Going South

I was 68 and long since retired when I had the pleasure of being an “accompanying spouse” on a junket to a Caribbean island where my wife was attending a business conference. During her meetings I whiled away the time on the beach and simply fell in love with the climate. It was reliably sunny and warm every day – a big improvement on the vagaries of Florida weather and a marvelous respite from the brutal New England cold wave we had left behind. The combination of sun and salt water was soothing to my psoriasis, and a daily rum punch helped stir up memories of long summers at the beach where my parents had a house when I was a boy.

I’m 74 now, and starting my seventh winter in the Caribbean. The first year I stayed a month; the second I bumped it to two; and the third I maxed out at three. I found my first apartment via the Internet while I was still back home; since then I shop for next December’s place before going home in March. My wife takes two or three breaks from her work every winter, ranging from long weekends to a couple of weeks.                         

Every trip is both an escape and a renewal for me. The accumulated disappointments of life are unavoidable traveling companions, but swaying palm trees and flame-bright bougainvilleas are very good distractions. Surprisingly, it’s a pleasure to get away from the volunteer teaching that I’ve been doing back home for the last five years. Not that I don’t relish the teaching, but it isn’t particularly relaxing – in fact it has some of the same pressures I wanted to leave behind when I stopped working for money. On the other hand, I often use my get-away time to research new subjects that I’d like to teach. Or I tackle a project like reading a few Dickens novels or brushing up my French. So my trips are also chances for intellectual renewal.

My hopes as well as my fears about going south focus simply on how long I’ll be able to do it. Over the years there has been noticeable upward pressure on plane fares and car rentals. I hope the Caribbean doesn’t go the way of Cape Cod, where affordable summer rentals are now out of sight. I’m also concerned that sooner or later medical problems will make it too hard to travel.

But so far (knock wood) my health down here has been excellent. I’ve had minor illnesses and accidents, and the local doctors have cared for me well. I tested the system only once, with a bout of acute food poisoning for which I spent a day in the ER of a public hospital. Again, the care was good, despite enormous overcrowding and limited staffing. Over the years my Medigap insurance has reimbursed all my medical expenses here (including an ambulance to the ER) but not prescriptions. So I try to pack 90-day supplies of my regular vitamins and meds, not all of which are available here.

Because I rent rather than own and because I’m away so long, I bring a lot of luggage. I buy the cheapest upgradeable economy air ticket with dollars, and then I upgrade to business class with miles. Business class lets me check three bags up to 75 pounds each (versus the one 50-pounder that is free on economy). I suppose that if I were a golfer, one of those bags would be my favorite clubs. Not being a golfer, I devote a large suitcase to bulky items like a roll-up exercise mat, long-blade swim fins,  a combination electric toothbrush and dental water pick, a portable computer printer, and the books that I might need for researching new courses but can’t get from Kindle. Are any of these bulky items necessities? Not really, but they make my time here healthier and more productive.

I buy the plane ticket about six months in advance, and I leave around December 15. Fares go up and seat availability goes down if you want to leave closer to the holidays. I used to buy travel insurance (including emergency medical evacuation coverage) with my plane ticket, but recently this insurance has become too expensive.

The bad news about traveling heavy is the physical and mental stress of organizing and lugging all your stuff. Every year I update a 4-page packing list in an MS-Word document. I could never keep the details straight without this list, although it doesn’t change much from year to year.

In addition to liberal use of porters at airports, I hire people to help me pack and unpack on both ends. Even so, I tend to overdo it, resulting in discomfort or injury.

The essential software for my trip consists of Skype, for talking to my wife every afternoon; iTunes, for playing my digitized music library; Dropbox, for backing up and syncing my teaching and personal files; and, of course, an internet browser and email. I run all this software on my laptop, poaching an internet connection from my landlord’s or a neighbor’s LAN. I could do all of this on a smartphone, but I don’t own one, and I’m told that international data plans and roaming charges are steep. 

Apart from the laptop, my essential gadgets are as follows: a Kensington lock, which anchors the laptop to a heavy table (security is a problem everywhere); a Kindle, for most of my reading; a cheap unlocked cell phone, for local calls (unlocked means you can buy pre-paid minutes from almost any phone company in the world); an iPod, for classical music and recorded books via earbuds when I’m beachcombing; and an iPod dock, for music via loudspeakers when I’m in the apartment. Other hardware that I think twice about bringing – and usually bring anyway – includes an old laptop in case I drop the new one (which I did the first winter I was here); a portable printer, for editing drafts and getting ready for our annual tax-time date with our accountant; and a digital camera. This year I also invested in a tiny waterproof iPod, in the hope it will help prolong my daily swims in the Caribbean.

I hope this blog helps readers of Over 65 think about getting away for the winter. Good luck finding your own place in the sun!