Surprising things I learned when I quit the city and moved to paradise

At this point, I almost feel like the long johns are part of my body. After yanking on my thermal underwear for what feels like the six-thousandth morning in a row this winter, the idea of leaving it all behind – just peace-ing-out to a tropical island somewhere – seems like an insane fantasy. Except for the fact that I’ve actually already done it.

I’d just left a blah job in my city to launch a career as an international freelance-ess on tropical shores. My boyfriend scored a job in the Caribbean and I wanted to see the world – and learn to surf – so off we went, Ray-Bans and MacBooks in tow.

A dream come true! everyone said. So romantic! I felt like a bit of a bum leaving my friends and family in their non-fantasy lives while I jetted off into the kind of sunsets you find on Lisa Frank school supplies. But what else was a girl with globetrotting ambitions supposed to do: say no when romance and adventure called?

So I set up my freelance desk in our un-air-conditioned apartment on the edge of the Caribbean shore only to realize… that not everything about life on a tropical island was paradise! (Whaaat? I know.)

Sure, I could walk ten steps from my home, jump in the waves and be swimming alongside the sea turtle family that lived in the reef behind our apartment. But we also had our fair share of problems. My boyfriend and I suddenly had zero personal space… we were perpetually up in each other’s grills, and all sweaty and hair-frizzy, at that. And lizards pooped on our clean laundry and hurricanes messed up our apartment (and our island) and all the real things that happen in real life when you’re not on vacation… they happened. Non-fantasy life happened!

Now it’s a few years later, I’m back to living in a world where it snows in the winter, and I’m starting to get sentimental for the sun and sand. As I think back, I can see now that it was actually the less-than-awesome aspects of my tropical life that taught me so many valuable life lessons. Here’s what I learned from my misadventures on the island…

Turns out hurricanes aren’t so romantic… and neither, sometimes, is romance

Our apartment faced the beach, and on most days this was a major plus. Not so when the water began churning in a way that reminded me of Sharknado, the sky turned black at 2pm and all the birds and lizards ran for higher ground. I could taste something wrong in the air. Blow me down, a hurricane was here!

We gathered candles and matches, bracing for power to cut. “At least this might have romance potential…” I thought. I imagined the two of us, hiding out and protecting each other from the elements as wind blew and candles flickered. Highly memorable sexytimes would surely ensue.

Except then, an army of howling banshees started their shrieking contest at our window. Branches banged, things cracked. The air was heavy, smothering, and something brown dripped from the ceiling. I began to worry about the winds throwing a shark through our window. It was a romantic downer, to say the least.

For all the romantic expectations I had about our tropical year, it’s not the walking along the beach at sunset moments I think back on as important, but rather the journey that happened slowly, piece by piece, as we walked through an adventure together and really became a team.

We had no choice but to really step up and become partners, through tropical fevers and visa troubles and uncomfortable family problems we might not have talked about unless we were stuck together in a one-room apartment on a small island. It meant that our relationship went from fantasy to reality. But that’s way more amazing than a simple, shallow Instagram-perfect romance could ever be.

Just another one of the critters

I grew up near a city, and lived all of my 20s in cities, so when I dropped down in the Caribbean and found my days filled with just as many lizards, birds, monkeys and sea turtles as people, I sometimes wondered if I was just lost in my recurring dream about The Little Mermaid (YOU KNOW, the one with Prince Eric and the tray of party sandwiches).

On the island, I’d become just one of many animals roaming around. Monkeys snuck onto my balcony to take leftover bits of my breakfast. Birds flew into my kitchen to peck holes in my bananas (I don’t know why! They’re birds!). Crabs popped out from the sand and pinched my toes, making my 20-minute lunchtime meditative/tanning walk significantly less chill.

In my year on the island, I learned (sad, half-pecked bananas in hand) that we are just one of the many kinds of animals doing what we do in this crazy world. Some things are straight-up programmed into our biology and we’re all just doing our best not to pinch too many toes. It’s not all about me.

It’s important to remember this when, say, your mother won’t stop asking if you those sent out those birthday thank-you cards yet. Just breathe and think bigger picture. Monkeys, moms… we’re all animals, we’re all sharing this world, we’re all okay.

No woman is an island, and everyone loves juice

I did a lot of alone-time my first month on the island. After life in the crowded city, I thought this would be liberating, to spend time focusing on my relationship. Then my boyfriend had to travel a lot and it was just me (just me, just me, the words echoed into the emptiness that was my social calendar…).

I like to think I’m pretty fun, but hanging out with myself all day and night without another soul to even chat with about the weather? It got old fast. I started talking to myself in the mirror. I began looking forward to watching Lifetime TV. Because, of course, no woman is an island. And so I had to make some friendships even though small-talk and getting-to-know-you stuff makes me want to stab myself in the eye.

Thing is, the friends on the island weren’t anything like my friends back home. We had almost nothing in common other than the fact that we were humans living on the same speck of sand in the middle of the ocean.

One night, I sat in on a card game with a group of people I just met. “What did you do today?” I asked. “Not much,” they’d say. “What are you up to this weekend?” I’d follow-up. “The usual.” I wanted to pull my t-shirt over my head and stay that way until the night was over (except then I couldn’t eat any more ruffle chips…).

I knew it was just awkward because I was new, because I was different, and because I was only going to be living there temporarily. Who wants to go all-in on a friendship with a short-term weirdo like that?

But I wasn’t ready to give up. There had to be something, SOMETHING to bring us together. My brain raced for ideas as I sipped at my drink. The only sound in the room was the ice clinking in the glass. And then, the golden phrase revealed itself:

“What’s your favorite juice?” I asked, in all its absurdity. And this, I tell you, was the key to friend city! Everyone has something to say about juice. And, if they don’t, nothing says ‘Please talk to me, I am trying so embarrassingly hard to be friend with you’ quite like “What’s your favorite juice?”

So rather than lamenting that no one around you has read the book you just finished or watched the show you’re obsessed with or likes that band you like, take a step back – waaaaay back. You will probably find you have something in common, whether it’s about families, food, or… oh yes, juice.

The vacation always ends

Time came for me to leave island life behind. My visa, a ‘pass’ the immigration officers gave me to live there for a while, ran out.

It was okay. I was ready to move on to the next adventure anyway. My boyfriend and I started to plan something else, something different and new. (Next stop, Nigeria…)

Besides, I was very ready to return life in the tropics to its daydream status; the perfect fantasy to close my eyes and disappear into on slushy, icy, long john-covered days like these. Even though now I know that life on a Caribbean island doesn’t necessarily mean that life’s a beach.

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