Doing It Ourselves, Island Style

by Rachel Ahrnsen

The U.S likes to envision itself as the love child of Paul Bunyan and Ron Swanson. In other words, our cultural narrative includes lots of bootstraps raised skyward and a do-it-yourself ethos. However, the modern reality is that many Americans outsource as much as possible, through Uber and Seamless, Alfreds and Instacart.

I never questioned this outsourcing (adulthood without grocery shopping and laundry and driving? My 5-year-old self is living the dream) until I began dating my boyfriend, Kurt, who hails from an island in The Bahamas. Seeing how someone from another culture approached life on a daily basis was illuminating. Unfortunately, it mostly illuminated my own helplessness and laziness.

Kurt’s homeland is one of the most developed nations in the Caribbean, and the islands possess all the modern luxuries we enjoy in the U.S. Walking through Kurt’s childhood neighborhood, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from a Florida Keys suburb.

However, his island was limited in one significant way: a lack of access to consumer goods. Like any small town with one stoplight, there’s not many stores or delivery options. And, when you’re a small town surrounded by an ocean, the logistics of transporting goods and services are even more complicated.

This explains a lot of Kurt’s adorable consumer quirks, like his fondness for exploring extravagantly stocked grocery stores (he spends over two hours in Whole Foods every time he goes) and his enduring passion for shopping malls because YOU CAN BUY ANYTHING YOU WANT IN ONE PLACE, THIS IS AMAZING!

Understanding his undying love for shopping megaplexes requires knowing how just how difficult a simple task like buying jeans can be on an island.

If Kurt wanted a new pair of jeans when he lived on the island, it was a very different process from my own experience of shopping at one of the 15 stores within a five mile radius. First, he had to order them shipped from the store to a dummy address in U.S used by multiple Bahamians. Then, he would have them picked up by a Bahamian in the U.S. Finally, the goods were flown down in a plane through a charter service. From what I’ve seen on Miami Vice, smuggling cocaine into the country is simpler.

Kurt’s other option was to wait for the semi-annual trip to Palm Beach (an unofficial Bahamian tradition), where his family would stuff clothing, tire irons, sides of pork, and anything else they couldn’t get on the island into their suitcases.

All that, for a pair of pants. So, Bahamians use what they have for as long as they can. They focus on reusing and repurposing to avoid the expensive rigmarole of shipping. Islanders take DIY to astounding levels.

Some of the most impressive DIYs I saw on the island were mechanical. I saw a Suzuki cab fused with the back end of a green John Deere gator, a SeaDoo rigged with an outboard motor, and boats without gas tanks using buckets filled with gasoline in their place. I’m not saying these are all good ideas, but they do demonstrate an admirable level of ingenuity.

Though I’m not yet able to DIY an entire vehicle, I’ve wildly improved my abilities in other areas. Until I met Kurt, I believed in my own helplessness. If a shirt developed a hole, or my jeans lost a button, I would simply resign it to rag pile instead of trying to fix it. I did not attempt to expand my cooking skills beyond Pillsbury roll cookies and ramen. I did not know nor care about the mechanics of changing a tire. In the U.S., there’s always someone to call, whether it’s pizza delivery or a repairman.

Now, I know how to cook fish en papillote, fix a wonky pants zipper, repair a fire detector, and a thousand other tiny life skills.

Learning these skills has empowered me to take on bigger projects. I wanted a headboard, so I built one out of pallets. I wanted some shelves for a bar, and so I built that out of pallets as well. I promise my apartment doesn’t look like a Pinterest hellscape.

Doing it ourselves is a lifestyle, not just an occasional project. We cook the vast majority of our meals, even making our own bread and salad dressing. We repair shoes and sew on buttons. I recently impressed myself by making my own pumpkin spice blend using a coffee grinder, which led to a lot of proclamations about me being a domestic goddess.

Sometimes, I fail. I set myself and others (just once) on fire while cooking, or sew part of my underwear to my pants, or my only fix for the sagging screen of my laptop is to prop it up with a hardcover Jane Austen anthology. But overall, DIYing has made me a much more confident and skilled person who has at least a five percent better chance of surviving an apocalypse.

I hope I’ve struck a happy medium between enjoying the luxuries of living in the U.S. and not being wholly dependent on others. Let me be clear: I believe sometimes outsourcing is necessary. Roof leaking like the end of days? Outsource! Vomiting in bed and can’t fathom cooking? Outsource! Car brakes are being shifty? Immediately outsource!

But for everything else, I DIY with my partner in crime.

Rachel is a freelance writer living in the unexpected paradise of Birmingham, Alabama. She is frantically attempting to keep her basil plant alive.

Photo: Ricardo Mangual

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