I have to admit, it feels a bit embarrassing to pick a book entitled Getting Stoned with Savages to represent a country. Nothing like starting out with an insult to the people you want to learn about! But I had previously read another book by the same author, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and found it to be a surprisingly thoughtful description of life in Kiribati, in addition to being funny.
In fact, when I started this project of reading a book for every country, I specified that The Sex Lives of Cannibals could be my one exception to my rule of only including books that I hadn’t read before beginning this the project. After all, there aren’t that many Kiribati books out there and Troost claimed that all of the ones he read were pretty boring. However, since I started the project, a book has been published titled Underwater Eden about how one of the world’s largest marine protected areas was established in Kiribati. With that as my planned Kiribati book, I figured I could justifiably pick up another J. Maarten Troost book as my Vanuatu read.
I’m glad to finally start covering some of the small Pacific island countries. With lots of countries and small population sizes, on a per capita basis the Pacific islands will be getting a disproportionately large amount of coverage in my world survey. They also generally have a story-telling culture that is much more oral than written, which can add to the challenge of finding books to represent them.
Getting Stoned with Savages was a nice light-hearted book, good for reading in bits before falling asleep. Some things I learned about Vanuatu:
- Vanuatu, named New Hebrides at the time, was jointly administed by both England and France simultaneously. They had two governments, two legal systems, two sets of prisons. It’s hard to imagine that going wrong…
- Vanuatu is home to a number of cargo cults, a religious phenomenon that I find quite fascinating. Basically, there was a pre-existing belief about the arrival of material wealth that was fulfilled by the arrival of the Americans in World War II with all sorts of food and supplies. Some groups now build landing strips or fly American flags with the idea that this will attract the wealth again. It’s completely logical, and completely misguided at the same time.
- The country is extremely linguistically diverse. (According to Wikipedia, it has the most languages per capita of any country in the world.) J. Maarten Troost suggests that this is because the volcanic geography of the islands promotes isolation of different groups. I have no idea whether there is any basis to that, but it’s an interesting idea.
- I’m really glad that my house centipedes aren’t a foot long and poisonous!
Overall though, I’d recommend The Sex Lives of Cannibals over Getting Stoned with Savages. Troost himself points out why. When he and his then-girlfriend were living in Kiribati, they were living pretty much like everyone else in Kiribati, in part because they had no choice. There was very little availability of imported food and other resources. In Vanuatu, there was a large expat community in the capital city and they were isolated. He’s pretty snarky about the other expats, but in the end he’s one of them and doesn’t build the same kinds of connections to the local community that he did in Kiribati.