Ahhh… The Island 15.
What is it, you ask? Do you remember that first semester in college where you completely let go, ate whatever you wanted (chicken flavored Top Ramen noodles anyone?), had the late night munchies (thanks to everyone’s sweetest friend, Mary Jane), and could drink a 12-pack of Budweiser? Remember how it led to a food baby pooch, tight jeans, swollen cheeks (yes, my face swelled like I was stung by 1,000 bees), and you knew you had officially gained the inevitable Freshman 15 everyone warned you about? Well, your first year (or two) transitioning into island life can be a lot like those early college years. Hence, “The Island 15.”
Recently, I found myself trying to squeeze into my pre-island life jeans. I hadn’t really noticed the extra layer of happiness I had managed to add around my belly and thighs until my once-loose jeans couldn’t make it past my saddle bags without doing the wiggle, bend, and stretch. Once I finally buttoned and zipped them up, I had a hard time breathing and looked down with resignation to see my wine belly hanging over the waist band. Touché island life, touché!
I don’t know about you, but when my move to the islands was still in the dreaming stage, I imagined I’d surely be in the best physical shape of my life, what with the year round sunshine, lack of snow, and minimal rain. Before I moved here, I envisioned myself swimming, running, and preparing every day for the annual Iron Man race. I had imagined that I would be some hot island babe with a smokin’ bronzed bod, sun-drenched “sex hair”, and at least a four pack. Girrrrrrrrl, was I wrong! Now, my preparation for the Iron Man involves setting up a Bloody Mary bar at a tail gate party to gawk at the oh-so-physical humans who flew here to torture themselves. How did I get to this point without even noticing? I wondered.
The problem, I found, was that I had basically started to enjoy life! My “workouts” had become curling Coronas, johnny cake eating competitions, deep belly laughs, uncontrollable dancing to live bands (Ziggy’s Bigfoot is my fav!), and leisurely strolling on sandy beaches (very leisurely… think: sitting and sipping something fruity with a girlfriend while admiring the windsurfers who are actually doing a workout). In moving to an island, I surprisingly found that my perspective on life had shifted – now, I would rather spend my time building memories than building muscles.
Take yesterday, for example: I had planned on running (because I was now determined to shed the Island 15 I had gained over my 2.5 year stint on island), but then there was a celebration to be had. And if you are an island girl too, you know how we like to celebrate… every damn thing! It is just a way of the islands – any excuse to have a party, pop bubbles, and EAT! So while I desperately wanted to fit back into my pre-island jeans and slender my tree-trunk legs (a “compliment” I received from a Crucian man, which will make for another great story for another day…), I also desperately wanted to celebrate. There I was, stuffing my face with creamy lobster mac n’ cheese topped with bacon, sipping on a bottle of wine (yes, the entire bottle plus two glasses of champagne), and enjoying every drop of LIFE. Did I regret missing my run at this point? Hell, no!
My pants may be a bit tighter and my eyes may be bit heavier in the mornings sometimes, but my heart is definitely fuller.
So cheers to my fellow island girls rockin’ the thunder thighs, muffin tops, and happy hearts! Let’s continue celebrating, shall we?
I am learning to live on a shoestring budget after taking a walloping salary cut when I moved to Aruba. Even though my modest teacher salary was almost cut in half, my income here is actually comparable to the average income for most Arubans, so I aptly adapted and am living like the locals. In so doing, I quickly shed my American consumer mentality in order to survive. I said goodbye to a myriad of products and brands and services that were once part of my everyday life. There are things I simply cannot afford to indulge in while living in paradise. My kitchen is not equipped with every major appliance. I never did buy a toaster. I don’t read magazines anymore. And at nearly $10 a box, cereal for breakfast in the morning is no longer an option. I will admit that the hardest thing to give up has been shopping for clothes. And if flip flops do not count as real footwear, then I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes since moving here 15 months ago – now that may easily be my greatest sacrifice.
It all sounds a bit gloomy and bleak, but that is not the case at all. There is this delightful game of bartering that takes place when it comes to island living. And if you engage in the shuffling of one thing for another with creative enthusiasm, the island will lead you to discover a gleaming treasure in exchange for everything you are forced to relinquish. Since some things here are astronomically expensive, they are swapped out for other things that are surprisingly cheap. And most of the time a far more amusing, and sometimes superior, substitute is uncovered. That, or you learn that you never needed what you gave up in the first place.
Here are 7 of the trade-offs for treasures that I have discovered in my island life:
1. Seafood and take away snacks are what’s for dinner.
Buying food on an island is expensive. If it is in a glossy package with a cartoon character and catchy caption, then you are going to have to quit cold turkey because it will cost 3 to 4 times the amount that it does in the states. I’ve had to shorten my itemized grocery list significantly to make it on this new budget. Luckily, living on an island brings a fresh daily supply of seafood for next to nothing. I pay about $3-4 USD for the catch of the day, which would cost me a fortune in the landlocked city where I previously lived. When it comes to finding other staple grocery items, it pays to shop around. Some of the best deals can be found in small corner stores that advertise imported products from countries in South America. I walked to one like this around the corner from my house early this morning. I went in for eggs and left with a dozen in a simple paper carton stamped Aruba. I also bought a bag of purple Peruvian potatoes, a bunch of bananas, and a handful of chicha morada candies. All of this cost around 10 Florin, which is the equivalent of $5.59 USD.
Arubans love their snacks, and culinary influences from all over the planet merge here. At every turn, there is a take away located next to homes that doubles as a business. It’s as if mom is cooking in her kitchen for the entire island and everyone is invited to sample recipes passed down from one generation to another. She opens up the Dutch door and invites all who pass by to order up an Aruban pastechi, or a Colombian emapanada, or a Dutch croquette, or Surinamese roti, or Peruvian ceviche. And the good news is that all of these savory snacks are filling and served generously enough to double as a meal when you are on a budget. Essentially, dinner can be bought for the price of a snack, which is about 3-6 Florin, or roughly $2-3 USD.
2. Movies are cheap if you can’t afford the book.
Buying books and magazines here is costly. I’ve had to give up magazines altogether. I will sometimes stop in front of the magazine aisle at the grocery store or bookstore to casually flip through and mourn this loss. Recently, I signed up for a library card to make my way around the book dilemma. Still, it is not a perfect solution, and it can be impossible to find some authors. I’m currently looking for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s like trying to find sap to harvest from a maple tree in the dense desert island thicket. The worst is reading the name of an author perched high on a shelf, only to open it up and find the book is written in Dutch. But if you can’t find the book, the next best thing is finding out that it will be released as a movie because going to the movies here is surprisingly cheap. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, tickets are 2 for 1. And buying popcorn and soda isn’t a luxury here like it is in the states. No need to sneak a candy bar in your handbag. Basically, you can go to the movies and have the popcorn for around 12 Florin, which is about $6.70 USD.
3. Remember to ask for the local discount.
Once I officially became a working resident and obtained the much coveted AZV card, I found out that there are all kinds of discounts if you remember to ask. Any tourist destination will let you pay the USD amount with Aruban Florins, which is basically slashing the price in half. We take advantage of this hiking Arikok Park most Sundays. My favorite Florin for Dollar deal is at a luxury resort on the island, Tierra del Sol, where you can go on Sundays and pay 90 Florin (around $50 USD) for a one hour massage and gain access to the pool and other facilities for the remainder of the day. And other retail businesses often offer a decent discount on products sold to island residents. Aruba Aloe offers discounts on all of their aloe body products, so I buy all of my body lotion there. It feels good to support local businesses too.
4. Laundry service is one of the best deals around.
There are laundry services on every corner all over the island where you can plop down a bag of dirty laundry and just walk away. They will wash it, dry it, and then professionally fold everything and pack it up for pick up. It always feels and smells like angels have cleaned your laundry. All of this for 12 Florin a load. It may sound like a hefty amount, but when you factor in that you live on an island and only wear one summer season wardrobe and that laundry detergent could easily cost you almost the same amount since it is one of those ridiculously expensive items, then paying for laundry service just makes economic sense. Throughout my first year, I stubbornly insisted on doing laundry at home and hanging it on the line to dry while lizards darted between my feet. The novelty soon wore off, and after my washing machine quit working, I realized I was just wasting my time with the line and lizards. Now I take two bags every two weeks and pay about $24 USD a month. And nothing compares to not having to do laundry. I remind myself of this everyday while routinely washing a never-ending stack of dishes by hand.
5. Let go of brand loyalty and look for the Dutch equivalent.
Aruba is part of the Dutch Caribbean, so the influence from the Netherlands is felt all over the island. I discovered early on that the Dutch stuff is cheaper than the American product next to it on the shelf, yet the quality is always the same, or sometimes even better. So when I am out shopping for just about anything, I veer my cart towards the Dutch products. I have no idea what any of the stuff is since I don’t speak the language and can’t read the labels. I decipher what I am buying through the picture on the package. Some American products are sold in disguise in the Netherlands, like Mr. Clean who is Mr. Proper. One of the best things about buying Dutch is that there is always some new quirky discovery to make. I sometimes take my native friend shopping with me and have her introduce me to new products at the grocery store. “Show me something that you would buy,” I dramatically plead. A few weeks ago, she taught me about hagelslag. These are sprinkles like the kind on top of donuts and cupcakes that cause kids to squeal and clap their hands simultaneously, but in the Netherlands, adults pour them over bread and butter. Who needs breakfast cereal when you have hagelslag? Another perk to living under the Dutch influence is the ubiquitous, inexpensive, never-ending supply of gourmet cheese. They sell it in bulk, giant blocks of it are on the shelves in every store, including the gas station.
6. The best beaches in life are free.
Most of the things I do here that bring joy are absolutely free. Going to the beach tops the list. It is the go-to replacement for anything that seems to be missing. I have also taken up hiking because I can’t get enough of the natural setting here after living in a cement city for so long. And the water that fills my bottle to keep me hydrated is some of the best water in the world. It is delicious and also costs next to nothing because of the superior desalination system here in Aruba: it flows right out of the tap. Most entertainment on the island is free of cost as well since entertainment here consists of one festival after another, month after month. The islanders do like to celebrate. The biggest celebration on the island takes place during the season of Carnival; it doesn’t cost a dime and all of the events held for over a month leading up to it are also free of charge. Basically, you bring your own chair, take a seat on the street, mix yourself a drink, and enjoy the show.
7. Say goodbye to a grueling commute.
The best kind of trade offs are the things from your previous life that needed to go. Cold weather comes to mind. Grueling commutes are another. Nearly two years ago when I was considering the move to Aruba, I remember thinking I could never make it if my salary was nearly cut in half. But so much of my hard-earned money was spent just maintaining life working in the city. One of the biggest expenses was my commute to work. Sometimes my trip home would take over an hour because of gridlock traffic on freeways. Nothing eased the pain of that daily back and forth, no amount of audiobooks, or NPR, or Spanish language lessons. I no longer drive on freeways. Nowadays, my commute is ten minutes on winding roads, lined with towering cacti. If there is a traffic jam, it is usually because the goats have gathered for a meeting in the roundabout. And like the beach, my new commute to work more than makes up for any sacrifices I have made – it may even be a fair trade off for all the shoes I haven’t bought since moving to this rock. Of course, if you ask any island girl, flip-flops do count as actual footwear.
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What are some trade-offs you’ve made on your rock that have ended up being a surprising benefit of island living?
When we moved to this remote island over a year ago, we were fully aware that there would be a few “upsets” to our daily life. To us, embracing the challenge was all a part of the adventure. We enjoy being immersed in nature, surrounded by mountains, palm trees, and the ocean. We believed these tropical tradeoffs would more than compensate for any inconvenience we could imagine.
Our ambitious goal was to seek silence and work on our own individual growth, given the luxury of no distractions. The image on our vision board back in Bali was:
Now that we’re actually living here, I have come to realize that while I do enjoy walks in the forest and submerging myself in the ocean, I also really miss having an internet connection. As it turns out, this modern technology is more difficult to give up once you’ve known the true luxury of it.
As wifi is not an option on my rock, I’ve had to get resourceful to keep myself connected. The only solution so far has been investing in SIM cards from three different mobile service providers in order to access mobile data. With each new contract, I was warned that given our location surrounded by mountains it is highly unlikely that I would be able to pick up a 3G signal (the minimum required to browse websites easily).
In case you’re ever left without wifi too, here’s a short lesson in mobile telephony symbols, something I’ve become educated in over this past year of desperately trying to stay connected. G stands for 2G (second generation technology) and is the slowest connection you can expect in mobile data. You can at least send messages through WhatsApp with G (thank heavens for WhatsApp!). E is an enhanced version and stands for Enhanced GPRS, which is slightly better than 2G and is therefore referred to as 2.5G. However, trying to browse the internet with E can be a tad frustrating. Moving on to 3G (third generation). This is the minimum connection you would expect if you wanted to browse the internet. If you’re a really lucky island girl, you might have 4G on your phone and that means you’re on the fastest connection on the planet. One can but dream of 4G on this rock.
When I first got my SIM cards, I proceeded to switch them in and out of my phone, checking each one, hoping to see the 3G sign on the screen. I was elated when one of the cards actually showed up as 3G. Little did I know that this was merely a fluke, due to (I’m guessing) some weather or climate related variable. This precious 3G signal is always fleeting, only lasting a few minutes each session (sometimes it can be as short as a few seconds). But even still, it’s hard to get myself to switch it out and let go of that faint glimmer of hope that the coveted 3G may reappear. So I got another phone, which means I can now check two different signals simultaneously. I was so proud of my ingenuity, but have unfortunately found that this just complicates matters further.
I’ve started to realize I’ve become some desperate caricature, reminiscent of that South Park episode when Randy exclaims,”Our house… it has not internet, it’s just gone!”
Picture this… I walk around the house with two phones, one in each hand, wandering from room to room, desperately seeking a 3G signal. I stare at the screen longingly for those two characters to show up. When they do show up, I jolt with excitement and quickly log into WhatsApp, often only to be faced with a “Connecting” message and a timer indicating that I’m not actually connected. Before I know it, I’ve been staring at a “Connecting” screen for minutes willing it to show me a blue “Send” button. Those times when the internet is finally up and running, it’s like a game of “Now you see me, now you don’t!”. It’s here one second and then it’s gone the next. Talk about keeping me on my toes.
While I pictured this move to our far off rock to be one where I’d be staring at landscapes of trees and sea, I find myself instead desperately staring at my phones.
I figure it’s time I finally give in to the “better connection” in nature and focus on developing my creativity instead. You never know, there may come a time when internet/technology stops working just like in did on South Park and we will all have to rely entirely on nature for our entertainment anyway. Then, perhaps I’ll finally be ahead of the game rather than the one left waiting to connect.
An Excellent Island Adage For Living, But Bad For Renovations
Ah, the pace of island life. If you haven’t heard, it’s a bit slower than most everywhere else in the world. Many see this as a bonus; it is, in fact, the reason many choose to live on an island in the first place. No rushing, less stress, no worries, mon – soon come. A popular saying here on this rock, soon come is meant to ease your mind, to remind you to lay back and relax, all will be done shortly, it will happen soon enough.
For the most part, I’ve honed my ability to go with the island flow over the years. I’ve even uttered this phrase to others with a feeling of blissful nonchalance in my I-Love-my-Island-Life moments. But this little phrase has come back to bite me in the ass from time to time, particularly when it comes to home renovations.
Soon come is all well and good until you set a time on your lunch hour to meet a contractor. You say 12 noon. He says 12 noon. You get there at 12 noon on the dot, but – surprise! – he is not there. Fifteen minutes later, he is still not there. Half hour passes, then 45 minutes, still no contractor. At ten minutes to 1 o’clock (and ten minutes left on your lunch hour), you call and ask “Did we not say 12 noon meet?” He replies, saying he’s coming, he just stopped by the store, will be there in 10 minutes. The extent of your lunch hour passes, 15 more minutes go by, and then he arrives. Today’s “soon come” equaled over an hour late. Same drill with the plumber the next day. All this before the actual job even begins.
I started writing this rant as a means to calm my irritation back in late February, a day when the workers were set to show up at 8am. Actual arrival time: after 8:30am. Soon come, they all say. They will show up, get to work, no harm done, or so their attitude is. Except WE are the ones left wasting our time waiting on them, and as always happens in renovations everywhere, the job drags on, and on, and an extra on (because we’re on an island), all the while saying, soon come we finish. And here we are, now bidding adieu to Contractor #3.
You see, back in mid-December, our bathroom tiles started changing color. They were once white, and had turned a depressing grey. After growing up on an island where he is quite familiar with tile floors, Hubby knows that ceramic tiles turn color when wet, and he deduced there was a leak. Most likely a big one, as now there were several tiles that had the same grey hue. To find the leak, many, many tiles had to be ripped up and this led to having to replace the entire floor. Something about the existing tiles not being available anywhere on island and we could not find a close match to save our lives.
Enter: Contractor #1
This guy tears the place apart to find the leak with the intention of patching it. Time comes to make decisions as to how it will be fixed and he’s out, saying he’s not up for the job. Bye, bye Contractor #1.
Enter: Contractor #2
This guy assures us he can start quickly, and yes, even though Christmas is coming, he wants to get started now. Even though we both know that nothing gets done over the holidays from Christmas, to Boxing Day, to New Years – all workers on the crew leave the island, not to return until January 4th. Soon come takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to island holidays. Yes, he wanted to tear up our bathroom the day before all the crew was leaving the island for this extended holiday. For 2 weeks, over the Christmas holiday, we were to have NOTHING in the bathroom. No shower, no toilet, no sink, no floor. Merry Fucking Christmas! Add to this preposterous idea (apparently we were the only ones that thought this preposterous…) that his idea of a quality job differed greatly from our idea of a quality job. Contractor #2 quits before he even got started.
Enter Contractor #3
We were hopeful, as this guy had a good reputation in the complex. However, we had to wait for him to start as well. By this time, Christmas was over and he was catching up on work he had not touched since before the holiday. Soon come, it’s February and we finally have our first meeting. After showing up over an hour late, he tries to ease our minds with the Soon come, and No worries, mon, h’it will be done spiel. I was ever the optimist, embracing the Soon come, I’ll be laid back as long as it gets done attitude with the hopes that things would be finally done to our satisfaction. That lasted exactly 3 days. The work started, but the mess, the dust, the slack standards of the contractor, the plumber, and the tiler being so different than ours – the job just couldn’t be done fast enough. Come April, both the contractor and us are on the same page – Worst. Job. Ever. Bye, bye, Contractor #3.
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To this day, I still have holes in the tiles bigger than the pipes that go into the wall for both the shower and the toilet, tiles that run halfway up a wall and sit a full 1/4 inch out from the wall above it, sloppily filled with grout, and a drain that sits too low for the tiles next to it. Suffice it to say, it was not an amicable ending to the job. Nearly 4 months to do a 5ft by 9ft bathroom. Soon Come was far too slow, frustrating, and painful – to say the least!
Under other circumstances, soon come is a refreshing attitude to remind us that our rushed existence is stressful and unnecessary, because in the end – yes, things do get done eventually – the weather is gorgeous and the views are beautiful. It is times like these meant for sitting back, enjoying the island vibes, and sipping a rum punch (or two or three). The national airline even offers free rum punch on all their flights to this rock to properly set the mood.
Sadly, when you have a bathroom that has no bath, no toilet, and no sink, you really don’t want to just sit back and have a rum punch. Because when soon comes after the rum punch, you will need a working bathroom. Trust me on this one.