I’ve always had a particular fascination with islands. Many people often dream of tropical paradises, particularly of warm, tropical islands isolated from the modern world, where life is simple, the fruit is abundant and every day a new adventure. I’ve developed a particular fascination with the South Pacific, as to me it’s the closest thing to interstellar travel we can experience on Earth. Each island is like a little world unto itself, isolated by miles and miles of blue Ocean from another world, and for the longest time in human history, these little gems of Paradise were utterly unknown and undiscovered. The South Pacific is the last significant area of the world to be colonized by human beings, and the discovery of these islands is probably one of the greatest pre-historic achievements of humankind.
My love of islands led me to explore many island chains of the world, including Hawaii, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Fiji, the Philippines, the Greek Islands, and many more. I was particularly enthralled by atolls, those remnants of volcanic islands, where most of the land has disappeared under the Ocean, leaving only a thin ring of coral reef — a jewel in the middle of the blue Ocean. The lagoon of many atolls is pure beauty, of ever-changing shades of turquoise. Stranded on the small habitable part of the atoll, you have the feeling of being completely disconnected from the rest of the world, being one with the sea.
Naturally, I’ve wondered what it would be like to live on a tropical island. I’ve often dreamed about it. To me, Hawaii is too Americanized, although you can still get glimpses of how life used to be, before European colonization. My islands of choice would have been Moorea, in French Polynesia, or even Tahaa. Those islands are still traditional but remain connected to the rest of the world.
However, over the years, I’ve realized that there’s a big difference between the dream of living on an island and the reality.
What Islanders Actually Eat
The islander’s way of life has dramatically changed since ancient times. While the Polynesians lived on a diet of fish, root crops, breadfruit, pork, and very few other things, today’s islanders like to indulge in fried chicken and junk food (mainly white bread, chips, and chocolate bars), supplementing their diet with some traditional fare. They also eat a lot of fish, as most of the meat is imported and frozen.
There is no McDonald’s on the island of Rarotonga, or anywhere in the Cook Islands (we even saw a sign pointing the direction to the nearest McDonalds, over 2000 KM away!), but there’s plenty of fast food to be had.
Cook Islanders often say that they “live to eat,” and admit this freely and by that, they don’t mean green smoothies or even fruit. Many Cook Islanders have a freezer bigger than their fridge, and in fact, the remote island of Pamerston in the Cooks boasts the highest freezer usage per capita in the world! That’s because they have to get 3-5 months of groceries at a time because on their atoll there’s not much land to grow food besides coconuts. It’s mostly sand with little topsoil.
Foods You Can Eat On a Tropical Island
You find tropical fruits on many islands but not as much as you’d think. Produce is relatively expensive, certainly more costly than the same products imported to North America. In the South Pacific, French Polynesia was best for fruit, in terms of year-round variety and availability. Although it’d be difficult, you could undoubtedly attempt to live off local products such as breadfruits, papayas, coconuts, mangoes, bananas, plantains, etc. However, the islands rely heavily on imported food and are not self-sustainable in agricultural production.
Some islands have more fruit than others, like the Seychelles, where I could find jackfruit, mangoes, cherimoya, and many other exotic varieties, and some have less. You might think that it’s a good idea just to go “foraging” for fruit in the wild, but because these islands are so small, every fruit tree you might find on the side of the road probably belongs to someone, so foraging is the equivalent of stealing.
Nothing besides coconuts grows on an atoll. Nearly all of the fruit must be imported. On some atolls, there have been successful attempts to grow vegetables. But if you were to live on an atoll, you’d be dependent on foods coming from the main islands. Most islanders live on fish, rice and junk food. Ciguatera poisoning is widespread.
How Small These Islands Are
One of the cutest islands I have been to is Rarotonga, in the Cooks. It is not a big island. It’s about 67 square kilometers (SQ KM), or about 42 square miles, and most of it is impenetrable jungle from the mountainous interior. There’s a road that circles the island that’s 32 KM long (20 miles). To put that in perspective, the Big Island of Hawaii is over 10,000 SQ KM (or 6250 SQ Miles). Seeing Rarotonga from the sky is quite amazing, as you can see the entire island in one glance below you.
Aitutaki is even smaller, being an atoll in formation, most of the original island has sunk to the bottom of the Ocean. What’s left is a little island surrounded by a beautiful lagoon and a few islets. Going about 40 KM per hour (25 miles) on a scooter, I could go all around the island in less than 25 minutes!). After going around the island a few times, I knew my way around, a good thing since there are no street signs or addresses…
While You Dream of Islands, They Leave Them
When you first arrive in some of these beautiful tropical islands, the first thought that crosses your mind is: this is so beautiful, I never want to leave. At the same time, many of the islanders can’t wait to get out of their little Paradise! Everybody loves the Cook Islands, but there are not many opportunities for local youth. Because the Cook Islands are in free association with New Zealand, Cook Islanders hold a New Zealand passport, and most of the young people eventually leave to go work in either Australia or New Zealand. They come back for vacations and to visit family, but many of them get more excited by the bright lights of Auckland or Sydney than the sleepy ports of the Cook Islands.
About 20,000 people live in the Cook Islands, but over 75,000 Cook Islanders live abroad. In some of the smaller and more remote islands, you’ll hardly find anybody between the age of 18 and 50.
My Ideal Tropical Island
A few years ago, I read the story of two young people who had some extra money to spare and decided to start a raw food community on a tropical island in the South Pacific. They scoured the area for months and finally found an island in Fiji to buy. However, their story abruptly ended, and I never saw if they managed to make their dreams a reality.
In the end, I came to realize that a tropical island is the idea of Paradise, but the reality is different. When you through climate change into the picture, those beautiful islands that you love are probably some of the worst places to live in an ever-changing world.
Among the many challenges that islands face:
- Every island has a trash management problem. Hawaii reached the point where it started exporting some of its trash. Small islands burn most of their trash and bury the rest, often contaminating their lagoons in the process.
- Almost all small islands get their electricity from diesel-burning generators. There are not many alternatives at the moment, because wind and solar energy require too much land area and are too expensive, and generally, most islands don’t have ways to generate hydro-electricity or enough volcanic activity for geothermal power.
- Rising ocean levels will create enormous problems for low-lying islands and atolls, possibly making life impossible in many places.
- Increasing global temperature will create more problems for tropical islands, including more tropical diseases, deadly weather events, and heat waves
- Very few islands can sustain themselves, and most are heavily dependent on a globalized economy.
- Tropical diseases thrive on many islands, especially those carried by mosquitoes.
Sometimes we daydream of tropical islands… but we might forget the reality of living in Paradise. If we want to define Paradise as:
- Beautiful lagoons and beaches
- Sunshine and warm weather
- Tropical plants
… then yes, tropical islands are absolute Paradise. But to me, Paradise is an attitude of wonder you can bring with you everywhere beautiful. Although I’ve dreamt of living on a remote tropical island, I’ve come to realize that there’s a better place to call home, namely my Northern Paradise of Quebec.