I pick up trash. Not for a living, but just because it’s there. And because I can. Because I want to. Because I have to. Let me explain.
I live on this beautiful tropical island in the Caribbean, Little Corn Island, off the coast of Nicaragua. It’s tiny, so everything (and everybody) is right in your face. You cannot avoid walking past trash, because there are only a few paths that take you around the island. And there is trash everywhere.
I bet your first thought is: why do people throw their trash around in such a beautiful place? Well, there are many reasons. First of all, this is a developing country, with a lack of funds, logistics and poor education. Basically, here we have no system in place that takes care of our trash the way you are used to have your trash taken care of. All you have to do is put it at the curb, and a truck will come and pick it up. Out of sight, out of mind. You pay for the service, they take care of it. Not here. We have no municipal facility or officer here. We have no roads, no cars, so no garbage trucks. We have no central dump or incinerator. Apart from a handful of recycling bins, we have no general garbage bins along our walkways, because emptying them causes a problem: where to take it? So better not have the bins, head in the sand-strategy. Basically, we’re on our own, when it comes to trash. We DO have trash, lots of it.
A lot of the people living on this island have not grown up with the same concepts about trash in nature as you and I have. It’s a cultural thing: I have learned that trash does not belong in nature, and I have learned why it is bad that it is there. So I know. I cannot walk past trash sitting in nature without feeling bad about it. A lot of the people here have not learned that (yet). And let’s be honest, our developed countries took ages to establish this attitude towards trash. I remember I was tiny, when we had only one black and white channel on TV, seeing a government campaign about taking care of the environment. So it was barely 1970 when they started educating us about the environment in the Netherlands. It took us well into the 90’s before there was a firmly established system of recycling and diminishing our trash, which now has become second nature to most Dutch people. So if a well-developed, rich country with a good education system, municipal services and government campaigns needs a whole generation to get this environmental attitude in place, we cannot expect that a poor country without all that is going to get on top of their trash problem in a couple of years. I let go of that dream a while ago.
Here reality is that a lot of people throw their trash wherever they go. Because they don’t know any better. And because there is no real option to put it anywhere anyway, apart from plastic bottles and aluminium cans that are collected and shipped off the island for recycling. At their own homes they may burn their trash, but when it rains (and this is the tropics), that is not an option either. So then it is the bush. Where the chickens will scratch through it, and neatly distribute it all over the place. Dogs will scrounge and find the edibles (including disposable diapers). So what’s left is plastic, loads of it, and cans, everywhere.
Then I walk by. I see the trash. I used to get angry at the people for throwing it there, even though I didn’t know who had done it, a pretty senseless waste of my emotional energy. When I started to understand the complexity of this problem better I managed to stop blaming them, and I also tried to stop thinking that the local government should do something about it. Because they won’t, because they can’t. The person who throws plastic in nature is guilty of a crime against Mother Earth, and in a way that is a crime against every organism on this planet, which includes me. So that could give me a good reason to be angry and upset. But when I walk by and I see that trash sitting there, KNOWING THAT IT IS HARMFUL TO MOTHER EARTH and then not picking it up, I become as guilty of a crime against nature as that person who threw it there in the first place. I should be mad at myself then too! Once you know, you cannot leave it there, can you? That is the most important reason to pick it up: I do not want to be guilty of leaving it there, passively condoning these crimes against nature, which are also crimes against me. So I pick it up, and take it to the recycling bins. I throw the non-recyclables in there too, that is my silent protest to the municipality and government for not providing some kind of trash-bins and a system to take care of that street trash.
Last week I posted a list of 17 things that could be potential deal breakers in your life on a little tropical island. If you started laughing hard at some of my descriptions, you are made for island life. If most of the points made you cringe or gave you the shivers, you may reconsider relocating to a tropical island paradise.
Today I am giving you the exact same list, but this time I will tell you why most of them are the BEST reasons to come and live on Little Corn Island:
1.The Heat: I love the heat, because I love the sun! I always feel a lot of affinity with the iguanas we have here. They only come out when the sun shines. They first have to warm up, before they can become active. I’m just like that. Inactive in the cold, active in the heat. Although you won’t find me sunbathing on the beach, I always say I was born in the wrong location. In the Netherlands I was often cold, and very miserable in wintertime, when blankets of cold grey dampness do anything but make you feel comfortable or lift your mood. The sun is hidden by that ominous dark layer, sometimes for weeks at a time. The landscape looks grey and brown and dead, without any colour to brighten up your day. Only in my thirties I learned there was a name for my yearly depression: Seasonal Affection Disorder. Living on a little tropical island, seeing the sun almost every day and feeling warm most of the time has totally fixed that problem. Temperatures never drop below 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) and are usually up around 25 in the shade (high seventies). The climate forces you to be outside in the fresh air all the time, instead of being locked up in air-conditioned or centrally heated sealed spaces. Having your house all open and being outside all the time also makes the whole island community more welcoming and open. No huddling behind closed curtains to keep the cold out. And thanks to that year-round warmth, Mother nature is always showing herself in her brightest greens and colourful flowers, against the backdrop of turquoise seas and blue skies. Nothing more uplifting for your mood than a dash of bright colour! Oh, and the sweat? Just see it as if you’re working out all the time: a major boost for self esteem and feeling accomplished.
2. The Rain: OK, I confess, sometimes I have to force myself to love the rain. But imagine the first rains after months of dry hot weather. It is the most refreshing thing ever. I will take rain-showers, literally just standing outside washing myself in the downpour. It’s a most invigorating and super fun experience, and both my skin and hair love it! The rain saves you work, because you don’t have to water all your plants, and you can catch the water running down from the roof to water those that are not exposed, and to wash your laundry. Your clothes just feel and smell different when they have been washed with rainwater. As annoying as rainy season can be, with days of intermittent showers and squalls or 24 hours continuous downpours, we have to be grateful for all that water. It replenishes our aquifer and allows us to live on this little rock. We are totally dependent on the rains for all our daily water use. And after all the heat and sweat and always being outside, sometimes it is nice to be forced by the rains to go inside and do something indoors, without having sweat running down your spine. You have to love the rain!
3. The Wind: ahh, the wind! Here it is called a “sweet breeze”, and what better name for that cooling breeze coming from the sea, to keep you from coming to a full boil around midday. The breeze dries all your laundry in no time, and also keeps the mosquitoes at bay, that’s why you want to live on the windy side of the island. Those of you familiar with Ayurveda will understand when I say that for Vatas the windy season may be a little aggravating, but with the right foods, a thin wrap around your shoulders and some extra stretching it is still ten times better than winter up north.
4. The Transport: oh well, there’s a lot to be said that is not in favour of our transportation system to and from the island. But on all the good days, a ride in that open panga is the best way to come home to our little island. You make friends on the way, see a beautiful sunset over your shoulder, while craning your neck to catch a glimpse of your destination. On an early morning ride out to the Big Island, I meditate under the rays of the sun, not yet too hot, feeling the rhythm of the boat against the waves resonate with my own heart beat. The wind blowing your hair out of your face, the spray from the bow making beautiful shimmering arches. Ahh, I love those panga rides!
5. The Erosion: well, there is nothing to be loved about that. It is horrific and makes us all very sad and scared. Businesses are close to falling into the sea in some places, people are losing part of their properties, the island is getting smaller with every storm. On the opposite side of all that material loss is the impressive power of Mother Nature. You gotta give it to her: maybe we humans are bad to her, but she is a badass herself, throwing right back at us all that we have done wrong. When a good high sea backed by a strong wind washes the sea water over the vegetation into the beach trail, leaving us with ankle deep water full of trash and debris to wade through, I cannot help but think: right on, girl, thanks for rubbing it in.
6. The Bugs: they are beautiful! At least, quite a few of them. Colourful butterflies, amazing moths, bright red dragonflies, bright green grasshoppers, the most amazing beetles, caterpillars and (tiny) praying mantises, and have you ever taken a good look at a cockroach? It’s actually quite a beautiful creature. So is a tarantula. We have banana spiders here who have a miniature skull face painted on their backs. Ants have intricate ways of communicating and working together, never giving up their tasks. Watching a mosquito from close by, seeing how it lifts its hind legs, is quite interesting. But then you just smack them on the head. Mosquitoes and sand flies offer excellent training in letting go. Letting go of wanting to be in control, because you can’t. Letting go of being annoyed by their high pitched buzz, because you can’t stop them. Letting go of the need to scratch an itchy bite, because you will cause it to get infected (you can stop yourself). Thank you bugs, for providing us with multiple reminders to let go and relax.
7. The Dogs: they are so much fun! Most island dogs run around free, and choose whom they want to hang out with for the day. They may be your best friend for a couple of days, until they run into someone else that all of a sudden becomes their preferred company (probably a better bite from a hamburger). Most dogs have names, and we all know them by their name. So we greet all dogs just like we greet each other. They are an integral part of the island community, are allowed in most restaurants, feature in lots of tourist’s pictures, get their own Facebook pages and are missed by many when they pass away. I’m a cat person, but I love the simplicity of dogs too.
8. The Aquifer: Not much to rejoice about an aquifer in itself, but the fact that it is limited makes you very aware of the amount of water that you use every day. Once you become aware of the possibility that the aquifer gets depleted, every drop of water plays a trick on your conscience. You learn to conserve water, recycle it, catch it. It definitely contributes to mindfulness and conscious and creative living!
9. The Trash: another one that is hard to be liked. Trash everywhere. Always washing up more on the beach, from all around the world. Always a stinking, burning pile of household trash somewhere close to you, unless you live smack on the beach, upwind from everyone. Always trash lying around everywhere, since a lack of education has not taught a good part of the local population that trash does not belong in nature. Besides: we have nowhere to go with it. Still, there are good things to be said about trash and little tropical islands: for a lot of us living here and being responsible for our own trash has made us very conscious of it. Some of us have started to shop more consciously, looking for things in bulk, creating less trash. I personally have let go of most processed foods, to avoid trash. So in a way I can thank trash for a healthier diet with mostly whole foods. It also makes us more resourceful, finding creative ways to recycle it, like stuffing soft plastics in cushions for the beach, or reusing PVC-pipes used for pouring cement posts to organise T-shirts in the gift shop. I have made a lot of fun things out of beach trash, and it is my way of not getting totally sad and upset about all that rubbish sitting on the beach. Watching the giant Karma Shack mobile made of beach trash slowly doing its never-ending choreography makes a lot of people feel good.
10. The Limited Availability of Basic Things: love that one! The lack of choice is so liberating. When you need new shorts, and the store has only two pairs of cotton shorts that are not jeans and full of bling, you don’t mind that one is a size too big, and the other not really a colour that you’d normally wear. You just buy them! When you start to think about it, modern life is a daily struggle of choices, taking up a lot of your time. All day long. A lot of them are choices about stuff that you buy to wear, to use, to eat or drink. On a little tropical island there is not a whole lot to choose from, and it leaves you with lots of time and energy to do other things, or think about other things. The realisation that you won’t die when you don’t get your favourite coffee, your preferred sweet rolls or flip-flops that match your bathing suit, means that you are growing away from a highly materialist life of having, and start to get more into the mode of just being (I even have a pair of non-matching rubber boots). If you can handle the limited availability of basic things, you have passed one of the main rites of passage for life on a tropical island (in my Christmas 2016 post I wrote about ‘being vs having’ as an essential characteristic of island life).
11. Lack of Proper Healthcare: this is an interesting one. When you know there is not really a reliable medical service, you become more resourceful in finding out on your own what could be wrong with you, and then finding natural treatments for it, instead of pharmaceutical remedies that are sometimes not available anyway. But you also let things just take their course more often. When you get sick, well, you just wait till you get better, instead of running to the doctor for some pills. You start to rely less on someone else taking care of your health, and become more responsible yourself. In all these years on the island I have visited the clinic once. Living a proper stress free island life also makes you less prone to disease.
12. Lack of Communication: the lack of reliable telephone and internet signals has made me very independent of my phone, and of my need to stay connected with people in other parts of the world. When I can, I will, when I can’t I won’t cry over it. As I write this it is noon, and I just realised that I have forgotten to turn on my phone this morning! (and I am still alive!). When I am in the middle of posting a blog and the internet blacks out, I just go rake the garden or walk along the beach. Having unreliable communication can also be a great excuse to not stay in touch, or not get any work done! I sometimes dream of making our little island a digital detox destination. DDD, I’d love to offer that in the Karma Shack!
13. Limited things to do: bullshit. I never have enough time to read all the books I want to read, study all the topics I want to study, write all the posts I have in my head, make my garden look perfect, finish all those arts&crafts-projects, and make all those home-cooked goodies that I’d like to eat, just because I am too busy with island-life as it is, and I don’t mean work. Boredom is a choice, and it’s not mine.
14. Temptations: that can be a tough one for some. But it can also be your real challenge. Staying true to your choice to live a life free of addictive substances that are toxic for you in many ways, is a very empowering experience. Especially when you are surrounded by people who are daily users of one for more of them.
15. The Tourists: Love them or leave the island! So many wonderful people from all over the world come to our little island. And they are all here to have a good time, so as soon as you contribute to that, they are your best friend forever! I have met so many interesting people through my work in the Karma Shack, from submarine engineers to drummers in famous bands, ayurveda specialists and acupuncturists, young families travelling with 3 little kids, and double breast cancer survivor 85-year olds still swimming everyday. A guy that made a living of carving wooden spoons and teaching people how to do that, with a raw vegan chef as his girlfriend, whom he asked to marry here on the island. A woman who teaches yoga to children with special needs. War veterans, relief workers, missionaries. Wonderful musicians share their talents, artists leave their paintings, and many a tourist will spend a couple of hours leaving our beaches cleaner than before. Some of the tourists come back and become part of our community for a few weeks or months every year. These people become our favourite pack-horses to lug special requests from the US and Canada down here for us. Tourists! So grateful they come here!
16. The Local Community: a local island community is always a fun mix of many. Because even the locals come from all over the place, and add to that your mix of foreigners settling here after they have arrived as tourists. Once tourism starts to offer a good amount of jobs you see the local and foreign community mix more and more. Living in a place like this you get to have friends from all over the world. Apart from Nicaraguans both from the island and from the mainland, we have French, Italian, British, Irish, Portuguese, German, Austrian, Swiss, Spanish, Norwegian, Israeli, Argentinian, Australian, Kiwi, US, Canadian, Salvadoran, Colombian and Syrian people living on our little island. To this day I am still the only Dutch resident here, phew!
The local community provides a never ending course of life-lessons. More than anything you learn that the way they do things in your country, is not the way they do things in any other country, and especially not on your little island. You learn to open your mind to different ways, and accept that things cannot always go your way, simply because you’re not at home.
17. The confrontation with self: a great point if you’re into personal and spiritual growth! Being in unfamiliar surroundings with a lot of common things missing, out of your comfort zone, not surrounded by your closest family and friends that are always there for you and put up with your quirks or moods when necessary, you get to face yourself in the mirrors that random strangers will hold up for you, not knowing you so well. What you see in that mirror might not be your most favourite you, but then you can start working on it, and grow into a better version of yourself. Enjoy the ride!
So here we have the exact same list that I presented last week as 17 good reasons why you DON’T want to live on a little tropical is
land. Today I turned them around and made them perfect reasons why you DO want to live here. Last week’s list was based on all sorts of fears, keeping us in our comfort zones, today’s list is based on love, challenging us to step out of that comfort zone and learn new things and have different and magical experiences. That is always your choice in life: do I think, speak, act and live from a place of fear based on discomfort, uncertainties and the unknown, or do I live from a place of love, based on a willingness to learn and grow? Take that thought with you when you pack your bag to come and visit us and check out our little island for yourselves!
Christmas on Little Corn Island or why I love the life I live
Living on a tiny tropical island in a developing country makes Christmas quite a different experience from what most of you are used to. And that is exactly why I love living the life I live, here on Little Corn Island.
While back home the Christmas buzz starts in some places somewhere in October, working itself into a total frenzy of freaky consumerist energy by mid-December, here on Little Corn Island life goes on as normal, more or less until December 21 or thereabouts.
Until then nobody has any idea what they will be doing on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, apart from those that have jobs in the restaurants, because they of course will be working. But none of us has made any plans for a Christmas dinner or full-blown Christmas party. No fancy invitations have been sent, no heads broken over 10-course dinners. Island dinners can never be very elaborate anyway, because of the major lack of fancy ingredients to be found in the shops. No-one has been spending a fortune buying gifts and wrapping them, because there is not a whole lot to buy in our handful of general stores, and there is no brain-washing through non-stop advertising that makes you want to buy all that Christmas-stuff. Christmas cards cannot be sent for lack of postal services here, so that one is easy too. Basically, the almost complete absence of forceful marketing publicity makes Christmas on a little island so much more relaxed.
So there wasn’t much Christmas-inspired activity going on here, way into December…..
Then, finally, someone sent out a Facebook group message that there would be a pot luck/BYOB/bring your own plate-dinner on the 25th, and everybody happily RSVP-ed with thumbs up, stickers and other funny comments. It’s going to be quite a crowd of mostly foreigners that have settled or who hibernate on our little island. There is no printed menu, we don’t even know if there will be enough food and drinks, but we don’t worry about it. No dress code either and half of us will appear on flip-flops or crocs, the other half barefoot. Guys will for sure wear their baggy shorts, some of us girls will wear a slightly fancy dress that we have worn already many times to all the other festive occasions, since we all just have one dress like that. Make up is optional. My necklace is made of coconut shell. Oh, and you don’t have to worry about a dinner date to attend the party, you just come with your dish and some booze and the party is on. Until then: relax!
By early December there are usually some minor indications that “the season” is starting. The first sign is always somewhere in November when a salesman starts showing up every Saturday on the freight boat with a load of imported green and red apples and grapes. Prices are inflated. More than a dollar for 1 apple and something like 5 dollars for a pound of grapes. People pay that money, because that’s what you do: you buy expensive imported apples and grapes for Christmas.
The next sign of seasonal activity is on the 2nd Saturday of December when the freight boat delivers a bunch of fire crackers, which of course are all fired that same day. I wonder if there are any left for Christmas or New Year’s?
A few houses sport a couple of strings of Christmas lights. One house has strung them around just one low-sitting square window. Somehow the sight of that single red-lit window makes me think of my home-town. I guess I have lived in Amsterdam for too many years 🙂
About two weeks before Christmas the big communal Christmas tree has been set up on the beach. It consists of one cable of neon-coloured Christmas lights spiralling down to the ground from the top of a tall stick. No decorations, and not even a hint of fake “evergreen”, thank god for that. Nothing as sad as a fake evergreen in a tropical country where everything is green forever, but we don’t have spruce, pine or firs here. Sunset gives that tree quite a magical backdrop! No need for decorations there.
In the mean time a few of us (foreign residents) are gearing up for a Christmas tree decoration activity in front of Café Desideri, island style.
Every year they put up some kind of basic tree (either just a tall stick, or a big dead branch with loads of side branches), and we decorate the whole thing with beach trash. Yours truly is always good for a sackful of colourful beach trash, collected throughout the year. A few days before Christmas we dump that all in front of the restaurant, bring some simple tools to poke holes, a pair of scissors, a roll of string and maybe some glue, and then the fun begins! As soon as two adults start playing with a pile of colourful trash they attract lots of attention. Local children are pulled in by the magnetic force of coloured plastic, automatically associated with toys. Adults are always very curious about what we are doing, and once they understand the idea usually become very supportive of the whole project, appreciating the fact that we recycle trash there. Random strangers join in to help the kids or to create their own decoration; a constantly changing group of adults and kids combine their innate creative talents for several hours making the strangest, funniest, ugliest and prettiest Christmas tree decorations you can imagine.
Anything goes. Combs, flip-flops, tooth brushes, bottle caps, broken USB cables or egg timers, cups, ice cream tubs, and one year even the derrière of a mannequin and a biker’s helmet have made it into our Christmas tree. The result is a very messy, but super-merry Christmas tree, that has no pretensions to be fancy or fashionable, just pure fun. The best part of this whole happening in my opinion is the opportunity for all of us to do something different and to express some creativity, because we don’t get that chance often enough. The absence of prefabricated examples stimulates the children’s imagination, and they start to create from scratch, stringing a few bottle caps together with a tooth brush in between and all of a sudden it’s a doggie! They work together, sharing their ‘trashures’, helping each other to cut string or poke holes. And then one of the littlest ones collects a whole set of bottle caps, lids, some plastic jars and a little spoon and starts cooking up a storm in her little improvised kitchen, and afterwards she puts all the dishes neatly away and wipes of her counter. No need for an expensive fancy toys-‘r-us-stove with a set of matching pots and pans, just some trash and a handful of sand was enough to spark her imagination to create her own complete kitchen.
As little as she is she joined us in our statement against consumerism, having a great time decorating a tree without spending a dime!
Another reason why I like our beach-trash-tree is the fact that we can turn something ugly, sad and negative (the dirty beaches, the fact that so many people don’t care and let their trash end up in the sea, the fact that there is so much wastefulness in a world where so many people lack even the most basic things) into a fun event with a, umm, well, kind of pretty result! An alternative Christmas thought, being mindful in many ways.
A couple of years ago I read an article based on interview with island dwellers about their lives and what they appreciated so much about it. The one thing I remember from that article was someone who mentioned that living on an island so far from everything makes the focus of life shift from ‘having’ to ‘being’. That rang so true for me that I will never forget it. Being instead of having is a major focus point in my life here on the island, and I love it. Our way of celebrating Christmas is a perfect example of that. No pretensions here, no fortunes spent just because everybody else does that too, or because the commercials tell you that you should. Just getting together with a pile of trash, some simple pot luck food, drinks and music and we all have a good time.
How much of your Christmas experience is about being, and how much of it is about having, about consuming? How much effort and money do you put in the appearances of your home, your food, your clothes for Christmas? What are your main Christmas thoughts? Do you take time to make your own Christmas cards, use your creativity to make decorations and gifts, do you bake your own cookies? Or do you just buy, buy and buy? And even if you get everything store-bought, for lack of time, do you shop locally, buying from small stores, or is your Christmas just filling the pockets of a few big corporations? Do you buy fair trade gifts and decorations, to help alleviate poverty in developing countries? Is your feast mostly locally grown and organic, to support the environment? How’s your balance between preparation time spent running around in a frenzy to get everything perfect, and the actual quality time with your family or friends over Christmas?
Whatare your Christmas thoughts? Did you ever stop and think about why you are decorating a chopped-off tree, and why you are buying gifts for all those people? Ever stop to think why there is a pot-bellied Saint riding around in a sleigh through the snow distributing presents around the same time that we are celebrating the birth of Jesus in the Middle East where they have no snow at all? Why does Christmas dinner have to be such a huge meal? Unless we are devout Catholics, there is no real reason to celebrate Christmas, is there, other than that everybody celebrates Christmas, and everybody sends Christmas cards, and everybody buys Christmas gifts? Who are we fooling, other than the little ones with Santa’s fairytale?
But hear me out, let me not ruin your Christmas. These are just a few thoughts, mostly seeded by my simple life on this little island. I have posted them here hoping to create some more awareness, to help you start thinking about celebrating Christmas in more sustainable and mindful ways, or maybe creating your own mindful celebrations at random moments in the year, just because you can, and not because everybody else is doing it.
So, let’s have fun, in whichever way you are celebrating this year. Pot luck or 5-course dinner, flip-flops or high heels, may you all have a very Merry Christmas!