By Kelsi Folsom
“The practice of gratitude and fortitude will never be an unfruitful one, and is, I think, one of the greatest gifts of living abroad.”
Ask anyone if they have ever heard of Saba, and most likely you will hear, “No, where is that?”
To which I reply, “Well, it’s a five-square mile volcanic island of fewer than 1,800 people located in the Dutch Caribbean. It’s home to the shortest commercial runway in the world, one of the most difficult medical schools, and the highest geographical point in the Netherlands. Want to grab lunch?”
Saba is a charming mix of cultures. Although currently a Dutch protectorate, the language spoken is primarily English (with Dutch, Saba English, and a sprinkling of Spanish). There are the “expat locals” (American, Canadian, Scandinavian, European, Filipino, and others I have yet to interact with) and the “born and raised locals” (descendants of great sea-captains, pirates, shipbuilders, fishermen, and slaves) in addition to the 500 or so medical students.
Most people who find their way here are divers, as Saba boasts one of the top 10 diving spots in the world, government or public health officials, or educators. The architecture is reminiscent of quaint European villages and tropical plantation homes in Hawaii; the land is reminiscent of Eastern Maui, Hawaii, and Southern Italy.
Every time I traverse the concrete roller-coaster of a road to fetch my daughter from the local daycare, I remember riding in the backseat of my parents’ van as a child driving down the Amalfi coast when we lived in Italy. Although the road is much narrower here, and there are only four villages with not a traffic light in sight to journey through, the scenery is quite similar.
We marvel at the azure waters, fluffy clouds, and laugh at the goats jumping down the cliffs and stone walls and wave to everyone as is the custom in Saba.
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There is very little “schedule” which I find to be quite lovely. Relationships take the place of value they were always meant to have because everyone truly has the time to stop and chat or grab a coffee together.
Did I mention the people here love children?
They are greeted with smiles everywhere we go and are asked about even when they are not present. Many of the local restaurants have toys for the kids to play with, and I am never at a loss for a helping hand while I get groceries, go to church, or get my eyes checked.
Just recently the optometrist, lovely in her gold stilettos, helped me carry my double stroller with the twins strapped in, up the concrete steps leading to her office right next to the local bakery. Her kindness amazed me. Such a relief for a tired mama needing a new prescription!
My husband is a medical student at the Saba University School of Medicine, and I navigate the rugged, but beautiful terrain of life with my three little ones, forging our dwelling among the rocks.
My children (well, mostly the one that can walk) spend their days helping mommy with chores like laundry and cooking because they take longer and are more involved.
A simpler life
Everyone gets their water from the sky (i.e., cisterns) so rationing and boiling are necessary, but my kids get to grow up seeing the ocean every morning with their breakfast.
They are growing up without so many modern conveniences making life so easy for them that they no longer have to use their brains or develop an imagination.
We fill our days with singing and dancing to the Casio keyboard I have had since I was four. They rifle through books and color, creating their own stories. They build with blocks, watch the iguanas and chickens in our backyard eating our mangos, and yes, there is WiFi here, so they do get their fair share of Peppa Pig and Mickey Mouse Club.
But this is a land where “immediate gratification” does not reign supreme. Shipping anything to Saba is a bit complicated, so we have learned to go without and realized we didn’t need a whole lot in the first place.
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On such a vertical and tiny island, there are many opportunities for my children to hurt themselves. For example, the concrete steps bridging my front door to the steep road, the intensity of the hot, Caribbean sun, the lack of flat space to run around and not trip on boulders and land in fire ants, and the disappearing beach flanked by a cliff with falling rocks all make me question why I brought my kids here.
But I have to let go of trying to control their environment. I cannot protect them from everything, and I would rather equip them with the knowledge of how to interact with their surroundings and how to recover if the unexpected happens, as indeed, it will.
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Beautiful Saba is teaching me and my children that making a life involves navigating inconveniences and the loneliness that comes from living in such an isolated place with joy and a sense of adventure.
We are learning how to forge unlikely friendships and savor the slow, simple side to life. The practice of gratitude and fortitude will never be an unfruitful one, and is, I think, one of the greatest gifts of living abroad.
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Kelsi Folsom is a singer, art lover, poet, wife, and mom to three making her dwelling on Saba, Dutch Caribbean. She is a regular contributor to Red Tent Living as well as Women Who Live On Rocks. You can keep up with her international adventures and musings at shamelessbeauty.org.
For more stories about raising children in foreign countries, read the Knocked Up Abroad series.