Whaddyadoallday? Real Life on a Desert Island Rotating Header Image

June, 2011:

Some days are diamonds.

I don’t want to always be going on and on about working around the house or doing gardening or replacing and rewiring our own fan motors (which we just did). Those things do keep me from sitting around blogging all the time – either because I don’t have the time, I’m too physically exhausted, or I’m just too aggravated to be wry and witty.

Today, however, was a good day. As is usual, we woke with the sun and had our coffee. I made breakfast which included fresh papayas from our tree, fresh blueberries (which you couldn’t have gotten here to save your soul some years ago) and wonderful, fresh peaches (which you could get before but they always looked deceptively, nice on the outside in spite of inevitably having suffered from a lengthy, ocean transit in a refrigerated container that always left them disappointingly brown and dry and mealy on the inside). So we had coffee and sausage and fresh fruit out on the veranda looking through the palm trees at the Caribbean Sea. That was a pretty good start to the day.

Since I was having my friend, Dianne, over for lunch, I had some preparations to take care of.  I made a cold, rice salad of Camargue Red rice, quinoa, pistachios and dried fruits with a citrus vinaigrette to serve with some baked, red snapper in white wine and tarragon. I had some banana cake with ginger lime frosting for dessert and just had to run out to get some vanilla ice cream.  There were a few other items on my shopping list but I elected to try the small grocery store that is nearest to us figuring that if they had the ice cream that would be enough. And if they had any of the other five items, I would consider that gravy. Lo and behold, they had everything I wanted just a mile from home. Things were still going very well.

I returned home, worked out, washed some wooden louvered doors that I needed to paint, cleaned up and was ready when Dianne arrived. We had a lovely lunch out on the other end of the veranda overlooking the pool and the Caribbean Sea. (I like to mix it up a bit.) We talked about politics, legalized gay marriage in New York, the Casey Anthony trial, future travels plans, etc….basically lots of things that weren’t issues associated with island life.

After lunch, I painted those louvered doors, swept some leaves off the veranda before they could fall into the swimming pool, and then Michael and I went down to check the beach. There is a small beach down a short set of steps at the end of our property. Technically our lot is coastal, oceanfront but not beachfront. Before moving to the island I never realized that beaches are dynamic. They come, they go, they shift, and they move. Sometimes ‘our’ beach starts at the edge of our property and extends east. Sometimes out beach runs straight across in front of our house almost all the way to the west. It depends on the direction and the force of the waves at any given time.

In just the last few days the sand has been building up again in front of our house. So we went down to the edge of the rocks to sit on our bench and to assess the current beach situation. We also went to look for ‘Johnson.’  There’s a spotted eagle ray that comes to out beach sometimes to dig in the sand searching for whatever spotted eagle rays search for. We didn’t want to call him ‘Ray’ – as in ‘Michael, I’m going down to the beach to look for Ray’ – thinking that would be too pedestrian. So we took inspiration from Bill Saluga’s old, comedy sketch about Raymond  J Johnson, Jr. While that character always said,  “Now you can all me Ray, or you can call me J….or you can call me RJJ, Jr….but ya doesn’t hasta call me Johnson!”, Johnson it is.

Anyway, we were sitting on the bench watching the waves crashing against the rocks and enjoying the breeze when who showed up but our little friend, Johnson, with his stark, white underbelly; his big, beaky face; his bright glittering spots; and his lovely, graceful movements – like a big, old diamond just skipping along the sand. Yup, today was a very good day.

Poltergeist: when electronics cry

So very busy week. I’ll have to go back to catch up. But today I’ll start with some of the most recent, time consuming dilemmas we solved.

Thursday evening , realized the oven light was on. No idea why it was turned on. Turned it off. Later, it was back on again. Turned it off. Made a mental note to pay attention to the oven light. Went to sleep.

Friday morning, the oven light was on. Tried to turn it off. It commenced clicking on, clicking off. Clicking on. Clicking off. Checked every other control button on the panel, everything else worked fine. Flipped the circuit breaker to the oven. Got out the oven manual. Looked up oven light bulbs. Maybe this is what happens when bulbs are going bad or here in the island when the contact becomes corroded. Resolved to replace bulbs. But wait. Can’t get the covers off and Warning: only replace with bulbs rated for use in self-cleaning ovens. Hmmmm. Wondered what are the odds that I can get those here? Called the appliance guy to ask him. He’s busy and will call back. Never does. Called Dacor customer service. Advised that it’s probably not the bulbs, and if I remove them it will likely continue clicking on and off with or without them anyway. Recommended repair guy to check electronics. Remember repair guy was not calling back. Left breaker off. Moved on.

Friday night, Michael complained of a beeping noise in the office. It was the battery backup, surge protector, massive electronic thing under the desk. It was beeping like the power was off, but the power was not off. Reset button. Walked away. Seemed OK. Hours later started beeping again. Wouldn’t reset. Removed it. Scrounged up another surge proctector. Swapped out the protectors. Went to sleep.

Saturday morning, researched the battery backup. Two beeps is clearly the signal for lack of incoming current in spite of the fact that we haven’t lost power. Pondered the inconsistency of this warning with the reality of my situation. Gave up.  Only have laptops now anyway so don’t really need the battery part of the protector so will just stick with the regular surge protector. Moved on.

Noon Saturday, I was fixing lunch and noticed the lights dim and refrigerator slow down for a moment and then they returned to normal illumination and sound. Surprisingly enough, these little brownouts are not unusual so I thought nothing of it. However, for the first time in recorded history the fan on the counter also slowed down to a near standstill and then sped up again. This happened twice. I decided that this was worthy of a call to the electric company. More surprisingly, they answered. I explaind the fan issue. He agreed that this was an extreme in the power-fluctuation department and recommended that I immediately flip all of my circuit breakers off and wait for the technician to come.

In that amazing day of miracles, the technician arrived within an hour and decided that the power pole was listing to the west, all of the wires were dangling, and that some of the crimpers had corroded causing the problem. Really? Seriously? Wait let me run into the house to my Electric Company file….yes, here it is. My copy of the request form we submitted alerting the Electric Company to the instability of this very pole dated March 2006. And even though I do not have copies of the sticky notes they used, we have gone into the office at least five times in the last year requesting that somebody come out to at least reattached the pvc pipes that have come loose from the pole which are dragging down the wires. Every time someone at the window wrote our name and phone number on a sticky note. What became of those notes? But that’s water under the bridge. For now, the guy was here and was at least fixing today’s problem (with the intention of coming back next week to fix the primary issue).

We flipped all the circuit breakers again and all seemed to be OK. Then, finally, ‘light dawned on marble head’. So I asked Michael is he thought that the battery backup might have known the brownouts were happening before I did and was trying to alert me? So we plugged it back in and….nothing. Quiet as a tomb. Not making a peep.Interesting. Hey wait. What about the oven light? Wait. In our excitement we had inadvertently flipped ALL the breakers back on so the oven had had power for a while….what was the light doing? We went to check. Nothing. It was doing nothing. We turned it on? It stayed on.We turned it off? It stayed off.

So the moral of the story is that apparently even my electronic gadgets have come to realize that on this island it is every man for himself. Maybe next time I’ll think to listen when they speak.

Zombie Plants

Having just spoken about how dry Anguilla is compared to other islands, I can’t imagine living in a truly tropical climate. Anguilla is classified as semi-arid. That’s part of why we chose this particular island. We don’t often have to suffer with that heavy, humid, wet blanket of air that you find in tropical climes.

My personal, thermoregulatory comfort is not what I am referring to, however. I just can’t imagine living in a rain forest because of landscaping. Look at Ta Prohm in Cambodia to see what real jungle can do (and even that’s been selectively pruned). Even here in a relatively dry, island environment caring for plants is a consuming pastime. Forget about the fact that there is no dormant season. We signed on for that. Pay for year-round, lovely weather and by Mother Nature, you get year-round gardening. You also get year-round beauty so that’s understandable. But, man, is it work.

First of all, the soil here is awful. In some areas of the island you can find decent topsoil but it is rare. (That’s one of the reasons that the plantation owners ultimately gave up on agricultural endeavors on the island.) Many of our friends’ houses sit on a brutal, craggy, moon rock-like surface that necessitates drilling holes in the rock just to make a place to plant something. At least we had some soil to work with and more manageable rocks to move around. We could plant pretty much anywhere provided enough elbow grease, additional top soil and fertilizer (lots and lots of fertilizer and tons of acid).

In the beginning, things are pretty slow. You plant. You water. You wait. You water. You wait. And nothing seems to grow. Plants just sit there doing nothing. For months, sometimes years, it seems, they do nothing. Your impulse is to fill in with more little plants so that things will look better faster. (You have to resist that urge, however, or you’ll be sorry later once things take off.) Meanwhile, you can have two identical plants set two feet apart. One will grow like crazy, and one will not. Then one day, that second plant’s roots that have been growing underground where you can’t see them suddenly find the water table or break through a layer of rock or something magical happens, and then you can’t hold it back.

Here, as an example is a picture of three coconut palms at the edge of our pool. All three were planted at the same time several years ago. No, this is not an optical illusion. No, one is not set 30 feet back from the other. They really do vary in size from about 4 feet to 14 feet. 

Just like palm tree number one above, once plants establish themselves and find their little place in the world, they go crazy. One minute you are begging them to live, feeding them and watering them at every turn. And the next thing you know you are spending all of your time trying to keep them from taking over the world. You don’t even need time-lapse photography to see things grow. It happens so fast. Buttonwoods overgrow struggling palm trees. Bougainvilleas sprout inches over night. Ficus trees take over the world. (Yeah, by the way, Ficus trees are NOT indoor plants here no matter how cute that one looks in your mother’s living room. Planting one inside would be tantamount to planting a maple tree in a pot in your bedroom.)

Finally, never assume a plant is dead until it actually shrivels up and blows away. They are like little zombies. Hit them with a hurricane. Toppled them over and rip out their roots. Strip them of every leaf or flower. Dry their stems up like bones till they look like little skeletons. But don’t give up. Prop them back up. Give them time. The winds will change direction. The earth will tilt. A little rain will fall. And Voila! That plant will come back to life with a vengeance, and you’ll spend the rest of your days pruning that baby back just like the rest of them – which is often what we do all day.

We pray for rain.

Anguilla is a semi-arid environment.  Our friends, John and Judy, were unluckily enough to experience 15 inches of rain in just 7 days once when they visited, but that was a complete fluke of nature no matter what they tell you. Average rainfall here is less than 40 inches a year, and most of that comes in short little bursts of showers that pass by before you even finish closing up the windows. We rarely have days or even hours of unrelenting rain.  

We also do not have water. Oh, sure. We have the ocean. There’s plenty of salt water around us, but we don’t have mountains and streams and lakes and reservoirs. We don’t have fresh water. Our neighbor just drilled a well and hit water about 40 feet down, but the water is brackish and cloudy and not at all what I would want to bathe in let alone drink. He’ll have to desalinate his well water and filter the heck out of it to make it marginally useful.

We can, however, buy water. Not just the $7/bottle bottled water you get at restaurants on island. We can buy truckloads of desalinated water delivered to our house and pumped into the storage cisterns under the house. That currently costs $300US/5,000 gallons. (Plus, I suppose, the prorated cost of building and maintaining the cisterns in the first place.)

The best way for us to get water, though, is to fill those cisterns with rain water collected off the roof.  It is also the cheapest way. So we pray for rain. If one inch of rain falls on 1,000 square feet of roof and you saved every drop of water, you would presumably collect about 600 gallons of water. We have many pointed roofs above hexagonal rooms that make calculating square footage very complicated; but even if we have 4,000 square feet of roof surface and collect most of that water, getting an inch of rain is like having nickels and dimes fall from the sky.

Generally speaking, the system has worked pretty well. Typically we only have to buy a truckload of water once or twice a year, and there have been a couple of times when the cisterns have even been overflowing. (They hold approximately 50,000 gallons between them!) That’s when I pull every curtain down and tear off every slipcover and start washing everything in sight. (Again, ask John and Judy what that’s like.)

Of course there have also been dry spells when we’ve had to buy water every couple of weeks. Not because we are frivolous with its use. We are not. Our appliances are all water efficient. Our showers are short. The biggest drains are the evaporation loss from the pool and maintaining the landscaping. That means that rain is a double benefit. We collect water, and we don’t have to water the plants or add water to the pool. It’s a literal win: win.

So when it does rain, we really enjoy it. And that just what we did yesterday when we got an unexpected 3 inches (read about $500) worth of rain. I downloaded a new book on my Kindle, curled up on the couch, and just enjoyed the rain.