Grateful for the little (and big) things

I recently returned from a vacation in the Bahamas – my husband and I spent six days on the island of Exuma to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. There is nothing like visiting a foreign country to help provide some perspective on your everyday blessings. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I thought I would share some of my takeaways from our trip.

First, I have to say that Exuma is probably THE most beautiful place on Earth I have visited (so far). One of the reasons we chose to go there was to meet a “bucket list” goal of experiencing crystal clear Caribbean water. We were not disappointed (see photos below). Exuma is known for its beaches and for the spectacular variation in the color of the water depending on the depth of the sea. The pictures almost don’t do it justice. And each beach we visited had something unique to offer, whether it was sea creatures (swimming pigs, stingrays, dolphins and sea turtles) or sand bars at low tide that allow you to walk about a half mile into the sea without the water getting above your knees.

We soon found out though that beyond the beauty of the island, there was not much else to experience. This particular island in the Bahamas is relatively underdeveloped compared to the more well-known ones like New Providence Island (Nassau) and Grand Bahama Island (Freeport). Despite having modern technology such as cellular service and internet, some basic infrastructure was lacking – like decent roads and public transportation. There were no big box stores or chain restaurants. Outside of the two all-inclusive resorts, it was primarily small, family-owned business and restaurants, many of which only accepted cash. It was an eye-opening experience for me, particularly because I did not do much research ahead of time to understand the nature of our destination. However, within a day or two, I found myself experiencing a profound sense of gratitude for what now seemed like luxuries back home.

Roads and transportation

We chose to rent a home rather than stay at a resort as we wanted peace and quiet and privacy. However, this meant we needed transportation to get around the island, so we chose to rent a car. The car rental and driving around the island were probably two of the most stressful parts of the trip. The Honda Civic we were given was an older model apparently shipped straight from Japan given that the GPS was all in Japanese (and thus useless to us in navigating our way around the island). The seat belts did not work properly – the belt remained slack after you buckled it, so I kept my fingers crossed each time we ventured out that we would not be in a situation where we needed them. The steering wheel is on the right side of the car as they drive on the opposite (left) side of the road than the US. And then there were the roads…

The car rental employee warned us about the potholes, most of which are on the shoulder of the road. We paid for the insurance on the rental car, but we were told upfront that it did not cover tires – and we soon learned why. Due to the potholes on the shoulders, everyone hugs the middle of the road (and there really is only one main road up and down the entire island). On our very first ride from the airport to the rental home, we unfortunately hit two or three potholes in an effort to avoid hitting the car barreling down the center of the road. The next morning on our way up to our boat excursion, we hit one more and sure enough, a half mile later we were forced to pull over with a flat tire – and a bent rim. I’ll spare you the details of dealing with roadside assistance (a very nice gentleman in a minivan filled with spare tires) other than to say that we did make it to our excursion on time, which we appreciated.

Given the nature of the roads, we made the decision to avoid driving after dark, which limited our ability to venture out in the evenings to eat out or experience the island nightlife. This was a little disappointing, but the whole white-knuckle driving experience during our stay really made me appreciate the safety and comfort of the cars we currently drive AND the quality and safety of the roads we traverse every day here at home. I’ll think twice before complaining about the minor pothole on my commute knowing it could be a whole lot worse.

Bountiful food choices: blessing or burden?

Food is often a central part of our vacations. My husband and I love to dine out and experience the flavors of the local cuisine. Given this trip was to celebrate a major milestone in our relationship, I was looking forward to being wined and dined – and not having to cook dinner every night. You can imagine my disappointment when I soon realized this was not to be the case. We quickly learned there were no high-end restaurants on the island (outside of the resorts and those were for guests only). We found ourselves at the local market, stocking up on some basic staples to get us through the week. Given our reluctance to drive at night, we cooked dinner in every night – and kept it simple with things like pasta or sausage, peas and rice (we did infuse some local flavors by trying pigeon peas in coconut milk with said sausage and rice – it was quite tasty!). And my husband stepped up to cook most of the meals, giving me a break from my normal duties back home (thank you, Chris).

What struck me most about the food though was the limited choices in the local markets. As I mentioned previously, there were no supermarket chains – just mom and pop stores that were probably a tenth of the size of your local grocery store. The fresh produce consisted of one side of a short aisle and I couldn’t even find something as basic as garlic. I think there were maybe two or three fruit options and one type of lettuce. In the canned and boxed goods, there were maybe two brands of pasta and just a handful of varieties, primarily spaghetti. In the dairy aisle, there were one or two choices for items like milk, eggs and cheese – and forget about finding dairy-free alternatives.

After I got over the initial shock of the shopping experience here versus back home, I noticed a different feeling arise – it was almost a sense of relief at the lack of choices and how much simpler that made the task of grocery shopping. We were in and out of the store in less than half the time it normally takes me to shop back home. You may be familiar with the concept of the Paradox of Choice put forth by Barry Schwartz – the idea that “choice overload” can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them and in the long run, can lead to decision-making paralysis. This idea hit me square in the face as I was walking through the store. On one hand, I truly felt fortunate to have the choices we do in the United States, whether it’s food, cars, clothing, or electronics. But I also couldn’t help but think about how all of those choices often make life more complicated than it needs to be. Fewer options makes life simpler in a number of ways.

Il bel far niente (“the beauty of doing nothing”)

As I noted earlier, it only took a few days into our trip to realize that there wasn’t much to do in Exuma other than hang out on the beach or visit different islands and beaches via boat (either private rental or paid excursion). My husband and I are not the type to spend all day lounging on the beach. And we knocked out the most popular excursion (swimming with the pigs) on our second day so by day three, I was beginning to think our trip was three days too long. We were fortunate to have internet at our accommodations, but I found myself glued to my phone, checking email, social media and the news back home. This was NOT how I wanted to spend my vacation.

I was faced with the harsh reality – I had forgotten how to be bored. It made me think of one of my favorite quotes from Eat, Pray, Love, when Elizabeth Gilbert was introduced to the Italian expression “il bel far niente” – the beauty of doing nothing. In the hustle and bustle of our everyday life, I seemed to have forgotten that, in many ways, the whole purpose of a vacation is to do just that: nothing. This was our time to relax, to forget about calendars and agendas and deadlines. We could embrace “island time” and just let the day unfold as we wanted it to. It took another day for this notion to completely sink in, but we did our best to adopt this approach for the remainder of the trip – whether it was reading out on the veranda overlooking the beautiful blue sea or hopping a water taxi to Stocking Island to experience the Atlantic Ocean side as well as the famous Sunday BBQ buffet at the Chat ‘n’ Chill. By the end of the trip, I found that I kind of liked not having anything to do.

Even though this may not have been my favorite vacation destination, I am truly grateful to have experienced such a beautiful piece of this planet. And I am most appreciative for the reminder to not take the little or big things in my life for granted.

May you have a peaceful and Happy Thanksgiving!