This is the self-told story of a man, Ed Stafford, who went to a small island near Fiji so he could spend two months without human contact and the surroundings of modern life.
One has to resist the urge to scream “WHY?” not counting his contract and no doubt quite a bit of money from the Discovery Channel. He says it himself: “I wondered why anyone would volunteer to put themselves through such a challenge. What was wrong with me?” This from a man who walked the entire length of the Amazon for two years and apparently didn’t learn his lesson. . .
At some point in history, especially during the great explorations of the late 1400s and 1500s, this must have happened a few times, a solo castaway without even clothes on his back. On the other hand, that person was probably better suited for such a catastrophe than a modern human used to many many amenities. He does, after all, have video cameras, and he finds debris from the ocean, particularly water bottles, that he uses. But if you can do that, get past that huge question as to the whyness of it all, this book actually becomes enjoyable. The author certainly derives great pleasure from his metaphors, like, “An emotional attack helicopter rose from my belly, rotors lacerating my chest until it smashed violently into my ill-prepared brain.” Another one that made me laugh and shake my head simultaneously was, “Then fortune decided to twist my nipple and spit in my face.” Okay, one more. “I could feel brain cells being elbowed awake by their neighbors.”
His first preoccupation, as one would expect in such situations, is fresh drinking water. If I could ask him one question, it would be why he didn’t think to wonder where the native animals, particularly the goats, found theirs. It doesn’t take him long to feel the stress of being alone; I wonder if his isolation psychology is applicable to long space travel. It’s a fine line whether he’s talking to himself or the cameras, but I do have to admit there’s plenty to laugh at here, which is okay because he laughs at himself often. Like his reaction when he finally got his first fire started: “Fire was, after all, one of the greatest discoveries in the evolution of humankind. All I had to do now was invent everything from the wheel through the moon landings and the internet.” On the other hand, he’s quite happy with just this, not so much to keep warm but so he could have a nice cup of tea, mentioning how something normal, even if it wasn’t essential, made for a positive shft in his mental state. Said mental balance fluctuates a lot, though often he blames it on lack of nutrients. Still, he noticed that cooked meals taste a lot better than raw. . . yet he also says, “Hunger is the sweetest of sauces.”
Maybe the most important thing for him, even more so than the fire, was how he dealt with missing his loved ones. He and his fiancée had agreed to think of each other at exactly the same time every day, keeping time zones in mind, which to me was the most human moment of the whole book.
One thing I found amusing was the chapter breaks; at the start of each new section it mentions how many days into this grand experiment he’s in, but it’s done like tickings on a wall, with four lines and a slash representing each five. Not sure why this made me laugh so hard, but it does. I’m just glad I can still count in that style.
Another moment of self-realization occurs when he finally realizes there’s no point in being angry at the rain. “There is nothing serene about being frustrated by the weather, your age, or the passing of time. It is utterly pointless and a bloody waste of energy. So you relax about the things outside your control quite simply because they are outside your control. No brainer.”
This for me was the most telling moment, and a perfect example as to why I would never do something like this: “By the fire I ate termites off a rotten log as they tried to escape the fire. This wasn’t because I needed the calories—they were insignificant—it was out of boredom, a distraction. When you find yourself eating termites for entertainment—that’s boredom.”
Towards the end he becomes sick, and it’s painful enough that he gets on the emergency sat-phone to a doctor, who says that if he’d been in a city he’d take him to a hospital right away. Can’t help but wonder if, had this happened earlier in the two months, he would have given up, but being so close to surviving the whole thing he decided to keep going, albeit after receiving medicine along with his routine drop of batteries and memory cards. As though to answer my question from above, there’s a postscript about meeting up with a psychiatrist after he gets back to England, who tells him he’s suffering through a form of PTSD. “There is no doubt that what you are experiencing is the effects of psychological torture. The unique thing about your case is that you opted to be put in this situation.” Which again leads me to the all-important question of why?” I don’t feel this was satisfactorily explained, though I doubt that answer was the point of the endeavor. In fact, I don’t think he knows, even after all that. . .
But I suppose he was heartened when the psychiatrist told him that feeling as he did made him 100% normal. I’m not sure I would go that far. . .