Island Soul City Dreams

I love New York, but my heart has a Caribbean beat. It pulsates to the traditions of my people. Attuned to the rhythms of this City, I stay West Indian to the bone. I reflect. I analyze. I speak my mind. ~ I Keep it Irie ~

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.

My mom’s coconut bread.

My mom’s coconut bread.

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.

My friends and I during a Crop Over before I moved to New York.

My friends and I during a Crop Over before I moved to New York.

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 ~

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21 thoughts on “Journey Beyond Paradise

  1. shawn king on said:

    Lovely piece! I am looking forward to my autographed book!

  2. I have added your book on my to but list for late 2013! Good piece!

  3. My glasses are in need of a change, nah my fingers are getting fat, that is “to buy list.”

  4. A great start to what is to come, I wait to read the finished book. Great job!!

  5. Natalie on said:

    Thanks for sharing Maquita. Nice to finally see your work.

  6. I like it maquita. Keep on keeping on. I look forward to the rest.

  7. You’ve lived a very interesting life; waiting for the book to learn more about it. Also, I need to visit this Barbados you describe so vividly, soon.

    • Interesting life indeed G. Thank you.:-)
      Yes, you must come farther down the chain of islands, you can’t stop at JA, there’s lots of sugar in the Lesser Antilles.;-)Let me know when you’re ready to make that trip.

  8. This coming to America story reverberates with me in many ways and it can speak to similar transformations experienced by Caribbean students who migrate to North America at a later age to pursue higher education. Ill say this though; I am of the view that as Caribbean people when we migrate to whatever country at a later age, we are able to stay grounded and not get distracted by what we have come to do. I personally am very satisfied that I was able to migrate to North America at a later age and that the training I received back home in Grenada as a child eventually kicked in forcefully so when I had to fend for myself in far-away lands (in my case, Taiwan) before coming to America. Keep up the great work; looking forward to getting a sneak peak of your upcoming book. Irie

    • Thanks a million Kellon.

      You’re right re: Caribbean natives’ migration! I too agree that I fared well because of migrating at a later “age”. There are many situations I encountered, that had it not been for my training and experience back home, I would not have been equipped to deal with them.

      I further see the value in moving here at that stage in my life through some of the mistakes made by my much younger friends from the Caribbean who come here for college. Still, they (have to) learn from their errors. But it’s a privilege to guide them based on my own experiences and it’s always flattering when many of them reach out to me for advice/my opinion/expertise etc. Especially on those occasions, I’m happy that I’m the “older” student.

      I must admit though, that there times I wished I’d moved here at a younger age and had some of that dorm room or sorority experience lol!

  9. Roger on said:

    Another moving and profound article. I was now getting into it when I saw ‘stay tuned’.

  10. Neil Ifill on said:

    Maquita… I love the vibe! Anyone who leaves their country as an adult to move to another to pursue a dream can appreciate this post. I left Barbados at 29, with a great career in the hotel business (I used to work at the now closed Almond Beach Village) to come to Baltimore, not knowing how life would turn. I only knew that I loved my new wife dearly, and that we would get it together. I now work for Johns Hopkins Hospital, arguably the best, most recognizable health institution on the planet, and going to grad school in January of 2014. You made a step of faith, and so long as you’re faithful (to yourself, your dream and your God), it will all fall into place. I am not sure if I have ever read stuff like yours: clear, descriptive, but not snooty and condescending. Obviously your base is a good Bajan education! Keep on keeping it Irie!

    • Thanks so much Neil – on all counts!
      And congrats on your successes re: career, wife/family and life in B’More! I love to hear such stories, especially of my Bajan peops! Best wishes come with grad school come January.
      I actually have two good friends here in Brooklyn who also previously worked at Almond Beach. Not sure if you’d know them, but their names are Leona and Renae. I must ask them if they know you.
      Thanks for your positive feedback and encouragement. One Love.:-)

  11. Pingback: Farewell My Beloved NYC, Hello New City | Island Soul City Dreams

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