Tortola Apartment, BVI

The Climb

Several days a week, I visit the hotel-bar-restaurant (aka “The Club”) below us to hang out and commiserate with friends about the realities of island life. When we first moved here, I always drove down, like a true American, even though it’s barely a stone’s throw away. But about a month ago, the hassle of driving started to get to me.

First, the road where The Club is located is just one lane wide. So if you meet oncoming traffic, one of you has to back up and let the other pass.  Typically being the less aggressive party, and clearly a “non-belonger,” I tend to be the one to give first in this game of chicken, which means I have to back up the road, into a three-way intersection, with a blind curve to the left and a steep downhill drop behind me. Fortunately, their road is mostly residential and dead-ends at the beach, so there’s not a ton of traffic. But even if I make it there without this harrowing experience, coming home presents another challenge, in the form of parking.

We’re lucky that our building has designated parking and we don’t have to park on the street, unlike many other places here, but squeezing the Jeep into our parking spot is like fitting a hippo in a coach seat on an airplane. Then there’s the fact that you’re backing into the parking spot coming from the opposite side of the road, with blind corners in front of and behind you. Yes, it’s every bit as nerve-racking as it sounds. And yes, I pretty much just close my eyes and pray every time I do it, even after six months of practice. If we ever move back to the States, I will never, ever complain about tight parking spaces again.

Three Wide

Three wide

Jeep

Yes, I parked that Jeep, thankyouverymuch.

So I finally came to the realization that we moved to the island to have less stress rather than more of it, and I started walking to The Club instead of driving. I can even avoid setting foot on any “public” roads by taking the stairs to the bottom of our building and walking down a series of driveways that lead from our building’s lower parking area to their back entrance.

Compared to the driving and parking scenario, you’re probably wondering, “Why is walking so bad?” Well, for starters, the hill leading from our apartment to The Club is so steep that it’s not paved with asphalt. No, asphalt would just flow down the hill like lava. As is the case with many roads and driveways here, it’s paved with cement. Take a look in the pictures below.  See those lines in the cement? Those are to help your tires (or your flip-flops in my case) gain a little extra traction. Without them, you would literally slide down the hill.  When our friends visited a few months ago, their rental car couldn’t even make it up this hill!

Tortola, BVI

The first stretch. It’s longer (and steeper) than it looks.

Second are the corners. Because the hill is so steep, there are two switch-backs between The Club and our building. Coming up the hill, the first corner isn’t too bad, except that if you’re walking in the dark and miss the turn, you run directly into a set of concrete steps leading up to a guest house. Guess how I know this?

Serenity House Tortola, BVI

Not too bad, but don’t miss this turn in the dark!

The second corner is killer though. It’s in the second-steepest portion of the road, and apparently it’s been patched a few times, because rather than being rough surfaced, it’s as smooth as river stone. In the Jeep, if you don’t have enough momentum and don’t hit this corner in just the right place, you have to back up, put it in 4×4, and try again. Walking it is like trying to ice skate, up-hill.

Tortola, BVI Road

Anybody up for a little (simulated) ice skating?

Then there’s the stretch just before you reach our building. The steepest part. Fortunately, at the bottom of this stretch is a clearing that’s perfect for stargazing on a clear night. Using this as an excuse gives me a chance to stop, catch my breath and get mentally prepared for the next leg of my journey. It’s not a long stretch, approximately 60 paces at my stride. But it’s so steep that you’d better have some momentum, because if you stop midway, you’re going to tumble backwards and roll into the bush, where you’ll be fair game for the wild chickens and lizards.

Driveway Tortola, BVI

It 60 paces up this hill, almost as vertical as you can possibly walk (or drive).

Driveway Tortola, BVI

The view from the top, looking down.

Making it up this last stretch to the apartment building is an accomplishment, but it’s short-lived. Technically, you’re home, but there’s one more obstacle between you and the shower:  the stairs. We live on the top floor of the building, which I like because it gives us more distance from the ground and the critters that dwell there. It’s only three stories – 51 stairs – from the ground to our door. But when your calves are burning, you’re panting, and sweat is dripping into your eyes, there might as well be 151.

Tortola Apartment, BVI

Just 51 stairs to go…

Every time I make The Climb, I think about how it’s a perfect metaphor for living on a rock.  It’s tough, it can be a pain in the ass (or the calves, as the case may be), but it makes you stronger.  And in the end, it’s totally worth it.

Home is Where?

Bill and I recently spent a long weekend in the North Carolina mountains with my family. It’s an annual trip to celebrate both of my parents’ birthdays and their anniversary, all of which occur on the same day. (It’s weird, I know.) As we were leaving, I was tracking a developing storm and said something about how we might be delayed in getting “home.” My mom stopped me dead in my tracks and sternly informed me, “That is not home. This will always be home.” At the time, I dismissed it as a just figure of speech, with home meaning different things in different circumstances. But it made me think, where do I consider home to be now?

Even though I’m a U.S. citizen, my home is definitely not Omaha, NE or Buffalo, NY or Portland, OR. And even in my “home” state, I don’t feel at home in Rocky Mount or Boone or Elizabeth City. But I know what my mom meant. To her, home could be no other place than my hometown of Kings Mountain. To me, however, it’s not that clear-cut.

For the first 18 years of my life, until I ventured off to college, I lived in the same house (which my parents bought shortly after they got married, in 1970, and still live in!).  The only time I left for more than a couple of days was for summer camps. When I went to college, it was only three hours away (still in my home state), and even then, for the first two years, I came back home for the summer.

When I graduated from college and really moved out on my own, it was to an apartment in Charlotte, less than 45 minutes away from my parents’ house. Then, when Bill and I got married, we bought a house less than two miles from my post-college apartment and lived there for 14 years. Even the rental house we stayed in after selling our home was only two blocks farther away.

Despite the fact that all of my adult life I’d lived less than an hour away from them, my family was ecstatic when Bill and I bought land in Kings Mountain and planned to build a house there. Finally, in their minds, I would be moving “home.” But it turned out that the plans for our house were too big (literally and figuratively) and the area was too rural. The banks essentially told us that we were crazy, and good luck, but they couldn’t help us build our dream house in the middle of nowhere. A few more setbacks finally put those ambitions at bay, and we regrouped and came up with a “plan B,” or in this case, “plan BVI.”

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

So instead of moving “home,” as my mom would call it, here we are, in the British Virgin Islands. Our current home is a nice apartment with vaulted, wood-beam ceilings and a view of the beach. It came fully furnished, but we brought just enough stuff with us to give the apartment a familiar feel. Even before our container of stuff arrived, I was already adopting the “this is home” mindset. And within six months, we’ve figured out how to live in a  new country (it’s more difficult than you’d think), met amazing friends, and gotten comfortable in our new apartment (minus the heat, but that’s a different story).

But my mom is right. This will never be “home” in the same way that Kings Mountain is home. Or the way Charlotte is home. Kings Mountain holds my childhood memories – lots of firsts, some lasts, and more lessons than I can remember. And Charlotte is where I grew into adulthood, having moved there at 22 and not leaving until 40 (!). In Charlotte I made all of my adult friendships, started and grew my career, and found some of my passions.

But that doesn’t mean that the BVI isn’t also home – it just has a shorter history and fewer attachments. In my mind, the place you call “home” changes with the stages in your life. And right now, wherever Bill and the cats and I are all together, carrying out the routines of daily life and still experiencing new things, that is home.

Realities of Island Life – #9

This post was written two weeks ago, but it was so traumatic that I just got up the courage to post it…

Today I had a run-in with another kind of island critter.

I’ve written about living with “island roommates” before, and after today’s encounter, I appreciate my lizard companions even more.  Just this evening, I counted three lizards (what appeared to be two “young-un’s” and one adult) in our bedroom, and I named them Lisa, Louie, and  Lamar.  And though finding lizard poop next to your bed or on your bathroom sink is annoying, I’ll take that any day over what I had to deal with this afternoon….

One of the apartments in our six-unit building is vacant, and our landlord agreed to let our friends stay there for a week, in turn for me doing the “move-out” clean from the previous tenants.  So while I was cleaning the vacant apartment, I did what any good, anal retentive cleaner would do.  I moved the furniture to clean behind it.  No big deal – just the usual dust bunnies, a pair of forgotten slippers behind the bed, that sort of thing.  Until I moved the couch.  When I pulled back the thick, fluffy sofa, there on the wall, looking like he owned the place, was a type of critter that I’d read about but (thankfully) had not yet seen.  The Island Tarantula!!!

Everything that I’ve read online (yes, that’s my reference guide) says they’re not aggressive and not poisonous.  But I. Don’t. Care.  This thing was HUGE.  He was almost as big as my hand – not the kind of spider I would even dream of trying to squash with my measly little flip-flop.  And there he was, just a few feet away from me, looking quite annoyed that I’d invaded his home.  So I did what any sane person would do.  I ran into the next room, where I was out of jumping or scampering range but could still keep an eye on him, and called my spouse to rescue me.

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.

Now, Bill won’t admit it, but he’s just as big of an arachnophobe as I am.  But I begged him to come down to the vacant apartment and help me deal with a “spider issue.”  (If I’d told him that said spider was a tarantula, he would have never ventured below our floor again.)  Not realizing the severity of the situation and the panic attack I was about to have, he took his own sweet time, but he eventually came to my rescue.

His first idea was to suck the salad-plate size critter up with a vacuum cleaner, but he decided that a) he didn’t want to kill it (who knew Bill was a Buddhist?), b) it was bigger than the vacuum hose nozzle and probably won’t work anyway, and c) although he didn’t say it, I could tell by the look on his face that he knew if that spider was in the vacuum cleaner, HE would be the one having to empty the dust container later that evening.

So he used a broom and a mop bucket to corral it and take it outside.  And he didn’t kill the damn thing!!!  OK, I’m sorry.  I know I should respect life and all living things have their place, and blah blah blah.  But this thing was HUGE and UGLY and SCARY and I’ll probably never step foot in that apartment again!!!  Because, what if he’s pissed that we kicked him out of his home.  A homeless, dislocated, vindictive island tarantula is NOT something I want to encounter.

So I finished cleaning with my heart pounding and my limbs shaking.  (I lost at least five pounds through sweat after that.)  And I’m saying a little prayer for our friends Kimberly and Alain and their family that our latest “friend” won’t try to get back into his former domicile.  But if he does, I can take some comfort in knowing that they’re the type of people who would appreciate him.  Heck, they would probably capture him, let him die or kill him in some semi-humane way, and use him for a science project or an insect collection.  So at least some good could come out of this for someone.

And as long as I don’t have to witness or participate, I’m ok with that.

Update:  Kimberly, Alain and the kids stayed in that apartment for a full week, and as far as I know, they didn’t have any encounters with “roommates,” either four-legged or eight-legged.  Although I’m still on the lookout for an irritated spider who’s looking for revenge.  

Perception and Reality

In our first ten weeks on the rock, I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with people back in the States and in Europe, and there’s a common theme to their opening comments.  Every conversation tends to start with something along the lines of, “So, how’s paradise?”

It's not always like this - I promise.

It’s not always like this – I promise.

It’s difficult to temper people’s perceptions of what life on an island is like, and I understand, it sounds like a dream come true.  I won’t lie, in a lot of ways, it is.  But as I told friends and family before we left, life on a rock isn’t all palm trees and boat drinks.

To save time on future phone calls, I’ve compiled a list of perceptions/questions that you might have, and my responses.

  • Caller’s Perception:  I hear tropical birds in the background.
  • My Reality:  Those are called roosters.  And yes, they’re crowing at 10am.  And at noon.  And at 7pm.  Island Roosters Never. Shut. Up.
They've taken over the island.  Seriously.

They’ve taken over the island. Seriously.

  • Caller’s Perception:  I hear the roar of the ocean through the phone.
  • My Reality:  Actually, that’s an industrial-strength fan you hear.  It’s 89 degrees here with 95% humidity, and no air conditioning.  So we invested a small fortune in fans – floor-level, adjustable-height, oscillating, stationary – you name it, we have every style of fan you can imagine.  The plus side:  the fans tend to blow all the cat hair into one corner of the hallway, which makes quick work of sweeping the floors.  (Full disclosure, we do have AC in the bedrooms, but we only run it at night, because power here is very expensive.)
  • Caller’s Perception:  What type of fruity cocktail are you having right now?
  • My Reality:  The kind you buy in mass quantities from a vending machine.  Also known as water.  (On Tortola, it’s advised to purchase your drinking water, and the most economical way is by filling 5-gallon containers from water dispensing machines around the island.)  In this climate, you drink more water in a day than even the most health-conscious people back in the States.  And if you don’t, feelings of lightheadedness and grogginess will quickly remind you that dehydration is setting in.  The plus side:  your body processes all this water so efficiently (via SWEAT) that you don’t constantly have to pee, contrary to what you would expect.  And you’re never bloated.  So you’ll have to come up with another excuse if your tummy is hanging over your shorts or your bikini bottom a little more than usual.
  • Caller’s Perception:  How was the beach today?
  • My Reality:  In ten weeks, I’ve only hit the beach during the week on three, maybe four, occasions.  I can see Josiah’s Bay beach from my patio, and every day I look out and smile at its stunning beauty.  But typical life stuff still has to be done – cleaning, grocery shopping, taking the trash to the dumpster, getting drinkable water, searching for shaving cream… So contrary to popular belief, I’m not taking phone calls from a lounge chair under a palm tree. But don’t get me wrong, I do love the views, even if my toes aren’t in the water.
You can reach me at 1-800-Cocotel

You can reach me at 1-800-Cocotel

  • Caller’s Perception:  I’ll bet the seafood/fruit/produce is really fresh and amazing there.
  • My Reality:  I’m allergic to shellfish and don’t eat much seafood.  I imagine that this will change over time, but for now, I’m sticking primarily with beef, chicken, and pork.  And as far as produce goes, Tortola is basically a mountain in the middle of the Caribbean, and the terrain makes farming a challenge.  As a result, 99% of the food is imported, so availability and quality are somewhat spotty.  We’re learning which markets to go to on which days for which items, but it’s a fact of island life that if you have a specific recipe in mind, at least one of the ingredients will be completely sold out on the entire island.  So learning to improvise is important.  That and obsessively checking expiration dates.  And not buying any fresh fruits or veggies that you don’t plan to use within about three days.  But when you find something that’s locally grown, it is amazing.

So there you have it.  Five misconceptions about life on a rock and the not-so-glamorous realities behind them.  Feel free to share your perceptions/questions in the comments, and I’ll give you the behind-the-scenes look at what it’s really like.

 

Role Reversal

Didn't Fail.

Didn’t Fail.

I love personality tests – Myers-Briggs, DiSC, Predictive Index.  I’ve taken them all, several times, and the conclusions are surprisingly consistent and, if I’m honest about how I really think and act, accurate.  So those of you who’ve known me for a long time will not be surprised to hear that these test all identify me as a strong introvert.

However, those who know me solely, or mostly, through work may be surprised that I’m labeled an introvert.  In my professional life, I am (as a professor once explained) “an introvert who has learned to adapt.”  Being in sales and other customer-facing roles, I’ve learned to dig deep into my persona to be outgoing and curious about others.  Having an abnormally high level of empathy helps with this adaptation.  (I’m talking about the kind of empathy where you cry just because you see someone else crying, even when you have no idea why they’re crying.)

Bill is also an introvert, but not the kind who “adapts” and acts like an extrovert when the circumstances would call for it.  No, he’s almost always reserved, to the point that I’m afraid he puts other people off with the scowl he carries on his face when we’re in public.  Our very good friend, Jon, tells a great story of how the first time Bill walked across the street to talk to him, Jon saw the look on his face and heard the tone of his  greeting (a simple, but harsh “Hey!”) and thought Bill was coming over to start a fight!

Even on vacation, he seems to be saying "leave me alone!"

Even on vacation, he seems to be saying “leave me alone!”

With all that being said, I assumed the task of making friends here on our rock would fall to me and my “adapted extrovert” self.  But there seems to have been a reversal of roles over the past six weeks.  Bill has become the one who’s curious about other people – what they do, where they’re from, how long they’ve been here – and I’ve mostly reverted back into my shell, watching and listening from the sidelines. Thanks to Bill’s newfound willingness to strike up a conversation with just about anyone, we’ve met:

  • a temporarily homeless boat hand from the Netherlands
  • two (yes, two) George Clooney look-alikes!
  • several Rastafarians who show up at the same spot, at the same time, every day
  • a ton of boat captains
  • a guy in the financial sector (I expected to meet more of these, as finance is the second largest component of the BVI economy.  But I guess the places we’re hanging out are too low-brow for the finance crowd.)
  • three very loud and very opinionated middle-aged women (mental note:  sit at the other end of the bar when they’re around)
  • a doctor who works at the local hospital (a very good contact to have)
  • and more bartenders than I can recall

Maybe he’s just trying to gage what we might be like in 1, 3, 5, or 10 years.  Or maybe the confines of a 13 x 3 mile island are getting to him.  Whatever is driving this newfound extrovertedness, it’s kind of nice to let someone else do the social navigating for a change.  Next up, I’m putting him on the hunt for a certain country star who lives nearby.  Stay tuned…

O.M.G. S.U.P. Y.O.G.A

OK, first of all, I don’t really talk like that.  But that’s the only way I could express both the delight and the fear I had in my first SUP yoga class…

I spent both Saturday and Sunday afternoons at my favorite beach for hanging out and socializing – Cane Garden Bay.  Saturday was a low-key visit:  read, float, have a drink.  I’d heard there was a Stand Up Paddleboard yoga class at CGB, so I asked around and found out that there was a FREE class on Sunday.  So on Sunday afternoon, I trekked back to CGB (20 minutes from our apartment to the neighborhood, 25 minutes parked and in the water).  It didn’t take long to spot the teacher, as she was finishing up a SUP class for about a dozen kids – and I might add that these kids looked like professionals.

I’ve done presentations in front of hundreds of people – CEO’s, executives, people way smarter than I am.  But for some reason, trying a new physical activity for the first time scares the daylights out of me.  In my first golf lesson, I was so nervous that it’s a miracle I didn’t drop the club behind my back when I took the first swing.  And it wasn’t much different in the SUP yoga class.  I had only been on a paddle board once before, and all I accomplished that time was to paddle out a few yards, quickly give up fighting the wind, drift down the beach a few hundred feet, and paddle back to the shore.  Then I had to carry the board back up the beach to where it belonged.

So, yeah, I was nervous about this class.

The teacher instructed me to paddle out on my knees, and she would come right behind me to help me get my “sea legs” and get going.  But she got caught up with something else, and I was left there, on my knees on the board, paddling as best I could and trying to listen to her partner, who was yelling standing near the shore yelling instructions at me.  And the wind was blowing the opposite way of where the group was gathered…

Ten minutes later, with some direct intervention from the helper (i.e. he paddled out and literally pulled me and my board in the right direction), I joined the group.  This is where the OMG part really begins.

I made it through the warmup and the Sun Salutations ok, despite the fact that my legs were shaking like twigs in a hurricane.  Then came the Crescent Lunges and the Warriors.  The instructor had warned me that Warrior II was a tough pose to do on the board.  Whew, I made it through that, although I couldn’t properly do Reverse Warrior, but I modified.  Then came Side Angle.  An easy pose.  I can even “fly” in this one.  (“Flying” is where you bind your arms around one leg and lift it up while balancing on the other leg – called Bird of Paradise).

And fly I did.  Right off the side of my board and into the water.  (And I wasn’t even trying to do the Bird of Paradise variation.  I was just trying to do the basic Side Angle!)

I shook myself off like a wet dog, climbed back onto the board, and finished the class, legs shaking even more now.  But I finished, and I even managed to do a Tripod at the end (squat down with your hands on the ground/floor/board, put the top of your head on the board, put your knees on your elbows and lift your feet).

At the end of class, as I lay there in Savasana (also called Corpse Pose, where you lie on your back with legs apart and arms by your side), instead of closing my eyes, I looked up at the blue sky and the tip tops of the palm trees in my peripheral vision and felt grateful to be in such an amazing place, doing such amazing things.  This.  This is the reason I wanted to move here.

Cane Garden Bay:  View from a SUP

Cane Garden Bay: View from a SUP

 

Island Bumper Cars

There goes another side mirror

There goes another side mirror

In a previous post, I mentioned that the roads here are bad.  But it’s not just the roads, it’s the other drivers that make navigating the island an exercise in facing your fears.

Case in point – within the first week of arriving, we had a (thankfully mild) run-in with another vehicle.

It was the day my sister and I arrived with my two cats.  She had been here all of about two hours, and we were going to dinner in Road Town.  There are two ways you can get down the mountain from our apartment, and both involve steep declines (because you’re going down a mountain), narrow roads, and sharp curves.  But one route is a bit worse than the other.  We were taking the worse of the two options, because at that time, we didn’t know any better.  And it was night.

So we’re going down the road, and one of the oncoming cars is obviously in our lane (if there were actual lanes on the roads, but that’s another issue).

*Did I mention that you drive on the left here?  The cars are American-style left hand drive, but you’re on the wrong side of the road, which puts the passenger sides of the cars in the center of the road.  So when you’re the passenger, oncoming traffic is coming directly toward you, not the driver.

As the headlights came closer, it was apparent this car was not getting over to his side of the road, so I did what any rational person would do.  I closed my eyes and screamed.  I heard a slight crash, and when I opened my eyes, there was a mirror in my lap!

The other driver had clipped our side mirror, which popped the glass part out.  Thankfully, I had my window rolled down, and the glass mirror landed squarely in my lap, broken, but salvaged.  I still can’t believe I “caught” that mirror!

The rest of the night was a little tense, to say the least, since Bill felt bad about getting the rental car damaged (although there was little he could have done, short of running into the side of the mountain), and I was not looking forward to dealing with the credit card and rental car companies over this little incident, which would probably cost a fortune to get resolved.  But an inquiry the next day at a local auto parts store put us in touch with a glass shop.  One day and $50 later, we picked up the replacement glass and popped it back into the mirror assembly, with the rental company none the wiser.

Bill’s theory is that when the Jeep gets here, we’ll get more respect on the roads, since it’s big and has these massive, after-market bumpers on it.  My theory is that I’d do just fine in a Mini-Cooper.  Or a Smart car.  Or maybe a golf cart.  I’ll take the smallest thing that can make it up the mountain.

Seating for six and lights for nighttime driving.

Seating for six and lights for nighttime driving.

 

 

 

Free Coco! (Or, how I almost shut down CLT airport)

Free Willy

Chronologically, this post is out of order, because frankly, it’s embarrassing and I had initially decided not write about it  But, contrary to what my sister might tell you, my life isn’t always easy or glamorous, and this story very much proves it.  And in hindsight, it is pretty funny…

A few days after arriving on the rock, I made a quick trip back to Charlotte to pick up my sister so she could help me bring back two of my cats, Coco and Smooth, and spend a couple of days here experiencing the island.  The two cats we were tasked with transporting are pretty timid – Coco is afraid of almost everyone except Bill and me, and although Smooth has gotten more sociable in his old age (he’s 13), he’s still very much a loner.

During our initial move trip a few days earlier, Bill and I had brought down the first two cats, Trouble and Snowball.  They did great getting in & out of their carriers and going through security, so I was hoping for that part of the process with Coco and Smooth to be quick and relatively painless.  My worry was that one or both of them would cry through the entire flight, like our little “angel” Snowball had done during her journey.

Boy was I worried about the wrong thing…

At the airport, we managed to get Riley into the TSA prescreen line with me, so I was doing a little victory dance in my head, as that meant we didn’t have to deal with the laptops/liquids/shoes in the security line and could just focus on getting the cats out, through the scanner, and back in their carriers as quickly as possible.  And we picked a security gate that, when we got there, was virtually deserted.

I was in charge of Coco and Riley was in charge of Smooth.  I took Coco out of her carrier, walked through the scanner, and waited on the other side for her carrier to come through the x-ray machine.  Just as we got through the scanner, she started wriggling.  And as we waited for her carrier, the wriggling got more intense and quickly turned into full-blown “let me down now or I will claw your eyes out” flailing of limbs and tail.  I was trying so hard to remain calm, and I said to the agent screening the x-rayed items, “Sir, I need that carrier as soon as you can get it to me, please.”  The TSA agent standing at the end of the conveyor saw the cat getting more and more agitated and said to her colleague, “You need to get her that carrier, quick.”  And out it came.  Then, before I could reach it, in it went again – back into the x-ray machine!  It was like slow-motion, and all I could do was say, again, this time in a much more urgent tone, “I need that cat carrier now, please!”

At that moment, Coco launched out of my arms and ran.  As I watched her scurry away, hunched down and looking back to see if anyone was following, I heard a TSA agent yell “Animal on the loose!”  All I could think was, “They’re going to shut down the airport and it’s going to be my fault!”

I started ducking and weaving through the rope barriers that make up the security lanes, with what were now at least 20 people in line yelling various renditions of “she went that way,” and “she’s over there!”  Luckily, she had found suitable refuge behind a post in the corner and stopped, thinking she was hidden.  About halfway to where she was, I realized that I couldn’t do a darn thing without her carrier, so I yelled to a TSA agent, who was yelling at me for letting her get loose, to get me her carrier.  Someone got me the carrier and I was able to scoop her up and get her back in, where she was more than happy to be, with fabric, mesh, and zippers protecting her from all these crazy people around her.

The agent that was helping me at this point was so nice.  I was apologizing profusely and he tried to console me by saying, basically, that the agent doing the x-ray screening had been an ass all day long, being slow, calling for tons of extra scans, and making everyone’s day miserable.  (I think this incident took the cake for the entire day.)   He calmly informed me that I’d have to go through security again since I was now outside of the official security zone.  (Seriously, I was on the other side of a couple of 3-foot metal poles with a zippy rope between them, but whatever.)  I asked him to please find a way to do this without having to take the cat out of her carrier again, and he assured me that he didn’t want to go through that again either.  So he walked Coco, in her carrier, through the security gate as I went back through the scanner.  And this time, we were both free to go.

Coco, lounging in our BVI apartment, oblivious to the near-breakdown I had getting her here.

Coco, lounging in our BVI apartment, oblivious to the near-breakdown I had getting her here.

The best part is that while all this was happening, my sister and the other cat made it through security with no problems.  And when the madness was over, she, Smooth, and our carry-on bags were all waiting patiently at the end of the screening lane.  For her, it was just another adventure with members of the Nolen family.

10 Days on a Rock

We made it into the double digits!

It’s still surreal that we live here, but already we’ve come to recognize the good and the bad of living on an island, so I thought I’d share a little bit of both sides.

Bad:  You can’t drink the water.  Well, you can, but most people don’t.  Virtually everyone on the island gets their water from a cistern, and the water is filtered but not purified.  It’s not likely to make you sick, but several locals have told me that they use tap water for cooking, washing, and brushing their teeth, but for pure drinking they stick with bottled water.  Now, I know plenty of people in the States who don’t drink their tap water (either they’re on a well and don’t trust it, or they’re on city water and don’t trust it).  So to me, no big deal.  But this is probably Bill’s biggest complaint so far.

Good:  The views.  Just driving around the island, from anywhere to anywhere, the views are amazing.  Either you’re on a mountain overlooking beautiful bays, or you’re on the waterfront road, riding along just feet from crystal blue water.  I will never tire of the views here.

Waterfront Highway, Looking Toward Peter Island

Waterfront Highway, Looking Toward Peter Island

Bad:  Roommates.  Before we moved, I read a lot of blogs from people who live in the USVI and the BVI, and without fail, they all mentioned living with “critters” and the good and bad of each type.  Thankfully, our cohabitants are lizards, which are harmless and the most beneficial roommates to have , as they eat mosquitos and other insects.  The only problem I foresee is that our cats will probably become lizard connoisseurs.  So far, I’ve found two dead baby lizards, so the population in/around our place is probably on the decline already.

Good.  The beaches.  Whether you want calm, flat water or a great place to surf; a hopping, people-watching mecca or a nearly deserted beach lined with palm trees, they’re all here on Tortola.  The beach closest to us, Josiah’s Bay, is of the surfing variety, with waves in the 5-foot range.  (At least until summer, when the locals tell us that it “goes flat.”)  Although I prefer calm water, the waves in this turquoise blue sea are almost transparent, and it’s gorgeous to look at.  I foresee surfing lessons in my future!

My favorite beach so far. Picture-perfect and virtually deserted.

My favorite beach so far. Picture-perfect and virtually deserted.

Bad:  Driving.  The roads are worse than bad.  (NC/SC friends – think of the worst SC roads you can imagine.  That would be considered good here on Tortola.)  The roads are only about 1.5 lanes wide, most of the curves are blind, and there are no street lights.  Now, imagine those conditions on a 13 mile x 3 mile island that is essentially a mountain (the tallest peak on Tortola is the same height as Kings Pinnacle) where you’re perpetually climbing a 20 degree grade or descending a 20 degree grade.

Good:  The people.  Sure, there are people who are indifferent at best, rude at their worst.  And some of the drivers are a-holes.  But you’ll find that anywhere.  The vast majority of people we’ve met here – both locals and expats – have been friendly and downright helpful.  One charming thing about the BVI culture is that it’s considered rude not to address someone with “good morning,” “good afternoon,” etc. before you start a conversation, or just as a general acknowledgement, in place of “hello,” when you pass someone on the street.  And when you do this, the person’s entire countenance changes.  It’s amazing how far a little cultural sensitivity can get you when you’re in a foreign place.

Bonus:  Did I mention the views?  I did?  Ok, how about the beaches?  The snorkeling isn’t bad either.

Snorkeling at Smuggler's Cove

Snorkeling at Smuggler’s Cove

Practicing Patience

Road Town

After three days, spent almost entirely at government offices, we’re finally official!

I had read horror stories about dealing with the BVI government, so I knew clearing Immigrations would be frustratingly slow, but darn it, I was prepared with everything we could possibly need. There was nothing they could ask for that we hadn’t already given them or didn’t have in-hand. Or so I thought. When we walked up to the Immigration desk at the airport, operation “Teach the Americans a Lesson” began.

Being the obsessive-compulsive, anal person that I am, I made sure that we arrived on Tuesday evening with all the necessary paperwork for Immigration, exactly following the instructions in our approval letter and double-checking any “gray” areas through phone calls and emails with high-ranking Immigration officials, all of which were meticulously documented.

When we arrived, the Immigration officer slowly scrutinized our paperwork and inquired as to where our criminal records were. I told her that we had both mailed and emailed them to the Chief Immigration Officer, and obviously he had seen them and been satisfied, as he’d granted us approval to reside.  And, anyway, bringing our criminal record reports with us was not specified as a requirement in our approval letter. Unimpressed, she turned to her supervisor, who reiterated that, “you must present official copies of your criminal record upon arrival.”

Long story short, it turns out that the person who typed up our approval letter and spelled out what we needed to bring with us upon arrival just happened to forget this one item. Of course, it was after 4pm when we arrived, and the government offices close at 3pm, so there was no way to verify that the main office had previously received our criminal records. In order to get into the country, we had to turn our passports over to the Immigration officer, who gave us a receipt for them(!) and instructed us to call the main office the next morning to verify the documents were ok and retrieve our passports.

So the next morning came and I called (having already learned that calling in advance can help you get some of the “I don’t know anything about this,” or “that person isn’t in the office” hassle out of the way) to be sure someone was looking into the mystery of our “missing” criminal records . We were instructed to come to the office to get everything straightened out. So down to Road Town we went, passport receipts in hand, not really sure what to expect. In a somewhat fortunate turn of events, the lady working the front desk at Immigration was someone I had spoken to via phone numerous times over the past several months, so there was a bit of rapport already built. She instructed us to come back at 2pm (it was approximately 9:30am) when the Chief Immigration Officer would be back at the office. So we made use of the day by learning our way around town and picking up some essentials for the apartment. And back to the Immigration office we went around 2pm.

The CIO finally arrived around 3pm, but instead of speaking with him directly, our “friend” acted as our intermediary, supposedly relaying our comments/concerns, and coming back to us with his “official decision.” In reality, it was she who wrote our letter, so I think she was trying to save face and cover her ass, since it was her mistake that got us into this predicament. In the end, the CIO, in the intermediary’s words, “realizes that it’s our (the office’s) mistake, so he will grant permission to process your residence visas, but you have to produce the required documents (criminal records) within six weeks.” It was now approximately 3:03pm, and the processing office was closed, so we had to come back the next morning to get our visas processed.

On Thursday morning, we made our (now routine) trip down to Road Town to the Immigration office just before the official opening time of 9am. There were already about eight people in the waiting area, so we took our number and sat down, expecting at least a 20-30 minute wait.

Side note:  Based on our experience so far, I can safely say that all government offices have a process. You walk in, announce “good morning, or “good day” to everyone in the room, take a number, and WATCH THE CALL BOARD LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT. When the “now serving” number comes up, if you don’t jump up within about .5 milliseconds, the attendants move on to the next number, and you’re at risk of losing your place in line.

As I mentioned, this morning, there were about eight people in the waiting area before us, so I expected a wait and started checking email. Within less than three minutes, our number had flashed for the customary 0.5ms, and the next number was staring me in the face.

I walked to the desk and begged to take the next place in line, but in the end it didn’t matter, because it turns out that AGAIN, we not informed about a requirement that we had to fulfill before our visas could be processed.

Everyone (family, friends, blog readers) has been spared of the details regarding the medical tests and procedures we had to go through here in the U.S. in order to fulfill the BVI immigration requirements.  You’re welcome. But these ridiculous, almost humiliating tests aren’t enough. No, the U.S. doctors apparently can’t be trusted, so you must take your medical records to the Tortola hospital and have one of their doctors approve them before you’re granted residence. And of course, nobody told this until Thursday morning, when we naively expected to have our visas processed that day.

So off we slogged to the hospital to have our records “checked” by a BVI doctor, and at exactly 2:50pm, we finally got the medical records back with the necessary approvals and high-tailed it back to the Immigration office. Did I mention that they close at 3pm?  The deputy at the Immigration office took our applications and instructed us to come back Monday, as processing takes two days.

At this point, I was having a really hard time keeping my cool, but once again, she had our passports in her possession, so I sucked it up and nicely buy urgently informed her that I had to go back to the States over the weekend, so I would just have to bring my passport and application back the next week to be processed.  She looked unfazed, but dryly said, “Ok, come back at 1:30pm tomorrow.”  *Sigh*  I said a little prayer that she would keep her promise and not fall ill or get hit by a bus overnight.

We made use of the next morning by going to the DMV and purchasing a drivers handbook – again, taking a number and watching the call board.  Then we found another “department store” (think Big Lots, with many items of questionable origin) to pick up some more things for the apartment.  At approximately 1:30pm, we went back to the Immigration office, and 30 minutes and one rude government worker later, we were official!  I can’t remember the last time I was so relieved and proud.  Maybe this is their strategy – make it so difficult to obtain residence that once you do, you never complain about “island time” or the government again.

The best part is, we had just enough time to get to the bank and open a bank account and swing by the postal service to get a forwarding address set up from Miami.  So now we’re officially residents of the BVI, we can spend money, and we can get mail.  Life is good.

Until we go to get our BVI drivers licenses.