Have you ever wished that you could travel back in time and give your Past Self some tips, recommendations, or warnings? If I, for example, could travel back to 1997, I would tell my Past Self to avoid the denim on denim on denim… on denim: “Dear Past Self, there will be an unflattering photo of you that will circulate for years. At the very least, lose the denim hair bow.” I would warn my Past Self against stealing my parent’s vodka and replacing the bottles with water: “Dear Past Self, this does not turn out well for you. You will feel shame for years to come.” In addition, I would tell my Past Self to attend Social Studies class on September 25th: “This is the day that you will meet your future husband. Be there… and smile at the new boy.” And finally, I would tell my Past Self to be brave: “You will be tested, but you are much stronger than you realize. Stay positive.”
Continuing in this wishful thinking, if I could travel back in time to Fall 2014 – the year that we landed on our tropical paradise – I would offer myself some sound advice to help ease my transition into island life. I would write down these few tips/recommendations and slip them into my past purse to ensure that I did not fall victim to these somewhat embarrassing newbie errors:
1. You do not have Zika. You have a hangover, sweetheart.
My face hurt from smiling. Our voices climbed in decibels and pitch as we struggled to be heard over the festive popping of the Prosecco bottles. I alternated between bites of crispy bacon and Beef Wellington, stopping frequently to inhale my seemingly bottomless glass of bubbly. Chocolate mousse for the table? Why not? It was noon on a Sunday and I had drank and eaten to the point of satiation. What could possibly be the occasion for such gluttonous activity? Behold… the Sunday brunch. The complete brunch experience was new to me. Devouring the most delectable food and drink on a patio overlooking the turquoise blue Caribbean sea was my new definition of heaven. Stumbling home at 2pm, and in bed (passed out) by 8pm, I was certain that I would be mentally and physically prepared to head back to work on Monday morning. Alas, I awoke Monday feeling sluggish, achy, and foggy. After a few months of “difficult” Mondays, I suspected that perhaps I had contracted some strange island virus. Could it be West Nile? Dengue? Zika? Google revealed some terribly disturbing possibilities…
DEAR PAST SELF: You have a hangover! You cannot go boozing every Sunday and then blame your ills on some mystery virus. Save the Sunday brunch for long weekends. Go home, drink some water, take some vitamins, and do some yoga, girl.
2. Sanitize! Sanitize! Sanitize!
I wiped away the hard crust that had formed on my swollen goopy eye and whined, “Evan, the doctor says that I have pink eye. Apparently it’s very contagious amongst the school-aged kids!” Although it was difficult to discern due to the loss of vision in the infected eye, I detected a look of disgust from my loving husband as he responded, “Ok. Well go lay down… maybe in the guest room, hey?”
DEAR PAST SELF: You work in the schools with children. Children are a cesspool of germs. In addition, you will share your speech therapy space with iguanas and chickens. You will be exposed to lice, ringworm, fleas, and eventually be infected with pink eye… in both eyes! Carry that hand sanitizer with you everywhere. Bathe in it! Drink it if you must! Sanitize the hell out of yourself.
3. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.
I stormed into the tiny hotel room that was presently storing all of our belongings along with our barking dog and anxiety-ridden cat who had now resorted to pulling his fur out in clumps. “Evan! Marguerite already got her driver’s license, Andrea signed a lease on a house, Lisa bought a car, Katherine has already gone on the stingray city tour! I only made 2 friends today AND we missed a happy hour at the Westin last night!”
DEAR PAST SELF: Calm. The Eff. Down. The first few months on island are going to be difficult. You will eventually transition into “island time” but you will need to relinquish your Type-A, high-strung qualities and channel your easy-going adaptable self. You will learn the true definition of “patience” when you need to obtain your license at the DMV, pick-up a prescription, and receive your passport stamp at Immigration. In addition, you will need to demonstrate patience with yourself. You will make friends and you will be successful at your job because you are are still inherently you, even in this unknown, foreign environment. Take a deep breath and go take a picture of the sunset (you will eventually accumulate thousands of island sunset photos, yet still cherish them all).
4. Tangerine is not your colour. Limit your sun exposure!
I slathered my SPF 15 sunscreen on my body, adjusted my bikini, opened up my US magazine, and settled in for a solid 4 hour shift by the pool. Awesomeness.
DEAR PAST SELF: Stay out of the sun! You will begin to turn an alarming hue of tangerine. Limit your sun exposure and use SPF 30 (at the least) each and every single day. One day, you will find yourself naked and face down on the Dermatologist’s examination table, asking her to investigate a suspicious-looking mole on your ass. The Caribbean sun is lovely, but dangerously strong. You’re not in Canada anymore, chicky.
5. Don’t be offended when you are widely referred to as the “white lady.”
I knocked on the classroom door and was greeted by the teacher, “Good morning, Miss Kirstie!”
“Good Morning! I’m here to pick up the parent consents for speech therapy.”
“Consents? But I gave them to you yesterday!”
“I wasn’t here yesterday,” I replied.
“Oh, well a lady who looked just like you was here and I gave them to her.”
Say Wha? Eventually, it was determined that a white visitor with blonde hair had been given the forms. Oops. So… ummm… we all look alike, you say?
DEAR PAST SELF: This will be the first time in your life that you will be a minority. In the beginning, you will feel uncomfortable and awkward when you are the only Caucasian in the grocery store or in your work environment. Don’t take offense to comments that you might initially deem as “racist.” No one has ill intent, they simply recognize you by your distinguishing features: “yellow” hair and white skin. Eventually, you will learn to simultaneously embrace your differences and their culture, showing fascinated children your blue eyes and saluting your co-workers with a “soon come” at the end of the day.
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What do you wish you could tell your Past Self in your newbie island days?
When we first moved to Guam, culture shock hit me hard. I would say to my husband, “the only souvenir we need from here is our son.” (Our son was born on the island.) The Chamorro (local) culture here is just so different from the life I was used to. The high cost of living, the limited everything, and the year round boiling hot weather were all too much for me to take.
Now, after two years on the rock, we are nearing the end of our time here. Much to my surprise, I have discovered that there will be more of Guam coming home with us than just our son and boonie dogs.
These are the life lessons that I had to move to a tiny island to learn and now hope to take with me when we go.
With island life comes island time. I thought the south was slow-paced, but it is New York City compared to Guam. Being a military brat, punctuality has always been important to me. Boy did that go out the window when we moved here. The first time experiencing true island time was when I scheduled a maintenance appointment for our house. The appointment was set for 3, but when 3 o’clock hit, there was no maintenance man to be found. At 3:30, I decided to call the office to see what was going on, and they assured me that the worker was on his way. At 4 o’clock, my doorbell rang, and there stood a maintenance man with a Burger King cup in his hand. When sharing my experience with long-time residents, they didn’t see the issue. Over time, I have learned that no amount of complaining, getting frustrated, or yelling is going to change anything. After 2 years, I just laugh in my head when someone says, “I’ll be there at 3.” Instead of stressing over time, I just assume the person will be late, which has forced me to learn the patience I have always been lacking.
2. We can survive without cable
One of the major downsides of being on Guam is the fact that there are only 3 cable providers, all of which have insane rates for service. Cell phones and internet are necessary to keep up with life, but cable is just a luxury. My time on Guam has been the only time in my 21 years when I have not had cable. I didn’t even know what to do with myself at first; you can only binge watch your Netflix shows so many times. We invested in Hulu, Amazon Prime, and took advantage of the apps on our smart TV and Xbox 1. Now, having cable seems like a thing of the past and just another superfluous bill.
3. Chamorro BBQ is amazing
Being a Southern girl, I have always been a dedicated American BBQ lover, particularly Kansas City and Memphis BBQ. International BBQ had never been on my radar because I assumed it was a pathetic attempt at replicating American BBQ. A friend of mine forced me to go try some local foods shortly after we got here, and I was hooked. It is a whole different type of barbecue, nothing like the American kind. It is usually pork and chicken cutlets on a skewer, not usually on the bone or pulled. The flavor is impossible to put into words besides saying that it’s absolutely delicious. My husband and I hope to steal the secret recipe to take with us, and I will take with the experience with me to remind me to not knock a food until I try it.
4. How to stay busy without power
Over the past year, Guam’s power plants have been slowly falling apart. At least once a week, we can expect the power to be out for an hour at minimum. At one point, we were having “scheduled” outages every day. But of course due to island time, the “schedule” was never followed. Before living on Guam, power outages were rare and short occurrences usually associated with storms. At this point, I don’t even bat an eye at a power outage. We learned to keep charcoal on hand in case we need to grill dinner. We learned to keep all phones charged at all times because they can be your only entertainment for hours. Mobile hotspot functions are life savers when you are in the middle of important work online (aka watching Netflix). The power being out is not the end of civilization like I assumed it was when I first moved here. You just have to learn to adapt (and keep a battery fan ready to go).
5. How to do without
For only being 30 miles long, Guam actually has more shopping compared to some of the other islands I’ve heard about. We have a Kmart, Macy’s, Ross, and the military members have their NEX and BX. While I am grateful for the stores we do have, they almost all carry the same products. So if the NEX doesn’t have the item and Kmart doesn’t have the item, you are not going to find that item on the island at all. Online shopping is usually our last resort, but sometimes the shipping just makes it not worth the money. As a family, we’ve had to figure out what we really need and what we can do without. Back in Florida, I could go from store to store and usually find whatever I needed by the 3rd one. I used to be incredibly frustrated by the lack of basic things – I once visited 6 different shops just trying to find clear school glue (which I never did find). Dealing with this annoying aspect of island living has forced us to be creative and find swaps for things. There’s no better way to wean yourself off Starbucks than literally having no way to get it. I hope that once we move, we will remember that we can live without everything we think we need.
6. How to appreciate the winter
I still remember one of my professors in college telling me that all he ever wanted in life was to move to Tahiti so he never had to shovel snow. When you’re staring outside at two feet of snow, it is easy to wish that it was summer all year long. Let me tell you, that wish will come back to bite you in the ass, my friend. Living where it is 90+ degrees all year is fun for the first year or so, but you will miss the snow. Growing up in Florida, we didn’t see a lot of snow, but we had cold winters with nights dipping into the lower 30s. I used to curse scrapping my window off at 6am to go to work, but I am anxiously awaiting this seasonal change again. For those who do well in the heat and love it, this point may seem moot to you, but it’s more the feelings that come with winter that I’ve missed. It is hard to enjoy a hot chocolate and watch Christmas movies when it is 105 degrees outside.
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We don’t know where our next adventure will be, but I will be leaving Guam a different person. Island life has a way of teaching us things even when we don’t want to learn them, and for that I will always be grateful.
As we near our second year anniversary of making the leap to move to an island, site unseen, I have realized some “truths” about life on a rock. When we were grappling with the decision of making the move, I recall frantically Googling, “Should I move to a tropical island?” (As though Google were some sort of crystal ball?!) But there was no manual explaining how I would feel and the challenges that I would face. Nor was there a manual that described how fulfilling it would be. So I’ve decided to narrow it down and present my top 7 realizations – things I wish someone would have told me about moving to a rock when I was wondering if it was right for me…
1) You and your spouse will be under a lot of pressure.
Work on any marital issues before you make the move. Just like having a baby, moving to a tropical island will not “fix” your marriage. In fact, it’ll challenge it and push you to your limits. When Evan and I first arrived, we were extremely overwhelmed, stressed to the max, and questioning whether we had just made the biggest mistake of our lives. But we were a team. He was my only “person” and I was his. I’m not gonna lie, on day 5, after the frustration and panic of looking through multiple underwhelming and pricy condos only to return to the tiny hotel room to find that the dog had pooped on the floor and the cat was pulling his fur out in chunks, we were less than loving with each other. In fact, I distinctly remember fuming inside when Evan took an extra long shower on our third morning on island. Shower? We have no car. We have no house. We do NOT have time to shower! Moving to a tropical island might appear romantic and exciting – and it can be – once you’re settled and have friends of your own. But initially, it is difficult. It’ll test your relationship. All you have is your spouse, so although you may love each other, it’s imperative that you actually like each other as well.
2) You will feel lonely.
There will be times that you desperately miss your family and friends – especially on holidays or if you or a loved one back home is ill. There have been moments where I’ve stared out at the endless sea and felt very isolated and alone. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a thrill to meet new and exciting friends from all over the world. I’ve grown so much as a person through these new relationships – especially in my 30s, when I was beginning to feel that all my growing up was complete. I was lucky enough to connect with a few friends immediately, and we’ve been close since Day 1; however, there will be days that you desperately miss your “old” buddies – the friends who grew up with you and really know, get, and love you unconditionally. Sometimes it’s exhausting to ensure that you are always presenting the best version of yourself as you meet and attempt to charm new friends. Thankfully, at 2 years in, my “new” island friends are becoming old buddies. That feels fantastic.
3) You will sweat.
I remember one particular January morning in Saskatchewan. It was -40°C. A foot of snow had fallen overnight. I was leaving for work in complete darkness and questioning my decision to live in a place that is not fit for human habitation. As I reversed my car out of the garage, the car instantly became hung up on the snowbank. I vividly recall attempting to shovel my car out of the bank while snot froze to my face in the dangerous wind chills. I yelled, “F*&^! This is ridiculous!” At that moment, I swore to myself that I would pursue a lifestyle that didn’t involve this BS. Being incredibly cold is uncomfortable. But no one warned me that being incredibly hot is also uncomfortable. It’s a different kind of discomfort, and given the choice, I would definitely choose hot over cold; nevertheless, it’s still uncomfortable. From April until October, you will notice that most island women sport a trail of sweat down the centre of their upper body. This is called, boob sweat. It is inevitable. It begins formation as a tiny pool of sweat between the boobs, overflows past the base of your bra, and spills down the centre of your body. If you’re lucky, a hot breeze will then stick the fabric of your clothing to the trail of perspiration, advertising your boob sweat to the world. Dark coloured fabrics, although tending to increase your body temperature, can help camouflage the boob sweat; however, whether you’re well-endowed or “sporty-chested” like myself, you are not immune.
4) You will find yourself saying, “That’s not how they do it in (insert name of your home country here).”
Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore. Initially, you will question the procedure for almost everything – “You mean I have to wait in a line for 3 hours to pay my water bill? Why can’t I pay this online? In Canada, I can pay this online!”; “Why are there 3 random unlabeled lines at the pharmacy to pick up my prescription?”; and my favourite, “This makes NO sense!” (can be applied to almost every procedure on the island). Eventually, you will come to the realization that you are no longer in “your” country and although you are certain that you have experienced a much more efficient way of doing things, this is how things are done here. Don’t fight it. Accept it or you will go nuts, argue with everyone and everything, and you will either be desperate to catch the next flight out or the islanders will vote you off the island. The tribe has spoken. You must be flexible and adaptable in your thinking and way of life. I’ve always considered myself a pretty easy going person, so I had no idea that this would be so difficult. Sometimes the power goes out. Sometimes the internet quits unexpectedly. Sometimes your workplace runs out of paper. Roll with it. Last week, for example, I found myself stuck in a traffic jam, only to realize that the cars were stopping for 2 rogue cows running down the Cayman “freeway”. I sighed and looked at my watch. I was definitely going to be late for my appointment. But as I watched a public bus chase down the cows and various islanders jump out of their cars to help, I had to look at the scene around me, laugh, and chalk this up to another island experience.
5) You are not on vacation, you lush.
There’s something about sitting by the pool, watching the sunset over the Caribbean sea that makes me want to consume a cocktail… or two.. or three. Well, let me tell you, by the second month of residing on Grand Cayman, I had drunk and ate myself 10+ pounds heavier. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, I was conditioned to associate hot weather with celebratory drinks and BBQs – after all, summer was a gift, a 2 month gift, if we were lucky. Newsflash: every day in the Caribbean is hot. Every. Single. Day. Every sunset is beautiful. Every. Single. Sunset. There is no reason to celebrate each day with a sugary cocktail and buffet-style dinner. As I was forced to loosen the strings on my bikini bottoms, I soon realized that I needed to curb my vacation eating and drinking habits ASAP. After all, this is not a vacation. This is real life. People don’t drink a piña colada everyday in real life. I now limit the cocktails to Fridays… and Saturdays… and the odd Sunday as well.
6) You will forever vacation differently.
After spending the last 2 years surrounded by tourists, I’m much more cognizant of the things I do and say when I am on vacation. Why? Because some tourists can be really freaking annoying, and I do not want to fall under that category. Although I will nod politely as you explain how the ceviche was much more fresh in Cozumel, the water much more clear in Turks, and the beaches much wider in Floribama (Floribama? Are you kidding me?), I don’t care. I am very happy that you are enjoying your cruise; however, visiting 4 ports in 7 days does not make you a world traveler. Now that I’ve become a resident of a vacation destination, I’ve realized that the most productive thing one can do whilst on vacation is to find a local and ask for advice. The residents can tell you where to find the best ceviche, clearest water, and widest beaches!
7) You won’t regret it.
Evan and I discussed the possibility of regrets when we decided to make the move. Ev summed it up nicely for me, “It’s our decision. We made the decision. So it’s the ‘right’ decision. No regrets.” Great! But let’s be honest, there were more than a dozen occasions that had my stomach in knots, thinking, “Did we F up?” Now that we’re approaching our 2 year anniversary of island life, I can say with 100% certainty that I have no regrets. The sacrifices were plentiful, but the payoff has been amazing. First and foremost, my joint health has improved. Suffering from a rare cartilage condition, I find the cold weather makes me stiff, sore, and sometimes immobile. It’s amazing what hot, humid air can do for your joints. This once creaky old lady can now take walks on the beach! Those pain-free days are priceless. Secondly, I’ve learned a lot about myself and my relationships with others. I’ve learned about what I truly value in life. Before we made the move, I was stuck in a rut, accumulating stuff – owning a new house and nice things were a priority for me. Like many people my age, I associated all this stuff with success… yet, as I looked around my beautiful new house filled with lovely stuff, I just never felt satisfied. I’m not gonna lie, I’m still searching for complete fulfillment, as I’m sure we all are, but I feel much more at ease. I’m not in a race anymore. I’m just living day-to-day, trying to figure it all out. It’s the experiences with the people I love that fulfill me – and, let’s be honest, sipping a frosty piña colada as I watch the sun melt into the Caribbean Sea doesn’t hurt either!
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Seasoned islanders – what have you come to realize after years of living on a rock?