I remember many of the little things. I remember the tasteful effervescence within my soul as I submitted my application on MCompass. I recall reading the acceptance letter, just eight days following the application deadline. And I remember the infinite doubts in my mind, scroll-like and etched into papyrus, coarse and firm, worrying about how I’d be unable to do the one thing I set out to do this summer.
Though I am no stranger to international travel, I’d be lying if I told you I boarded my flight to Providenciales, one of the islands of Turks and Caicos, fearlessly and courageously. As I stretched my legs out between the two unoccupied seats next to me and peered out the window at the turquoise waters, I had to also console myself. I had to prepare myself to pass through border control by myself, find a group of people I’d never met before and get on a ferry to the secluded island where I’d be spending the lion’s share of my summer.
It wasn’t my first time entering another country all by my lonesome — but it was different this time. This time, I was doing it as an adult. This time made all the other times seem insignificant — like a trivial practice run. This time mattered. Everything prior was just preparation. And my god, have I spent a lot of time preparing.
It started back in January when I took a leap of faith — as many would call it — where I suspended myself between the decided and the dubious. The ambiguous and the concrete. It was a small little cranny nestled in the limbo universe of my summer plans, where I bought plane tickets and snorkeling gear and sunscreen for a trip I was unsure I could take.
But like all things, the months drilled past and May came and went, just like the ownership of my apartment. Then June came and went, and I found myself boarding a flight to the Turks and Caicos Islands, gearing up to spend nine weeks learning about marine biology and ecosystem management in the tropical Atlantic (which isn’t the same thing as the Caribbean, apparently).
I was informed that my clothes would be laundered in buckets, and that freshwater showers were now a weekly luxury, not a daily necessity. My days would begin just after sunrise and conclude around 8 or 9 p.m. No one told me how weary my legs would feel after a day in the ocean, or how my skin would be perpetually dusted with salt and peeling with vigor.
I would eat three times a day, and chores would be equitably shared. Dinner duty at least once a week, twice if particularly unlucky. There would be no air conditioning at the center, except for the classroom, which also happens to be the only other enclosed space beside the bedrooms. For weeks, I confessed my fears to my therapist and picked at my cuticles and chewed through my gums until they bled. And despite the numerous preparations that sparked hesitation in my heart, my summer abroad materialized much differently from the way I thought it would.
I am here now. It is my eighth week in South Caicos.
My meals are sacred rituals, where the ocean stares back at me and the breeze nestles up against my cheeks when I eat. I am always in view of the horizon. And though the sunrise is elusive and hides behind the trees, the sunsets are always perfectly timed and warmly welcomed, setting in the space where I imagine Providenciales to be, just 48 miles across the Caicos Bank.
I’ve seen nurse sharks and spotted eagle rays and fish with all names and of many sizes — surgeonfish and doctorfish, followed by tangs in yellow and blue shades, goatfish with whiskers and even bar jacks and Nassau groupers. I’ve grasped the thick, slimy shells of queen conchs, and carried them to boats to be measured and recorded. I’ve shared the cool nighttime currents with octopuses and squid alike, and the warm morning waves with sea turtles and chunky parrotfish.
I am so lucky to feel the splash of the chilly sea water on my face before I have my first cup of coffee for the day. And I’m so lucky to have experienced less-than-pleasurable living conditions, ones where donkeys scream into the darkness as their howls reverberate through my room, metal mattress springs chop into my sleep time and my clothes reek of unidentifiable smells. To be so grounded in my existence from a lack of materiality, from a lack of abundance, a lack of all things that are implied and inherent in developed countries like the United States — that was the most chance experience of them all.
I learned to enjoy doing things I don’t want to do, like putting a price tag on our ecosystems, counting imaginary dollars and dimes as vital mangrove forests are ripped up to create uninhabitable and unsustainable beaches for gentrifying tourists. I still think the economic valuation of ecosystems is buffoonery, but I now know how to take away only the most eloquent lessons from such unpleasant assignments. Here I am, unable to look at those winding and picturesque strips of white sand beaches the same ever again because, where many people picture luxury and tranquility, I can only observe the devastation of the ecosystem that once existed there. I see the loss of biodiversity and the transfer of invisible and inconsequential capital.
I also learned how to stop wasting the days away, and realized why summer is, or rather used to be, my least favorite season. The sweltering afternoons and nights filled with nothing used to wear away at my psyche, as the season of summer was less of a vacation and more of a mindless void between the tender months of April and September. It was never a time to learn something or do anything — and that was the flaw in my rationale.
Somewhere along the way, I was silly enough to think that the expectation of nothing implied the absence of anything. That, in order to relax, I had to bore my mind to death. That, in an attempt to have a break from school, I had to lock myself inside my house.
And then, sometime between the endless snowfalls on the Ann Arbor sidewalks and that first sunny day that fell on St. Patrick’s Day, where people scampered in droves to hammock on the Diag, I realized that no one except for myself would be capable of making my summer pleasurable.
And it all turned out just fine.
I met some of the most amazing people from across the nation — and Canada, too. I bonded with people from Yale and Harvard, from Washington and Miami, and I got to build a friendship with someone who lives just 20 minutes away from me in Michigan. The world might be a smaller place now for me, but it sparks twice as much joy.
I’m glad I took the risk. I’m happy I bit down on the bullet, and I’m thrilled to have considered it in the first place. I am proud of myself, for achieving a feat that 2020 me would never have thought possible. Even as the pandemic eroded any semblance of being an extrovert and ambition within me over the course of the last few years, I hold no regrets about my time here.
I’ll miss the five dogs that bang their heads on my knee during dinnertime, begging for scraps instead of chasing away the pigeons nesting on their bowls. I’ll forget what it’s like to walk around in swimsuits for the majority of my days, and I’ll miss shorts and flip-flops being appropriate attire for everything.
Who will brighten up my days if not the amazing staff here who never fail to wish me good morning? What will my days be spent doing, if not looking at sea creatures with eight arms or no arms, or trekking half an hour to the nearby resort to let the wind whisper its secrets in my ears? I’ll miss my routine, the consistency I’ve started to proliferate in, and I’m upset to let go of the distance I’ve constructed between myself and the outside world. The way I don’t check my social media and the news, and fill my days with New York Times Games instead, is sure to leave a lingering phantom in the memories of today.
I will miss watching the sun keel over the horizon, that mystical glowing orb that is three sizes too big down here in The Big South, but I know it will rise again tomorrow — and I can only hope I’ll get to see it from somewhere else, next summer.Statement Columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.