Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island is about Peter Rudiak-Gould’s one-year teaching assignment on the island of Ujae in the Marshall Islands for the WorldTeach Program. Paul Theroux started his travel writing career writing about his time in Africa with the Peace Corps and I hope that this book begins the long writing career of Peter Rudiak-Gould.
It is inevitable that any travel writer with a sense of humour will be compared to Paul Theroux. What I enjoyed about Rudiak-Gould’s sense of humour is it is more kind-hearted and optimistic whereas Theroux’s can at times be sarcastic, bitter, and without hope. Part of this can be attributed to youth as Rudiak-Gould was 21 when he taught in the Marshalls and is 26 now.
Our knowledge of the Marshall Islands comes from its World War II legacy as the Marshall Islands was part of the island hopping campaign. Kwajelien Atoll in the Marshalls was taken by U.S. forces in February of 1944. The Marshall Islands are also known for a more unfortunate incident with nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in 1946. Thanks to this book readers will learn a lot more about the Marshall Islands, its people, and their culture.
What I like best about this book is the description of the behaviour of the locals. He does it in a light-hearted hilarious way, but his anecdotes never patronize the Marshallese. Mr. Rudiak-Gould is currently pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology and this side of him is evident in the book as he is always making an attempt to understand the culture.
When immersed in another culture one always understands their own better. The author constantly contrasts the two cultures and their differences. One of his favourite pastimes on the island was to sit around and talk with the men all day. He notes this is something that is not done in our society as everyone is too busy to just sit around and chill. Any awkward pause in a conversation is an opening for someone to say “got to go,” and hit the road in the U.S.
Due to aid from the west and other inventions the men’s traditional job of hunting and gathering is not as time consuming and gives many an opportunity to just hang out. The author once asked a man what he had planned for the day. He pensively considered the question for thirty seconds and replied “lie down.”
Travel readers want to be taken to a place they have never been before and live vicariously through the adventures of the author. Rudiak-Gould has a great talent to take the reader with him on his trip. Whether he is snorkelling in one of the prettiest coral reefs in the world or spear fishing or harvesting food on an outer island with his host family he does a terrific job of taking us with him.
One of my favourite parts is when he takes a boat to visit another volunteer on Arno Atoll. What looked like a beautiful day to sail turned into rough seas once past the safety of the lagoon as waves crested to ten feet and the sea turned into a tempest. The account that follows is a good example of the witty and vibrant humour that permeates the book.
Children began crying. I became violently seasick. I steadied myself on a bench, only to find at the next large wave that the bench wasn’t attached to the floor. Then the crew caught an enormous fish – this was not a fishing boat, but they had line out, just in case – and so, in the midst of this watery chaos, there was suddenly a leviathan flopping like mad on the deck, and the men were trying to subdue the monstrous beast with the age-old technique, no doubt perfected over many generations, of hitting it repeatedly on the head with a hammer.
After describing the island, its inhabitants, and their culture the last chapter is dedicated to the global warming problem as the author is currently studying the Marshallese reaction to the growing crisis. This end adds a sombre, serious, important conclusion to the book.
Rudiak-Gould describes what islands mean to him. To him they are “isolation, isolation is differentness, differentness is possibility, and possibility is hope.” To me that passage exemplifies my love of travel. Travel is like an island in this way as any future trip is full of hope. This is what is so great about this novel too. Despite his troubles acclimating to the island, and they were many, there is hope, despite his difficulties teaching there is hope, despite the serious crisis in global warming there is hope. The author finds his hope in the kindness and generosity of the Marshallese people. Even if the worst case scenario comes true and the islands disappear the people will remain.
If there is one travel book that you read this year let this be the one. It was named the National Geographic book of the month in November of 2009.
Disclosure: The author was sent a complimentary copy of the book by the publisher. In no way was this gift a motivation to write this positive review. The above review is an accurate and honest reflection of my reaction to the book. Had I not liked it I would have decided not to write anything.
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