So what’s the biggest challenge when it comes to leaving your country behind to settle for an undetermined amount of time on a rock in the middle of the sea?
Is it the mountain of paperwork to be processed at a snail’s speed due to all the red tape you have to contend with on both sides of the border? Is it the giant Amazonian centipede that slithers past your feet while doing laundry? Will you lose your mind without access to American products, appliances, and convenience? No hot water. No more dishwasher and dryer. No strategically stocked stores open 24/7. Or, perhaps, you will rack your brain just figuring out how the basic necessities work in a foreign land. How do you hook up the gas to the stove from that big tank in the driveway? Where is this sudsy water coming from on the side of the house? Ahh, that must be shampoo after just washing my hair. Is it normal for water to just drain out into the side yard after a shower? Why are my neighbors burning their garbage? More importantly, what the hell do you do with a septic tank? And why are people just now telling me to never ever flush toilet paper?
While all the above are definitely worthy contenders, the toughest part, as far as I am concerned, is leaving behind friends and family. I couldn’t imagine doing this before the Internet Age. Ironically, there is nothing like moving to a distant rock in the middle of nowhere to increase your technology usage. I spend more time on my cell phone and computer now than I ever did when living in the busting metropolis of 7 million from which I originally hail. I’ve installed new apps on my phone. I’m using more social networking sites than ever. And I started a blog to keep everyone at home updated on the details of my life here. There are fewer people on this island than the total population of some of the suburbs surrounding the city where I once lived. It is a rough and tumble landscape all around. Cacti tower above me, a dense thicket of scraggly bushes cover the land in-between roads, goats and donkeys roam wild, chickens wake me up beneath my bedroom window every morning, boa constrictors dangle from water pipes outside my house… but I’ve got an instant wireless connection to all my loved ones in the United States with me at all times.
Saying goodbye to my family was the hardest. Unless your family happens to be wealthy, goodbye also means not knowing when you will see everyone again. It is expensive to fly to and from an island. The average plane ticket to get here costs $750. I have to plan far in advance to afford the flight home. Usually that means a morning flight at some absurd hour. Cheap tickets also mean long travel days with connecting flights on the east coast in D.C. or Miami. After an early morning 3-hour wait in Customs, and an afternoon leg across the Caribbean Sea, there is barely enough time to grab a quick dinner at Bojangles’ Famous Chicken and Biscuits in Charlotte before I board a flight clear across the southeastern portion of the United States, landing just before midnight in the bright lights and big city. Needless to say, the travel days back home are long and grueling. Eventually, you feel the distance because you can’t just hop on a flight and go home whenever you want. My only connection to my land and people is the Internet.
According to a recent survey I just took of Americans working overseas, WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook are the top three links for maintaining ties to friends and family back home. The hardest people to say goodbye to when I left were my mom and dad. My parents aren’t set up with WhatsApp and Skype. My father is still grappling with Facebook. So in an effort to keep up with them on a weekly basis, I’ve been calling through my Gmail account on my laptop. “You’re talking to me on your email? On your computer? How exactly does that work? Do you have to pay for that? Can I do that? How do I do that? Can you show me how to do that next time you’re home? When are you coming home?” I’m one of those people who learns technology on an as-needed basis. I do my best to keep up with it myself, so trying to keep my seventy year old parents up to date enough to communicate with them from the coastal edge of South America is somewhat of a challenge.
Then there is the unique predicament that comes with a long distance relationship. From what I have discovered, everyone who moves to an island has one of three stories when it comes to romance: Some people move to a rock to follow the love of their life. That wasn’t me. That seems like a really nice story though. Some move to an island hoping to find love. That wasn’t me either. I just followed through with steps to accomplish a career goal. Fate placed me on an island in the southern Caribbean, only I was already dating someone at home when all of this happened. This is the third version of the three stories, and statistically, this one never ends well. If you are romantically involved with someone, moving to an island is probably not the ideal way to show them how much you care. I know there are people who make it work, but it is very difficult and even more so living in another country. By the time you are finally able to talk on WhatsApp through island wifi (read: sloooowww), the connection has already dropped. I guess I will be installing the Tinder App soon on my phone as well.
Maintaining connections with friends is actually the easiest, especially if they are friends you had before the Internet was even invented. These are the friends you can go years without seeing and then just pick up where you left off. Friends want you to take on an adventure and become the best version of yourself, so they will emphatically support your crazy decision to move to a distant island, or to the middle of the desert, or in my case, both. They won’t be distraught the way a boyfriend or family might be. They think it is fabulous and even better if they can visit. Friends are most likely already much more connected to you online as well. I keep up with friends mostly through Facebook and Instagram. Sometimes it feels as if these are my only windows into what is taking place in my social world at home. Conversations through posts and pictures on Facebook and Instagram do have limits however. I often wonder what is really happening in their lives. How can I get the full story on these sites the way you would sharing a bottle of wine?
The best thing you can do while maintaining digital connections to people back home is start making real life connections with people on your rock. Friendships formed on islands create a unique shipwrecked kind of bond, especially if these friends landed on the island around the same time as you. Time together will be spent laughing hysterically as you adapt to the madness all around. All of the quirks and hiccups of island adjustment become funny stories to tell over sunset cocktails at the beach. Every weekend will be a new adventure because there always seems to be some kind of festival when you live in the Caribbean. There are also more holidays on the calendar here than in the States. The support of friends on your island is paramount because even with so much celebration, you may feel island fever from time to time, or just disconnected somewhat from your culture and country. There are very few Americans who actually live here in Aruba. The only Americans I ever encounter are inebriated mobs disembarking from giant tour buses or boisterous tourists sitting at tables in restaurants.
Someday I will make it back home. I will have gained so much perspective when I cross back over, not only about other people and places around the world, but also about my home and family. Nothing compares to life on a rock when it comes to lessons learned about what matters the most in life. It’s the people in your life who bring meaning. Although, I will admit, spending time with people on a white sand beach overlooking a turquoise blue sea is a huge perk when it comes to bringing meaning to your life. So if you are lucky enough to be sitting across from someone right now, put the phone away. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram can wait. Save all of it for a time when distance truly keeps you from face to face conversation.