Tuesday, July 26, 2016

So You Want to Live on an Island? Thirteen Things to Consider Before You Move to Paradise

We live in paradise. It's true. This place we call home, the >>>British Virgin Islands<<<, are frequently touted in glossy magazines as a primo world travel destination and regularly featured on "top ten" lists for one or all of the "three B's" (beaches, bars and beauty). Our pictures make you swoon, our tans make you jealous, and the fact that you are shoveling snow while we are lounging poolside kind of makes you want to kill us. Yes, our lives appear pretty idyllic from our >>>Instagram photo feeds<<< ... but are they? Well, yes and no. While island life ab-so-lutely has it's merits (duh!), it is definitely not for everyone. Might living on a rock be for you? Well, after five years of living on and around islands, here are some things I've observed that you might want to consider:
  1. Everyone will know your name. If you love small town living, island life might be for you. Everyone knows everyone here, and if you don't know everyone, chances are they've heard about you or you've heard about them before you even met. While this "small town" nature of island life comes with a comforting sense of community and accessibility, it also comes with the not so awesome side effect of gossip. And holy crap, scandal and drama - real or finely tuned through the "coconut telegraph" - is everywhere
  2. Power and water run out, regularly. Infrastructure is often lacking on islands. We happen to live at a marina with it's own reverse osmosis water system and a hefty back up generator so we are very lucky to not suffer from this common island affliction. But most folks who live here are very regularly lamenting about power outages which seem to happen a lot. And water? You know, the stuff that pours out of your faucets whenever you want it? Yeah, that runs out too. It is not unusual for entire areas of the island to be waterless for several days at a time. I have one friend who's water went dry mid-shower. And don't even get me started on fast internet or conditions of the roads... 
  3. It's harder to get stuff. Second hand shopping is common here regardless of social class or wealth.  Our beautiful island lacks big box stores of any kind and while I absolutely love the absence of blatant American consumerism and the eyesore of it all, it also means many of the things we are used to buying back home are not available here or are very expensive. My hunt for three car seats turned up with zilch (literally could. not. find. three carseats to buy on this rock) that I eventually had to suck it up, buy them online, and have them shipped down from the US (making them the most expensive carseats on the island, possibly in the entire Caribbean, maybe in the world...) From furniture to cars, kids toys to water toys, a lot of your stuff will be second hand. Anything that's not might have to be purchased off island and sent down via traveling friend or shipping company. How much you miss the amenities of the mainland will depend on your ability to be patient and/or flexible (or how many off island visitors you get!), but most people will feel some sort of consumer pang quite regularly whether it be because you can't get something or the exorbitant cost of it.
    We've been known to ship everything from boat parts to kids' toys down.
  4. You will be behind on a lot. When people talk about a movie or show, I often ask if it came out after 2010 when Scott and I left to go cruising, because we have absolutely no clue about anything that came out after that. Game of Thrones? Breaking Bad? OITNB? These mean nothing to me. Then again, this is largely due to the fact that we don't have television and don't have a good/comfortable place to watch our computer after the kids go to bed but still...living on an island usually means you will be a step behind when it comes to trends, news, pop culture, fashion, and giving a crap about any of it. If you *do* care about the latest and greatest in x,y or z, island life might not be for you.
  5. Garbage, trash and litter is up close and personal. The pictures we post of our island are often from the best beaches and the best views, but what you do not see are the not so pretty sides of life on a rock. The side that shows you how serious the issue of pollution, particularly in the ocean that surrounds our home, is. Remember that time our family >>>cleaned up the trash at the park in town<<<? We've been to beaches in the windward islands that are covered in plastic, trash and debris. It's sad to imagine that some people have that little respect for the environment but it's something we've seen on just about every island we've visited. Tortola, however, is very clean compared to others and it's one of the many reasons we love it here. Even still, you will see an impressive amount of trash if you get off the beaten path.
    A garbage bag full of trash we collected at a park one day.
  6. Goodbyes are a regular occurrence. Aside from the fact that most of us are away from our families and have to say "bye" to our visitors, island communities are often very transient. While some people come here and stay forever, most do not. They are here on contract, for a few years, or as part of a temporary adventure. Add in the fact that we are host to vibrant yachting and cruising communities and"...people come and go so quickly!" Maybe for this reason or because of it, it can be hard to find friends and some people can find island life very isolating. If you are single, finding a mate can prove very challenging as well.
  7. "Island time"is legit. In the day and age of "instant gratification", this is a tricky one for many to handle. However "island time", while not a scientific measure, is 100% real. Urgency is not a thing here (unless your are on the road where it is very much a "thing".) Life is definitely s-l-o-w-e-r and while that might sound appealing at first, the reality of it is often a shock to the system. Island time varies from task to task, but is - on average -  two to three times longer than you would expect to do/accomplish/finish said task. It can be as simple as a painfully slow clerk at the grocery store who takes no fewer than 10 minutes to scan your not-in-the-system-for-some-reason strawberries or as severe as your husband dropping off a small poster to be framed the week before your birthday, for your birthday (April 27th) and getting said birthday present/poster in the middle of July. Yes, 'island time' is real and if you are a task-master used to fast-paced city life, you will have some serious adjusting to do.
  8. Bureaucracy is no joke.  I like to call it bureauCRAZY down here. From immigration to labor to customs, the name of the game is waiting. Waiting in line. Waiting to get a ticket in order to wait in line. Waiting for someone to call your name to tell you to wait some more. Waiting for approval. Waiting for a stamp from another department. Waiting for an official to come back from vacation. So. Much. Waiting. God forbid you try to run a business down here because no matter how many people you hire to get all your legal ducks in a row and no matter how many officials you speak with to clarify things, you will definitely get it wrong. Mark my words. And then you will have to deal with even more bureaucrazy. And then you will have to wait some more. Before you are a legal resident you will have waited no fewer than 262 hours in various departments and will have filled out your body weight in forms. 
    Just one of the approximately 1,436 forms I had to read and/or fill out.
  9. Weather can be brutal. I will never forget the summer we spent in Grenada while I was pregnant with the twins without air conditioning. It was >>>so. effing. hot<<<. My uncle was just here last month and he walked around with a towel on his person that had one purpose alone: to wipe away/absorb his sweat. It was profuse. I'm pretty sure he lost half his body weight in perspiration and I doubt he will be coming back any time soon. It was very uncomfortable for him. NEWSFLASH: THE HEAT CAN BE AS LIMITING AND OPPRESSIVE AS THE COLD. While our winter's kick your winter's ass in terms of we are drinking rum drinks on the beach while you shovel snow, our summers are brutal and can be ungodly hot. As if the mind-bending heat wasn't enough, we also have the threat of hurricanes five months of the year. This is unnerving and potentially catastrophic, particularly if you live on a boat and own three others as your livelihood (insert emoticon with wide eyes and teeth)
    He showered 3x a day. Still no relief. The heat is for real.
  10. You might get bored. I know this sounds insane because when you came here on vacation you filled every day and still didn't see it all, but islands are islands and their very nature means they are limited. There are only so many beaches, bars, and activities to occupy your time. We don't have the museums, theaters, art houses, libraries and music venues to explore. There are only so many shops, clubs and restaurants to frequent and if you are someone who doesn't like to do the same thing twice or needs to be doing "something" all day every day, well, you should probably reconsider island living. While there is much to do for the water enthusiast, people who don't embrace the simple pleasures island life allows (and there are many!) can be somewhat disenchanted and limited by choices. It is, I think, for this reason that drinking becomes an olympic sport here. Day drinking at 3pm on a Monday? Why not!
  11. You will inevitably come down with "Island Fever."According to Maui Goodness, "Island Fever is the phenomena of feeling claustrophobic from the close proximity of each shoreline, and feeling disconnected from the outside world. This is a pretty common thing on the islands... Most people move away after a few months to a few years because of a lack of family and the necessity of having all the amenities of the mainland at their disposal." We have never lived on one island long enough to come down with this very real affliction, but have heard many a story about it. For this reason many seasoned islanders recommend getting "off the rock" at least once a year.
  12. You will be an outsider. Here on my island you are either a belonger or...not.  As in "You belong" or "You do not belong." I am not joking. "Belonger" is the actual term and if you are one, you have a card in your wallet that says so. To become a "belonger" is only slightly easier than becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what it entails but I know it's just about impossible for me to ever become one so I don't really sweat it. Being a belonger has many, many perks that an non-belonger does not enjoy (having to deal with less bureaucracy is a big one) but it is how it should be and I get it. Regardless, I will never "belong" here.   And finally...
  13. Living with that feeling that everyone thinks your life is perfect because you live here when in reality you are living with items 1-12 on a daily basis! It's true, once you relocate to paradise you simply are >>>no longer allowed to complain<<< because, obviously, our life is one giant vacation and we should just shut up and be grateful.  (thanks to my friend >>Claudia<<, for this one!)
    It's not all sunshine and rainbows, but it's pretty damn awesome if 1-13 aren't problems for you.
All said, I absolutely *love* living as an expat on an island (more in-depth post on this subject coming soon). I find this lifestyle vibrant, inspiring and I truly love my experience here. It's not all sunshine and rainbows (there are a lot of those, of course), and I've never met Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney, but it *is* unique and if you have a flair for dichotomy and embrace the fact that adventure (and not always the thrilling kind you chose) awaits you each day, it just might be for you.

Word to the wise: if you still think that living on an island is for you, read Don't Stop the Carnival: A Novel by Herman Wouk. It is, so far, the best book about living and working in the islands I have ever read. It's a classic and will prepare you for living and working on a rock better than anything. We considered it "required reading" for our crew.


Anonymous said...

You might mention sometime that Americans living abroad must satisfy two tax authorities (IRS and their host country's tax agency) because the USA is the only country in the world (other than Eritrea) which taxes its citizens no matter where on earth they reside. (It's called citizenship-based taxation whereas the international norm is residence-based taxation.) This often involves the expense of hiring US tax experts. US tax filing from abroad can be very complex and there is always a risk of incurring extremely high penalties for form filing faults or omissions. Double taxation on some income can occur and some things which might be untaxable in the host country will be considered taxable by the USA (e.g. unemployment payments). It's far easier for non-Americans to move to paradise, insofar as tax filing is concerned at least.

Sea Change Okinawa said...

Some of these really resonated with me. I live on an island in Japan, Okinawa. And while it is much bigger than your island, and I don't have the struggles with water/power etc, Japanese bureaucracy is insane, and I will always be an outsider.
I find I get island fever every couple of months, and luckily there are some cheap airlines that fly out of here which makes escaping to the mainland and other nearby asian countries quite easy.


Doug Blair said...

Jimmy Buffett created a whole musical for Don't Stop the Carnival!
Good stuff!

Unknown said...

Nice read... and I've lived on an island for about 2 years in the past, but it was a large, well-populated island, and yes I got island-fever,but it was for different reasons altogether... haha! Another story for another time!

Anyway, if you and your hubby are readers, I'm wondering if you've ever read, "The Sex Lives of Cannibals - Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific"
By J. Maarten Troost. No, it's not a SEX book, but Maarten's writing style is unique, and the book is hilarious! Many LOL moments! AND available as a download!

Anyway, keep up the living/sailing/writing! Hopefully be joining the lifestyle in a few years!

Anonymous said...

How are you affording to stay away for so long? Do you have jobs over there? Sounds lovely and a real adventure!

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