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Lockdown life: Islomania & the endless present

Stephen M. Morrison (The Philippine Star) - April 8, 2021 - 12:00am

As vaccinations in the US pick up speed, friends in the States are starting to return to their regular lives or adapt to their forever-changed ones. Many mention how it feels as if the country – at least with regard to the pandemic – is turning a corner. In the meantime, here in the Philippines, it seems as though we’re back again in the Endless Present of Lockdown Life, with no solid sense for when a corner will be turned.

I think back to this time last year: my Lockdown #1 – a result of either bad or good timing – involved landing on the southern island of Siargao a few hours before Duterte’s first lockdown speech. I ended up stranded on the island for 101 days. Some days it felt like we were stranded in paradise – though when you can’t escape from paradise, sometimes even that can feel like a prison.

When the first lockdown happened, Siargao closed itself off from the world. The airport closed. The skies went quiet. For the first few weeks, even the RORO didn’t come and the island worried about its food supply. With only one small hospital and a few small island clinics for a population of almost 100,000, you can understand why it needed to seal itself off from the world.

During a plague, city people have always fled to the safety of islands, or the countryside, sometimes bringing the plague with them. No wonder islanders are wary of outsiders. Until we’d passed through our 14 days of quarantine, the islanders were wary of us too. My 101 days on Siargao gave me a new respect for – and fascination with – the idea of islands and what they represent to us.

For this year’s lockdown, I’m on a different Philippine island, Luzon. In Manila, every barangay is now its own island floating in this megacity ocean, each household an even smaller island world in its neighborhood archipelago.

*      *      *

A year ago, when I was trying to make sense of being stranded on an island, I read all sorts of books about them. One was British writer Lawrence Durrell’s Reflections on a Marine Venus, a memoir of living on the Greek island of Rhodes in the years just after WW II. Durrell wrote of islomania, an “as-yet medically unclassified, unknown affliction of the Spirit,” and of islomanes, people who find “the mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with indescribable intoxication.”

I’ve been thinking of other islands and island countries I’ve visited over the years. I grew up mostly in an island nation, the UK. While it has cut itself off from Europe through Brexit, it didn’t cut itself off from the virus, was late to police its borders and has suffered as a result.

In the global pause of corona, as international travel ceases and nations severely restrict who is allowed to enter, even landlocked countries have become islands. Countries, states and cities shut their borders – or police them heavily: are they all becoming islands?

I wonder if all humans are undiagnosed islomanes or whether we’ll all have to become islomanes if we must continue to live in our circumscribed worlds. Are we each becoming our own islands, constantly questioning who and what we let into our personal spaces? To live in this new world might we all need to become islomanes?

*      *      *

Islands can also be places of fantasy and escape, places where one might retreat from life and perhaps see it afresh. I once lived for a month on the holy Greek island of Patmos. The island has been inhabited for millennia; it has survived Muslim raids, Ottoman rule, Italian and German occupations and increasing numbers of pilgrims and tourists.

Almost two millennia ago, the island provided shelter to St. John the Theologian. In its caves God is said to have shown John the visions that became the Book of Revelations. The Cave of the Apocalypse, where the Revelations were revealed, still exists, and is now a global pilgrimage site. When I visited, I crouched under the rough cave ceiling to see the grotto with its three stone cracks through which God is said to have dictated those Revelations to St. John.

There is no airport on Patmos. The only way to get to it is by ferry and in winter the boats run very irregularly. But in summer, Patmos’ 3,000-person population – which includes 40 monks in a hilltop monastery and an equal number of nuns in a clifftop convent – swells by many thousands.

In recent years, tourism on Siargao has grown so rapidly that for 2020 the island had been projecting almost half a million visitors, most of whom never arrived. In prior years, many came to experience an island fantasy, to retreat, reinvent or rediscover themselves. After 101 days, I managed to experience a bit of all of that: if I weren’t already an islomane, I became a willing one.

*      *      *

A few months after returning from Patmos, a friend persuaded me to make a 72-hour trip to the island nation of Iceland. We planned to drive north on the island to the unpopulated, unlit northern regions in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Our rental car – insured against volcanoes even – broke down in a sudden rainstorm while we were still in Reykjavík. We never left the city and instead looked for closer Icelandic experiences: I went to a four-hour seminar at Iceland’s only “Elf School,” taught by a Professor of Anthropology from the University of Iceland.

The professor had studied Huldufólk (Hidden People) for 40 years, collecting oral tales from people who claimed to have seen them. Even in 2019, more than 50 percent of Icelanders believe in them. One theory for why a majority of Icelanders still believe in magical, elfin creatures is that – because Iceland is an island far out in the Atlantic – Europe’s burst of scientific rationality during the Reformation never made it to Iceland to irradiate the ancient beliefs.

Perhaps the theory holds true when looking at the Philippines where the arrival of “rationalist” Jesuits may have spread Catholicism but were unable to eradicate deeper folk beliefs, whether it be aswang or mananambal. Perhaps islands can be places that protect things of value too.

*      *      *

Now, a year after the pandemic began, island communities such as Iceland and Siargao have been able to seal themselves off to protect themselves from outsiders and contagion, or at least be very careful about whom they let in. Iceland has reported fewer than 50 deaths. Siargao has had none as far as I can tell from the reporting. As for the sacred island of Patmos, it did accept pilgrims and holidaymakers last summer: perhaps divinely protected or just difficult to reach, the island has had a few cases but seems to have been spared a present-day pandemic apocalypse.

As for the barangay of Paco where I’m staying, I hear that Mayor Isko Moreno has started vaccinations for over-65s and those with comorbidities. So, perhaps our Endless Present of Lockdown Life will end soon and we too will turn a corner, no longer island households in a nation of islands, no longer forced to be islomanes, but perhaps just choosing to be instead.

*      *      *

Stephen Morrison worked in publishing for many years, as editor-in-chief of Penguin Books and later as publisher of Picador. This piece is adapted from a chapter from a book he is writing about his time spent on Siargao

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