Island mentality

Gillian Pachter visits Utila, a tropical idyll that plays up to our modern fantasies of an unspoiled

It had taken two days of non-stop travel to get there - by plane, bus and ferry. As I stepped off the boat, a bronzed, middle-aged man with a parrot on his shoulder offered me a coffee. In a former life, he confided, he'd been a corporate lawyer, but one day he'd washed up on the shores of Utila island and never left. He was a castaway: his shipwreck had been corporate life.

Washing up on Paradise Island is a very modern fantasy: the easier it is to be found - and these days CCTV, identity cards and modern com munications make it very easy - the more we fantasise about finding ourselves lost. But however much we value "paradise", we tend to convert it into holiday resorts. Utila appeared to be a dramatic exception.

A mere 11 kilometres long, Utila is the smallest and least developed of the Bay Islands, which sit 30 kilometres off the coast of Honduras. The locals speak an English Creole that, to my ears, recalled toothless pirates of the 17th century (ma-MA! You see da sting-a-RAY?). This becomes less surprising as you get to know the place: then, as now, Utila is a haven for those who are adventurous, self-reliant, lost.

Utila boasts little written history. Shelby McNab, a descendant of sailors and buccaneers who counts Captain Morgan among his ancestors, offered to find me a waterlogged copy of one book, from 1904. But lore often proves more durable than scholarship, and Utila is the kind of place that lends itself to the imaginative distortions of oral, not written, history. Depopulated by Spanish slavers during the 16th century, the island became a haven for British pirates and privateers, who looted the passing Spanish flota loaded with gold and silver bullion. Many of their descendants never left.

As I soon found out, something of the spirit - and the hostilities - of the heyday of English piracy lives on in Utila. In a conspiratorial whisper, Shelby informed me that another inhabitant of the island, a skilled diver, had been looting a local wreck of gold bullion and selling it to a museum in California. The honour and sanctity of Utila were at stake, and Shelby was hot on his trail. This claim was a mere aside in a larger narrative my guide was spinning about Robinson Crusoe's 28 years on Utila. But surely Crusoe noticed the mountains on the mainland, plainly in view? And wasn't Crusoe a fiction, based on the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an island in the Pacific? Shelby insisted; he had spent years painstakingly mapping out the evidence of Crusoe's visit.

It was churlish to question the facts when the fiction was so much more interesting, so when Shelby started extolling the famously insatiable sexual appetites of his father, a redoubtable sailor who had spawned 16 children and run the local whorehouse, I simply smiled. Then he asked if I, and my female companion, would like to meet the old man. Along we went, to be presented to the skeletal McNab père. One of the 84-year-old's many grandsons was in attendance, and he addressed Shelby: "These girls are pretty, uncle, but he likes the really small ones. Next time, can you bring Chinese or Japanese girls?"

Stung by this rejection, I none the less enjoyed the attentions of another castaway - a machete-bearing American who had built himself a house in the jungle. Keen that I visit, he drew me an elaborate map, complete with illustrations of giant anthills, banana plantations and iguanas. The crumpled brown parchment pushed under my door even contained a large black X to mark the spot. This castaway protected himself with a certain amount of private lore, telling locals that his hammock swung under the weight of ghosts at night, and that his scars were the result of an encounter with three violent Spaniards in the bush. On Utila, modern men were still having to behave with pirate-like bravado. Shelby, who hosts the island's evening news television programme, recently became incensed with his 19-year-old technician. So he challenged him to a fight in the middle of the broadcast, and then returned to his seat to finish reading the headlines.

But however hard the latter-day pirates of Utila work to assert their reputation and protect their property, sometimes it simply goes wrong. My host - a Norwegian who was building an elaborate tree house in the bush - awoke one morning to find that an expensive shipment of bricks had been stolen from the worksite. In true Utilan style, he decided to take matters into his own hands: having matched the tyre marks to a particular truck, he marched over to the owner and threatened to kill him. Later that night we all went out for pizza: as it turned out, the bricks had already been turned into a brick oven. Short of threatening to kill the pizza chef, there was little that could be done.

Sometimes the island's buccaneers get overwhelmed by stronger ones. TTI, a local telecoms company, has been thriving, having eaten into the former monopoly of Hondutel, the national telecommunications firm. Hondutel doesn't like this, so recently it sailed its proverbial ship up alongside TTI's offices, boarded its craft, tied up its men and stole its booty (cash, phones, computers and so on). Being land-based, it brought heavy-duty trucks and an RPG. Following the raid, the TTI crew dispersed. Many are still on the run, having sent their women to safe houses.

Tales of washing up on Paradise Island follow a similar trajectory, as pristine beaches and coconut groves give way to darker recesses, and man betrays man. The longer I stayed, the more convinced I became that Utila must contain some very dark secrets. I'd heard that the modern-day equivalents of the passing Spanish flota were large speedboats that bring cocaine from Colombia up to the new empire, America. Was drug trafficking the engine that drove the Utilan economy? But a guest on Paradise Island must be careful where she treads, and what questions she asks - even if she does have the protection of a few friendly pirates. Recently, an Englishman published a controversial article about Utila. Nine shots were fired into his front room.

Gillian Pachter is a documentary-maker. Her film "Desperate Virgins" is to be screened by Channel 4

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover