Whaddyadoallday? Real Life on a Desert Island Rotating Header Image

May, 2011:

Do I look like Picasso?

When Michael and I were building the house, we were pretty tight on funds so we did a lot of the finish work on the house ourselves. The guys who were working on the house were clearly baffled by both our initiative and our talent. They were constantly pointing out to Michael that he had ‘one hard-working woman’ on his hands. They were amazed that I could varnish a piece of wood , put together a small bathroom vanity from Home Depot, or heaven forbid carry a bag of potting soil. When I started painting the walls it was apparently just too much. “Georgia, you can paint?” they cried. I was past being flattered by my ability to amaze them so I replied, “It’s just a wall, for heaven’s sake. It’s not a Picasso.”

I was painting ten years ago. I am still painting today. Inside. Outside. Constantly it seems. In California, we lived in our house for 10 years and had it painted (note the HAD IT painted, not PAINTED it part of this sentence) not because it really needed it but just to spruce it up a little to sell it in a tepid real estate market. Here in the islands keeping up the exterior of the house is like maintaining the Golden Gate Bridge. It seems that I start at one end and work around just to start over again. And if I am not quick enough, my gardener will gently nudge me by pointing out that I need to get back to it.

When we chose our paint and colors originally, we were trying to find that stunning yellow/orange/pink color that exists on houses in Tuscany. That color that veritably glows at twilight. Sadly, the intense, nearly equatorial sun in the Caribbean does not seem to be conducive to that phenomenon. Even so we chose a color called Whispy Peach. We bought it in an elastomeric, outdoor paint that was touted to hold up well even in tropical, coastal locations. And it has. The paint itself has held up wonderfully.  It doesn’t peel or flake at all. However, it does fade. When it does, it’s not that it looks awful. It just doesn’t look beautiful which is apparently, in retrospect, why many island homes are simply white. So I keep re-painting: the ocean side, the street side, the garage, and around again.

Then there is the roof. The roof is concrete and painted white. We collect rain water off of the roof into our cisterns for use in the house so we want the roof to stay clean and in good shape. So every 2-3 years, Michael and I pressure wash it and clean it and paint it again. In some ways painting the roof is easier (mostly painting at your feet or slightly above rather than painting higher than your head while standing on a ladder). In some ways painting the roof is harder (hauling everything up and down, working in the sun, and going ‘snow blind’ from the glare of the whiteness). As a result, we have attempted to hire someone to paint the roof.

A few years ago, we had someone come out to give us a quote. Now first, let me explain how quoting for jobs works in the islands. It’s like the worst version of trying to buy a rug in Morocco. Michael starts the conversation by explaining that he is not going to bargain. The guy can give him one price, his best price, and Michael will say yes or no and then that’s it. There will be no counteroffers and counter-counteroffers. Period. So first the guy says, “Hey, don’t worry, man. Trust me. It ain’t gonna kill ya.” Michael says, “Yeah, just the same, I’d like a price before you start.” So the guy says he wants $3000US, United States money, to paint the roof. (Oh wait, let me clarify – this is labor only. I’ll have to buy the all the paint, the rollers, and the beer.) Michael says, ‘No thank you very much. That’s ridiculous. I’ll paint it myself.’ And the guy leaves. An hour later he calls, “How about I paint the roof for $2000?” Michael says, “Perhaps I wasn’t clear. You got one chance to give me a fair price. I said no. That’s that.” So the next day the guy comes by. “Ok. Ok. Ok. I’ll paint the roof for $1000.” We painted the roof ourselves.

Now a few years later the roof needed painting again. Now we are a few years older and starting to think that we really shouldn’t be climbing up on the roof so much anymore. As a result, we tried again to find someone else to do it. We’re in the midst of a horrible, global recession. Certainly somebody out there must be interested in making some money by painting our roof. Michael asked three people to come by to give him a price. Only one came. He stood in the driveway, kicked the gravel, and went on and on about how this was gonna be a tough job (we know we’ve done it ourselves); how getting the paint up there was gonna be really hard (sure, but my ‘hard-working’ woman/beyond middle-aged wife can do it so how tough can it be?); and how he’d have to be out in the sun working (of course, this is a roof after all and you’d hardly want to be painting in the rain). He said he’d work out the numbers and get back to us. That was the last we heard from him.

That’s why the two of us spent a good long week last month cleaning and scraping and sealing and painting our own roof again. It’s not Guernica by any stretch. But it was good, honest labor done well. Plus I figure it’s worth at least $3,000US.

Life is a DMV

Everybody jokes about how inefficient and frustratingly difficult it is to get a driver’s license renewed in the States. And I know that waiting online for tech support to diagnose the most recent ailment afflicting your newest electronic gadget can be beyond aggravating. But what if every day was like that? What if everything you tried to do was that challenging? Because here in the islands, renewing my driver’s license is one of the easiest things I do.

For example, for three weeks I have been trying to get one office of the government to transfer a file to another arm of the government. Now, I did not fall off the coconut truck yesterday. I fell off of the coconut truck ten years ago. So I am no fool. I did not simply call the file-possessing office on the phone and ask them to deliver the documents. No, I typed out a letter making the formal request and hand-delivered it to the office with my address and phone number just in case there was any problem. Then I followed up with a phone call using my standard passive-aggressive approach. “I was off island for a week so that someone may have been trying to reach me but was unable to connect so I just wanted to verify that everything was OK and that the file was in fact transferred. “ Of course, the person in charge of file-transfer was not in the office so I had to leave a message. After a couple of days without word, I called again asking to talk to someone in the file-transfer department. She put me on hold and then returned to tell me, in effect, that the head file-transfer person was not in. When would she be in? June 1st? Another 2-1/2 weeks? But it’s been 2-1/2 weeks since I made the request? Couldn’t someone else look in the file cabinet and see if the file is still there? Nope. Only the head file-transfer person can do that. So nothing. There’s nothing else to do but to put a reminder on my calendar to call again on June 1st and start all over again.

Or consider my latest encounter with the folks at the phone company. Friday evening at 4:56P the phone rang. I answered. A computer spoke to me advising me that my payment had not been received and instructing me to call the office as soon as possible. Of course, ‘as soon as possible’ was at 5:01P after the office was closed for the weekend which meant that I couldn’t remind the billing people that they have my credit card on file and automatically charge my bill to it every month. If my bill isn’t paid on time, it is not because I didn’t pay it but rather because they didn’t pay it. But I couldn’t tell them that because their computer called me too late on a Friday night.

Life went on over the weekend. The phone worked. Calls came in. Calls went out. Until Monday morning. Monday morning I picked up the phone at 8AM to call the phone company and there was no dial tone. So I drove to the office and calmly informed them that I thought it was in poor form to have a computer call a person after hours on a Friday night about a bill that according to the credit card statements I had in my hand had not only been paid but paid earlier than ever before in the history of bill paying and then to turn off the phone first thing Monday morning before I could even contact the office.

I ran the gamut. I talked to the payment people and then the customer service people and then the credit card processing people. Everyone claimed that they did not turn off my service. Everyone claimed that they would never turn off someone’s service first thing on a Monday morning. They all claimed that there must be a more generalized outage in my area in spite of the fact that I called my neighbor and her phone was working.

So I just sat there just like people do every day in offices all over the world listening to vague apologies and assurances that they would resolve the issue on my bill and that the repair crew would fix the ‘totally unrelated issue’ with my service. All the while, I was looking at the requisite framed landscape on the wall above the office credenza. In the States that picture would be of a white sand beach with palm trees blowing in the tropical breeze. Here in the islands, though, it was a very Heidi-esque, faux-oil painting of the tranquil mountain scene with the babbling brook running alongside the snow-covered cottage. The irony was not lost on me. The grass is always greener.

Oh, and the phone was miraculously working by the time I drove home.

No Such Thing As Traveling Light

No, I didn’t get lost in Kansas City. I just lost my momentum.Out of sight. Out of mind. Off of island. Off of blog. I will endeavor to do better. 

Having last mentioned the difficulties of leaving island, though, I think I should go back and touch on the difficulties of coming back. This is not to belabor the transportation issues of returning. I imagine that you can reverse the order of things and get that picture. I don’t even mean the customs and immigration annoyances of returning. What I mean to discuss is the hauling.

There have certainly been great improvements in the availability of items on island since we arrived here. Oh, my. Back in the day, we nearly had to meet the boat at the dock to get diet cokes and acquiring skim milk at the store could turn into an ordeal akin to a dress sale at Filene’s Basement. I even had to research how to ‘make’ buttermilk (add vinegar to milk, let sit for 15 minutes) and brown sugar (refined white sugar with the molasses mixed back into it) just to get by. Of course these are not ‘matters of life or death’ kinds of things, but still they are nice to have unless you like buttermilk scones sans the buttermilk and can survive without peanut butter cookies.

Nowadays, I have to say that I am rarely at a loss for even fresh buttermilk (or eggnog year round) and most stores carry one if not, surprisingly, four different brands of Panko flakes. Life is good. But there are always things you wish you had or that you wish you had cheaper. That means that every trip we take to the States involves a shopping list and empty bags for the return. We have a cute little duffle bag (one of several we ended up buying at the last minute to transport our purchases before we wised up and just starting taking one with us). It zips into a flat little bundle that always goes into our luggage – just in case because you just never know if you are going to decide you need more Malibu landscape lights or a Panini press. If there is an actual shopping list, however, we put one piece of luggage packed with clothes inside another empty piece of luggage so we have ample, additional space for the return trip.

And, this is the absolutely essential piece de resistance: Michael’s son gave us one of the best Christmas presents we ever got (well, since I quit receiving fine jewelry because we can’t insure it here…but that’s another story). He gave us a hand-held luggage scale that you strap around the handle and use to lift the luggage so that you know that each piece is under the 50 pound airline weight limit (without having to find a bathroom scale in every hotel!). Luckily, we both have ‘status’ with American Airlines so that we don’t have to pay to check up to four bags between us or that would make us have to rethink the fiscal sensibility of buying another 15 pounds of Starbucks Breakfast Blend. And even though the 50 pound weight limit can be a bit restrictive when you are packing things like drill bits and pressure washer hoses in with your unmentionables, I have to say that as I am getting older I am grateful that the airlines dropped the international baggage limit from 70 pounds to 50 pounds because I honestly cannot imagine how we managed before hauling a briefcase, a purse, two carry-on bags, and 280 pounds of luggage!

But back to our latest trip to Kansas City. We returned with the duffle bag full of Thai cooking spices, dried shrimp, Pad Thai noodles, canned banana flowers and the like. We also brought back an array of seeds for growing everything from arugula to Chinese cabbage. (Michael would have purchased a strawberry pot to grow the herbs in except that he couldn’t find one in plastic instead of clay.) We bought batteries and, of course, coffee and more landscape lights. We would have purchased a dual-something, pool timer for our new high efficiency pool pump (that was NOT carried in our luggage) except that we couldn’t find one. Likewise the cable booster that Radio Shack didn’t carry. And we never found a box frame for the silver, Hmong necklace we brought back from Laos.

Not to worry, though. We head back to the States at the end of the month. The shopping list has been amended. The timer and the cable booster have been ordered and shipped ahead to a friend’s house. And the duffle bag is back in the luggage.