June 30, 2018
Moving To Mexico: USAdios.com
Chapter 5: No Cure For Bahamian Fever
Our son is at that age. He is at that age that constantly reminds us that he will be leaving us soon. He drives everywhere on his own. He has begun working part time earning his own spending money. And he is constantly correcting us about things he knows very little about. I did the same thing at seventeen. We all did.
We have become the middle-aged couple the college kids smile at as we tour college campuses. We are called “Sir” and “Ma’am.” The students stare at us like some hazy vision of many possible futures and we smile back at them fondly, having walked in their shoes, looked at visiting older people and never imagining becoming them. Yet, here we are.
Two schools we are visiting are out of state. One is in Florida and the other is in Arizona, vastly different states with climates we don’t experience much here in the SF Bay Area of California. We have visited both in the past and I remember each distinctly. Walking around Orlando, Florida feels like getting out of a hot shower, covering your nude body with Saran wrap and entering a steam room. The weather in Tempe, Arizona today has a high temperature of 108 degrees with zero precipitation and just 11% humidity which feels a little like the heat that radiates from the oven at Thanksgiving when I pull the turkey out wearing sandpaper gloves.
The school in Florida had a tour for us just last week so we got to experience both the heat, humidity and the rain all at the same time. I was sweating in our rental car as I attempted to defrost the inner side of the greenhouse-sweating windshield while finding the wiper controls for the sporadic rain outside.
“Dad, I’m turning on the AC. It’s so sweaty in here.” My son said as he fidgeted with the controls. As the cool air blasted I smelled a very familiar scent: slightly moldy air-conditioning. That smell always brings me back to our days in The Bahamas, not far south of where we were in Orlando. Smells do that to me. They are like jumper cables to the old car that drives me down memory lane.
Ahhh, The Bahamas. Have you ever fallen in love? I mean REALLY fallen for someone? Remember that all-consuming desire to be with them and how you ached when they were not close and the countless hours you spent thinking and dreaming of that person? I’ve been there but my passion was for a group of islands called The Bahamas.
I first visited the islands of The Bahamas around 1993 when I was treated to a once-in-a-lifetime trip on a private yacht for ten glorious days. Yes, I have had some wealthy friends and sometimes they would invite me into their world for a short while. (It was fun, but it was never real. And the people there…yuck. Not for me, but they had the best toys.) The trip itself was dreamlike, but the places we visited changed my life.
Having grown up on the cold, gray beaches of Santa Cruz, California, I already had salt water in my veins. There were times when I was in the US Army, far from shore, that I truly felt like I could not breathe. Fish out of water. The ocean will always need to be near me.
The water in The Bahamas was like a drug to me. I lost my taste for the Pacific Ocean completely. I had been spoiled by the perfection of the white sand, the clarity of the sea and the charm of the local people. It was love at first sight. From the very beginning, I was possessed with The Bahamas. My ignorance of the Caribbean as a whole lead me to believe the one place I had been was the promised land.
Long after I had moved on from the attraction to phony people with money that plagued my twenties, I still longed for the island life and vowed to one day return. I dreamt of living an island life, read everything I could about The Bahamas and planned on visiting again soon. After meeting Betty, the lovely woman who would be my lifelong best friend, we decided to wed and one day we discussed where to go for our honeymoon.
“An old buddy told me to spend a little on the wedding and a lot on the honeymoon.” I told her.
“Good idea.” She smiled, looking at the tiny engagement ring I had been able to afford. It cost me $1,000.00, ten percent of all the money I had in the world, all of which I had borrowed on a student loan that she had co-signed for, so I could attend law school.
“And we’ll be able to focus on the house.” I said. We had just purchased our first home and timed our move-in date to follow our honeymoon. We would start life together in a new home.
“Another good idea, because I have no clue how we’re going to afford that house payment.” She laughed. She was right. $2,500.00 a month in 1995 was a mountain of money for us but we somehow managed to still assume a three-week Caribbean honeymoon was in the budget. I miss the days when we were still naïve and not so practical.
“So, we will elope to Vegas for the wedding and then fly to The Bahamas for three weeks.” I grinned. She had never been there but trusted me when I recommended we travel to the islands.
“I can’t wait for our new life together to begin.” She said.
Betty fell in love with the islands just as I had. After consuming many lukewarm bottles of beer on our hotel beach she proclaimed,
“We’ll get remarried every five years.”
“A renewal of our vows.” I agreed.
“Right here, on this beach.” She raised her bottle. I toasted her, and we agreed. And for the next fifteen years, we did just that. We visited an average of three times a year and travelled almost nowhere else. We considered the islands our second home, made friends there and began to understand the culture.
During one of those visits, on our tenth anniversary, right after our second vow renewal ceremony, we decided to make the island of New Providence our new home. Our son was four years old and we could enroll him in a Pre-Kindergarten class at a nice international school, invest in what appeared to be a real estate boom market and live our island dreams while working remotely. In 2006, VOIP technology had really improved so we got a local phone number for each of us to use. Our clients never knew we were gone.
“Remember when we moved to The Bahamas?” I asked Betty as I parked our rental car near the university we were visiting.
“I smell it, too.” She smiled.
“Smell what?” Our son asked.
Cable Beach is known as the Bahamian Riviera on New Providence island. When we left California the first time, we chose this area because after so many years of visiting we were very comfortable there. It felt like our second home.
We also located a good school and a hospital nearby for our son. He was so little, we could not risk living on some sandy spec of an island far from public services.
We rented a condo in Cable Beach and searched for a home to purchase. BahaMar, a multi-billion-dollar resort, was transforming the entire neighborhood and everyone had BahaMar Fever. Especially us. I had done tons of research online using sites like Escape Artist and others. I looked at every single home that was listed online but soon learned that the “MLS” in the Bahamas was not well maintained. We would have better luck finding a place when we were actually there.
Mistake #1: Getting Caught Up In Fake Real Estate Frenzy
In order to get “residency” (worth little more than not having to leave the island every few months) expats were encouraged to invest a minimum of $500,000.00. Magically, that number became the benchmark for real estate pricing. It was far more than I wanted to spend, but after looking at homes in the $250-350K range, we learned that our taste did not match our budget.
“We came here for the sea.” Betty said. “If we can’t live on the ocean, what’s the point?” She was making a lot of sense, but in later years I would curse her words when storms battered our home repeatedly, costing tens of thousands of dollars in repairs every time.
There is a reason why most Bahamians cannot swim and very few live on the coast. The first reason is the cost. The second reason is they are smart. Mother Nature wreaks havoc on the islands of The Bahamas regularly and the beach properties take the most damage. But this knowledge is all hindsight. Our eyes were blinded by the dream of a Caribbean beach house. The lure of real estate riches as the new resort was driving the market up only fanned the flames. The aging resorts would be torn down and replaced with the grandest of them all. The roads and infrastructure would all be improved. Thousands of jobs and millions of visitors were destined to transform an old star with a fresh face. And we would be there to reap the profits. Or, so we thought.
We paid full listing price for a $500,000.00 condo on the beach in cash, plus another $100,000.00 in fees and since back then we were in a race to see how much money we could burn, we then paid a local decorator to completely update and furnish our new home, costing another $60,000.00.
Idiots. We were absolute idiots.
As we drove around Orlando looking at possible condo rentals for our son, I was reminded at each stop that we were not locals.
“You’ll get used to the weather.” Most people would say.
“We lived in The Bahamas. We got used to it, but it was still hot and humid.” I agreed.
“Our traffic is horrible, but you’ll get used to it.” They said.
“Actually, your traffic is really not that bad compared to the SF Bay.” I said.
“Our condos come with pest control and we spray each week.” A condo rep told us as we walked the grounds.
“Spray for what?” I asked.
“Ohhhh, boy…” She laughed but did not answer. Perhaps she thought I was kidding but I really did not know. Apparently, there were bugs in Orlando big enough to carry off cats and small dogs. The mosquitoes could get so bad that people avoided entering their homes through the front door. They use the garage door attempting to stop swarms of mosquitoes from entering the house. The aerial spray of DDT (or some such chemical) used by the city to ward off insects is apparently not enough so most condo associations also spray. I also read that they use something called a “sentinel chicken” in Orlando. I imagined a rooster in body armor but it’s more like a canary in a coalmine technique used to monitor possible infectious diseases like Zika, Dengue and West Nile Virus spread by mosquitoes. If the chicken dies horribly, we’re next.
Mistake #2: Local Knowledge is King
Visiting a place and living there are two different things. Had we rented on the island for a year first, we would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. The more we learned about living in The Bahamas, the more the specter of doubt crept into my perfect island life plans. Had I met older me, my advice to younger me would have been to live in a new country for at least a year and rent before you buy. But, younger me would not have listened. Younger me had BahaMar tunnel-vision and a pocket full of money ready to be spent.
Had I listened to older me, one thing I would have learned that first year is that most Caribbean nations are limited in so many ways. Most are small islands, so everything must be shipped there increasing prices and limiting selection. Food, utilities, and basic necessities all cost more, sometimes a LOT more. Without going into a detailed budget breakdown, suffice to say that if you want to live on the beach in The Bahamas you had better bring buckets of money.
There is a different side of The Bahamas that travel websites won’t tell you. It has a dark side. There is rampant crime, a murder rate that will shock you and a Haitian immigrant issue most Bahamians try to ignore, until they need some really hard work done. Then it’s, “Get the Haitian.”
Most Bahamians live on just a few of the hundreds of islands and ours was the most populated. With about 333,000 total inhabitants nationally, in 2005 as they do now, most Bahamians chose to live on New Providence island. We experienced epic traffic jams on our freeway-free island that still used roads called “carriageways” because that’s what they were designed for: horse-drawn buggies.
Public events and celebrations were electric with energy but nearly impossible to attend due to the number of people there. And parking downtown (or anywhere near the cruise ship port) was more difficult than downtown San Francisco. The little island nation had outgrown its infrastructure.
One day, while lamenting my $750.00 power bill (guess we used the AC too much that month) I received an email about a local thief called “Spider Man” who was known for beaching his Jet Ski near private residences and climbing into open condo windows two or three floors up. I called our HOA representative and she answered with her usual dismissive demeanor.
“I thought we just dealt with this guy.” I said. “Wasn’t he caught?”
“Well, who was the guy the police got? The one lighting fires in our building?” I asked.
“He was called Fire Bug.” She said as she exhaled hard, talking to me must have been so much work.
“Do all the criminals here have nicknames?” I asked.
“Dey famous. Dey get caught, dey get release. Dey get famous.” She said.
Great. Now we have another superbad crime-blighter.
“We have a gate on one side of the property, an ocean on the other, gate codes, door codes and a full-time groundskeeper and we still can’t keep the thieves out. What is happening here?” I asked her.
“Seems the rightful owners of dey property come back to claim it.” She said.
And I never forgot her saying that. She meant it. We were considered trespassers in this land and she wanted me to understand that fact.
Mistake #3: You Will Never Be A Local
Especially if you are a privileged white guy from California like me, you will always be the expat, the Gringo, the Haole, the foreigner, the outsider, the Conchy Joe or worse. You may make friends, but it will take a long time for those friendships to take hold.
“I see a lot of people like you. Dey come and dey go.” A local Bahamian I had known for about six months once told me. He was explaining to me why he was hesitant to get close to me, to rely upon me as a friend.
“Conchy Joe’s, dey stay. But most whites come and go. It ain’t easy livin’ here!” He said.
I had learned that a Conchy Joe is a white Bahamian. That slur, along with the dig that most whites like me can’t handle living someplace difficult would have made me head for a good cry session in my safe space if I were a millennial…but I’m not. I understood where my Bahamian friend was coming from and took his verbiage in stride. And he was right. Less than three years in the Bahamas was all we could do before we decided to leave in 2008 when the financial crisis hit. We had had enough of paradise for a while.
Renting our place out turned out to be a nightmare. Profitable tenants were nearly impossible to find so we put the condo up for sale and lost our shorts. I forgot to mention, BahaMar failed around 2008. We waited a few years for it to resurface with new funding but by the time it did, we had given up. I’m told the final version of the resort was nowhere near the original plan and that the quality of the construction of the existing hotels was suspect, but I have not confirmed this. Property value have still not recovered to the BahaMar Fever days.
I try to balance every story with the good and the bad, but this one is tough. The Bahamas is a beautiful place with some of the friendliest people I have ever met. But you cannot just go to the beach every day. Beyond that gin-bottle clear water and white sand there is not much to do there. It can get boring and island fever is common. The cost of living and the crime rate seemed to be climbing to outpace each other in a race of doom. I was completely enamored with that nation for decades. I uprooted my family and bought into their culture completely. I truly loved the idea of The Bahamas. The reality was just not enough.
In the end, I invested and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars but we learned a lot and had a lot of fun along the way. My advice is to visit the islands, enjoy yourself and go back home. Personally, I don’t miss The Bahamas and will probably never visit again. There is much more to see.
After visiting five or six condo developments in Orlando, we found three nice places where our son could live, two of which seemed almost perfect.
“Pretty different from the Sunset District garage-conversion I lived in while attending SFSU.” I said to my son. “I had to do my dishes in the concrete garage sink. I had use of a clothes washer didn’t have a clothes dryer, so I had hang my stuff on a line in the back yard.”
My son looked at me and twisted his head a bit like a dog that just heard something odd.
“Imagine how long it took me to dry my clothing in such a foggy and damp area.” I said but he still looked puzzled.
“Why would you line up your clothes?” He asked. “Where is the Sunset District?”
“Never mind.” I said, knowing I’d just told him a snowy, uphill-both-ways story.
“Your sink was made of concrete?” He asked. I nodded.
“It was next to the clothes washing machine and the gray water from the machine drained into that sink.” I explained but he looked very confused.
I didn’t lie to him, yet I was sure I sounded like my grandparents. I decided to stop sharing my college tales for today.
My nose was getting used to the slightly moldy smell that emanated from the vents of our rental car. The smell stopped bringing back those memories of our life in The Bahamas. The trip down memory lane was complete. Odd. I had been so enamored with that place for decades and now, for the first time, I did not wonder what my ex-lover was up to. I truly did not care.