This book is a memoir about the author’s time on various islands in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM); with particular attention to the islands of Yap, Pig, and Palau. Also Anguar. (Alex also visits Guam but since I’ve already done Guam on this blog I left it out. As the author didn’t go to Star Sand Beach or encounter any sea snakes but did patronize the McDonald’s, you really haven’t missed much.)
Do you have a screen saver of a beach with palm trees on your work computer? I did. Alex did too. He started an Internet start-up in New York and ran it for five years. He wasn’t happy. He quit, broke up with his girlfriend, stopped seeing his pretentious college roommate and moved to a very sparsely populated island in search of Paradise. But, as Jon Kabat-Zinn is fond of saying, wherever you go, there you are. Alex still wasn’t happy.
The people he meets have few possessions. But they seem content, or at least more content than Alex. When a Palauan named Gibson takes Alex fishing, Alex asks if Gibson ever wants a bigger boat or a newer motor, and the man looks at him as if he’s sprouted two heads. No, he says. Duh.
One of the reasons I wanted to read this particular ex-pat story is that Alex has taken 100 books with him to read in the islands–100 of the books he feels the most guilty about never having read, such as Moby Dick–and he next reads a tract by a professor who believes that happiness can be calculated by the following equation:
material possessions (divided by)
desire for material possessions
So you can either increase your material possessions or decrease your desire for them or both, and voila! You’re happy. And of course, if you have more material possessions than the people around you, then you are happier. And I thought to myself as I read, um yes, bullshit. This is the problem with Capitalism.
Compared to the Palauans, Alex is very wealthy–able to travel halfway around the world to live on a whim–and yet…he isn’t happy. He knows almost nobody in the islands and has few social interactions. He is so lonely that he schedules himself to speak to strangers at least once per day, including topless middle-aged women at the laundromat. Even when all his clothes are clean. When Alex finally begins forming friendships, life gets better for him. HMMMM
The people in the islands seem to love Americans. One man tells him that during WWII, the Japanese had put his grandfather and many of his relatives to work building a huge tunnel. Right before it was completed, the Americans liberated the islands, and it was only then that they discovered that the Japanese had planned to herd all 3,000+ Palauans into the tunnel and blow it up with dynamite.
About 60 people seem to live on Yap, but there are no beaches. The liquor store sells two things–beer, and vodka. Alex applies to the Council of Chiefs, who think his name is Eric, for permission to visit the even less populated island of Pig. It is touch and go for awhile, until he jokingly asks if the chiefs of the other islands would like him to bring gifts of women or cigarettes. This cracks them up, and they encourage him to take smokes as gifts.
Alex arrives with 50 packs of Lucky Strikes and 50 packages of strawberry pop tarts. He is very popular. He retires to the Men’s Hut with Chief Paul and about 40 others, and they relax, smoke, and talk. Chief Paul tells him that they have run out of cigarettes six months previously. Alex is introduced to the one Republican on the island, who listens to Rush Limbaugh on his radio. All the others are Democrats. They ask him to explain how the Americans ended Communism. They watch the one video they possess–a US Army training exercise on how to put on a gas mask.
Alex gets his scuba diving certification from a very dodgy company and will probably die underwater. There is a famously strong ocean current on his first dive, and you have to jam a rod into a rock and hold on, or you’ll be swept off the other side and your dive is over. Alex makes it but two other people on his dive miss the rock and flash by him up, up, and away.
Coming back, he sees a group of people about to go for a midnight kayak paddle and is invited to join. That’s how he meets…Sarah. Quickly realizing that they share the same sardonic sense of humor, they decide to paddle away from the others, slip into the water, swim up to one of the other kayaks, and tip it over. They do this in the dark. Sarah is not wearing her glasses. From under the water, the other kayak is surprisingly stable. They push with all their might, but nothing happens. They burst out of the water shouting ARRRRRRGH and discover they have been trying to tip over…a rock.
The real formula for happiness becomes apparent, and Alex now has a friend. An upgrade to girlfriend would surely upgrade his happiness, I think, and sure enough, the two begin dating. What will happen on the island of Angaur?
- Will the two try to build a house together?
- How will they take care of the baby monkey they are gifted? Will they be able to return him to his family in the jungle, or is it already too late?
- Since lawyer Sarah’s contract with the Palauan Supreme Court is up, and she is returning to California, can she and Alex possibly have a future together?
- What does Alex want to do with the rest of his life? Will he figure it out in time?
I enjoyed the author’s self-deprecating humor, learning facts about the islands such as, due to everyone’s chewing betel nut and spitting on the floor, the walls and floor of the courthouse are painted red. I particularly enjoyed the way each chapter starts, like a school textbook, with the words: What You Can Expect to Learn in This Chapter: followed by two questions like:
- While jogging with the president of Palau, is it appreciated to bring up a movie about a fictional small country that invades the United States only to find its invasion ignored?
- What might the president have hidden in his exercise towel?
(The answer to the second question is a tape recorder.) The President is a savvy man who, while trusting, also protects his own interests. And the answer to the first question is: laughter from the Pres.
Every Town Has Its Ups And Downs
While I read the book wanting a vicarious Paradise experience of warmth, swimming in clear water with tropical fish, beauty, and feasts of lobster and mangos and pina coladas at the bar, etc., and I got some of that, it was great to be reminded that even Paradise has the good AND the bad. Alex is constantly plagued by sand flies, flies, mosquitos, and other horrid insects. He gets bored a lot. On Pig, the inhabitants cruelly butcher an endangered leatherback turtle and when Alex eats the grilled meat, he gets firehose diarrhea. The monkey that he and his girlfriend adopt comes to them because a Philippine hunter has shot its mother for a $10 bounty–the macaques eat betel nuts, apparently. One day while hiking, Alex grabs the trunk of a tree for support and gets a welt on his hand that lasts for a week. And of course, there are the ugly Americans who think Palauans are lazy and stupid. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–if you don’t like foreign countries, why not stay home?!
One of the most beautiful parts of the book is when Alex and Sarah go to swim in Jellyfish Lake. It’s a tea-colored lake in the middle of one of Palau’s Rock Islands. It’s home to six million golden medusa jellyfish which have been isolated from predators for millennia and lost their ability to sting. Every day, they migrate across the lake, following the sun and returning overnight. They range from the size of a pea to the size of a cantaloupe. In the colder water below, live moon jellyfish, the very ones which gave swimmer Diana Nyad such trouble as she attempted her historic swims from Cuba to the US. Here, they are also stingless.
“I made a mental note: if I ever felt that all was not quite right in the universe, I’d just think that at this very moment, six million friendly cantaloupes in pink tutus were slowly pulsing their way across a small, tea-colored lake in the middle of a remote island in the Western Pacific.”
Rating: Five coconuts with straws!