Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Is It About An Island?

Florianopolis, Ilha de Santa Catarina, Brazil

     Santa Catarina Island is not in the balmy South Pacific, nor does it figure in popular dreams of escape and isolation. Its city, Florianopolis holds some 400,000, and while the south is wilder and less populated -- there’s a Shipwreck Point - the north is as overdeveloped as some of southern Spain.
     None of it mattered when I reached Floripa, as the whole place is called for short, after weeks inland. I walked the shore feeling elated. It seemed even the air was easier to breathe. On one side of the corniche, apartment buildings rose like a sparkling sea wall, much as they do in Rio. Sitting on shore facing the waves, however, the vista is endless, natural. You might imagine the water mutating in color as it spread south: deep blue here, breaking with white froth that bubbles and disappears; then hundreds of miles out, rolling with the grey of cold steel as the temperature drops; hosting ice blocks even farther south until the surface waters stop moving altogether, having become the frozen blue white of the Antarctic.
     I’m surprised when the breeze comes up and blows warm, because I’ve imagined myself down to the edge of the South Pole. Near me a young man leans back on his elbows, ear buds in place, fingers tapping sand. A woman in white stares out to sea. Three lone boats, wood by the look of them, rock in the swell near a pier.

     My body clock, wound tight for so long, unwinds to the rhythm of the waves, floats on the blue. What is it about an island that can make a person feel like who she is, stripped of roles, unhurried? If you allow islands to be simple, they are, just land, sea. Road signs here have it right: arrows pointing to bridges to the mainland carry only one word, “Continente,” encompassing all the complexity that awaits elsewhere.
     At night, the lights of the island are framed by the blackness of the sea. I think of the writer and pioneer pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who once landed regularly at the Florianopolis field when flying between France and points in Latin America, in the 1920s and 1930s, when guiding lights were fewer. I think of the U.S. Navy pilots and seamen based here during World War II, sometimes patrolling to rescue survivors of German U-boat hits. I wonder what it must have been like with the island in blackout for a thousand nights, after Brazil sided with the allies in 1942 and nervously expected retribution, perhaps aimed at the port, the most important between Rio de Janiero and Buenos Aires.
     Lights outline the spans of the suspension bridge to the mainland now, making the structure look more delicate and ethereal than you know it must be. Tomorrow it will lead back to the continent.

 with two whale crania and rib section found on beach (not by me)