My #TripLit pick for August: Headhunters on My Doorstep, by J. Maarten Troost
In Reflections on a Marine Venus, Lawrence Durrell wrote:
“I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people…who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication. These born ‘islomanes’…are direct descendants of the Atlanteans.”
As a confirmed islomane myself, I can think of no expedition more alluring than a slow sail among the islands of the South Seas.
In his new travel memoir, Headhunters on My Doorstep, author J. Maarten Troost reveals himself to be a fellow descendant of the Atlanteans. Headhunters is a sequel of sorts to his best-selling debut travelogue, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which described his two-year stay in his mid-20s on the tiny island of Tarawa, in the Republic of Kiribati, in the Gilbert Islands.
In Headhunters, he returns to this same region 15 years later determined to recuperate from an extended battle with alcoholism — and to celebrate a year of sobriety — by tracing the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, who famously settled on Samoa after restlessly roaming the isles of the South Seas. (It was Stevenson, roamer par excellence, who penned the wanderluster’s motto: “I travel not to go anywhere but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”)
Troost’s quest takes him by boat and biplane to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, and the Gilberts before ending in Samoa. Along the way he encounters a cavalcade of characters, from a French Foreign Legionnaire turned island chef to an adventure-inspiring young local he nicknames Shark Boy. He also crafts exquisite paragraphs that capture the seductive beauty of the islands, such as this description of his first view of Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas:
It wasn’t merely the light. Dawn can make a snowdrift in North Dakota look like the frozen tear of God. Or no, perhaps it was the light, the merging clarity of the equatorial sun, illuminating a tumble of ravines and coarse, ragged cliffs; a vegetation that seemed to change its composition the higher one looked; a lush jungle cacophony below, and then as you gazed higher, up to the lofty, eminent peaks of jagged mountains, where a few clouds swirled around saw-toothed summits, a sharp, barren greenness, the crests of newborn mountains.
Troost also unsheathes the same laugh-out-loud wit that marked Cannibals. On Fatu Hiva, for example, he describes a transporting horseback journey into the lush and little-visited interior of the island with a local woman named Celine. When they reach the poignant site of an old, abandoned village, Troost writes,
What was really striking about the site was an enormous, six hundred year old banyan tree that loomed over the village and the surrounding forest. It made me think of Avatarfor some reason, a giant tree of life and mystery.
“Here’s where we killed the victims,” Celine said.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the tree of life.
Because of his experience living in the islands — in addition to his two years on Kiribati, he has also lived on Fiji and Vanuatu — Troost is an insightful guide, who can see beyond the superficial shimmer to the complexities underneath, such as the plight of seemingly idyllic Kiribati, which is being submerged by rising ocean waters so rapidly that the government is making plans to relocate its citizens to Fiji.
Ultimately, Troost’s tale is a celebration of persistence: his own persistent refusal to be seduced by alcohol, Stevenson’s persistent triumph over the tuberculosis and other diseases that wracked his body but didn’t conquer his spirit until he succumbed at the age of 44 on his beloved Samoa, and the persistent allure of those far-flung tropical specks of sand, as much fantasy as reality perhaps, but essential all the same.