Destination: Marshall Islands, Pacific
Book: Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island by Peter Rudiak-Gould (Released November 3)
Do you have a secret wish to travel to a remote Pacific coral island–palm trees, deep blue lagoons, friendly natives, an endless supply of fruit and fish? Then perhaps you should read this as a cautionary travel book. If you were smitten with island in Tom Hank’s movie, Castaway, and still think that a remote island contains Paradise, you may need this book before you travel.
In [amazonify]1402766645::text::::Surviving Paradise[/amazonify], Peter Rudiak-Gould goes looking for Paradise and finds on the tiny island of Ujae–not Hell–but a very difficult existence. Barely twenty-one, ill prepared for his job of teaching English and full of the confidence of a young American man that he can figure out how to deal with anything, his introduction to the island is not auspicious. Instead of the joyous celebratory welcome he had imagined, he sees frozen stares from the children and indifference from the adults.
I stood next to the plane, holding my scant luggage, and wondered if I could pretend there had been some sort of mix-up. “Sorry, this isn’t the Ujae I was looking for,” I would say–which was the truth–and fly back home.
The next day when he sets out to travel around his new home, he finds, “I had circumnavigated the world before lunch.” The island is 1/3 of a square mile large.This tiny world may not consist of a huge amount of land, but it does hold huge surprises for the explorer of cultures.
At first Rudiak-Gould finds the interplay between his expectations and island reality amusing, later it becomes tedious, and then oppressive. The book’s style follows suit. I was laughing out loud on every page in the first few chapters, but found the continuous whining about his difficulties tedious in the middle. I do not dismiss this as a useful book for travelers, however. After all, I don’t like the churlishness of Paul Theroux either, but plenty of people lap up his travel literature.
In the end, this author realizes that although he can analyze and classify the behaviors on this island, he still cannot understand them. The Marshallese still live in a subsistence society, despite the fact that they watch videos that teach the kids gang signs which they flash without knowing their meaning. He says:
What looked like paradise was actually one of the hardest places on earth to live.
I talked the talk and walked the walk–but I did not value the values and believe the beliefs. For all my differences, for all the aspects of their culture I still rejected, did the people of Ujae still, somehow, accept me as their own?
In the end, Rudiak-Gould goes on to graduate school and a project about the Marshallese attitude toward global warming and the rise of the oceans. He returns to the island three years after his first stay to do his anthropological studies. But the first part of the book also has an anthropological feel and frequently not the detached, scientific air of information gatherer, but judgmental comparer of societies. I wished for the conclusion of Adam Gopnik in Paris To The Moon, that neither society is better than the other, they are just different.
The author is appalled at the attitude of the Marshall Islanders at global warming, for example. The book’s subtitle and promotional materials tout the unfortunate future of these islands as ocean levels rise and low-lying coral islands are washed away. However this strikes me as possibly a newsworthy add-on to a book that meant to be about the survival of a subsistence culture both invaded and sometimes improved by American t-shirts, T.V.s, and motor boats.
In the end, although Paradise does not live up to his expectations, Rudiak-Gould declares himself still a romantic, still a traveler who will seek out the impossible remote places. For us, as armchair travelers to remote atolls, the book will be more a cold bath of realism (about a place where cold baths do not exist) than the lure of travel literature.
Sterling Publishers kindly supplied a review copy of this book, and I got the photo from Flickr. You can click on the photo and see more about the photographer.
Is a coral atoll in the Pacific your idea of Paradise? Or have you been there, done that, and bought the made-in-America souvenirs? Or perhaps you’ve been to some of the more touristed islands like Fiji? Please tell us about it in the comment section below.