When preparing to move to the Caribbean, one of the biggest struggles I had was a fairly universal one…what to pack. After all, this wasn’t my ordinary one- or two-week vacation (although I always struggled with what to pack for those, too). This was – hopefully – a one-way ticket to umbrella drinks and beach parties. Obviously, the stakes were higher.
So in the weeks leading up to my departure, many hours were spent with my opened suitcases spread out on the guest bed, all manner of clothing, accessories and shoes piled up in and around them. Would I need three pairs of strappy stiletto sandals? Or would two do? Was taking six maxi-dresses overkill? Yes or no to my hiking shoes? How many packs of my favorite dental floss would be enough? (There was no Amazon delivery back in my early days of my Island Girl status. My how things have changed.)
Ultimately, most of what I packed turned out to be appropriate and necessary for my island life. There were only a few mistakes. Like those two pairs of ski goggles. Still a mystery, actually. (I kept them…just in case.) And a few items left behind (for obvious reasons) are still a sore spot for me. I continue to mourn the loss of my Kitchen-Aid mixer and Nesco roasting pan with the chafing dish inserts.
But hey…this isn’t a blog post to tell you what to pack. That varies from Island Girl to Island Girl. Who am I to suggest you pare down your shoe collection?
Rather, I want to share with you a few things you can absolutely leave behind when you make the leap from pale, stressed mainlander to suntanned, relaxed Island Girl.
Stuff That Harms The Ocean’s Inhabitants
If you want to be an Island Girl, one assumes you have some sort of affection for Mother Ocean. After all, if you’re moving to a tiny bit of land surrounded by sparkling turquoise water replete with lush coral reefs, you probably aren’t an “oh, I don’t want to get my hair wet” kind of gal. And even if playing in the sea isn’t your cup of tea, the least you can do is not kill it when you do venture in. You know, so the rest of us who do love getting wet still have an aquatic playground to enjoy.
The truth is, moving to the islands comes with some responsibilities. It becomes your duty – like it or not – to be an ambassador for keeping the ocean safe. This means you refrain from using a few things. The biggest one? Sunscreen that includes coral-killing ingredients. Seriously…read the labels or do a basic Google search to find reef-safe sunscreen. Then buy it. And encourage others to do the same. After all, vacationers don’t necessarily have the same laser-like focus on ocean protection as we Island Girls do (or should have). Help them out – in a nice way.
Another big no-no? Aerosol spray sunscreen or mosquito repellent. The hole in the ozone is big enough, thank you very much. You don’t need to add to it. Plus, wielding an aerosol spray can is the fastest way to make enemies in public spaces. It is simply not possible to spray that shit without having it waft over onto unsuspecting people. Like me. If I wanted to inhale a cloud of toxic chemicals while sunning myself on a beach bar lounge chair, I can find other ways to do it. Presumably, ways that will result in some sort of temporary, pleasant high. I definitely don’t need your help.
Skip the aerosol and opt for creams or gels – ones that don’t kill the sea life. Mother Nature and your new beach neighbors will thank you.
Your Mainland Expectations
If it comes as a shock to you that an island is NOT much like the mainland, then you probably need to do a little more research before moving down here. Also, please read Don’t Stop The Carnival by Herman Wouk. Although the book was written in the 1960s, the basic principles still hold true. After all, we move on island time here, remember?
But seriously, if you show up, unpack your bags and immediately get frustrated that things don’t flow here like they do back in the US, you’re in for a bumpy – and likely short – ride. This includes, but is not limited to, the efficiency of any government office, the customer service you will not receive at the bank, the quality and quantity of perishable food available, the condition of the roads, and far too many other things to list here. You get my point.
Worse is when you verbalize your frustrations in public places. Like in line at the bank. Or while you’re clutching the paper number at the immigration office, waiting for your turn. Or on the local Facebook pages of your chosen island. This last one is the worst, by the way, since it broadcasts your ignorance and ire far beyond any reach you can possibly imagine. Good thing to keep in mind is that there are many, many lurkers who read those pages but never comment. Like me.
I’ve noticed this more and more on my rock, and I believe it is directly correlated to the loosened standards for Americans to immigrate here. No, the island didn’t want to let more Americans move here. Duh. A judge made them do it. All thanks to an American guy who filed a lawsuit (surprise, surprise) based on something called the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty. He won the case and today any American can move here, apply for residency, and stay forever (after clearing a few very inconsequential hurdles). I have mixed feelings about this.
On one hand, it dramatically eased my personal immigration headaches. So, yay for that.
On the other, with these new arrivals also comes more of the typical American mindset – the loudness, the materialism, the utter and complete lack of self-awareness. When I decided to expatriate, one of the things I loved about this tiny Dutch-influenced rock was that I could escape that way of life. It simply wasn’t anything like the U.S. here.
Sadly, thanks to Mr. Lawsuit, this rock has been discovered. By my fellow Americans. And worse, many of these new arrivals tend to be the sort of folks I fervently tried to leave behind. Not all, mind you, but enough to notice. And not in a good way.
How are they so easily spotted? They show up and demonstrate the least attractive characteristics of America.
These folks stand in the grocery store aisles and shout to their shopping companion three aisles over. The new arrivals make unnecessary and repeated shows of their implied wealth (heads up…it will all dissipate before you know it when you arrive and live large), while simultaneously bitching about the high cost of everything. They define their existences by the kind of expensive car they drive here (ridiculous…have you seen our pothole-filled roads?!), the clothes they wear, etc.
You know the type.
Worst of all, they never miss an opportunity to tell anyone who will listen exactly how things work on the rock. Nevermind that they’ve been here all of a few months. Please.
These newcomers are boastful and arrogant. And seemingly unaware. Like the guy who prompted me to write this blog post. He has no idea who I am. But I know exactly who he is (as things go on a tiny island). I also know which business he just opened here. Suffice it to say, I’m not recommending it to anyone I know. See how bad behavior is rewarded on a small rock?
Many of these new transplants also populate the local social media community pages and make comments that demonstrate their ignorance of local culture and their arrogance in believing they know everything best. It is embarrassing to witness and does nothing to reduce the local population’s stereotyped beliefs about Americans. This isn’t unique to American expats, by the way. My Dutch friends make the same observations about the new Dutch who come to the island and engage in similar behaviors. Although not quite so loudly.
The truth is…a Caribbean island is NOTHING like your life back in the US of A (or Holland). And that’s pretty much why many of us come here.
Bitterly complaining that groceries cost too much or you can’t get your favorite brands or how customer service is so, so unacceptable is utterly unnecessary. Just as driving a fancy expensive import that you’ll never find parts for here happens to be. We already know all of this. We accept it and live with it. It is part of the charm of island life. Why do you think we all drive 15-year-old vehicles with rust spots and duct tape? Of course, we can afford nicer rides. We choose to drive old beaters. For very legit reasons. Something to think about.
If you’re planning a move here (or any Caribbean island), besides leaving behind your reef-killing sunscreen, please also leave behind your expectations that your life here should be just like back home. Things here are NOT like back home, and that’s sort of the point. Ease into island life. Go with the flow. Accept the things you cannot change. And for God’s sake, settle back and get to know the lay of the land before you start spouting off. Better yet, don’t spout off at all.
Why Should You Care?
Now, let’s put all this ranting into context. My island integration was not perfect. At the end of the day, I am still an American and I stepped in it more than once in my early, formative months on this rock. I have also been known, after a few too many cocktails, to occasionally lapse back into the stereotype of the loud American. Just ask my British husband.
But the silver lining is you can learn from my early missteps.
I offer these cautionary tales to help you avoid some of my mistakes (and the egregious mistakes of others I’ve observed). Because, at the end of the day, if you’re going to move to the islands anyway, let’s at least set you up to enjoy a successful immersion into the local community. Even better, you will be an ambassador for reducing the stereotype the rest of the world has about us Americans. And if you choose Bonaire, perhaps we can even get together for drinks some time. Let’s just not get too loud. You know how we Americans can get, especially when alcohol is involved.
Now, I’m sure there are a few other things you should leave at home when you move to the tropics. This list was not meant to be an exhaustive resource, by any means.
But one last thought. I’d suggest you be super judicious in what you bring (or have delivered after you get here). If you don’t absolutely need it, leave it behind or skip it altogether. After all, on any island there is a finite amount of space where unwanted items can be discarded. So the less you import, the better off the local landfill will be. I mean, those Amazon shipping boxes and packing materials have to end up somewhere, don’t they?
Got questions? Want to know more about island life? Thinking about making a big life change (whether that includes an island or not)? I’d love to hear from you. Check out this post or send your thoughts to email@example.com and let’s connect.
I’m a writer living on the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire. Originally from the U.S., I followed my heart to the tropics in 2011 at the wizened age of 43. Since then, I’ve been blogging to inspire and entertain. I love kitesurfing, a good gin & tonic, and corgis.
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