Please excuse my nontraditional approach; this isn’t going to be a cut-and-dry list. The fact is, there’s a considerable amount of grey area where the benefits and disadvantages of our chosen path are concerned. My goal in writing this is to provide information for anyone who finds him/herself in our position, needing to decide the next step, and also to hopefully clarify why we made this choice and the ramifications that have followed.
At some point in everyone’s life, we’ve wanted to “start over,” as it were. Reality hits pretty heavily after college in the form of tiresome responsibilities. Car payments, mortgage, insurance, career, bills, chores, bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit card interest rates, etc., etc. (At the risk of sounding unfairly negative about a settled life, I will revisit this in an entirely different and longing point of view later.)
I remember sitting down at my cubicle one day and thinking that I was locking in. I figured I was reaching an age and point in my life that I was rooting and that this particular job was the one I’d be stuck with for a corporate eternity, until decades of monotony paid off in the form of retirement. (Depressing, I know, but that thought propelled me into such a panic, I quit and went back to college to pursue another degree and, hopefully, a job I didn’t mind spending a few decades working.) At the same time, Ivan was also experiencing the panic. We saw ourselves getting into this virtual hamster wheel and it scared us.
But I never really expected an opportunity to appear and change the course we seemed set on.
You can understand the attraction, then, when a course-altering opportunity unfolded magnificently before us. The prospect was absurdly amazing: leave your life behind and start again in the Caribbean. Or at least that’s how I read it.
In many ways, that’s exactly what we’ve found in Grenada. We left most everything behind us. We sold or gifted almost all of our belongings, but for a few items and clothing. We sold our cars, cleared out of our house, climbed on a plane with four pieces of luggage and flew out of the country to begin a new life along the breathtaking coast of a Caribbean island.
I still have a hard time reconciling the person that I am and have been (by all means perfectly average) with the extraordinary life I’m leading. Who am I to deserve these experiences? And how can I share them with the people who aren’t as fortunate, but deserve them as much (if not more) than I?
The Unparalleled Experiences
I have had a wild monkey crawl on my head to take a banana out of my hand. When I want coconut water, someone cuts open a coconut for me and gives me a straw. The view from my balcony is the Caribbean Sea. I volunteer with children and puppies in an underdeveloped country. I’ve hiked through a jungle and climbed a mountain. I live two miles away from one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I’ve made friends with people from all over the country and all over the world. I’ve photographed a beached whale. I’ve seen a critically endangered sea turtle lay eggs. I’ve snorkeled to an underwater sculpture park.
My blog literally details the hundreds of unique experiences I’ve had in the year and a half that we’ve lived on the island. And in retrospect of those experiences, I’m appalled to think of how uneventful the past eighteen months might otherwise have been had we decided against making one of the biggest decisions of our lives.
I have yet to visit Grand Anse beach, along the southwestern coast of Grenada, without acknowledging its astounding beauty. And on every visit I remind myself to never take it for granted. On every hash, as we blaze through undefined forest trails and unfamiliar neighborhoods around the island, I’m consistently reminded of the country’s pristine nature and (as children wave while we pass) the citizens’ enthusiasm.
How many times in my life will I get to dive off of a catamaran into the Caribbean Sea and snorkel with angelfish, gar and box fish? Where else can I jump on an inflatable trampoline in the sea with friends, then cool off on an empty beach with a cold beer? I’ve eaten foods I never knew existed and watched homemade sailboats weave around a nautical racecourse under brilliant blue skies.
I can hardly compare the wealth of these experiences with the comparatively insignificant material possessions we relinquished when we began our new life.
But material possessions were only a small fraction of the sacrifices we made in our fresh start.
The Tremendous Sacrifices
Starting a new life is just a dream to most people for a reason. Uprooting and moving away from everything familiar and certain is not just implausible; it’s nearly impossible. In most cases, the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to start over.
Our dreaded hamster wheel was, if you can imagine, exactly what I expected and hoped for when we got married, over six years ago. I suppose the adjective “dreaded” could be removed, but I was attracted to the prospect of settling in our hometown (Erie, PA) and finding permanent, dependable careers. I wanted the routine and the invariability of the home life portrayed by media. I wanted the white picket fence of the American dream, in short.
We were working towards that dream, with matching furniture and a stocked China cabinet, professional wardrobes, routines, even the bills and IRAs. We were one week from closing on a lovely cape cod (no white picket fence, but granite countertops and central air!). Everything we were working towards vanished with an unexpected letter of acceptance and abruptly we were working towards something wholly different.
While the sacrifices seem totally material, they were, nonetheless, attained with hard work and time. Releasing that dream was anything but easy, even in the presence of the splendor of Grenada.
With little more than a few months’ notice, we were striving towards a new goal, a new life and a new dream. We’re still working towards a brilliant life for the two of us, but where we both had contributed toward every aspect of that life previously, now Ivan has primarily taken the reigns. Our move was for no other reason than his education. In this sense, our sacrifices split and the glaring inequality of our contributions has been a matter of great distress for me.
For as hard as I’ve tried, I frankly cannot shake the disturbing feeling that my usefulness has diminished significantly in the wake of Ivan’s accomplishments. And while the general consensus from friends and family (and, indeed, other SOs) is that my position of moral and emotional support for Ivan is an invaluable necessity to the positive outcome of this entire endeavor, I can’t help but draw comparisons between the nobility of our positions (i.e. medical trainee vs. encouraging housewife).
I don’t want to trivialize the role of a supportive spouse, but without tangible evidence of my impact, I can’t bring myself to guiltlessly validate my presence in such a beautiful home and, parenthetically, life. When people ask (as they frequently will) what I do in the Caribbean while my husband pursues a medical education, I don’t always know the appropriate response. I have hobbies, pastimes, volunteer activities. But in the sense of substantial accomplishments, I have none. Truthfully, I’m horribly embarrassed any time I have to admit that I’m just a tagalong. I’m certain I’m seen as privileged and, perhaps accurately, undeserving of the life. How can I defend my good fortune? No one wants to hear that I’d love to actually have a job and pay the bills. Everyone wants to foam at the mouth at the prospect of living a perpetual vacation in paradise.
Since it’s the easiest angle to play, I placate that impression more often than not. Why tarnish my dream life with a swath of guilt?
The answer to that is pretty straightforward: paradise is far from free.
The Insurmountable Debt
It’s certainly no secret that medical school is not cheap. What’s worse is that Caribbean medical school is even more expensive than U.S. schools. The research is easy enough to look up and if you’re in our position, you’re going to face it head-on. By 2016, when Ivan finishes his clinical rotations, graduates and claims his fancy new title of Dr. Loker, we will be roughly one-quarter million dollars in debt. With the notoriously low pay resident doctors receive, that red ink will be quite dry before we begin to make a dent in those zeroes.
I have yet to meet another SO or student that doesn’t fret about money. Some have even run through their loans before the term ends (though I can attest that it is entirely possible to survive on the allotted amount). Every trip to the grocery store, every plane ticket, every medical book, postage, phone bill, electric bill, malfunctioning computer, shampoo, dress clothes, gas money, insurance, illness, everything is another dip further into the red.
Every expense adds to the rising tension and acts like a smug reminder that we are spending borrowed money. We haven’t paid for a single thing, from my cup of coffee in the morning to the tongue depressor Ivan uses on his patients. We’re just borrowing every single thing we need for this brand new life. We owe everything, plus interest—a crushing debt.
And this takes away from paradise. Little by little, it’s not quite so perfect when the looming knowledge of our consuming liability suffocates us.
The Daunting Pressure
I’ve given my own sacrifice and woe plenty of attention. But the bigger picture is Ivan. I would be a poor wife if I didn’t draw attention to the profound pressure my husband manages. You know that quarter-million-dollar debt? We aren’t exactly expecting me to stumble across that money by selling one of my doodles. This momentous sacrifice—leaving behind our lives for the very uncertain future—it rides on Ivan almost exclusively. The realization of our prospective future relies on him and his ability to succeed in a field which he has no experience.
If this venture fails, we have no home in which to return. When we visit with our loved ones back in the States, we bounce from house to house with our hands open, taking and taking and taking. The agreement we have with ourselves and (inexplicitly) with others is that we’ll repay everything we’re taking, as soon as we have enough to give. In other words, we’re in debt more than just financially. But without the payoff that this education should someday provide, we can pay neither (at least not substantially).
All of this responsibility falls on Ivan’s already burdened shoulders. Not only must he study for unreasonable hours, he also has to be acutely aware of what it means to everyone if he fails. Fortunately he’s fairly adept at managing stress and a superb student as well.
The Uncertain Future
Anyone who knows Ivan and me knows that we intend to complete Ivan’s second half of medical school in New York City. We have other options for clinical rotations and are not guaranteed a place in NYC, but, for a number of reasons, are comfortable that we will be able to secure our place there. The relative certainty of staying in NYC for two full years becomes mildly shaky towards the second year, when Ivan will begin his elective rotations (and opportunities to focus on his desired specialties are presented). We don’t have to complete all of the rotations in one hospital, or even one city. If elective rotations are available suddenly in North Carolina or Colorado (or any other dozen lovely locations), we might find the temptation too hard to resist, particularly if the hosting hospital is reputable.
Through 2014, we have a pretty accurate idea of where we’ll be. Through 2015, we’ll probably be in the same place as 2014. Probably. Or maybe. In 2016, we have no idea where we’ll be living. Chances are, we’ll be somewhere in the U.S., but if a residency opens in another country and paves the way for more international humanitarian efforts (e.g. Doctors Without Borders), we might make that very difficult decision.
I’m something of an over-preparer. I’ve been scouting out apartments in Brooklyn for over a year now in preparation of our probable relocation in April or May of next year. To take it a little further, I intend to get in contact with a real estate agent to scout for me and email the NYC SPCA for recommendations on locations, realtors and superintendents that are very dog-friendly. Of course that’s only relevant to prove the point that I over prepare. Having entirely no idea where we will be in a few years is nerve-wracking. Knowing I can’t plan for what’s to come is crippling my stress levels. And feeling like I have absolutely no control over what happens is making me borderline insane.
Yet, at the same time, I’m thrilled at the prospect of what’s to come. If my life has shown me anything, it’s that the unexpected holds all the adventures and experiences that have made this awesome life worth living. It’s a terrifying ecstasy and I’m horrified that by the time it ends, I won’t know how to go back to a normal life.
This Awesome Life
For everyone diving into this, nervous about everything from packing enough sunscreen to responsibly planning when to have a family (yes, this is a big concern for many couples who want children), my advice is to jump in.
Some days I make myself physically sick from the anxiety. I want to throttle everyone who has the settled home life that I wanted so badly and tell me that they envy me. I mourn my old dingy house and my neighbors and my three dogs lying in the grass in the summertime while we garden. I miss knowing what’s coming next. But at the same time, I’m afraid of going back to that life after having tasted this one.
After landing in Grenada for the last time, we took a taxi back to our apartment and I was so happy to be back in our Caribbean home, I almost laughed out loud. We had the windows down and the breeze was so fresh and perfect, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.
Over a year and a half has gone by since we first arrived in Grenada and I can’t wrap my head around the time. Our first few days on the island are so pristine in my memory; it seems impossible that they happened eighteen months ago. Even less believable is that the end is a mere four months away. I’m excited to move on to the next step and watch our future unfold before us, but I loathe to leave this petite island behind.
I don’t know what’s in store for me after this life, but I intend to err on the side of safety and treat this one as if there are no do-overs. Bring on the new and unexpected—even with the stress and uncertainty—just leave behind the regrets.