I’m almost coming up on a year in living on Roatan. Moving to this tiny island in the Caribbean has made me a different person. Slowly but surely, Roatan has pushed me, pulled me, stretched me and gotten under my skin and I’m changing. I think it’s amazing how transplanting yourself into a foreign country can make you see yourself so differently.
Since becoming an expat here…
I’ve learned to cling less to others and rely on myself.
People come and go, and come and go here. It’s a transient place. I’m far away from my family and lifelong friends. I’m a lot less dependent on other people and starting to figure my own shit out for myself. This is an area of my life that needs a lot of work. I’m not very good at it. When I was in university a long time ago, I got my car stuck in a snowdrift and called my mom…who lived in another city two hours away. What the hell was she going to do to help me? Jesus. I don’t have a ton of people here that I can solidly count on so I’ve had to start relying on myself. So far it’s going okay.
I’ve learned how to behave in social situations in a culture very different from home.
I have a lot of islander friends, and social norms here are different from Canada. Men and women are not equal, and if you’re a gringa you better not try to argue with a male islander unless you want to get viciously made fun of, screamed at or smacked. In Canada, I have been known to intervene when I see domestic violence out in public. Here, I’d get shot for interfering in someone’s business. It’s hard for me to turn a blind eye to a lot that goes on here, but sometimes you have to accept that YOU came HERE and life runs with their rules, not yours. I saw a pregnant girl in the bathroom in the bar last night, drinking and doing lines of coke. I couldn’t say anything. Sad. I also think nothing now of bribing police or the lady who stamps the passports. That was weird at first and I still don’t have the finer points of it down, but I’m getting there. The thing is, you eventually realize you’re at not at home anymore and you aren’t going to change this new place. So it changes you.
I’ve learned some Island English.
Islanders here speak English with a lilting Caribbean accent, Spanish, and something they call Island English, or Island Talk. The technical term is Bay Island Creole but don’t tell them that because gringos can’t tell the islanders anything about this place (see the point above). It is nearly incomprehensible for foreigners, but I can understand about 60% of it now. I have no plans to tell my boat captains that I know what they’re saying though!
…. and I’ve learned some Spanish.
I don’t need it much here, mostly just for taxis because the islanders all speak English as their first language. But I am getting better at Spanish and can carry on a basic conversation now. I think everyone should be able to do this in whatever country they live in.
I’ve learned to relax.
I don’t stress about how clean my house is, or if I’ve washed my hands before eating. I don’t worry about if my clothes are a little dirty or have a stain on them. I don’t care if the grocery store is out of limes. I feed my dog the cheapest brand of dog food and I’ve been in a 5 seat taxi with 8 people. I only wear makeup on Friday nights and I couldn’t give two shits about the cellulite on my thighs. I don’t get mad if a kid’s soccer game or chickens block the road to work… I just get off my bike and wait around like everyone else. Maybe buy a bag of juice from the kid who magically appears with them during traffic jams. But I don’t get frustrated with that stuff anymore. Literally none of these things matter here, and once I got that, I let go of a lot of things that would drive me crazy in Canada.
I’ve learned to keep my friends close, but my wallet closer.
Roatan is a sunny place for shady people. Unfortunate but true. Foreigners are walking targets for locals to try to somehow get money from. Even now that they know I live and work here, some people still seem to think I’m a magical money fountain. Please tell me where I go to claim this fountain because I have exactly $36 until I get paid in two weeks.
I’ve learned to drink.
And I’m from CANADA you guys, we’re really good at this already. But for some reason here, you don’t get hangovers. Or not as bad as at home. I have drank entire bottles of rum here and been fine the next day. If I did that in Canada, I’d be in bed for a week. Drinking is pervasive here and can be an all-day every-day thing if you’re not careful. I’m doing better now, but it’s really easy to let this get out of hand. I’m keeping it to Friday nights now. (But sometimes Saturdays too. And Thursdays. Whatever.)
I’ve learned to ask other expats for advice.
Some people who have been here forever just know everything. I’m forever calling people and asking “Where can I get ________?” or “How do I do _________?” I’m so grateful that there’s people here who can answer things like that.
I’ve learned to do a lot of things I didn’t know I could do.
Teach people how to scuba dive.
Give a cat a needle.
Ride a scooter down a sketchy ass dirt road to work every day. Jump off a two story restaurant into the ocean. Go bushwacking in the jungle on pirate booty hunts. Carry those huge water jugs all the way into my house and get them into the dispenser without spilling it everywhere. Push wheelbarrows full of scuba tanks up and down a sandy beach all day long. Freedive to 60ft. Swim with sharks.
How to do the wine… kind of.
Eat mediocre food day after day after day after day after day…..
I’ve learned to live with less.
I don’t have a car (although I have a scooter now!), a blender, air conditioning or a water cooler. I can’t buy new clothes or get a haircut every six weeks. I do still get people coming from the States to bring me stuff from Whole Foods though. I’m a work in progress!
I’ve learned that I’m not always right.
I had such a hard time here learning to accept and believe the locals when they tell me things. They always end up being right. Once I started listening to them, my life here got a lot easier.
I’ve learned that a small town is the same no matter what country it’s in.
I went from a city of 4 million people to a village of 300. I wasn’t used to everyone being in my business, and my decisions being called out in a public way (and my bad decisions never being forgotten, apparently). I have to be nice to people I don’t necessarily like for the sake of keeping peace in my little community. I have to be careful what I say and do around certain people.This has been hard to get used to. I also know I can show up anywhere at anytime and probably have a friend there, and that I can name someone I know if I’m ever in trouble anywhere and that can probably get me out of it. It has its pros and cons.
I’ve learned to say yes.
Yes to skinny dipping in the ocean, yes to potlucks on the beach. Yes to staying up later, one more rum & fresca, rope swing off a boat, leaving on a yacht, taking in stray animals, giving a dollar to the bum at the grocery store, dancing with a guy you’ll later regret just a bit, drinking beers on the dock watching the sunset with your friends and your dog. Just say yes. Unless a sketchy guy in the bar asks you to go to his friend’s house because they have “a mountain of cocaine there”. Then say no. Trust me.
I’ve learned who I actually miss from home.
Some people have fallen off my radar and when I think hard about it, I don’t care that much. Some people I would pay a million dollars to just come here RIGHT NOW and be here with me. It’s not who I thought it would be when I left.
I’ve learned that I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.
Or if I’m even going to grow up. Sorry parents.
I’ve learned that even though living on a Caribbean island might not be all it’s cracked up to be, it’s still pretty fuckin awesome.
There’s nowhere else I’d rather be and nothing else I’d rather be doing right now. But I know when/if I leave, I won’t be the same girl that arrived.