Studying or living abroad in the Caribbean seems like something only dreams are made of: spending months by the sea, outdoors, with beautiful weather and spectacular views. There are many reasons beyond those that studying or working in the Caribbean is a great idea. Studying modern languages? Many islands use French, Spanish, and even Dutch as the primary languages of communication. Studying geography? The landscapes, volcanoes and natural resources are unlike anywhere else. You would like to work in development? There are numerous projects in the region who would love your help.
Over two academic years, I spent a total of fifteen months living and working in Martinique – a French island in the Caribbean – as a teaching assistant. The main language is French and it is one of the most developed islands in the region, benefiting from being a department of France. I, like many others who go there for the first time, was completely sartorially ill-prepared. Here is what I packed the first year:
- Tank tops
- Exercise gear
- Bathing suit
I was expecting extended vacation and the “No problem” laid-back attitude the Caribbean has a reputation for. On my first day of work, my supervisor told me I couldn’t wear the knee-length shorts I thought could be passed off as business casual. Appearance is very important for people to take you seriously, so I had to try to blend in more. I went shopping for appropriate attire and it was a bust. Clothes in Martinique – and many parts of the Caribbean – are at least one of two things: expensive or tacky. Sometimes expensive and still tacky. Sorry my Caribbean islands, but neon spandex fishnet shirts ain’t cute.
I thought that on a tropical island, to wear anything but sundresses and board shorts was utter blasphemy.
Key Counter-Intuitive Points:
- Once you acclimatize to the heat, it can actually be cold – especially at night.
- Many commodities are imported to the Caribbean so that means almost everything is more expensive than at home.
- Most islands are conservative off the resorts and certain behaviours and ways of dressing could be seen as vulgar or disrespectful.
- You will most likely be line-drying your clothes (maybe even hand-washing on some islands) so don’t bring excessively expensive clothing. You will be washing your clothes more often. They will get sun bleached and they will deteriorate faster.
2-3 pairs of jeans – I know, I know. I promise you will get used to it and I actually find it more comfortable to not stick to seats or feel sweat dripping down my legs. It also protects you from sunburn. Jeans are actually just as acceptable for business casual as trousers are. I suggest a few pairs because you will most likely not have a drying machine and line-drying jeans can take a while.
2 pairs of leggings – I wouldn’t recommend wearing these to work, but they are comfortable for day-to-day errands.
2-4 shorts – It’s up to you. I only wore shorts to the beach and the grocery store – rarely when going out. I also had a couple pairs for exercising.
2 skirts, 2 dresses – They are versatile and they definitely keep you cool. Just remember that a lot of places have air conditioning so it can get quite chilly. So, that’s why I packed:
1 scarf – I packed a large one that I used as a scarf, a shawl, and an accessory. It’s a very versatile garment in any country, really!
1 cardigan – They come in very handy at night when it gets chilly, and also for being a little more modest in certain places.
2 button-up shirts – For more formal occasions or work, especially if your classrooms have air conditioning.
3 short sleeve tops – Clothes that were work/classroom appropriate
2 tank tops – They are good for layering or wearing on their own.
Bras – It’s up to you, really. I brought 6, and a couple sports bras.
Underwear – Pack more than you think you need. When you’re line-drying your clothes in the Caribbean, you just never know.
>> The HPL team recommend some quick-drying travel underwear so you can take a little less.
Socks – Yes. Socks. I’ll explain more in the next section! I love fun coloured socks and my students always complimented me on them.
Scrub pants (or other comfy sleepwear) – Long and airy is the name of this game. They will protect you from mosquitoes at night and are very light weight.
Pareo/Sarong – It’s very uncouth to walk around town in a bathing suit. Many Caribbean countries expect you to be covered up in public – foreigner or not.
1 nice dress – You may be invited to a dinner party or you may have friends going clubbing so bring something that suits both occasions!
Running shoes – For hikes, if you’re into that sort of thing (which is why you need socks).
Flip flops – For the obvious beach days! In Martinique, even these are expensive. If you plan on wearing them often, get a quality pair or bring an extra.
Sandals or Flats – The nice kind. They can be worn to work, for going out, or even just around town. Beware of leather and plastic though – your feet will sweat.
Espadrilles/Keds/Canvas shoes – I brought a pair of Keds for rainy days and a pair of canvas shoes.
Medication/Painkillers – Bring all of your medication with you. Some islands don’t have the kinds of medication you’re used to you. Many islands have their own natural remedies, and don’t turn your nose up at them – some work! For Martinique, as a part of France, painkillers such as acetaminophen/paracetamol or ibuprofen are not available over the counter, so bring your own from home.
Diva Cup – I have just overshared with anyone I know who reads this. My boyfriend will also know why pads and tampons were never on our shopping list. They do have good products in some parts of the Caribbean, but they can be pricey for the quality you may be used to or brands you recognize. Alternatively, bring a supply from home – at least to start with.
Deodorant/Lotion – I use natural products so I brought my deodorant from home. But for skin care products, I often found natural products like Shea butter to be more affordable on the islands.
Toothbrush/Toothpaste/Razors – These can also be expensive. I never shave – I wax so I bring my own products, though some places have really good deals on waxing!
Hair care products – I will be frank: Black hair care products are very easy to find, as are people that can do your hair. For people with Caucasian hair, the products are available – especially on an island like Martinique – but for some others, you may be looking at more expense. Of course, using black hair care products won’t kill you, but if you’re particular, maybe bring a bottle for yourself.
Towel and Facecloth – Because you need to shower, and you will shower often. A facecloth can be used for wiping sweat off you in general.
Protection from the Elements
Sunscreen – The sun is harsh, so you definitely want to have a bottle or two. Try to avoid the sun around noon though, of course.
Hat and Sunglasses –If you will be spending a lot of time outdoors, you want to keep your head covered and eyes protected because sunstroke is common on the islands.
Bug Repellent – Mosquitoes are a huge pain in the butt and many countries have reported instances of dengue fever.
Be careful with the electronics you bring to tropical countries. It can be damp and dusty and they will wear faster than they would at home.
Camera – Take lots of pictures, but keep in mind the lighting. It’s very bright in the Caribbean!
Laptop – Definitely bring one because internet cafés can be hard to find. I brought a netbook to Martinique because I was staying long term and internet is relatively accessible. I never took it with me when traveling to other islands, however.
Cell Phone – Get a Digicel SIM card if you have an unlocked phone. This phone company can be found and used on most islands in the region.
Umbrella – A good umbrella, because when it rains, it pours, wind blows and seas rise.
Plug adapter – I have one with that can be used for multiple outlets plugs and a voltage adapter. Different islands have different plugs, e.g. Jamaica uses the UK 3-prong, Guadeloupe uses the European 2 prong plug.
About the Author: Alyssa James is an outgoing introvert from Canada who has read The Alchemist a few too many times. She graduated university and decided to throw it all away so she could relax on a Caribbean island for a year. Next up: two years in London for life, travel and love. Check out her blog at Alyssa Writes or follow her on Twitter @aaljames!