Returning to Self: How Going Back to the Caribbean as a “Snowbird” Reminded me of Who I Really Am
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Shortly after my return to Canada, I was having a conversation with one of my friends from Vancouver. I was sharing with her what it was like for me to go back to the Caribbean for the entirety of winter for the first time ever. People who do this annually are called “Snow Birds”. Essentially, people who cannot tolerate, (or simply do not like), winter in North America leave for the duration of winter for warmer climates in much the same manner as migratory birds.
For me, whose natural habitat IS the tropics, it was a means of coping with the inevitable Seasonal Affective Disorder, (about which I blogged before here) that plagues me for four to six months of every year in North America. However, returning to the bright sunshine and warmth of Caribbean people was far more beneficial in reminding me of who I really am than I had anticipated. There are elements of who I really am that I have suppressed for far too long to simply survive as a racialized minority woman in British Columbia.
A few of the observations I made about myself include:
1. I NEED sunshine in order to feel healthy and at peace.
This is not an overstatement. I cannot handle prolonged periods of grey skies as they are reminiscent of an impending weather event in the Caribbean. Caribbean rain falls in torrents for a short period and then stops. The sun comes out and everything is bright and beautiful again. However, when we are expecting or experiencing a hurricane, the skies look dark grey with ominous clouds. I still emotionally react to that even after almost a decade in Canada.
Sunshine however, makes my skin darken to its natural hue and lights up my very soul. My mood lifts and I feel far more optimistic about the future. I know that this is a common sentiment among tropical people when they return to their countries of origin after spending time in the north. Clients of mine who were also snowbirds this year said the same thing.
2. Community is essential for my mental health
Caribbean people are always ready to hang out. It does not matter what day, time or venue we choose, people are always willing to prioritize getting together for a “lyme”. A lyme is simply a gathering of people, usually at someone’s home, where people play music, drink some rum and often, eat food they either prepared or purchased. This can continue for hours with us simply enjoying each other’s company.
Lymes can happen at the beach too where there are no restrictions on alcohol on the beaches. No one is panicking because there are “minors present” who may (horror of horrors), witness ADULTS drinking alcohol. Caribbean children understand that alcohol is not for them so they don’t feel inclined to engage in underage drinking because it is not shrouded in mystery.
Instead, you pull up to any beach and see people out there with their coolers and portable speakers hanging out on the beach with their families and friends just taking a break. Caribbean people do not generally get aggressive and violent when they drink. Mostly, they just want to dance to music and eat good food.
3. Friends of friends adopt you into their community.
My partner and I visited my very best friend in St Lucia for the first time this trip. Her community there adopted us as one of their own, often extending themselves to help us out, spend time with us and generally help us form a positive impression of an already beautiful country. Caribbean people are like this. If you are a friend of a friend, you are automatically worthy of inclusion. No one has an agenda other than simply having fun.
My partner and the friend I was telling about this both said that they remember living like this in adolescence and early adulthood but that in Canada, people smugly report that they “grew up” and abandoned community. I remain horrified. In the Caribbean, people make time for their relationships and try as much as they can to balance having fun.
This is why when the entertainment industry closed down for COVID, so many struggled with their mental health. We simply recognize that we need each other. People do not stop partying and making new friends simply because they are “grown up”. Indeed, the older you are, the more you enjoy a good party.
4. Distance and Time have NO bearing on relationships
On our way to St Lucia, we transited through Trinidad. I had not been there since 2007. I had a friend there whom I had not seen since 2007 but whom I had known since 1995 when we met at university. All it took was one message to say “hey, I am passing through Trinidad. You have time to link up?” The friendship picked right back up where it left off. She drove to pick us up and spent hours with us even though she was having her kitchen remodeled and had chaos at home managing that.
New colleagues I was in contact with were willing to pick me up at the house I was renting to take me to where we had planned to meet since I didn’t always have access to a car even though they were meeting me in person for the first time. I was even invited to someone’s home for a gathering and was met with genuine disappointment when I got ill and could not make it.
I also got lost at one point and my best friend came to pick me up when I called and said “I have no idea where I am”. The only question was “can you drop your location in a WhatsApp chat so I can find you?” Shortly thereafter, we were rescued. Caribbean people will always make the effort for their friends. It doesn’t matter how long it has been since they have seen you. This is one of the things I sorely miss living in North America where people are friends as long as it is convenient. When it isn’t, too bad.
5. We talk to everyone.
People make random conversation with others. We say good morning to random strangers as we pass each other on the street. We talk to the person making our food and make jokes with wait staff. Caribbean people are big on relationships.
We refer to those older than us as “Mommy” “Aunty”, “Uncle” and “Elder” etc. simply because it conveys respect for their age and experience. If we are standing in a long line, we will often start a conversation while we wait.
6. A story needs to be told from the absolute beginning to the end complete with gestures and side bars.
My partner marvelled at how our style of storytelling involves telling the other person the entire context that predates the story we actually want to tell you. The reason is, there is no way we believe you can understand the thing we want you to know without having the full context of WHY the thing we want you to know has happened.
Big gestures and sound effects are also important so that the listener can experience what the speaker wants to convey.
This makes for very long explanations which have historically driven my partner slightly nuts when talking to me. Now, he understands that I am not long-winded all by myself, I am simply being Caribbean when telling a story.
7. People look out for each other.
Friends of mine promised to check on my mother who lives alone just to see if she is ok. Without even telling me they did it, they all checked on her. They went above and beyond to visit her and support her whenever she needed a favour. They gain nothing from doing this but, she is part of their community too so they just help.
Having returned for three months, I reconnected with my joy and sense of community. I realise that a huge part of how we weather difficulties is through our community support. Now, I feel more connected to who I truly am. I can now make it through the rest of the winter with my mental health in a better place than it normally would have been. I have also made new friends who all messaged to make sure I got back to Canada safely. Every now and then, it is truly important to remind ourselves of who we truly are.