Reflections on My First 3 Months Abroad
When I first left the U.S. for Panama, I told myself I'd give it three months before making any longterm decisions about where I wanted to be. Here we are now at the 3 month mark and I've been reflecting on what I've learned about on this little island called Bocas and the next steps in my journey:
It's easy to completely disconnected from the rest of the world here in Bocas. Sometimes I have wifi, sometimes I don't. I rarely have T-Mobile cell phone service and have yet to buy a Panamanian phone. Unlike my days in the U.S., there is no such thing as "the weekend" in Bocas. Every day is the perfect day to forget what day it is. I'm not even sure what time it is in the U.S. since Panama doesn't have daylight savings time. Taking this disconnect even further, my intensive Spanish classes meet 8am- 12pm every weekday and I often have homework/grammar/vocabulary words to occupy my evenings and little energy left afterwards for much else. Thus, when I finally got around to sitting still and calling people back in the States, I realized that people had lost jobs and got offered new positions, new babies were on the way and birthdays had passed, and there were engagements and break-ups. My friends and family were moving forward, moving on, or just moving. At times, I had much-needed advice to offer or simple words of wisdom to share, and then there were other conversations where I gained insight and perspective into life in general. Our conversations simply picked up where we left off the last time- whether it had been 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months since we'd last spoken. Each time I talked to someone, I realized how much I missed you all. Although I've been having a great time in Bocas, it's important to me to maintain the close bonds that I've established with my tribe in the U.S. while I'm abroad. As I get older, I'm reminded that real friendships transcend time and boundaries and must be nurtured.
I've been volunteering with Habla Ya during my time here. About one month into my volunteering, the Head of Marketing sent me an email asking if we could set a time to talk while he was in town. I was nervous all week. At my former job, when management asked for a meeting, it was always due to the kind of bad news that was strategically delivered with no sharp objects within arms length of the recipient. This meeting, however, was different. He started the conversation with,"We love what you're doing. Keep up the good work," and moved on to discuss a few other housekeeping matters. I don't think I exhaled during the entire 15 minutes. Even now, I still get a feeling of anxiety and dread when I get a meeting request from him even though I've yet to receive anything but positive feedback, tips, advice, and always a willing party to consider my ideas.
I've written a lot about the toxic work environment that I'd left behind; however, I didn't realize the impact it had on me and the way I interact with others in a professional environment. Now that I'm in an environment that's positive and supportive, I have to make a consistent effort to value colleagues that are willing to working in a collaborative spirit. The blow that I keep anticipating isn't coming.
Remember "Perro" from Carnival? Of course he made another guest appearance (these type of guys always pop back up). This time we had a long conversation about what exactly happened between us. In his version of events, he's trapped in a loveless relationship with not one, but TWO other women, and then he suddenly meets me. Poor guy! A few years ago, I would've played Cap'n Save Him and tried to fix this clearly broken individual with my love. Now...nah. I'm at a stage in my life where I'm not interested in a project: trying to put someone back together who wasn't ready to be loved, or to love others selflessly. For me, the conversation with him was enlightening because I could see pieces of my failed relationships in him as well as the lessons I'd learned from each of them. At this stage in my life, I'm finally clear on how I deserve to be loved and ready love someone else. Thus, there is no room in my heart for players, perros, projects- boys who have yet to grow up and learn to be careful with women's hearts. He helped make that so crystal clear to me.
Since the 2010 earthquake, when I travel, people often ask me many questions about Haiti post-quake or the latest political circus going on in Haiti. Currently, Haiti is experiencing a classically Haitian election cycle: elections postponed, finally happen, candidate wth questionable allegiance calls it fraudulent, Haitians participate in our favorite past time: protesting in the streets, America freaks out and intervenes...you know, the usual. Usually, this would mean that I get trapped into conversations about Haitian politics that I'd rather not have as the only Haitian at happy hour. Lo and behold, with the candidacy of Mein Trumpf and it's intellectual race to the bottom financed by the 1% and corporations, the American election cycle looks so absurd and corrupt from abroad that virtually no one asks me about Haiti anymore, too preoccupied with that circus. Instead, I get, "WTF is up with that Trump guy? Is he serious?!" Finally, American politics have fallen so far from grace that and logic that it makes the rest of the world look stable in comparison. I don't have to recite Haitian history from 1804 on to captivated strangers at the bar anymore. And for that small favor, America, I thank you.
In D.C., I swam in the local pool 2-3 times a week. More than just exercise, this routine helped me maintain some some work/life balance. When I got to Bocas, I asked someone where I could find a pool to continue that routine. "You mean, a human fish bowl," he scoffed. Yup, major shade. With no pools on the island and my pride a little battered, I began my year of doing epic sh-- and stepping out of my comfort from that moment on.
For example, I was initially terrified of getting on a surfboard in the untamable waters of the ocean until I realized that the local kids start surfing and buggy boarding as young as 5 or 6. Not to be outdone by little more than toddlers, I've taken surfing lessons in Bocas, swam with bioluminescent planktons aglow underneath the stars, hiked up mountains just to gaze down at the world below, hung out with schools of fishes swimming amongst the coral, dived off a boat into the ocean with nothing guiding me except the moonlight, and on and on I could go. On the other hand, I lost my Nikon camera to a fierce wave on Red Frog Beach. The sound on my phone hasn't worked since I took in snorkeling in a "water-proof" case. Something stung me in the ocean and left red welts on my waist last week. I also have an angry gash on my left foot from a barnacle that I scraped myself on while I was climbing onto a deck. Oh, and I found a dead hammerhead shark on the beach yesterday (I just wanted to throw that in there).
These are all things that would have stressed me out last year in my need to be fully in control of my life because I felt unable to control my circumstances. At this junction, however, I simply ordered a new camera (which Amazon lost twice) before it made it to Mailbox ETC in Panama, called T-Mobile to figure out how I could get a new phone (it's complicated they told me), and bought some antibiotic spray for the bruises. Life goes on whether I stress out about the things that are out of my control or not...but I should probably be a bit more careful.
For me, writing, painting, photography, sketching- all the creative things I do- are innate and therapuetic. I'm constantly revising prose in my head in anticipation of what the final product will look like on paper. If we are having a conversation, part of my brain is contemplating how I could capture the sentiment behind your words, not just the words themselves, if I retell that story later. When I see the world, my mind immediately processes how to capture that moment in shades, words, or a single image.
Given that I'd been raised to value learning over inherent talent, I never gave much thought to monetize or develop these skills that I didn't go to college to study. They were always just talents- if I could be so bold as to use that word- that I happen to have. However, the past few months of being able to be creative without guilt, anxiety, or interruption have been some of the happiest months of my life. This blog has become as much a creative outlet as it is now a part of my brand. Thus, I want to continue to grow and expand that brand and place as much value in it as I do in the very fancy (very fancy) sounding degrees that I have. In this next phase, I want take my talents seriously, and package and market them more strategically.
After months of being a beach bum followed by a week "roughing it" in the mountains, I landed in the airport in Panama City for a week-long visit with my unkept hair wrapped in a scarf and dirty sweats on. I hadn't worn anything but flip flops in the past few months, yet the Panamanian women standing beside me were all in heels, hair blown out, and full make-up on in the middle of the day! This "Country Mouse goes to the city" routine just wouldn't do for me. I grabbed my suitcase and went straight to the mall for outfits that would turn heads, the nail salon to get the callouses scrubbed off my feet, got my eyebrows waxed and tamed, headed to the spa for a facial, then washed and brushed my hair. Finally, I emerged ready to take on Panama City.
What I have always like about Panama City was that it reminds me of Miami- it even looks like the Miami skyline. It's vibrant and diverse, the cultural scene is thriving, and the people are beautiful and well-dressed. Bocas, in contrast, moves at the pace of a Caribbean wave- untethered, untamed, and unbothered. It's breathtakingly beautiful and intoxicatingly slow and comforting at the same time.
The week after I had tonsilitis, I was eating at a food stand when every person that passed by stopped at my table to inquire about how I was feeling. It seemed like the whole town knew I'd been sick! The small town vibe in Bocas means that everyone knows your name, everyone says good morning, and everyone notices if you haven't been around for a while and will inquire as to why. Other than the tourists, there are few new faces in Bocas. This has its obvious downsides...
Thus, after three months in Bocas, I've decided to move...to Panama City! It's time to get back to real life, but not life in the U.S. just yet. I'm nervous and excited to be in a city again- and back in high heels. However, it'll be a welcomed challenge for my Spanish language skills since, unlike tourist-friendly Bocas, few people in Panama City speak English. My social and personal life will benefit from the change in scenery also. New people, new faces, new places!! And, professionally, there are more opportunities in the city as well. So cheers to leaving the island life and making it in the big city!
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