The Island Experience (blog by Wouter Veenendaal)

A couple of weeks ago, as part of a holiday in the Balkans, my girlfriend and I visited the Dalmatian island of Hvar in the Adriatic Sea. According to our guidebook, Hvar is “a perfect getaway for people who want to enjoy nature and the sea”, offering its visitors “the perfect island experience”. While lounging on one of the island’s many pebble beaches, I pondered what it is about islands that attracts people, and somehow stirs their imagination. Guidebooks time and again remind us that small islands are secluded, pristine, and peaceful places untouched by pollution, the pitfalls of modernity, and the hassles of everyday life on the continent. Whether in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, or Southeast Asia, islands offer tourists the perfect escape from home.

This paradisiacal image of islands is often propagated in world literature. 18th and 19th century classics such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Verne’s The Mysterious Island, and Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson all offer imaginations of islands as lush, tropical paradises in which loneliness is abundantly compensated for by the beautiful nature and general enthrallment of island life. Yet, there are also plenty of counterexamples. Homer’s Odyssey, Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Tom Hanks’ blockbuster Castaway, and the television series LOST portray islands as places in which humans are either consumed by solitude, or are under a perpetual threat posed by their island cohabitants, whether they are humans, cyclops, or mysterious ‘others’. As the examples of Nelson Mandela and Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as Alcatraz and Azkaban remind us, islands can also be outstanding places to exile well-known individuals that have become politically undesirable.

Having visited and studied various small islands, it is indeed my impression that islands can be both paradises and hells. In the latter scenario, the interaction with other humans appears to be a crucial explanatory factor. The extreme example of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific comes to mind, where the population of 52 souls in 2004 was rocked by a series of disturbing scandals involving the widespread sexual abuse of children. Although this instance of an island hell may be extraordinary, it is a fact that life on small islands is characterized by greater social intimacy, resulting in more social control and pressure. Inhabitants of small islands have to interact with each other on a daily basis, whether they like each other or not. During a recent stage of field research in the small Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, I was not only struck by the fact that all inhabitants of this island seem to know each other, but also by the longstanding private and political hostilities that divide people on the island. Statians often say, “we are all family”, but if that’s true, it’s not necessarily the type of family you would want to have your Christmas dinner with.

Of course, tourists commonly experience small islands as paradises, not as hells. Beyond the blissful island façade, however, may well be a not so delightful reality.

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