The Island Idyll

by Josie Thaddeus-Johns

You look out over the island from the top of a cypress-scattered hill, surrounded on every side by crystal blue: an expensive diamond moat, cut especially for you. Your dusty feet dangle off the deckchair in the shade of your bell tent, its khaki canvas swaying in the breeze, a twisted rope of healing crystals hanging gracefully in the doorway. Nothing can disturb your total immersion in the moment. The tumult of the last few months floats away into the horizon, and the machinations of international politics have never felt so irrelevant. Cut off from regularity, from the chip-chop, ship-shape life, you’re entirely free to be yourself. Bliss.

This was the escape I imagined when I booked my trip to an island holiday-cum-festival of wellness, music and culture. Having bought the entire island, the creators invited dynamic and exciting personalities from all over the world to perform, promising an eco-friendly, relaxing idyll that would last from the end of July until the beginning of September. Yoga in the morning, DJs and spirituality workshops during the day, and music, cinema, and theatre in the evening – I had started describing it to friends as “a bourgie, hipster Butlins, on a Croatian island”. I’d be there for five days, and I was not taking my laptop. The fresh memory of my last holiday, on which I spent my final poolside hours slamming out 2,000 words on the social repercussions of Brexit, was not exactly soothing.

“It will be for the best,” I thought, while reassuring myself that no one would suffer if I didn’t reply to emails for five days (and only three of those in the week). Instead, I would participate in whatever activities I was offered, including ‘Spiritual Alchemy’, ‘Crystal Dreamcatcher workshops’ and, most bafflingly, ‘Mindful Marbling’. Perhaps, outside my comfort zone, isolated from my tendency towards scepticism, I would find solace in the cleansing rituals that others seem to find so consoling. That was the idea, anyway.

The seductive conception of island seclusion is deeply entrenched in our collective psyche as a tantalising escape from the humdrum life of a large landmass dweller. It’s no coincidence that the word isolation is derived from the Latin for island (insula) – and where better to be isolated than on a rock surrounded by water? Divorced from normality, the paradise island offers us the chance to equate emotional distance with physical, by putting miles of water between ourselves and whatever it is we’re running from.

And the island also represents a space to enact the wildest of fantasies. Locked in a hedonistic whirlwind, a sea witch’s spells will stop you longing for your homeland. A generically exotic paradise is the setting for the trashiest reality TV show I’ve ever watched, Temptation Island, only ever broadcast past midnight, where couples go to test their relationships to an absurd and hellish level, as each of them lives with attractive members of the opposite sex. In Disney’s vision, Pinocchio and all the lost boys are lured to Pleasure Island, seeking the unrestricted delights of adulthood. “Being bad’s a lot of fun, ain’t it?” Pinocchio remarks, as his friend Lampwick casually strikes a match on the Mona Lisa to light his cigar, before heaving a brick through a stained glass window. The moral? The freedoms of island life can go to one’s head: the stability of expansive land keeps the strictures of society close at hand.

In Pinocchio’s case, he experiences the downside of island life that Odysseus manages to escape: its confinement. Before long, the gates are closed off and our transfigured puppet hero is trapped with all the other boys on Pleasure Island. This is the danger of seclusion: isolation works both ways. The sea can be both protection and an obstruction; the island, a heaven or hell, depending on whether you want to stay or not. After all, islands are also a place to keep prisoners too dangerous for the mainland. The treacherous tides surrounding the Chateau d’If were supposed to prevent Edward Dantès escaping to become the Count of Monte Cristo, while Alcatraz was selected as the ideal location for a maximum-security prison. Water and walls: our most effective tools for incarceration.

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At five million cubic metres, the largest freestanding hall in the world is an island, too. Actually, according to its name, it’s supposedly several. Tropical Islands is an ex-aircraft hangar just outside of Berlin, repurposed to create the perfect holiday destination, both in atmosphere and activities. The temperature is carefully controlled to keep human visitors as well as photosynthesising residents happy. Guests meander amid the outrageously fake bubbling waterfalls, teak pavilions, soft plywood flooring and pools that disappear into the horizon of a plastic screen printed with blue skies and artfully scattered with inkjet clouds. And above it all, the humming surveillance of sports-centre geometric arches, reminds you: this is not real. I peruse the website, thinking of my Croatian wellness island, with its guaranteed temperature of 30+ degrees and wristband, loaded up with your credit card details in advance, and wonder whether visiting an island in an aircraft hangar is really all that weird. “The entertainment programme comprises a gala evening show, smaller shows during the day and various events,” reads Tropical Islands’ Wikipedia page. How would this entertainment compare to the Mindful Marbling I have in store for me? How would the dulcet tones of a German songstress belting out Teutonic covers of (for example) Bon Jovi’s greatest hits compare to a Los Angeles spirit guide explaining how to align my chakras by basket weaving? Both seem equally removed from my reality.

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Wellness, as it’s presented by a certain subsection of Instagram accounts, self-help books and lifestyle gurus, prizes the idea of isolation, particularly in order to focus on oneself. Getting further away from reality, physically separating oneself from anxious thoughts – it’s a seductive solution to the problem of how to escape work, relationships, and the tedious problems of everyday life. Rituals of wellness focus on self-care: your body is a temple, your body is an island, where your own positive energy can effect the changes you want to see. If we cut ourselves off from distractions and negativity, then we can focus on what we truly need.

As the days count down towards my dose of island spirituality, I can’t get rid of my nagging scepticism around this conception of wellness. Firstly, the conversation around wellness and self-care seems undeniably blinkered by delusions of personal agency that many people just don’t have. What a tempting thought, that we could change the way we experience the world simply by changing our own attitudes! And yet, racism, inequality, and other systemic factors each affect our lives in myriad and often debilitating ways. We cannot escape them by caring more for ourselves, or focusing on mindful hobbies. As Laurie Penny puts it, “There is a reason that the rituals of wellbeing and self-care are followed with the precision of a cult (do this and you will be saved; do this and you will be safe): It is a practice of faith.”

Granted, faith makes this tough world an easier place to live in. As a balm for the soul, it works for many, and my being a sceptic who can’t manage to isolate her thoughts via mediation doesn’t change that. But I have another problem: what kind of escape does a wellness island actually provide? Is it just providing more of that seductive productivity?

– “What did you do on holiday?”
– “I really improved my crow pose, and my meditation is getting more fulfilling by the day.”

I fear that, for a productivity junkie like myself, scheduled activities that have any tangible outcome will simply play into the mindset of achievement and box ticking that I find impossible to reject. Like gold star charts for adults, there are apps to incentivise every part of your life, especially the bits that interact most neatly with capitalism: check into the places you visit on Swarm, then use your loyalty card in the supermarket, before you compete with your friends on your Nike+ Running app. Game mechanics, that 2011 tech buzzword, are now infiltrating our TV time: SideReel gives out badges for the number of TV episodes you’ve watched, so even mindless relaxation is associated with achievement and incentives: watching four hours of Temptation Island is no longer about just filling your time – you are working towards your next milestone.
     Escape, to me, means rejection of the way I live most of the time, which involves cramming as much stuff in as possible. 8am, vinyasa yoga; 12pm, lunch; 4pm, DJ session by the pool; 7pm, dinner – the island’s timetable pleases the part of me that loves structure. There’s a certain kind of relaxation in regularity, when the world is made so small and rigid that you can only follow its natural rhythm. But how can it be an escape?

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The mythology of the island suggests that our isolation on it takes us beyond our usual social situation. And yet, this place seems specifically designed to keep me within the bounds of my social network. As my departure date draws nearer, my Facebook has begun to fill up with adverts for it: “It's your perfect summer holiday, with a festival twist.” “They know me so well,” I think. I mention to a close friend that I’m going. “Oh, I saw that!” she says. “I was thinking about going, too.”

We have been selected as a target audience, (it’s ‘perfect’ for us, after all) and we are filling the mould we’re given. The internet is designed to keep us happy. Our web searches tell us what we want to hear, from people we already know, while our newsfeeds are a chorus of voices all singing the same tune, shutting out the rich variety of musical accompaniments that could be soundtracking our virtual lives. “But doesn’t it sound better when everything’s in tune?” says the algorithm. The phenomenon of the filter bubble is alive and well – we only know what we already knew we wanted to know, what the evidence of a million black-box predictions suggests.

Really, who needs a paradise island escape, when we’re all trapped in tech isolation, divided from each other not by our screens, but by the web’s capacity to predict what we want? The internet seems to stretch on and on and yet it’s just an illusion – when you touch the surface, we’re surrounded by algorithmic water, separated from the rest of the world by our tiny contributions to the big data game.

On a getaway like this, the horizon of endless possibility is waylaid by the reality that only certain people would, or could, choose this form of escape. Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms of the wellness phenomenon is the blinding whiteness and wealth of its participants, and I am certain that this would be reflected in my fellow holidaymakers. Is it any surprise, when the lifestyle requires expendable income, as well as a certain amount of privilege, in order to take part? I fully expect those who booked a bell tent or forest lodge (available to sleep two or four people) to look just like me: white and middle-class. According Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, we’re supposed to seek self-actualisation when we’ve already achieved our physiological needs, safety, love and esteem. It’s what people do when they don’t have to worry about everything else. What a glorious luxury.

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In the end, I never make it to the wellness island. The night before we are due to fly, we receive an email informing us that the island has no running water or electricity yet. The island cannot even meet our physiological needs, let alone the top-of-the-pyramid self-actualisation that it had promised. Deflated and marooned in our landlocked state, we begin the tedious process of procuring our refunds. Paradise has never felt more elusive.

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Photograph by Gus Webster

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