One out-of-this-world destination that isn't advertised in the tourism brochures about Isla Mujeres, a short ferry ride from Cancun, Mexico, is another much smaller, nearby island constructed entirely from trash. The ecopioneer, eccentric survivalist and visionary behind the idea is British carpenter Richart Sowa. The gregarious 61-year-old lives alone on his man-made paradise in the Gulf of Mexico. It took him eight years of hard work and 150,000 plastic bottles, but the bottles, layered with wooden pallets, sand, plywood and earth, have evolved into a 25-metre-long island that supports Sowa's three-storey wooden house.
The plastic bottles, connected to a bamboo frame and encased in mesh bags, are buried deep beneath the surface of the sea, protected from the destruction of sunlight and salt water by the entwined roots of mangrove trees and coral that forms on the bottles like limpets.
Sowa is enormously proud of his extreme-recycling project, and he speaks passionately about how the planet can be saved from destruction by more sustainable islands and houses such as his.
Sowa greets onshore visitors with a hearty wave from the island, which he calls Joyxee, and asks if they are willing to make a $5 donation before he pulls himself across, by rope, to pick them up in a small canopied construction that can charitably be described as a boat. During the five-minute journey back, Sowa, who has the air of an aging rock star, quotes biblical prophecies of doom. He says he's a former Jehovah's Witness who discovered faith in the beauty of nature and its reconstructive properties.
The idea for the island came to him after a family he met in Mexico City insisted he accompany them to an exhibition about ancient Mayan rafts. He took it as an omen for his new direction. Sowa is a firm believer in signs, positive thinking and of his needs being met by the universe. He cites, as an example, his discovery of a new composting toilet lying in the road, where none had lain the night before. He'd recently decided he needed one.
The tour around the island begins with Sowa pointing out his meditation tent and the flowers and plants he's been able to grow, including a banana tree and a pistachio bush. He's a vegetarian who aims to become almost entirely self-sufficient, although some supplies will always require a trip to the store on his bicycle.
The interior of his three-bedroom house is both surprisingly comfortable and charmingly inventive. Conch shells serve as faucets in the washbasin and as a showerhead for rainwater draining from the roof. They also provide a form of intercom between the main and second floor. Sowa's voice comes through clearly after he climbs a vertical ladder to the second floor and sings into his upstairs shell. The second level also features a small cooling pool decorated with fragments of broken tile he collected.
Occasionally people volunteer to help with the constant upkeep and planned expansion of the island but mostly Sowa toils alone. He was delighted by the donation of a solar panel from a German television crew who made a documentary about him. The energy from the panel powers a small kitchen fridge and stove. He was slightly dismayed that his wind- and wave-powered washing machine had recently broken but is determined to get it running again. Sowa is nothing if not tenacious. This particular island is his third. In the early stages, one attempt fell afoul of Mexican authorities, who threw him in jail for a night. The second island, in a friendlier location, was destroyed by a hurricane. His current island's status, within a protected lagoon, is akin to that of an ecopreserve, so he's left pretty much to his own inventive devices – and contact with the world via the Internet.
Married twice with four grown children, Sowa believes in the notion of an island Eve to his Adam. Jodi Bowlin, a model Sowa met online, visited the island twice but the romance didn't last. Contacted via Facebook, she said that being on the island was like living in a dream world. "Richart is very talented. His vision is admirable and beautiful but at times not in reality for me personally."
Joyxee Island is an 80-peso ($6) taxi ride from downtown Isla Mujeres. Richart Sowa can be contacted through Facebook to arrange a tour.