Island of the Colorblind (Guam)

book coverby Oliver Sacks

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

A famous neurologist (Sacks) , a Norwegian colorblind man (Knut), and a scientist named Bob go into a sakua bar. They drink the slimy, grey, pulpy liquid and feel really peaceful and stare at the stars all night. Some see colors, one sees only luminescence.

Actually the title of this book is a misnomer (at least for my blog) because the colorblind bits take place on Pohnpei and Pingelap in the Federated States of Micronesia. What the Chamorro people of Guam and Rota (and Saipan and a single place in Japan) suffer from, in great numbers, is a mysterious and fearful illness called lytico-bodig. It presents in a number of ways: like Alzheimer’s, like Parkinson’s, like Lou Gerig’s Disease (ALS) and/or like the post-encephalitic illness many of Sacks’ patients suffered from in the movie Awakenings. (Westerners call it ALS-PDC.)

Cycad trees

There are a bunch of theories as to why the Chamorro people suffer the disease in such high numbers–one theory is that it is somehow related to their use of a particular seed from the jungle. From the cycad tree–an ancient the dinosaurs may have munched on–it’s poisonous until the seeds are thoroughly soaked. Hm. Ancient neurotoxins? Bring it on!

What I Loved About This Book

This book is a botanist’s dream: full of not only beautiful descriptions of the mysterious jungles on the islands of Guam, Rota, and others, but with lovely  hand-sketches as well.

beach in GuamThe search for disease origins fascinated me, as well as the descriptions of the people and families living with the disease. The relief on Tomasa’s face; the satisfaction in her eyes when Doctor John says that her daughter is in no danger of getting the lytico-bodig: nobody in the younger generation is getting it, thank God. They don’t know why, but it is enough.

And What I Didn’t

Even more than some tropical islands, Guam has had a rough colonial history, having been the property of Germany, Spain, Japan, and now America. And I was totally indignant, as was the author, when he and his Chamorro colleague Phil were harassed when wanting to enter the U.S. military base to swim at the best beach on the island, now off-limits to most. The site where the most beautiful and oldest village in Guam was destroyed by American and Japanese fighting in WWII. With the graveyard of the Chamorro people’s relatives and ancestors, and they get hassled every time they want to go pay their respects. On their own land, where they have lived since 200 B.C.

StarfishSometimes I’m so proud of my country I just can’t stand it. Sigh.

Oh, and get this: Many of the power outages on Guam are really snake-outs. Brown tree-climbing snakes get up to the top of power poles and fry themselves, causing a power outage. Courtesy of a U.S. Navy ship during WWII. (I have to wonder, since humans are so good at making species go extinct, why we couldn’t have managed that here.) There are no native birds on Guam anymore–no birds at all, in fact, thanks to these non-indigenous snakes. Ugh.

Guam beachCaveat: I would have preferred that the meaty 100 pages of endnotes had been footnotes instead, so I could have enjoy them as I was going along.

Nonetheless–a fabulous read, part travelogue, part medical mystery, part history, a little bit of comedy thrown in. Really different from Sacks’ other books.

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