My first experience of island life came at the ripe old age of 45 on the island of Tortola in the BVI. I had met my soon-to-be husband who was living/working in the BVI, but I had never before travelled this far afield and was daunted by the prospect of leaving my home and family to go and live on the other side of the world. My husband told me many wonderful stories of how amazing life was in the Caribbean. Before the BVI, he had been living in the Cayman Islands and had nothing but exciting tales to relay. He conveniently left out the other side of island life though, leaving me a bit unprepared to experience its many trade-offs on my own.
One of my early confounding experiences of the less amazing side of island living was my first trip to the bank. The sign outside the bank had stated it opened at 9:30am, so I was there like the island newbie I was on the dot of 9:30am. I waited patiently for a bit, then impatiently as a half hour had passed with no sign of the doors opening. I found myself wishing I’d brought a bottle of water and some snacks with me, then I started to question whether my phone and watch were set at the right time, then if I even knew what day of the week it was. Perhaps it was actually the weekend and the week had passed by me somehow? After all, I was also still adjusting to the new drinking culture I’d found myself in – lost days to a drunken haze were not entirely unlikely…
Finally, around 10:30am, other people started to show up and mill around outside the bank which gave me fresh optimism that it would, in fact, be opening today. At around 11am, the doors were slowly opened and I, who had stood patiently waiting for almost 2 hours, got my next hard island lesson: queueing up at the bank is not based on any of the rules I was used to and just because I was there first didn’t mean I got to be first in line. The people surged inside and I found myself deep in line for more waiting. It was another hour and a half before I found myself at the counter, feeling indignant as I faced a bored looking bank teller behind the glass.
I furiously began to berate the bank teller for the misleading sign outside. Why did you open at 11am when the sign said 9:30am? She gave no verbal response and instead leaned down to the side and placed a board across her window stating, “This Position Is Now Closed.” Dumbfounded and close to tears, I looked around for some kind of support which I received from an island lady with the biggest smile on her face who explained to me in painstaking tones about the concept of Island Time and how I should never diss the tellers working in the bank because I simply wouldn’t get served. I re-joined the queue, still feeling bewildered. It wasn’t until after 2pm that I finally completed my very simple bank transaction. My husband, of course, found it hilarious when I recounted my tale later that night. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I guess I should have warned you about that.”
At that time, on my first island, I assumed this type of thing was unique to the BVI, possibly the entire Caribbean. Then we moved to the Seychelles and, low and behold, I made the same mistake in expectations. Fuming once again at an island bank, I knew I could be angry at no one but myself. At this point, I should have known better. In Seychelles, we once visited a newly opened restaurant when we had family coming out to stay with us. My 28 year old son ordered a pizza and was very specific about the toppings he wanted. When his pizza arrived, it was just a plain cheese pizza. He queried why he hadn’t got the pizza he’d ordered and the waitress simply responded, “You got what I wrote down – you talk too much.” Welcome to island life, my son.
The cultures on the various islands we’ve lived have differed a bit. The Caribbean has that bouncing, happy, vibrant feel – Bob Marley, reggae, steel drums, and that unmistakeable buzz. In the Seychelles, the vibe is equally as colourful, though a bit more reserved. In Zanzibar, despite the immense poverty and the extreme hardships faced by most who lack even basic facilities such as electricity and running water, they are a very noble, dignified culture who are, despite everything, extraordinarily content and happy with life on a scale I did not find on our previous islands. In fact, their happiness and pure joy at the simplest thing of just waking up each morning was more contagious than the buzz of the Caribbean, and their cry of “This is Africa!” gave me goosebumps in a way Bob Marley never did.
There are, of course, recurring themes we’ve encountered across the different islands we’ve called home. No matter what part of the world, islands run on Island Time. Though in Zanzibar, people did not refer to it as “Island Time” as they did in Seychelles and the BVI, but used the words, pole pole (pronounced poley poley, meaning slowly slowly). Containers with much needed goods would, as on our previous islands, be left at the docks unattended for weeks, months even, and we would be told “poley poley.” And internet? Well, we all know by now not to rely on internet on any island anywhere in the world. Communications on all of our islands would regularly go down and you would immediately know the people who were new to island life for they did not have candles at the ready, did not regularly back up and save everything on their laptops, and were unable to function without electricity.
Every island we leave, I slump into a depression. When my husband announces the destination of our next island, I invariably whine and declare that it just won’t be the SAME. And it never is – at least not quite. But each island opens up fresh wondrous delights, new incredible island people, and memories that money simply can’t buy. I am still new to our latest island of Bahrain and I am still being reassured that I will grow to love it, just as I grew to love our other islands. My husband with his everlasting optimism, you see. Yes, there are still palm trees, beaches, sparkling ocean, kayaks, and sundowner cocktails. Yet here I sit, still in that phase of ok, I’m here, but it’s just not the SAME as my last island love. So until I come around, I’ll just take it pole pole.