Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Dozen Random Islands

What is it about islands that makes it impossible to stay away?

Having completed my most recent tome (Slices of America's Pie) about my quest to visit every county in the United States, I began thinking of what should be my next travel topic to discuss.  Ever since June 4, 1984, when I stepped off a plane in the Bahamas for the first time I have been fascinated with, intrigued by, and in love with islands.  There is simply no other way to put it.  The database I maintain tells me that I have visited 372 islands world wide from relatively gartantuan ones like Borneo in the South China Sea, and Tasmania in the Tasman Sea, to tiny 1-acre Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of Mille Lacs Lake in northern Minnesota.  Aside from their apparent size differnce every island has been different but every island seems familiar and for the longest time I wanted to figure out that conundruum.  

Several recent discussions with long-time friends has convinced me that my next book will be about islands and why I am addicted to them.  I certainly have more than enough experiences to relate and stories to tell and it was simply a matter of figuring out which islands to describe that would tell the story I want told.  A recent discussion with my sister gave me the title of the book and after making that decision it was easy to figure out which islands to portray.  

Now on the eve of Thanksgiving 2013, I have started work on "A Dozen Random Islands."  They extend from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic off Ireland (Tory Island) to the tropical heat of Bonaire a few miles off the South American coast. From there east to the Mediterranean and on to the South China Sea (Borneo and Singapore) and ending on the languid shores of Western Samoa in the South Pacific..  In the chapters I want to talk about more than birds and more than beer and more than where to find the best coconut shrimp.  I also want to explore the concepts of "island time" and "island mentality" and with it to understand how the word "manana" doesn't mean "tomorrow" on islands.  It means "not today."

Following are the 14 chapters that will be included in the story.  The first and last are, of course, introductory and summary discussions and the middle 12 chapters will be the dozen islands I want to write about.  That is followed by the very rough version of Chapter 1.

I sincerely request that anyone reading this post look at Chapter 1 and give me your feedback.  Do I set the stage for what I want to discuss in the book? As a reader what else would you like to know up front?  Am I too verbose and do I need to pare things down?  Feedback would be greatly appreciated either as an email to me if you have my email address or as a comment at the end of the post.   Thank you.

1.  Introduction (including interest/passion for islands)
2.  Prince Edward Island Canada

3.  Everybody Wears Shorts in Bermuda

4.  Cuba (Guantanamo Bay)

5.  A Return to Grand Turk

6.  Bonaire

7.  You Flew All the Way Here to See One Bird? - Tory Island, Ireland

8.  Mallorca Spain

9.  Maderia, Portugal

10.  The Girly Men of Singapore

11.  Borneo - In The Shadow of Mount Kinabalu

12.  The Little Penguins of Tasmania

13.  Almost Heaven Western Samoa

14.  What Is It About Islands?


Christmas in most families is an elaborate affair with gifts exchanged and dinner served and fights mediated.  After all of the drama has subsided there are hugs and kisses all around as everyone makes plans to repeat the scene again next year.  At least it has worked that way for most Christmases I have been around. 

One exception was the Christmas my daughters spent with me one year in the Washington DC suburbs.  As we exchanged gifts I could tell from the size and texture of the package that it was a type of clothing.  My oldest daughter, Jennifer, had given me the gift and the snicker on her face told me to expect something unusual.  Peeling back the first layer of wrapping paper I saw that whatever was inside was coal black and made from cotton.  Removing a few more strands of wrapping paper revealed gold lettering on at least one side of the clothing and when all the paper was off I held in my hands a large, black, and much needed sweatshirt.  Placing my hands on the shoulders I twirled it around to read the words printed on the front.  I burst out laughing as I did because the front of the sweatshirt said in huge yellow letters, “Does Anal Retentive Have a Hyphen?”

The shirt and its message were indicative of how well my daughter knows me because if I am any one thing its anal retentive.  Only someone with a high degree of anal retentive behavior would traipse across the country counting the counties he has visited and the airlines he’s flown and the airports he’s departed from and the state parks he’s visited.  Only a select few would proudly reveal to friends that he maintains a computer file with a picture of the entrance sign of every state he’s visited and the entrance sign for every county in Florida (there are 67 of them) and a database of all the Margaritaville Cafes where he’s consumed a beer?  A friend, Jon Andrew, used to introduce me to people saying, simply, “This is my friend Craig.  He’s an excessive-compulsive, anal-retentive.”  Jon had it figured out long before my daughter.

And, yes, anal-retentive has a hyphen.

One of the many examples of my anal tendencies is the database I maintain of all of the islands I have visited worldwide.  The database fields include the name of the island, the state and country it’s in, the day I visited it and the body of water in which it sits.  A routine sort of the data tells me that I have been on 19 islands in the Bahamas and 72 islands in the West Indies and on 111 islands offshore from Florida.  Most importantly I have visited 372 islands across the globe.  Some I have driven to, some I have approached from a boat, many I have flown to, and there is one to which I swam in the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers, Florida.

I don’t remember the first island I ever visited but I do remember the first one I saw in the West Indies.  It was New Providence Island in the Bahamas, the island on which the bustling former pirate town of Nassau sits.  A massive Delta Airlines jet brought me there on a blistering hot June afternoon long ago.  I was on the island at the start of what became an odyssey.  It was an odyssey of travel among the islands and an odyssey that helped me heal from an emotional trauma.  At first I was running away from everything around me and islands were the logical antidote for what ailed me.  Eventually islands became more home than home and I was more myself there than anywhere else.  It didn’t make any difference which island I visited or which ocean it was in, an island was a safe haven and the more I learned about them the more I wanted to be on one.

Depending on where you travel and how hard you travel islands can be the home of many debilitating afflictions.  On Hispaniola, for instance, I became gravely ill once after drinking some of the local water supply in Santo Domingo.  After several hours of feeling like I was going to give birth I scurried to the United States Embassy where the medical officer checked me to determine what malady had laid me so low.  A few pokes here and there and a few samples of body fluids later the doctor in the Embassy determined that I had contacted a liver fluke from that one drink of water.  It was a nasty creature that still, to this day, raises its ugly head on occasion and makes my life uncomfortable. That and a bout of giardiasis from Western Samoa, however, are about the only negative things I have encountered on any island I have visited.

David Tresemer, a PhD psychologist from Tasmania said several years ago at a professional meeting held on an island that “islands are defined by mystery.”  Dr. Tresemer described islands perfectly.  For most of us the first time we are on an island everything around us is new.  Many of the birds on Jamaica, for instance, are the same as those on nearby Cuba but on Jamaica there are 29 species of birds that occur not only on no other island but also nowhere else on earth.  British ecologist David Lack long ago addressed island biogeography in an exhaustive treatise titled “Island Biology.”  In it Lack examined the theories and the realities of evolution on islands and discovered that two things stuck out above all else.  Although seemingly elementary when you think about it, the larger the island the more likely it will have more species of plants and animals than a small island.  Secondly, the more isolated an island or island group the more unique the organisms are living on it.

The Hawaiian Islands, which I never wanted to visit until I finally visited them, demonstrate the duality of Lack’s hypothesis.  There on the most isolated island chain in the world, plants and animals and especially birds, have evolved in wildly and widely different directions.  All native bird species in Hawaii probably evolved from one ancient ancestral honeycreeper that somehow found its way across thousands of miles of open, inhospitable, ocean to the shores of Hawaii.  There over time the ancient descendants evolved nut-cracking bills while others developed nectar-sucking bills.  Some evolved elaborate and highly colored feathers and feather patterns while others evolved very drab and mundane feather colors and patterns.  Here also those ancient ancestors were able to populate the islands according to their size.  Large and dominant Hawaii (also known as the “Big Island”) has more species and more unique species than much smaller Kauai.  Even fewer species of lesser uniqueness exist on much smaller Molokai and Lanai.  Evolution here fits the pattern that Lack hypothesized but the fact that it occurs as Lack predicted remains a mystery for biologists to unravel. 

The people who inhabit islands are another of their mysteries.  Residents of Newfoundland, Canada (“Newfies” in colloquial Canadian-speak) have a different outlook and a different way of living and being and even talking than do other Canadians even on nearby Prince Edward Island.  Did this occur by random chance or was there some biological or societal force in motion that made Newfies so unlike other Canadians?  Although geographically not a part of the Caribbean, the residents of Bermuda are much more highly refined and groomed than, say, many residents of islands in the Bahamas a mere 1,000 miles away.  People from many islands in the South Pacific (Vanuatu and New Caledonia immediately come to mind) are the descendants of headhunters and cannibals.  Yet there is no evidence of that behavior ever in the ancient populations of the Mediterranean or Caribbean.  Why is that? What forces were at work in the South Pacific that gave many of its residents a taste for human rump roast while residents of other islands elsewhere in the vast oceans never gave it a second thought?  It is another in a long list of mysteries that make islands intriguing to even the most casual observer.

Some islands were formed from volcanic activity, and some are basically massive coral reefs.  Cayman Brac is a huge butte-like structure that rose from the ocean at the end of the last glacial period.  Others like Tarawa in the South Pacific are only a few inches above sea level and a prime candidate for being consumed by rising sea levels.  The beaches of Eleuthera in the eastern Bahamas are a coral-like pink color for almost all of the 100 mile long extent of the island.  However 1000 miles away in the Lesser Antilles the island of Dominica is surrounded by coal-black sands.  Spectacular wing-like cliffs called pali’s line the north shore of Molokai where they seem to plunge vertically into the snarling waters of the Pacific.  Yet in that same ocean several thousand miles away, the shore of Pohnpei slopes gently into the ocean and its muddy beaches are lined with almost impenetrable forests of mangrove.  As with the people and the plants and the wildlife on islands, the structure of them is all similar but at the same time wildly divergent.  How did that come to be?

Many travelers and tourists flock to islands to absorb what is known as “island time.”  It’s a concept afflicting many contemporary residents of large cities and over active nations who want to escape from their self-imposed rat race and live if just for a brief time, in a land or a place where things happen when they happen.  In the Spanish language the word “Manana” means “tomorrow.”  However on many islands and especially in the West Indies, and even those that are not Spanish speaking nations, “manana” actually means “not today.”  When someone tells you that they will do something for you “manana” don’t expect it tomorrow because it likely won’t happen.  It will happen but only when they want it to happen.  I long ago learned about this concept on Inagua in the southern Bahamas after a Bahamasair plane I was flying broke in mid-flight and we had to be rescued before we could continue further.

Bahamasair flew four Hawker-Sidley 748 propeller-driven jets in those days.  The one we were on was scheduled to eventually leave Nassau and fly first to Mayaguana and then on to Inagua before passing over the international border and landing at South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands.  There we were to make a simple connection and eventually spend a week or so exploring Grand Turk.  Bahamasair and their broken plane had other plans.

All was well for the first 75 minutes of the 90 minute flight to Mayaguana but suddenly the noise level in the plane dropped by half as the propellers on the right engine quit spinning around.  The Bahamian pilot quickly explained our dilemma but then added that “there’s nothing to worry about.”   We limped into Mayaguana where the pilot radioed Nassau asking them to send one of the three repair crews the airline hired to maintain its fleet of four Hawker-Sidley 748s.  As our luck would have it the three repair crews were on three other islands fixing the three other planes and we were told we would have to wait until tomorrow to be rescued.  Tomorrow eventually came and with it came the repair crew from Bahamasair that fixed a faulty wire (that could have easily caused an engine fire) and by late morning we were on our way to Inagua.  Our original arrival time on South Caicos was at 2:00 p.m. yesterday and by 11:00 a.m. today (21 hours late) we were sitting at the airport in Inagua waiting to depart but there was no pilot in the cockpit and in fact no pilot anywhere on the plane.  Our erstwhile pilot was outside by the nose landing gear talking with his friends and getting caught up on local island gossip. 

My purpose in being in the West Indies then was to conduct research on the winter ecology of Kirtland’s warbler, an endangered species of bird that nests in Michigan and winters in the islands.  At the time of those original travels there were maybe 500 individual Kirtland’s warblers left on earth and we were charged with figuring out if something was happening in the winter that was causing their population to not expand.  This included travel throughout the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands and one reason for the trip to Grand Turk was to meet the nation’s Prime Minister to brief him on the research effort and to foster good relations between the two countries.  To accomplish that end I had a meeting set for 11:00 that morning on Grand Turk and now I was going to be miserably late.  Instead of talking to the Prime Minister I was on a plane that was not air conditioned as it baked in the tropical sun and with no pilot to be found.

Incensed that I was being personally held hostage by this incompetent pilot (who had no idea that I existed or was even on his plane) I bolted from my seat, stormed off the plane, and found him with his buddies telling stories by the nose wheel.  Incredulous with my situation I laid it on thick to the pilot informing him that his actions were personally causing not only me to miss my meeting but likely to be the reason the endangered Kirtland’s warbler would go extinct.  I was incredibly important in my mind and I made no bones about letting him know how I felt.  As words flew from my lips the pilot kept talking to his friends.  The more he ignored me the more upset I became and finally I screamed at him “You need to get your ass back on this fucking plane and get me over to South Caicos NOW!”

As I stewed and fretted and further lost my temper, the pilot kept talking to his friends and acting as if I was not even there.  Completing a sentence with his friends, the pilot turned to me pointed his right index finger in my face and in a very low, slow, and deliberate Bahamian way said, “Sir, you are now in the land where time stands still.”  He seemed to put particular emphasis on the words “time stands still.”   Finishing several more stories with his friends the pilot finally turned back to me and said, “There, now we can go.”  He had royally put me in my place and it was my first serious introduction to the concept of island time.  I eventually arrived on Grand Turk but not when I wanted to.  The important thing was that I was there.  Island time dictated that I arrive when I fit into the island’s schedule not the other way around.

“Island mentality” is a concept associated with islands and island life.   The online Urban Dictionary defines an island mentality as “A psychological state more than a geographic state of a person: a belief in a community’s or culture's superiority, correctness, or specialness compared to other communities or cultures. Inspired by positive-minded well-meaning groupthink, increasing homogeneity over time, isolation-induced ignorance of other cultures or communities, fear of the unknown or being outnumbered (and a desire to compensate for their smallness amid the world), and lack of conflict with/lack of destruction by other communities (improving relative progress and social harmony and giving some credence to their feelings of superiority).  This concept is not a universal component of islands everywhere because so few island people have the ability or the inclination to be “superior” to anyone else.  Some have said that this definition of island mentality is best associated with the British and the Japanese and a strong argument can be made for this being a valid concept for those two islands.

After more than 30 years of exploring islands from the Arctic Ocean to the South Pacific I have more questions than answers about them.  That conundrum and my innate inquisitiveness may be the principal reasons I continue to hop on planes or cruise ships and deposit myself on an island.  The psychology of “there” keeps bringing me back and I simply cannot get enough of them.

In the following pages I describe visits to a dozen divergent islands ranging from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in Canada to the equatorial currents of the Indian Ocean at Singapore and then on to Samoa.  Each island had its challenges and each island was different yet at the same time each island was actually no different than the last one I visited.  What’s needed to discern the differences is an open mind and a degree of patience (“island time” exists everywhere – it is simply not restricted to the West Indies) and an inquisitive nature that pushes travelers to learn more about where they are than the names of the best spas and the closest British pub.  Some of these islands will be familiar and some will make readers scratch their heads, yet all of them will likely generate an urge to board a plane or a cruise ship and set out to explore.  The purpose of travel is to expose the uninitiated to experiences and opportunities that simply cannot be appreciated by watching the Travel Channel.  Islands seem to be a living laboratory for experiments in biology and physics and sociology 101.  They are everywhere and they yearn to give up their secrets and it’s up to us all to uncover the mysteries that are exposable on each of them.


  1. “Island mentality” - Peel away the psycho mumbo jumbo, it's R-O-M-A-N-C-E and all that it implies. Bali .. Bali .. Bali .. how I love thee!!

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