This morning I left my apartment a little before 7 a.m. I walked down my street, past rows of small stone houses painted in colourful light shades of pink, white, and yellow… past the convenience store where neighbours gather every evening for dominoes…past the flowering frangipani trees which look like clumps of white orchids on spindly branches… past the neighbourhood cricket club where the sounds of the broadcasted game can often be heard through the open windows. As I rounded the corner, I caught sight of the ocean in the distance, gradations of blue stretching out to the horizon.
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Just an ordinary Tuesday morning in Cave Hill, Barbados, where I’m currently completing a four-month study exchange.
Before I reached the bus stop, a ZR van pulled up alongside me, the door swinging open as it trumpeted its distinctive musical horn. I squeezed in alongside fifteen others, and it took off again, blasting reggae music and speeding along the narrow roads. We passed by the University of the West Indies, where I’m spending the final term of my undergrad in English Literature (or as they call it, Literatures in English). The cricket oval was already spotted with students.
The next bus I caught was a full-size yellow bus, which resembles the official transport buses except for their eye-catching decor and loud music. This bus was personalized with banners along the front and back windshields which read “Being Broke is Against My Religion” and “Money Magnet.”
I grabbed a seat alongside a young boy in “short pants,” the crisp, adorable uniform worn in some variation by all elementary school boys (the girls are in skirts or dresses). Rattling in our seats, we screeched up the West Coast, passing opulent resorts, ramshackle houses, and squat, colourful neighbourhood bars emblazoned with the logo of Bank’s beer, the local brew. We flew through Holetown, the ritzy tourist enclave with a surprising collection of uber-luxury stores such as Armani and Burberry.
Nearly there, I reached up and pressed the converted doorbell which serves as a stop-button, and hopped off the bus, feeling for all the world like a local.
The illusion only lasted a moment, because my destination was a yoga class (nothing particularly Bajan about that — in fact, I had to come all the way to tourist-land to find a studio). But like the old cliche, it wasn’t the destination but the journey which gave me that feeling that I really belonged. I had made my way there, alone, unguided, and without a single person offering me a taxi along the way.
I didn’t feel like a tourist who had taken a wrong turn. I felt like I lived there.
I wonder if all exchange students feel the same sense of being an “imposter” in their first few weeks, as if their every action and gesture screamed, “I’m not really from here!” The self-consciousness of it haunted me the first couple of weeks, when I was sure I stuck out like a sore thumb with my sunscreen, my hat and sunglasses, and my deathbed-pale legs sticking out from my short shorts. I felt like at any moment I was about to do something ridiculous and stupid, commit a major cultural faux pas, or offend someone deeply without even realizing.
However, now those anxieties have faded like my inevitable sunburns. Most of the time, people are friendly and welcoming. They’re happy you’re here and excited to show you around. They think it’s cute that you insist on taking pictures of every small lizard you see, despite the fact that to them, lizards are as common as squirrels. Either that, or they just don’t particularly care about you, which is nice in its own way too.
These past few weeks have been a tug of war between the euphoria of adventure on one hand and the frustrations that accompany adventure on the other hand.
Truth is, it’s a bit of a hassle to set yourself up in a brand new country. There’s the whole business of uprooting everything you hold dear and packing your life into a single 50 lb suitcase (no extra baggage fees for you, Air Canada, you greedy corporation, you!). Then there are administrative hurdles and gradual acclimatization to the subtle quirks of the new campus (why is it that I must relinquish my bag and go through two security checks with each visit to the library? Is Grand Theft Textbook a big problem here?)
There’s the mild horror in the grocery store when you realize that all imported items have a 17 per cent tax…. And 80 per cent of the food is imported. (So no Corn Flakes for you, nor yogurt, nor trail mix, nor anything besides bananas and rice).
And then there is the sometimes-painstaking adjustment to ”island time,” which is a cheerful way of saying that mostly everything is late. (This one is a bitter pill for my Type-A personality to swallow).
But then, here I am, sitting on the bus with a tropical breeze whipping my hair around, catching glimpses of white sand beach and waves breaking across the rocks. All the minor inconveniences are dwarfed by this big, encompassing feeling of being (kind of, sort of, as much as I’ll ever be) at home here.