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The Happy Isles of Oceania

happy-isles.jpgNow and then, there are books that seem to carve out a space in my life, and connect to other experiences I'm having. These are also the kinds of books that I wish would keep on going for hundreds more pages.

Paul Theroux's Happy Isles of Oceania, Paddling The Pacific is one of those books for me. It's the last of Theroux's travel books that I hadn't read for one reason or another. Last year, I picked up a copy through the Amazon Marketplace and received a huge, 528-page hardcover a few weeks later. Even then I didn't begin the book, having already begun Theroux's Dark Star Safari.

So, this massive book sat on my shelf, awaiting the day I'd crack it open and start reading. That day came early in 2005, when I happened to remember and look at my copy of Happy Isles — so I took it from the shelf and begun digging in.

To start with I should to make it clear: I am a Paul Theroux fan who especially enjoys his travel writing. Paul has a way of describing a place, and characters living in that place which I can relate to and appreciate. But his style goes a bit further, mixing in his general observations, commentary on his own life and often very strong critique of the places and people he visits, and sometimes even of himself.

The idea behind Theroux's journey across the Pacific was to begin in Meganesia's New Zealand and Australia, then jump from island to island. He sees each island as a "star" scattered across the sky-like Pacific ocean. In the process of his travels, Paul shares his impressions of each country and its people, histories and oddities.

Now, this book in particular seems to contain even more critique than Paul's other books, probably related to the separation from his wife and discovery of possible cancer on his arm, experienced just prior to the start of his trip in 1991.

Theroux is at times pretty hard on the New Zealanders and Aussies with his commentary. He reserves some strong critique later in the book for French colonialism and nuclear testing in the Pacific and the building of resort hotel and golf course playgrounds on islands in the Pacific by the Japanese. He reserves some of his critique of missionaries and Mormons as he encounters them in the Pacific islands.

Some highlights of the book for me were his travels to the Savo Island egg fields in the Solomon Islands, Tonga, the contrast of cultures in Western and American Samoa, the comparison of perception and reality in Tahiti and his visit to the strange place that is Easter Island.

His description of the Hawaiian Islands was also quite interesting, especially his thoughts after spending 2 night stint in a $2,500 US dollar per day bungalow on Maui. Paul was alarmed at how quickly total luxury could spoiled him, so he left to spend a few nights camping on the beach nearby for a mere at $2.50 per day.

Overall the book provides good doses of information and history of places that are quite interesting. His critique challenged me to consider the impact visitors have had on these islands for the past 500 years.

Theroux's story of life on the water reminded me of thoughts I've had for the past year or two — how much of this junk I hang onto do I really need anyway? What could I do without? Would a simpler life free me from much of what I entangle myself with?

I recommend the book, but with the caveat that I am a fan of Theroux and probably have a strong bias toward his style of writing and description. Still, if you're curious about the Pacific from one man's perspective, I think it's worth a read.

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