The classic cliché among island folk is, “It’s one thing to visit, another to live here!” but actually, brb, gotta get my laundry off the roof before the tropical storm rolls in….
*Collects drying laundry off line*
…. Ok, laundry safe and I can now continue explaining how different it is to LIVE on an island versus visit one. Whether you plan to pack up and lead a piratical lifestyle of day drinking with little obligation except paying your electrical bill every month, or you’re just rolling through on a cruise ship or spring break, an island appeals for the same reason. There is almost no sense of time, even less sense of urgency, and enough sun, sand, and drinks in hand (or whatever other makins’ of a legendary country song) that most people find endless peace and happiness. But with all that sunshiny good vibin’ comes the other side of the island coin: you are isolated, almost nothing will get to you via mail, and everything seems just a little bit behind and more “brokedown” than on the mainland.
For years we’ve been visiting Cozumel, Mexico, the island my husband grew up on (a local, I know!), and we used to live here ourselves about six years ago. As a family of 5, we started traveling here together and it’s a veritable paradise for kids replete with beach clubs, endless swimming pools, and ALL THE MOST AMAZING FOODS EVER. Since we’ve been back for another long term stay I’ve been noticing a lot of the old things I used to love (and loathe) about island life. After all, as Axl Rose taught us, every rose has its thorn.
1. The heat is nuuuuuuts. You will get off the plane stupidly wearing jeans and regret it immediately. You will want to run to the nearest air conditioned bathroom and strip faster than you can say “margarita” but you will suck it up and politely waddle through Customs praying for an air conditioned taxi while swearing an allegiance to Shorts Forever.
2. Your skin will either survive and thrive in the environs of Eternal Sauna or it will organize collectively, rise up and throw a coup. I naturally have super dry skin and hair, so while my hair looks like an old Brillo pad, my skin is never happier than whilst soaking up the 100% humidity of the Caribbean. Not everyone has the same experience. I’m talking to you, sufferers of dermatitis, heat rash, athlete’s foot, and God knows what else. If you’ve got it lurking, the island will bring it out, and if you stay longer than the prerequisite time in a swimsuit, heaven help you, the rash will spare no one.
3. All the plants that we Plant Mothers love to spend major coin on in the States are growing as weeds on the side of the road here. Fig trees, snake plant, cacti, succulents…If only I could cultivate cuttings and smuggle them home in my backpack….minus local parasites.
4. Heat will either make you extra irritable or resign you to becoming a total layabout. Right now I’m somewhere between the two.
5. Day drinking is a sport (I wouldn’t say a competitive one, at least not with the locals) and it’s perfectly acceptable to wander around town carrying a cup of whatever, looking nonchalant and passively buzzed. We even have an old friend on the island who goes by the nickname of John Vasito (ie, John Little Cup) because everywhere he goes (shoeless, by the way) he’s carrying his same tiny cup of booze. This leads me to my next point, which I could talk about forever, People on the Island.
6. The last time we lived on the island it took me forever to make friends (and I am a total extrovert). I just felt like an island fish out of water and kept groping around to find a group of people I had anything in common with. I was too schlubby, Oregon hippie to feel at home with the beautiful, put together Mexican ladies, and too…I’m not sure to fit in with a lot of expats. There seemed to be a great quantity of people with shadowy pasts who may have been running from things. My sister, who lived on some famous islands in Honduras, made the point that most island expats are escaping something, and whether its drudgery at a desk, cold weather, or the FBI, I can’t say. In addition to some mysterious pirate people here, we have everything from full time flight attendants commuting to Dallas so they can live on the island year round, to LDS missionaries growing their church, and even an Orthodox Jewish Chabad center. Cozumel is growing and evolving to be a world class stop for anyone coming through, or a home for those who want to stay and let their unique flag fly here in peace.
7. Everyone knows (and if you don’t, you will after one round with Monteczuma in the banyo) that you can’t drink tap water in Mexico, and if you’re on vacation this is barely an issue since resorts and hotels are ready to serve you with pristine filtered water at every turn. As a resident, however, you have to load up on the ol’ garrafones, which are the big jugs of water you’d normally see at the office water cooler. Here on Cozumel my DIY husband used to insist on hauling ours up four flights of stairs to our apartment, but normal people can opt to have them delivered. All water used for drinking, cooking, coffee, and even teeth brushing (adults usually get adjusted but we don’t want to take chances with our kids) comes from the garrafon. As a family of five we go through one every three days. Lots of hauling!
Totally need to mention laundry here since it’s pretty dependent on water, which, of course, doesn’t need to be filtered for clothes, but is still a precious resource on an island with little fresh water. Doing laundry can mean schlepping all your nasty, peanut butter and avocado encrusted “child things” to the lavanderia where some kind soul will wash and fold it for you to the tune of about (in my experience) $10 a load. If you have a bunch of kids who love nothing more than existing in grime, this adds up fast, so I try to do laundry at home like a 19th century hybrid robot. Like most of the world, dryers are the exception here rather than the rule. If you wash clothes, you use the washing machine (or do it by hand) then hang everything to dry on a line on the roof or out a window where the scorching sun will shock it dry, and your husband’s shorts will occasionally fall onto a neighbor’s balcony. Nothing is scarier to a laundry-doer than the threat of impromptu tropical storms, when rain will fall sideways and leach into your home, and all the clothes must be frantically plucked off the line, thrown in a pile, and then placed back outside when the sun returns.
8. I just realized I have gotten to point 8 on my list without even referring back to my super cryptic title: Everything Rusts. You would not believe how quickly things get destroyed here. The same humidity and salt that gives the island its beautiful foliage, lovely beaches, and famous ocean also deteriorate literally all the things. I’ve seen brand new cars become mottled with rust spots within a year or two. My in-laws replace their refrigerator every 3-4 years because it becomes so corroded it refuses to function, like some bitter old secretary that gets worse with age but still takes up space. Anything metal corrodes, anything plastic becomes brittle, clothes become faded in the blazing sun, and things just don’t last like they do in the temperate North.
Maybe that fleeting-ness is part of why island life is special and seems so ethereal. I just read a quote about how we long to hold on to access for things that are beautiful and special, but that desire to own can be destructive and misguided in itself. We can cherish the beauty of island living while recognizing it’s not for everyone, not always permanent (but I see you, Juan Vasito!), and not always easy. Our family will get our rhythm figured out, we always do, and in the meantime there’s Socially Acceptable Day Drinking and tacos to spare.