Several years ago my partner Michael and I bought a rambling, dilapidated house on Vieques Island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. As we walked out of the bank on closing day, we could hardly believe what we’d just done—or how much work lay ahead of us. How would we possibly manage such a huge renovation project from our home base in Washington, D.C. fifteen hundred miles away? “Piece of cake,” our realtor assured us. “Six months, tops, and your place will be perfect." His words were soothing, but his math was off by thirty months.
Three adventure-filled years later—our bank accounts depleted, our patience stretched to the breaking point on a weekly basis—we hung the last picture, fluffed the last throw pillow, and popped open a bottle of Champagne to celebrate the completion of our dream home. Tropic of Sunshine is a lighthearted account of the longest, happiest thirty-six months of our lives.
From the first day we’d set foot on the island we had been captivated by its suspended-in-time charm. Thanks to the decidedly mixed blessing of fifty years of occupation by the U.S. Navy, Vieques had escaped the over-development that plagued many of its Caribbean neighbors—its stunning beaches were all but empty, its narrow roads lightly traveled, its residents friendly and welcoming. In a word, it was paradise. And now that the Navy was shipping out for good, we wanted a piece of it.
But renovating our little slice of heaven was a crash course in how Vieques works—and how it doesn’t. Almost nothing went according to plan, and lots of projects went seriously off track. The renovation budget doubled and then tripled. Our original property manager fired us, and our contractor became seriously ill. The Navy haltingly withdrew from the island, leaving a legacy of discord and mistrust in its wake.
Along the way we learned a number of unforgettable lessons: concrete houses can have termites; five-foot iguanas aren’t necessarily more afraid of you than you are of them; a property manager who paints your house orange instead of yellow may resign in a huff when you point out his little mistake. And that was just the beginning.
Despite these obstacles, we pushed on, blustering and laughing our way through the process. We survived the ordeal with our love of the island, our house, and each other firmly intact.
The house is now complete. Except for the pool.