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She packed it up and moved to paradise, sort of

Traffic is mad, your nest egg is now the size of a pea and your HMO has stopped covering your blood pressure meds. You’ve thought about reeling it all in, selling what’s left and trying something new in a distant hideaway.

But who really has the courage for such a move, I wondered while lounging during my vacation last week on a speck of sand between Cuba, Mexico and Jamaica. I called the newspaper office in George Town, Grand Cayman, and asked a reporter if he knew of any California transplants.

The reporter gave me two names. The first person was away on vacation. The second answered the phone at her real estate office across the street from 7-Mile Beach, one of the world’s most spectacular stretches of white sand and turquoise sea.

Lisa Uggeri, who left Southern California two decades ago on what was supposed to be a six-week vacation, told me she hasn’t a single regret.

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“It’s a nightmare for me to be on the 405,” the Long Beach native said of her infrequent trips home.

So how did she make the break, you ask?

It began when a relationship blew up in 1989, leading to the revelation that she needed to reinvent herself at the age of 28. A friend named Laura Lovekin, who lives in Hermosa Beach, remembers the day Lisa announced plans to step out of her own skin.

“We were water skiing on San Diego Bay,” Lovekin recalled, “and she said, ‘I think I’m going to give everything up and go live on an island.’ ”

Huh? She was spending her days water skiing in San Diego, and she needed to shake things up?

Uggeri says she didn’t intend to permanently relocate, and the only break she wanted was from the predictable routine she’d gotten locked into. She wanted to get outside her “comfort zone,” and not having a specific plan was part of the thrill for the business major.

Uggeri, whose last name was Haagsma back then, took a friend’s recommendation to consider the Cayman Islands. She’d never been, but after a bit of research, she decided it sounded perfect.

She quit her job in computer and software sales. She gave up a rented room in a nice San Diego home. And she packed her bags.

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After saying goodbye back in Long Beach to her family, she flew away to the Caymans, a three-island British territory known for great diving and even better tax shelters.

Six weeks turned into 20 years.

When I drove to Uggeri’s office, I was on one of the busiest roads on the island, but traffic moved just fine, and no one seemed to be in any particular hurry.

Grand Cayman is no paradise, though. It’s flat as a boogie board and not particularly lush or distinctive, with too many Burger Kings and Wendy’s, and a daily traffic jam of cruise ships delivering passengers to T-shirt and trinket shops.

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Uggeri, a blue-eyed blond with a gracious smile and a map of the Caribbean on her office wall, agreed that her adopted home has its issues.

“But there is no stress here whatsoever,” she tried telling me.

I wasn’t buying it. Every year, they’re on hurricane watch for six months, and 2004’s Ivan almost blew the island to Havana.

Yes, Uggeri agreed, but she was away on vacation at the time, and no one died despite all the damage. You take things easy on the islands, she said, and it wasn’t long before she found her new groove.

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“I wake up the first morning and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get to 7-Mile Beach,’ ” she recalled. “So I start walking along the South Sound, and not five minutes into it a guy pulls up in a truck and says, ‘Do you need a ride?’ ”

He was a complete stranger in a place she didn’t know. The old Lisa would never have accepted. The new Lisa, a budding free spirit, took a breath of fresh subtropical air and thought, “What the heck?”

He turned out to be a musician, and when she went to hear his band at a Holiday Inn soon after, she was introduced to a new circle of friends. One night at the bar, she met two Cayman Airlines pilots who convinced her to move into a three-bedroom condo with them on 7-Mile Beach.

But how would she pay the rent? They had an answer.

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After two weeks of training, she became a Cayman Air flight attendant. It kept her six-week party going for another four months, until she found work in real estate at a time when the island was booming.

She knew then that she might never go home, and the deal was sealed the night a dashing young Italian expat sent a drink her way at a bar. Luca Uggeri was five years younger than Lisa Haagsma. He told her he was a submarine pilot.

Yeah, it sounds like a pickup line, but it turned out to be true. Uggeri piloted a sightseeing sub.

They began dating, they fell in love, they got married and there you have it. With a nice life in the tropics, who needs Sigalerts and brown-sky summers?

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But surely Uggeri must miss something about her first home.

“I can’t really think of anything,” she said, except for the people she was close to. But Lovekin visits her in the Caymans, and they also travel to other parts of the world together.

There’s not a lot to do in the Caymans, Uggeri admitted. No shopping and little in the way of culture.

But she’s happy with a quiet and simpler life, she knows half the residents of the island and feels safe among them, and Miami is only an hour away by plane when she needs something more.

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As for the submarine pilot, he’s moved up in the world.

“Did you see that yacht in the bay?” Uggeri asked me.

I did, as a matter of fact.

Well, Uggeri told me, it’s owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and it’s named Octopus.

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So what’s that got to do with her husband?

Octopus, naturally, has a submarine aboard in case any passengers get the urge to see live squid. When they do, Uggeri is their escort no matter where in the world the yacht travels, and Lisa can catch a plane and meet him in distant wonderlands.

“I know,” said Lisa, who’s traveled a long way from Millikan High in Long Beach. “It’s crazy.”

The point here, folks, is to get out of your rut and take a risk. Who knows what might happen?

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We’ve got it pretty good in Southern California, though, and the Caymans aren’t for me.

Of course, there is the warm sea. The island rum. The Cuban cigars. The expat adventures that need telling. And now, with Barack Obama promising a crackdown, someone should probably be investigating all those shady American tax shelters.

Someone’s got to cover that, right?

A tough job, but in the service of readers and country, I stand ready.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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