Nestled within the Makax lagoon in the belly of Isla Mujeres, Mexico you will find an expatriate, Richart (Rishi) Sowa, who decided to create, rather than purchase, his own land. Richart is originally from Middlesbrough England, but caught the travel bug early in his life and started exploring the world in his teens and early twenties as a traveling artist. He found himself in Mexico in his thirties with a guitar, drawings and a new idea – an island made out of recycled material which floats entirely on plastic bottles.
Now fast forward about 15 years. I had the pleasure of meeting Rishi and took my first steps onto “Joysxee”, Rishi’s third floating island. Joysxee is approximately 25 meters in diameter and floats on about 125,000 plastic bottles. As I step onto the island there is slight buoyancy and a smile crept across my face. Rishi resides in the three-story house he has built on the island which includes a guest room, kitchen, two showers and natural compost toilet.
The construction of Joysxee is fascinating; Rishi collects plastic bottles from all around Isla Mujeres and they get stuffed into recycled fruit sacks to create a floating platform. Palettes are put on top of the full fruit sacks, then board or carpeting on top of that, and finally sand. The baby mangroves he plants on the edges of the island serve as an additional locking system as their roots take hold of the bottles below.
Over just a few months a new bag of bottles will host barnacles and lock in to place underneath to provide more support for the entire island. The bottles stay under the island; they are sealed and remain in darkness which slows the decomposition process. The result is an island created out of approximately 70% recycled material. Rishi is continuously adding more bags of plastic bottles to the island so it can continue to grow and expand. He has been able to add a variety of plants such as sea grapes, mangroves, cactus, fruit-bearing plants bougainvillea and even palms.
Rishi himself oozes imagination and from the moment I met this eccentric man I felt a little more inspired. He acts on his ideas despite the cynics or potential obstacles, of which there are many. Rishi ran into resistance with the Mexican government and locals during the start of his first island. He failed to obtain the appropriate permits and the townspeople ran him out – they thought he was crazy.
His second attempt, off Playa Del Carmen, was more successful and grew into a livable island until it was destroyed by Hurricane Emily in 2005. Joysxee, the third island located within Isla Mujeres sits in more protected water so he can build it as strong as it needs to be for the stronger sea currents.
After spending a few days around town with Rishi it became evident he has local support for this project. He can’t go down one street without a few shouts of “Rishi!” He plays his guitar and sings a few nights a week at bars around town; otherwise he is busy collecting materials for the island and expanding it. .
Many expatriates move out of their native countries to work, retire or just relax and enjoy life, but Rishi feels that he must create. For years he has conceptualized, built, rebuilt and tweaked Joysxee and has created some buzz along the way. He and his island have been featured on Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Discovery Channel, and on websites such as Treehugger and BoingBoing.
People come from all over the world to stop by Rishi’s dock for a tour, which is now his primary source of income. While I stayed on the island, over four days, dozens of people rode up in their golf carts for a visit and Rishi led three school tours of the island. Despite the growing amount of attention, this project isn’t about fame. He is overjoyed to have exposure to propel the project but he does worry that he won’t be able to manage the added attention. Rishi’s concern is building this island so that it can become a teaching island and living blueprint that can float around the world and show others how to turn trash into treasure.
Rishi’s immediate goal with Joysxee is, “birthing this island now into the ocean.” He plays upon the fertility theme of Isla Mujeres itself when speaking of his own island. He explains how the ancient Mayan Women came to Isla Mujeres to ask for a perfect birth. Isla Mujeres is shaped like a fish and the lagoon Joysxee floats on currently is akin to the fish’s womb – Rishi wants to birth his island from the womb of Isla Mujeres into the beautiful Caribbean Sea. To work towards his goal he continues to collect bottles and make the island bigger so it will withstand rougher water.
Rishi is a forward-thinking, creative, inspiring and charming human being – your next trip to the Yucatan Peninsula should include a stop at Isla Mujeres to meet Rishi and experience his island for yourself.
For more information and to find out how you can support creative projects around the world visit Kickstarter – the home of independent creation.
About the author: Kristi Rifenbark lives, works and studies in the Corozal District of Belize. She is the co-owner of Scotty’s Bar and Grill in Corozal Town. In addition to freelance articles Kristi has written about Belize,over the last two years she has maintained a blog about her experiences traveling and living in Central America at http://belizedragonfly.com.