Why I Gave Up a $95,000 Job to Move to an Island and Scoop Ice Cream
There is a chicken in my shower. It’s 8:30 a.m., I’ve just sat down on the toilet to pee. I casually glance around and there it is, drinking some of the residual water puddled on my shower floor. This is not the first creature to make an appearance in my bathroom. Since I moved to the Caribbean, I’ve had spirited encounters with tarantulas, scorpions, and untold lizards. But the chicken got me thinking.
“How did you get here?” I ask the bird. It blinks unhelpfully back at me. Perhaps a better question is, how did I get here? How did I come to live on a tiny, rustic island of 4,100 people sharing a bathroom with poultry?
It all began four years ago. Back then I was living in Manhattan, a 31-year-old journalist making $95,000 a year. I lived in a lovely (wildlife-free) apartment in the East Village, a bustling neighborhood with every imaginable convenience and so much to entertain. But New York is a competitive city; you have to spend most of your time working to afford to live there. And a downside of living among so many ambitious people is they’re often overscheduled. Sometimes I didn’t see my closest friends for months at a time. Trying to negotiate a time to meet a friend for drinks was harder than getting into college (and the cocktails about as expensive).
“I need a vacation.” This was a constant refrain in my head. I wasn’t living in the moment; I was living for some indeterminate moment in the future when I’d saved enough money and vacation days to take a trip somewhere. If you’re constantly thinking you need a vacation, maybe what you really need is a new life.But I was complacent. My life wasn’t satisfying, but it was comfortable.
One day I was working on my laptop, finishing some edits on a book I’d just written. I was distracted, wondering what I would do now that the manuscript was finished. While I had several job offers, none of them excited me. I let my hands idle too long and the screensaver, a stock photo of a tropical scene, popped up. Here was something to get excited about. What I wanted — something I’d fantasized about for years, in fact — was to stop living in front of a screen and live in that screen, in the photo on my computer. And why couldn’t I? With no professional obligations or boyfriend, I was completely untethered for the first time in my life.
Feeling slightly ridiculous, I posted a message on Facebook saying that I wanted to move to the Caribbean, and asking for suggestions as to where I should go. A friend’s sister recommended St. John, the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nicknamed “Love City” for its famously friendly locals, it was home to some of the most stunning beaches in the world. I glanced out my window where punishing, chest-high snow drifts were forming on the ground at an alarming rate. On the sidewalks impatient and preoccupied New Yorkers bumped into each other without apology. I immediately began expediting my passport.
It was startlingly simple to dismantle the life I’d spent a decade building: I broke the lease on my apartment, sold my belongings, and bought a one-way plane ticket. The hardest part was convincing myself it was OK to do something for no other reason than to change the narrative of my life.
“You can’t just move to a place you’ve never even visited!” my mom protested.
“Sometimes you just have to leap and the net will appear,” I said with more confidence than I felt.
Six weeks later, I stepped off the ferry in St. John. I had no plan, no friends, and no clue how ridiculous I looked, festively ensembled in boat shoes and a dress celebrating the palm tree. Yet I had a strange feeling that everything would unfold as it was supposed to.
My parents did not share this viewpoint. I come from a conservative Southern family with a healthy respect for the American Dream: You worked hard in school, chose an upper-middle-class job with a 401(k) and a good matching plan. So they were pretty taken aback when, upon arriving in St. John, I took a job at the local ice cream parlor.
“But, but … you went to Yale,” they sputtered. “And you’re 31 years old!”
Perhaps there was something indulgent and Peter Pan-ish about this new lifestyle. But the truth is, I was happier scooping mint chocolate chip for $10 an hour than I was making almost six figures at my previous corporate job. It was calming to work with my hands. I met new people constantly, talking face-to-face instead of communicating via email and instant messaging. When I closed the shop at the end of the shift, my work was done and my time my own. Besides, I found that not everyone shared my parents’ concern. “When I moved here 25 years ago, my dad insisted I was ruining my life,” said one of my regular customers when we got to chatting about our lives one day. “Recently he visited and told me, ‘You had it right all along. I’m toward the end of my life and looking to retire to someplace like this, and now I’m too old to enjoy it.'”
Cruz Bay, the island’s main town, consists of a few winding roads and a handful of open-air bars and restaurants. There are no stoplights on St. John (though we frequently have to stop for the wild donkeys and iguanas and chickens that roam the streets). No chain stores. Limited WiFi…..
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