In the Words of Jimmy Buffett

A couple months ago I found myself in the Peace Corps office in St. George’s. Inside one of the rooms are two large bookcases, filled with various worn and used books that serve as the “Volunteer Library.” It’s not much, but it’s something.

While scanning the shelves, a certain book caught my attention. It had clearly seen better days, missing both front and back covers with faded, discolored-yellow pages. All that was remaining of the cover was the spine, worn-down and wrinkled. It read: Jimmy Buffett: A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I wasn’t surprised about the condition the book was in, it seemed fitting to his profile: worn with experience but still intact. Curious, I picked it up and threw it into my backpack to take home with me.  After all, how could I resist? It’s Jimmy Buffett.

We all know his name. We all know his music. We all know his image–one of sunshine, crystal blue waters, sandy beaches, margaritas, and 5:00 happy hours. He is a man of many talents: a musician, songwriter, author, actor, and businessman. There is a lot to admire about him and the lifestyle he has come to represent.

After all, who doesn’t want to waste away in Margaritaville?

My family has always been made up of Jimmy Buffett fans, or “Parrotheads” as they’re often called. His Greatest Hits Album was one of the few CDs we had in the house growing up. Consequently, I grew up very familiar with his music. On family vacations to the Sunset Beach, North Carolina, the days were spent in beach chairs chasing the tide while his music played from a portable speaker.

My 21st birthday was spent road-tripping down to Cincinnati, Ohio where I saw him in concert with some family and friends. It was my first time seeing him live. His performance lived up to the hype and consequently, I solidified my position in his following of Parrotheads.

During the first week of September my senior year in college, I had just officially accepted the invitation to serve in the Eastern Caribbean with the Peace Corps. Closing my laptop, I plugged my phone into my roommate’s speaker system and began playing, none other than, Jimmy Buffett. I’m not sure why, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

I didn’t know what to expect moving to the Caribbean or even what it would be like living here. It had all just seemed like a far-away, distant dream. I’ve been here for around ten months now, almost a full year, and it still sometimes feels that way.

Over the past ten months I have gotten to experience the hot sun, sandy beaches, crystal waters, and even a margarita or two during happy hour. To that extent, life in the Caribbean and the story of Jimmy Buffett met some of my expectations both in my personal experience here, as well as reading about his. There was one other thing that I have come to learn about since moving down here and as it turns out, Jimmy Buffett knows a thing or two about it, too. The funny thing is, it’s got nothing to do with the Caribbean. It has everything to do with life.

When I saw the worn-out book that was Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, I figured I could learn a thing or two from him. After all, he’s spent a significant part of his life in the Caribbean and I was curious to see what he had to say about it. I wanted to know if his experience paralleled mine in any way.

Let me tell you, his autobiography blew me away.

I feel as though I can relate to him on a personal level and it has nothing to do with our mutual connection to the Caribbean. I found that he has an incredible perspective on things. I admire the way he has lived and continues to live his life. From his first and only year at Auburn, to busking in New Orleans, to his failed attempt at country music in Nashville, he was just a man trying to find a niche to fit in. When he didn’t find one, he joined a friend on a trip to Key West. The rest, you could say, is history. He never found his niche, so he created one. To hear him tell his story is captivating. His writing is plain, straight-forward, and easy to read. His writing style is very much personal, giving you a feeling as if he were sitting right beside you while he tells his story. His literary voice is as casual as the lifestyle he represents.

Jimmy Buffett has come to embody what’s referred to as the “island-escapism” lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle engulfed in the concept of vacation, where you bask in the care-free moment and let go of the stresses of your life. It’s a life where your biggest concern is making sure you put on enough sunscreen. Parrotheads flock to his shows for this very reason, as Jimmy Buffett, through his music, brings the Caribbean beaches to stadiums and concert venues across the world. Parrotheads are a loyal fanbase, traveling far and wide to see him perform and to forget about life for awhile. What people fail to realize, however, is that although Buffett represents what it means to “escape” life, it’s really quite the opposite.

Allow me to elaborate. Rather, allow me to elaborate in the words of Buffet himself.

What follows is a series of quotes I’ve pulled from his autobiography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. These are excerpts that caught my attention and made me think. They are quotes that moved me in such a way that I wrote them down so as not to forget them. They gave me an opportunity to reflect on what they mean and how they pertain to not only my life, but life as a whole. With each quote, I have provided an interpretation of what he means based on my personal experiences both at home and abroad. You may agree, disagree, or what have you. But either way, I hope you find as much meaning in them as I did.

“Songwriters write songs, but they really belong to the listener.”

Is there a song that whenever it comes on, you’re immediately taken back to a certain time in your life? Does it make you think of a specific place or person? That is because you have attached a meaning to the song, which now forever correlates with whatever memorable experience comes to mind. That’s the beauty of music. We can all be given the same song, but each of us may interpret it differently based on our personal experiences listening to it. Songs are given to us, the listeners, and we have the freedom to interpret and attach meaning to it in any way we like. That’s the power of music that makes it so unique; musicians can create a song, but that same song can take on countless meanings based on the various listeners. With all the various meanings attached to the same song, is it still the same song? Just more food for thought.

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If there’s one thing the Caribbean people know, it’s music.

“Time is something to be used, not saved.”

I once heard of an analogy that coincides nicely with this quote. Think of it this way:

Imagine that at the start of each day you are given $1,440. You have exactly 24 hours to spend the money. The catch is, however, that you lose the money that you don’t spend when the day is over. Therefore, you cannot save the money for tomorrow because it won’t be there, so you must spend what you can of it today. If this were the case, how would you spend your money? Think about it for a moment before moving on.

Fun fact: did you know that there are 1,440 minutes in each day? Now read that over again.

Does your plans for how to spend your “money” change?

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Time is already flying by as I am already ten months into in my Peace Corps service.

“Life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.”

This one took some thought. What does he mean by this? The way I’ve come to see it, life as a scavenger hunt means that there’s something to be found. It can come in many forms: a road map, a step-by-step checklist, or even a bucket list. A scavenger hunt gives you a purpose, a mission. It gives you something to find and a means to find it. It forces you to take initiative yourself. At times, it even requires you to be creative in finding what you’re look for. It provides a series of clues and small achievements in increments to encourage you and help you measure your progress along the way. Somewhere along the lines you realize that what you’re really searching for is the experience. You’ll realize that the journey along the way to finding whatever it was you were looking for, sometimes outweighs the attained goal itself.

A surprise party, on the other hand, although enjoyable is ultimately fleeting. It requires a passive approach; one in which you wait for the things you’re supposed to search for to come to you. When the surprises do come, you receive a momentary thrill as they arrive. However, it seems that as soon as they arrive they disappear, leaving you in the exact same position as before. The surprise party is less rewarding than the scavenger hunt, as at least with the scavenger hunt you are not only rewarded by finding what you’re looking for, but you have the comfort of being able to reflect on the experience of your journey to obtaining it as well.

By taking life as a scavenger hunt, you’re able to take things one step at a time. Therefore, you’re in control. Attaining your goals not only becomes more realistic in this way, but the journey itself brings it all together in the end.

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It was once my goal to run a marathon. Looking back now, the months of training leading up to the race made the accomplishment of it all the more rewarding.

“It is my independence and my emergency parachute…I know deep down inside that if it came to it, I could cram what I really need into my backpack, hit the trail, and be perfectly happy.”

Only since my time here have I been able to relate to this. Every now and then I will pack a bag and catch a bus to explore a remote part of the island for the weekend. Sometimes even another country (as I only took my backpack with me to St. Vincent and Bequia, an island Buffett wrote very highly about with good reason). Usually with a packed lunch, a change of clothes, and a few other bare necessities, I can steal away for days at a time. I find solace in the fact that I am able to do that with such ease down here. It’s comforting knowing that the opportunity to condense my life into a backpack and steal away for a weekend is always in my back-pocket, ready to be used whenever I want it or need it. It has certainly helped that my life was already condensed into two suitcases upon coming down here, so now down-sizing even more into a single backpack seems like nothing. But in reality, I’ve learned I don’t really need a whole lot to get by and I’m perfectly content with that. All I really need, can fit into my backpack.

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The backpack I have been basically living my life out of for the past ten months.

“When you go off adventuring, part of the adventure is the unpredictable. That is what really separates travelers from tourists.”

While walking to or from school, and even while at school, I often see large tourist buses pass through Gouyave. Looking through its windows as it passes, there’s always sun-burnt tourists from the cruise ships donning shades and holding maps, binoculars, and cameras. I always wonder what they must think of me and if they wonder what I must be doing here while they pass by. Sometimes I feel as though I am a part of some zoo exhibit, where the tourists are viewing me and my community from the safety of a sheltered bus. The locals don’t seem to mind or take notice, as they’ve grown up having the presence of the large, passing tourist buses their entire life.

While I’m on the topic of cruise ships, I admit I have come to have a conflicting perspective on them. On one hand, I admire and appreciate the cruisers initiative in going out and exploring new places. On the other hand, they know exactly what they’re getting. They disembark from the massive floating cities that are the cruise ships. They’re shuffled into buses that hustle them around the island and allot them only so much time for “excursions” at various sites such as the beaches, waterfalls, and sulfur springs. There’s always a time restraint, as they have to return to the ship before the big horn blares and the ship takes off for the next island with or without them. Although efficient, this method of travel is defined and predictable. You know exactly where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there. I’ve never been on a cruise so I do not speak from experience in this regard. This is simply my interpretation of what they’re like from what I’ve heard and seen down here, so do take what I said there with a grain of salt. That type of experience may exactly be what you’re looking for when traveling and that’s perfectly okay, you can experience a lot on a trip with a cruise. I’m just not sure it would suit me.

Travelers, on the contrary, stray from the rigid schedule and predictability of the cruise ship and bus excursions, seeking to experience the island for themselves. Travelers purchase flights and arrive in countries not necessarily knowing what they are going to experience. They have a general idea about what they’ll be doing and where they’ll be going, but they trust in the process and rely on local guidance to find all the best spots and places to go. They chase the experience of discovery and have become addicted to the life of unpredictability. It’s not necessarily a picture-perfect or glamorous way to explore new countries, as things can often go wrong. Buffett shared some of his mishaps from his time abroad, including getting shot at while flying over Jamaica and having his plane strip-searched for drugs in Columbia. My mishap experiences thankfully haven’t been to that extreme, but I have certainly had some of my own. But isn’t that the point? Sometimes the biggest mistakes you make end up making the best stories. The unpredictability is what makes an adventure just that…an adventure.

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The cruise ships are so large, that especially when they are lit up at night, appear to be like floating cities.

“[I]t is more fun sharing the adventure than doing it yourself.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Buffett on this one. It’s one thing for me to experience not only the beautiful beaches and jaw-dropping waterfalls, but also the challenges and frustrations that come with working in a differentiated classroom. All in all, this experience has been wholly mine; it’s a task I’m glad to have taken but I wish I could share. I am learning and experiencing so much and crave to share my life here with my family and friends back home or even to anyone who would listen. I wish they could see the beaches and waterfalls. I wish they could meet my students and the people in my community. Thankfully, technology comes into play here as opportunities such as this blog can help bridge that void so that others can share this experience with me.

However, having other Volunteers on the island to go through this experience with is both comforting and enjoyable, even if I only see them at best a week or two at a time. From my other volunteer experiences, it was meeting and sharing the experiences with other volunteers from across the world that made our time together abroad all the more exciting. That’s not to mention that the volunteers you meet abroad are some of the most incredible people you’ll ever meet. I am still in contact with many of the friends I’ve made while volunteering abroad. When it comes down to it, life abroad is more fun when you have people to share the experience with, plain and simple.

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The volunteers from my time in Quito, Ecuador.
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The volunteers from my time in Cape Town, South Africa.
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The Volunteers with me in Grenada.

“I think that if you live an interesting life, you have to come face-to-face with death on occasion, and it should scare you.”

I’m lucky and blessed that I haven’t had any necessarily life-threatening experiences (unless I count nearly getting hit by a car my first month in Grenada, which was my own fault, but terrifying nonetheless). That being said, I have done some potentially dangerous things in the name of thrill. The first came when I jumped from a bridge that was 300 feet above a river in Banos, Ecuador, swinging like a pendulum underneath it. It was the first time I had done anything like it. Truth be told, I am deathly afraid of heights as they make me very uncomfortable. But I also consider myself a man of opportunity. Therefore, when this opportunity presented itself, I felt like I didn’t really have a choice. After all, no one remembers the things you “almost did.” All the other volunteers were jumping and I couldn’t be the only one not to do it. So I jumped.

A year later I found myself in South Africa at the world’s fourth largest bungee jump, also the world’s largest bridge bungee at 719 feet. My stomach dropped when I saw how high it was. The other volunteers I was with on the weekend safari tour at the time were all excited to try it. I survived the one in Ecuador and was content with that. But deep down, I knew I had to do it. I couldn’t go back home and tell someone, “Yeah, I went to the world’s fourth largest bungee there, but I didn’t try it.” So my legs were tied together and I placed my arms around the shoulders of the two men who helped me to the edge. Every fiber in my being was telling me not to jump. I honestly didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to look over the edge. But my desire to prove to myself that I could do it outweighed my fear. Knowing there was a camera on me, I painted a nervous smile on my face and tried masking the fear with adrenaline. I took a deep breath, and on the count of three leaped from the ledge.

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The pit in my stomach was lifted airlessly as I fell through the sky toward the ravine below. The cord smoothly caught with tension and I began bouncing upside down through the air as the momentum settled and I simply dangled underneath the bridge. It was a thrill of a lifetime. I could feel my heart pound against my chest. Everything around me was suddenly silent and the blood began rushing to my head as I swayed back and forth, upside down beneath the bridge. I remember laughing to myself, “Here I am, halfway across the world, dangling upside down underneath a bridge. Everyone at home is sound asleep and has no idea.” Looking back now, I can honestly say jumping off that bridge was one of the greatest decisions of my life.

Having conquered my fear of heights for the second time, I went on to go skydiving with some friends a few months later when I finished my undergrad studies. My mother asked me if I had a death wish. After giving it some thought, my answer was: “It’s not a death wish. In fact, it’s really quite the opposite.” (I still had to promise her before I left that I wouldn’t do any bungees or sky-dives in the Caribbean).

Some people have called me an adrenaline-junkie or a thrill-seeker, but I don’t consider myself as such. I’d be perfectly content with keeping my two feet on solid ground. But when these opportunities came along, I wanted to prove to myself I could overcome my fear and do it. Almost daily, my students here ask me if they can watch the videos of me jumping from bridges and planes. They find it interesting and exciting. Therefore, I suppose Buffett’s got a point here.

“That’s the way life is. We all try to make something out of our lives, and some of us are just luckier than others.”

A fellow Volunteer recently asked me if I felt guilty for serving in the Caribbean, as opposed to the more challenging and isolated Peace Corps posts across the world. It is a valid question and one that I have admittedly grappled with since arriving here. At first I did feel guilty, as comparatively speaking, I have it good. I have electricity, access to wi-fi (when I’m at home), running water, and beautiful weather. That’s not to say there aren’t any challenges, it’s just the challenges we have here aren’t the same as the ones a Volunteer in a remote African village might have.

But here’s the thing: I saw this opportunity and took it. Anyone could have applied to come here. But I’m the one that prepared my resume with the necessary experiences, applied, interviewed, and accepted the invitation to serve. I am absolutely blessed to be able to live in a place people dream of visiting. Something that I’ve come to terms with since moving here, one I didn’t think I’d have to learn at that, is that there is nothing wrong with relishing in your blessings. It’s okay to get lucky sometimes, it’s okay to be blessed. Just recognize that you are blessed and do your part to pass on those blessings to those less fortunate than you are. It’s as simple as that.

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Life in the Caribbean has not been without its perks.

“That to me is the way any good romantic would look at his life: Live it first, then write it down before you go.”

When I began this blog back in June, I wasn’t sure what the nature of it was going to be or how I would go about writing it. I’ve since fallen into the routine of letting things happen on their own and waiting for something that makes me go, “Wow, now that was pretty cool.” Luckily for me, that happens just about every day down here. My blog has become a tool for me to reflect on various parts of my Peace Corps experience and share what they have come to mean to me. It also is a form of expression and stress-release, a productive hobby that I’ve come to enjoy. I don’t go out and write things down as they happen, for if I did that then I wouldn’t truly be experiencing my surroundings. Therefore, I guess I’ve taken on that, “Live it first, then write it down before you go,” mentality. Someday, hopefully I can look back on this experience and re-live the lessons I’ve learned from my life in Grenada. It’s just important not to let writing it down part get in the way of living it first.

I never considered myself either a writer or a romantic. But when it comes to this blog, I suppose I fit the profile. Either way, it’s important to live your life first and experience it with all your surroundings, emotions, and feelings. Just don’t forget to write it all down. Someday you’ll have a life-story to tell, as someday our time on Earth will be up. When that day comes, will someone have to tell your story for you? Or will you have your own story written down yourself? There is no right or wrong answer here, as that’s entirely up to you.

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I try to take time every couple weeks or so to write things from my day-to-day life into a journal. (Photo courtesy John Lyness).

“Life does not come without risks. You learn to take them, or you stay home and watch life on TV.”

They say you save the best for last, so I saved this quote for last as it is my favorite from the whole book. Blunt and calling it as it is, Buffett himself is calling out me and everyone else that is jealous of his life. It’s no secret that in today’s world, we are all absorbed in the technology that has become ingrained in our lives. When I first arrived, I was disappointed when I discovered I had a television and cable already set up in my apartment. I was looking forward to the challenge of living without it. So I cancelled the cable, despite the internal concerns I had on how I would fill my time without one. I was nervous about it, but as it turns out, I hardly notice I’m without one. Instead of staying in and watching television, I have come to develop other hobbies such as reading, writing, and playing basketball.

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My TV now gathers dust in the corner of my sitting room.

People have a hard time believing or understanding me when I tell them I don’t have a Netflix account. Honestly, not having one is something I’m kind of proud of. It’s not that I think I’m better in any way, television shows have a tremendous benefit for us. Do you every wonder why we even watch certain shows? Television shows provide an escape from our life by placing us in a fictional one, or someone else’s that we sometimes wish we had. We all have our favorites: my personals being Seinfeld, M*A*S*H, and Friends. Movies provide the same type of entertainment for a solid two or three hours at a time, in the same way also serving as an escape. When you think about it, the stories that play out on the big-screen are often very relevant to our day-to-day lives. That is why we become so attached to and invested in certain characters and shows, because we can relate to them on a personal level. We can relate to them because they’re us. They’re telling stories about life, our lives.

I’m not saying television is a bad thing. But the characters and people on your favorite shows are the very people going out and living their lives, whether it’s a fictional one or not. We spend countless hours of the week watching other people live their lives on the big screen, sometimes even longing to live out what we see ourselves. In reality, though, that very life does await us. Just like what Buffett says himself: sometimes we just have to turn off the television, step out the door, and find it.

The same goes for the life of Buffett, who has lived in exotic places ranging from Key West and St. Bart’s, to Paris and New York, all the while traveling across the world. It’s easy to admire what he’s done and be jealous of him for living in all the beautiful places he’s lived. I for one am jealous.

Originally, I had first opened his book out of curiosity to learn about the man behind the music and the “island-escapism” lifestyle. While reading it, I was pleasantly surprised and inspired. I found a man who was incredibly down-to-earth and just trying to find his way in the world. He’s not afraid of putting in the time and effort to his work, as evident of his overwhelming success across various mediums. But he strives to not forget that although we all must work, we can’t let it get in the way of us living our lives. I have come to admire him not because of the sunshine, beaches, and margaritas. I admire him because it seems like he has it all figured out.

He isn’t escaping life.

He’s living it.

Cheers!

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4 thoughts on “In the Words of Jimmy Buffett

  1. Hi Scott!

    Just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed your blog today. I am travelling to Ireland to visit Will (he’s there for 8 weeks) in April. This will be a first for me – traveling without Mr. Fistek or one of my kids somewhere other than the US. I will also be crossing the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge while I am there – and I literally have panic attacks when I cross 3-lane paved bridges when traveling haha! (Construction zones and tunnels create the attacks as well…)

    So your article was timely and personally thought provoking. I pretty much told Mr. Fistek, and some nieces and nephews that asked if they could come with me, that I did not want them to travel with me! In addition to having Will-Time, I am looking forward to having a “see what happens as the days unfold” attitude, that I don’t think I’d have if traveling with someone else. William will have seen most of the sites in Ireland already, so I will be doing some self-exploration while he is in classes.

    I also sent this blog to my kids – we all know of Jimmy Buffett but we don’t really know what has made him the person he is. There are many reasons his music, a reflection of how he has lived his life, is so appealing to us. We may not be able to explore life as he has, but we can look at his life and allow it to inspire us to “live” our life.

    Hard to believe it has been 10 months since you left Cleveland! Glad you were able to come home for Christmas, I am sure your family thoroughly enjoyed having you home!!

    Love always…

    Mrs. Fistek

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    1. Hi Mrs. Fistek!
      That’s exciting Will is studying in Ireland and I’m happy to hear you’ll be visiting him there! It will be quite the experience I’m sure. I look forward to seeing the pictures as I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland!
      You bring up a very good complementary point on how Jimmy Buffett’s story can inspire us in our own ways. Thank you for sharing!
      Yes, time is certainly flying by here. Send my best to the family and good luck on that bridge!

      -Scott

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  2. The Road Not Taken
    BY ROBERT FROST
    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.
    -Robert Frost

    Your thoughtful and wonderfully evocative piece reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Frost. It was a distinct pleasure meeting you and some of your fellow volunteers on Friday. Your, curiosity, wanderlust, and wisdom of the ages belies your relatively short time on this magical planet. God Bless.

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    1. Ken,
      Thank you so much for contributing with the Robert Frost poem. I have come across it at some point in my studies, but reading it now has given it an entirely new meaning in the context of my current situation. Poetry is often overlooked for its true potential, so it’s comforting knowing people such as yourself still embrace its thought-provoking power. I enjoyed having the opportunity to meet you and spend time with you during your time on Grenada. Hopefully our paths will cross again in the future. Take care!

      -Scott

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