The Benefits of Falling off the Map

By J. Maarten Troost 07/02/14

Best-selling author J. Maarten Troost attributes his misfortunes, including his descent into alcoholism, to living far from the ocean. Read more in our exclusive excerpt from his new adventure tale Headhunters on My Doorstep

J. Maarten Troost, Author Gotham

Bad things happened to me on large land masses. Terrible things.

This was a most unfortunate realization, of course. How I’d hoped to discover an unhappy childhood, an unjust prison sentence, or a soul-scarring bout of acne to explain the recent trajectory of my life. Who wants to blame their woes on something as inalterable as the North American tectonic plate? After all, continents are—at the very least—nice to look at. I too could admire majestic, snow-glazed mountains, the rivers that flowed with the tide of history, the buzz of the megacity. I am, for the record, appreciative of boreal forests and rain forests, deserts, and the vast expanse of the northern tundra. I like New York and Los Angeles, as well as Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai. I am fond of small towns. Also apple pie and yak, though not together. All this can be found on continents. But, alas, experience tells me that if I’m not surrounded by an ocean, my life crumbles like a stale cookie. 

It’s true. 

Take my most recent sojourn in North America. I’d protected my well-being by living on a peninsula. Surrounded by water on three sides, I navigated the perils of the modern world, and whenever events or situations threatened to leave my eyes agog and my head a-splitting, I retreated to a rented sailboat, where secure in a finite space surrounded by the infinite blue of the ocean, I navigated pitching waves and morning fog with an aplomb that failed me on dry land. On water I was free and sure; on land I felt like a lost fish. But then, chasing a job, I moved deeper into the continent, distant from familiar waters and sandy dunes, and there I fell.

Into the bottle to be precise. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. In retrospect, it was probably a foregone conclusion. I’d always had a temperamental shut-off valve. Open-minded to the mind-altering, I’d long ago learned to be wary of the seductive offerings of both the street and the pharmacy. I’d known that drugs could be a problem and that it was best to dispense with the experimentation early on. I pretty much maxed out on magic mushrooms. Instead, I’d settled into the steady companionship of pint glasses and decanters. Like everyone. It was normal, no? A few beers at the bar; wine with dinner. It was all good. 

In fact, hard liquor was a no-no in my world—until, eventually, it wasn’t, and there was that unknown moment when the proverbial invisible line was crossed, when everything started to tumble with a terrifying ferocity, and despite untold As-God-Is-My-Witness promises to get this under control, to show some restraint, I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop. Not until my wife, bless her, deposited me at rehab, where, sedated with Librium, I learned that lucky-ducky that I was, I had a fatal brain disease and should I ever pick up a drink again I might as well put five bullets in a six-shooter and shove it down my piehole. 

So this was bad. And it happened on a continent. In my mind, the case was closed. 

Now hold on right there, someone might say. Do you mean to suggest that there was a link between the pint of vodka you kept tucked in your sock during the last month of your drinking and the fact that you inhabited a continent? 

Yes, I do. And furthermore, having noted the correlation between large landmasses and big problems in my own personal life—the larger, the bigger—I gave thanks every day that I didn’t inhabit Asia, where I undoubtedly would have ended up a crackhead in Pyongyang. It’s important to think positively, I figure. It could be worse. Aware now that my well-being depended on my proximity to an ocean, I made a point not to travel deeper into the country lest I get run over by a hog-feed truck in Iowa or catch Ebola in Omaha. You can’t be too careful. 

It has, of course, invariably been pointed out to me that my reasoning is a trifle thin and specious (Hello, Father Mark!), and that perhaps I ought to dig deep and conduct a searching and fearless moral inventory. Well, I did do that. Beyond the dismal lack of presence at the end there, when the drink became the end-all be-all of my day—unforgiveable, all things considered— I discovered that, in all likelihood, I am not as evil as Simon Cowell, but not nearly so good as Oprah Winfrey, which probably makes me average, morally speaking. Reading the scientific literature on the neurobiology of addiction, as I did with the fervency of a medical student, I discovered that deep in my noggin, I simply had an amygdala that hummed a little differently than most. Addiction is a brain disease. You either have it or you don’t. It can gestate for years, but once it awakens it will kick your butt thoroughly and mercilessly. And so it did with me. That it did so on a continent, however, I felt was not entirely coincidental. 

The reason I am not entirely in jest about this last point is that, rose-tinted glasses or not, I am able to do a little compare- and-contrast. Some years earlier, I lived on the sun-dappled atolls of Micronesia and the high islands of Melanesia. Like most good things, my time in the South Pacific was accidental. I certainly didn’t know anything about the region. Can anyone name the leaders of Niue, or Tuvalu, or Vanuatu? Does anyone even know where these places are? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I too had not an inkling. I’d found myself on the far side of the world because one evening, during grad school, I’d gone to a keg party, where I’d met a woman, became smitten, and because it seemed like an excellent idea at the time, I’d followed her out to Kiribati—the end of the world—where she’d landed a job with an NGO because no one else wanted to work on a remote, drought-stricken, heat-blasted sliver of rock just a notch above the equator and worlds removed from anywhere. While Sylvia occupied her days building composting toilets— atollettes she called them—and growing sad little vegetable gardens, I was busy surviving. I’d envisioned a rustic Club Med, a South Pacific musical, Survivor-lite. Life on a remote island in the equatorial Pacific would be like a Corona commercial, I’d thought. 

Of course, it turned out differently. “To picture Kiribati,” I’d written at the time: 

Imagine that the continental U.S. were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very blue ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into thirty-three pieces, place a neighborhood where Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have thirty-three pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way that 32/33 of Baltimorians will never attend an Orioles game again. Now take away electricity, running water, toilets, television, restaurants, buildings, and airplanes (except for two very old prop planes, tended by people who have no word for “maintenance”). Replace with thatch. Flatten all land into a uniform two feet above sea level. Toy with islands by melting polar ice caps. Add palm trees. Sprinkle with hepatitis A, B, and C. Stir in dengue fever and intestinal parasites. Take away doctors. Isolate and bake at a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is the Republic of Kiribati. 

This was home. And I grew to like it. Moving from North America to an atoll was like being transported from the lush cacophony of Saint Peter’s Basicala to the austerity of the Bodhi Tree. You get used to it. True, there were times when I would have endured the amputation of my left foot by a rusty hacksaw in exchange for a decent meal, a cool breeze, and news of stirrings beyond the breakers. More often than not, when Sylvia got home from doing her good deeds, we’d typically have a conversation that went something like this: ‘

Sylvia: “What’s for dinner, honey?”

Me: “Rotten shark, weevils, and rice boiled in seawater.” 

Sylvia: “Oh, good. I was getting so tired of Filet Mignon with the Truffled Mushroom Ragout.” 

Then, two thousand miles from the nearest cow and oceans removed from a mushroom, we’d laugh dementedly. But the laughter would be true. Perhaps suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, we’d adjusted to our peculiar reality. Once I’d accepted the inherent isolation of island life, when I’d internalized a world demarcated by a fringing reef and the rolling waves of the Pacific, I lived life as God intended me to live— slowly and weirdly, among coconut palms and breadfruit trees, in a timeless place where each morning, as I sipped my toddy, I could confidently pencil in a dose of misadventure and a tonic of bewilderment. I felt, more than anything, at home on a South Seas isle, and I shared with Pacific Islanders their bafflement at the hurry-hurry ways of those unfortunate enough to live far away from the balmy waters of the South Seas. This was my world—happy mostly, kind of kooky, and strangely beguiling. 

Indeed, we liked it so much that, having learned where it was, we went on to live in Vanuatu, the oddest island nation in Melanesia—volcanoes, cargo cults, a hundred languages, mind-molting kava—before settling for a spell in Fiji—coups, championship rugby, fearsome chiefs, coups—where we felt sufficiently at home to have our first child, whom we now lovingly refer to as our anchor baby for when the SHTF in the West. The Pacific, we learned, is its own vast universe; each island a star, and our lives revolved contentedly around its languid rhythms, coups and crappy food notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, I would later think very fondly of these distant places, their palm-fringed beaches lapped by the emerald waters of a lagoon, the cragged eminence of a volcanic isle, the ancient songs voiced by islanders whose ways had changed little since the first exiles washed ashore. It wasn’t long until I’d gaze at the big blue space of a world map with finger-gnawing longing. Of course my pining was motivated by pure, unadulterated escapism, but I’d always answered that with an enthusiastic so what? 

While drinking yourself into rehab is evidence of escapism gone horribly wrong, the desire to experience the far side of the world reflects the optimistic hope that a little skull-jarring dissonance could stir the soul. Falling off the map, I knew, could be good for you. 

Excerpt from Headhunters by J. Maarten Troost. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) J. Maarten Troost, 2013.

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J. Maarten Troost is a Dutch author and essayist. His books include Getting Stoned with Savages and Headhunters on my Doorstep. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Islands Magazine, The Cimarron Review, National Geographic Traveler and the Huffington Post.