How to Feel Like a Castaway


When Alvaro Cerezo, a Spaniard with an unslakable wanderlust and a sun-bleached man bun, dedicated his life to exploring the remotest islands on Earth, he could not have predicted how many hours he would have to spend indoors, making uneasy small talk with local authority figures across Southeast Asia. Recently, I went with him to the office of a provincial government minister in northern Indonesia. (Because Cerezo’s business depends on obscurity, I am at liberty to name neither the province nor the minister.) Cerezo was there to see about an island. But first came the obligatory schmoozing.

‘‘We’ll take a photo,’’ the minister said. They posed in front of a wall. Then the minister gestured toward four couches in clashing shades of taupe, and everyone sat.

Cerezo was eager to get down to business. He owns a niche tourism company that brings people to uninhabited islands, especially those that look like desert-island cartoons: a ring of white sand, a few coconut trees, Technicolor turquoise surf. The putative goal — which turns out, the minute you think about it, to be impossible in several ways — is to ‘‘feel like a castaway.’’ Put more simply, the goal is to be as far as possible from other people.

Photo

An island recently scouted by Cerezo, who goes to great lengths to maintain the ‘‘isolation level’’ of his locations, the exact coordinates of which he won’t disclose.

Credit
Graham Miller

‘‘The most important thing for my clients is to be totally alone,’’ Cerezo told the minister. ‘‘You understand?’’

‘‘Of course,’’ the minister said, smiling broadly. It was not clear that he understood. He had a thick mustache, dyed black, and wore two huge rings made from local gems. ‘‘Now we take another photo, sitting and talking,’’ he said.

Cerezo is 35 and sinewy, with green eyes, a Mick Jagger mouth and profoundly bronzed forearms. As a guy who lives out of a suitcase — when we met, he did not own a pair of closed-toe shoes — he registers as fairly chill, at least by Western standards. But Indonesian etiquette requires even subtler levels of chillness, and Cerezo sensed that he was in danger of seeming pushy. He leaned back on the couch and pivoted to small talk.

Eventually, he coaxed the conversation toward specifics. There were about a dozen uninhabited islands in the region — ‘‘all of them beautiful,’’ Cerezo said. (The minister smiled demurely at the compliment.) Of these, Cerezo said, only one was suitable. He had first laid eyes on the island in 2010. Since then he had worked, intermittently, to prepare it for his clients. He referred to it as Opa’s Island, after a local businessman everyone called Opa (an Indonesian honorific equivalent to ‘‘Grandpa’’), who had once used part of it as a coconut plantation.

The main challenge would be maintaining the island’s ‘‘isolation level.’’ This is an obsession with Cerezo. He wants to curate for his clients the ‘‘illusion’’ (his word) of being a castaway, and this illusion can be pierced by even a passing ship, or by a cook-fire on a distant shore. Most Indonesians — most people, for that matter — do not understand the concept of voluntary self-exile, and, in the past, well-intentioned fishermen have visited Cerezo’s clients to offer food or companionship. Now Cerezo asked the minister to help prevent this. Could he make a rule that would keep local boats away from Opa’s Island, and then establish naval patrols to enforce the rule?

‘‘Your clients do not want to see Indonesian people,’’ the minister said, neutrally.

‘‘They do, of course!’’ Cerezo said. ‘‘But only here, in town. On the island, they want privacy.’’

The minister nodded, more uncertainly than before. Then he said, ‘‘You are from Spain, yes?’’ He sang a fragment of ‘‘Bésame Mucho’’ and asked for a translation.

‘‘ ‘Kiss me a lot,’ ’’ Cerezo said, feigning patience.

The minister tittered. ‘‘Bring me Spanish girls, I will sing them this song!’’ he said.

It went on like this for two hours. Mineral water was proffered. Air conditioning was adjusted. Finally, the minister said, ‘‘So, this is the conclusion from our meeting: I will talk to the fishermen and the navy. You can use the island, and we will work on privacy. You have my permission.’’ He handed Cerezo a sealed envelope containing an official letter.

Leaving in an S.U.V., I asked Cerezo if he now had what he needed. ‘‘It’s a start, at least,’’ he said. ‘‘But tomorrow, it might be like that whole conversation never happened.’’

At some point during the meeting, an envelope had been passed to the minister. It contained 200,000 rupiah, or about 15 dollars. ‘‘They will never ask you to give, and you don’t have to give,’’ Cerezo said. ‘‘And giving does not guarantee anything. But if you don’t give, it guarantees a bad result.’’ We parked the S.U.V. at a local police station, handed off another envelope and then drove two hours north through golden afternoon sunlight to a dock where an outrigger canoe was waiting.

Photo

Cerezo, the 35-year-old Spaniard, in one of the local municipal buildings in which he tries to strike deals to secure the use of particular sites.

Credit
Graham Miller

Traditional tourism, or what one might call additive tourism, is about embellishing the self: See new art, taste new foods, become a better you! Subtractive tourism, on the other hand, is about removing the dross that is distracting you from your true self. A meditation retreat is subtractive tourism; so is hiking through Yosemite.

Cerezo’s vision is radically subtractive: He seems to want to remove everything that causes modern malaise, including even the forward march of time. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has ever had to labor physically for food would find scavenging fun. Only in a culture of endemic busyness does survival tourism make sense, just as only in an era of overabundance would people pay life coaches to help them eat less, download apps to lock themselves out of the Internet, or buy books that advise them to throw their books away. Emerson famously disparaged ‘‘the superstition of Traveling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt.’’ But Emerson didn’t have Twitter, and he did not have in mind subtractive travel, whose idols are empty vistas and silence.

Cerezo calls his company Docastaway, because it allows clients to ‘‘do’’ a castaway experience. This is a terrible name. It is so bad that even after I found Cerezo online, Skyped with him intermittently over several months, settled on a bespoke participant-observer itinerary, flew to Indonesia with my wife and handed over a sizable stack of cash, I still wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. But Cerezo is stubborn. ‘‘I started with the logo,’’ he said — where the letters DOCASTAWAY grow progressively more distant from each other, the isolation of the Y representing the isolation of the client. ‘‘That flashed in my mind, and I have stuck to that name ever since.’’

Since 2010, he has guided over 400 travelers to about 30 islands throughout Indonesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Africa, the Philippines and the Caribbean. The clients, who range from backpackers with a bit of discretionary cash to hyperadventurous honeymooners to retired executives, find him through the Internet and then pay him to take them out of cellphone range. Some travel in Comfort Mode, which includes food and shelter and bug spray. Others choose Adventure Mode, which can be as rudimentary as ‘‘Here’s a machete; see you in three weeks.’’ Cerezo encourages clients to travel light, but, he acknowledged, ‘‘the perfect balance is different for everyone. Some people, if you take away too much, it creates too much fear. For other people, some fear is useful.’’ Useful for what? I tried to ask, but I couldn’t phrase the question in a way that Cerezo understood.

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A Docastaway tent pitched on an island in the Philippines known as “Juanito Papi,” currently on offer as a destination for clients who opt for the “Adventure Mode” experience.

Credit
Graham Miller

For years, Cerezo’s only client was himself. He was born into a well-to-do family in Málaga, an ancient trading port on the southern coast of Spain. Full of sunny cafes and Phoenician ruins, Málaga is about as idyllic as a city can get — and yet it always seemed obvious to Cerezo that the people there, like all people throughout the industrialized world, led lives of quiet desperation. ‘‘I have never been truly happy in a city, not any city, not ever,’’ he said. ‘‘The only way I can describe it is an uncomfortable feeling, like itching.’’

He attended the University of Granada, but restively. Every few months, he took a leave of absence and went far away. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, remote archipelagos in the Philippines, desert islands off the Tanzanian coast: It was the isolation that mattered, not the destination. Any place that had been listed in any guidebook was already spoiled. He did not give much forethought to what he would do when he got to these places, or why. As soon as he arrived at a remote island, he set his sights on the next one.

Eventually, it occurred to him that this skill — nosing out untrammeled places — might be a marketable one. Fortunately for Cerezo, the world’s population is distributed more unevenly every year, and thousands of small islands are unoccupied. Most are unsuitable for his purposes: too big, too small, too rocky, too bare. Some are covered in industrial wreckage, land mines or snakes; some are sacred; some are haunted. Every few months, though, he finds one that might work.

Then he goes about ‘‘making the island available’’ for his clients, a halting process that can take years. He does not buy islands; rather, he strikes a set of deals that allow him to use them in certain ways for certain periods of time — and, in most of the regions where he operates, any contract, verbal or written, is only as valid as the web of personal relationships undergirding it. (‘‘And it is really the bribes that keep these relationships going,’’ Cerezo adds.) His meeting in the provincial minister’s office was just the latest in a series of such encounters, both formal and informal, conducted over three trips to the region. Eventually, Cerezo hoped, he would feel confident about Opa’s Island, and add it to the ever-shifting list of offerings on Docastaway’s Web site. Meanwhile, he was engaged in similar campaigns in about a dozen other places.

After seeing the provincial minister, Cerezo would visit several other political and military officials in the region. He would spend time with local farmers and entrepreneurs, including Opa himself. (He already knew Opa and his family well, having spent weeks, on previous trips, sleeping in their home.) Cerezo also hoped to find out who owned the most powerful motorboat in the region and hire a local crew to ferry clients and goods to and from the island. He had hired a local English speaker to work as a wilderness-guide-cum-maitre-d’, standing by on a nearby island in case anything went wrong. (In Adventure Mode, this option might be invoked only for medical emergencies; in Comfort Mode, a boat could be called in to refresh a client’s supply of orange juice.) And, before opening islands for business, Cerezo has to hire local workers to fix up any authentic-looking structures on the island, tear down any modern-looking ones and remove any trash that has washed up onshore.

Even the remotest islands, in Indonesia in 2015, suffer incursions from the outside world. They are polluted by noise, airborne fumes or seaborne plastic; there are fire ants, or mosquitoes, or harsh winds, or fishing boats on the horizon. You can obscure these encumbrances by addition — say, by paving paradise and putting up a parking lot — or by subtraction, as Cerezo does. There might be intuitive or aesthetic reasons to prefer one method over the other. The subtractive method has the advantage of being less visible, and thus easier to ignore. But both are artificial. Making a place look untouched, it turns out, requires a lot of intervention.

Photo

Cerezo wants to curate for his clients the ‘‘illusion’’ (his word) of being a castaway, and this illusion can be pierced by even a passing ship, or by a cook-fire on a distant shore.

Credit
Graham Miller

My wife and I would sleep alone on two islands in the region — Opa’s Island, still in ‘‘test mode,’’ and Siroktabe, currently offered as a Docastaway destination. On Opa’s Island, Cerezo would give us a taste of comfort: sleeping mats, kerosene lamps, a cooler full of candy bars and canned coffee. But on the first island, Siroktabe, we opted for a purer version of Adventure Mode. We asked to be stranded with just a lighter, a machete, a cookpot and a few bottles of water. There was a bamboo lean-to we could sleep under if it rained. We were offered potato chips and chocolate and pillows and we refused them all, feeling heroically ascetic.

There were probably coconuts on the island, if we could find them and figure out how to open them; and there would be plenty of fish, if we could somehow catch and cook them. We did not expect to succeed at any of this. My wife and I are about as low on the Robinson Crusoe self-sufficiency scale as it is possible for two full-grown adults to be. I have broken bones by falling off of chairs not once but multiple times. But we would be alone on the island for just over 24 hours — hardly enough time to starve — and we had both survived our share of Yom Kippur fasts. We had prescription sunglasses and SPF 80 sunblock and Neosporin in case of flesh wounds. We would be fine. (Also, we had a secret stash of granola bars in our suitcase.)

The boat headed north through open sea. We slowed as we approached a sheltered lagoon, the water below us so clear that the boat seemed to levitate above the coral. Indonesian crewmen — whom I am barred from naming but who do most of the actual work — unloaded the boat, stashed our luggage in the lean-to and gave us a vague indication of where we might find coconuts and how to split one open. They also left us with a handheld metal grate: If we somehow caught a fish and built a fire, we could use the grate to cook the fish over an open flame. Cerezo handed us a walkie-talkie and showed us how to use it. My wife, who grew up in Manhattan and is spooked by silence, asked every conceivable question — about stingrays, about the tides — in the manner of a child forestalling bedtime. Then they shoved off, and we were alone.

We walked along the beach. We were ostensibly gathering wood for kindling, the idea being that the wind might die down and we would try, and almost surely fail, to build a fire. I also picked up a coconut and carried it under my arm like an ungainly talisman. This was a game, and, though we felt a bit silly about it, we were attempting to follow the rules.

Mostly, we engaged in meta-tourism, talking about what it was like to be on a desert island. We noticed things, wondered what it meant that we were noticing them, took photographs to remind ourselves what we’d noticed. We had asked Cerezo everything we could think to ask, but we had failed to ask the primary question: What is the point of this? I realized that I had unconsciously and unrealistically hoped that sheer geographic remoteness would strip me of self-consciousness. Yet here I was, still inside my own brain, still observing what I was doing as I did it.

I expressed some of these thoughts as we walked along the beach, further distancing myself from the moment by analyzing the ways in which I felt distant from the moment. Then I saw a crab. It was between two rocks, the rocks were far from each other, and so the crab was exposed, unsure whether to scurry left or scurry right or play dead. It was plump and crimson against the white sand. It raised its pincers, opening and closing them in a disturbingly Pixar-ish gesture of helplessness. I bonked it on the head with the coconut. ‘‘I’m really doing this, I guess,’’ I thought, but what I said was closer to a panicky preverbal squeal. The crab was still squirming, or parts of it were. I slammed the coconut down again, grinding the crab’s body into the sand. It stopped moving.

What were once academic questions became suddenly immediate. How much daylight did we have? How much firewood? My wife was gripped by a fierce conviction that the crab should not have died in vain. We rushed back to the lean-to and found the lighter. It didn’t work. Before we could decide what to do next, we spotted another lighter, half-buried in the sand: This one worked. We pried open the coconut and pulled out a handful of the rough fibers inside — one of the Docastaway employees had mentioned, and we now recalled, that these fibers were supposed to make good kindling. They ignited. We cleared a spot in the sand and added more of the fibers, then small sticks, then larger ones, until we had a decent fire. We propped up the metal grate in the fire, put water in the cookpot and balanced it on the grate. The sun was setting — a desert-island-cartoon spray of pinks and golds — but we only had time to glimpse it. We hardly talked, except to exchange practical information: ‘‘Stand here’’; ‘‘Hold this.’’ I scraped as much sand from the crab as I could. The water came to a boil, and I dropped the crab into the pot and covered it. Meanwhile, my wife found another coconut and bore a hole in it using a sharp-tipped piece of bamboo she’d found on the beach; then she carried the coconut to a stump, raised the machete above her head, split the coconut in two and drank the water from it. We worked for what turned out to be two hours, though neither of us was aware of how much time was passing or how we might look or why exactly we were doing what we were doing. After a while, I removed the pot cover, laid it upside-down on the stump, dumped the crab onto it, cracked open one of the claws and wrenched out a bit of steaming meat.

‘‘It smells like crab!’’ my wife said.

I took a bite. ‘‘It tastes like crab!’’ I said.

We had expended more calories than we ingested, but we felt satisfied. We never thought of opening the granola bars. Instead, we hacked open another coconut, drank its water and then let the fire die down so that we could look at the stars while we ate chunks of coconut and crab meat. It was the least-photographed span of our trip, and the one that we will remember the longest.

Photo

Cerezo spends years making an island ‘‘available’’ for his clients. New Docastaway locations are put in ‘‘test mode,’’ where even the smallest intrusions can render them unusable.

Credit
Graham Miller

A couple of days later, Opa accompanied us to Opa’s Island. We took a short walk through a grove of coconut trees and reached a point from which we could see the rocky coast, a distant smudge of gray-green. By the time we got back, at dusk, a campsite had been set up: a two-tiered bamboo shack lit by hanging petroleum lamps; a mosquito net hung from the roof, like a lace canopy over our sleeping mat; a cooler full of drinks and sliced fruit. The crew left, and we used a portable stove to heat up the fish and rice they’d left for us. A stray cat, presumably left on the island by a fishing crew, came to beg for scraps. (We have cats at home, so this was fine with us, though I don’t want to imagine what will happen if Cerezo ever has a client who is allergic.)

When it got dark, we walked along the beach. Dragging our feet through wet sand, we discovered that we were leaving lustrous cyan trails — the water in the bay contained bioluminescent plankton. ‘‘Each island has special features, but we don’t tell clients about them ahead of time,’’ Cerezo told us later. ‘‘It’s more special to discover it yourself.’’ We went back to our shack, read by lamplight and slept easily — luxuriantly, by comparison — now that we had a sleeping mat. The whole night was lovely, but we understood what Cerezo had meant earlier when he’d described Comfort Mode, with a derisive curl of the lip, as ‘‘just camping.’’ For anyone who can afford a Docastaway trip, comfort is nice, but it’s nothing new; the easiest way to stay comfortable, if you’re a middle-class American, is to stay home. Adventure Mode is an arbitrary game, and there is something crudely dilettantish about it, like Marie Antoinette playacting on her private farm. But games can also be rewarding, even briefly revelatory.

The next day, leaving Opa’s Island in a motorboat, we made small talk for a while, then fell into a contented silence. The sea was placid, and the sun wrote frantic calligraphy on the tips of the waves. But Cerezo was staring at his phone, struggling to get enough signal to send an email. He was tense. ‘‘We saw something on the way here,’’ he said. ‘‘We have to find out what it is.’’ We anchored beneath a rocky outcropping, the one barely visible from Opa’s Island. Above, along a newly poured concrete path, were about a dozen buildings with iron roofs, painted a garish shade of blue: a group of tourist bungalows, still under construction. Toshiba TVs and LG air-conditioning units were being imported from the regional capital, a three-hour drive away. There would be a huge generator, a restaurant and a bar with karaoke.

Cerezo thought through all the possibilities. Guests would surely throw parties at the hotel, and the light and noise could reach Opa’s Island; the proprietors would want to use supply boats, send guests out on snorkeling trips, perhaps open shops nearby, all of which would create distractions. We were hardly talking about Times Square — these were local developers, after all, not the Hilton family — but Cerezo shook his head in resignation. ‘‘Maybe this hotel will fail,’’ he said. ‘‘We can hope for that.’’ Or maybe he could pull strings with the government to set up more restrictions — limits on boat traffic, no lights after a certain hour. But he was skeptical. ‘‘I think Opa’s Island is finished,’’ he said. This was why he didn’t buy islands: When an area grew too civilized for his taste, he could simply walk away, leaving years of relationship-building behind. ‘‘There was something unique about this island,’’ Cerezo said. ‘‘I wish I could make it work.’’ But I could tell he was already thinking about other islands, deeper in the Pacific.



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