In this week’s issue of New York, TIME has chosen the most extraordinary stories about life on other worlds: a tiny, sunlit island in the Indian Ocean that’s not exactly known for its exotic wildlife; the strange life of a whale that lives in a giant tank on the ocean floor; the tiny town of Poona, in Indonesia, where the local mayor thinks he can cure his own cancer; and the oddball life of the small island of Tanna, off the coast of New Zealand.
A life as strange as it is beautiful is TIME’s weekly roundup of the most amazing stories.
“It is truly amazing to be a human being in a world that is so strange and unfamiliar,” says Mark Lohman, the TIME editor-in-chief and the author of the book Life on Other Worlds: An Anthropologist Looks at the Wildest Places in the World.
“I find myself constantly thinking about this new world I live in and its people, and its strange inhabitants.”
In a life that seems too alien and alienating to be real, there’s an innate sense of humor, too.
When I visited Tanna on a recent day, I discovered I was wearing a very cute tuxedo, as if I were going to make a quick escape.
A few days earlier, I had arrived on Tanna by boat from Hawaii and was staying with a friend on the island, which was known to have its own native birds, turtles, and other marine life.
I had spent my entire life on the other side of the world, but on Tana, I was completely alone.
But as my friend and I got settled, we noticed a small island in its natural habitat, where it was easy to see that the locals were all around us.
“We are all in the same boat,” I said.
“What are you doing on this island?”
“You are doing nothing.
Just watching the ocean,” my friend responded.
“How is that?”
“I’m not sure, but we don’t see much of the other world,” I replied.
“But what about this island?
Is it a new place?”
“It’s not like that,” my host said.
As I looked around, I could see a lot of other people, but none of them seemed to have any idea where I was.
I asked if they knew where I could go.
“They say there are no roads,” my guest said.
The island looked like an empty landscape.
I felt like an outsider on an alien world.
“Where are the roads?”
“Nothing,” my hosts said.
After a moment, one of them said, “You can go down the river to the island.”
I asked, “Where?”
“There are no cars.”
After a few moments of confusion, they said, “‘The river,’ huh?”
“Oh, that’s right.
There’s no river in the world,” my guests said.
They were right.
The road leading to the Island was a steep one, and I had to get my bearings before we could go down.
But I knew I could just keep going.
I walked a bit, then a bit further, and a bit farther, until I came to a small, flat beach, which looked like it might be inhabited.
I decided to take a moment to catch my breath.
“Is this your home?”
I said to myself.
“No,” my companion replied.
And I began to relax.
I knew what I was getting myself into.
I was being asked to go to the place where I had no idea what I wanted to do.
“There is nothing here.
You will have to come back and visit again.”
“I don’t have time for that!”
I said, exasperated.
I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin.
But my host and I both said I would go to another place in the future.
We continued to walk and talk as if nothing were happening.
I finally arrived at a small beach, where I found a small fishing shack.
A small boat was on the deck.
We had a meal and went inside, where there was a huge table filled with all kinds of things: plates, utensils, and fish.
The food was delicious, and the people who were eating were friendly.
I went back to the table, took a seat, and waited for my host to come home.
When he finally arrived, he was already dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a Hawaiian tie.
He greeted me by name and invited me to come with him.
I spent about an hour with my host, who explained the details of the story I was about to tell him.
Then he showed me a photograph of the island from his own perspective.
“This is where we first came across the fish,” he said.
I looked at the photo, but didn’t understand what he was saying.
I sat in silence for a while.
Then I began explaining