The Flip Side

16 08 2010

Thus far, most of my blogs have been chronicling my adventures, giving a play by play account of what I’ve been up to, with sprinklings of history, culture and peanut gallery observations on the characters that have crossed my path along the way.

This blog, however, is going to take a bit of a different twist.  I feel compelled to paint the whole picture, to write about the “other” side of expat life, the dark side most of us leave out when we email home.  But a side just as real as all the fun and adventure – not everything is sunshine and rum cocktails.  It’s funny, how when we relate our experiences to other people, we tend to hide behind our smiles and happy photos, so afraid of showing vulnerability.  So afraid to admit to others, but most especially to ourselves, that things may not actually be as great as we make them out to be.

I am no stranger to travel or living abroad.  I have always welcomed the exposure to new places and people with open arms, believing there is no better way to push your limits, to open your heart and mind to different perspectives and ways of doing things.  So I jumped at the chance of coming to Belize, seeing it not only as a chance to develop my career, but also as a prime opportunity for a great deal of personal reflection and growth.  I think, in hindsight, I was a bit naïve coming into this.  I came armed with high expectations and noble intentions and, well, there are some days I look around and am overwhelmed by waves of futility and think “what on earth am I doing here?”

For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of working at the interface of marine conservation and international development.  It is a personal calling that I see more as part of my identity than as a job.  Like so many in my generation, I just want to leave a positive legacy, do good with my life, whatever that means.  So here I am, parachuted into a situation as someone with apparent “expertise” but who, in actual fact, has no real background or context for the role I have taken on.  I underestimated how difficult it would be to work effectively in another culture, it’s a whole new ballgame with unfamiliar rules, and “tricks of the trade” that worked at home don’t necessarily work here.  I didn’t expect it to be easy, but man, there are days I am so frustrated by my lack of progress I feel like I am crashing repeatedly into a brick wall.  Please don’t confuse this with complaining, because it’s not – it’s just the reality of my experience and, at the end of the day, I see it as a most humbling opportunity to learn how to communicate and connect.

Outside of work, while I have had many wonderful experiences in Belize, I have had equal if not more, difficult and trying ones.  There have been times, especially at night, when I feel like I am drowning in loneliness and suffocating by isolation.  While I have joked about having no friends, I have actually found really difficult to operate without a support network immediately at hand.   It’s not like I need to go running to people for every little thing – I place a lot of value on the art of being alone, and am content and comfortable spending days, even weeks, in no one else’s company but my own.  But there comes a point where you just want to be surrounded by people you care about, and who care about you – you realize that that’s so much of what life’s about.  And some days, as you watch planes flying overhead, you’d give just about anything to be on them, to be anywhere but where you are.

It would be quite wrong to assume that, because of all these painful times, I regret coming here.  Quite the contrary.  I have learned more about myself than I ever imagined.  This experience has enabled me to recognize so many unconscious patterns and behaviours in the way I have lived my life – I don’t have my priorities quite right, I take people for granted, I am far too absorbed by what I think is the “right path” in my head and don’t leave enough room for options, I let fear and guilt dictate too many decisions. I think one of the most difficult aspects of this process is patience.  Once you unlock the Pandora’s box of your mistakes, there is an extreme sense of urgency to fix things immediately, to make things right .  And I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of helplessness when you realize that there is nothing you can do, right now anyway, because quitting is simply not an option.  Six months starts to feel not like the fleeting amount of time it is, but more like an eternity, a prison. But, at the end of the day, all you can do is breathe, take one day at a time and have faith you are in the right place.

My time in Belize has forced me to open my eyes and take stock of what ultimately matters in my life.  And I’ve found the answers now are far different from when I started here 3 months ago.  So yes, despite all the hardships, frustrations and loneliness, I believe I was meant to be here, I needed an awakening, I needed to learn these lessons and make peace with myself.




2 responses

16 08 2010

Love, love, love to one of the most brilliant, funny, beautiful women I know. Keep breathing… you’ve got everything it takes to come out on the other side.

25 08 2010

wow, Marina, you just summarised the exact experience I just had in Kenya, and how I was feeling. The isolation is definitely challenging, and I admire your positive outlook and strength for continuing on. I know you’ll be grateful for this experience at the end, and will come out a stronger person for it 🙂

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