Whaddyadoallday? Real Life on a Desert Island Rotating Header Image

September, 2012:

Island Fever

People always worry about the psychological effects of living on a small island. I have always supposed, however, that a lot of people (at least those without lengthy work commutes) spend the vast majority of their days within a 35 square mile area no bigger than the island of Anguilla. It’s the knowledge that they CAN go somewhere else that makes them content to stay where they are. On an actual island it is just that the going away part is harder than getting in your car and driving over that imaginary barrier that is ‘Outer Limit Lane’ in your usual territory – harder and more expensive. Hence the amplified sense of angst and ennui involved in living on a desert island known as Island Fever. 

Island fever is not, however, a physical malady. In fact, I rarely get sick living here. I live in a wide open environment full of relatively clean, nearly constantly-moving, fresh air. I rarely find myself in closed, air-conditioned spaces like banks and grocery stores. And when I do I’m only there for minutes at a time with maybe a dozen other people briefly sharing the space with me. Even the longest drive I can take in my air-conditioned car takes less than 20 minutes. As a result, I stay pretty healthy…until I leave the island. 

That’s why I wasn’t in touch last week. I spent a few days traveling back and forth to St. Maarten to help out at a veterinary clinic there. That placed me inside a climate-controlled hospital for 10 hours a day and in contact with a lot of people. OK, I am not talking about a lot of people by subway commute standards, but it was a ton of people compared to how many I encounter in my living room on an average day. Nevertheless, when my throat first started feeling scratchy, I tried to explain it away as strain from atypical and excessive overuse, but then my eyes got dry and irritated. And then my sinuses swelled up. 

And there it was: Leaving Island Fever.  It’s tantamount to the Aztecs seeking out the Spaniards to encounter new diseases. Every time we go to the States, every time we travel on vacation, every time I leave this little rock I get sick. Not horrible bubonic plague sick just annoying, whining, I’m-not-fully-enjoying the experience sick.  It irritates the crap out of Michael which only makes me feel worse since I’m the one who’s sick and he’s mad at me for it – as if I do it on purpose. 

For now, I’m feeling better, though. Thank you. I’m quite nearly normal. Unfortunately, I’m leaving for Florida today. And there’s the rub. I haven’t left the islands since the end of May. Really, that’s not such a big deal. What was more upsetting was that I didn’t have any plans to leave again until next May which was painfully evident whenever I signed on to my American Airlines account and saw no ticketed itineraries listed under “My Reservations.”  (Remember, it’s the feeling that you can’t leave that gets you.) So on one hand Island Fever was setting in. I wanted to dress up in nice clothes, to go window shopping, and to have a Starbucks so I’m taking the opportunity to spend a week with a friend (and Michael, too) in Fort Lauderdale in order to do all of those things. On the other hand, the odds are that I’ll actually get sick as soon as I set foot in civilization. 

Consequently, I find myself in the peculiar position of looking forward to another bout of Leaving Island Fever. It will be worth it to get away, though. So bring it on!

Hold That Thought

On an island of less than 15,000 people, maintaining any degree of anonymity is a challenge. The small town atmosphere makes it hard to conduct any kind of business in private. Add to that the fact that you are a foreigner in a strange land and you can feel somewhat vulnerable which, in turn, breeds a certain degree of caution. 

David Guterson described this phenomenon in his novel Snow Falling on Cedars: There was no blending into an anonymous background, no neighboring society to shift toward. Islanders were required, by the very nature of their landscape, to watch their step moment by moment. …. And this was excellent and poor at the same time – excellent because it meant most people took care, poor because it meant an inbreeding of the spirit, too much held in, regret and silent brooding, a world whose inhabitants walked in trepidation, in fear of opening up. Considered and considerate, formal at every turn …. They could not speak freely because they were cornered: they held their breath and walked with care, …”

Obviously, he frames it in a bit of a dramatic context (set in the snow no less), but it is an apt description all the same. In my little world, I cannot vent at the Custom’s officer because our paths are sure to cross again, and I don’t have a veil of invisibility that would allow me to get snippy with the phone company customer service personnel. They have caller ID, after all; and I will likely need their help some time in the future. I’m not saying that I have an innate tendency to get mean with people; but in this world, I have to guard against becoming even clearly aggravated. Venture into the official arena of governmental oversight here and foreigners can become downright mute.

It’s not enough that ex-pats don’t want to speak up in protest for fear of drawing attention to themselves. They are often hesitant to even ask questions.  That’s what happened last week. A friend asked me a procedural question about a payroll issue. (I employ a housekeeper to clean my house once a week and that makes me a ‘business’.) My answer was different than the one she received from someone else.  So in a moment of apparently misguided abandon I picked up the phone and called the Social Security office to get the answer. Then while I was on a roll and feeling empowered, I called the Labour Department to ask a question for another friend. I was just a wild and crazy gal taking wild and crazy chances. Then I reported my findings to the interested parties and got on with my life. 

A few days later I was running errands in the Valley – including picking up a bulb for the taillight on my beater, Suzuki jeep. As I got in my car outside the auto parts store, a big black SUV pulled up nose to nose with my Subaru and the driver waved. I waved back. Again, it’s a small island. It was entirely possible that I knew him. So I took off my sunglasses to clean them in order to get a better look, and when I raised my eyes again he was standing at my passenger window. I still didn’t recognize him, but I rolled down my window to see what he wanted. He told me his name. I said, “Hello.” He identified himself as an investigator from Social Security. My heart stopped beating.  Seriously? I asked a question on the phone and now they’ve come for me? Was the paranoia justified? Does that really happen? I broke out in a cold sweat. Outwardly, however, I simply said, “Yes?” 

Time stood still. The silence seemed to go on forever. Then he hit me with the big question. “Are you related to Mr. X?” What? The disconnect in my brain nearly fried the circuits. Am I related to Mr. X? Say what? I was like a deer in the headlights. This did not compute. Mr. X? I had met Mr. X once or twice, but why would this stranger think I was related to him? Then it dawned on me. The car. My car. The one I was driving not the one in need of a light bulb. This car belonged to Mr. X some eight years ago. We bought it from someone who bought it from him because he just buys a new version of the same car every two years or so and has to unload the old one. So there are more than a few little, ex-Mr. X’s Subarus driving around the island, and I was sitting in one. So, I laughed the nervous, halting laugh of someone whose heart just started beating again and told the investigator that I was not related to Mr. X but that I completely understood his thinking I might be since I was driving a car that Mr. X owned nearly a decade ago.

So, short story long, the government did not, in fact, send anyone to take me away for asking my innocent little questions. However, I believe my point is still made. This is a VERY small island!

Here’s the little hummer

I could have predicted that just as the blog was posting, the little guy would come back. That’s OK, though. You can now appreciate how quickly a hibiscus flower wilts in this heat. 24 hours and it’s already done. But here he is still working it:

How Hot Was It?

Well, it’s that time of year. Just a week ago I was commenting on the fact that we’ve been really fortunate with the weather. With the occasional storm blowing through we’ve enjoyed intermittent clouds and breeziness which have saved us from feeling the oppressive heat that can settle in here during the doldrums of fall. Well, that’s what I get for counting my blessings because now it is hot – completely still, not a leaf moving, the total opposite of bone-chilling, HOT. 

This is when we use our swimming pool. Most of the year the pool serves only as an architectural, water feature – no more useful than a fountain would be. We see it sitting out there looking pretty enough, but we never get in. We don’t sunbathe or play water sports. We only use the pool to cool off. So now is when it earns its keep. We do a little work, do a little skinny-dipping, do a little work, and do a little skinny-dipping. All day long we are in and out of the pool accomplishing less and less work and more and more skinny-dipping. It’s just too hot to do much else. 

Here’s a case in point. Yesterday morning I was sitting at my computer when I heard a little, teeny, tiny cheeping sound. My desk looks out on the back garden filled with crotons, frangipani, bougainvillea and what I like to refer to as my palm tree- a tall, straight, beautiful Christmas palm framed in the view. There is also one hibiscus bush just under the window. I trimmed it back recently so it has lots of buds but just one newly opened flower perched on the end of the branch like a bright red, crystal bowl, and there was a hummingbird feeding from it. That, in and of itself, is always a pretty sight. But what was remarkable was that this hummingbird was not hovering over the flower. He was sitting inside the flower, resting and chattering while he ate. That’s how hot it is now. Even the hummingbirds don’t have any energy. 

Of course, I didn’t have a camera handy at that moment, and even a stationary hummingbird doesn’t stay that way for very long. I tried, though, all day long (in between bouts of skinny-dipping) to get a picture of him. Apparently he was adequately rejuvenated, however, and never sat still in the flower again. So I was trying to snap a picture of an active, moving hummingbird through a window and a screen and kept focusing on the screen or the distance or heaven knows what so I never did get a decent picture. Here is a decent picture of flower, though. 

And here is a lovely, ‘artistic’ rendition of the screen with the hummingbird (in shadowed relief) to the upper left of the flower. 

And that’s as good as I got, but my dedication to the task at hand did give me a great excuse to just sit at my desk playing solitaire on the computer with a fan blowing on me. So I had a nice, quiet, relaxing, restful day that wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as it could have been if I had bothered to help Michael with some pruning. That is that it wasn’t too bad until 7PM when the power went out for TWO HOURS! I can live without lights. My kindle fire and Michael’s ipad both had charged batteries and illuminated screens. But without fans? 

I do believe that was the first time I have EVER gotten in the pool in the middle of the night. That’s how hot it was.

Labor Day is Every Day

That’s an interesting thing about my life here. Every day could be just about every other day. But every day includes some work. I used to work at my job all week, spend one day on the weekend doing household chores, gardening and/or errands and always had one day to just bum around and do nothing. Here the lack of externally applied structure leaves me doing a little (or a lot) of work every single day. There’s rarely a day that I roll out of bed, start on my to-do list, and then keep at it straight until bedtime. So I’m not doing important or necessary tasks all day every day, but every day I’m doing something. 

Last week I spent one morning unplugging the refrigerator drain. Yes, your refrigerator has a drain. It directs the defrost liquid into a pan that you have probably never seen because your climate is such that the water quickly evaporates out of the pan and/or the evaporator fan under the fridge blowing on the water hastens its dissipation. Our evaporator fan got so rusty and noisy that we couldn’t stand it anymore, but we didn’t care enough to spend $500 (plus shipping and duty and installation) on another one, so the repair guy just unplugged it. Now the tray under my bottom mount freezer fills with defrost water so fast that I have to empty it a couple times a week. Of course, I have more time than money now, and I get in a couple of squats reaching under there to pull out the tray. Plus I like to consider that I’m sort of making my own water this way, and water isn’t exactly cheap either, so it’s all good. 

Anyway, I noticed recently that the tray was staying dry but I ignored the possibility that this was not a stroke of good fortune but rather an early warning sign and didn’t wise up until I couldn’t get the freezer drawer to close properly. Turns out that if the defrost water can’t drain down into the pan, it just accumulates in the bottom of the freezer, freezes (go figure) and forms a solid, little ice skating rink. This happened once before so at least I knew what the problem was.  And having watched the appliance repair guy unplug the offending drain that time, I was sure that I could fix it myself this time.  

So, I flipped the circuit breaker. (You know, I don’t think I even knew where the circuit breakers were in our California house let alone which circuit fed my refrigerator.) I got a big cooler from the garage and emptied all the frozen food out of the freezer. I took off the door and removed the drawers. Then I got a hair dryer, an extension cord and a spatula and removed the accumulated block of ice. Then I set about removing the back panel pieces from over the defrost coils. A dozen screws later, I could pull the panel a bit away from the back to get to the drain opening. Now this is a tiny little drain. It’s probably ½” diameter and just directs accumulated water through the bottom of the freezer to the tray directly below. I’m thinking the actual distance between the two points IF connected in a STRAIGHT line would be about 3” BUT someone in their infinite wisdom put in an s-trap like under your sink as if ANYBODY drops a diamond ring down the drain in the back of their freezer and it must be stopped from making its way to the sewer system. Seriously, even if I dropped a ring down the drain in the back of my freezer it would just fall into the pan below. 

But I digress. The point is that I can’t just feed a pipe cleaner through this little pipe to clean it out because it’s got this stupid s-trap maneuver going on. So I have to go back out to the garage and wheel the huge air compressor tank to the front steps. Lock up the cats. Leave the front door open and run the cord into the entry way to plug it in. Then pop a screen out of the kitchen window and feed the air hose through the opening into the kitchen so it reaches the back of the freezer in order to forcibly blow the obstruction out of the drain and into the pan below. All of which I successfully do. At which point I get to put everything back in place and then clean up my mess.

Meanwhile you are probably wondering what had dropped down into this drain in the far reaches of my freezer that has plugged it up in the first place. No wedding rings. No potato peels. Nothing like that. Little tiny bits of peeling, rusting, white, enamel, appliance paint build up in the trap like a little beaver dam. Why? I have no idea why. I mean, I understand why they pile up in there and plug the drain; but I do not understand why, even in this highly corrosive environment on the sea, the INSIDE of my freezer is managing to rust. 

But it gave me something to do that day