It really doesn't take long living somewhere, anywhere, before you start to think that all the local customs and oddities are normal. Of course they are normal in that place and time, but they aren't (or weren't) normal to us before having lived there for a while (we've been in Vieques now for just over a month). Our points of view lose their freshness, their newness. But Deb and I try hard to keep it fresh and remember the interesting quirks, for ourselves and to relay it to our friendly kneedeepers (that's you!), to tell you about what we see and experience.
Some of the idiosyncrasies are common with other islands, and some are specific to the one you are on. For example, it's a given that power and Internet will be spotty if you live on a Caribbean island, it just is. This also includes ATMs because if the Internet is down, so is the ATM. And that affects a lot of behaviors, causing a bit of cash hoarding for example. But in more than one way, we feel blessed that we were "blown off course" by Hurricane Maria, effectively being sent to Honduras to wait things out. It was a great experience, and couple of islands later we can appreciate some of these things as normal on any island - we can tell they happen everywhere!
Common to all islands, imported goods are expensive (and most things are imported) because of the additional shipping and handling that is required. And if you do have electricity it's expensive, which has many ripple effects, for example clothes dryers are rare because of the cost to run them. Even if it's a gas dryer, the cost of propane is high because yes, it is imported. Fresh fruits and veggies are not a given, but with some effort and flexibility, they can be found on most islands.
Fortunately, we have a veggie stand here on Tuesdays and Fridays just down the street from us - you find out what they have and adjust this week's menu to that. Another universal trait is the concept of “mañana”. It's been mentioned before but no matter if your island has Spanish, French, Dutch, or English history, things don't happen quickly and easily. If someone tells you that it will happen “mañana”, this just means it won't happen today. And don't bother asking why!
But where we've traveled we found some traits that are more specific to each individual island. In Utila, there were all the tuk-tuk taxis with their coded horn honking, meaning various things. In Roatan, a much more tourist-focused island, the hustle was constant with somebody trying to sell you something on the street (cigars, bracelets, drinks, massages) every single day. That was one aspect there we didn't like – in spite of the great people we met, and we met many great locals and expats alike, there were many locals who just regarded us as income sources. This is probably pretty common on the cruise-ship islands but we didn't see it on Utila and we don't see it here in Vieques (both smaller islands).
Speaking of Vieques, you know the plastic grocery bags at the stores in the states? They don't exist here. That's a good thing for the environment, the oceans and the fishes, but it was a small surprise for us. We have always made good use of them for a variety of needs.
Of course the wild and free horses here are somewhat unique as well, if only because of their sheer numbers - they are simply everywhere. In fact, a mare got hit by a car on our street a couple of weeks ago. She was bleeding in the street and putting no weight on one leg, so we made some phone calls and texts. In the meantime, she worked her way up the street to an empty lot with trees and bushes and plenty to eat. We ended up working with a volunteer to water her, and spray down the leg wound until they could take her for help.
Another Vieques oddity is in the use of a credit/debit card at the big grocery store called Super Descuentos. Their credit card machine is a portable, wireless machine and to get signal the cashier just wanders off toward the front door. Once she gets the signal she comes back and prints the receipt. It appears to be very strange behavior until you figure it all out. And I love, love, love, the ice cream man that goes around with a tiki umbrella on his golf cart with music playing and coolers full of ice cream for the kids. Then there are the announcement cars. They drive around with massive LOUD speakers on the top of their vehicles and give the important local news I suppose. I can't understand it!
But last week we had a visitor, Deb's friend Faith came to see us and brought a new perspective, letting us see the island through a fresh set of eyes. She and Deb went the whole 3 miles over to Esperanza on the south shore and stayed a couple of nights in a waterfront hotel, while the doggies and I had a bachelor party. That consisted of staying home and chilling, maybe with a beer and a doggie treat, but I also got several things done because we rented a car for those few days. The girls got some much-needed beach time together, rum drinks, and really good seafood. They spent the last night here in the house so we could squeeze in one last beach trip in the morning before taking Faith to the airport.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Faith loved the chicken families running around the neighborhood (really all the neighborhoods around here) and the horses everywhere we turned. She really enjoyed the beautiful beaches and exploring (we all hiked to the top of a cliff on one of the small islands in the bay - picture above).
She said she didn't like the seaweed in the water, but who does really? It was more turtle grass like we've seen before, but it doesn't take over entire beaches here like in the western Caribbean. And lots of it is broken off and just floating, because of the rough seas lately.
One of the highlights for Faith was our local Colmado (small grocery) because of the bar in the front of the store! It's not just that there is a bar in the front of the store, although admittedly that is pretty cool, but that it is really a local community gathering place. We were the only people in there that were not from around here, but our new neighbors happily took us in.
One lady named Victoria talked to us (in English) about how we're learning Spanish and she went on about her own schooling in Wisconsin. I think because she had been an outsider there, she knew how we felt in this situation and decided to chat us up. Her husband José managed to buy us a round of beers without us realizing it – they just showed up on the bar in front of us. So one quick beer at the Colmado turned into more! José told me he has good work over on Culebra, our sister island. On Mondays, he takes the ferry to Fajardo (on mainland PR) and then another ferry over to Culebra – it must take him 3-4 hours to get there. On Fridays he takes the trip in reverse. José is a really good guy that I'd like to get to know better. Later Faith reciprocated, buying them a round but we were all really heartened that once again people without a lot would reach out and give to strangers, just to be friendly. BTW, this isn't just our local Colmado that has a bar, it's all of them. At a minimum, you will always find at least a small area outside of the store where people sit and drink a beer and catch up on life. I guess it's a Puerto Rican thing.
Faith was surprised to see how selective the hurricane destruction was, how one house would be in great shape right next to one that had been demolished. We don't know for sure, but it's common for hurricanes to spawn tornados and they can be very picky as to what they decide to obliterate. Also, the quality of construction may have a lot to do with this. Wood houses are getting wiped off of these islands storm by storm while the concrete structures remain, survival of the fittest. Our rental house is concrete BTW, and has metal shutters - no glass windows. So it weathered the hurricane very nicely. In many cases, a concrete house would have a second floor wood structure added for extra bedrooms, etc. and often constructed without following any building codes. Well guess what? Those houses are single story again, sort of.
Faith joined us on Friday night at Dexter's Laboratory, a craft drink mixer put together every week by a local bartender at a small hotel near downtown. It's become our new normal Friday night, replacing (but never replacing!) our weekly trips to the breweries with our friends Mark and Maureen. This is mostly an open room with very few tables, and a bar at the end of the room. Everyone either sits at the bar or stands around it and everyone talks to everyone. It's almost all statesiders, lots of people like us who live here, and also tourists who come here every year, they hear about it from their local friends. It's a lot of fun to hear people's stories, how they got here, why they chose Vieques and what's next for them. This is one place where we are careful not to complain about our power going out for hours or days at a time because many, many of these folks have been 100% without power since September! And most of them have homes that still need a lot of repairs. So you can understand why they need a drink on Fridays! We are enjoying our renting lifestyle – we don't worry about storm damage or any other damage – but when these people talk about homes in the low one-hundreds or even under $100K, it gets pretty tempting at times. You start to understand why they take the risk.
Faith's final impression was telling. She said she loved how friendly everyone was after having gone through so much. They kept their good attitudes and smiles on their faces, because, why not? Island people don't tend to dwell on misery, they appreciate what they have and move forward, even if their house is only half a house. I think this may be why we like this place so much.
We had a great visit with Faith and really enjoyed showing off this quirky island and our low-key lifestyle. We even had a couple of lunches, on the way in and on the way out, at the restaurant bar in the parking lot of the airport. Locals go there all the time because the food is good and so are the prices, and the owner/bartender (who is also our neighbor) is very friendly. But then, a couple of hugs and in a blink of an eye, she was gone! That plane was really hauling when it took off – Faith said it was because she was the co-pilot! Balls to the wall! <-- look it up. 🙂