Getting Stoned with Savages: Tripping Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu is the second offering from travel writer, J. Maarten Troost. I read and adored his first book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, a few years ago and fell instantly in love with Troost's humor and candor. So, as you might imagine, when I heard about Getting Stoned with Savages, I quickly and single-mindedly stalked it on BookMooch.com until I had a pristine copy in my talons.
Maarten and his wife, Sylvia, after returning from a harrowing few years on the South Pacific atoll of Tarawa, resume a somewhat normal life in Washington, D.C. Maarten, with an eye on earning a living, takes a job as a consultant for the World Bank but soon finds that he is inching dangerously closer to what seems a full-blown career. With that horrifying fact in mind, he promptly gets fired and the Troosts set off for a life in Vanuatu, a small, rugged cluster of islands. Sylvia works for an international aid organization and earns a Western living that comes in handy on Vanuatu, and the arrangement leaves Maarten the time and opportunity to write. When Sylvia becomes pregnant the family relocates to the slightly more "civilized" Fiji where they round out their latest round of island adventures.
While both of Troost's travel memoirs have undoubtedly catchy titles, this second offering has much more to do with its respective title than Troost's first book. On the islands of Fiji and Vanuatu a most popular social activity is the consumption of a hallucinogenic drink called kava. Traditionally produced by the chewing of a root by male adolescents and then mixing with water, the kava is then served in bars (shacks more like) called nakamals. Shortly after arriving in Vanuatu, Maarten and Sylvia have the pleasure of consuming a few "shells" of kava. Troost writes:
Clearly this was different than drinking wine. With kava, one didn't admire its lush hue, or revel in its aromatic bouquet, or note the complex interplay of oak and black currant. This was more like heroin. Its consumption was something that was to be endured. The effect was everything. What concerned me, however, was not the taste but the possibility that this bowl of swirling brown liquid may have had as one of its essential ingredients the spit of unseen boys, which, frankly, I found a little off-putting.
Much to Maarten's relief, a friend informs him that while the chewing of the kava is generally the preferred method because it produces a supremely potent product, the kava they ingest is simply ground and strained through a sock. Better? Perhaps.
The kava story is just one of many instances that are enlivened by Troost's humor. But beyond the blatant out-loud laughing that I did while reading the book, there's also a real humanity and wonder in Troost's writing. The overall theme of the work is aptly expressed when he writes, "Paradise was a place that could be seen only from a distance, but it pleased me knowing that we lived so close to it."
Quite literally there is a dark side to island life. The islands harbor a history of cannibalism, there is overwhelming poverty, rampant prostitution, and political instability. On the side of the positive, however, the majority of the people are friendly and welcoming and willing to help the foreigners along in their new surroundings. In a more philosophical way, Maarten begins to see that while chasing paradise has been a good experience for his family, and they quite often find it in even the most outrageous of circumstances, at some point it becomes important to pursue a type of paradise near family and friends, even if it means rejoining the Western world with all of its bustle and baggage.
I think what I admire most about Troost's writing is his supreme respect for the cultures in which he lives. While he is quick to make jokes about his feelings and reactions to new cultural experiences, he is also more than willing to devote time to real evaluation of the culture's economy, hardships, priorities, and the well-being of native peoples. What sets the Troost family apart from the tourists they often encounter on the islands is an honest willingness to engage with the culture, observe it, and try to avoid infringing on the world in which they live, even if some parts of their character and situation will always make them outsiders. It is this attitude of curiosity and respect which really makes me a fan of J. Maarten Troost and his adventures.