My Irma Story – Part 1

“Two hits so far. Karma’s a bitch. Lol”

That’s the email I received from my ex on Tuesday night, September 5, barely 12 hours before Hurricane Irma began to terrorize the BVI.

(I can only guess by “two hits” that he was referring to the tropical storm that had flooded much of the BVI a month earlier, along with the upcoming storm, Irma.)

Lol.

But Irma is nothing to laugh about. It devastated the entire British Virgin Islands chain, not to mention St. Barths, Barbuda, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, Anguilla, St. Thomas and St. John, before moving towards the Bahamas and the US. I don’t know the total death count from the storm, but estimates in the BVI range from 5 to 15. Regardless, any loss of life is tragic. Not “lol.”


I’m one of the most fortunate people in the BVI. My apartment building is intact, and while there is massive cleanup to be done both inside and out, I didn’t have any major damage. Four out of the six apartments in my building lost windows. The majority of homes on the island lost their roofs. And even of those that didn’t lose their roofs, most lost some or all of their windows, meaning hurricane force winds and rain destroyed the house from the inside out. My house has a roof and all its windows. I’m in the 1 percent.

I prepared for this storm for two days prior, stocking up on water, canned foods, and cat supplies. I took everything I could off the counters, coffee table, dressers, etc. My apartment looked like it was vacant of tenants. My landlord boarded up all of the windows on the front of the building (facing north/northeast), including one side of my glass French doors. (He couldn’t board up both sides, because those doors are the only entry into my apartment.) I’m glad he did.

Hurricane Irma

My windows were boarded up. I had put away all of my “decorative” items and moved as much stuff off the floor as I could.

I had told my parents a few days prior to Irma that I wasn’t in fear for my life with the upcoming storm. My fear was of the unknown – will the roof hold, will the doors blow in, will debris smash through the windows…

Knowing that winds would be 150 mph or more, I made mental plans of what I would do if any of these things happened. My bedroom closets are the built-in king (not framed into the house) so they have a ceiling structure that’s below the ceiling of the apartment. That would be the first choice of places to go if I didn’t feel safe. Next would be the master bathroom, since it has just a relatively small window over the shower, and I would take my patio cushions, which are as thick as sofa cushions, to protect the kitties and me. I was prepared, logistically and mentally, I thought.


Wednesday, September 6 – Irma hits: The wind began to build during the morning hours, and the electric company cut power to the entire BVI around 6 am, hoping to avoid unnecessary damage to the electrical grid. I messaged my family and my boyfriend, Ari, around 8 am. “The wind is crazy. I can’t imagine how it will be in 5 hours” (when the eye was projected to pass over), “but everything is ok.” I read, dozed a little, and watched through one of the bedroom windows (that wasn’t boarded up) while everything I could see was violently destroyed. Trees fell like dominos and pieces of debris flew all around.

By 10:30 am, cell service was getting spotty, but I could still send messages to let family and Ari know that I was ok. I ventured into the living room to check on the rest of the house. My front doors (the glass French doors) – which have steel rods that come out of the top and bottom and latch into the cement door frame, along with a deadbolt holding them together – were groaning and straining against the wind. By 11:30 am, the storm had gotten unbelievably loud, with no breaks in the wind, rain, or noise. By this point, every tree within sight had its top snapped off, and the remnants looked like they had been corkscrewed. There was hardly any vegetation left anywhere. It looked like a bomb had gone off in Josiah’s Bay.

Hurricane Irma

Josiah’s Bay, taken during the eye of the storm. Most of the houses you see in this picture weren’t visible before the storm due to the lush vegetation and trees in the valley.

By around noon, the apartment was shaking like there was a never-ending earthquake. I never thought I would doubt my apartment building’s ability to remain standing, but that fear was running through my mind. I knew we were getting near the eye, because my ears were popping like crazy from the change in pressure. I ventured out of the bedroom to check on the rest of the house. In the living room, the board and reinforcement on the one French door was gone, and both doors were bending and flexing so much that water, leaves and dirt were rushing and blowing in. I tried to move furniture out of the path of the water and debris, but it was already soaked. I doubted the doors would hold much longer.

The situation was similar in the kitchen, with the kitchen windows over the sink flexing and bending so much that a huge waterfall was pouring in. It was so strong, the water didn’t even flow into the sink below – it came right through the windows, down the edge of the countertop and onto the floor. I threw as many towels as I could around the window and on the floor, but they were immediately soaked. I arranged one towel so that the water running from it would pour into a two gallon pot on the floor, but the pot filled and overflowed right away.

Hurricane Irma

Just before the eye hit, mortar started raining down from the ceiling in the master bedroom.

All of this took maybe two or three minutes. I went back into the bedroom with the intention of putting the kitties in the bathroom and joining them. But as soon as I got them into the bathroom, mortar from the ceiling in the master bedroom started raining down on everything, pelting me like a hailstorm, and water started pouring down one of the exterior walls. I thought to myself, “The roof is going to go.”

I pushed the furniture to the middle of the room, threw the kitties in the master closet (thinking it was the safest place for them since I could just keep them there and not open the closet doors for the rest of the storm) and took refuge – not in the master bathroom as my original plan had been – but in the second bathroom, which is on the back side of the apartment.

Like the master bathroom, it has a small window over the shower, and I could see pieces of metal roofing flying by the window. I laid down in the shower and covered myself with patio cushions and prayed. For the first time in almost 44 years, I was afraid for my life.

That lasted for about 30-45 minutes.


As soon as the eye came and everything was calm, my landlord, Greg, rushed up from the floor below to check on me. I showed him the damage so far and explained what had happened. He tried to reassure me that the mortar that had rained down was simply used to fill in the cracks where the wooden interior roof structure sits on the poured concrete wall. As he put it, “It’s functional, but not structural.” I wasn’t convinced.

Hurricane Irma

There’s supposed to be a door there.

The door that leads from the stairwell to my patio had also blown off – torn right off the hinges. Fortunately, it was laying on my patio and didn’t become a projectile. He picked it up and put it in my living room.

We went out onto the patio to survey Josiah’s Bay. It was surreal. What he had described just a few days prior as a “big green cushion” was a wasteland. There was no vegetation over three feet high, and no green anywhere in sight. It looked like there had been a massive wildfire. You could see every house, every car, everything in the entire bay and valley. There were very few houses with roofs still intact.

I saw my friends “bear” Chris and Horacio on the roof of their building below me, surveying the damage. I yelled down to them to let them know I was alive. It felt good to see friends and have some limited communication with them.

Josiah's Bay - Before

Josiah’s Bay September 4, 2017. Two days before Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma

Josiah’s Bay September 8, 2017. Two days after Hurricane Irma.

Greg prepared me for what the second half would be like – winds from the opposite direction and probably not as strong as the first half, but there would be more rain. He was right. I managed to send a basic text message to my family and Ari that the eye had passed and we were in round two. “It’s scary as hell and we’re freaked out, but we’re ok.” At the beginning of the second half, I left the kitties in the closet and I stayed in the second bathroom, but as the storm tapered off around 4 pm, I ventured out and let the kitties out of the closet. By the time the storm ended, it was too late to walk down to Tamarind Club or into Josiah’s Bay to check on my friends.


I cleaned up what I could of my partially flooded apartment, tried to eat, and more importantly, tried to sleep. But my mind wouldn’t let go of two thoughts: how much devastation Mother Nature can inflict, and what the next days and weeks would hold.

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Fearlessness in the Face of Island Adversity

The following post is rated PG-13 for strong language and disturbing imagery.

Those of you who know me personally, know that very few things freak me the hell out as much as spiders. And in the past six months, it seems that the Island gods have come to recognize this and have decided to teach me a lesson in fearlessness.

The evidence…


Late this summer, I was getting ready for bed one evening, when I looked out of my bathroom into the bedroom and saw a giant spider on the wall by my bed. But not just any spider – it was a tarantula! This thing was so big, you could almost count the hairs on its creepy, not-so-little legs.

A very fuzzy picture of the tarantula - because it was taken from almost 20 feet away!

A very fuzzy picture of the tarantula – because it was taken from almost 20 feet away!

At this time, I was living by myself, so I didn’t have a designated “in-house-spider-exterminator” who I could lure into the bedroom and lock inside until said spider was taken care of. So, in a panic, I called one of my friends who lives just down the hill, and he (reluctantly, although he would never admit it) came up to take care of the intruder. When he saw it, even he was a bit freaked out!

But with the help of a dried-out sponge mop and a shop vac, he managed to kill and dispose of the spider so I could go to bed. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well that night.


Then, a couple of months ago, I came home one evening and noticed something in the middle of my kitchen floor that didn’t belong there. Not an unusual situation when you have three cats. I put away some stuff and piddled around the apartment for a few minutes, failing to investigate the foreign object right away.

When I finally went into the kitchen and turned on the light to deal with what I expected to be a furball or a dismembered cat toy, I discovered that the offending object could move, although just barely. And even though it was missing a few, it obviously had eight legs at one point in its life!

Upon closer (but not too close) investigation, it was unmistakeably deemed to be a brown recluse. Now, although there are more creepy-crawlies on this island than I would like to acknowledge, none of them are highly dangerous or poisonous to humans (none of the land-based ones, anyway). Except brown recluse spiders.

Brown Recluse

This is what a brown recluse looks like after “playing” with my cats.

Not wanting to inconvenience (and freak out) my friend down the hill for a second time, I decided to handle this one by myself – with the aid of a stiff-bristled broom. I figured since it couldn’t move very well (the cats had obviously been “playing” with it before I got home), I could impale it with the broom bristles and sweep it up and throw the body over the balcony. What I didn’t anticipate was that the spider might get caught up in the broom bristles.

When it disappeared into the broom, I hauled ass outside with the broom and the now “missing” spider, beat it against the side of the building over my balcony, and left it outside in the breezeway until the next morning. Then I tied a trash bag around the bottom part and took it to the dump, just in case the spider recovered and wanted to get revenge.


But the most recent test of my fearlessness was probably the worst. After yoga one evening, I got into the Jeep and was checking my texts before I drove off. The door was open, so the interior lights were on, and that must have woken up an uninvited passenger. Which was…another huge spider!!! This one was as big as the palm of my hand, and I could see his eyes!

He leapt from the passenger-side floorboard into the passenger seat and onto the center console. I jumped out of the Jeep like my seat had just become an electric chair. In a move that is now typical, I panicked for a second. But then I realized that my yoga instructor’s brother was nearby – I could go get him to deal with this situation. (I’m not sure why it always has to be a guy to help out in these instances. I guess it’s the primal “Southern Belle” that comes out when I’m in fight-or-flight mode.) But he was so far away, I was afraid by the time I got to him, explained what was going on, and (hopefully) got him to come take care of the problem, Mr. Hitchhiker would have found a nice cozy place to hide, and I’d have to fumigate the Jeep before I could ever get into it again.

Instead, I grabbed a towel that was conveniently left in the back seat, wrapped it completely around my hand – like eight times – and used that to “pick up” the spider and fling him as far away as I could.

All I can say is that it’s a miracle this ordeal happened while I was sitting in the Jeep, idling. If I had been driving, all three of us – Mr. Hitchhiker, the Jeep, and I – would be in the ocean right now.


But wait – it gets better!  On the way home I stopped by my local hangout to say “Happy Birthday” to a friend and have a good, stiff drink to calm my nerves. When I got home, I went to the back of the Jeep to get a box out, and what did I see? Mr. Hitchhiker apparently had a friend, albeit one that was slower and/or dumber and hadn’t quite found his way inside the Jeep yet. That’s right – there was Mr. Hitchiker’s accomplice, staring at me from the back windshield of the Jeep. Seeing him was such a shock that this time I jumped and screamed – so loud that if my neighbors had been home, they would’ve come running to see who was attacking me.

IMG_2014

See – I’m not kidding! This thing was HUGE!

I grabbed my trusty towel, and from about six feet away, snapped it at him like a teenage boy in a locker room. Success! I managed to knock him off the Jeep and onto the ground, where I found him camouflaged on a small branch behind one of my tires (another reason to always carry a good flashlight in your purse). There was no way I was letting this fucker live, so I grabbed the biggest rock I could find – about 10 inches in diameter and 10 pounds – and dropped it right on him. Convinced that I had succeeded in killing the creepy bastard, I picked up the rock, and then almost fainted when he came running from under it and up the wall that surrounds my parking area. At this point, it was full-on war.

Spider Under Rock

Can you believe he lived?!

The only weapon I had left within easy reach was a can of OFF, which I proceeded to spray on him as he ran across the top of the wall. When there was no more OFF, I ran downstairs and grabbed a can of Raid. Of course, by the time I got back upstairs to the parking area, he was nowhere in sight. But I sprayed the hell out of that wall, the ground around the Jeep, and over the wall as far as I could reach.

I have a feeling the Island gods aren’t going to let me win this one, and he’s still up there, plotting his revenge. All I can say is that thankfully, he’s on the other side of the building from my apartment.


A note to the Island gods…Just keep in mind that you won’t have anyone to torment if you give me a heart attack.

A New Year’s Resolution: Island Edition

Looking back at the previous twelve months, there are plenty of reasons why I would be completely justified in saying, “Good riddance 2015. I’m not the least bit sorry to see you go.” A difficult divorce, friends who betrayed my trust, business deals that fell through…

But in all honesty, when I look at my island life, most of it I wouldn’t trade for the world. I mean, come on, what do I have to complain about?! I live in a place that many people spend years saving for, just to visit for a week.

So in 2016, I’m going to do my best to stop complaining and just be grateful. And to get the year started off right, I made a list of some of the things that I’m thankful for in my life here on a rock….


~ On any single, clear evening, I get to see more stars than most people see in a month of evenings combined.

~ Within a mere ten minutes, I can drive to two of the best (IMHO) beaches in the Caribbean. And if I want to get some exercise, one of them is only a 20-minute walk away. Granted, the walk back is brutal, but my calves have never looked better! 🙂

~ The worst traffic I ever encounter is the 15 minutes it takes to get through town during rush hour – if it’s payday, and it’s raining. No more soul-destroying, hour-long commute each way to work every day.

~ No more pointless meetings. If I’m feeling isolated and need to have a “real” business conversation during the day, I have plenty of Stateside associates who appreciate a few minutes of distraction to hear about the “drudgery” of living on a tropical island.

~ I live more simply than I ever have. I don’t (and literally can’t) spend my weekends mindlessly wandering through Target or around the mall just looking for stuff to buy.

~ On that same note, the constant threat of power and/or water outages keeps me diligent about ensuring that I have the basic necessities (phone and laptop charged, solar powered devices fully juiced, 5-gallon water jugs filled), rather than worrying about whether the grass was mowed in just the right criss-cross pattern.

~ I’ve learned to navigate – and appreciate – the cultural differences in the way people interact. The person ringing up your purchase at the grocery store may look like she had a nice, tasty bowl of bitch-flakes for breakfast, but a simple “Good afternoon” can change someone’s demeanor in a flash. And if you ever need help, she’ll probably be the first one to come to your aid.


So in 2016 I will replace my attitude with gratitude…For this wonderful life, with wonderful people, on a beautiful tropical island.

 

Eighteen Lessons in Eighteen Months

October 22 was my 18month island-girl anniversary. Reflecting on my time here so far, I thought about how much I love island life, and how it has tested me in ways I could never have imagined, or possibly endured, in the States. In celebration of my rock anniversary, I’ve assembled a list of lessons learned since I moved to this small island. Some are practical and some are personal. But each one is something that required a change in perspective and lifestyle to learn and embrace. I hope some of them resonate with you.

1 ~ Don’t wait until you need it. Buy it when you see it. (Applies only to non-perishable items.)

2 ~ Not having the “luxury” of spending days on end searching dozens of stores for the exact item you’re looking for, can itself be a luxury.

shopping-best-buy-ikea-target-walmart-lowes

3 ~ You can predict the weather based on the state of your hair.

4 ~ Always keep electronics fully charged.

5 ~ Keep flashlights and candles where they can be easily accessed in the dark. Not in the vicinity of furniture that has a reputation for breaking toes.

Broken Toe

6 ~ How to fit a Jeep into spaces that, technically, should be two inches too small.

7 ~ Greet everyone courteously – i.e. “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” etc.

8 ~ On an island, “No problem” doesn’t mean, “That will be easy.” The correct island translation is, “I hear you, but I may or may not do what you’ve asked, depending on how much trouble it will be.”

No Problem

9 ~ Always bring reading material to places where you may have to wait:  government offices, doctor’s offices, the bank, the line at the grocery store on a Saturday…

10 ~ A hair dryer is not a basic necessity.

11 ~ Vinegar will clean almost anything.

12 ~ You don’t need fancy equipment, or even a gym, to stay in shape.

Beach Exercise

13 ~ Everyone has a story, and most of them are extremely interesting – if you’ll just listen.

14 ~ Have compassion towards immigrants – making a life in a new country is much harder than most people realize.

15 ~ Your closest friends can be people who you have very little in common with on the surface. And that’s a good thing.Peanuts

16 ~ Appreciate the quiet.

17 ~ During the day, look around at the beauty of the island. And at night, look up and enjoy the stars.

Moon at Night

18 ~ Sea water heals both physical and emotional wounds. Indulge generously.

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Smuggler's Cove, Tortola, BVI

The Healing Powers of Vitamin Sea

This summer has been a bit rough, from friends who are going through hardships to my own personal issues. To add insult to injury, our rock is in the middle of one of the worst droughts on record, and the landscape, which is typically lush and green, is all brown and dead. But the one ray of proverbial sunshine is the sea. In contrast to the depressing inland landscape, the sea remains its gorgeous, blue-green self. One of the first things I do every morning is step out onto the balcony to check out my local beach and see which shade of turquoise the water is today.

But despite having direct, visual access to the sea, I sometimes go weeks without actually dipping my toes in the water (or in the sand). Life gets in the way, whether you live in a city, in the country, or on a tropical island.

This was the case recently. It had been two weeks since I’d had any “vitamin sea,” so I set an intention to go to the beach one Friday afternoon. The universe conspired against me – errands in town took twice as long as they should have (even considering the way things operate on this island), clouds moved in, and my mood was less than sunny and light. It was almost two hours later than I had planned, but with persistence (aka stubbornness) on my side, I finally made it.

Rather than visiting my local beach, which is large, well-known, and easy to access, I decided to venture a little farther and visit a beach that’s more secluded and rarely visited by anyone other than guests a small, nearby resort. And as luck would have it, I was the only one there on this particular afternoon.

When I go to the beach alone, I typically just get in the water for a few minutes to cool off and spend most of the time in a beach chair, catching up on some leisure reading. But this time, I decided to hang out in the water for a while. Since I didn’t bring a float or noodle to laze around on, I just floated on my back, with my ears submerged in the water to block out the sounds of the outside world. I floated, and floated, and floated, for what seemed like forever (although in reality, it was probably more like five minutes).

As I floated, looking up at the blue sky and listening to the faint crackling of the water, I tried to put some mental energy towards assessing the things that are going on in my life and in my friends’ lives. But my mind wouldn’t cooperate. The situations arose in my mind, but my mind refused to latch onto them. Granted, my problems and my friends’ problems didn’t go away, but it was nice to have a respite that forced me to get out of my own head for a while. Often times, a clear head is what’s needed to see things for what they really are, deal with them, and begin the process of healing. And this is just what that dip in water allowed me to do.

If everyone had direct access to the healing powers of the sea, I believe the world would be a better place.

Palm trees Tortola BVI

Images of Island Life: Part 2

Further evidence that living on an island isn’t all* palm trees and boat drinks, here’s Part 2 of the series, “Images of Island Life.” All photos—from the beautiful to the bizarre—were taken during our first year here on Tortola, BVI.

*Well, as you’ll see below, sometimes island life is about palm trees and boat drinks. 😊

The bar scene on an island can be quite entertaining

Cat in a Box

Who needs “hair of the dog” for your hangover? On our island, you can get “hair of the cat.”

Guess who

During the day, a disguise can help protect your reputation.

After dark, the "weirdos" come out.

But after dark, the “weirdos” really come out.

Topless bartender

Apparently, they’ll let anyone bartend.

Topless bartender

On-the-job hazards go far beyond carpal-tunnel. At our local hangout, being accosted by a bearded dude is a likely occurrence.

Tourists provide a never-ending stream of amusement (and shock!)

The contrast between lobster-emblazened swim trunks and the leg tat shows diversity in taste.

The contrast between his lobster-printed swim trunks and the leg tat shows diversity in taste.

Caution...This cannot be unseen

Caution…  This. Cannot. Be. Unseen.

Willy T, Norman Island, BVI

It’s higher than it looks. Jumping from the top deck of the “Willy T” is practically a rite of passage for visitors to the BVI.

Even "locals" act like tourists sometimes.

And sometimes, even “locals” can’t resist acting like tourists.

Pets from the U.S. have to adapt to new surroundings, just like people

Seriously? How about a fan over here?

Wearing a fur coat in the tropics can be rough. Snowball says, “Seriously? How about a fan over here?”

Cat on Suitcase

Apparently, Coco’s getting “rock fever.” Road trip anyone?

Cat in shower

Trouble knows that staying hydrated is important. And that it takes 76 seconds before the water gets hot.

Siamese with toys

Smooth has resorted to hoarding as a coping mechanism. He who dies with the most toys, wins!

German Shepherd by pool

Most dogs love the clear, calm waters of the ocean, but the classier ones prefer infinity pools.

Up next: night scenes, the many faces of island weather, and the truly bizarre!

Josiah's Bay Beach Tortola, BVI

Images of Island Life: Part 1

Some of the drudgeries of daily life—grocery shopping, paying bills, vehicle issues—are pretty much the same regardless of where you live. But when the daily chores take place on an island, they’re framed by a backdrop that ranges from the beautiful to the bizarre.

As Bill and I are coming up on our 1-year rock anniversary, I thought it would be fun to share some of those backdrops with you. So here’s what daily life on an island (mostly) entails…

Traffic and vehicular issues are quite different on a rock

island Traffic Jam

Island traffic jams usually involve livestock rather than accidents or construction. Cows are the worst. They’re slower and take up more road space than goats or sheep.

BVI Driving

The hills can be brutal, not only on your calves, but also on your axles (if you’re a car).

Yep, I don’t think the wheel’s supposed to turn that far.

That’s just painful.

I think there’s supposed to be a solid connection here…

Jeep

Your own parking spot, no matter how tight, is one of the most sought-after perks in renting a house or apartment. Second only to electricity (and more reliable).

BVI Dodgy Driving

But if it’s raining and you can’t find a place to park at the local grocery store, no problem. Just drive right in.

Virgin Gorda BVI Runway

Landing in Virgin Gorda is my favorite air travel experience of all time!

The wildlife ranges from scary to cute to just plain annoying

Don't be fooled by the lack of size perspective. This picture was taken from 12 feet away.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of size perspective. This picture was taken from 12 feet away.

Island Spider

A little smaller, but no less creepy. Thank goodness for a Shop Vac with a long hose.

IMG_0493

I have to admit, I have a fondness for the little lizards (locals call them wood slaves) that show up in my shower.

Lizard BVI

A rare look at the underside of a lizard. In an unusual turn of events, this one was on the *outside* of our screen.

Snorkeling BVI

These are my favorite fish. I really need to look up what they are.

Snorkeling BVI

I like these too, but only when viewed from outside the water.

Island rooster

Pretty. And pretty annoying. Someone please get these guys an alarm clock.

Christmas trees come in all shapes, sizes, and materials

Roundabout in Tortola, BVI

Who says Christmas trees have to be fir, spruce, or cedar?

Miniature Wooden Christmas Tree

My sister sent me this small, wooden tree (originally from Germany!) because, as she so poignantly put it, “Everyone needs a Christmas tree.”

Airplane bottle Christmas tree

Even the local bar has a Christmas tree. Drift wood with airplane bottle ornaments – perfect!

IMG_0972

Snow-covered tree. Wishful thinking, island style.

Next up: pets, tourists, and scenes from a local bar!