An Open Letter To The Man I Met Abroad

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It hits at the most unexpected times. It’s not written in stone and it can sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it. We all know the feeling: the undeniable tightening of the chest, the butterflies soaring in your stomach and the endless need to hear his voice, see his face. Love has a funny way of working and travel has a funny way of making itself a larger priority. Maybe it’s not really love if it doesn’t come first but it has gotten pretty close.

The first time I saw him he was singing in a café that my friends and I went to every Wednesday: a guitar slung from his shoulder and a harmonica dangling from his neck. Opportunity struck and before I knew it, he was picking me up the following evening. I sat in the balmy Caribbean heat, sipping on rum while he sang a song for me and afterwards, he spent the evening taking me out to his favorite spots before dropping me off at home.

We didn’t take it slow. The realization that I had only a short time left created a sense of urgency and we spent nearly every waking moment together. Our time was filled with evenings listening to him sing, dinners and drinks and nights at his place. We explored an abandoned house, kissed in the sea, and drove around the entire island. We talked about our futures, our families and our dreams. We laughed, fought, cried and ultimately kept each other close until it was time for me to go. There were promises of visits in the near future, of him visiting Canada and me returning to the island. There was assurances that we would talk on the phone, FaceTime every week; we were sure that we would stay in touch.

But as these things go, the phone calls faded and the FaceTime never even began.

I caught myself doing the most embarrassing things that we affectionately label as “crazy girl” behavior. But I wasn’t crazy, was I? I just missed him. I missed the idea of what could have developed and I was terrible at putting that idea to rest. Was it real love? I don’t know. Would it have continued if I hadn’t taken my flight home? I don’t know that either. But I do know that it wasn’t for nothing.

It was real, for me.

It might not have lasted and who knows if I will ever see or hear from him again. But during those months and in those moments, it was real. I let myself be open, raw and vulnerable. I loved being near him, holding his hand, and kissing his face. I loved waking up next to him, listening to the stresses of his day and debating our thoughts about the world. I loved when he pulled me tighter in his sleep and when we made up after a fight. I loved having that sense of being wanted and appreciated, even for that fleeting moment.

It will always coincide with my time abroad.

Whenever I look back on my time abroad and the incredible people I met, I will remember him. He’ll sneak into my thoughts whenever I think about the experiences that I had and the things that I loved. I’ll remember the moment that he said he wanted me to meet his parents and when I, terrified at the seriousness of that request, declined. I’ll remember the moment that he ran down the street towards me when he thought I was leaving without saying goodbye. He will always be there when I think about my time abroad, even when he wasn’t.

It made me believe that love can still exist.

Our time together wasn’t perfect. There were things about me that annoyed him and things about him that drove me crazy. There were times when our souls were intricately meshed and times when our personalities pushed against each other. But, all of the similarities and differences made me realize that I haven’t given up on love. It made me realize that I don’t want to settle for our hook up culture of Netflix and booty calls. I want debates, I want arguments, I want make up sex and morning sex and 3 o’clock in the afternoon sex.

I want movies in bed, homemade meals that involve dancing around the kitchen in our bare feet and, more importantly, I want that with someone whose soul wants my soul, whose soul inspires my soul. If that takes another five years to find, then I will wait because I deserve that type of all-consuming, honest, raw love. We all deserve that kind of love and we shouldn’t be afraid to wait for it.

Lessons Learned from Living on an Island

Before moving to the Caribbean island I had no idea what to expect. Warm weather, the sea and days relaxing on the beach, obviously, but I had no idea just how life changing it can be to immerse yourself in island living. It has shifted my perspective on reality and I am determined to incorporate the life lessons I’ve learned for the rest of my life.

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wave Island time is a real and inherent thing that you will come to love if you choose to study on an island. As you embrace this concept of time, the stress and anxiety begin to fade and you finally begin to take in the life that you’re living. Time will no longer be the dictator of your life. It will be replaced by human contact, relationship, and experiencing the beauty in each day.

wave To quote Karen Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen: “the cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.” This quote could not have more meaning than it does in Barbados. No matter where you are, the salty water of the Caribbean Sea is only a short walk away and it truly is a cure for anything. Breathing in the pure, clean air and letting your body be enveloped by the calm water makes you feel rejuvenated and alive. Not to mention – the sea is the perfect cure for a hangover after one too many rum punches.

wave Family is everything and the people living on the island know this. In Canada, we are growing farther and farther apart from our families. Parents work on holidays and Sundays are no longer a day of rest. One of the most beautiful things I noticed about Barbados was how family oriented everyone seemed to be. On a Sunday, when everything shuts down, you will find the beaches and parks packed with generations of families picnicking together. If you want to learn how to picnic, hang out with the Bajans.

wave Life is all about balance and this is something I truly came to learn and embrace while I was studying in Barbados. There is a time to work, a time to play, and a time to relax and we need all three of those to live our lives to the fullest. Life is not meant to work, sleep and repeat, and in our Western culture this is often what happens, with excuses of being tired, having no time, and not having enough money.  Money does not equal happiness and it is necessary to live a life that balances work, play and relaxation. Trust me, once you learn that all three are needed, you’ll understand that it is truly what will bring the most out of your life.

Whether we live on an island or as far away as the prairies of Alberta, we can still use these ideas about life to increase our own happiness and improve the way that we live our lives.

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Welcome To The Belly of The Dragon: How a Stigmatized Barbados Community Opened My Eyes and My Heart

Those of you who have been following me will know that from January to June of this year I was on a study abroad program in Barbados. Lucky me, right? Usually, when people think of Barbados or the Caribbean in general their immediate thoughts are beautiful white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, and the warmth that we all desperately crave for eight months a year up here in Canada. You’ll probably be staying in all-inclusive resorts, living in luxury for a week or two for a reasonable price. Barbados is your island getaway where you can eat, drink and lay on the beach as much as your heart desires.

You will step off that plane and smile as the thick, humid air hits your face and as the days go by you’ll think, what a beautiful place to live (yes, it is). This is paradise (also true). Nothing bad could ever happen here. But what you don’t see from the shores of the beach, the parties on St. Lawrence Gap, or your luxurious resort is the other side of life in Barbados. The side where some people struggle to keep food on the table, struggle to provide their children opportunities to succeed, and struggle to overcome crippling stigmatization. What you don’t realize when you’re lounging at The Boatyard, a popular stop for cruise passengers and resort-goers alike, is that just across the street sits one of the most socioeconomically low communities, where the drugs are being sold and bought, where the sex trade workers come out at night, where unemployment is sky high and where the community children are running around, caught up in the middle of it all.

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Set on the outskirts of Bridgetown, Nelson Street is a notorious street in the center of the St. Ambrose Community. With a history of public drug use, prostitution, and violence, it is locally known as being a pretty rough area. As a social work student, I was lucky enough to be placed right in the center of it all. Based out of the St. Ambrose Church Centre, I was thrown in head first. On my first day there, I was stopped by numerous concerned citizens when they noticed I was about to turn down into Nelson Street, each one trying to redirect me another route that would have added on an extra 20 minutes. I even had one man, of large, muscular build and heavily tattooed comment that he would never walk down Nelson Street alone. I thought to myself, “if he can’t go there, what chance do I stand?!’ Fully apprehensive, I made my walk down Nelson Street alone when a man who would come to be a huge support for me in the development of my project greeted me by saying, “Welcome to the belly of the dragon.”

Although my first few days were filled with catcalls and unspeakable comments made to me by those who limed on the street, they quickly turned a new leaf once they realized I was there to stay. During this time I learned that what you have certainly does not equate to your happiness. Despite their daily struggles, the individuals living in this area all had one thing in common: hope. If not for themselves than for their children and their futures.

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Having the opportunity to work in a neighborhood such as this truly opened my eyes and my heart. I was privileged to hear the stories that others did not want to listen to. I was welcomed with open arms into the primary school where I fell in love with the bright eyes and smiles of the children. I was guided by those who worked in the Centre I was based from. I cherished the dominoes games that I was invited to participate in with the group of men who hung out at the very same spot of the same street every single day and I was forever grateful to be invited onto the porches of those who offered me to come up for a glass of cold juice on my walk back to the bus at the end of each day.

But the moment I was most humbled is the moment a group of young men, who had initially been the worst of all the catcallers, became the people who would tell those following me too closely to back off by saying “she’s one of us”. That moment is a moment that I will never forget and one that I will always hold onto, the moment when I truly realized just how welcomed I had become. To go from being a stranger in the community to being dubbed one of their own was one of the most rewarding feelings and reminded me why I had chosen this career. I will be eternally grateful for this community for truly opening my eyes and my heart and I sincerely hope that these children get the futures that they deserve.

On Living, Learning and Leaving

Time moves at a different pace when your senses are being stimulated by all the wonders that the world has to offer. Home feels stagnant; there is a desperation to continue living a life that is elsewhere. The mystery of the earth and all that creates it pulls me from home time and time again. This time, I was pulled when I least expected it, to a place I had never dreamed of experiencing.

Uprooting in the middle of my final year of my degree, I boarded a plane and stepped out onto a Caribbean island, determined to create a life for myself during the following four months that I would call Barbados home.

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Not two hours into my arrival and my flip flops were in hand, my feet burying themselves into the white sand only five minutes from my hall of residence. It’s true that once your soul meets the sea it can never be forgotten. It took nearly thirteen years to see the vast beauty of the ocean after having been introduced to the sea in my first year of life and I believe that all that time, it was what my soul was searching for. Ever since, I am drawn to parts of the world where the waves hit the shore.

Needless to say, having the Caribbean Sea at my doorstep made me the happiest girl in the world.

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Life on the island was a simple one with sunshine that turned my hair shades of blonde, sand that found it’s way into every crevice of my belongings, and sea water that embraced us all with open arms. With rarely a frown, the only things escaping from our lips were songs, stories, and continuous laughter that can only be expelled when you’re constantly experiencing new and wondrous moments.

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Instant friends were made and together we explored the island from sunrise to sunset, never a space in between. We climbed through caves to hidden pools that looked out over the sea, we hiked through the countryside, we took our best shot at learning to whine with friends who called the Caribbean home, we mastered the bus system and we sat in circles around beach bonfires, singing songs and sharing coconuts.

I had the opportunity to spend my days working with some of the poorest people on the island with risky lifestyles. Despite going in there with the intention of creating positive change and increasing their chances for opportunity, I came out having been taught more than I ever could have imagined. I entered their community as a stranger but was quickly dubbed one of their own, a humbling feeling that I will forever be grateful for.

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Barbados began as a comparison to travel I had done in the past but I quickly realized that studying abroad could never be compared to that type of travel. I wasn’t a backpacker flitting through. I became a student and a resident and, in doing so, I was awarded all that Barbados had to offer — the good and the ugly. It wasn’t sugar coated by being hidden in the confines of a resort or a day off the cruise ship. I witnessed rugged, untouched beauty of the island, witnessed raw suffering from those who felt comfortable to share their stories, and the non-discriminatory kindness of the people.

Time moves at a different pace. Two weeks can feel like months and yet months in Barbados flew by like days.

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This has been a lesson in how I want to live my life, which direction I want to take. I lived with my entire being, every inch of my heart and soul has been put into these last five months and I have reaped the rewards. I have created a lifetime of lasting memories, conquered fears, and created friendships with people all around the world. It’s made me realize that I am at the perfect moment of my life, no longer a student and not yet tied into a career, to shape my future in any way I dream of. While it’s bittersweet to say goodbye, it has renewed my curiosity and drive to adventure, to experience the world in many ways from many places.

Sunday Snapshot: Barbados Sunset

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This photo was taken on one of my first nights on exchange, sitting on Paradise Beach with a group of new friends from around the world, excited about our new beginning on the island. Sitting on this beach watching the sunset with those friends is one of my most cherished memories from my time in Barbados. Plus, we were awarded with sunsets that look more like paintings.