India Lloyd writes: Mention the words “tropical island” and most people conjure images of towering palms, sugar-white sands and sapphire waters. Most imagine a tranquil way of life, with picturesque huts on the beach, hammocks swaying in the breeze, perpetual sunshine, and endless cocktails. In short, an idyllic existence.
That is the impression I had in mind when I moved to the Cayman Islands, a tiny British territory in the Caribbean. In hindsight, it was a crazy notion. I could not find my new home on a map, nor could I tell you the first thing about the Cayman Islands. But I was ready for adventure and a tropical island sounded like the ideal place to start.
My friends and family had reacted to the move with a mix of amazement and envy. The idea of having a place to stay in the Caribbean added to their excitement. I spent an inordinate amount of time correcting people about exactly where I was going. “No, not Hayman Island. The Cayman Islands, in the Caribbean,” I said sagely, although, in reality, I wasn’t quite sure I knew where I was going either.
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From the moment I stepped off the tarmac, into the oppressive August heat, I realised I was in no way prepared for my island experience. Traffic? Work? Hurricanes? Where was my tropical paradise? Where was I?
That was more than four years ago now and, needless to say, that initial, rose-tinted vision of life on a tropical island has been shattered.
There are many incredible aspects to living in the Caribbean. The main benefit, of course, is the weather. As I look outside my window, the sun is shining on a splendid winter’s day, with a top temperature of 26C. When the temperature dips below 20C, as it did a few weeks back, the island begins to shut down as people (including many expats used to frosty climates) refuse to leave the house in such frigid temperatures.
Today is the perfect day for the beach, another amazing selling point for life in Cayman. Everything the guidebooks say is true – the beaches are spectacular. Think sparkling, azure waters; pure white sands; glorious sunsets that engulf the horizon with shades of dusty pink and violet. There are just not enough superlatives. Sitting on the beach and watching the sunset, often with a glass of wine in hand, is an indulgence I am lucky to enjoy any day of the week.
In the past few years of living abroad, I have had many unforgettable experiences. I’ve learnt to scuba dive. I’ve swum with turtles and stingrays in the clearest water imaginable. I’ve watched a baseball game in Boston. I’ve drunk mojitos in Havana. I’ve listened to reggae at Bob Marley’s birthplace. I’ve met amazing people from around the world. I’ve run (and I use the term loosely) a half marathon. I’ve eaten fresh conch and lobster while listening to the waves lap against the shore. I’ve waited anxiously as hurricanes have approached the island, and then felt intense relief as the storm missed Cayman. I’ve seen lively games of Caribbean cricket and watched as stray balls soar into oncoming traffic. I’ve had the fortune to meet a cast of colourful characters and tell their stories. And I’ve drunk way too many cocktails (usually while watching the sunset).
Yet, all this beauty comes at a price. Living on a tropical island brings its own assortment of frustrations. It is a cold shower for expats expecting a jaunt in paradise.
I’ve suffered from island fever. I’ve experienced the lack of job security that comes with a work permit (which, essentially, can be revoked at any time). I’ve spent too many hours than I care to admit dealing with Cayman Islands’ bureaucracy. I’ve spent too much money on rent/groceries/utilities (due to the exorbitant cost of living). I’ve paid extravagant duty fees just to pick up my Christmas presents from the post office. I’ve had four full medicals in as many years (another joy of working on a permit). I’ve listened to tirades against evils expats, who are, supposedly, destroying the island. I’’ve seen friends come and go. I’ve experienced the changing face of the island. I’ve missed the seasons (mainly for the clothes, admittedly). I’ve had road rage, sunburn and hangovers. And I’ve spent four years in constant fear of iguanas.
It has been a rollercoaster ride of astonishing highs and overwhelming lows (usually in the depths of homesickness). It has not been paradise, but I’ve discovered that there is no such thing. Paradise is a state of mind.
And we are all searching for our own version of paradise, whether at home in Australia, on a beach in the Caribbean, in the bustling streets of New York, or travelling the globe as an expat. As for my small slice of the tropical life? It has been idyllic and infuriating, but I would not change a moment.
India Lloyd is an Australian journalist living in the Cayman Islands. Expect her to be popping up more regularly