Journey Beyond Paradise
As the holiday cheer heightens and the countdown to 2013 draws near, I find myself reflecting on my journey from Barbados to New York and the remarkable progress I’ve made over these past few years. I first wrote about the start to what has become an incredible chapter in my life during my Magazine Workshop – a capstone class in the master’s degree I earned at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The class was taught by editor extraordinaire of The New Yorker, John Bennet, who had assigned us to write personal essays. For me, sharing this particular slice of my life was somewhat cathartic. My classmates and I read to one another our respective stories – all of which portrayed some challenge we had to overcome. Almost every narrative evoked tears. Today, I’ll expand my audience beyond the classroom to include you. This piece is an excerpt from the book I have yet to complete on my life story. I’d love to hear your feedback.
At the start of 2005, my life seemed almost perfect. I was living in my native Barbados, the easternmost of Caribbean islands where rejuvenating breezes cascade off the Atlantic Ocean. All year the sun kisses us a brilliant good morning and bids adieu with even more radiance as it sinks beyond horizons of white sand beaches and crystal clear blue waters. I was about to celebrate my 30th birthday on January 30 – a date shared with my younger sister who came screaming into this world the day I turned 4-years-old. She remains my best birthday gift ever. I was working as a reporter – the career I’d dreamt about from the age of 13 and I had an adoring boyfriend who’d lift me over a puddle of water into the car just so I wouldn’t soil my shoes. To top it off, every week, my mother baked my favorite treat – coconut bread – for which I’d travel for miles through narrow unpaved tracks in the lush, rural countryside of Barbados. It was looking like my best year yet.
In August, I decided to take a vacation after enjoying our annual carnival known as Crop Over. This month-long festival culminates with half-clad bodies in Mardi Gras-style costumes gyrating on the streets to pulsating Calypso rhythms to celebrate the end of our sugar cane harvest. One needs to recuperate from this. I’d been coming to New York almost every year since 1997. It was time to revisit. Only now, I had an additional agenda about which I’d failed to inform my boyfriend who’d remain in Barbados. A few months prior, in my quest to make 2005 my most progressive, I’d determined I was going back to school.
For many years, after earning my degree in mass communications and working as a reporter; I’d desperately longed to enhance my academic qualifications. Given my familiarity with New York, the affordability and credibility of CUNY colleges, not to mention the city’s large West Indian Diaspora, I applied to a few Bachelor of Arts programs. My “vacation” in part was to visit the campuses where I’d been accepted to choose which to attend. And while I wouldn’t start school until January 2006, I also wanted to find an apartment and spend some time adapting to life in the “Big Apple” outside of a vacation. I loved the experience. What was originally supposed to be a three-week stay was prolonged. Autumn came and I was still in New York. By then I’d decided that I was going to The City College of New York (CCNY) to pursue a double major (BA) in advertising & public relations, and journalism. It took until December to get all the necessary documents from CCNY as required by the US Embassy in my country to apply for a student visa.
I returned home on December 13 – three days before my boyfriend’s birthday. By now, he was fully aware of my plans and surprisingly committed to remain in a relationship over the next three years while I pursued my academic dreams in a foreign country. My year ended on a high.
The New York I’d left in early December was less familiar on my return the first week of January. I began to question why in heaven’s name I’d left the tropical shores of a paradise for the snow-filled sidewalks of this freezing metropolis. All of a sudden, the reality of migration hit me. With no relatives in New York, I was now away from the safety net of all my family and close friends. I could no longer stand on my patio and watch the perfect sunset, or stroll to a nearby beach on an impulse to feel the warm waves splashing against my bare legs, or submerge my body in seawater and let it drench my dreadlocks.
Gone now were the picturesque drives to see my mother on weekends and joint birthday events with my sister. Telephone conversations with my boyfriend no longer held the anticipation of seeing him in a few moments or a couple hours. We started fighting about any and everything. As the start of the semester got closer and yet another celebration of my birthday, my boyfriend was convinced that some new guy in the classroom would take his place. We broke up the day before my birthday; the day before I started at the City College of New York.
On my 31st birthday, despite all efforts to keep it together, I walked into my first class – in a decade – in tears. But by the time it was my turn to stand and introduce myself to the professor and fellow students, I’d regained my composure. I told them I was from Barbados and that it was my birthday. Many asked why I’d left such an idyllic island, for such a chaotic city. I told them I was pursuing a dream. One student noted that there was no better day to start a new journey than the celebration of a new year, a birthday. Then they all sang me happy birthday.
For more on my story, stay tuned for my book “Bajan Brown Sugar.” What do you think of it so far?
~ I Keep it Irie ~