Getting Stoned With Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu

Book Review

By Jay Maarten Troost
Broadway Books
Soft cover; 239 pages; US$12.95

Review By Debra Hamel In his best-selling travel memoir The Sex Lives of Cannibals (read my review), J. Maarten Troost chronicled the two years he spent living in Kiribati in the equatorial Pacific with his girlfriend Sylvia. After the period covered by the book Troost spent another two years in Washington D.C. working as, of all things, a "hoity-toity consultant to the World Bank," a change in lifestyle akin to, say, giving up a job on Gilligan's Island to work for Donald Trump. Fortunately the suit and tie and dependable paycheck of buttoned-down life didn't capture Troost, and he and Sylvia left civilization behind again, lured by warmer climes and the laid-back tropical mentality: "Stuff happens, but tomorrow the sun will rise again."

This time the couple moved to Vanuatu--formerly the New Hebrides--a country about the size of Connecticut that's composed of some 80 islands and lies directly on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is to say that it's geologically interesting: Vanuatu has nine active volcanoes and experiences frequent, even daily, earthquakes. But more alarming than the tremors and the lava and the frequent cyclones, more alarming even than the shark-infested waters that put a damper on life in paradise, are the foot-long, poisonous, carnivorous, child-killing centipedes that live in Vanuatu. That's right, killer centipedes. And if you should get up the nerve to take an axe to one of them and, say, chop it into five pieces, it doesn't mean you've done away with it: it means you've now got five killer centipedes running around loose. Paradise has its price.

In addition to recounting his harrowing adventures with the island wildlife, Troost writes about Vanuatu's history and culture and living conditions. He spends a good deal of time describing the experience of drinking kava, a muddy liquid--"to the uninitiated...the most wretchedly foul-tasting beverage ever concocted by Man"--that became Troost's drug of choice on the island. And, happily, Troost put considerable effort into researching the country's long--and relatively recent--history of cannibalism:

"The last officially recorded incident of cannibalism in Vanuatu was in 1969 on the island of Malekula. I was born in 1969, and while I am willing to concede that 1969 is rapidly receding into the dim mists of time, it wasn't that long ago. Humor me. It seemed to me that if people were still officially gnawing at human limbs in 1969, it was more than possible that, since then, there had been some off-the-books cannibalism going on in Vanuatu."

About two-thirds of the way into the book, Sylvia having become pregnant, the couple decided to move to Fiji, where delivery promised to be less nightmarish. Fiji, it turned out, was full of prostitutes, both male and female, and Troost recounts his adventures on that front with his usual good humor.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Troost's first book, was a laugh-out-loud funny, you-must-go-buy-it-now kind of read. (Really, go buy it now.) Getting Stoned with Savages is not quite as good a book. It drags a bit when Troost is talking about Vanuatu's government, for example. But it suffers in comparison only because the author set the bar so very, very high with his first book. Getting Stoned with Savages is a funny book, and Troost's a likeable, self-deprecating, witty guide through the cultures and countries of Vanuatu and Fiji. Since I'll never be going to either country, I'm glad Troost is around to write about them for us. And I hope he winds up writing a great many more books.

Debra Hamel studied classics as an undergraduate at The Johns Hopkins University and again as a graduate student at Yale, where she specialized in ancient history. Since receiving her Ph.D. in 1996 she has published a number of scholarly articles and reviews as well as publications for a general audience, including several articles that have appeared in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. (For a complete list of her classics publications, click here.) Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, Connecticut.

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