Author: J. Maarten Troost
Title: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication Date: June 8, 2004
Length: 272 Pages
Price: $10.20 on Amazon
A lighthearted tale of extreme wanderlust, The Sex Lives of Cannibals chronicles the adventures of Maarten Troost and his fiancé as they abandon their cushy lives in DC for the remote atoll of Tarawa in the equatorial pacific. To accurately envision the scale of Tarawa, think of the smallest and most remote land you can imagine—and then cut the remoteness and the land area in half, and then in half again. This is Tarawa: just over 100 square miles, the largest atoll in the Kiribati (pronounced “Kiri-bas”) Islands, smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, along the equator.
Straight out of grad school and in search of adventure, Maarten and his fiancé Sylvia quit their jobs in Washington, DC upon Sylvia’s hiring by an international nonprofit. They were shortly thereafter sent to Tarawa, the adventure they’d been hoping for. Maarten, well, he planned to come along for the ride, relax, and maybe write a novel; and come along for the ride he did, but relaxation and writing? Not so much. Tarawa was anything but what he expected. It turns out that the equator is, well, hot. So hot, in fact, hat Maarten has a difficult time remember what it feels like to not be drenched in sweat.. The cultural differences between him and Sylvia and the I-Kiribati were steep. Maarten explains that he could get on board with drinking at all hours of the day, but defecating in the water for everyone to see was a hard no. Other things were less easy to pick and choose: Maarten and Sylvia ate fish for nearly every meal, because apparently, as he found out, shipping resources to a small atoll in the middle of the South Pacific is harder than it seems; they listened La Macarena on a two-year endless loop, because just like the food, there was little musical variety; and they learned to live in close proximity with bugs, and stopped blinking over picking ants out of their food. They wanted adventure, and adventure they surely encountered.
Despite these challenges, Maarten and Sylvia stuck it out in Tarawa for nearly two years. Through his insightful and comical narrative, Maarten paints a picture of his life in a new home—albeit, a strange home—that taught him about friendship, culture, and community.
Review and Reflection:
Travel writing can sometimes be dry, too factual and tedious to get through. As a reader, these are the very characteristics that turn me off of most travel writing; so, needless to say, I expected a lot from The Sex Lives of Cannibals when I began reading… and I was certainly not disappointed. Troost’s narrative is witty, charismatic, and funny. Side splittingly funny, to be precise. The very setting of Tarawa can seem depressing to most at first glance. Not only is it small, but it is also heavily polluted and depleted of important resources. It is so small and overlooked that most historians and readers only associate Tarawa with a bloody battle from World War II (“Battle of Tarawa – World War II”). Despite these characteristics that would make most, myself admittedly included, run as far from Tarawa as possible, Troost embraces that which is unfamiliar to him with humor. It makes for a lighthearted book that is easy for all to enjoy. Even if you can’t relate directly with life on Tarawa, you can relate with Troost’s clever humor.
Readers should not mistake the overwhelming humor of Troost’s narrative for a lack of depth. I learned as much as I laughed while reading The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Each chapter in this book addresses a different aspect of life in Tarawa. This includes the nation’s history, the ways of its people, and important political and human rights issues that currently plague the people of Tarawa and beyond. Consequently, insight into Sylvia’s work with the I-Kiribati government reveals the complexities of foreign policy and problem solving. I’d venture to say that the majority of Americans don’t know the first thing about life in the South Pacific. I couldn’t imagine a more animated way to learn than through narratives like Troost’s.
Many customer reviews of The Sex Lives of Cannibals accuse Troost of being too funny, too all over the place (Amazon.com). They assert that his humor is overbearing. Some even go as far as to criticize Troost of appropriating a culture by using the I-Kiribati as the punchline of his jokes. Furthermore, each chapter is interconnected in a loose way. While the book never felt disjointed to me, some reviewers felt like the overall narrative lacked a common thread, and an overall point.
After an in depth read of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, I choose to take these criticisms with a grain of salt. In fact, I argue that they are too narrow, and analyzing Troost’s thoughtful narrative through such a scope limits the important themes to be gained.
Beyond the humor lies a deep appreciation for the I-Kiribati culture. Troost’s adventure into the South Pacific began quickly, and he dove in headfirst. It is for this reason, I believe, that the overall contents of the book can be interpreted as disjointed; however, the nature of good travel writing is usually spontaneous. The spontaneity of Troost’s journey to Tarawa allows for a narrative free of most ethnocentrism. While he does come to the atoll expecting one thing and receives another, the narrative never takes a negative turn for the worst—not even when Maarten gets fed up with his neighbors defecating in the ocean. It is this “pure” line of inquiry that shows how appreciative Troost is of the people and culture that adopt him. Humor aside, the narrative its and intentions are genuine.
Not only does The Sex Lives of Cannibals introduce readers to the spontaneous nature of traveling and an appreciation for those who are different, but it also echoes with important messages of community and friendship. Maarten explains how interdependent the I-Kiribati society is, so much so that is throws Americans like me for a loop. A prime example of this is the bubiti system, the practice of declaring that you would like to have something that belongs to someone else, and that someone else is obligated to give you what they desire. Similarly in Tarawa, boundaries are often ignored, resources are shared, and the overall atmosphere is low stress with little competition. None of this is familiar to Maarten at first, but over the course of his two years he learns to appreciate this new way of doing things. Along the way, he even makes friends in the most unlikely of places. Cultural differences mean little to Maarten or the people of I-Kiribati, who are always welcoming, despite the little they have to share.
The story of Maarten and Sylvia Troost is by no means common. Furthermore, the culture of the I-Kiribati is guaranteed to be unfamiliar to most who choose to read this book. Despite these two facts, there is so much to learn, so much to gain, and so much to relate to in The Sex Lives of Cannibals. It’s more than a funny book, or a series of anecdotes: it is a valuable narrative about an interesting group of people, and all the oddities that happen when wanderlust casts you adrift in the equatorial pacific.
History.com Staff. “Battle of Tarawa.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009,
“The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific Paperback – June 8,