Have you ever wanted to quit your job and move to an Island?
Have you ever wanted to quit your job and move to an Island? Well, this is exactly what my brother Mark, and his girlfriend Jenn did over seven years ago. So far things are working out quite well for them. Together, they run a natural history museum on the French side of St. Martin, a small Dutch-French Island in the Caribbean and work on various conservation and education projects throughout the region. Here’s Mark’s take on leaving the big city for a tiny island.
Where were you and what were you doing before you moved to St. Martin?
Before I moved to St. Martin, I was living in Brooklyn and working as a Director of Marketing. Pretty standard stuff.
What prompted you to make the move and how did you prepare to leave New York?
Jenn and I left New York for a combination of reasons. We really developed a love of scuba diving and we went to the Caribbean as often as we could to do it, but when you have a full-time job there’s not a lot of time available. Our plan was to take a year off and enjoy ourselves while we were still relatively young. On the flip-side, we were already getting to an age where we weren’t taking full advantage of being in New York. It doesn’t matter if the bars are open until 5am if you’re in bed by midnight.
When we decided to move, St. Martin was an obvious choice because we had been going there regularly for a number of years and had quite a few friends there. We spent about six months saving money, getting all our paperwork and getting our visas.
So you were familiar with St. Martin before you moved there. What surprised you most about living on the island?
I guess one thing that was surprising was that it wasn’t a very hard transition. It’s a small island, but it’s surprisingly cosmopolitan. It’s nominally French and Dutch—the island is divided—but English has been the main language here since the 1600s. You can buy basically anything in the supermarket here that you can buy in the states, and we already used the internet for communication and TV or whatever, so lots of things didn’t really change. I’m sure it would be a really different experience to go somewhere very remote.
What is the best thing about living in the Caribbean?
Probably the best thing is to just be able to enjoy time outdoors basically all the time. You can swim in the sea, walk on the beach and never need a jacket. I enjoy the scale, too—being able to really get to know the whole place. Also, maybe we don’t do it as much as we should, but it’s pretty easy to hop over to another island. They all have stuff in common, but it’s also always a fun, new experience.
What do you miss about living in the United States?
Korean fried chicken, Sichuan food, soup dumplings, taco trucks, pho…mostly various foods that you can’t get here. There is really good food here—probably more good options than you might have in parts of the US, but we don’t have everything. I’ve been learning to make some of the stuff I miss, so that helps. I guess I have to say friends, too, but it’s really fun to have friends stay down here. We also make more of an effort to do fun stuff when we are in New York.
What were your plans for your first year there? How long did you intend to stay?
We really just wanted to take some time off and do some diving and stuff for a year, but towards the end of the first year we figured out that we could renew, so we did. We’ve been here over seven years now.
Let’s talk a little bit about your various projects with Les Fruits de Mer? What is Les Fruits de Mer?
Les Fruits de Mer started as an extreme shallow snorkeling team. It was a bit of a joke, but also a good way to have a crew of friends and always be on an expedition. That started before we lived on St. Martin. After we were here, I started spending a lot of time studying wildlife on the island. I did a book about it and then started doing education work in schools. As that started building up we created a non-profit association to do wildlife education and that is called Les Fruits de Mer, too. We do wildlife events for the public; create books and short films and a bunch of other stuff. Last year we made the island’s first natural history museum, Amuseum Naturalis. It’s modest, but it is super cool. It’s 100% volunteer, but I’m lucky to be able to dedicate a lot of time to it.
What are your plans for the future of Les Fruits de Mer, Amuseum Naturalis, your life on the island?
I guess my plan is to come up with a plan. Everything we’ve done has happened pretty organically. Like, someone offered to let us use a house temporarily, so we made a museum. As it turns out, most of the stuff we’ve done has turned out to be really valuable here. The local curriculum doesn’t really cover the actual plants and animals that live here, so once you write a book or make a museum suddenly it’s like, man, we really need this. On the boring, practical side, we should get more serious and spend time getting funding and figuring out how to make this thing sustainable. Also, I would like to put a museum on a boat and sail it to different islands.
UPDATE: Mark and Jenn stayed on the Island throughout the 2017 hurricanes where they were able to stay safe with friends. They are now focusing on rebuilding efforts and documenting the changes to the island and its wildlife post-hurricane.