HuffPost: 7 Life-Changing Lessons I’ve Learned Living on a Caribbean Island

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post on November 26, 2014.


Lessons are learned every day – or at least they should be. Whether positive or negative, life is full of daily experiences that change us and affect us. Living on an island in the Caribbean for two years has taught me many valuable lessons I may not have learned living Stateside. In case you aren’t currently basking in tropical sunshine like me, allow me to impart some of my newfound wisdom.

Roatan-Honduras-beach-view-Amanda-Walkins

Beach View in Roatan, Honduras. Photo by Amanda Walkins

Lesson #1
Electricity is overrated. The thought of being without power for hours or days at a time probably would have shocked me before I lived here. Now that I’ve been through a few rainy seasons when power outages are fairly common, I can say from experience that living without power for extended periods of time is not going to kill you. Yes, I have all my electronics here: laptop, iPhone, Kindle, you name it. I’m not living off the grid. So when the power goes out and I have no internet and no means of “entertainment,” I suddenly remember what it is to just breathe. And relax. And hear nothing but the waves and the wind. And I remember that the world keeps spinning regardless of how much or little I do every hour. Power outages are excellent opportunities to disconnect and reflect. And you know what else happens when the power is off? You talk. You actually put the phone away and you talk to the person next to you. Without distractions. When is the last time you did that with any regularity? It’s a reality check.

Lesson #2
The Rolling Stones were right. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” Sometimes you go to the supermarket and there is no chicken, or bread, or milk, or tomatoes…or whatever it is that you wanted and intended to get. Sometimes you just can’t find that part to fix your kitchen appliance. Or that specific light bulb to fit into your favorite lamp. You can’t always find what you want on an island, but you can find the things you need. And you can get really creative in the process! New culinary concoctions are a favorite pastime here, or “kitchen-sink” meals. Buen provecho!

Lesson #3
You don’t need it. While I just told you about getting what you need, the definition of need has changed for many people. We often say that we need things, when in reality they are superfluous. “Needs” and “Wants” are entirely different, but they’re often intermixed and confused. You don’t need new clothes. You might want some, but unless your current clothes are literally falling apart at the seams, you are not in need. Stains happen, holes happen, and wearing the same thing several times a week is not a sign of impending doom. When you’re not inundated with commercials telling you what you’re lacking, you tend not to notice what you or anybody is else wearing. You also don’t notice what type of phone they have. Or whether or not they own a vehicle. While I can only speak for the expat community in my adopted island, we just don’t give a damn. We’ve adjusted to know that we might not find what we want, but we don’t need it anyway. That knowledge is incredibly liberating.

Lesson #4
Seasonal eating is always best. I used to live in Washington, DC, where farmers’ markets were the norm, but I still had every type of food at my fingertips. On an island where shipments don’t always arrive, it’s best to rely on what’s locally available as much as possible. Eating seasonally is healthier, it’s cheaper, and it’s so much more exciting. Flavors are more vibrant and fruits are juicier. Nothing beats picking fresh cashew fruits off a tree to suck on their sweet nectar. Nothing beats eating fresh lobster tails just caught that day by local fishermen. The anticipation is palpable as new fruit seasons approach and different fishing seasons come up. When you drive around the island in early spring, keep the windows down to fill your car with the flowery scent of mango. It will fill your lungs with joy. Feel free to stop on the side of the road and snag one off the tree, too. Nobody will sue you, I promise.

Sunset over Half Moon Bay, Roatan. Photo by Amanda Walkins

Sunset over Half Moon Bay, Roatan. Photo by Amanda Walkins

Lesson #5
Time is a concept, not a dictator. “Island Time” is a real thing, but it should not be solely for islands. We love watching tourists adjust to relaxation over the week or two they spend here. You can see a physical change in people as they take the watch off, leave the phone in the hotel room, and forget about where they “have to be” or are “supposed to be.” Scheduling every minute of a day makes you ask where the years went. When the sun rises, a new day begins. When it sets, a new night begins. It’s as simple as that. The sun doesn’t live by the clock and you don’t need to either. That realization can change your entire life.

Lesson #6
As writer Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) wrote,”I know the cure for everything: Salt water…in one form or another. Sweat, tears, or the salt sea.” There’s nothing that one or all of those can’t fix. Breathing in salt air daily is refreshing to the soul and reminds you that you’re alive. After breathing city air for several years, I think I’m gaining back time lost on my life by living on the beach now. The healing qualities of nature cannot be overrated.

Lesson #7
Nobody ever said, “I really regret that time I spent relaxing on the beach.” (Except for people who got really badly sunburned, but even that should be, “I really regret being lazy and not putting on sunscreen.” Just saying. It’s the tropics, people. If your pasty white skin hasn’t seen the light of day in a while, cover it up before we mistake you for a lobster…in which case, please refer back to eating seasonally and cross your fingers it isn’t lobster season.) Nobody regrets time they’ve spent enjoying life, time they’ve spent connecting with loved ones, or time they’ve spent unhurried and unburdened. Refer back to the lessons I’ve learned about island time, disconnecting to reconnect with people, and understanding needs versus wants. The world is going to keep spinning. What you do with your time on it will not change that fact. You can’t make it spin any faster or slower, so just enjoy the ride. I’m enjoying mine on a beach chair facing the endless sea. And I don’t regret any of it.

10 thoughts on “HuffPost: 7 Life-Changing Lessons I’ve Learned Living on a Caribbean Island

  1. Interesting. I feel like I learned all of these same lessons living for a few years in a country ruled by an African dictator.

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  2. As someone who has lived & worked in the Turks & Caicos Islands for nearly 4 years I identify with all you say, both positive & negative! One way or the other, readjusting to life in the UK when we have top go home is not going to be easy!

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  3. I think your blog is noble and I’m sure you have good intentions but it was written very much from the perspective of a white, American, middle class person who has probably had a pretty ‘cushy’ life (by world standards at least). I was appalled by your “9 Definitive Reasons Why You Should NOT Move to the Caribbean” article. The caribbean is a big place full of hundreds of nations and islands, and in your article you make it sound like your biased experience in a tiny island off the coast of honduras is somehow the experience anybody who’d live anywhere on the shores of the Caribbean sea would have.

    I was born and raised in the Caribbean; an island with close to 4 million people. I always had electricity, I always had groceries and all the things I needed, and the bugs were no worse than in the U.S.The island has big cities and it takes about 3 to four hours to drive from one end to the other; The whole drive is full of cities and great scenery. Outside of the capital I saw very few tourists, and I never felt isolated but the complete opposite. I currently live in Florida and the heat here is way worse than anything I experienced in my home island; Heck, The worst heat I’ve experienced was the summer of 2012 in Louisville Kentucky. Hurricanes?! ever heard of Sandy? Katrina? In the Island I come from the houses are built to withstand category 3 hurricanes like they’re a breeze.

    My home island is Puerto Rico, but I have also visited the Dominican Republic, The Cayman Islands, Nicaragua, and Cozumel Mexico, and I would have to say none of those places fit the description of your Huffpost article. This is not an attack, I just wish your blog was less ethnocentric and didn’t make blanket statements about an area as big and diverse as the Caribbean.

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    • Hi Robert,

      I’m sorry you found my article so appalling, especially considering the fact that I called life in the Caribbean “paradise.” Yes, many people who move to the Caribbean – note the action of moving to, not being born and raised there – complain about all the things I listed in that article. Of course, people who move to my island don’t complain about hurricanes because we don’t typically get them. And perhaps your island is more perfect than any other place on Earth and in fact has zero potholes ever. However, I would also make the blanket statement that people will complain regardless of where they live. The point of the article (not this one you’ve commented on on my personal site, but the one you’re referencing) was to make people who are considering moving to the Caribbean (thus the title) realize that they must be realistic. Life is not a vacation. But for those of us who don’t mind heat, bugs, and the occasional power outage (yes, all of which happen elsewhere as well but this article was specific to the tropical Caribbean), this life is paradise.

      My perspective is very clearly stated both here on my personal blog as well as on my writer’s bio in The Huffington Post. I write from my perspective, and would not presume to write from the perspective of a native islander as I think that would be incredibly offensive and appalling. Thanks for your feedback and I hope I don’t offend you in future articles I write.

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      • I read it too, completely, and not even the last part of your article can save it from the offensive undertones of it. From Robert’s description I know that I live in the same Island he was born and raised. I have also visited other Caribbean countries and territories, and each one of them its their own cultural experience. Your articles has been making rounds through some islanders Facebook and truth is that most of us are truly offended. I know that it may not have been your intention but you have to understand where we come from. In my case, and other islanders can feel otherwise, my country has been colonised by white Westerners. In the beginning, these people raped our women, killed our men and enslaved Africans. Subsequently, these people (including Americans) treated us like undeveloped brutes who didn’t have the capacity to learn or to lead their own country. With this historical context it isn’t difficult to see how some people like me can find offence in an article written by a white, American women.

        Maybe the article was supposed to be a satire or a mock to other “gringo” tourists who visit us but if it was like that it just didn’t transcribed. You also end the article with the following sentence: “If you — like me — can see the positives hidden in challenges and difficulties, then you will absolutely love life in the Caribbean.” As if living in the Caribbean is so challenging that the precious stuff is hidden. Maybe for you living here is temporary, but for us this is what we call home. Maybe you have suffered difficulties in the caribbean but that doesn’t mean you can judge a whole set of different countries and territories based on your experience. I’ve experienced racism, profiling, insults and even sexual harassment in some states and I still don’t judge all of the states for my limited experiences in some places.

        I hope that you understand were we come from.

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        • Hi Maria,

          Thank you for a well-developed argument. I’m sorry if you were offended by my tongue-in-cheek article, but clearly I can’t please everyone. Again, I wrote it from my perspective as a white North American expat who has heard it all from tourists and other expats. People complain everywhere. But I would think it’s beneficial to both native islanders and expats to encourage tourists and potential expats to realistically view their destination, rather than to gloss it over as perfect and see the disappointment. Again, to each his or her own and I’m sorry you were so offended by my writing. Clearly – since I love my Caribbean home – that was not at all the intention.

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