Some people collect stamps, lovers, money or injustices. I collect islands. Islands bring a remedy to the troubles of the 20th Century. This lust for islands is someplace between a hobby and a religion.
If an island is too big, it's called a continent and I don't find it so congenial. This will not soon happen to Goree, St. Pierre and Miquelon, the Seychelles, the Galapagos, Martinique, Tahiti or the pineapple and mojo volcanic peaks of Hawaii.
Some islands are at risk. Near offshore islands tend to be corrupted by causeways, thereby becoming peninsulas--mere continental extensions. You have to look carefully to notice that the Ile St-Louis in the Seine is not an ordinary part of Paris but an island village apart. But when I stay there, I find the island temperament intact--a touch of arrogance, isolation and insulation from reality--all good qualities. Even Belvedere, across the Golden Gate Bridge, can do in a pinch, although wilder islands do even better. Belvedere, in San Francisco Bay, is not like Mill Valley or Sausalito, and it stands proudly aloof from adjacent Tiburon, a mere peninsula.
Raised in the Midwest, I discovered islands during adolescence, a time of many crucial discoveries (sex might be another). Personally, I was an island in my family surrounded by pounding seas of privacy, like any normal teen-ager. Graduating from high school, I made an island decision to be alone and discover what the devil I was. I ran away from home. I was on my way to an island--Manhattan.
There was this occasional smell of salt that crept over lower Manhattan. It was the sea. I stood at the Battery and looked out and suffered deep 17-year-old thoughts. It got cold that winter and I moved my forces southward to Florida. Leaving that peninsula, U.S. 1 becomes a thin ribbon of road across a long, looping, semi-crescent scatter of islands. On one of them--Pelican's Roost, an outcropping just off Key Largo--I was offered a job and stayed awhile.
Adventure gives islands an appeal, but security and manageable dimensions also come with the geography. Spinoza said that freedom consists in knowing what the limits are. With an island, the geographical limits are defined by nature. You can visit and soon know your way around.
Some islands are large, of course, and if they get too large, they are likely to contain distracting museums, cathedrals and historic monuments. Majorca has all those menaces to tranquillity, plus something even worse--many beautiful Swedish girls.
Other islands have bloody pasts that they now celebrate in peace. Goree, for example, an island in the magnificent broad harbor of Dakar, Senegal, evokes enough historical pain to satisfy any connoisseur of misery. It was a departure point for slave ships. Its dungeons contain trapdoors at the rear, behind which sharks cut back and forth, the descendants of those that once fed on captured slaves who were difficult or sick. From this island--a sort of Ellis Island in reverse--the vessels set sail for the Americas.
I spent a few weeks there, making friends with a French anthropologist who was studying the life of the island, surfing, diving and working out his own problems in the way of anthropologists, who seem to have more life problems than other occupational classifications, including writers.
Besides a small fishing economy, Goree has become a tourist destination for groups from the United States seeking their roots. One day I joined a church group from Newark, N.J.--serious, thoughtful senior citizens with an ardent younger minister as their guide. He put them in the damp and stony dungeons. He urged them to wrap themselves in the chains. "Now, remember!" he called. "Our ancestors couldn't just get out when they wanted to. They couldn't just go to lunch when they got hungry."
He opened the trapdoor that led to the chute that led to the Atlantic Ocean and the sharks.
"Sometimes they were lunch, brothers and sisters."
They could buy souvenir post cards, souvenir chains, souvenir slave clothes--"My Grandmother Went to Goree and All She Bought Me Was This T-shirt"--but despite the Goreeland atmosphere that the dream of profit induced, there was something real and touching about the place. I had lunch in a flowered stone bower with a French anthropologist, his wife, his present girlfriend and his future girlfriend. "There is nothing like this anyplace," I said.
The island nation I dream about nightly is Haiti, which shares Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. The place is in misery now, although the Grand Hotel Oloffson is still my favorite hotel in the world. Once I stood on the terrace with a retiring U.S. State Department official, looking out into the smoky, chicken-calling, drum-filled night of Port-au-Prince, and he said: "I've ruined my life here, I've never been so happy. I destroyed my career. It was worth it."
The love of islands is almost a religion among island collectors, and Haiti is one of the extreme forms of this fanaticism.
With islands, a person knows where he stands. He finds his way around.
St. Pierre and Miquelon are real islands. They lie off Newfoundland, not too far from Canada, and they are the only provinces France kept when it was expelled from North America. About 1,500 Frenchmen live there, celebrating Bastille Day with a 19th-Century ferocity. On the 15th of July there were underclothes stuck to the ceilings of the waterfront bars--almost every bar is a waterfront one. Most adult males had bruises, contusions, black eyes. It's a proud holiday for these French island dwellers.
In my two weeks there, I ate in every restaurant, drank in every bar and visited a lot of vessels. I met artists, politicians, fishermen and bicyclists. Two weeks on St. Pierre and Miquelon made me almost a citizen, and if the local residents didn't share that opinion, at least they let me live out my delusion. When I left, I was leaving my island home. Someone was waving goodby. When I go back, and I will, I'll visit my old, dear friends. Island dwellers are of interest to me, but the visitor is also of interest to them--bringer of fresh tidings from the continent. Contrary to the experience of some, I find islanders hospitable and grateful for strange company. Cynics might assume that it is expense accounts that cause this friendliness, but I prefer to ascribe it to being a really good listener. Plus maybe buying a round now and then.
y island practice is to walk a lot, hire a bicycle, not carry a camera. There is sea air to breath, fauna to observe. Since I speak French, I have developed a sub-speciality: French-speaking islands. In addition to having celebrated Bastille Day in St. Pierre, I've done so in Martinique and Tahiti. In those distant provinces they don't seem to know that Paris no longer becomes a village strung with colored lights on the 14th of July, people dancing to the music of accordions because tyranny has been abolished. Last year the dancing in the streets of Paris was to the rhythms of recorded rock music, or of French imitations of English imitations of white American imitations of black American music. The cars honked; the air was impure.
But on Moorea, the musette still twangs and hums. And in Martinique, the heroes of the French Resistance against the Nazis stand at attention while a prefect in blinding whites salutes, jumps into his air-conditioned Peugeot and dashes off to a picnic on the beach.
This may not be real life--really real reality as we know it today--but it keeps up the island tradition of separation from the matter-of-earth world.
I don't limit myself to glamorous, foreign-correspondent, Third World islands. I also enjoyed staying in the Kapalua Bay Hotel, a resort on Maui where I seemed to be the only guest below the rank of vice president of a major corporation.
Islands concentrate whatever resources are available. On Maui, it's a concentration of money, condos and luxury hotels--and also of dropouts, laid-backs and alternate-economy entrepreneurs. I explored both cultures. The isolation and concentration of islands makes my nose twitch and my ankles yearn to move about. Perhaps that has to do with island metabolism--the sea on all sides and a volcano beneath.
Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, has a Victorian clock that strikes the hour twice, once as a warning and once as an afterthought. The people are a mixture of African and Ceylonese, Chinese and Caucasian and are kind and gentle and indifferent to the Marxist rhetoric that blasts through the radio. I ate fruit bats and fish, swam in the Indian Ocean and saw but one other American during the whole time. The Seychelles are exactly halfway around the world from California, so you can go either through the Far East and Australia or, as I did, through London, Zurich, and Bahrain. An old Scottish seaman, living with his wives on the beach, said he came for the spearfishing but that spearfishing now is illegal. He stayed because his wives depended on him. I also met a German student of Israeli political thought, a young woman who had been given a trip to the Seychelles as a goodby present by her lover, a famous Berlin publisher.
On islands one meets people one does not normally meet on continents. The sunsets are glorious, as are the birds and the fishing. That is the rule. Sometimes there are snakes and sometimes not. Any island you propose is one I want to visit. I have an affinity.
Being concentrated themselves, islands concentrate the mind.
Now comes the earnest part--Man the Seeker. The magic in islands is more than escape, recreation, entertainment. I feel secure on islands. I can sense the borders, and the sea is just over there, and I can crisscross, veer about and find my way back. I've written novels about two islands, Manhattan and Haiti-on-Hispaniola.
Like Captain Cook, I believe that Eden was an island, not a garden. John Donne's famous remark is off the mark. "No man is an island, entire of itself" No, sir. Every man is an island, and wants it thus.
Oh! It's a snug little island!
A right little, tight little island!
Wordsworth's lines awaken fellow feelings in me. In North America, the territory ahead for Mark Twain was in the West when it was surrounded by hope and mystery, as if by an ocean. Islands can also be gloomy, sad, foggy, empty and representative of our failed yearnings. The loneliest I've ever felt was on Naushon Island, off Cape Cod, far from the mainland, with a boat not due for a day or so--an island on which I had broken a tooth and where there was no dentist.
Island routines are based on the strict limits of outcropping, seagirt and defined. Sometimes, of course, water doesn't organize efficiently, since the sea does not have human purposes in mind. It used to be easier to get to Paris from Jacmel, Haiti, than it was to get to Port-au-Prince.
in roofs, palm trees and iced beverages compose one vision of islands, although there are fog-swept volcanic outcroppings in non-tropical waters, too. My personal preoccupation is island fever, island eccentricity, sometimes island madness. On Galapagos, for example, lived a German doctor, convinced by Nietzsche that his mighty will could do anything he chose to do. He pulled all his teeth to prove that he could train his gums for chewing purposes. In Haiti, I knew Doc Reser, a former Marine sergeant, who called himself the white voodoo kind of doctor and specialized in the magic trick of relieving tourists of their money.
Islands concentrate possibility. When I was writing about Gauguin in Tahiti, I sat near the market in Papeete and watched the granddaughters of the girls he painted speeding by on motorbikes. On Moorea, I watched boys leap into a pool, grab the tails of sharks and ride them, whipping and spinning, leaping and twisting, as the frantic beasts sought to dislodge the kids.
I've already found, many times, the island of my dreams. Surely Samoa will be another. An island never looks for a better beachcomber, never says, "I've got to fulfill myself."
And so my soul is stirring, my feet are itching . . . .