Reviewing J. Maarten Troost's Getting Stoned with Savages

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These days I have an unwavering compulsion to read every strong travel narrative under the sun about the destination I'm next approaching. Sadly, since I'm not always heading to Paris or New York, I often only have one choice in novel, and Fiji was no exception. The only book that reached my awareness and my local library was Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost, which wears a title that simultaneously excites and annoys me. I've heard this Dutch/Canadian/American's books touch on "Look how funny I am," and I've also seen his coverage of the South Pacific make lists like "The Top 50 Travel Narratives."

I read his chapters on Fiji before I traveled there and read the entire book upon landing back in America. I am now fully prepared to go at these pages with a critical eye.

The Storyline

Troost wakes up one day and finds himself a career man. After living exciting years on cannibalistic islands in the South Pacific, this path appears more scary to him than rabid dogs with chainsaws and opposable thumbs. His wife accepts a job that relocates them to Vanuatu, where she helps develop struggling community projects and he soaks it all in for a future book.

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With a home base of Port Vila, a surprisingly expensive and ex-pat-ridden city stuck in colonial times, Troost introduces himself to all aspects of the local culture: the political climate, history, cannibalism, and especially, as the title gives away, kava. Within their time in this nation, he also had to battle active volcanos, cyclones, and giant poisonous centipedes.

When the couple discovers they're expecting an offspring, they make the move to Fiji, which has more promising options in health care (and that's not saying much at all for that of Vanuatu's). Troost sinks his little toesies into the wonder that is Fiji - both the complex history and culture as well as the paradisiacal sun-swept isles. Once again, he weathers all sorts of difficult experiences: a landslide in his backyard, an 18-hour local ferry ride, cultural miscommunications, and, of course, more kava. His child is born. A year or so later, they return stateside. Finito.

The Author's Voice

The title is a perfect segue into the content of this book. Troost even includes a disclaimer at the beginning, stating If I have to alter reality to tell a better story, I will. This is not a Bill Bryson, meticulously-researched piece of work. This is somewhere between a beach read and an introduction to the foreign world of the South Pacific.

I could almost hear the snaps and "ba-dum-chings" the author probably threw to the side as he typed this book on his laptop. The experience of reading this was like listening to my brother tell a story three beers deep. Above everything, Troost is about entertaining. I almost place this book in a different category than the rest of my travel narratives, for most don't try to infuse themselves so noticeably into the pages over the local experience.

Rereading this review thus far, it sounds as though I didn't enjoy the book. On the contrary, my friendly readers. I thought his nonchalance in times of turmoil, his descriptions of the scary and fantastical, and his mild self-deprecation made the read very unique and infectious. I almost feel like he's a relative, someone to whom I can relate easily.

One thing I definitely related to was his description of being a writer:

Writing, of course, is the most solitary of endeavors. You simply sit inside your own head for a while - and what a strange place that can be - and hopefully, after four or five hours, you have seven hundred words to show for it and you call it a good day. Now and then you find yourself wishing you had a co-worker, someone to complain with, just for form's sake, about the incompetent boss and the appalling work conditions, and you realize its time to get out more.

Reliving My Fiji

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There's no doubt this was an emotional read for me after coming back from The Nakavika Project. And this wasn't for reasons of regret. I didn't learn anything about Fijian culture I didn't already know from one week of visiting Nakavika this summer, so the hand-to-head "stupid, stupid" movement wasn't inspired for reasons of not knowing what I should have. But the difficult cultural issues of which Troost had mild observations, I had traumatic episodes trying to deal with. I relived some sad moments while perusing these pages.

Taking note of his approach to Fiji, we were not on the same war path. And though I am still coming to terms with my approach to Fiji, it appears Troost mainly traveled on the surface, even though he was in Fiji for a good amount of time and somewhat infused with the local community. That's absolutely fine, but I was hoping this read, this Fijian disquisition that seemingly stands alone, would tap into traditional Fiji and reveal vital information that would make a fellow American feel more equipped.

I guess I was hoping Troost would guide me toward mental preparedness. Maybe that's what Lonely Planet is for.

The Bottomline

This book is entertaining, which isn't hard not to reason by simply looking at the cover design. And if you're using this book to learn something specifically about these two destinations, Vanuatu and Fiji, be sure you don't approach the pages expecting it to be something it's not. Read a guide book for more accurate information on the culture and history. Troost likes to spin these numerous details into one or two witty sentences.

Between the two South Pacific nations, Vanuatu's traditional world receives more limelight and attention, probably because this world is less globalized than Fiji's. Maybe some day, I can offer a full-length study of the traditional Fiji I encountered and give Troost some competition.

Have you read this book before? What is your take on Troost's voice of the South Pacific?