"Is Paradise Always an Island?" — by Georgia Hesse

When Georgia Hesse spoke about writing travel stories at the Sept. 18 BATW meeting, she mentioned her essay “Is Paradise Always an Island?” which ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 25, 2010.  Here is her charming story.

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“Where are you traveling next?” a friend inquired.

“To Kauai,” I answered.

“Oh, wow! That’s, I mean, Paradise.”

I know. A highly unscientific but lifelong inquiry has taught me that Paradise is always an island – well, nearly always. The one exception is the Garden of Eden, but that was born in our biblical bones.

Although I am captivated by such divergent landscapes as those of Death Valley, Wyoming’s Grand Tetons and the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania, I do not call them Paradise. In fact, years ago I gave up Paradise for Lent. It’s too inexact. It’s not inclusive enough. It leaves out Paris, for Zeus’ sake. (Even if Champs-Elysées does mean Elysian Fields.)

Paradise must be lush, to begin. It must sport frangipani (a.k.a. plumeria) as in Fiji, tiare (a.k.a. gardenia) as in Tahiti, Nympheae stelleta as in Sri Lanka (a.k.a. Ceylon and a few dozen other names, such as Taprobanê, Pa-Outchow and, the best, Serendip – from which Horace Walpole cunningly coined “serendipity” in 1754).

Paradise must be far away. Catalina is charming and gave birth to a good old song, but it’s too close to California. San Pedro Island is definitely too near Texas. Martha’s Vineyard has the Edgartown Yacht Club and a Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, but it’s not suitably improper (not far enough from Boston). The Brits revere Iona and the monks, but for Paradise they prefer Seychelles. The French may say France itself is “Paradise enow,” but they tend to find it in Bora Bora. (They’re not alone.)

Canada’s Victoria is too quaint.

Another thing. Paradise can’t be cold. I yield to no one in my fascination for the Falklands. But Paradise? Surely you jest. Baffin Island offers wondrous wildlife, but I’ll take my ice in a tall glass under a palm, thanks.

Paradise mustn’t involve much history. It thrives on idleness, indolence, an absence of industry; it invites sloth. That’s why Greece is not Paradise. There is, and always has been, too much going on, even for Lord Byron:

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,

Where grew the arts of war and peace –

Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!

Eternal summer gilds them yet,

But all, except their sun, is set.

Indeed, to escape the reality of Greece, Odysseus found forgetfulness only with the Lotus-Eaters on the island of Djerba, in Tunisia, not Greece.

Island nations – the Philippines and Indonesia (each with thousands of outcrops), England, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand and more – are too important to be Paradise. Australia is too big.

Paradise can’t have a Parliament, nor should it declare war.

As for Malta, Cyprus, Easter, the Galapagos, Corsica: Too much attention is demanded; you want to be awake all the time.

People have sought to find Paradise in places other than islands. The Mughal emperor Jehangir once wrote of the beautiful Vale of Kashmir: “If there be Paradise on Earth, it is here … it is here … it is here.” Once, on a trek from Srinigar to Gulmarg and swaying by night in a houseboat on Lake Dal, with the sweet odors of cedar and the banks of orchids onshore, I thought Jehangir was right. But alas! Kashmir is not an island but a battlefield where Indians and Pakistanis play war games. Politics pollute the paradisiacal.

San Franciscans can find a Paradise right near home: near Chico, about three hours and 15 minutes from the Bay Bridge, east of Diamondville (not incidentally, do you think?) and southeast of Helltown (fittingly?). Stay at the Paradise Inn (as one choice): “a Heavenly experience.”

For such a fantastical concept – the final abode of the righteous, an anteroom for those awaiting resurrection, a state of bliss – the word “Paradise” owns a rather prosaic etymon: Greek parádeisos (park, pleasure-ground); Iranian (cf. Avestan) pairi-daëza (enclosure; through Hebrew, garden).

Of the cliche Paradise, two islands swim into mind: Bora Bora, where I snorkeled down through layers of azure sea so clear I could see fish floating in briny balance far below, floating on eddies of tide, and the green mirage of Vihamanafushi in the Maldives.

There I slid down, down, through cooling layers of cerulean blue, winking at fish (“I know your cousin in Rarotonga”) and waving back at coral and thinking of the lands (like this) where zephyrs whisper.

Above, near the frangipani and bougainvillea, they were pouring a drink of rum, triple sec, cognac and lime. It’s called Between the Atolls, and it is less intoxicating than a twilight amble around Vihamanafushi.

Something about Paradise unhinges the otherwise sane mind.

— Georgia Hesse

(photo © April Orcutt)


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