Caribbean musings #7 Lessons in how to be flexible (and I'm not talking about yoga)
I did something today that I've been putting off for weeks. I went to get a replacement driver's licence. While waiting in long queues, wandering up and down corridors looking for the right office, filling out forms, clock watching and re-reading officious notices, I struggled to stay calm. I didn't want to be there. It was boring. It was frustrating. It felt like a waste of time.
After an hour or so of waiting I decided that I couldn't take it any more and walked out towards the car park. But after taking a few steps I stopped, the mid-morning sun beating down on my head, and sat on a wall in the covered walkway. I felt the warm breeze on my face and watched a gecko run silently up the pillar. And I remembered then why I was there. I had lost my licence. I had no choice but to wait my turn.
So I took a deep breath, went back inside to the waiting room filled with 30 or so people and found a seat. I noticed the man in suit trousers and a short sleeve shirt with close cropped hair and visible tattoos opposite me who had spoken to the cashier with courtesy and respect, the elderly lady in a hat, stooped over, who hobbled to the desk to sign her name and the peaceful woman discreetly breastfeeding her toddler to keep him quiet. I thought about the clerk who was slumped behind the screen next to stacks and stacks of dishevelled paperwork. This was the way things were done in the Caribbean. It. Just. Was.
So what have I learned after two years in the Caribbean? Learning to wait for things - every day - has helped me to be more trusting - in people, in my instincts, in life. It's not that things have gotten easier. I still have my fair share of frustrations. It's more that I'm getting better at not being in control.
Experiences have helped. Working on deadline for a magazine feature a few weeks ago, I was annoyed when the bell rang and a man anounced that he was there to change the water meter. But after making the time to be friendly and chatty, I ended up with an excellent recommendation for an upcoming holiday.
Then there was the time that I felt deflated at my local supermarket during a frustrating shop. Everything that isn't grown in Barbados is shipped in - a costly and time consuming method of transport that's prone to delays. Often, my storecupboard staples are missing from the shelves - for weeks on end. And it's also not unusual for basics to be unavailable for long periods of time, due to poor weather conditions or simply not being able to meet demand.
On this one day in particular, I wasn't able to find eggs, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, cider vinegar, fish fingers - over half of the things on my list. They were apparently unavailable on the island. I'd have to wait for them. But no one knew how long. I did manage to buy some lovely local beer though, and some feta cheese and (expensive) olives and when I was being helped with my shopping to the car, the man pushing the trolley chatted to me about life in Barbados and how he really hoped that I was having a good experience here. And it changed things. It really did. Because he was kind and open, and honest.
I've come to understand that what really interests me about life is the way different people feel it, they way they see things. And I can now think of a number of experiences that I've had here where I benefitted from a chance encounter. Whether it's an unexpetced conversation or just getting to witness life on this island: the man by the side of the road selling rows of custard apples and oranges from under a makeshift tent, the sheet of bright pink painted corrugated iron that's someone's garden fence, the cluster of people at the bus stop, the small boy in his school uniform standing straight, holding hands with a much smaller boy.
Worlds within a world, these are the stories that make up the fabric of this place. It's atmosphere, it's history, the face that people know as Barbados. It's the stuff that adventure is made of. Of course, this is not unique to the Caribbean, adventure can be had anywhere. But the backdrop of coconut and sunshine helps.
It's as though things have gradually come into focus. Living this nomaidc life (we don't know where we'll move to next) is about constantly adapting to change. It's all about things shifting, moving, starting over and over. Being aware of this requires a sort of slowing down. I notice things more now. I've learned not to judge myself so harshly, to be okay with just being there for the children some weeks and not taking on any work, or attempting anything apart from cooking and tidying and really listening to them when they come home from school.
Learning to be flexible is one of the biggest challenges that expats face. Because the temptation to compare every difficulty to home, to keep a tally of every set-back, never goes away. I've decided that for me, living in a different country is about being switched on - to the people, the journey, the learning process. Because life is indeed lived differently. And if you look closely enough, you'll find that people are, crucially, always the same.