14 Days

It feels like just yesterday but also three years since I arrived on the small island of St. Kitts. Time seems to rush over days that seem to have stretched out.

I love it. It is new and exciting and sometimes absolutely terrifying. There’a a line from The Hobbit (which I have been reading, as I do before/during all big adventures) that states how throughout his adventure, Bilbo thinks frantically and longingly about his safe, warm, hobbit-hole. Tolkien follows that up with “Not for the last time.” I’ve not felt like Bilbo Baggins in a very long time. Not since I was suddenly thousands of miles away from home in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with Semester at Sea.

Now here I am, thousands of miles away from home, in between the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean.

The journey to St. Kitts began on Sunday, April 30th, at 3:45AM. After a tearful goodbye to my dog, I was driven to JFK airport by my parents. I spent the whole ride practically glued to my mother’s side, treading a careful tightrope between bubbling excitement and a panic attack. Not for the last time.

My mother helped me get my bags checked, and the woman behind the American Airlines counter set the tone for the day. She was helpful, answered my nervous questions about my baggage during the layover, and saved me from overspending on checked bags. She ensured a smooth transition from land to air.

“A good omen,” Mom told me. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

I hugged my mother goodbye at the entrance to TSA checks, and felt myself slip on that tightrope. Tears welled up in my eyes and I walked through most of the line with completely blurred vision.

By the time I got to the terminal, adrenaline was kicking in. I bought myself some coffee (which I only managed about two sips of before my stomach twisted into knots) and some breakfast (which I didn’t eat until my layover in Miami). Once we boarded and I was settled in my seat, I had time to stop and think. I was moving 5,489 miles away from home. To live in a new country for 2.6 years. To become a veterinarian. To start my adult life. What the hell am I doing? I thought to myself, feeling my heart race like it was trying to break free of my ribcage. Not for the last time.

I spent most of the flight to Miami asleep. I had less than 8 hours of sleep between the previous two nights, and utilized exhaustion as way to quiet my nerves. When I arrived in Miami, I kept myself busy by dawdling in and out of shops, buying lunch for the next flight, and thinking about everything else in the world besides the fact that my entire life was about to change. Scratch that. At that point, there was no “about to”. It was changing so fast I could practically feel the tug of the earth beneath my feet.

The flight from Miami to St. Kitts was largely uneventful. I watched Lion and started to watch Moana, until I felt myself start to slip on the tight rope. I don’t mean to get sidetracked here (though it is my blog, so…), but Moana has struck something so deep inside of me. I’ve seen in five times already, but it never fails to pull on my heartstrings so tightly that it pulls my heart right up to my throat. I bought the album as I walked out of the theater the first time I saw it and have listened to “How Far I’ll Go” at least once a day since.

And suddenly I was sitting in the middle of a packed flight watching a Disney movie with tears stinging my eyes and falling freely down my cheeks as Moana’s mother wraps up her bag and holds it out to her, telling her daughter to go where she needs to go, even if it is far from the safety of home. Because she knows that’s what Moana needs to do. She knows that’s what her daughter was meant to do, and she wasn’t going to stand in her way.

We landed on island at roughly 2:30PM. As soon as the plane slowed to a stop and the pilot came onto tell us we were free to disembark, it became a little chaotic. I felt my heart begin to flutter in my chest, and my hands shook when I went to grab my suitcase from the overhead bin. The line shuffled along, and I made my way to the front of the plane.

I stepped out, and everything in my body went calm. Every frantic thought, every fluttering heartbeat, every shaking finger tip stopped. I was here. I made it. I sighed, and felt a smile turn up the corners of my mouth.

It was overcast and humid, but I could smell the salt from the sea on the breeze. I took a few deep breaths as I hurried over to customs. As I waited in line, my nerves began to voice their opinions again, but I felt myself for the first time teetering toward the “excitement” side of the tightrope I still paced carefully upon. After a smooth transition through customs, I found my bags, found a porter, and found my Orientation Leader (OL).

After nervous and quiet introductions, we took the bus ride to campus. I peered out the window eagerly, trying to soak in as much as I could while listening to the tidbits about the week to come from our Orientation Leader. It was a week of meetings and outings meant to introduce us and begin to acclimate us to the island of St. Kitts.

From the moment I stepped off the bus and onto campus, everything started to move quite quickly. We were given keys to our assigned dorms, given time to unpack our things, and told to meet back for a trip to the grocery store that evening. With some help from two OLs, I managed to get my bags down to my room.

The dorms are small, but they have their own bathrooms and their own kitchenettes. I was lucky enough to land a room with a view. Peek out my window and there’s the ocean. It’s beautiful and peaceful, and I’m sure as the semester moves forward and I spend long hours at my desk studying and completing assignments, I will become even more grateful for it.

Day-by-day, this island is becoming home. Orientation week brought us to the grocery store, which is a little adventure in it of itself when it’s your first time. USD is accepted, but unlike at home, if there is even the tiniest rip or tear in the bill, it cannot be accepted. If there isn’t a price-tag on the item, the item cannot be sold. Upper-semester students have told us about how products will sit on shelves for months without tags, without being sold. Since the island relies on imports, you can’t get everything all the time. There are name brands available sometimes. A pound of local chicken breast costs the same as a loaf of Nature’s Own bread.

St. Kitts is a beautiful island, and during Orientation Week, I was lucky enough to see a few sides of it. On our first “island tour”, we went up to a point where a strip of land below divides the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

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That’s the Atlantic on the left, the Caribbean to the right. And if you turned around and walked about 50 paces, there is the hotel strip.

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As I paced back and forth between the two views, the only thought that ran through my head was:  “This is happening.” Not for the last time. Right up until the very first second of my very first class, I was so sure I would be called to the Dean’s office, told that my acceptance was a mistake, and handed a plane ticket back to the States.

After meetings about living on the island and the history of St. Kitts itself, about health and safety, about mental health and financial aid, about being resilient and “remembering your why“, the week was closed out with two days of trips. On Friday, you had the option to either go to the beach or go hiking to bat caves. Having been told the hike was considered “easy” and excited about seeing wild bats, I chose the hike.

The hike was anything but easy (at least for me). The OL in charge had hiked this route “at least 7 or 8 times”, but the conditions since her last hike had changed. There has been a prolonged drought on island over the past year, and it is currently considered the “dry” season. But thanks to out-of-season rainfall, the trail was quite, well…wet. Instead of just worrying about the rocky terrain, we now had to worry about sometimes running, sometimes stagnant water. In certain places, the water was a few feet deep. This introduced scrambling up boulders and on steep banks. There were so many times where I wanted to stop and sit down and say “pick me up on your way back down”. After slipping and hitting my ribs on a protruding tree root on a steep, slippery bank, I fell off my tight rope into the side of anxiety and began to ask myself:  What the hell am I doing(Hint:  Not for the last time). But I realized that day that I am going to school with a pretty awesome bunch of people. Supportive and compassionate people who took note when other peers like myself were struggling and did everything they could to get us past rough patches.

Obviously, I survived. And, despite those challenging parts where I questioned my sanity and wondered how I ever considered myself remotely “fit” (being able to run 6 miles in 50 degree weather means nothing, apparently), I had fun. I enjoyed the challenge, and I loved being out on the trail. It was beautiful and had an ancient feel to it. The Jurassic Park theme song played in my head a few times, and part of me was expecting to see an apatosaurus stick it’s head out over the treetops.

The next adventure was a catamaran trip to Shitten Bay (as one of our guides said:  “I didn’t make that up. It’s on the map…”) for some snorkeling near a shipwreck. By far, this was my favorite adventure. The water was crystal-clear, cool and refreshing, and the fish were abundant. Stemming from a childhood fear of sharks, I’m always hesitant about getting in the water at first. But now, once I’m in, it’s incredibly hard to get me out.

In an act of grand stupidity and short-sighted thinking, I left my underwater camera at home. There are no pictures of what I saw in the water. So I’m going to have to ask that you trust me when I list them off. Species of fish that I saw that I can confidently name include:  flounder, trunkfish, angelfish, sergeant majors, lizardfish, parrotfish, blue tang, doctorfish, and trumpetfish. In addition to those species there were many more I couldn’t name. There were also sea urchins abound, as well as cushion sea stars, a southern stingray, and even three squid that followed the last of us back to the boat when it was time to head in. I was the very last person back on the catamaran. I could have stayed there for hours more.

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The night before the first day of school, I bustled around my dorm making sure I had everything ready. My binders and folders were all set up, my laptop was fully charged, my backpack was packed. I laid down to go to bed and was struck with the thought:  Oh my God, this is really happening. Not for the last time.

After a surprisingly sound night’s sleep, I woke up to my alarm resounding at 6:00AM. I practically leapt out of bed and into my workout clothes. I went for a run around campus, followed by a half hour of yoga. After a healthy breakfast accompanied by a huge cup of coffee, I was ready for the first day of the rest of my life.

I am so happy to be back in the classroom. I know it only gets harder from here, but as far as first weeks go, this one was pretty stellar. Our professors are mostly made up of Ross alumni, or have been teaching at Ross for years. They are supportive and encouraging and passionate, and I’m so excited to learn from them. I know it’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.

I just have to remember:  I don’t have to be the best, I just have to be my best.

This week was exciting in other ways, too. Just today I put the security deposit down for my apartment next semester. It’s close to campus, pet friendly, and has two other Rossies for occupants. As well as some other fun neighbors I’ll be happy to moooooove in next door to.

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Living so far away from home and everything I’ve ever known and loved and cared about is scary. It’s perhaps the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Knowing that one day I will be responsible for the lives of others, that I will be working with endangered species and habitats, that I will have the power to make a definitive difference in the world is mind-bogglingly terrifying. And absolutely exciting. I get butterflies just typing about it. This has been my dream since I first started watching The Crocodile Hunter on Animal Planet when I was 5 years-old. It is everything I ever wanted and more.

I’m absolutely positive that I will have moments where I slip on the tightrope and fall towards the panic attack side. I’m sure there will be countless times where I want nothing more than to be back in New York with my family and my dog. But I’m also absolutely, 100% positive that the next 2.6 years on this island are going to be a couple of the greatest, most challenging, most exciting years of my life. And I am so ready for it.

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