10 Island Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Our friends David and Carol over at Roccos in Paradise recently celebrated the passing of their first 6 months on the island of St. John. Musing over their adventure thus far, they shared some of their “Notes to Self” to reflect on the lessons they have learned. As I read through their list, nodding all the way (yup, yup, yup – I remember that! ), it got me thinking about all the things I’ve learned over my 8+ years rockside.

the baths virgin gorda

The eccentricities of island life are good at weeding out the weak in spirit. Over the years, I have witnessed countless dreamers move down with a nothing but a suitcase and a smile only to run back to where they came from, tail between their legs, disenchanted within the first few months. Yes, there will be many days you spend watching a majestic sunset over the water, shaking your head, wondering how you ended up so fortunate. But there are also plenty of days that you will spend in a puddle of hot, angry tears, shaking your fists, wondering why the hell you stay here and deal with this shit. Sometimes the island is kind to you and bequeaths you with sunshine and rainbows and kittens; other times…not so much.

This post goes out to all the times the island has kicked me in the knees and pointed and laughed as I fell off the cliff. In retrospect, these lessons now hold tremendous comedic value for me – stories I tell often to remind myself how f*ing resilient I have become – but at the time of the lesson learning, let’s just say there was less laughing and much more curiously strong cocktail imbibing taking place to suppress the fury.

 HERE ARE MY TOP 10 HARD-WON ISLAND LESSONS

 

HARD LESSON #1

Trying to reason with a police officer who has already decided to unjustly tow your car (and is likely getting a kick-back from the tow company as a direct result of this choice) is a waste of breath. Yelling and having a tantrum about the ridiculousness of it all when you don’t get your way will still get you towed, cost you much more money, and likely land you in jail.

HARD LESSON #2

Island tarantulas (also known as “donkey spiders” in some circles) reserve the right to bear arms. If you intend on killing one of these diabolical creatures, you better come in with guns blazing. They will not succumb to being smushed with one phonebook (two, either, it should be noted), being chased by a broom, or even with an electric mosquito racket. Be prepared to do battle – they will come back at you hard, a hairy, creepy fisticuffs you have not trained for. And when you lose sight of the monster when you inevitably run and scream in the other direction, resign yourself to the fact that you will be fitfully sleeping with one eye open for the next month, insisting you “feel something” on your body in 5 minute panicked intervals.

SPIDER scary meme

HARD LESSON #3

Opting to take your own open-top boat to one of the few fancy (ok, fancy-ish) island parties of the year (that you look oh-so forward to, as opportunities to dress-up are rare) will likely deliver you to said party looking like a drowned sewer rat. Plan ahead, leave earlier, and take the damn ferry. In the islands, rain will always happen exactly when you’re not counting on it to happen. You can bet on that.

HARD LESSON #4

Always carry a stick of deodorant in your purse. It is hot here. You will sweat. And you will end up stinking in the most inopportune of circumstances if you don’t plan accordingly.

HARD LESSON #5

When putting money into your Caribbean bank account, do not expect to have access to all of these funds at the same time. Pretty much ever. Much of it will bear the ambiguously intolerable label of “unavailable” during unpredictable time periods. Thinking this money belongs to you is a relic of your outdated stateside thinking. Do not rely on this bank account when traveling. Belgian hotels expect you to pay in full at check-out and there is no real way of explaining in a language you do not speak, using hand signals alone, that your Caribbean bank is a nonsensical bully who likes to punish you for your foolish decision to trust it.

broken-piggy-bank

HARD LESSON #6

Never go into a restaurant desperately craving anything. They are likely out of it. If they’re not and by some twist of fate you are actually allowed to order the menu item of your desires, do not get your hopes up yet. There is still a highly plausible chance that the server will bring out everyone else in your party’s food and only then turn to you to inform you they are out of your selection and tell you to order something else. Until your food is actually in front of your face, set before you at your place at the table, do not – I repeat, DO NOT – crave anything.

HARD LESSON #7

“Playing hooky” from your job is a reckless game here in Mayberry. Everyone knows everyone and unless you’re planning on staying locked in your bedroom with the curtains drawn, your employer WILL find out. If you call in sick, citing a severe case of The Pink Eye and you decide to go out boating anyway, you best be prepared to pour tequila directly onto your eyeballs to ensure they bear the fire of the devil as it is a near absolute certainty that you will run into your boss at the fuel dock. Or your boss’ wife.

HARD LESSON #8

Place all of your dry goods in fully-sealed ziplock bags/Tupperware immediately after you return home from the grocery store. Do not skip this step even if you did the “island flour check” (opened it at the market before you purchased it). Failing to do so can lead to a weevil infestation of epic proportions in your kitchen that will linger for months. Unable to fully rid yourself of these pervasive beetles, you will slowly but steadily go mad. Your insanity will culminate in a final mental breakdown of institutionalized proportions as you pour a box of what you think to be rice into your pan and end up sautéing yourself a dinner of weevils instead. Puking will ensue.

tupperware

HARD LESSON #9

When apartment hunting, if the landlord seems slightly nutty initially, do not attribute this to a lovable quirk you will grow to cherish in a sitcom-y sort of way. Just walk away. It doesn’t matter how great the view is or what a steal of a deal the rent it, it is never worth it. Your island landlord is the almighty arbiter who decides if your stint in his/her villa is paradise on Earth or a living hell. Never forget that this is the wild west. Tenants’ rights you thought you had may very well not apply here. The levels of crazy that can be unleased upon you for seemingly no reason at all by your landlord, aka the Thief of Joy, will astound you.

HARD LESSON #10

Leaving a pair of sand-crusted sneakers under your desk will plague your office with sand fleas who will attack your legs with such ferocity that you will end up scratching off your top layer of skin, unable to stop itching yourself like a deranged monkey. The only solace you will find is in the arms of a pricey doctor’s visit and some high-potency steroid cream. Though the itching may subside, the hateful red rash covering your body will cause people to look at your legs with a face of unspeakable horror that’s usually reserved for movies with the word “saw” in it. Your fellow humans will conspicuously avoid you for fear of contracting your “disease”.

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What lessons has the island sucker punched you with and taught you the hard way?

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Chrissann Nickel

About Chrissann Nickel

Chrissann’s home rock in the British Virgin Islands, against all logic, feels bigger to her than it actually is. Though after spending five years on a teensy one acre island, the current 13-mile long rock she’s residing on now IS ginormous, at least by comparison. As with everything in the Caribbean, it’s all about perspective.

Once upon a time she used to care about things like matching her purse to her pumps, but these days, she’s a card-carrying member of the Barefoot Nation. She is utterly enchanted with vinyasa yoga, especially when practiced on somewhat precarious, deliciously Instagram-able surfaces (she's @WomanOnARock) such as paddleboards, boats, cliffs, or even the occasional willing friend’s body. She vehemently believes that toucans are the best animals ever (period.) and there is no convincing her otherwise (though imperious roadside goats come in as a close second).

As the Editor in Chief of this site, she spends a lot of her time working from home all by her lonesome writing, editing, and cultivating content designed to make her fellow islanders laugh. Besides her writerly pursuits, she moonlights as a yoga instructor, and attributes at least a smidge of her insanity to the amount of time she spends talking to drunk people. If you’re somehow still reading this and feel inclined to find out more about this “Chrissann” of which we speak, you can also take a gander at her eponymous personal website, www.chrissannnickel.com

CURRENT ROCK OF RESIDENCE: Virgin Gorda, BVI

ISLAND GIRL SINCE: 2006

ORIGINALLY HAILS FROM: California

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26 thoughts on “10 Island Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

  1. Oh goodness… these are good ones! I think the hardest lesson I’ve learned here is not to ask WHY. Like why did the road start getting paved and then stop a third of the way? Why is it that lady’s turn to go up to the bank teller when I’m clearly the next in line? Why did the boat run out of gas…no, why did the shop run out of gas…no, why did the gas station run out of gas? It goes on and on, and I’m starting to learn there is no answer here to WHY other than “because that’s the way it is”.

    • I love this reply – Why. Why? It is so succinct and tells it about island living. There are no reasons. There is no rationale for why things are done the way they are done – at least none that makes sense to me. Don’t bother asking. Don’t be perplexed. Just go with the flow, smile, be calm, polite, always say good morning, and find a way to talk and ask about family. mention your mother, and there is a finally a small nod of respect.

      I love this blog. it is so bang on about island life. Lovely and exasperating, all at the same time. the temperature may not vary much, but the way one feels about living here sure does!

      • You’re so right, Francie – always good to remember that there are no reasons and no rationale most of the time – saves my sanity to keep that in mind! 😉 Glad you’re enjoying the blog and can relate – thank you for following along and sharing your story too!

  2. #1 When getting anything done at a Government Office make sure to get a STAMPED COPY of all paperwork and always write down the name of who helped you. Never know when you will need to prove you turned the info in and to whom.

    #2 When entering anyplace remember to say your greetings “Good Morning/Good Afternoon/Goodnight”; helps to set a positive mood.

  3. I would have to say~ NEVER wait til the last minute to try to do something that is important. ALOT of places open late, close early, might not open at all.. Or whatever you’re going to do can end up taking way more time than you planned. Like on a Friday before you work HH you’re trying to go to the bank and to connections, there’s a good chance if youre pushing it on time, something will happen (because it ALWAYS does when you have somewhere to actually be), you’re either late to work, have to wait til Monday on the bank, or miss getting your mail and package.

  4. Great Lessons, Chrissann!

    I have one: Remember to take a hanky to wipe the sweat from your brow before a job interview. This can save you the embarrassment of meeting your potential boss with toilet paper stuck to your face.

  5. These are great, many lessons that I have learned as well! Luckily my first encounter with the police wasn’t as bad – they towed my car too (but I wasn’t there when it happened – I thought it was stolen!) I went to the police just to see if it was towed and they located the cop who did it. They had given me a ticket for $115 and another $150 tow charge. I couldn’t help it (it was one of those days), I just started to cry. I had no money, literally none, well maybe $5 in my account, but that was it! The officer actually was super nice and removed my ticket for me and also got the tow truck guy to bring the price down to $100! Definitely was feeling some island love at that moment.

    One other lesson I learned was this:
    You can, and in my case, WILL get a staph infection at some point. I’ve always been a firm believer in “the ocean heals all.” If I fall, cut myself or am nursing a hangover, my immediate remedy is “ocean.” Well in this case, the ocean was not my friend. I actually didn’t even have an open wound (rare), so I’m not sure exactly how I contracted staph, but the good doctor said it was likely from the ocean/sand. The bacteria can thrive in those conditions for several days after the contaminated person has left (actually 70% of people have staph on their skin and just don’t know it/don’t get symptoms).

    Anyway – MOST PAINFUL EXPERIENCE EVER! I ended up having to go to the ER and get meds and have my leg cut open. It is all better now… Probably will leave a gnarly scar on my shin, but it’s no biggie. I am much more cautious now.. Lesson definitely learned the hard way!

    • You must have magic tears because mine have NEVER gotten me out of an island ticket! 😉 And YIKES on the staph. Hoping that’s a lesson I never have to learn…

  6. Always remember that you are a GUEST in someone else’s country ! You may , after years of living on an island, be granted a passport …it does make life a hell of a lot easier to come and go , but you are a guest , so keep your mouth closed about political situations ….the parties change regularly ….one funny thing that my father in law pointed out…if you are a US citizen living on an island…you don’t celebrate US holidays, but as a US citizen you don’t celebrate their holidays….so basically …Easter and Christmas are it ! And they are great celebrations !

  7. I have been an island girl for about 16 years and I have to say, this was a wonderful trip down memory lane! A friend of mine once said,’If you can’t write a book here, you’re a dumbass!’ and, while very true, none of the books I’ve read (Don’t stop the Carnival not withstanding) just don’t capture the humor that it takes a while to see! The wonderful format you’ve chosen, your with and the exchange from others is perfect, truly capture the moments.

    While this is a very comprehensive list, it will never be complete for tomorrow is another day! Soooo, here are a couple of my “observations:

    1.) If you are on STT or STJ, just don’t plan anything for April or July, Carnival trumps all!

    2.) Blocking traffic causes a lot of angst to the traffic behind you as they are probably trying to get to the bank, which closed early anyway, before it closes. So, if you have the unfortunate circumstance of a mongoose in your manafold on the waterfront, be brave! (And it doesn’t hurt to have a cooler with a few bottles of cranberry juice in your car!)

    3.) Paying an extra 100.00 dollars for 24 hour service rather than the 3 day wait on any kind of license is an exercise in futility. After checking on day one and having a bit of a meltdown on day two, you will be informed it will be here tomorrow. When you bluster,’But I paid for 24 hour service!!!’ you will be politely told, with a smirky smile, ‘Yah, tree working days, 8 hours each, 24 hours. It okay, come back tomorrow.’ : )

    • OMGoodness! I just found this site today from a link on one of the USVI Relocation forums. I am so glad that I did. I’m getting a LOT of great info about what to expect when we move to STX next year (as long as a teaching job pans out that is). And I now know not to pay extra for expedited services! I LOVED the explanation of 3 eight hour days equal 24 hours!

      I can’t wait to keep reading!

  8. I was on my way to my first job interview in a jeep with no top…when I got Into 30 minute downpour. I contemplated going anyways having a “they will understand” attitude, but I chickened out after I realized how soaked I really was. That day the island beat me.

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