Where the Hell Is Tuvalu?: Another European guy discovers the world

Where the Hell Is Tuvalu?: How I Became the Law Man in the World’s Fourth Smallest Country, Philip Els, 2000

  • Tuvalu, #2
  • $0.99 from alibris.com
  • Read January 2016
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: armchair couch potato adventurers

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It went that way.

Of all the wryly humorous memoirs about White Boys Traveling to Exotic Places ™, this is one of them. I had a bunch of others on my list–The Island of DesireSolomon TimeThe Sex Lives of Cannibals, others, I’m sure, that I will find as I go along the way–but I’m not going to be reading any more of them if I can help it. They tend to reveal a lot about their authors and very little about their settings, and if I’m going to be reading books by English men there are literally hundreds, possibly thousands, that I would choose over Where the Hell Is Tuvalu? and its ilk.

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Is that it up there?

It’s a fairly forgettable book (a year on I have forgotten all of the details, both major and minor) but as far as I remember, sometime in the early to mid 90s, Philip Ells headed off as a volunteer with the British Voluntary Service Overseas (sort of the British equivalent of the Peace Corps) to be the people’s lawyer of Tuvalu. His willingness to be the butt of the joke won my sympathy at first, but his self-deprecation quickly ceases to be charming and tends toward annoying, and his desperate pursuit of the humorous just comes across as whingey and culturally tone-deaf (I mean, the title alone is fairly insulting, if you’re from Tuvalu, right?). Here are my notes to myself about one of the episodes where he started losing me (on only page 54, so fairly early on):

His complaints about washing seem a little exaggerated–I’ve washed dirty clothes in a tub without hot water and it’s not that hard. If they were really bad we boiled the kettle. Have also taken cold showers in a tropical country without moaning about it. I get that he’s trying to be funny, and making fun of his own softness, but he seems to be making much ado about nothing.

His accounts did not, as far as I remember, shed much light on Tuvaluan culture. He wasn’t there very long, and he spent most of his time hanging out with Aussies and Americans. It’s true that I didn’t have anything else for Tuvalu (since I didn’t manage to locate my only other text, an anthropological collection of traditional Tuvaluan songs), but I’m not sure this was better than nothing.

To be fair, I could be selling the book a bit short. Maybe I’ve just forgotten all the illuminating details Ells included about Tuvalu. But if that’s the case, isn’t that fairly revealing in and of itself?

Ann Morgan, of A Year of Reading the World, read Tuvalu: A History for her project. I probably should have figured that out and sourced a copy last year when I was yawning my way through Where the Hell is Tuvalu?, but to be honest I’m a little bit sick of history and mythology and anthologies already and I haven’t even finished my first (and smallest) continent. Maybe in 40 years when I finish this project I’ll go back and try to do justice to Tuvalu.

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Look out! It’s right behind you!
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6 thoughts on “Where the Hell Is Tuvalu?: Another European guy discovers the world

  1. You’ve definitely started with the most challenging part of the world for finding options of what to read, so I can definitely understand feeling tired of anthologies, mythology, etc. I think you’ll find it easier once you get to other areas!

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    1. Yes! I’ve read a few good books from the South Pacific but I am really looking forward to finishing Oceania and moving on to Asia. My reading is quite a few countries ahead of my blogging, so I’ve actually only got a couple of books left (one from Guam and one from Palau) and then I’m on to Asia. Of course I’m starting with East Timor, which is similarly slim pickings, but I can’t wait for Indonesia and the Philippines, which are after that. I’ve got 25 books on my Philippines list so I will probably have to narrow it down a little bit.

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      1. Not that you need more books to add to your list, but I read The Beloved Land by Gordon Peake to be an interesting read for East Timor. Yes, he’s another traveling white man, with some of the associated pitfalls, but he engaged with the country pretty deeply and I thought he brought an interesting perspective on the country’s history, being from Northern Ireland.

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      2. Oh, that’s great! I could use another book for East Timor since one of the books on my list is in Portuguese and one is a book of political speeches which I will dutifully check out from the library but will most likely return largely unread. Looking up “The Beloved Land” I see it came out in 2013, which is the year I made this list; it’s a good reminder that I need to update periodically. Thanks!

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