J. Maarten Troost is one of the most entertaining travel writers at work these days. His best-selling tales of life on South Pacific islands you have never heard of – “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” and “Getting Stoned with Savages” are contemporary classics.
He returns to the South Pacific in “Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story.” Troost is no longer getting stoned with savages – or anyone else for that matter – as he has become a recovering alcoholic. While he talks about his struggle with drinking at some length in “Headhunters,” the book is mostly his account of a journey around the South Pacific in the footsteps of “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Troost, though sober, has not lost his trademark wit and humor, as on board a cargo ship to the Marquesas’, he bunks with a family of “cheerful gnomes” from Lyon.
“Ca va bien Maarten?” Edgar had said after we made introductions, as he would every time we encountered each other, whether in the dining hall or outside the shower stall. He was seventy-five years old, the patriarch, and his hair tumbled below his neck, Dungeons and Dragons style. I suspected 1974 was a very fine year for Edgar, and he had seen no need to move on. He spoke with a raspy, phlegmatic voice that suggested a pretty serious nicotine habit back in the day. In clogs, he stood approximately four foot ten. “
“Oui. Ca va tres bien. Et vous?”
“Merveilleux,” he said, and then as the ship rolled in the swell he lurched toward a sink and hurled the remnants of lunch.
His journey included a return to Kiribati, the island nation where he and his wife had once lived, and which he had written about in “The Sex Lives of Cannibals.”
There is not a more spectacular sight than that of the sun descending to crimson and orange grandeur along the equator, its wispy light casting radiant flares across the expanse of the lagoon and the cascade of palms following a sliver of land to the horizon. . . . The tide had come in and I watched it rise. And rise. And rise. Soon, it was bubbling beneath me, seeping into the seawall, and escaping like babbling fountains. . . The island was sinking, its destiny foretold in the great beauty of the gathering sea.
“Headhunters on My Doorstep” is a delightful antidote to the mid-winter blahs.
In the bestselling “Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid,” Troost covers new ground: China.
He starts out with the best of intentions, wanting to check out the country before possibly moving his family there.
It seemed important to try to understand this place. Besides, I like a little dissonance in my life. And the prospect of shifting one’s gaze from the smallest countries in the world to its largest was supremely discordant. . . I was off to the bookstore. It was time to learn Chinese.
Readers beware: if a trip to China has always been a dream, well it could be more of a nightmare. From eating everything from live squid that hop out of the bowl onto the table to cat-burgers, from the world’s worst air pollution and squatter toilets to bordello hotels, Troost regales with an eye-opening view of a nation in transition.
For the most part, he does not seem to love China. When his friend Jack briefly joins him, he sums things up:
As we got up to leave, Jack gave the running tally. “Fake watches, cat-burgers, ‘Free Bird’ on the jukebox, apocalyptic air and SARS.”
“You got it,” I said. “Welcome to China.”
While he covers a lot of ground seeking a serene China that resonates with history and charm, the closest he gets to this is in Tibet, which has – for the time being – managed to retain its age-old ways in the face of China’s relentless push for industrialization and modernization.
Funny and thought-provoking, “Lost on Planet China” is a portrait of a country and people that will change the face of Planet Earth.
“Headhunters on My Doorstep” and “Lost on Planet China” are available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.