All the Things the Expats Never Told Me

I moved to my rock, Roatan, after several lengthy vacations here. All of my expat friends seemed so cool – dive instructors, people running hostels, old guys who showed up and forgot to leave…the usual suspects.

I spent hours sending emails and Skyping before the big move, asking every question under the sun about what I thought I would need to know before moving to a tiny island in the Caribbean. Not to downplay any of my awesome friends, but now, after being here nearly two years, I think it’s safe to say I was fairly unprepared for the some of the realities of island life.

So for anyone else in that position, here are all the things the expats never told me:

Even on a predominately English-speaking island, having zero Spanish skills will make life difficult for you.

Most born and raised islanders in Roatan speak English as their first language – although it’s a creole called “Island English” that proves difficult for non-speakers to understand. However, they do tend to know enough North American English from TV, movies, and tourists that they can switch back and forth. Spanish is usually learned second. But rising unemployment on the mainland of Honduras means lots of Spanish-speaking people who can’t say a word of English are now living and working on Roatan. If you need to take a taxi, go to the bank, hire a cleaning lady, or order at Wendy’s, you better take a translator with you. I knew some basic Spanish at first, but it wasn’t enough. Now I can understand about 90%, but I still can’t speak fluently and it makes it tough sometimes. My Island English is great though! I can even pronounce “gyal” (girl) properly now, which has taken at least a year. And yes, my parents are very proud.

Some things are easy to get here, some things are not.

Easy: almond milk, disposable razors, tofu, sunscreen/bug spray, shampoo/conditioner.

Not easy: deodorant, good kale, quality makeup, rubber boots, almond butter.

Don’t ask me why. You just have to go with it.

When I finally found this here, I declared a national holiday.

The line at the bank is a magical and mysterious thing, and you should not try and understand it.

You will stand in line for hours. You will get close to the front of the line, but then the guy in front of you will go up to the teller and do 54,360,984,535 transactions which will take another hour. Once he finally finishes, before you can step up, some lady who was sitting in a chair will rush up in front of you because somehow, it’s her turn now. This will happen twice before you get to the teller. When you finally do get to the teller, he/she will likely tell you to go get in a different line for something else. Don’t try to understand it. Just breathe.

“Come back tomorrow/next week/next month” doesn’t really mean that.

It means, “I don’t know”; “I don’t feel like doing that today”; “I don’t know who to ask but it definitely isn’t me”; or “I’m eating lunch right now”.

Life is cheap here… if you only eat baleadas and don’t turn on your lights.

Buying a nice house is absolutely cheaper here than it is in North America. Rent is minimally cheaper or at least comparable to that of smaller cities. But my grocery bill is the same or higher as it was in Vancouver, BC (one of the most expensive cities in Canada) and my electricity bill is so high, it’s a joke. I don’t have air-conditioning and I live alone in a studio with two fans, and it often comes close to $160/month. The island electricity is run on diesel generators, hence the reason it’s not cheap (and it also goes out all the time, which is a whole other level of fun).

Expatriate medical coverage is a good thing, but $25 does go a long way here.

A kidney infection in Florida with no medical coverage = driving to a walk-in clinic, waiting to see a doctor, a lengthy doctor’s visit, diagnosis, driving to a pharmacy, waiting for a prescription, buying said prescription – all for almost 5 hours of your time and $250. Whereas a kidney infection on Roatan with no medical coverage = a taxi to a pharmacy, a doctor’s visit (with no waiting!) in the pharmacy, diagnosis, buying your prescription right there, and a taxi home – all for a mere 30 minutes of your time and $15. Seriously.

Not everyone is happy to see you.

For some reason, some expats seem to expect the local islanders to be head over heels thrilled that they are now living on their island. But if you are seen in any way to be “taking” jobs from locals, disrespecting locals, foregoing local customs, or speaking badly about the island, you will not be welcome. Unless you’re talking crap about the electricity company, and in that case, complaining is totally allowed.

You must know exactly what to do in bad weather, or you will regret it.

By this, I mean if it starts raining, gets windy, or even if it’s a little cloudy, you better run and plug in all of your electronics to charge up because the power is going out within the next hour for sure and if you don’t, you’ll be sitting in the dark with absolutely nothing to do.

on the bright side, once you drink all your wine in the dark, you can use the bottle as a candle holder.

Pioneer skills are necessary.

As I’m writing this, I’m making stewed chicken and rice with steamed broccoli all at once in my rice cooker. Do you have any idea how many things you can make in a rice cooker? I ran out of propane for the stove and had to get creative with cooking because apparently they can’t come fill it for three days (yet another island mystery). Sometimes the power goes out for hours and hours at a time and that’s when a propane stove rules. The internet is slow and cuts out a lot. The water doesn’t always work. You have to be resourceful and make things up as you go along! (Note: the power just cut out as well. So much for the rice cooker. It’s peanut butter out of the jar for dinner now. Adaptability is also important.) 

You will hear the infamous “Three Lies of Roatan”. And you will believe them.

1) I love you. 2) I’m not drinking tonight. 3) I’m leaving tomorrow.

It’s okay. We all fall for them….some of us more than once.

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Rika

About Rika

Originally from the Great White North, land of the Eskimos and igloos (that’s what’s really up there in Canada, right?), Rika arrived on a Caribbean rock called Roatan in early 2012 on a holiday and learned to SCUBA dive. Then she came back a month later. Then she came back two months later. Then she came back and forgot to leave. Over 1200 dives (and rum punches) later, she is now a PADI Master SCUBA Diver Trainer and still gets a kick out of her divers being scared of nurse sharks. She’s learned many things from island living including how to live with slow internet, navigating muddy roads on a scooter and a fairly dirty dance move called the “wine”. She can now understand Spanish and speak island English like a local (her parents are very proud). Known around Roatan for being fearless (hacking up tarantulas with a machete when they venture too close to her house, or jumping off the top of a bar into the ocean for free shots), Rika has made many bad decisions on the rock that have turned into great stories…if you ply her with enough rum or a freshly-caught tuna, she’ll share. Follow her adventures and misadventures over on her blog, www.cubiclethrowdown.com.

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16 thoughts on “All the Things the Expats Never Told Me

  1. Just found this blog the other day. I live in Vieques, Puerto Rico and came in 2001. Many things have changed here since I originally came. Still some things don’t make sense at all. I have learned patience which is a life lesson I needed to learn. There are always new challenges, however, I love living on my rock. Blessings

    • Hi Nancy, I may be moving there soon from Florida! Are you still on Vieques and where were you from? I would love to get together if I end up moving there. Thanks!

  2. Imagine getting ready for a special dinner out, maybe at one of the big hotels. You are enjoying your “getting ready” cocktail and remember the cute orange strappy sandals you HAD to bring but have never worn. You pull them out of the closet thinking how good tan feet will look wearing them and “Aaa-ck”! They are fuzzy and gray-ish green…ICK. No, not dusty, MOLDY. You mutter a number of adult words as you clean them up and consider opting for flip-flops instead. Yep, no one told me that anything leather is like a petri dish!

    • Once you cleaned them, did you try to wear them? I have lost every pair of “nice” shoes I brought to Guanaja, because the heel caps succumb to dry rot. They look fine. You put them on, and the seem fine. You walk in them less than 5 minutes, and the heel cap totally disintegrates! Have you ever tried finding heel caps in Honduras? hahahahaha! I can’t imagine wearing anything but flips flops now. BTW, in Roatan 2 years and Guanaja 6 1/2 years.

  3. Gas for our cars is $7.00 a gallon now, but with a 35 square mile island, a full tank lasts a while. It is still sad to see cars by the side of the road that have run out of gas because many only buy a gallon or two at a time. And, tires and batteries are “finished” much sooner than expected. I wanted to cry the first time my car was dented, but a long time island girl told me to be proud. Now my car looks like it belongs here. So True! I can even smile now when I see an “R” car (rental) coming down the wrong side of the road. We are all in this together and loving every minute!

  4. To me the hardest thing to understand for folks that don’t live here is how much more difficult it is to try to work with people that, basically, have no education. They are not given the basic tinker toys (stack the rings in the correct order according to size; put the square peg in the square hole, etc.) as babies/toddlers, and they don’t get enough schooling to even learn how to listen. These basic skills are so much a part of the developed world that it’s just a “given” that children will benefit from them. Not so in the third world, and it is a huge impediment to their ability to function in the work place. My motto: Every day’s a new day. Because you teach someone a basic task and have to teach it over and over again. I love living on Guanaja (Roatan was too busy for us), but it takes a special type of person to be able to do it full time. As we like to say: If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Thankfully, it’s not that easy.

    • Hi Ginger, I have no idea if you’ll see this as your message is almost 2 .5 years ago. I’m from Canada, my wife from La Ceiba. We are living in Canada currently and considering moving to one of the Islas Bahias. We have a 4 year old and an 11 year old. In Gunanaja is there a school for kids ( private or semi-private ) with a US/Canadian curriculum? If so, what is the name of the school and can you pinpoint it on a map of Guanaja?

      • Hi Rick, I’m sure Ginger will get back to you but in case she doesn’t: as far as I know (I’ll let Ginger correct me if I’m wrong though!), Roatan is the only Bay Island with private schools that follow US curriculum. I’m not sure how they do it, because the people teaching there are not all certified teachers – some of my friends work there and most have degrees in various subjects but none teaching…. There is a US board-certified teacher proctor on Roatan who administers the tests. Check out “Island Academy of Roatan” – that’s where expats send their kids. Also, it’s worth contacting Kelly McLarnan, the teacher I mentioned above, to chat about your children’s education options. Search “The Language Loft of Roatan” on Facebook and you’ll be able to contact her there. She’s the best person on the island to talk to about it. Good luck!

  5. My wife and I have visited Roatan twice and love it as a vacation spot and have considered expating there, just not sure about the job market. I have a long resort management/ maintenance background and she is a baker/ restaurant owner manager. whats the market like?

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