Whaddyadoallday? Real Life on a Desert Island Rotating Header Image

April, 2011:

The Travail of Travel

Anguilla is a wonderful place to be, but it is a difficult place to reach.

Today we leave for a few days in Kansas City – quite literally three days. To accomplish this we will be off island for six days.

When we first moved to Anguilla, American Airlines had Eagle flights from San Juan three times a day. That meant that we could catch the early morning flight off of the island, connect with onward flights in San Juan, and reach a destination in the States that same day. Likewise coming back home.

There follows a very long story about changing aircraft, longer runways, requested government subsidies, denied government subsidies and all sorts of machinations. I will not bore you with that. The bottom line is that the flights all but disappeared and then disappeared entirely.

Now flying into and out of Princess Juliana Airport on the adjacent island of St. Maarten is the only real option.

Unfortuantely, we can’t catch an early, 9AM flight out of St. Maarten because the ferries don’t start running until 7:30-ish. So we sit at the house with the cats put away into a manageable two rooms and sit around doing silly stuff (like writing this) to pass the time. Around noon we drive the car to ferry building. We pay our departure tax, go through security, and take the ferry over to the French side of St. Martin at the Port of Marigot. Next we catch a cab over to the Dutch side to the international airport. (In case you aren’t keeping track, that’s three countries so far.) Then we fly to Miami. (That makes four.) Clear Immigration. Go through customs. And…..here’s the good part…..go to the Miami Airport Hilton hotel to spend the night because that’s as far as we can go today.

Tomorrow morning, we’ll get up, haul the bags back to the airport, check in again and fly to Dallas and finally on to Kansas City arriving 24 hours after we left home.

Of course, nobody ever said this was  going to be easy.

Mystery Solved

Well, I have to admit that I was a little bit concerned that these posts might lean heavily towards the historical narrative what with life on the island having improved so substantially in the 10 years that we have been living here. I worried that maybe frustratingly annoying occurrences were at a low point and that I would be scraping the bottom of the barrel for suitable material.

Fear not, though. It may turn out that there has not actually been a shift in the winds of fortune as much as a shift in my personal perspective or tolerance. From a survival standpoint, I may have become more accepting of higher levels of aggravation than I would have been 10 years ago. By way of an example, here’s what honestly happened yesterday.

We have a washer and a dryer. Not really shocking news, I know; but not everybody does. Everything on an island is more expensive – from the appliance itself to the electricity to run it to the constant maintenance required to keep it working in a corrosive seaside environment. As a result, plenty of folks here still hang their laundry out to dry just like my mother during my childhood summers – using the ‘green’ alternatives of wind and solar to dry clothes.

Eleven years ago when we started to build our house certain conveniences were even rarer. We were nearly moving into the house before I noticed that there was no allowance for a vent for our clothes dryer. Not something that we thought we had to specify along with the placement of the 220V outlets for the washer and dryer themselves. We didn’t even think about it. If you are a island builder, however, who doesn’t have a dryer (and if you did have one it would probably be outside on your porch venting its own self) you wouldn’t think of it either which meant jack-hammering through steel-reinforced, 8-inch concrete block to retrofit one in.

Then we had to find a dryer vent in a world where apparently very few people knew they existed. We had shipped everything that we possibly could for the house from the States (including the appliances themselves); but we had obviously overlooked the dryer vent. In store after store after store (this will be a recurring theme), we came up empty. Until someone suggested we check with the folks who sold appliances on island at that time. Eureka! They had one.

Over the years, as one or another of our appliances have found its way to the island dump, we have turned to these helpful and experienced folks on island for replacements. So it was that a little over two years ago, we came to possess a new washing machine. Having purchased it on island we were even saved the added expense and trouble of hauling it to our house and installing it ourselves. They delivered it and hooked it up for us. Nine months later when the motor died they even replaced it for us (at our expense, of course, because you can always blame mechanical problems on the electric company here – but they did put the new one in).

Anyway, for all these months, I have been washing my laundry on the cold if not ‘tap cold’ setting on the washing machine. You see our water comes from a cistern under the house not from mountain streams that empty into big, deep reservoirs. That means the cold water out of our tap runs about 84 degrees.  So unless I am washing something that requires really aggressive cleaning, ‘cold’ water is fine. Mostly I wash sheets and towels, sun dresses and shorts and Michael’s Hawaiian shirts that require gentle, cold washing or ‘for best results, dry clean’ (but don’t even think about that). It’s always been a point of contention that those shirts seem to keep getting smaller. And I’ve never understood why in spite of the cold setting, laundry always still feels warm when I take it out of the machine.

Yesterday, finally, I had enough. I was going to call General Electric and find out if I could just turn off the hot water to the washing machine.  First, though, like a good consumer, I searched the internet for my expert advice. Everything I could find argued against taking that approach. So, customer service phone number in hand I picked up the phone to call to get the official answer. Then I froze. A little, tiny voice in the back of my mind said, ‘Wait, you don’t want to look stupid, Georgia.’  (This little voice in the back of my mind obviously knows me very well because there are precious few things that I hate worse than looking stupid. )The voice went on, ‘What might be the first thing General Electric Customer Support will ask you to check?’ And that little light bulb went on above my head, and I knew. I just knew. So I put down the pad with GE’s phone number, picked up the flash light, and crawled on top of the washing machine. Sure enough the hose connected to the hot water faucet snaked its way across to the connection on the washing machine that was clearly marked “C”….clearly, with a 1-1/2 inch embossed letter. And by default the cold water hose went right into the connection marked “H”.

It is fixed now, but I think this illustrates my point perfectly. Ten years ago, at the very first sign of a problem, I would have assumed that somebody did something wrong. It would have been my go-to answer. Trust no one. Now, I’ve become complacent. I mean, look. I’ve been using that machine for two years and just accepted that Michael’s shirts were shrinking due to some freakish will of island nature.  What does that say about me and the person I am becoming?

But there are beaches…

There’s obviously something romantic (those illusions of long walks on white sand beaches at sunset) that fills folk’s minds with fantasies about what an idyllic existence life would be if they could just leave it all behind and live on an island. I can’t minimize that. We felt the same way. Michael used to say that he could do anything throughout the middle of the day just as long as he could walk on the beach in the morning and walk on the beach again in the evening.

That was a lovely dream that was clearly born out of years and years of beach vacations because when you vacation at the beach that’s pretty much what you do. You walk on the beach. You lie on the beach. You swim at the beach. You sit around and read at the beach. At least that’s what we used to do.

That is not, however, what you do when you live on an island. On an island, even a wee, little island like Anguilla, you do everything that everyone else does living anywhere in the world.

Well, actually, no. That’s not entirely true. Not everything. Take getting dressed in the morning. Yeah, getting dressed in the morning takes less time. Let’s face it. There are way fewer items of clothing involved in preparing for a day in the islands; and that’s assuming you get around to putting on any clothes at all. (One of Michael’s first, vital, island-life lessons was, “Do not fry bacon in the nude!” But that may be TMI.)

Also, if you could work in this foreign country, commuting would also take less time. In California, I drove 38 miles one way to and from work every day. This island is only about 15 miles long and 3 miles wide (at its very widest point) so a 38-mile commute would be a physical impossibility. Now that said, in our first year on island we logged almost 15,000miles on our little beat up Suzuki Jeep. Put in perspective, that’s like driving the entire length of the island 2-1/2 times each and every day….but all in little, short, spurts of trips – no kicking back with the cruise control. I also have to qualify that those were not little, short trips to the beach. In the beginning, we were busy building our house so there were apparently millions of little trips to the hardware store every single day for something or other (but I’ll talk about those days some other time).

When we were getting ready to start building our house, though, we did have a very enlightening conversation with our builder about flooring options. We assumed that the only logical choice was tile. Surprisingly, he did not agree and advised us that we could use anything: tile or hardwood or linoleum or carpeting. Carpeting? We were baffled. Who would lay down carpeting in a beach house? With all that sand, that would be crazy. He apologized for not really considering the beach. He lived near the Valley, in that widest part of the island; and he couldn’t actually remember the last time he had been to the sea. Maybe when his kids were smaller but he really couldn’t say.

We chuckled over that for days. How could you live on an island where a beach (there are 33 of them on this tiny island) could not be more than a mile away and yet never go to the beach.  By bureaucratic decree, our house had to be set back a full 80 feet from the sea. So we tried to imagine what it would be like if we ever got to the point that friends would come to visit and we would say, “Oh, yes, let’s go to the beach. We can’t remember the last time we’ve been to the sea.” And we laughed and we laughed. And we thought that would be so funny.

Well, not so funny really. As it turns out, going to the beach is absolutely NOT what we do all day.

Welcome to my world

Ten years ago last week I moved to a desert island. My husband, Michael, and I left our home, our country, our friends, our families, our successful, professional careers and the land of convenience and reliable utilities. We packed all of our belongings into a 40-foot container and sent it on its way; loaded three cats into a rented, Lincoln Town Car; drove from San Francisco to Miami; flew from Miami to the island of St. Maarten; and finally took a boat across the Caribbean Sea to the island of Anguilla. 

Since that day, people (old friends, family members and total strangers alike) have never stopped asking us the number one question that people apparently ask when you run off to live on a desert island:

Whaddya do all day? 

Now, ten years later, I think I might finally have the time to answer that question.There is going to be some looking at the present and some looking at the past because there is a whole lot of past to look at. But this is my story. This is my blog.