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The Cost of Paradise

There is a real cost to living in paradise and I don't just mean the price of land, groceries, cars, etc.; the costs are more broadly based than just money. Even if we're just talking about “stuff” the costs can be seen in broader ways. The word “scarcity” starts to describe it for me. Scarcity causes behavioral changes in people, and it has already changed Deb and I to some extent. I'm reminded of rural people without easy access to stores, and especially those who grew up in the years during and shortly after the Great Depression. Nothing is thrown out, everything has multiple purposes. They were so far ahead of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” generation it's a running joke. More on this later, because it intertwines itself in so many ways in our everyday island lives.

 

The weather is a big factor here, as it is in many places. Tropical weather is one of extremes, as last year's hurricane season can attest. We may go months with almost unbelievably nice warm days and pleasant nights (that's what we're in right now – it's amazing!). Rainy season, and there are two of them annually in the eastern Caribbean, can literally put a damper on the enthusiasm, but how many times have we all heard and said, “We need the rain”? Well, that's also true here. Then there's the real heat of summer which Deb and I experienced in Florida last year, but not yet in the islands.

Finally, things get exciting and I don't mean in a good way. Hurricanes are fed by the warm waters of summer. But since the massive oceans take so long to heat up, hurricane season starts in late summer and continues through the fall even as the air in many places starts to cool. Last year's season was the worst this area has seen in decades and people are not over it yet by any means. There is real PTSD here with some residents and that is likely to be triggered with every tropical storm report this coming season. Many prayers will be said, and Viequenses and transplants alike all hope they are answered.

Broken power meter hanging from the front of the house
Our meter post-Maria.
Weather report showing highs in the low 80s and low in the mid 70s every day
It's a great time of year here!

The whole world seems to be wrapped up in politics nowadays, and in very aggressive ways. Every event, no matter how apolitical, somehow becomes political, and usually turns nasty. And the islands are not immune from this. In Honduras, the politics on the mainland turned violent, and affected us in many ways. In Puerto Rico, there is a bunch of finger pointing at Washington over the hurricane response, and in Washington, the fingers point the other way. I'm 100% positive there's plenty of blame to go around. This doesn't affect us too much because we try to stay out of it all, but at times you can see the politics affecting the moods of the people we meet. Related to politics, there seems to be a higher level of corruption down here, or maybe they just don't make as much effort to cover it up. On the PR mainland, a warehouse full of electrical equipment (needed for power restoration for the people) was found; it was being hoarded, used as leverage and/or to reward political friends. Within a week after it was confiscated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, new accusations were flying from PR bureaucrats that the Army was now hoarding the materials! The Mayor (Alcalde) of Vieques is even being accused of shirking his duties, and actually much worse than that. What's the real story? It's likely we won't ever find out, but I know this, politics and corruption are in the tropics to stay.

Deb read an blog post recently that advised island residents to quit asking the question “Why?”. Don't do it. Abolish it from your vocabulary. It's for your own good. Why? 🙂 Because it will drive you crazy. You don't want to hear the answer, if there even is one. If you insist on being curious, you can find out what's wrong and go about trying to “fix these messed up island things”. Or you can be happy, but you can't be both. So we have to constantly remind ourselves of this bit of wisdom, and strive for happiness instead of worrying about questions without answers and problems we can't solve.

There is randomness in life, and more so in island life. When does the garbage truck come? Usually on Tuesdays, but not always, and usually well after dark. Why? Doesn't matter, just put the trash out and wait. We bought a bike that had a Presta valve on the front tire and a Schrader valve on the back tire. Why? Don't know, but you can buy an adaptor or better, a new tube and the problem is solved. What happened to the aluminum foil at the neighborhood store? Don't know, but no worries, it'll be back, and in the meantime figure out how to get along without it. This brings me back to the idea of scarcity.

 

Bicycle with two different types of valves on the tires
Don't ask why!

In a place where stuff is scarce, it can be difficult to be a pure minimalist. In fact, it's impossible when you also have a driving need to minimize reliance on others. The two can in fact go head-to-head. I don't want to rely on others any more than necessary. Neighbors are great, but I don't want to be in their debt, to be the guy always borrowing tools, etc. Stores are wonderful, but very often they don't have the stuff I need when I need it. When the ATM outside the bank goes down (and this happens often, sometimes for days at a time), every ATM on the island is also down. Since most places don't take credit cards because of flakey Internet, this creates a scarcity of money. Government is necessary, but the libertarian in me doesn't see government helping me much except during disasters. So I try not to rely on them and I don't think I'm alone in these thoughts, here on Vieques. Minimalism is only a means to an end (happiness) anyway.

So what do islanders do? They hoard. Deb doesn't like this, but looking around our small, well furnished house, you can see it everywhere. Every screw that's ever fallen off the 50 year old window mechanisms in this house is saved in the casita (meaning "small house", it is our toolshed + laundry room out in the back yard). If you need a couple of mixing bowls in the kitchen, you're going to find 13. Dishtowels? 17. Silverware? Enough to feed FEMA. Towels? 21. Cutting boards? 7 of them. So here we are after two weeks, already in the habit of saving things with a passion. Twist ties? Yes, we've got a stash. Empty plastic bread bags? Yep. Empty jars and lids? Of course. Plastic bottles? They are already filled with water and sitting below the counter. This is good for staying independent, and also makes us better environmental citizens.

You even see it in the stores. There are obscure little things that these places keep, sometimes for months, sometimes for years and they don't discount them, they damn well expect to get full price! You never know when someone will want to buy a bluetooth speaker the size of a small lemon for $24.95. Or a case of craft beer that expired last fall, for $45 plus 10.5% tax. Eventually some stateside sucker'll pay it! (Sheepish grin, but actually I consider that my duty – now the store can restock with new, fresh beer!) A new metal handle for a 20 year old screen door only cost us $8 so those must have a healthy turnover rate. But things don't get thrown out. If someone spent the time, money, and effort to get it here on this island then it must have value and you can bet it's going to get used one day.

Another example of scarcity and randomness is with the utilities (water, power, Internet); we've been finding this to be true in spades. We started off without Internet (and cell coverage) but after a week or so we had all that solved. In fact, things were great for an entire week after that, we had the trifecta - woohoo! Then the power started going out last Saturday for a few hours at a time. That wasn't too bad, it was back up on Sunday. But without power we also lost Internet because the antenna on the roof needs it. We don't have a TV, and no Internet = no Netflix, so we “Kindle and Chill” now. Cell coverage has been pretty OK – my guess is that the cell towers have their own backup generators, so as long as we can get a charge on the phone battery that will work.

 

Dark living room with solar lights
Kindle and chill

This week, the power went out at oh-dark-thirty on Monday night and it wasn't just for a few hours. The outages tend to bother me (more than Deb) because of the uncertainty. For me it's not about having no power “now”, that's easy to deal with. In my mind, it's the question of when it will come back. When will the food in the fridge get another dose of cold air? When can I get enough power and Internet long enough to post a blog? And the question that gnaws – is this going to be for hours, days, weeks, or worse? In this case it surprised us on Wednesday night by popping back on, and then it was back off only a half hour later (such a tease!). At the time of this writing, it's been out since late Monday night, with the exception of that half hour I mentioned, so if you're reading this, the power came back on. Or we're in a bar.

 

My theory is that when the power came up with a smaller backup generator, people started cranking up non-essential things like air conditioners, and overloaded the fragile system. Our neighbors did this, we heard their AC unit start up within minutes of the power returning. You have to understand the annoyance here – the sun was down, the outside temperature at the time was in the high 70s, and there was a wonderful breeze. You could not ask for a more pleasant evening and yet they were running their power-hungry AC.

I think this was repeated all over the island to the detriment of everyone. So now instead of hearing AC units, we hear much louder generators running in the neighborhood and all around the island. Not to complain too much - this is just life in the slow lane. I should also say most of our neighbors have been great – we received gifts of bananas and eggs from next door and Valentine's Day candy from the folks behind us!

Window air conditioner
We'll use this, but not in February!

One more thing to note about this elusive power we seek. The “normal” power for Vieques comes through an undersea cable from the mainland of PR. As I mentioned in the last blog post, it was severed on purpose, leaving Vieques to run on a couple of “backup” generators. Now, our backup generators have backup generators, but even that doesn't seem to be helping. None of this is as reliable as anyone would like. Eventually, we'll get reconnected to the mainland and the hope then is that our power will be more reliable from that point forward. All of this remains to be seen – the time estimates to get mainland power run from 3 months to 2 years or more.

At this point we were down to only having running water, no power, no Internet (not exactly a trifecta!). Then I read on a local Facebook page in Spanish that in 2 days FEMA wasn't going to provide diesel fuel to the generators that pump our water over from the mainland. So now we're hoarding water (see above about plastic bottles). We don't expect the water system to fail (water is essential to life, and this is still the United States after all) but you just don't know. The coconut telegraph is alive and well on Vieques, but it's not always accurate. So we do the things we think are needed to protect ourselves. We hoard. 🙂

 

Several large plastic bottles filled with water, case of beer in corner
The astute observer will note that water is not the only beverage I hoard.

We're also stocking up on off-grid gear starting with the cheapest little solar pathway lights for the yard ($2 each!). We charge them up and stick them inside where they last 4-6 hours depending on how well we kept them in the sun during the day. We have some Luci Lights on the way as well, which cost more but should help light up the place much better. Of course we have battery lights and candles, and we try to get our mobile devices charged up when we go out somewhere (we also use a lithium battery pack with solar charging when we're home). On our next trip to the Colmado (corner store) we're bringing a rolling cooler (found in the casita). We'll be hauling home some ice so we can keep key foods from spoiling and have cold drinks to get us through the evenings.

 

Yard lights used indoors
$2 yard lighting repurposed

Yes, there is a real cost to living in paradise. It takes a certain type of person to say I am willing to pay that cost to live here. Islanders are many things, but the one word that comes to mind is “tough”, they have a toughness, maybe it's also stubbornness, but I see tough people and they're all ages. We're sensitive to the fact that our lives are easier than most, especially those who have been living without power (and there are still many, many of them), dealing with that, going to work, school, etc. A big part of our journey is to decide if we too are tough like this, or at least tough enough. So far, so good – these things that make life more difficult have not affected our happiness. Although we do spend more time doing some basic things than we'd like, or doing them before it gets dark, just making sure we are prepared allows us to relax. The costs to live here are considerable at times, frustrating sometimes, but the rewards can be spectacular.

 

Sunset over the ocean
I think it's worth it

How about you guys? Got any good stories of living in the dark? I'm sure those of you in the hurricane belt have had long periods without power, and living in the heat as well. We've been fortunate that the weather has been so perfect since we got here.

TODAY'S SPECIAL: "Better Together" by Jack Johnson, because it very definitely is "always better when we're together".

18 Comments

  1. Betty on February 16, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    Sounds like life is hard there sometimes. I am so glad that you two are tough enough; no doubt in my mind. I have lived without power for several days (no longer remember how many but I believe it was 10 days) when the temp and humidity were both in the 90’s. That was the year we bought the generator! Getting gas for it was hard, however, so I understand hoarding. Keep the blog coming. I really like catching up.

    • Norm Pyle on February 17, 2018 at 12:30 am

      We’ll find out if we are tough enough! Right now we really don’t have to be too tough. Some of our friends have been without power since September. Ours seems to be around for a few hours, then gone. Then back. It’s very unpredictable. The gas problem (5 hour long lines) is why we want to just get a decent small solar system that will power our devices and a couple of lights. It won’t run our fridge but we can manage that I think. We’re doing fine!

  2. Kevlar on February 16, 2018 at 5:12 pm

    I frequently think of things being more expensive in the islands. I seldom think of personal resilience as a cost. Interesting. It is revealing, I think, that it has no impact on your happiness. Congratulations.
    How do you get local news? Radio? Internet? Gossip with expats in bars? Is it accurate?

    • Norm Pyle on February 17, 2018 at 12:40 am

      Such a great question! Local news is completely done by the coconut telegraph, which has been modernized now. It’s mostly on Facebook, but not all. Today for example, we went to "Dexter’s Laboratory" a weekly craft drink mixer with a great bartender! We rode there on our bikes and arrived at 4, only to find out they changed it to start at 5 (was announced on FB but we never saw it). We finally met up with people an hour later but had to leave at 6 because we didn’t want to be out after dark (we have no lights on the bikes, and probably wouldn’t ride after dark even if we had them). We also go to a local bar called El Sombrero Viejo to meet up with the expat crowd. Accurate? I’d say about 50%. 🙂
      It’s easy to meet expats (statesiders) but it takes more effort to meet real local Viequenses. We’ve got a couple of friendly neighbors we’re slowly getting to know in that group. We love it!

  3. Mark N. on February 16, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    The other day the local store here was out of the mango/passion fruit beer I like. I had to drive 2 miles to another store to get a six pack. So I totally understand the hardship and frustration associated with living with scarcity and the unknown.:) Keep the faith!

    • Norm Pyle on February 17, 2018 at 12:41 am

      HAHAHAAA! You get it Brudda! Scarcity! Hang in there, you will make it! 🙂

  4. Perry on February 17, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    I (and two other guys) own a share of a houseboat on Lake Powell. Totally off-grid. 11KW generator, 1KW solar, huge 12v storage cells, and 120v inverter. The generator burns under 14 gallons for the entire week, mostly to make morning coffee (priorities!) and run an electric freezer (steaks! priorities!).
    We have a 120-gallon potable water tank, and a 4-trillion(!) gallon lake water tank. We use lake water for dishes, showers, etc., and potable water to rinse dishes, drink, and cook.
    Internet? Fugeddabouddit. The marinas have it, and there is cell coverage if you can see Navajo Mountain. There are about three places to see Navajo from the lake, otherwise it’s a sweaty 500-1000′ vertical to the top, if there’s a way.
    We don’t run the generator after the crew starts going to bed. I discovered these incredibly bright LED flashlights on Amazon (search "XML T6"). They use an 18550 lithium cell that can be recycled from "dead" laptop batteries. 2.2 amp-hours at 3.5 volts. Laptop batteries are configured 3×3. Usually one trio runs out of chemistry, but the other six are OK. These lights are powerful enough to light up a canyon wall half a mile away. They can also be dimmed, set to wide-angle, and light the entire living room.
    Fortunately, I live within a mile of the local homebrew store. Can’t imagine having to hoard beer, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

    • Norm Pyle on February 18, 2018 at 1:31 am

      This is really interesting, thanks Perry! I’d love to have a solar system that would run a refrigerator/freezer, and lithium batteries for their reduced size and weight, but I don’t think I want to pay for all that. Maybe if I had a mini fridge… I do know I’m going shopping on Amazon for solar gear soon.

      • Perry on February 22, 2018 at 3:49 am

        If you’re having trouble schlepping the two duffel bags, the batteries will add another 200 pounds of joy to your travels. Maybe a dog sled – put those two to work! The off-grid solution isn’t portable, because chemistry. Two electrons per atom of lead.
        Powell is 100+F in August, so cold food storage is in short supply. We actually run the freezer (more insulation) at just above freezing at the top – there’s an add-on controller for that. The frozen food stays mostly frozen at the bottom, and gives us refrigerator space (cold beer!) at the top. The mini-fridges don’t have much insulation, so they use a lot of power.
        Intermittent island power is a problem. The big joke on the houseboat is that the generator will charge the batteries more in one hour than the panels do all day. On an island, I’d go toward generator, batteries, and inverter. Recharge the batteries with 120v mains when possible, charge with generator when necessary.
        If you’re interested in this stuff, look up off-grid RVs. The battery capacity question boils down to how often you want to run the generator to keep your critical electrical infrastructure running.



      • Norm Pyle on February 22, 2018 at 11:39 am

        Weight and size are reasons to go with Lithium instead of Lead. But the cost for those is in $$$s. Tesla is pitching a whole house solution (Power Wall) based on Lithium and is supposed to be more economical. In reality, all it saves you is some space. And it looks cool. Agreed about critical electrical infrastructure – we haven’t made that decision yet, but so far, 50% of the time we have power and that works OK.BTW, any of these big things we might buy here (including those bikes) is going to stay here if and when we leave. So that will keep us from stocking up on too much "stuff". I’m getting too old to schlep! So we’re planning to settle in here. I’ll update you on this come hurricane season. 🙂



  5. Perry on February 17, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    Forgot to mention that Lake Powell is pretty much in the wilderness. The Marina Store is a four-hour round-trip butt-slam via ski boat. The nearest Walmart is 200 miles away in Grand Junction. If you didn’t load it, you don’t have it. We have a gazillion checklists to make sure we brought everything. If something breaks or goes AWOL, we phone the next owner and they bring it from Denver next week.
    There are several "casitas" on-board with various nuts and bolts, electrical connectors, (re)construction materials, engine oil, etc. The problem with casitas is they eventually get clogged with stuff you likely won’t need. That’s the problem with islands and boats – limited space.

    • Norm Pyle on February 18, 2018 at 1:36 am

      Definitely you have more space problems than I do! I bet your "casitas" are smaller than ours (about 8′ x 12′ footprint). Our nearest Walmart BTW is only a 2 hour ferry ride and another half hour taxi. Each way. 🙂 The real problem is the horror stories of ferries being canceled, running hours and hours late, etc. So, we basically ignore the fact that PR has Walmart, Home Depot, etc. because we just don’t want to bother.

  6. Kevin Allen on February 18, 2018 at 4:32 am

    Sounds like an opportunity for a Vieques entrepreneur to distribute divi pay-as-you-go solar lamps and/or our soon to be announced Solar Home System.

    • Norm Pyle on February 18, 2018 at 11:44 am

      Emailing you now… 🙂

  7. Matt P on February 25, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    We have lived off of propane, candles, and charging phones at work or in the car. The first time we did this was in the high country of colorado in The winter. The second time was at lower elevation and we had a wood stove. So at least you aren’t freezing. Renogy solar is a good company that has helped us upgrade our life style. About to go off grid again. Oh the adventure

    • Norm Pyle on February 25, 2018 at 7:53 pm

      Matt, you two are big inspirations for us with the solar thing. We love that we get free light from our cheap solar yard lights and our new Luci Lights. We usually just use them even when we have power. And yes, we are thankful we aren’t freezing! It’s 84F today. I’ll look up Renogy, thanks!

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