Thursday, August 31, 2017

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

by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library

Getting Stoned With Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu
J. Maarten Troost

Just as in his previous book that I’ve blogged, The Sex Lives Of Cannibals, Maarten Troost has provided another highly readable travel book on the South Pacific which sports a title that is pulpy, doesn’t give a good indication of the book’s contents, and speaks more of crass publisher marketing than author-chosen design. Once again, this doesn’t matter much because the book is entertaining, funny, and insightful.

After their Tarawa stay documented in Sex Lives, Maarten and his wife Sylvia, now back home in the U.S., have gotten fed up with their hectic and materialistic life here. They miss the Pacific. Not its craziness, danger, and deprivation, but its simplicity, quiet, and relaxed way of life. Knowing you can’t have that second group without the first, Sylvia jumps at a Vanuatu development aid job. Maarten tags along as usual to do his writing thing.

Vanuatu is part of an island nation in the South Pacific, also called Vanuatu. Like Tarawa (part of the nation of Kiribati), it gained its independence a few decades ago and is getting used to modern government. Vanuatu has nine active volcanoes, shark-infested waters, serious poverty, and a fabulously corrupt government. What could go wrong? A lot, but it does have astonishingly pretty beaches, friendly locals, more language diversity than anywhere on earth, and an actual surviving cargo cult. All of these negatives have a positive side and the positives have a negative side, so it can get very nuanced, as well as confusing. Vanuatu has a winning medieval legend that involves two men somehow called Roy and Gary. This reminded me of the peasant Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I can’t help but be entertained by Maarten’s throw-yourself-in-there approach to foreign countries. On arriving in Vanuatu, he promptly gets himself and Sylvia stuck the first time he drives, does a lot of things without thinking, and often pratfalls. But he makes friends despite himself. He admits he has “no aptitude for the mechanical realm,” something that I can resonate with. You think, if he can do all that and still end right side-up, so could I. At least if I had a forgiving, breadwinning Sylvia equivalent by my side. I did in fact once go to Fiji for a few days as a tourist without any serious mishap, but that’s not the same as living there. On second thought, and taking into account the Troost sliding scale, maybe it was.

I did say earlier that the title isn’t accurate, and that’s true, but there is perhaps a kernel of truth here. Maarten hones in on kava in Vanuatu. Kava is derived from the root of a South Pacific pepper plant. This plant has the same scientific name as the stuff that I used to buy over the counter to help me sleep at night, but I guess processing and the matter of what part of the plant you use can make a world of difference. All it did is make me sleep more soundly and feel way too sluggish in the morning which is why I dropped it. There’s no substitute for travel, I guess. And no one ever mentioned it to me in Fiji. Guess I don’t have the Troost touch. This drink is at the center of almost all significant South Pacific social occasions. Maarten thinks it’d be rude not to partake of this mild euphoric beverage, which looks like dishwater and tastes terrible. Sylvia joins in too, but Maarten gets into it in a typically incautious way. It doesn’t cause him to be anti-social, just makes him, for a few hours, become one with, say, that leaf on that tree over there. Sylvia, as always, is patient. But when Sylvia finds herself pregnant, the couple discovers that Fiji is a better place to give birth. This leads to her getting a job in Fiji, and once again Maarten tags along.

When Maarten is establishing the new base in Fiji, he finds one night that his harmless walk has attracted quite a few prostitutes. He really is innocent, I think. Stuff like this just happens to him. Cultural misunderstandings, you see. His natural guilelessness gets him out of this and other Fijian confusions, and that’s part of the fun of the book. Not long after the couple is ensconced in a house, they wake up one morning to find their backyard has totally disappeared. No one had told them about Fijian mudslides. They have a son who adapts better to island life than even his parents. Everyone wants to hold him and say nice things to him, and everyone does. It’s the Fijian way. But not everything is copacetic. The Indians in Fiji don’t trust the native Fijians and vice versa, and all sorts of social discord, including a coup, has come out of this, but the hostility’s much better now that most of the Indians have already left Fiji. But, says a learned local, it was never the Indians anyway; it was the Fijian chiefs who used them as pawns in one of their many political machinations. It’s too bad the Indians (which is to say most of the educated middle class) are gone now, he says. But, then again, maybe the well-informed local has it wrong. There are different schools of thought. Fiji will probably keep on keeping on. One thing I admired when I was a tourist in Fiji is how everybody really seemed to get along. Not so much anymore. Troost helps me to at least begin to understand the Fijian fissures, which confound him as they confound me.

As with Sex Lives, Maarten Troost has come up with another travel book which combines breezy narrative with serious analysis, lad behavior with growing-up accounts, humor and seriousness, astonishing scenery, local gossip, and the picaresque spirit. It also lets you know why Vanuatu kava is better than Fiji kava.

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