Updated: Oct 24, 2020
It was a cinematic beginning. I arrived on the island by speedboat, skimming across the waves in the early evening darkness, the billions of stars above my head the only distinction between the curtain of sea and sky. All of a sudden, the evening’s peace was ruptured by flashes of lightning and insistent, plunging rain. We were in the middle of a tropical storm, which if you ask me is a pretty exciting opening to any adventure story.
It began six weeks ago, when I received a life-changing email:
‘I’m delighted to offer you the role as our 2019/20 Barefoot Bookseller.’
The weeks that followed have been a blur. Boxes, goodbyes and packing (what do you need to bring for six months on a desert island? The answer: sun-cream, swimwear, lots of bug-spray, a notepad and plenty of books). Even as I packed, I couldn’t quite take it all in. ‘How do you feel?’, friends asked me over farewell drinks. But it didn’t feel like it was happening.
It all hit me as I said goodbye to my family at the airport. ‘I can’t do this.’ I cried to my parents as I gave them a farewell hug. Maybe I wasn’t so adventurous after all.
The speedboat ride quickly put an end to that sentiment. My first two weeks here have been a tropical mist of adjustment, exploration, and too many new experiences to count. I’ve put-together and opened a bookshop, snorkeled with sharks, turtles, and thousands of fish, and had my first scuba-diving lesson. I’ve learned more about marine life, conservation and permaculture in ten days than I have been taught in a lifetime. I’ve started yoga lessons. I’ve sipped cocktails on a deserted sandbank in the middle of the Indian ocean. It’s a world away from my previous life, dashing through London from meeting to book launch to social event with an exhausting sense of urgency.
There’s not much dashing here. Here my commute is a thirty-second bike ride, or a short amble, through tropical jungle. Petrol fumes are a distant memory. My lungs are opening up to the natural aroma of the rainforest – fresh, clean, and earthy. The honking horns of the cityscape have been replaced by the squawks, crows and caws of the birds that populate the island. On the island I have no desire to put on noise-cancelling headphones and tune out. Instead, I feel the need to be connected to the sounds and smells of the beautiful place around me.
Soneva’s “no news, no shoes” philosophy is taken seriously. I haven’t worn shoes since the moment I stepped foot on the island. It’s all part of Soneva’s unique outlook, where guests and “hosts” (Soneva’s term for staff) are encouraged to connect with nature and our surroundings in a new way.
Funnily enough, I do feel more connected to the world around me. Feeling the sand beneath my toes and breathing in fresh air is a grounding experience. Above me I can see only luscious green jungle and bright blue sky. At night, a canopy of stars lights the path home. There are only certain spots on the island where I can get wifi, so I go most of the day without checking my phone.
If everything on the island is a natural, peaceful haven, then the bookshop is no exception. The curved structure, just steps from the beach, was crafted on the island using wood from its fallen trees. The front, made completely of glass, emerges out of the jungle as an apparition. A great tree trunk stands proudly in the centre of the room as a display table, where I’ve housed the books on the environment for added resonance. It’s genuinely breath-taking, the most beautiful bookshop I’ve ever seen, and I can’t believe it’s mine for six months.
Best of all, I’ve discovered how much there is to learn here. My colleagues are from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds, the guests are some of the most successful experts in their respective fields. The natural world around me is rich with new things that I’ve only glimpsed fleetingly these last two weeks. I have six whole months to take it all in, and a glorious feeling the speedboat arrival was only the first chapter in my six month island adventure.