Photo: Marshall Islands women palm trees

A location in the tropical Marshall Islands is the setting for Surviving Paradise.

Photograph by Douglas Peebles, Corbis

By Don George

November 2009

Book of the Month: 
Surviving Paradise,
by Peter Rudiak-Gould

It's an iconic fantasy: Plop yourself down on a reef-fringed atoll in the middle of the Pacific and live the vie dorée of the artist-castaway. Robert Louis Stevenson did it. Paul Gauguin did it. And I had a few idyllic moments during a recent visit to Aitutaki when such a romantic notion beckoned. But of course, as anthropologist Peter Rudiak-Gould reveals in his entertaining and enlightening new book, Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island, plant your palapa under the palms and before long paradise turns out to be anything but.

Rudiak-Gould's version of paradise is Ujae, in the Marshall Islands. Located 2,500 miles west of Hawaii, 3,000 miles east of the Philippines, and 120 miles from its nearest islet neighbor, Ujae is a volcanic speck fecund with palm, pandanus, breadfruit, papaya, and banana trees, flanked by a sandy, limpid lagoon and the rocky, roiling Pacific. A pond-dotted palm forest lies in its center, ringed by fish-abounding waters.

Still, as our narrator quickly discovers, Ujae is "more paradox than paradise." This isolated island-village of 450 souls is noisy with bawling babies, squabbling siblings, barking pets, and improbably amped-up music. There are ants and flies everywhere. Belying the bountiful surroundings, the menu consists only of rice and breadfruit. The way the parents treat their children is profoundly unsettling. And if, as for Rudiak-Gould, your mission is to teach the spectacularly unprepared and uninspired local children English, it's best to hunker down for an emotional typhoon.

To his considerable credit, as his year-long teaching stint unfolds, Rudiak-Gould learns the local language and customs, forges friendships with his fellow islanders, and makes peace with his own preconceptions. He immerses himself in Ujae life—from spearfishing and atoll-exploring adventures, to festival celebrations, to birth and death commemorations. Observing closely and thoughtfully, he happily depicts his own humorous fumblings, and reflects with a grounded eloquence. The result is an extraordinarily engaging diary-portrait of a 21st-century castaway uncovering the everyday riches, enduring frustrations, and confounding contradictions of life in a South Pacific paradise.

Quiet Before the Storm

When two young lantern-makers in the streets of impoverished Manila stumble upon an American tourist who's been injured in a drive-by shooting, they descend upon her like angels, taking her to their dilapidated home to recover. Author Merlinda Bobis creates a quiet, magical escape within this shelter in The Solemn Lantern Maker, that's all but immune to the swirling chaos of the outside world, which is caught up in the search for the missing woman. In The Witch Doctor's Wife, the latest mystery from Tamar Myers, Amanda Brown, a young missionary sent to the Congolese diamond-mining community of Belle Vue in 1958, becomes embroiled in crisis when she learns that one of the local witch doctor's wives has been charged with murder.

A Middle Eastern Affair

Following the death of her mother, 17-year-old Noora flees her home in the mountains in what is now the United Arab Emirates in search of a future outside her poor village. When she learns her brother has arranged for her to marry a pearl merchant, Noora is devastated. Maha Gargash's The Sand Fish: A Novel from Dubai follows Noora as she struggles through life's hardships, and opens a fascinating window into 1950s U.A.E. culture. In Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker's Adventures in the New Iran, Brit Jamie Maslin ventures to the Middle East in search of the real Iran. What he finds—two door knockers on every house in Yazd (one for males, the other for females), the country's love for Irish singer Chris de Burgh, and illegal whisky available on the black market—is a charming, embracing culture that is more similar to the West than he ever expected.

What's in a Map?

Maps may seem static, but that's only for the moment. In reality they're historical snapshots of time, politics, and place. Toby Lester's cartographic caper, The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name, traces the history of mapping, looking from the Medieval charts that divided the world into Africa, Europe, and Asia, to the collaboration of a few French scholars who, based upon the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, laid out a vision of a New World.

One Last Thing: Going Native

Some professions carry an irrepressible mystique. For me, one of these is cultural anthropologist. While I don't really want to spend my days living among remote tribes, I do wonder what it's like for someone else to do so. Anthropologist Louise Young evocatively answers that question in her new novel, Seducing the Spirits, the tale of a twentysomething ornithologist, Jenny Dunfree, sent to live among the Kuna people of Panama's Caribbean coast to study harpy eagles. Over the course of her project, Dunfree becomes increasingly enmeshed in the intricacies of Kuna culture and in the problems and passions of the local people. Young's informed fiction breathes life into the land and values of the Kuna as no academic study could; it's a seductive portal into eastern Panama's tribal heart.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities




2014 Traveler Photo Contest

  • Picture of a scuba diver at Green Lake in Austria.

    See All Entries

    Browse all the submissions and check back for the winning images.