Think in full colour.

Spring greens and endless hues of blues. Squinting against the intense sunlight, you feel the moist salt on your skin, the breeze playing with your hair, the trickles of sweat running down your body from every fold of skin because that sun is hot.

Your nose picks up the sweetness of flowers attracting their love bugs; your ears are soothed by sounds of lapping waves. A hammock strung in the shade of the palm trees is inviting you for a siesta in paradise.

You’re living the dream: a stress-free life on a tiny tropical island.

Actually, I am living your dream. The picture I just painted in your mind’s eye really exists. It’s not a dream though.

I live in that dream picture—it’s just not the whole picture.

There’s much more to living on a tiny tropical island, and it isn’t all fun.

 

 

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.

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.

Photo credit: The Lighthouse Hostel
                                            Photo credit: The Lighthouse Hostel

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.

Christmas tree 2016Anything 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. 

Christmas mannequin

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? 

What are 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!