Where the Hell Is Tuvalu?: Another European guy discovers the world — Around the World in 2000 Books


Part of our ongoing quest to encourage writers to find seldom referenced retreats. Located in the South Pacific, the only reason I know it’s there is because I had to practice it for Sporcle.com’s countries of the world 10 minute game.

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


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.


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.


via Where the Hell Is Tuvalu?: Another European guy discovers the world — Around the World in 2000 Books


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