When past exchange students or guidance counsellors pontificate about the life-changing lessons learned on exchange, I’m always a bit skeptical. You’ve heard the claims — that exchanges change your outlook, widen your horizons, increase your self-confidence and independence, and just make you a better person all around
While these effusive statements may very well be true in most cases, they pander to a wider cultural myth that you have to go somewhere in order to achieve meaningful personal development. As if one’s decision to take on a new hobby, job, volunteer role, or relationship just exactly where they are is less valid than moving somewhere far away to force change and adaptation on oneself. On the contrary, given that exchanges allow you to escape many of the obligations of your day-to-day life for the exotic locale of your choice, they are perhaps one of the more cushy routes to personal development (…if you saw the tan I’m developing right now I think you’d agree).
However, there’s no doubt about the fact that travel offers the extra push out of one’s comfort zone that is sometimes needed. For someone as risk-averse as I am, this “push” often feels like an all-out body-check, which leaves my head spinning for hours afterwards. I’m not the type who enjoys the feeling of fear (I can’t even make it through an episode of CSI), and I tend to avoid even the run-of-the-mill risks that most people go ahead with on a daily basis, such as consuming alcohol and eating Taco Bell. However, moving to Barbados has forced me out on a limb in a big way, and I’m learning, as Helen Keller promised, that is indeed where the fruit is.
Being a rather anxious soul, I did my homework before moving here. I surveyed the TripAdvisor reports, kept tabs on the DFAITD travel watches, and studied the Government of Canada safe-travel guide (yes, I read the entire thing). Primed by this research, I prepared to be wary of strangers, keep my valuables well hidden, never carry large amounts of money on my person, and keep a severe frown on my face at all times.
But here in Barbados, my risk-sensor is all out of whack. My expectations are constantly being inverted, all those do’s and don’t’s punctuated by “maybe,” “occasionally,” and “in some cases.”
For example, in the first few days, I was frequently lost, in utterly unfamiliar neighbourhoods. My naiveté might as well have been scribbled on my face with permanent marker: “Come on over and rob me!” According to my research, the appropriate thing to do in this situation is to walk briskly with purpose, remaining aware of your surroundings and giving the impression that you know exactly how to get to your destination (or at least have a particular destination in mind).
I put this advice to work immediately, but the folly of it soon became apparent. I was zooming by people on the sidewalk. I looked like I was a last-place contestant on the Amazing Race who was trying to stave off elimination, harried and frantic as I bustled down unfamiliar streets. The walking pace in this area, I learned, is slower than Bajan molasses in a Canadian January. To fit in and appear like I belonged, I needed to slow down and embrace the leisurely stroll.
Another example came a few weeks later. We were trying out a new way to the beach near campus, attempting to cut through an abandoned Four Seasons resort complex which is stuck in a limbo of half-construction due to financial difficulties. As if wandering through a deserted complex of bare cinderblock buildings with gaping windows isn’t Phantom-of-the-Opera levels of creepy already, we ran into another person, rummaging through the detritus left in the hasty end-of-construction.
He called out to us to stop, which we did with trepidation. Looking around at the dusty, lonely landscape, I thought, this is pretty much the perfect place to get robbed.
“You’re going the wrong way for the beach,” he said when he got closer. “Here, I’ll show you the quickest way.”
He stopped his work and led us down the dusty roads which (were it not for the recession of a few years back) would have been the palm-lined corridors of a luxury resort. Along the way, he chatted with us about where we’re from in Canada, our studies at UWI, his own past studies at UWI, and our plans for our stay. He pointed out his house, located within walking distance, and invited us to drop by sometime. Finally, arriving at the pristine white sands of the beach, he bid us farewell. The only thing he wanted from us was the promise that we would enjoy our stay in Barbados.
I was truly humbled and more than a little ashamed of my own lack of trust.
Another example of unexpected generosity occurred this week. We were on our way home from a touristy outing, waiting at a bus stop in a sleepy area of the island, when a pick-up pulled up beside us, and the driver offered us a ride to the main road in the bed of his truck.
Oh no no no, I thought. I haven’t perfected the art of rolling from moving vehicles in case this goes badly. As if taking a rickety bus down these narrow potholed roads isn’t enough of a death-defying adventure!
However, my companions were already climbing over the tailgate, so I had little choice but to follow. The next hour was spent jostling over the bumpy, hilly, twisting roads of the island’s centre, cane leaves slapping against the sides of the truck, and the sun dappling our legs through the palm canopy above. It was exhilarating. We passed hillsides where goats grazed in the scrubby grass, squat fields of banana trees, and village rum shops emblazoned with the Banks beer logo. The driver pit-stopped at one of the best look-out points on the island, buying us each a cold drink to enjoy at a picnic table with views straight out to the Atlantic ocean.
He dropped us off, dishevelled and wind-tossed, a few blocks from our front door. Once again, my suspicion was unfounded. This stranger stood to gain nothing from this action. He was just plain nice.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still cautious. I realize that there are lots of people who would be happy to relieve me of some pocket change. But slowly I’m setting my inner risk-assessor to island time, putting it into sync with the affable kindness I have seen displayed time and again on this Bajan adventure, and learning (little by little) that sometimes you have to hope for the best, hang on tight, and enjoy the ride.