Whaddyadoallday? Real Life on a Desert Island Rotating Header Image

November, 2011:

Giving Thanks

Celebrating American holidays in a foreign country and on a little island can be a bit of a challenge but at least it’s not as difficult as it used to be.

Timing dinner is a minor issue. A Thursday in November is not a holiday on island. That means that if we invite any working friends to celebrate with us, we can’t sit down to eat at the traditional 3 or 4 0’clock in the afternoon. That was the case this year when we didn’t start eating until a very late 7PM. My brother pointed out that 7PM in Anguilla is 3PM in California which helps from a philosophical standpoint, but it still precludes nibbling on any leftovers later on Thanksgiving Day. On the up side, we did have the opportunity to watch the Packers/Lions game while we were finishing our dinner preparations. (I’m a die-hard Steelers fan, but if they aren’t playing the classics will work.)

Now, when it comes to Thanksgiving Dinner, I am a traditionalist. I’m all for trying new recipes when we have every day dinner parties or even when I’m looking to pair up ingredients I find in the pantry just for me.  I am certainly no stranger to Foodnetwork. However, at the holidays, I never switch out my pumpkin pie with a pumpkin cheesecake let alone an apple or pecan pie. You will not find a single clove of garlic in my mashed potatoes. On occasion, Michael might mix up the ingredients for his dressing (pecans vs. walnuts, dried cranberries vs. raisins, that sort of thing); but basically the menu is always the same. My Thanksgiving dinner has been the same for over 50 years. It is not going to change now.

I think that tradition is a good thing, but it wasn’t always easy here. When we first moved to Anguilla, skim milk and diet coke were hard to come by. You can imagine the challenge finding candied yams and stuffing cubes, Libby’s canned pumpkin (who remembers ‘if it says Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s on the label, label, label, you will like it, like it, like it like it on your table, table, table…?) or Reddi-Wip (no Cool Whip in my fridge). Back in the day, everything wasn’t always available. Early on I had to make my candied yams from scratch which was a problem since the local yams look like yams but are white and very, very starchy. I always had to ask Lee at Ashley and Sons Grocery store which ones in the display were ‘American’ yams so I would be sure to buy the right ones. And marshmallows. Marshmallows were impossible to find.

Of course, now you can reliably get everything you need for a great Thanksgiving feast (except maybe those plain stuffing cubes Michael likes so much but he can make do.) I even came up with an island cornucopia-esque centerpiece this year using a big aloe, cactus frond and a coconut pod for the tray. I filled it with tiny baby coconuts (they look a lot like acorns), bright colored, croton ‘fall’ leaves, papayas and avocados.

A pretty centerpiece, a great traditional meal, good friends and a lovely evening in a tropical paradise. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

So Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to everyone – wherever you are.

It’s official!

It’s winter here in the islands.

I know this for many reasons – the least of which is the calendar. The calendar tells me that the seasons are changing elsewhere. My brothers complain about the cold via email from their homes in Maryland and Illinois. And one morning I notice that all the folks out on Rockefeller plaza waving at the camera on the Today Show are bundled up in heavy coats and scarves and hats.  That is the rest of the world. Here in Anguilla the changing of the season can be rather subtle, but there are indicators.

The earth tilting means that the rising sun now shines directly into my southeast facing bedroom window instead of north of my house like it does the rest of year. Luckily it doesn’t wake me up until about 6:15A since the days are also shorter now. In June we have about 13 hours between sunrise and sunset whereas now we only have 11 hours of daylight. Granted, that is not as dramatic as the five hour difference in hours of sun my northern brothers experience throughout the year, but we notice the change. Heck, when I lived in California, I could never have told you the position of the sun in the sky, but here I know.

Even when we returned from Africa 2-1/2 weeks ago in early November, it still felt like summertime. At that point the temperatures remained in the upper 80’s and the winds were calm at only about 2-3mph which made for some pretty warm days. One week later, however, the cold front moved in. It was so noticeable that I went back and looked up those stats for the week before. That’s why I know that conditions changed to high temperatures of only 82 or 83 and more reasonable, seasonable wind speeds of 8-9mph. We started thinking about dragging out the sweaters and blankets!

That’s how much a few degrees difference can impact your life when you live on a desert island. The breeze changes a smidge, the humidity level rises, or the position of the sun shifts and the effect on your comfort level is disproportionately dramatic especially given that we have become soft. When I grew up in Pennsylvania, I hardly ever even buttoned my coat. When I moved to northern California, I thought that was warm, but by the time I moved away I had driving gloves for chilly winter commutes. Now, 82 degrees is cause for cashmere.

In fact, last year during the hottest days of October, we broke down and decided to turn on the air-conditioner in our bedroom. We closed up the room, turned on the unit and went to dinner. When we returned, the room was freezing cold. We turned up the temperature a couple of clicks and settled in to watch TV. Still cold, we turned up the temperature some more – not really paying attention to where it was set since the remote reads in Celsius. Finally we felt comfortable and went to sleep. In the morning I did the conversion to Farenheit. We had incrementally raised the temperature setting on the air-conditioner to 84 degrees. Who does that? Obviously, we do.

So how do I know, unequivocally, that it is now winter in Anguilla? I know because last night, sometime while we slept, Michael took possession of half of the sheet. The down comforter can’t be far behind.

On a wing and a prayer

Anguilla is one very small island with a whole lot of churches.  I can’t tell you exactly how many. There’s no easy way to count them. The phone book lists less than ten, but it also only lists three plumbing contractors so the phone book is not a reliable source.  You will just have to trust me. They are everywhere. On a per capita basis this island could hold the record. And that’s not counting the transient revival tents that spring up from time to time.

I grew up in a very religious household myself. I had a perfect attendance Sunday School pin where you could change out the tiny little number to keep track of your perfect years. I’d have to dig it out to check, but I’d bet mine has double digits. I was well into my 20’s by the time I drifted away from organized religion. Here in Anguilla, though, religion is everywhere. The majority of Anguillians appear to be church-going people who, despite the heat, dress up in all their finery and come out en masse to attend services – weddings, funerals, Sunday services alike. There’s also no appreciable separation of church and State. I have never been to a single function, from a Government Town Hall Meeting to a local play, that didn’t involve a minister saying a few words to start off the proceedings.

In fact, the only things that exist in larger quantities than churches are ordained ministers. The plumbing subcontractor who worked on my house is also a preacher. And towards the end of our construction, even our builder turned to the calling (no connection whatsoever, I am sure) and leads his own congregation now.  On top of that, laypeople are eager to tell me what god wants me to do with my life. One particularly awkward moment came up with one of the workers on the construction site when he found out that I didn’t have children – by choice. This was clearly not acceptable. God says to go forth and multiply, and I was ignoring the directive. So this concerned individual wanted to know: when I die and go to heaven and god asks me why I didn’t have kids, what am I going to say in my defense. I said, “I don’t think she’s going to care,” and promptly extricated myself from the discussion.

On the whole, of course, most days go by with religion just quietly orbiting about me without creating much impact. The other day, though, I was on the ferry heading over to Saint Martin when the topic was swirling right around my head. Two women were sitting behind me. We hadn’t even left the dock yet when the woman by the window started breathing in and out of a plastic baggy fretting over the prospect of becoming seasick on the ride over. The other woman and a crewmember perched in the aisle were attempting to help her avoid nausea by suggesting that she pray. They assured her that god would help her.

I, however, was not entirely convinced of the strength of this approach and was still fretting over the prospect of her becoming seasick down the back of my seat so in spite of my usual tendency to stay out of other people’s conversations, I had to chime in. I pardoned my interruption but admitted that I, too, used to get horribly seasick and offered my own (alternate) solution: breathe in and out deeply and focus on a point on the horizon until we got to the other side.  She took my advice to heart, and we all arrived without incident into the port at Marigot. I turned to ask her how she was doing, and she thanked me very much for the suggestion. She was ever so grateful that it had worked.

The way I see it, there’s no harm in prayer. It just only gets you so far. I mean, who knows? God might have had a hand in our making it safely across the channel, but he wouldn’t necessarily have kept her from throwing up along the way.

I used to be….

The other day I was feeling blue. Don’t get me wrong. I like living on an island. I appreciate how fortunate I have been to be able to realize this particular dream in my life. The perfect weather. The gorgeous view. Good friends and quiet contemplation. Sometimes, though, I do feel stifled. Not by the heat. Not even by the geographic constraints of living on only 35 square miles of solid ground. But by the personal/professional constraints that hobble me here.

I know foreigners who are accountants and secretaries who find work here. I know of a woman who got a work permit to be a nanny and has managed to stay and to continue to work in numerous other jobs for years. There is even a completely unqualified ( i.e. not medically educated) foreigner who worked for the veterinarian on island for long enough that she became a Belonger and now she is allowed to examine, diagnose, prescribe and sell drugs on the island as if she is a veterinarian.  But I, a veterinarian, cannot work here.

Worse than that. I can’t even GIVE my expertise away.  When we first moved on island, we were called into a meeting by the Labor Commissioner and accused of practicing medicine without a license because friends would call us for advice when they couldn’t reach the island veterinarian. We had no drugs to sell, no way to run tests, nothing to do but give out free advice and still our wrists were slapped. So we asked the Commissioner if we are driving down the road and someone has a flat tire can we stop to help them change it or would we be working as mechanics without a license? What if we pick up a hitchhiker, are we working a free taxi service without a license? Ridiculous.

Bottom line is that I can’t work here. That’s why, rather than earning a living doing what I am trained to do and then paying other people to do what they are trained to do, you may have noticed that whenever possible I do it all myself. Sometimes that happens because I am forced to fix things myself (such as the wiring on that two-speed pool pump I mentioned before) and sometimes it is because I choose to (such as sewing all the slipcovers for my furniture).

It still surprises me, though, how astonished other people on island are by any level of self-sufficiency – even for the very littlest of things. For example, today I bought a new bulb for the headlight in our Subaru at the auto parts store.  The salesman asked me who the mechanic was who was going to change it for me. A light bulb? Is that some kind of joke? Hey, Bob, how many Polish veterinarians does it take to change a headlight? I didn’t know what to say so I just had to laugh. Heck, light bulbs I changed even when I lived in the States.

Anyway, back to my feeling blue. I was whining to Michael about feeling unappreciated and useless and uninspired and about how sometimes I think it would be nice to get the house sold and to move back to the States. He asked, “Why? It’s not like you are going to go back to being a veterinarian.”  Well, my little eyes welled up and I got a little catch in my throat; and I said, “Hey, I still AM a veterinarian.”

So, I don’t know. It got me to thinking. He keeps bugging me to get a tattoo. Maybe I’ll get that tattooed somewhere just so I don’t forget.