How to Survive on a Tropical Island: An Expat’s Guide

When you first daydream about living on a rock somewhere in the middle of the ocean, images of palm trees, coconuts, and white sand beaches come to mind. Each island is populated with friendly locals, eager to welcome you as one of their own. There are no logistical problems, cultural snafus, health concerns, or political strife to squash your notions about what island life is really like.

When you move to your little plot of paradise, reality sets in as do the challenges of living somewhere hundreds — or thousands — of miles away from the nearest major metropolis.

If you are considering moving to a tropical island in a faraway country, here are some survival tips you need to know.

Realize that there are no secrets on an island. Even when the internet and phone lines are down, coconut wireless runs at full throttle. If you want something to be kept a secret, it’s best not to tell anyone at all. Consider misbehavior and the details of your love triangle public knowledge.

Consider mold as an ever-present enemy. Humidity combined with heat creates a prime breeding ground for bacteria and mold. Things you didn’t know had a porous surface will sprout tiny mushrooms or green fuzz. Leather, wood, and vinyl all have short lifespans. Leave those things behind in the Land of Air Conditioning.

Adjust to island time. When you live on an island, opening hours are a suggestion rather than a rule. Your friends might show up to your party long after you’ve turned off the lights and gone to bed. Of course, it can be frustrating when you plan your day around a single appointment that never comes to fruition — but soon, you’ll be using it to your advantage. Running late? No worries, everyone else is too.

Say goodbye to anonymity. Gone are the days where you could venture to the grocery store wearing without worrying about seeing anyone you know. When you live on an island, everyone seems to know everyone (or at least know of everyone). Your quick trip to the shops will result in no less than five small talk conversations, and a handful of others will likely honk at you as you walk in or out of your front door. Exemplify this tenfold if your skin color and body type does not match those of the locals, making you stand out even further. If your prone to bouts of loneliness, seeing familiar faces everywhere you go is quite the cure.

Treat firsthand recommendations like a Biblical commandment. Endorsements are gold when it comes to finding the right doctor, dentist, hair stylist, taxi driver, plumber, etc., on a tropical island. Most of the best people in their field earn their way to the top through their reputation. If you hear ten people mention one dentist over another, you’d be a fool to branch out and risk losing your pearly whites because you went to someone unheard of.

Get used to having a pet – even if you have no intentions of keeping one. At some point, you’ll come across a sick dog or cat that you can’t resist taking to the vet. And of course, once they’re better, the shelter is full so they’re going to have to come home with you. Once you become known as an animal lover, a handful of others are sure to end up on your doorstep. Better start looking for a petsitter now if you want to go home for Christmas.

Learn to hoard without going overboard. There are three phases to learning how to shop on a tropical island — where everything is imported on an unpredictable schedule. First, you go to the shop for the item you want and see that they have three of them in stock. You purchase one. Next, you go to replace the item in the shop a month later and see that there are none in stock. You buy something else that will tide you over until your ideal item is replenished. Finally, you visit again and see that your preferred item is in stock — with four items on the shelf.

Obviously, you purchase all four. Your home soon overflows with “extras” of items that you keep on hand just in case. While this is worth it for some things, it’s certainly not worth it for all. Embrace your inner minimalist and give a few of your surplus items to others who may have been scavenging the shelves minutes after you wiped out the store.

Invite friends and family over. Then, use them as pack mules. Your friends and family can stay with you so long as they leave half of their luggage allowance for your goods. It’s the tropics! They won’t need many clothes anyways. Ship your can’t-get items to their home and get your friends and family to schlep your packages over to you. Trust me, this is the only way to guarantee that your precious goods won’t be lost in the mail.

Consider recent power outages before you order your meal. Is that clam chowder really a smart choice when the city hasn’t had power for the past three days?

In many ways, the challenges of living on a tropical island go along with its benefits. You might not get every fruit in the supermarket, but you’ll have some of the freshest produce at the local market. Since it’s a challenge to buy the latest and greatest of every new item, identity is linked to your community rather than consumerism. The ability to go out and be invisible is something we all crave, though you’ll rarely feel lonely in a destination where so many people say hi to you by name.

What do you think? Would you ever move to a tropical island?

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