Meditations in a Tiki Bar: Lessons Learned in Paradise

[Originally published 2013, Manarchy Magazine]

Not that long ago I wrote up an article on selling all your worldly possessions and throwing deuces to the mainland grind in exchange for island life. It was one of those essays full of promise, risk, naïve enthusiasm and reckless abandon.

I wasn’t merely paying lip-service to the notion, I really waved those deuces to SoCal and sold basically everything; the 46″ flat screen, the surround sound, almost every stick of furniture (that a relative didn’t want) and even a couple hot rods. Landed in Saint Lucia hit the ground running. I had a job lined up, which like most jobs, had ups and downs, but on the whole, it was great. I loved it. The family joined me only a few weeks later and it looked like we were set for life.

However, as those of you following me on Twitter or Facebook probably already know: It didn’t work out. In less than a year, I found myself hurled back in the first world. Now I’m looking for a nine to five on the other coast (where 4 or 5 tiny states share a football team, apparently), freezing my tail off and dreaming of the beach.

What happened?

The reasons we had to pick up and go so suddenly are beside the point. They were the result of unforeseen obstacles, of circumstances impossible to predict and for that reason, and many others, I don’t regret a thing. I learned a Hell of a lot in the time I spent in Saint Lucia.

Letting Go

Island life was great, but it was not without speed bumps. In fact, some aspects are so slow, I don’t even think I can use the term “speed bumps” with a straight face. Like the time I went to pick up a Christmas package at the post office. It was stamped “Received 17 Dec, 2012”. I got the package slip two days before New Year’s. I then spent nearly two hours wading through customs, despite the fact that I was one of only three people in line. What’s more, I had to pay ten Eastern Caribbean dollars in duty for what was essentially a box of homemade cookies (baked, you know, three or four weeks earlier).

Time for a deep breath.

By the time this gets out to you, the reader, understand that I’ve written and deleted more than ten thousand words detailing what I intended to be similar such quirky moments or funny insights. In reality, it turned into a laundry list of first world problems, minor inconveniences and petty slights shrink-wrapped in a moody, often cynical tone. That’s the typical American in me coming to the surface once again.

The first big lesson I learned living on an island is that I’m not very good at letting things go, but it is well worth the effort. How often I used to revel in my ability to be dissatisfied at even the tiniest things. But it’s become abundantly clear that I am what I spend my time saying and doing and thinking, moment after moment. I don’t always catch myself in time, but this time I did (and I’d say this essay is all the better for it.)

Here are a few more thoughts I jotted down during my last few days on island.

Your Friends Are Everywhere

Island life is a microcosm. Saint Lucia has a population of roughly 160,000, mostly concentrated in the capital city of Castries. I worked in Castries, but I lived a little farther north, near Rodney Bay. This is where most of the expats on the island tend to congregate, as well as the folks with sailboats and yachts docked in the marina.

Within three weeks of touching down, it was difficult to go anywhere without being greeted with a friendly hello and often a hug, or one of those weird French, double cheek kiss things (apparently, this is called “faire la bise”), a tradition remnant of Saint Lucia’s French heritage. Part of this is due to the small population and its inherent density, making a certain level of congeniality a necessity, but that’s not the whole story.

There were grouchy people everywhere as well, but it was a lot more difficult to cultivate that special type of loathing for someone who rubs you the wrong way when you really have to see them all the time, and they know all your friends.

At first, I was a little put off by this cordiality. I found myself wondering, “Who are these people? Why are they so… nice? I’m just here to grab some groceries and go home. This occasion does not call for a hug and cheek-kisses.”

However, as much as I’d like to think I’m a grumpy old man trapped in a thirty-year-old’s body, I quickly fell into this blissful rhythm. “This is… kind of nice.” I realized. “Must be the sunshine. Or the beer. You’d never find this kind of thing in America. Maybe it’s the beaches. It’s so great here! America sucks!”

After a while, however, I realized nothing had ever stopped me from being that kind of person before I moved out to the Caribbean. I could have easily learned the names of BevMo Checkout Lady or Chipotle Guy, if I’d wanted to. I just… didn’t. I was content to gripe when the BevMo Checkout Lady carded me for the 7th time that month, even though that was her job, and I’m probably not nearly as good-looking as I imagine and therefore it’s possible she really doesn’t remember me. At all. I could have just said, Hello, and been friendly. Maybe I’d have stood out then.

The final blow was the realization that America doesn’t suck, at least not inherently. Just like there are grumpy people everywhere; there are content and cheerful people all over as well. What matters is who you hang around, and how you allow them to influence you.

Happiness

The biggest thing I learned in Saint Lucia is this: It takes very little to be happy.

I don’t mean this in some condescending way, like, “Look at all these impoverished islanders who have so little and still manage to smile.” Gag me.

In reality, island life is just like life anywhere else, except pale folk like myself need a little more sunscreen. The divisions between content or crabby, cordial or cynical have little to do with material possessions or yearly income and much more to do with perspective.

I certainly don’t intend to insinuate that I had it rough, that I lived in a shack and ate tuna and bananas seven days a week and had some life changing experience thanks to some Caribbean form of asceticism. (Although, locals who knew me chuckled at my lunchtime staple of PB&Js. Sue me. They’re quick and easy, and it’s one less thing to think about every morning.)

What made me realign my priorities was the absence of distractions, and how my pet time-waster (the Internet) was hard to come by and not terribly fast. There was only one movie theater, and no one I knew was ever talking about movies anyway. There were few bookstores, and none of them would ever be mistaken for a “hangout”. That alone had me vacillating between depression at how detached I felt from my nerdy side and joy that I wasn’t spending all my money on books for which I had no shelves anyway. And I couldn’t just head out on an expensive, touristy rainforest excursion every time I had a day off. Everything I did revolved around people and social interaction, and that was a good thing.

I had my family with me for three of the four months I spent on island. Truly, some of the best moments of my adult life took place on some idle evening sitting at the Rodney Bay Marina, munching on overpriced pizza, sipping down two-for-one Pitons, while the four-year-old ran around a small park area (just grass and trees, like when I was a kid) with other kids from all over the world. These evenings usually just happened more than they were the result of planning. These evenings were slow, and quiet, and conducive to conversation; they were fantastic.

With the sun setting over the water, a cool breeze coming down from the mountains and the sound of laughing children echoing in the background, I’d reach over and hold my wife’s hand and say whatever popped into my head, or maybe just smile and stare off into the distance. It wasn’t the words that mattered anyway; it was the shared moment.

I may have left the island and returned to the daily grind of mainland life, but these are lessons I’m taking with me. It’s not that those moments are only possible in paradise. All it takes is a mind focused on the beauty of the moment.

As a final note, I must point out that, of all the “stuff” we sold in our everything-must-go yard sale last fall, I’m hard pressed to name more than two, maybe three things I wish we’d held on to. One was my wife’s car, and the other two were mine. And I can always build another hot rod. Or two.

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