I grew up in a small Iowa farm town. I’ve met people who say they’re from a small town, and then I find out they had more than five stoplights – that is not a small town. My graduating class had 82 people in it, most of whom I had been in school with since kindergarten. My house was on the edge of town. The literal edge of town: my house, street, my neighbor’s house, corn field. Growing up in this small town felt like torture. Everyone knew everything about me and my family, and it felt like there were always a million eyes on me. Because there were. I felt stifled, trapped. All I wanted was to get out. I felt like I was on a small, corn-covered island. Enter: karma.
Eleven years after leaving that small town (college, getting married, etc.), I now find myself on a real island. It may be covered in coconuts instead of corn, but there are some very interesting parallels between a small Iowa farm town and a speck of sand in the ocean…
Everyone is related.
On St. Thomas, there are real power families. And they’re BIG families. I know people who work with my husband and later find out that their wife/sister/uncle/brother-in-law is the guy I always buy my coffee from. Small town Iowa is no different. It’s frighteningly easy to run into someone and only later realize YOU may be related to them as well.
Movie night is a big deal.
My hometown had a tiny movie theater with only one screen. You either saw the movie that was playing, or you didn’t go to the movie. I feel spoiled in St. Thomas with seven – count ’em, seven – screens! You may think that with all the beach hopping opportunities, happy hours, and island-y things to do it sounds silly to want to see a movie. And we didn’t, for the first six months we lived here. After we had settled in, however, we were more than happy to enjoy air-conditioning for a couple of hours and have a little taste of stateside normalcy.
Limited shopping opportunities aka shopping as an adventure.
When you live in an Iowa farm town, you may not have the luxury of a Target within 15 minutes of home. We only had a small Kmart. The closest Walmart was 30 minutes away. I remember getting in the car to drive 45 minutes to get to the closest mall. Irony at its finest, St. Thomas doesn’t have Target or Walmart either, yet it has TWO Kmarts. And the nearest mall is a 20-minute plane ride away in Puerto Rico. You learn to deal with what you have.
Any exciting day involves a journey.
As mentioned, shopping for anything significant involved at least a 30-minute drive to somewhere other than your small town back home. Island life isn’t much different, in that any sort of adventure involves a journey. It was a good weekend in Iowa if you got to go to Target. It’s a good day on St. Thomas if you get to drive across a 13-mile island to explore a new beach. Thirteen miles doesn’t seem that far (you could make it halfway to Walmart in that time!), but you’re dealing with mountains. Along the journey you see all kinds of things that you never thought you’d see. Like a truck hauling office chairs. Never a dull moment.
Shut Down the Town
It’s always an exciting time when there is a county fair or other town-wide event taking place in a small town. You may get lucky and get out of school early to attend the festivities. It’s also common to be let out of school for heavy snow or extreme cold; everyone needs to get home safely! Things shut down during big stuff. People are all staying in, or all going out, depending on the event. The Caribbean is no different! St. Thomas is a blur of activity during Carnival time for a solid two weeks. My husband gets two paid days off from work to attend. You can’t travel on waterfront with an ounce of ease, and many businesses close so their staffs can party it up with the rest of the island.
They once closed school here on St. Thomas for rain, and I nearly choked on my coconut water. I called my dad (a former teacher), and we had a good laugh about it. If they shut down for rain, an inch of Iowa snow would certainly put people over the edge.
Directions are relative.
Some people give directions based on street names or intersections, while others give directions using landmarks. I’ve always been better at receiving directions with street names. When you learn to drive in a town that has really one major street (Broadway St. – very aspirational), it’s not hard to figure out where everything is. My navigational skills have been tested here, as I swear there is one street sign on the entire island (aside from the waterfront tourist-centered stuff). All directions here include “the”. Turn left at the Bridge to Nowhere. Go past the white wall. Did you see the big flamboyant tree? Ok, you’ve gone too far.
Needless to say, I’ve gotten lost A LOT. It doesn’t help when you get stuck behind some slow-moving vehicle. I was used to being imprisoned on the road by a tractor or combine. It’s a whole new experience to see an army of Safari taxis full of tourists clogging the one-lane road, or slowing down as to not hit the donkey. Ironically, instead of following a combine at a glacial pace, I now get stuck behind water trucks.
deserve demand respect.
You know those pictures of old men at the local diner drinking coffee at the crack of dawn? When you don’t really have many diner options in a small town, the old men drink their coffee at McDonald’s. In my St. Thomas neighborhood, the patriarchs of the community gather in the early morning for a quick beer at the convenience store. They sit like gargoyles on the bench outside the store and monitor the comings and goings of the people in their island cars. If you’re a friendly midwesterner, you wave. They don’t wave back. Nearly a year of waving later, I’m finally getting a head nod.
Island life is a very matriarchal society. The elderly women here have no problem with reprimanding local children (from their own family, or any other for that matter) when they forget to greet everyone with “good morning” or “good afternoon”. They also have no problem peering in your grocery cart and deciding that their own small bag of greens and half pumpkin deserves to slip in front of you in line. Small town elders will do this too, but they’re sneaky about it. They’ll chat with you about your family, the current weather, and then remind you how you were in diapers when they first watched you eat corn on the cob like you’re buying there. How can you not guiltily allow them to go first?
Life is about making the best of what you have.
I hated growing up in that small town, but now it’s comforting to have some of the same things surrounding me here on this small island. I’m proud to be an Iowan, because living there made me appreciate the small things in life. Like taking care of the things you have, because new things aren’t as readily available. Enjoying small moments, because they are what happen while you’re waiting for big moments. Kindness and respect will take you a long way, and the people that don’t return that favor aren’t your problem. After moving 2,400 miles from everything and everyone I know, life’s universal truths blatantly show themselves each and every day.