I’m perched on the edge of a simple thatched-roof shelter on the remote Indonesian island of Siroktabe, staring down an immaculate white beach as the sun dips westward into the Indian Ocean, shocking the sky a glorious orange-pink. I feel good. Great, in fact. I am the only human being for miles. I am supposedly here to be tested, to survive. But here, now, surrounded by the earth’s rich bounty, I think:
This isn’t surviving. This is living.
Back up a couple of weeks. There is a small company in Hong Kong, Docastaway, that specializes in dropping people on desert islands in Asia, Oceania, or Central America to survive by their own wits for as long as they want to, or can bear it. (They also offer “comfort” packages, featuring all of the seclusion and none, or at least far less, of the hardship.) Maxim thought I might like to give it a shot. Why me? Because I have essentially no survival skills whatsoever. That is, unless you count a ninja-like ability to ride 16 stops in a packed A train without physically touching another human. I’m a creature of the city. On the whole, nature in the raw holds little appeal for me. I just don’t really know what to do with it. I’m also a profoundly pale man, paler than the ass of an Irish ghost in January. And a ginger. My brother once said I look like a marshmallow topped with carrot shavings. Which means that in addition to my issues with nature, I also hate the beach. And seafood.
Still, the idea of coming here was appealing, as I’d imagine it would be to all men. Most of us suspect, and a few know with certainty, that if the shit really came down, we’d be able to summon some dormant primordial power, some untapped cunning and resourcefulness and grit, and conquer the situation, whatever it was. We’d show what we’re really made of. We’d tap into a vestigial wildness. We’d survive.
But would we?
The plan was this: I would travel from New York to Dubai to Jakarta and then take two more planes, followed by a car ride to a small fishing village, where I’d hand over a brick of Indonesian cash to pay for the experience, and then be ferried, finally, to a location I am contractually prohibited from revealing. (Docastaway generally rents publicly owned but little-known islands from governments, navies, or locals, and doesn’t want to broadcast their locations to the world. It calls this island Siroktabe, not its real name.) Once there, I’d stay three full days, with minimal equipment: a speargun, a canoe, a machete. My contact at the company, cofounder Alvaro Cerezo, stressed that this was meant to replicate an authentic experience. “A castaway don’t know nothing,” he said. “You know nothing. You need to eat. You need to drink.” When I asked for some very basic survival tips, he hesitated. It’s best that I suffer, he said: “Otherwise it’s a vacation.”
Seems reasonable, I thought. I may have been inordinately excited about the speargun.
On the appointed day, off I went, hauling a bag containing some borrowed outdoor clothes and a stupid-looking hat, sunscreen, industrial insect repellent, a flashlight, and malaria pills. I was nervous but confident. How bad could it really be? There were banana trees, I was told.
If the fishing was bad, or the coconuts scarce, I’d just eat the bananas. Problem solved. Besides, it’s three days. Anything’s tolerable for three days.
From our boat, Siroktabe looms across the water. Bigger than I’d expected. Quite big, actually, with a narrow ribbon of beach surrounding a dense jungle that soars to a mountain peak in the center, and heaps of black volcanic boulders at either end. Even from afar, this place is spectacularly beautiful.
The boat edges up to the island, and we hop off into the shallow water. My guide gives me the rundown, showing me the simple thatched-roof shelter that will be my home, and points out a pot, a pan, and a gas-powered camp stove. Slightly annoyed, I resolve not to use the stove. I didn’t come here to be pampered. Otherwise, how will I know what I’m made of? But OK. He tells me about the great swarms of bats that come out around sunset. The pythons that make the island home. Demonstrates the speargun. Before he leaves, he leads me to a patch where I can dig up cassava, a root vegetable found via its marijuana-looking leaves. He reaches down, pops one out of the soft, abiding earth, a nice fat one, and hands it to me. There are also almonds around, he says, pointing at one. You just have to dig them out of their thick pods with a knife. And so I don’t die, he leaves me a few large bottles of water.
And then he’s off. He will be on the next island over. If I get into trouble, there’s a cell phone and a walkie-talkie I can contact him with. “Good luck,” he says. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
I walk back to the shelter. I notice an ant on my camera and flick it off.
The place is textbook paradise, verging on cliché. And hot. I’ve been here for 30 minutes and I’m already pouring sweat.
I’m also pretty hungry. By this point I’ve been traveling for nearly two full days and I’m running on just a couple hours of sleep, courtesy of some strange windowless hotel room at the airport in Jakarta with lights I couldn’t turn off. I haven’t eaten a proper meal in about 14 hours, save for some crackers I bought on a regional airline. (One of the ingredients: “shredded beef flavor.”)
But the crackers are long gone. Here you eat what you kill. So let’s start killing! I pick up the speargun, load it, cock it, aim it at a downed tree on the beach, and pull the trigger. The line attached to the spear catches my middle finger and tears off a few layers of skin, a wound that will seep pus for three days. You win this time, tree!
Clearly I need a plan, but it’s hard to hatch one when you have no idea what you’re doing or how nature works. Do I fish? Harvest? Hunt and gather? Where is the food exactly? And where are those bananas? I retire to my shelter to think. I stretch out my legs.
When I awake several hours later, it’s almost dark. At 5:30 p.m. Already? I hop up and begin walking along the edge of the jungle. No bananas. No coconuts. A few almonds. I come back to the shelter, try to start a fire with a lighter, some driftwood, and notebook paper, and fail. It’s damp and windy, and nothing will catch. Without fire there is no boiling—and I’m not using that stove—so I end up gnawing down half that raw cassava in darkness. It’s not bad! Plus, all this chewing is probably strengthening my jaws. That could prove useful in the coming days, should I awaken with a python on my face.
What do castaways do at night? Think? Sleep? Cry? I decide to crack a book. I’ve long meant to read Robinson Crusoe, so I bought a copy before I left. I figure Daniel Defoe’s would-be lawyer turned adventurer will make for good company. Just a couple of pampered city guys having a go at it in the wild. But I quickly discover Crusoe has a few advantages that I don’t. Guns, for instance. Powder. And, wait, so the guy just winds up on the island, immediately finds water, climbs a fir tree, and has the best sleep of his life? Not exactly an “authentic castaway experience.”
After a while, my flashlight starts to make the bugs go crazy, so I just lie down and listen to the waves and the rising chaos of the jungle as it gets down to the evening’s business. The sky is clear. Nice breeze. I see a shooting star. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen one of those before. My thoughts spool out and go where they wish. A rare treat, only possible off the grid. Such a beautiful place. In time, I drift off.
I wake up at 4:40 a.m. having forgotten where I am. It’s still dark. The wind is stronger and the waves are slashing away at the shore. I read a little more Crusoe. He finds some goats, kills them and butchers them. Just like that. If I tried that, I’d look like fucking Carrie after the prom. That is, if the goat didn’t kill me first. I start to skim.
The sun comes up at around 5:45. To my relief, I’m actually not feeling completely ravenous. A good sign! The body adapting naturally to its new circumstances. What I’m made of is emerging. I polish off the cassava and eat an almond and a malaria pill. I open my toothbrush case, and there’s a big ant inside. Not sure how he got in there or what he wants. Off you go.
Teeth brushed, corpus freshly sheep-dipped in sunscreen and bug repellent, I set out for food, walking the length of the long beach in search of cassava leaves, bananas, and coconuts. Jesus, what a beautiful place. Paradise! But also with the sort of absolute indifference that so often accompanies great beauty. Hmm. I find one coconut, a brown one, and some hard spiky green thing that I gingerly pull off a tree thinking it looks like something I saw in a Chinatown market once. After a dozen machete blows, the coconut duly surrenders its sweet juice. Unfortunately, it also surrenders an alarming number of small beetles and worms that had been living inside it. I recoil and throw it into the jungle. The green thing is also a bust. Hard as a baseball, thorny, inedible.
I spot some decent-size crabs, but they’re fast. And some hermit crabs, nature’s little slapstick comedians, countering danger and fear with pratfalls, tumbling off logs, or tipping over anytime anything comes near. I admire their preposterously unconvincing nonchalance whenever they get spooked. Nothing to see here; just a shell falling off a log! It frankly delights me. I’ve put them on a do-not-kill list for the moment. I like to think they register my lack of ill will, but most likely they just think I’m an asshole.
Goddamn, it’s hot. And it kind of smells here in the shelter. Like black pepper, oranges, and gasoline. Wonder what that is. For the next few hours, I traverse the beach and occasionally hack my way into the jungle. I spot three banana plants about 30 yards in, but as I make my way through the brush, watching my feet for hidden dangers, I nearly walk face-first into the web of an evil-looking black-and-yellow spider. It has sewn x’s into its web, presumably denoting its victims. In the days ahead, I will see its sinister ilk all over the island and in my dreams. No bananas, though.
I spend the rest of the afternoon foraging. I trek through the jungle toward a towering coconut tree, but there are no coconuts on the ground and I can’t climb the trunk. I find a couple more almonds, a large, rectangular, green pod-looking thing, and what I hope is a viable coconut. Back at the base I get the almonds open with the knife and eat them. Then I go after the coconut. I hit it a dozen times, two dozen times, harder and harder, but all the blows ultimately do is reveal some strange greasy, matted brown hair inside, mingled with fragments of spoiled greenish coconut meat. It looks like I beat a Halloween witch to death with a hammer. I tear all the hair out with the serrated edge of the machete and spread it onto the beach, leaving it to dry in the sun, hoping I can burn it later. The pod thing yields four strange pearlescent beans. Each looks like the human vagina as interpreted by H.R. Giger. I taste a bit of one to see if it will make me sick. It tastes like nothing. Maybe a bit like celery. I don’t get sick. I eat two and set two aside.
With the sun sinking and the wind picking up, I head back to the shelter. There is a Jonestown of dead ants on the mattress. I pick one up and eat it. It’s a little bitter. I try to make a fire, this time with the witch hair and some good-looking dried-out timber I found on the beach. No go.
I take a swim to cool off and attempt to wring some pleasure from the experience. It works, and I return to shore before dark. Clouds engulf the landmass in the distance, and for a while I can’t even make out the horizon. When the rain finally arrives, it comes in hard, each drop hitting the shelter like a ball thwacking a catcher’s mitt. I fold myself into the one spot not getting pelted. This storm is like the end of the world. It’s exciting. If I had a beer and weren’t beginning to fret about the hopeless lack of food, it would be heaven.
I start to think. Why do we do things like this to ourselves? Probably no man is immune to the odd pang of guilt about being so utterly dependent on modern civilization, that inane and emasculating matrix, so detached from whatever being a man meant a century or two ago. We hope it’s simply the cushy circumstances of our daily lives, and not a general lack of grit or character, that keeps us from achieving a more rugged, self-determining kind of manliness. We just need to prove it.
But as I lie here, it occurs to me that the premise is all wrong. We don’t need to prove it. Or at least I don’t. Our heroic forefathers, the generations of gritty survivors, were no more eager to feel discomfort than we are—they simply lived in a harsher world, raised by those who survived it long enough to pass along a few crucial skills. They warred against discomfort. In fact, the whole arc of human progress is about warring against discomfort. And by that rationale, to actively court it is to spit in the eye of our ancestors. John Adams said he studied politics and war so his sons would be free to study math and philosophy, which would give their kids “a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
Advance the cause of liberty a few more generations and you get Netflix binges and selfie sticks and the cheeseburger they serve at this place near my apartment. I always order it with a Manhattan when I go there with my wife. This is one of the great unheralded combinations in all of food, by the way. People used to think cocktails were low and vulgar, but now some people think they’re too fussy and rarefied. Like jazz, come to think of it. But put a Manhattan with a burger and the Manhattan elevates the burger, and the burger humbles the Manhattan, and they both—wait, my wife! Did I tell her there’d be pythons? I did not. How could I not? Sorry, love.
I am the island’s now. I fall asleep.
At 5:30 a.m. I wake up and pop a malaria pill. Are there any calories in malaria pills? The label says, “Take with food. May cause dizziness.” Way ahead of you there, buddy. I’ve never been
this hungry before. Nothing of any substance in about 55 hours. Usually, when you’re hungry, you just feel it in your stomach. But at this point it’s a full body state: fuzzy, a bit delirious, a little euphoric, actually—at least when I’m not laboriously trudging through the sand like a sad and dying Charlie Brown.
I’m told the fishing is best in the morning and just before sundown, so I head out. About 50 yards from the beach stands a coral reef, which becomes denser and more vibrant the farther out you go, eventually leading to a steep shelf that plunges vertiginously into the black deep. The big fish, I assume, lie beyond, but the closer I get to the shelf the more I feel the powerful current sucking me out to sea. I decide to be careful, wary of pitting my dog paddle against a pitiless sea on negative calories.
Earlier, at home, a friend asked me if I had even the slightest idea how hard spearfishing is. I told him I just assumed that the fish obligingly sidles up beside you and bats its eyelashes as you blow some cold steel through its chest cavity. In the shallows, the fish are small and pretty, rendering the speargun and myself ridiculous. If I do manage to hit one, all that will be left is a fluorescent-purple smoke ring. I hold fire.
Back to the jungle. I hack in. See a coconut tree. Shake a coconut tree. Nothing. Back to the beach. Try fire again. No fire. Why is there no fire? Have I started a fire before? Does a Duraflame log count? My stomach pipes up. If you won’t feed me, I will start eating you. Hot. I shoo away an ant. Dumb. Why waste the energy? This place still smells. It’s worse, actually. Oh, wait. The smell is me. I take a nice brown piss.
Finally, I just say, “Fuck it” and start eating leaves. There are some near my shelter that look vaguely not poisonous. I take a bite of one. It’s OK. Peppery, fragrant. Huh. Actually kind of delicious. But then my stomach begins to recoil. These leaves are kind of oily, cloying. And what’s this milky stuff coming out of them? I can hardly get them down. I finally cave and try to get the little propane stove going, hoping to boil them, but I can’t even get that to work. Christ! The leaves aren’t helping.
Ants again. I should just let them do what they want. Give it a day, boys, and you can dance across my dead eyeballs as I’m sung back home in the arms of a python. Do pythons have arms? Am I folding? What day is this?
Machetes are good for burying human feces, but leaves make poor toilet paper. Need something with texture. Ripped-out last page of Crusoe does the job.
Is this all bullshit? Coming here to survive? Handing off a brick of rupiah to a guy in front of mystified villagers in order that I might live worse off than they do for a short time?
I am spectacularly unfit for this.
I don’t seem to be made of anything.
But wait, I am made of something. I do have a survival skill, the one city dwellers have had since time immemorial, employed any time they find themselves in a situation they can’t handle. It’s known as calling a guy. I have a guy! I swallow my pride. I pick up the phone. I text the guide on the neighboring island. “I need food,” I write. “And coconuts too if you have any over there.”
Within seconds, my phone buzzes with his reply: “Coming sir.”
Shortly thereafter, my guide arrives, accompanied by a fisherman, and starts the fire with a big hunk of Styrofoam. It takes him two tries. (Not so easy, is it?) He has brought three freshly caught fish, “traveler fish,” he calls them. The fisherman, who is also eager to help with the coconut situation, leads us into the jungle. We hop Frogger-like across floating, rolling logs in a creek of black standing water, through deep mud and patches of razor-sharp jungle plants that draw blood. The guy plunges forward into the brush, then calls back to us to stop. He says the ants are bad up ahead.
When he returns, it’s with an armful of young coconuts. The good ones, with the sweet, delicious water inside. Back at camp, the guide shows me how to open them with the machete. Hack off the end. Drink. Glorious, fizzy. Then use the cleaned-up, hacked-off bit of husk as a spoon to dig out the meat. The fish is grilled and served sweet and perfectly charred on a banana leaf.
As I eat, I tell the guide how quickly fucked I became. He tells me most people train before doing this. But these are the “survivors,” he says. “You are not survivor. You are journalist.” I know he doesn’t mean it like that, but it still goes into the hall of fame of shit people have said to me. I laugh. I eat, drink, relax. A storm is rolling in. They leave in the boat with a wave. Getting dark now. Such a beautiful place.
What am I made of? I know now. I am made of a helpless reliance on, and I’d argue mastery of, the trappings of civilization. The survivalist may scoff, but I’d argue it’s far more useful to be good at navigating civilization than to know how to catch a fish. For thousands of years, men have fought and died to create and defend and advance civilization. I’m willing to bet that what they’ve made is pretty durable, held aloft by those of us willing to work like hell to afford a small amount of personal space, a measure of comfort and safety. I do it gladly.
Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking as I wade through the aqua shallows and climb onto the boat that will take me to the car, that will take me to a plane, and then to another plane, and another, and still another, across time zones, and finally to a bad-smelling taxi that will, at 8:30 a.m. on a rainy Monday in New York City, take me back to paradise.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Maxim's journey to Aspen to go shoot some partridge, our 5 recommendations for floating getaways that will change the very definition of vacation, and the best roads to drive on in Europe.