It’s the old men from the Chinese market next door that spend all day there playing dominoes and talking nonsense, what most old men all over the world do I imagine. The proverbial stoop here happens to be the Chinese market, mostly because the beer is very cold and very cheap. They are lovely and today I’m in a good mood. I’m sweaty and disgusting from an exhilarating 3.5 hour bike ride around the island so I smile and holler back “Good afternoon!” in the native tongue. Clearly the best post-workout food is a chocolate bar and they keep them in the fridge at the Chinese market so I trudge over for my reward. The old guys are delighted I’ve come for a visit and thus starts the most confusing, multi-language conversation I’ve had today (because I have them all day, every day).
They know my face and routine by now and I get lots of congratulations on my long ride and asked if it was very nice and I must be very tired. I catch only bits of this because it’s in Dutch and given that I’m quite tall and blue-eyed, I get mistaken for een nederlandse often, but really, I suck at the language. I’ve learned to mutter “Ik spraak niet het nederlands. Ik spraak engels” quite quickly to avoid more confusion, but before I can finish my rehearsed statement, they shout in delight and throw their hands to the sky. “ENGLISH!!! Oh! We can speak English. Around here we speak everything!” Dutch, English, Spanish, Papiamento (and sometimes French when I got really confused) get tossed around like so many colorful hacky sacks as they enthusiastically try to teach me the local tongue. Thoroughly confused by all this, I shout the first thing that comes to mind on my way out, “Hasta la vista!” Chocolate bar in hand, I’m happy in the fact that I seem to be an accepted neighborhood figure, but sheepish that I sound a little like The Terminator.
It’s a beautiful thing about the Caribbean. Language is as fluid as warm caramel here, malleable and yielding, yet resisting any demand to keep its form. What one language lacks another fills, or simply, a new word is created. Little surprise we are all shades of caramel here, from milky to burnt. A little time spent under her sun and with her people and you’re likely to become just another sun-kissed caramel Caribbean islander. There is sweetness and kindness here, but also cruelty. I’ve seen both in turn, though more kindness than not. An extraordinary and strange race of caramel oddities we are, linked by our love of the seas and winds and a refusal to be beholden to a single language, flag, ethnicity, or definition.
It’s a shame I’ll likely be leaving soon. See, after two and a half years in pursuit of my dream job and finally achieving it, a setback came that I was not expecting. They re-evaluated the budget and the numbers don’t add up and the one with the least seniority (me) became the first to go. One could say, you might have chosen an easier part of the world to settle and one may respond to this with, well, one ought to screen passports before falling in love, but life doesn’t give us this option. I should have left when he did, but I’m just too stubborn. I hold onto things until I have no choice but to let them go.
He said it was too much to deal with, too much struggle and disappointment. He was going home and so should I. I scoffed and asked him to point out such a place on a map.
“You know, the place where you feel comfortable. Where your friends and family are.” “First off, my friends and family are spread out over four continents. Secondly, if you don’t get it by now, I guess you’ll never get it”, I said.” Mweo ma is met jouw, maar no mas, ey mi amor?”
In truth I answered in English, but 6 years of steady travel and the languages and places have melted together so much I have my own unique Creole, more accurate than any Oxford dictionary. So I will remember this conversation the way I want, d’accord?
Years of drifting and I thought I’d found my reason to finally stand still. I gave everything I had to give and I guess so did he. But it’s different when you have something to go back to. It’s always in the back of your mind that there is an exit strategy. And for him home was not an abstract construct, a goal and an end to achieve, worthy of every heroic act and every sacrifice. It was an actual place with four walls that had seen him born and raised by the same people that still filled the space between them with warmth and welcomed him back in their fold. For me, home was him and our dogs, and wherever the four of us found ourselves. When he left, I lost my home (literally and figuratively).
Having no logical returning point, there seemed no other direction to go but to keep on so I just kinda stayed in the islands. To be honest, he did the smart thing and if I were a cleverer girl, I would have done the same. But I’m not a clever girl. I follow my heart (a complete idiot if there ever was one) blindly to ruin and loss so that’s how this one ended, with less than I started and two years of equal parts struggle and happiness gone in one conversation. But the time when something is over and the time when it actually ends can be very different, so eight more months of indecision and uncertainty dragged on with me kicking and screaming and refusing before I could finally say I’d let it go.
And now it seems time to let the islands go too. I’m giving it one last try. I applied to one other position. Do I fit the qualifications? Hardly. Am I anything like they imagined the person for the job? Certainly not. Could I do the job? Like a champ. But I’m exhausted of fighting the odds. It feels like I’m always swimming against the current, always going uphill. I seem to pick the least likely, most hopeless situations and then hammer away at them like a fool trying to turn lead to gold.
In times like these, I know exactly what I need so this particular morning I hopped on my bike, intent on fresh air, exercise, and scoping out the top two thirds of the island. And they were truly stunning. Tall stately pillar cacti; bright green brush and grass newly refreshed from last week’s downpours; rocky inhospitable shorelines with impossibly blue, white-capped waves breaking against them; sharply carved caves and overhangs; salt flats filled with leggy waders; and hills topped with forests hiding goats and donkeys and iguanas. Dozens of lizards sunning themselves on the bike path scurried to the right and left in a panic like the Red Sea parting before my front tire. My favorite was the troupial. Its audacious orange plumage, long mockingbird-like tail, black face, and yellow-lined eyes reminded me of a hardened jailbreak artist. Unlike the soft, lilting, modest coos of he doves I was accustomed to on island, this bird had a sharp, single note call which it repeated with no respect to its unpleasantness. Super cool bird.
I let the week go in the burning of my lungs and legs up hills. I took the time to explore the towns and stopped at one of the many roadside bars to enjoy a cold lemonade in the company of the loud, raucous locals heckling one another in a completely indecipherable language. I paused to appreciate the proud architecture of the Antillean homes with their bright yellow walls, steeply slopped roof peaks and terra cotta tiling. My time here is likely counting down, and I don’t want to miss this, so I focus on soaking it in and then chide myself for once again forgetting my camera.
The best thing about the day though was the down hills. Whoever came up with the saying “It’s all downhill from here” never rode a bike and has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s kinetic energy turned to potential and released in a glorious explosion of gravitational free fall. There’s nothing like the rush of the wind past your skin and the mild thrill of realizing you’re not completely sure these brakes could stop you if you needed them to. It’s a moment’s break in the long slog up hill, the reward for the work when you can stop pushing and let the momentum pull you through to the next incline.
It’s these moments where I can say “Today is good”. I don’t know about tomorrow and I don’t know about two weeks from now when my contract ends. To be honest it’s been years since I could say for sure where I would be in a month’s time, but I hope to god the next move is the right one, the good one, the one that sticks. Maybe the universe sent me down here for a reason and there was someone I had to meet or something I needed to do, but really I won’t know that until well, I know that. Right now it all just feels like a monumental waste of energy and time, but I’m trying to stay up. I’m waiting for the down hill and maybe the harder the climb, the better the descent.
Back home, I enjoy my well-deserved chocolate and chuckle over my impromptu language lesson with the neighborhood grandpas. Today is good and tomorrow who knows, but I keep hope that one day soon when all the pushing is done I’ll be able to smile and say in my funny Creole, “No worries amigo, ev’ry ting aire. It’s all down hill from here.”