I step out of Dagger’s crumbling Nissan and find myself in the hills overlooking a beach-side village. A local woman runs a guesthouse from her basement; even though she’s has the cheapest accommodation in town, she doesn’t get too much business because this is the local’s territory and the typical tourists who frequent Isle Y don’t like to be far away from the beach or far away from other white people. I walk down a few steps and see that the house is being overtaken by palm trees and other tropical foliage. Chickens and roosters survey the hillside scavenging for scraps. A gap in the trees allows a stunning panorama of the bay.

Her name is Shirley and she and her quaint digs are my saviors. The farther I am from the coast, the cheaper it gets, and I don’t mind having to hike the serpentine roads to get to town. The views make you forget about everything else. They make you forget that anything else exists.

Shirley has kind, tired eyes. She’s a hell of a cook too – I wouldn’t know directly because she closed her kitchen for the holiday, but the aromas radiating from her window are good enough to make me forget about the view. Turns out she’s an RN in the oncology department of the island’s hospital. I joke, “so that’s why you’re so hospitable”. She smiles, turns away, and says, “nah, I think I was born to be”.

One day in the Village of Spades, let’s call it, and I realize there’s no bank or ATM for me to withdraw cash. Shirley’s husband tells me the local resort does the credit-for-cash thing. Short of options and having nothing else to do, I begin the hour walk equipped with my card and camera. I walk past a decrepit sugar mill. It has been reduced to ruins, probably replaced by mass production years ago, but the crumbling walls are covered in vines and flowers and there’s a wild garden within. I think this provides more of a service to the island than it ever did before. Lizards scurry across the road when they detect my presence. One frantic baby makes a pathetic leap for a wall, hits the stone nose-first, then darts back the way it came.

Reaching a peak on this wavy road, I come across a hidden turquoise bay with one picturesque sail boat placed strategically in the middle. I continue to walk and soon enough, a parking lot emerges from the shrub, filled with rented 4x4s even though the roads are mostly paved. So this is where the white people are. The isolated nature of Shirley’s home in the hills led me to believe I was the only foreigner in the Village of Spades. I’d walk around and see no tourists and even the town is devoid of foreign skin, which explains why my presence there seems to be an anomaly to people. This is how I prefer it, to be honest. I’m not a weird type of elitist or anything, but being the only budget traveler in a place that caters to rich families puts me in an interesting position socially. I just have nothing to talk about with these people. I don’t know anything about golf and – I’ll say it – red wines more or less taste the same to me. Their kids make me want to pull my own hair out (I’ve decided my kids will never see the inside of a resort, mostly to avoid these monsters). In an effort to keep my golden locks attached to my head, I stay away from other tourists on Isle Y. On some occasions, people passing through will see me with the locals and completely ignore us as a group, even though they stop and honk and say hello to other white people they don’t know. It gets to the point where tourists see me, drive up in their 4x4s – with travel-related or navigational questions – to a shack restaurant or inn or wherever I am , and ask me if I’m working there. Like they’d rather approach me with a dumb question even though it’s clear as day that I don’t live here – Jesus Christ, describing me as an albino would be generous – before they ask anyone else. Since there’s not much I can do about such deeply engrained foreign attitudes toward locals, I personally revel in the fact that they think I belong here even though I know it’s only because they’re afraid of anything foreign and anyone different.

With the locals, we talk about everything and anything. Native recipes, the dirtiness of the Port Authority, corn rows and how I could never pull them off, the London underground stop known as Cockfosters, and everything in between. Sometimes people, mostly women, are hesitant to talk to me. They tell me that sometimes they come across foreigners who are rude or even racist, with the type of subtle racism that doesn’t smack you in the face but slowly seeps in. That’s the worse kind, when cruel judgements and incorrect stereotypes are superficially amicable. When it becomes clear to them that I’m not a racist prick, the conversation begins. But still, you can tell that this clash of cultures takes a toll on Isle Y, to the point where some locals begin to resent the people who visit here.

I arrive to the resort lobby and acquire the cash I need despite the hotel’s ridiculous exchange rate. Money in hand, I wish the security guard a happy New Year and flee. I would hate to be mistaken for someone who would stay there.

I spend New Year’s Eve on a concrete slab outside of my bedroom and underneath the balcony of Shirley’s home. Pitch black, I can’t see the ocean but I can hear it. The hills are lit up with light bulbs, Christmas lights, and the occasional home-grown firework. I lay on my back to look at the stars. At midnight, Shirley’s head pops out of the balcony above. She says, “Happy New Year, baby”. She wishes me all the best. I do the same. A few moments of silence follow and she asks me if I’m okay, in the kind of way you ask someone that when you think there’s something wrong and when they deny it, you don’t really believe them. I’m taken aback, because I can’t remember the last time someone has asked me if I’m okay. She has a point, though. I mean, look at me. I’m sitting criss-cross-applesauce alone on a concrete slab, booze-less, eaten a sour mango that is not meant to be eaten (no money = no food), and I’m not really sure where I am. If I were Shirley, I’d be concerned too. But I answer truthfully: “I’m more than okay”. I’m on Isle Y, I’m healthy, I’m smart, and I have people who love me. It takes very little to keep me happy. It’s the inherent condition of the core of my being. And if the past year has taught me anything, it’s that everything is always going to be alright.

The morning of my departure, I wake up to a bag of hand-picked fruit on my patio table. A gift from Shirley! I pack my things, clean up the apartment, and run upstairs to pay my debts and to ask Shirley if I could photograph her. She’s shy and hesitant, even though I keep insisting she’s beautiful. She asks me if I’d like some Christmas cake. Not knowing what that is, I say yes. Two of my favorite words put together? I would most certainly like some Christmas cake. Apparently it lasts for up to a year. If you want to revive it, soak it in rum and it’s as good as new. Actually, better than new. It has rum on it.

That’s the thing. A resort would never ask you if you’re okay and mean it. They would never get up early and pick fruit for you. They could never make homemade island Christmas cake for you and offer it in generous quantities so that you’re not hungry on the road. They’re not really interested in who you are, and vice verse. Meanwhile, a fire lights in my soul from the thought that someone I barely know genuinely cares about me. Sure, in the end it’s a business, but I get more out of my stay here than I ever thought possible, more than even what the most expensive resort could offer, and I know my money is going to a good person with a good heart who has treated me with nothing but good intentions in mind, more specifically, to her teenage daughter’s education.

Shirley’s husband kindly drives me to C-Ville, let’s call it, my next destination. Swerving through the mountains, we continue our previous conversation about the island’s native recipes. I made one last night by his suggestion, actually. It’s just sliced up mango, chopped onion, salt, and tons of hot pepper. It’s fucking delicious and it’s all I eat, but no one describes it better than Shirley’s husband: “Salt it up, soak it up, then you workin'”.

On my way out of Shirley’s house, I thank her for the millionth time and shout “I have a feeling I’ll see you again!” Little did I know, I would.

But that’s another story.

**********

In response to the 12 Lessons in 12 Months post, thank you for your kind comments! They truly mean a lot to me. When I leave this tiny beach shack that serves as the village’s internet cafe (which is run by a group of 10 year old boys who are blasting reformed pop songs about smoking joints all day long) I’m going to the bay to swim and snorkel and eat fried fish – I didn’t think this day could get better but it totally has!