean, those parts aren’t what made the book funny. The best parts are when he is forced to come to terms with the unhygienic ways of island life and his differences from the I-Kiribati people as an I-Matang (Kiribati word for “white man”).

Horrors On the Lagoon

On his first day on the atoll, Troost cannot withstand the unbearable heat and decides to go for a swim in the lagoon. While he is letting the refreshing waters of the Pacific revive him, he spies two hefty women walking into the shallows. To his utter horror, the women pull up their skirts and empty their bowels right into the water. Troost learns that this is the norm on Tarawa and swims carefully after that.

“La Macarena”

As part of getting adjusted to life on the atoll, Troost learns that the song that has practically become the national song of Kiribati is, strangely enough, “La Macarena”. He does note that even though the song is blasted day and night, it is fortunate that the I-Kiribati never learned the dance moves.

Driven mad by the 120 beat per minute song, Troost resorts to try finding music that the I-Kiribati hate. He plays the Beastie Boys’ “Gratitude”, and Nirvana’s “Lithium” which they like. Then he tries a different approach. He puts on a few minutes of La Bohème which they wrinkle their noses at and then settles on blasting Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which works wonders. “La Macarena” isn’t heard for quite a a while on Tarawa after that.

Other Highlights

Troost’s eloquently written prose was a delight to read. At one point he makes the observation that one of the Kiribati government officials had “the mental capacity of an impaired anemone.” He also describes the feeling of first flying on Air Kiribati as how he feared for his life, but soon the holes in the plane let in a much needed breeze.

The first people to inhabit Kiribati were believed to be Samoan warriors who were cannibals at the time of their discovery of the country. Troost doesn’t delve too far into their sex lives but it makes for a great book title anyhow. I’m curious to read Troost’s follow up book, “Getting Stoned with Savages”.

getting stoned with savages, j. maarten troost

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