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From AJR,   May 1998  issue

Dropping Out   

A veteran reporter leaves behind the world of deadlines and new leads to experience life on a tiny volcanic island in the Caribbean.

By Suzanne Gordon
Suzanne Gordon reported for the Philadelphia Bulletin and the Philadelphia Inquirer, leaving the Inquirer to freelance in the Caribbean in 1997.     

It was August 7, 1997, the day I dropped out.

I got on a plane in Philadelphia, paid American Airlines several hundred dollars in baggage overages, and headed for the islands.

The journey began in February 1975, when I made my first trip to the Caribbean with friends and rented a beautiful house on a gorgeous, secluded beach, back when homes like that could be had for $175 a week.

I returned to my job at the Philadelphia Bulletin at the end of that week, but a piece of me was stuck in the sand.

It took me 22 years, but I finally fulfilled my dream of spending a stretch of time in the Caribbean, and as some of my friends back home say, I'm living out their fantasies too.

By the time I hit 50 I wanted a major life change and I only missed that deadline by two months. I remember working for Bill Marimow quite a few years back, and we'd chat about the options available to "old reporters." His suggestions included intense investigative work, moving into another writing field or writing a book. (Marimow took a different route and is now managing editor of the Baltimore Sun.)

After 30 years in this business – or in any job – it doesn't hurt to step back and look at what you've been doing. Stop long enough to let the muddy waters clear so that you can see before you take the next step. When all of the factors jelled for me – a free place to live, a book possibility, the freedom to move – I decided I'd be stupid to stay home, and I'd regret it forever.

Not that everyone was supportive of my plan to take a leave of absence from my reporting job at the Philadelphia Inquirer and head for the tropics. One good friend admonished me about the future of my Knight Ridder pension, and went so far as to calculate all that I would lose if I didn't come back. Another dear friend finally confessed that she thought I was "foolish." Yes, I suppose in my more lucid moments, I had to agree. My parents, however, products of the Depression era, were the most surprising. They encouraged me to go, perhaps looking at it from the vantage point of "things we never did."

I got rid of two husbands (one at a time), my house, my car, married off my only daughter, packed up my worldly goods in a storage garage in suburban Philadelphia and left. Not that I could afford to do this. Bad decisions in my life had left me nearly bankrupt. But I was determined. Six months before my departure, I downsized: rented a bedroom in a friend's condominium, freelanced when I could, and stashed away a few dollars for my adventure.

So here I am on Nevis (population 9,000), a tiny Caribbean island that is part of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, best known now because of its ongoing attempts to secede and become its own country. (Yes, a freelance opportunity!) It's 36 square miles, 21 miles around on one road, with a giant, silent volcano in the center. I'm house-sitting in a sprawling house, with an 8-foot wide veranda, for a woman, now a good friend, who lives in New York and visits here a few weeks each year.

It took only a few months to feel totally at home. I now know almost everyone on the island. When I go to the market, I get charged local prices, not the ones they save for the tourists. I know who has slept with whom, who was married to whom, when this person or that person is "off island" and when they are expected to return – all the important stuff. People see me as the resident "travel writer."

I work all the time. I hardly ever go to the beach, except occasionally on weekends. Going to work means making myself coffee with my one-cup Melitta pour-through, sipping it on the veranda, and then finding my way to my computer. Poverty is a great motivator, but the need to be productive and organized is a savior in this environment, where many people succumb to the lure of $5-a-bottle Mount Gay rum.

Much of my time I spend on a guidebook I'm writing, a project that is taking me to most of the other islands. To finance this, I am freelancing – hustling words, you might call it. Here time isn't money, money is money, so if I am paid for it, I'll do it regardless of the price (hope none of the editors I'm working for read this). I write for 10 cents a word to $1-or-more a word, which keeps me in "peas and rice" (actually beans and rice) as they say here, and an occasional trip on LIAT, the Leave-Island-Any-Time airline of the Caribbean.

Travel writing comes easier if you are in a faraway locale (but don't anybody get the idea of moving in on my turf). It doesn't cost publications as much to send you to your final destination. In a couple of instances, magazines have called me with assignments, something I never thought possible. There's also plenty of news to write, and usually I'm the only reporter in sight. Sometimes I sit at a computer doing a "weather story," wishing for hurricanes because they mean work.

Sometimes I forget that I'm in a foreign country. When I marched into my first interview with a government official on Nevis (it may also have been his first), I was shocked to find scantily-clad dancers and singers belting out songs on MTV in his office and the air conditioner on full blast. Despite the drone, I began asking him questions, realizing I couldn't understand his heavy West Indian accent. I left with several pages of indecipherable notes and no idea what he had said.

But I've had other jobs too. One day I massaged feet for eight hours at the posh Four Seasons Resort with a friend who has a facial/reflexology business. One of her employees had to attend a funeral and, desperate for help, she called me.

"What do I do?" I asked. "Just do what you think would feel good," she said, "wear a white outfit, bare feet, and be there at 9."

I did and actually did it well, and no one was the wiser, though a few times during the day I cringed, wondering what would be in those giant Reeboks and sweat socks that came through the door. I bit my tongue and kept the coconut oil flowing until quitting time.

I've also done a little bartending, and though I've still never had one, I can now make a respectable dry martini. And I've introduced many tourists to the popular Nevisian drink, the "Rusty," made of Ting (Caribbean grapefruit soda), CSR (a cane sugar rum) and bitters.

I've also become involved in community activities. I've started a school newspaper at the local high school, and after several months, we actually got one issue printed. You've heard of "island time"? The concept of "deadline" is much the same here. After I convinced the kids that not everybody should write a gossip column, we were well on our way. There are also a myriad of other things one can do: tutor literacy, work for battered women, and through things like that I've met a cadre of people – nice people – from all over the world.

But living here is nothing like a Caribbean vacation. It's the Third World, and life is a struggle, even on this island where there's no unemployment. People live simply, much like they did in the U.S. 75 years ago. That can make things difficult.

This is broken, that is broken, with no parts in sight. Brakes fail, another flat tire, Montserrat erupts and ash is all over, must wear masks. Engine catches on fire, local fisherman drops dead on the beach, cat gets killed, dog runs away. These are days on Nevis.

You need a Xerox copy? That could kill half a day. Go to one store, the machine is broken. Go to another, no more toner. Go to a third, and they only have blue paper. So blue paper it is.

Food arrives unpredictably. Lettuce one day, tomatoes the next, the third day you can probably make a salad. Breadfruit, mangoes, christophene, avocados are here when in season. Trees are loaded with limes.

Little things become thrilling. A friend from Philadelphia sent me Steve Lopez' latest novel, "The Sunday Macaroni Club." It arrived in December, and I found it in the customs' office in mid-March when I was picking up new brakes for my car. The brakes cost $133 and the duty was $77 U.S. The book cost me 25 cents East Caribbean (less than a dime). I don't know which I was more excited about: the brakes or the book.

Here you don't need many clothes, and there's no place to buy them, and there's no snobbish attitude about what you wear so long as you're clean and neat. For a dose of Americana, I go to the Four Seasons' gift shop. They give out the daily New York Times fax (with crossword puzzle). I treat myself about once every two months to USA Today's hefty weekend edition ($3.50 U.S.) – because the Sunday New York Times ($8 U.S.) is way beyond my budget. They sell bestsellers in the shop, though I try to borrow what I can from friends and from the local library. And thank God for the Internet, even if it took four months to get an account (limehill@ caribsurf.com) .

Underwear lasts about four months and then the elastic gives way because of the heat and humidity. I passed that point, so I am a reliable source. Veterans here say that you must keep it in the freezer, but remember to clean it out before you rent out your house!

Which brings me to the question that we used to ponder back in the newsroom: Is there life after daily journalism? (We used to say, "Is there life after the Inquirer?")

And I guess my answer has to be yes – and no.

There are so many things I miss. Kibitzing in the office. Asking Ralph Vigoda to read my leads. Going out for cheesesteaks. Deadlines. Working the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. Going to court hearings. Deadlines. Rewrites. A computer hotline. Reminiscing about old times and old friends with Dick Cooper. Photographers who show up at a moment's notice. The electronic library. The human being library.

But then there are the sunsets. The green flash that I finally saw once. Covering the eclipse at 100 percent. Hiking up mountains and writing about it. Visiting Montserrat. Having $10 in my bank account and not caring. Weeding the garden when the power goes out. Watching CNN when the power goes on. Listening to the weather channel, and not really caring. Choosing between the nightly news in Erie, Raleigh or New York. Mowing the lawn at dusk. Feeling annoyed at the monkeys squawking outside my window.

Could this be another version of reality? Who's to say?