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The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific

4.3 107
by J. Maarten Troost

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At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of


At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters, including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).

With The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Maarten Troost has delivered one of the most original, rip-roaringly funny travelogues in years—one that will leave you thankful for staples of American civilization such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news, and that will provide the ultimate vicarious adventure.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Upon earning his master's degree, Maarten Troost found himself among the highly educated sort routinely described by temp agencies as having "no skills." So, when his slightly more ambitious girlfriend, Sylvia, was offered a government job on the distant Pacific atoll of Tarawa, the "buoyantly optimistic" duo jumped at the opportunity to play modern-day Robinson Crusoe. Packed with mostly the wrong belongings, they stranded themselves among the I-Kiribatis, on what they hoped would be a romantic tropical-island paradise. It didn't take long for reality to set in.

Tarawa, "a notch above the equator and five thousand miles from anywhere," is actually a sandbar from hell, populated by clueless minions and possessing little infrastructure. While Troost dreams of writing an epic novel, he instead finds himself scurrying for potable water, watching in horror as his neighbors employ the reef as a toilet, and wearying of the bone-searing heat and myriad deprivations of life on this tiny, remote island.

A brilliant comic writer, Troost paints crowded, polluted Tarawa in such compassionate detail that it's not a complete surprise when, after a couple of years back in the States working in well-paid, more comfortable environs, he and Sylvia decide to again brave "paradise." Fans of the recent Discover pick Holy Cow: This is the next book for you. (Fall 2004 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
At 26, Troost followed his wife to Kiribati, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. Virtually ignored by the rest of humanity (its erstwhile colonial owners, the Brits, left in 1979), Kiribati is the kind of place where dolphins frolic in lagoons, days end with glorious sunsets and airplanes might have to circle overhead because pigs occupy the island's sole runway. Troost's wife was working for an international nonprofit; the author himself planned to hang out and maybe write a literary masterpiece. But Kiribati wasn't quite paradise. It was polluted, overpopulated and scorchingly sunny (Troost could almost feel his freckles mutating into something "interesting and tumorous"). The villages overflowed with scavengers and recently introduced, nonbiodegradable trash. And the Kiribati people seemed excessively hedonistic. Yet after two years, Troost and his wife felt so comfortable, they were reluctant to return home. Troost is a sharp, funny writer, richly evoking the strange, day-by-day wonder that became his life in the islands. One night, he's doing his best funky chicken with dancing Kiribati; the next morning, he's on the high seas contemplating a toilet extending off the boat's stern (when the ocean was rough, he learns, it was like using a bidet). Troost's chronicle of his sojourn in a forgotten world is a comic masterwork of travel writing and a revealing look at a culture clash. (June 8) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Newcomer Troost nests on a tiny island in the vast Pacific, finding it strange and unappealing, though not utterly without its pleasures. The beer, for instance: one of the few ingestibles the island of Tarawa possesses that is neither odious nor toxic. A part of the Republic of Kiribati (known to the British colonial community as the Gilberts), Tarawa is a sliver of coral that pretty much defines the idea of remoteness. This spot at the end of the world was the center of Troost's world for two years after he followed his girlfriend to her posting on the island. No, he wasn't emulating Thoreau or Gauguin, just taking the kind of whimsical step a recent, reticent graduate student would consider when "flummoxed by what career to pursue." Well, Troost has found his calling in broadly humorous travel writing. He's a natural: he likes tumbling into the ditches of digression; he can evoke a place (Prague, in a digression from the Tarawa saga) with an ardor that will have you wanting to jump on the first plane; he's read his history (there is a sharp background chapter on the rancorous influence of missionaries, traders, and chiefly wars fueled by drink); he's no chump when it comes to the ironies and iniquities of politics; he can write an entire engaging chapter on the day the beer ran out in Tarawa; and he is capable of saying things like, "I was under the impression that only occurred in places like tribal Pakistan," or, "there have been occasions when toilet bowls have spoken to me. Don't do shots, they said." He can also laugh at himself, almost as often as the islanders do. Okay, so Tarawa is less paradise than purgatory, but hang in there-Troost will lead you to paradise, too. Lives upto the billing as "a travel, adventure, humor, memoir kind of book"-and a really good one, at that. Agent: B.J. Robbins

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Chapter 1

In which the Author expresses some Dissatisfaction with the State of his Life, ponders briefly prior Adventures and Misfortunes, and with the aid of his Beguiling Girlfriend, decides to Quit the Life that is known to him and make forth with all Due Haste for Parts Unknown.

One day, I moved with my girlfriend Sylvia to an atoll in the Equatorial Pacific. The atoll was called Tarawa, and should a devout believer in a flat earth ever alight upon its meager shore, he (or she) would have to accept that he (or she) had reached the end of the world. Even cartographers relegate Tarawa either to the abyss of the crease or to the far periphery of the map, assigning to the island a kindly dot that still manages to greatly exaggerate its size. At the time, I could think of no better destination than this heat-blasted sliver of coral. Tarawa was the end of the world, and for two years it became the center of mine.

It is the nature of books such as these—the travel, adventure, humor, memoir kind of book—to offer some reason, some driving force, an irreproachable motivation, for undertaking the odd journey. One reads, I had long been fascinated by the Red-Arsed Llama, presumed extinct since 1742, and I determined to find one; or I only feel alive when I am nearly dead, and so the challenge of climbing K2, alone, without oxygen, or gloves, and snowboarding down, at night, looked promising; or A long career (two and a half years) spent leveraging brands in the pursuit of optimal network solutions made me rich as Croesus, and yet I felt strangely uneasy, possibly because I now own 372 (hardworking) kids in Sri Lanka, which is why I decided to move to a quaint corner of Europe, where I would learn from the peasants and grow olive wine. And typically, the writer emerges a little wiser, a little kinder, more spiritual, with a greater appreciation for the interconnectivity of all things.

Let me say at the top here that I didn't have a particularly good reason for moving to Tarawa. There was nothing Quaker-ish, Thoreau-ish, Gauguin-ish (as you wish) about my taking a little leave from Western civilization, which I thought was fine mostly, particularly as manifested in certain parts of Italy. True, I had worries. News You Can Use, the peculiar link between consumption and identity, professional athletes who strike, Cokie Roberts, the Lazarus-like resuscitations of Geraldo Rivera's career, and the demise of the Washington Redskins as a team to be reckoned with all gave me pause and even some anxiety regarding the general course of Western society. However, these issues seemed insufficient to justify a renunciation of continental comfort. I was simply restless, quite likely because of a dissatisfaction with the recent trajectory of my life, and if there is a better, more compelling reason for dropping everything and moving to the end of the world, I know not what it is.

It was the summer of 1996 and I had just finished graduate school in Washington, D.C., which is where I'd met my girlfriend, Sylvia. Both of us had studied international relations. I focused on Eastern Europe (think triumph of good over evil), and Sylvia concentrated on Western Europe (think agricultural subsidies), for which she has been teased mercilessly. While Sylvia passed her semesters with determined ambition, I drifted through, racking up modest grades, until finally there was not an exam left to be taken, not a paper to be turned in, and I was discharged. Job offers were not forthcoming, most likely because I didn't apply to any jobs. Nor was I particularly adept at what is called networking, which is highly encouraged among job seekers, but perhaps not entirely useful for reticent souls utterly flummoxed by what career to pursue.

Instead of getting a job I went to Cuba, which as expected was interesting, and this delayed for ten more days my entry into the ranks of the employed. I traveled there impulsively, deciding one day that Havana was where I really wanted to be, and within a week I found myself on the Malecon, the seaside avenue, saying yes to cigars and no really, I didn't want to meet their sister. In Havana, I danced in the salsa manner. I rode in a Studebaker. I had long rambling conversations with handsome, middle-aged women about the troubles in Cuba and I learned from them where on the black market in Habana Vieja I could find a chicken. I smoked a marijuana cigarette with Havana's bad element. I learned that Che is ubiquitous in Cuba, and that for most Cubans he is something more than a fashion statement. I learned much else besides, and I didn't even speak Spanish, dredging up instead a hybrid patois composed of schoolboy Latin tossed with French spoken in the accent of Ricardo Montalban.

One may wonder how an unemployed ex-graduate student with no means whatsoever was able to afford a trip to Cuba. The truth of the matter was that I couldn't afford it. However, in an act of colossal misjudgment, American Express had agreed to give me a credit card. American Express, of course, was not accepted in Cuba itself. This is because Cubans are Communists and we are not allowed to trade with Communists, unless they are Chinese Communists. American Express, however, was very helpful in obtaining the full-fare economy-class Washington-Newark-Mexico City-Havana round-trip ticket on AeroMexico, as well as one night's accommodation at an airport hotel in Mexico City, after my last twenty dollars were used to pay an unexpected departure tax in Havana. ("Mais ca dise dans la guido por visitor, no departure tax.") Since I was resoundingly broke at the time, what cash I did have came from defying the tenets of my lease and subletting my one-room apartment to an intern contributing his time to restoring values in America, which apparently lost them, probably in the sixties. He lived in my apartment for one month (cleanliness, apparently, was not a value worth returning to). Since I spent only ten days in Cuba, this left three weeks of unresolved residence needs that needed addressing, which led to an interesting conversation.

"Hi, Mom."


"I'm going to Cuba tomorrow."


"I'll be back in ten days, provided that Castro doesn't arrest me and the INS lets me back in. Ha-ha."


A whispered aside. ". . . he's going to Cuba tomorrow." The family dog, a beagle, howled.

Bob, my stepfather, got on the line. "Maaaaarten," he said, which he does whenever I'm doing something unreasonable, something that will upset my mother. "You know your mother doesn't like Communists. But listen, since you're going, let me call my friends at the Agency. You could do some freelance work for them."

Offline, my mother's voice, plaintive. "Bob!"

It was Bob's method of diplomatic, benevolent stepparenting, suggesting something more outrageous than what I had devised, so that in comparison, my own reckless irresponsibility seemed suddenly like a moderate course of action. I was grateful for this. I promised my mother that I would not act on Bob's suggestion. It would be foolhardy, I said, to spy for the CIA. I assured her that I would refrain from engaging in any activities that could lead to my spending the rest of my days withering away in a Cuban gulag. In return, I received three weeks of accommodation in suburban Washington, meals included, which worked out well, I thought.

Alas, I soon discovered that a daily wake-up call from a collection agency is a remarkably unpleasant way to begin one's day. These are not warm, friendly voices delicately reminding you that your account is just a trifle overdue, but intimidating snarls threatening personal ruin, and while they didn't precisely say that they were sending Vinnie over and that I might soon have some mobility issues, it was implied. Also, these calls didn't impress Sylvia much. And so I made another phone call.

"Hi, Dad."


"Well, it's like this—"


"It appears that this particular situation might have certain ramifications regarding—"

"I believe at this point you owe me $180,000."

A gross exaggeration, but effective. It was time, at last, to do something about my income stream, such as, for instance, obtaining one. Like many highly educated people, I didn't have much in the way of actual skills, with the notable exception of forklift operator, at which I did not excel. My lack of excellence in forklift operations, however, did not prevent the manager of the produce market-plant nursery emporium where I labored after high school from sending me forth onto Rockville Pike, one of the main arteries linking Washington, D.C., with the Maryland suburbs, where technically, forklifts should not be—as I soon learned—because when forklifts take a corner a wee bit too fast they tend to tip, which can lead to hundreds of watermelons rolling across the intersection with Montrose Road, followed by said watermelons being chased by a very embarrassed forklift operator wondering whether this, finally, would be the last straw before he was fired. Other skills included housepainting, which I could no longer continue on account of an accident that had made climbing a ladder an experience too terrifying to contemplate; and waiting tables, which I had done at numerous establishments along the Eastern Seaboard, for numerous years, and I just felt that I could no longer serve the numerous assholes that frequent restaurants in a courteous, efficient, nonhomicidal manner.

While it is true that my grasp of the situation in Macedonia and my familiarity with the Czech Republic's privatization program could, potentially, have led to a professional job, perhaps even a good professional job, I chose not to pursue employment in the field for which I had spent many years acquiring knowledge because . . . because, well, I didn't really have a good reason. It just didn't seem like the right thing to do, possibly because to obtain a professional job requires much letter writing and phone calling and boot licking, which comes suspiciously close to being a real job in itself and this I was in no mood for. Instead, beset by fiscal realities, I turned to Jenny and Debbie, kind yet firm managers of a temporary employment agency. They interviewed me, quickly discerned that I was not quite bereft of brains ("Put the following states in alphabetical order: Utah, Arkansas, Idaho, and Nebraska"), that my knowledge of software programs was scant ("But it says on your resume that you are proficient in Word, WordPerfect and Excel"), and that despite three typing tests I could never exceed twenty-nine words a minute, which was most unfortunate because the temp agency determined wages based on typing speed. And so after six years of exceedingly expensive, private school tertiary education combined with the amassment of some interesting and potentially job-relevant experiences elsewhere in the world, I became a minimum-wage temp, an experience that need not be recounted with much detail, though I will note that to be a temp is to have all the illusions and conceits of youth shattered, which was useful and necessary though disagreeable.

My temporary job assignments varied, taking me from law firm to trade association and around again, and always I would be led to the ominous file room and told with the patient civility reserved for the learning impaired that I was to make some order of the files. In the few assignments that lasted longer than a week I was offered the opportunity to enhance my skills and I would be taught how to answer the phone while others were on their lunch break, and even how to order office supplies, which I should note is usually very complicated indeed. Occasionally, I lamented my poor typing skills, but I refused Jenny and Debbie's well-meaning offers to take the typing tutorial offered by the agency, fearing that such a move would lead me inexorably toward a career that depended on my typing speed. Instead, I found myself quietly stagnating, slowly approaching the pathos of self-pity—pathos because I was twenty-six, in the full blossom of youth—until one morning I meandered away from the day's job, entered a cafe in Georgetown, ordered a large coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, a poppy seed bagel, toasted, with lox and cream cheese, and read a newspaper with the mirth of one who has time to linger over the Home and Garden section. Jenny and Debbie were not pleased. "Not showing up for an assignment makes us look bad," said Debbie. "I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go."

It is an unfortunate reality for innate idlers that our modern world requires one to hold a job to maintain a sustainable existence. Idling, I find, is immensely underrated, even vilified by some who see inactivity as the gateway for the Evil One. Personally, I regard idling as a virtue, but civilized society holds otherwise and the fact remained that I still had to get a job. And so I soon found myself involved in the exciting world of publishing. I was an associate editor for a small publishing firm in Washington, where I worked on a reference book that detailed the work of lobbyists. The first half of the book, which was essentially a Yellow Pages for influence peddlers, was comprised of listings of companies and countries and who they retained to purchase favors from the guardians of democracy in the heart of the free world. The second half of the book listed all lobbying firms and lobbyists and their clients, as well as the "government relations" staff of corporations that saw the need to maintain offices in Washington. The job consisted of sending out questionnaires, following up with phone calls, confirming lobbying data at the Justice Department, and plugging in the results into a computer database that crashed twice daily. I amused myself by matching the names of the Washington representatives of the Bosnian Serbs, the Mobutu regime, various Somali warlords, and Nike with the guest list of state dinners at the White House. Remarkably, however, there were some who did not take kindly to having their lobbying activities made public, which led to some coarse language directed my way over the telephone, and I would like to say here that I wish the "government relations" staff of (Deleted by Legal Department) nothing but ill will, and that I have it on good authority that the ingredients of a (Deleted by Legal Department) include canine fecal matter.

While this job included health insurance as a little perk to compensate for its serf-like wages, there was no disguising the fact that I was still treading water in the river of life. I had some notion of wanting to write, though little inclination to actually write, which sometimes led me to believe that I should develop other notions. An obscure literary journal had just published a five-thousand-word essay I had written, and while I was pleased to have something published, the $50 and two free issues in compensation for three months of evening work seemed, somehow, inadequate. I kept sending essays, trifles, queries to national magazines, and while often the editors would respond with a kind, encouraging note, even a phone call, they still, sadly, continued to publish the petty ruminations of windbags long past their prime instead of fresh new voices with interesting things to say. (Not that I'm bitter.)

Meet the Author

J. MAARTEN TROOST’s essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, and the Prague Post. He spent two years in Kiribati in the Equatorial Pacific and upon his return was hired as a consultant by the World Bank. After several years in Fiji, he recently relocated to the U.S. and now lives with his wife and son in California.

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The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 107 reviews.
Suvorov More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the funniest books I have ever read. It is about a couple who live on a small island in the South Pacific and how they adjust to a radically different environment, one that the girlfriend's predecessor left before her contract was up because she had just had enough. There is history in the book and it is told in such a humorous fashion that I looked some of it up to make sure it was real and indeed it is. I found old articles about some of the events that Troost describes, including Kiribati's poet laureate. I only wish that Troost had written all my high school and college history textbooks and encourage him to look into that as soon as possible. My favorite thing about the book is that it makes you re-evaluate your thoughts on everyday things Americans are accustomed to- the numerous brands and types of butter, doggie spas, what is considered food, things you really can live without, burning butts, the planes I would fly in are probably safe in comparison, La Macarena and so much more. I cannot even begin to do this book justice in such a short blurb. I am glad someone in the library placed this book on a recommended reading display and that I had a little leisure time to browse on that particular day. I was obviously meant to read this book and if you have actually read this review, I am pretty sure you are too.
Shannon Makowski More than 1 year ago
Wow. Great book. The beginning was a little slow, I couldn't wait for them to get to the island. Troost's writing style is very entertaining & made me actually do a little research on the island itself. That may be my only suggestion on how to make this book more enjoyable is to include a small photo section. I enjoyed how Troost wrote about himself in a manner that revealed his own character as well as the character of the charming inhabitants of the islands he explored. I would read another book by Troost for sure!
Smokitopaz56 More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book on a whim, largely because of it's title and back cover description, to pass the time on a plane flight. The story is very well laid out, and quite an enjoyable read. The author's tales of life in the tropics, far from the hotel-laden islands most of us think of escaping to, was so real, I could almost feel the sun on my neck as I read. I long to travel anyway, and this book just cemented the wanderlust that is already within me. I would love to do something like this in my own life. It is an easy, entertaining read, and you will feel as if you are his neighbor on the island! From the moment he realizes he has packed too much clothing, to the moment he realizes Kiribati is where he longs to be, Mr. Troost takes us with him every step of the way, even detailing the primitive conditions under which he has to write the story! I hope Mr. Troost knows how much he has inspired this reader to pursue doing something a little bit different with my life, to find that something different that will make my life just a little bit more exciting. As you will see below, I also read the sequel. Both very good books!
romarks More than 1 year ago
A hilarious look at life on a far flung island and a lot of the things we tend to take for granted in the "modern" world. A hard book to put down, usually because I was laughing too much.
Superior_Shores More than 1 year ago
The author leads you through the trails and tribulations living in a VERY remote part of the world. This I-Matang gets to know the people, customs, and history of his island. The only downside to the book is that it ended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not think that the story matched with the back cover blurb and was a little disapointed. However, the author has a great sense of humor and has amazing one-lines that kept me interested.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful travel memoir from a guy who shares more in common with Robinsn Crusoe than Cousteau. It was touching and informative. If you are a traveler or just like to read about them I'd highly recommend this book.
Tariq More than 1 year ago
Absorbing and funny. The writer's original style in telling of his time in a remote South Pacific island. Very useful in getting an idea about life in other places - there is more to the world than the continental 48.
Saxophrenic More than 1 year ago
In the tradition of famous Pacific island chroniclers Robert Louis Stephenson, Somerset Maugham, Jack London, Herman Melville, Paul Theroux, and Tony Horowitz, Maarten Troost updates the genre for the 21 st century. He proves that adventure, romance, danger, disgust, and boredom still abound in Oceania. With a keen eye for the novel and bizarre, his skeptical nature and well - developed sense of irony serves the reader well. He is a genuinely inquisitive and open observer who draws great stories out of the "natives" he encounters. Troost chronicles his year as a tropical "house husband" on the infamous isle of Tarawa in Kirabati. While his patient and tolerant spouse labors away in an NGO helping the inhabitants, Troost has free reign to observe and live the island life. This is an amusing - you'll often catch yourself laughing out loud for this one - and very entertaining read. This was on our list of preparatory reading for an upcoming Pacific island trip. Troost is never gloomy, moody, or axe grinding as some of the other authors in this canon. A great read. Highly recommended for fun.
suebNY More than 1 year ago
J. Maarten Troost is such a talented writer. He totally draws the reader into his battles with the elements, the natives, the wildlife, and even his girlfriend on this small island in the equatorial Pacific. Keep a dictionary nearby for the occasional obscure word. His style of writing and sense of humor are very intellectual and border on self-deprecating, which keeps one laughing at him and with him throughout his struggles to fit into life in this strange and undeveloped place. To top it all off, at one point in the book, the beer shipment sent to his island goes to a larger island far away, and he must do without for 5 weeks! He kept his sense of humor all throughout. He will keep you laughing from beginning to end.
Floyd_Farmer More than 1 year ago
All of the Troost books are quick and enjoyable reading. Troost gives brutally honest descriptions of life in the South Pacific in a Bryson style where you frequently chortle aloud. Never before has someone described a destination as such a place of questionable sanitation, limited food options and opportunity for disease and yet you find that you still want to go and see it. This book won't help you write a dissertation, but if your brain needs a break from academia and you want to whet your travel lust, this is a must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do not be deterred or think you'll be reading pornography by the book's title. Troost is a very funny, knowledgeable, engaging writer. I learned a lot - though not necessarily about the sex lives of canibals! He entertains, educates and keeps you engrossed until the last page. I have read all three of his books and can't wait until he comes out with another.
cgwashington More than 1 year ago
Troost is a very funny writer when he got to it. This is a great book about a man going off to the middle of nowhere to get away from having to live a normal life. It is a funny story which will make you laugh at the same time as you are learning things about the world you will most likely never see.
Buffheart More than 1 year ago
I finished this book November 13th, 2008. I had been reading it on and off for a few weeks, and I am glad I finished it. It was very light reading and made me chuckle at some parts. I like how he used his humor to describe the conditions on Kiribati. I would recommend to everybody, especially people who like travel books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Simple but good book to read. Provided a vivid view of how western culture has yet again damaged life on this plant.
Anonymous 6 months ago
entertaining, but started to get flat. Recycling the same descriptions of life on the island really dragged the story. I wouldn't read again.
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The only reason why I continued reading after the 2 chapter was because I paid $16.95. At best its mildly amusing but mostly filled with the non humorous complaints of the writer's culture shock and ethnocentric comparisons to his own American upbringing.
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