Hurricane Irma: A Reflection, Lessons & The Birth of Serve Yoga
IRMA: A 365-Day Reflection since September 6th, 2017
Here’s how I wrote this post: First, for myself as a reminder of this journey. Then, edited for your read. We all keep a little bit to ourselves.
This is a reflection of my journey… a moment to pause & honor the 365-day Anniversary of Irma’s passing over my proud island & home, St. Maarten.
Irma: The strongest storm on record to exist in the open Atlantic region; A hurricane that brought sustained winds of 185 miles/hour & rains along with extreme flooding. St. Maarten/St.-Martin: A 37-square mile island where two nations – Dutch & French reside peacefully; An island of beautiful culture, heritage & people.
I write this today, September 6th, 2018 with a heavy heart because I know many who have Irma stories much worse than mine. I have burned much of my dried sage as I recount these memories & tell this story. I count my blessings daily.
I was living a dream life. In July 2016, I moved home from Los Angeles with city life behind me, straight for aqua, teal & turquoise waters, home-cooked food & the promise of teaching yoga to a whole island. It was a smooth transition - I made some new friends (you know who you are) & reconnected with old ones. I was working with my parents to help manage 3 fine jewelry retail stores & teaching about 10 yoga classes/week. I loved everything about it. I was living with my parents & my older brother in the house I grew up in. I was surrounded by love at all times. I didn’t have to pay for rent or gas in my car & was learning something new every day about being an adult from my wise parents. I considered myself lucky & remained grateful.
I had plans to attend a Diamond Grading course at the Gemological Institute of America in the Fall (somewhere it was actually Fall – like London or New York City). My American heart settled on NYC for 8 weeks & then I would be back home for the high-season & winter. I was eager to apply my diamond grading skills before I even acquired them & excited to make the most of my yoga opportunities I had spent a whole year building.
For the purpose of this Serve Yoga blog - I’ll provide more details on my teaching. The space I taught at was nothing but a gift to myself & my students who shared it & came together in my classes to find solace on their mats. My mornings started at 7:15am teaching yoga to guests at a beachside resort & my evenings ended with a svasana under the stars guided for everyone in my community who showed up for class. I was working long days teach, work, teach – often 14-hour days but I savored every moment of it. I taught different formats – Gentle Vinyasa Yoga, Power Yoga, Slow Vinyasa Yoga as well as privately. The pay was decent, the demand was higher than the supply.
It paints a pretty picture & it really, really was.
A few weeks out, I was preparing my leave for the Fall & was conflicted on two departure dates. I was unsure of which ticket to purchase - Friday, September 1st or Thursday September 7th 2017. I was set to go to Toronto & then NYC. Toronto because my younger brother was living there & because I always loved visiting the city. If I recall, they were equal in pricing & unable to come to decision, I asked my dad. His response was something along the lines of… ‘We’re in off-season anyways, you should book the earlier one & take that week off.' He didn’t have to tell me twice, my Dad is a boss of discipline. I snagged the time-off & secured my flight out on Friday, September 1st , 2017. Irma was not even born. We had no idea what was coming.
I think it was about 10 days out when we started tracking the storm. We got notified she was young & growing quickly, at a very ridiculous rate. I left & the news just got worse & worse. 2 days before she hit, my strong, incredible & responsible older brother boarded up the businesses & home alongside my Dad. It was gonna be okay. I Skyped them all the night before & I sensed fear, whether it was my own or from their end… I do not wish to know.
It was a long night for me & I’m ashamed to say that because I wasn’t even there. I was up, somewhere between 2-4am most restless, watching Facebook live. Streaming every minute of the storm feeling so helpless. Pushing my loved ones on the island for updates & begging God for the storm to pass quickly. And then my sources cut. Slowly & steadily one by one. Until at one point the last piece of media content I uncovered was this video on CNN’s Instagram which I follow.
All communication to my island was dead after that.
I wasn’t sure if Mother Nature had taken away my island.
I tried my best to prepare myself for the worst. People online around the world claimed the video was fake, clearly in denial of the magnitude of destruction Irma promised to bring. I knew otherwise. I had no doubt of Mother Nature’s capacities. A week prior Hurricane Harvey sunk an entire city of Houston, Texas right in front of our eyes. Mother Nature was on her own mission. So for 11-hours, I waited as patiently as I could. The images of Hurricane Irma pounding down on St. Maarten just replayed in my head, the last of the Facebook live streams I saw of people’s windows. I was sleep-deprived, anxious & scared.
Glued to my computer for a couple more hours & famished of an update regarding the state of my island during this blackout – I finally saw a friend’s Facebook Messenger light turn green. A beacon of hope!
Not because she was from St. Maarten but because she was in Anguilla, our very close by island neighbor. Just the night before I had wished her goodluck & told her to stay strong. Anguilla was barely a couple hours ahead of us in terms of Irma’s passing. Irma had done her work on Anguilla. At 12:53pm, I recall messaging this friend – “You’re okay!!!! I’m happy to see your dot green.” Her response? “It’s a nightmare Rikita.”
But I was hardly listening – we had LIVES. I selfishly was not considering the visual pain of actually witnessing the immediate affects of Irma. I told myself, if she made it, so did my family.
We got all of Irma: Her full first half, her eye, her full second half. I say ‘we’ but really the warriors are those who were present & endured the most brutal parts of a hurricane that was changing the lives of thousands right before them. I have so much respect for every single one of them. The sounds & sights were actually horrific. It was Destruction with a capital D.
I last heard from my Mom around 6:45am – they were okay. Fast forward to about 4pm it was safe to say the worst parts of the storm had finally passed St. Maarten/St. Martin. I still hadn’t heard anything from my home, or anyone for that matter. It was blackout.
I called my childhood best friend who resides in Toronto & whose parents too, were on the island. Their home was close by to the camera that recorded the last piece of footage we had from CNN. I was worried about them. Somewhere in that hour of 4pm she had just got news her parents were okay. I burst into tears of happiness.
I was also in touch with my first cousin residing in NYC throughout these blackout hours. Neither he had heard from his parents & our grandmother who were all in the same home on St. Maarten. It was time for more patient waiting. I was compulsively dialing my home phone number from my cellphone. After 10 hours of not hearing from the family, my cousin from NYC called & told me he just got off the phone with his own dad.
Excited, I hung up & called my Uncle right away. I was glad they were okay. Part of our conversation went a little something like this: I told him I hadn’t heard from my parents & asked if he had. He said he hadn’t. I asked him to look out his window (our house was a 3 minute drive away & visible from theirs.) I asked him if we had a roof.
He said he’s looking outside & then asked me again ‘you haven’t heard from my parents?’ I repeated I hadn’t heard from them & that I was a little worried. I asked again if we had a roof. He said you know I can see some of it there (some of it there = not all of it there?) & actually we got pretty roughed up ourselves. It hasn’t stopped raining for me to go check on them. I said okay keep me posted & hung up. I appreciated the little news.
My cousin called again around 5pm & said hey, I was just on the phone with my dad & he said your parents just pulled up into the driveway. My heart sank. Abandoned fort during this hour could only mean one thing. I quickly hung up & called my Uncle’s landline again. I got my mom on the phone. The first thing she said was “I’m so glad you & (younger brother) were not here.” And all I could think was how I was so glad my older brother was there with them: A soldier whom I have so much respect for. The phone conversation was a delusional one overall, from both our ends.
They told me the house was gone. This was a tough one to swallow.
I found a certain peace that evening knowing everyone on my island was somewhat safe. But the distress was real. Irma’s continued path had me praying for family in St. Thomas, Turks & Caicos & Miami in the hours to follow.
I gathered more of my family’s side of the story. We lost the roof & they weathered most of the storm in the basement. During the quiet hours I didn’t hear from them I thought my dad & brother might have gone to town to secure the business. There would be a little looting after all, especially with all the property damage, I thought to myself. No. Those hours I didn’t hear from them they were prying their way out of the basement door blocked by a fallen tree because every other exit in the house was bolted, aside from the roof, which was now gone. It took them hours to clear the private driveway to our home - a somewhat steep, long hill strewn with trees. They then drove the 4-minute drive to my Uncle’s house in a damaged car, in the rain to find cover.
The looting did happen & it was worse that anticipated. What Irma hadn’t destroyed, some humans did. It was heartbreaking to watch & hear of. Some people felt entitled by the lack of enforcement in this time of crisis & committed shameful crimes. With the media slowly climbing back with online coverage, I saw our harbor was wrecked & so was our airport. Forget transportation for locals & tourists alike, how would resources get in & out of the nation? Then the Dutch Marines came & then the French support came. The looting did not cease for days & from what I understood, it was due to the fact that a prime Politician’s son was involved in the wrong-doings. He refused to sign a ‘shoot-on-site’ command for the Marines that would affect any looter. In turn, locals helplessly watched from the sidelines as their businesses were cleared of the goods. As if they hadn’t just seen enough harm.
My family was home & with no power/looters on the loose & no word from government, it felt like a state of war. The days after Irma were hard for me & 100x harder on them. Would supplies run out? I participated in a relief effort up in Mississauga where I saw more familiar faces from my island than I would have expected. I felt a sense of community for that very short time. Briefly, I felt useful in a time I felt I had no control. I was in touch with two childhood best friends who were home during this time & learned of the painful pick-up. The number of people who reached out to me as we learned more of the aftermath of the storm were numerous. I saw how many people were watching our trauma from around the world. I reconnected with people who actually cared & gave a damn. I saw who my support was. St. Maarten/St. Martin would have to rebuild. Completely.
I carried on to NYC with that same one suitcase unsure of what was salvaged from my house. I assumed the water destroyed everything, especially with Hurricane Maria around the corner. Though initially I had no intentions to, I started working part-time right away, teaching classes to various residential buildings throughout Manhattan & checked into the nearest CorePower Yoga on the Upper West Side – desperate for a sort of community. I latched on to my yoga – stronger than ever. It was my daily practice at the time that kept me grounded. I had to stay focused, make the most of my course & keep my head up. NYC was great but I knew it wasn’t an end all be-all for me at all. I always had a threshold for the city – it was too crowded, expensive, dirty, congested for my liking. I would not be staying there.
My parents moved into another, smaller of apartment of theirs with my older brother – this one was pretty in tact by the grace of God. With our high-season shot, one of our retail stores destroyed & my bedroom gone, I had to figure out my next steps quickly. 7 weeks to make a decision. Where should I go? I could go home & help to rebuild. I often wonder how life would have been different had I made that decision. I didn’t consider it a fantastic option because it would require sharing a bedroom with my older brother & let’s be honest – we’re both adults. I wasn’t keen to go that route. My parents are Hurricane veterans & survived Hurricane Luis, a category 5 Hurricane in 1995. They had a team of staff with no real business in near sight. They had plenty of hands to help with the rebuild & priority was the business.
I had a calling for Toronto. I already had my dear younger brother there. I had travelled a lot by this point in my life & knew that I had to make an informed decision about my relocation. I considered all my factors & booked a one-way ticket to Toronto for Mid-November – the same time I was to be returning home to St. Maarten. How my course had changed…
My younger brother was relocating apartments at the time & within 10 days of my move there we somehow scored a 2-bedroom downtown apartment with the support of an awesome Landlord. Any apartment search is stressful. But this hunt had some extra weight. I knew we had to move fast. I needed some stability.
I was not thrilled to be moving to Toronto before a crude Canada winter ahead. I had sworn to myself when I was leaving Boston for a promotion out in LA, after a bitter winter in 2015 that it would be my last winter. I planned & God laughed. Here I was in a new city, at the end of November unsure of what home really was.
I spent some sincere time here just hibernating this past winter in Toronto. All that money I saved from living at home & not paying for gas? I had that to fall back on. I worked hard to build a yoga brand I could call mine & operate under. And so Serve Yoga was born. I am a perfectionist just like my Dad & the website took me hours & hours to build. I laid pretty low. I networked to find quality people in this city & hardly ate out. I cooked a lot & since I wasn’t teaching, found a deeper connection with my daily yoga practice. I was committed to living a simple life until I found more work in the city & ground underneath me. Now, grocery shopping & Dollarama became great, cost-effective ways to pass my time.
Overall the transition was not easy. I learned who my friends really were & at 26, did not have a school or office to settle into & figure things out socially. At this time my younger brother was truly an incredible support & someone I could lean on through this transition. Without money coming in at the time, my mission was to dip into my savings as little as possible, I picked up a cleaning shift at one studio & a desk shift at another studio in exchange for free classes. Studio classes were a luxury afterall, after months & months of teaching on a small island with a self-practice to rely on. I knew I needed the discipline & community a yoga studio would offer.
Behind me were the days of posting diamonds on Instagram to support my family business & hello were the days of mopping the studio floor for 2 hours a week. I had to clean the shower a handful of times where I found myself on the other end of an elite studio clientele. It was all a very humbling experience. I was determined to not touch my savings anymore than I absolutely had to. I have very recently moved on from those opportunities now.
The few months I was not teaching was a challenging period. I did not want to go back to corporate & closed those doors in 2016 after leaving an amazing company. I had a gift of teaching yoga & couldn’t put it to use without the right visa in hand. It was a little bit depressing. As an optimist, I am so weary of using that word but really things were not fun. The weather sucked, I missed living my best life. Yes, I was picky with the kind of work I looked for as well. I picked up an opportunity teaching chair yoga & meditation classes to a non-profit Toronto organization that provides low-income housing to women who faced mental health, addiction & substance abuse who were once homeless. The cause hit home for me & it was a good way to keep my spirits up, the classes I taught were rewarding & I kept my resume active. Still it was just a volunteer position.
During the winter, I applied to several yoga studios in the Toronto downtown core, only to find there is a surplus of Yoga Instructors in the city & many institutions favored graduates of their own trainings. I pushed through & did my best to network. The first studio that actually gave me an audition, I got placed at immediately & started teaching for pay as a substitute yoga teacher. The most ironic part was that it was harder to get an audition than it was to get placed. It was smooth sailing once I got a 15-minute demo. My instruction is strong.
I sowed a lot of seeds this Spring & saw opportunities bloom in the summer once my work visa came through. I got opportunities to substitute classes anywhere & everywhere (gyms, studios, residential buildings, community centers). I took them all. Regular instructors were travelling for the summer & it was my time to finally make some money.
Toronto has a lot of good instructors with unique offerings but the feedback I would get after teaching every class reminded me what a strong instructor I really am. My mom & older brother attended my yoga classes week after week & their undying support as well as constructive feedback shaped my confidence & experiences as a Yoga Instructor. I know I was born to teach yoga & always deliver 110% when possible. I am really, really good at what I do. Towards the end of this summer I wanted more.
In August 2018, I found a stunning but dormant space & partnered with the owner of the space who is open to having me re-introduce my own yoga program as they once had one. And so I now have a studio to offer my very own Serve Yoga classes. It is an exciting opportunity which will reward me for all my hard work to build a following there. It’s a new expedition I start willingly & can plan for, unlike my move to Toronto. I frequently thought of all the students I just left hanging after the storm after my promise to return for the high-season. I carried a certain guilt with me for not going back to teach them. I know they missed me & my classes. I often reminisce on those sweet days teaching to full classes with eager, enthusiastic faces I came to adore in an incredible outdoor space in perfect Caribbean weather.
I do not know what the future holds but I have truly put my utmost foot forward along the way, every step of the way.
I am an entrepreneur & was born into a family of entrepreneurs. It takes a certain kind of person to stand up fearlessly in the face of any potential rejection/failure & put all emotions aside. It will perhaps take a few no-shows to get my new space up & running but I am just a conductor – transporting & delivering the energy of the universe. It unfolds when it is supposed to. I now take life on life’s terms. I don’t take it personally. It is just business & my business starts with me & ends with me.
The Lessons & Take-Aways
First, I learned what actually truly actually truly matters in life. The suitcase I had brought with me from St. Maarten to NYC & later Toronto was totally sufficient under the circumstances. I live a far more minimalistic life now. We don’t need nearly as much as we think we do. It’s an illusion. I have downsized a lot & see that a simple life brings ease & happiness. Yes we had insurance but the monetary value of our things holds no value compared to things that are actually priceless & cannot be paid for – like faith & hope & courage.
I saw St. Maarten/St. Martin, a resilient people come together & unite. Communities shifted along with their members. New bonds were formed. I heard from my loved ones at home that people were coming together to help each other & pick up the broken pieces after Irma. There was no way it would happen without everyone working together. It was required. It was a shared loss. Not one person was unaffected. Everyone was affected & saw life differently with new eyes. Perspectives changed & so did priorities. Instead of putting up walls against each other, St. Maarteners stood determined to rebuild. We’re coming back better & together.
Second I learned you don’t need a house to make a home. Home is where your loved ones are & in the arms of your dear ones. Home is a shared meal, a conversation after a long day, a people you support & receive support from in return. Yes, we lost the house. But at no point did I lose my home. My family is intact & individually we are stronger from the experiences brought by Irma.
Third, destiny has a plan. If I had bought that other plan ticket to leave St. Maarten on September 7th 2018, I likely would not have made it out in time for my diamond grading course. Or, I would have gotten out on one of the evacuation boats/flights arranged several days after Irma hit. Or, I would have scrapped the whole plan & stayed for the rebuild. Who knows. Fact remains I did get that ticket out before we were hit & I was one less mouth to feed when things were bad. The course of events that led me to being there or not there were simply pre-destined, as I believe. I was not meant to be on the island when Irma hit.
My mom always wanted an ocean view for as long as I could remember. She would always say it wasn’t in her fate. My parents lived for over thirty years in our home, which lays closer to the inland, residential part of St. Maarten. The smaller 2-bedroom apartment they moved into is really lovely. It is theirs & my dad did it up really nicely to host Airbnb tourists. It has a gorgeous ocean view that faces East for a splendid sunrise every morning. Yet, it took some drastic changes to put them there. My mom finally got her ocean view.
I remember the last night before I left, the four of us were eating dinner on the dining table in my old house. Now that I think about it and recall that meal so vividly, it was the last meal I ate under that roof with my family.
I hesitantly asked my Dad/Mom if I could take my mom’s laptop for the 7 weeks I was travelling since mine had been acting funny. He quickly said yeah & brushed it off. I was surprised because my Dad usually likes us to leave my mom’s things for her. She deserves it. I wonder if I had not taken that laptop would it have been destroyed along with many of our belongings? Yet, I have held on to that same exact laptop & use it daily. I am writing this post using that same laptop. And just like this, so many aberrations were recorded by anyone affected by the storm. Small details that went unexplained but served a much greater purpose.
Fourth – Mother Nature has finished whispering. She is literally screaming at us for change & we are being punished duly for our mistreatment of Planet Earth. We deserve this. I see the wildfires, the earthquakes, the hurricanes of 2018 and I also see the change humanity is pushing for. I went to university with an Environmental Science major before switching out to Communication & always felt the duty to be more than a global citizen doing my part. I always wanted to have a deeper impact for our environment. I have cut my use of one-time plastic & try hard to do my part reducing my carbon footprint. It’s not enough & we need more. I went to Bulk Barn yesterday & saw most of the customers brought along their own jars & containers to put purchased goods in. They weighed the storage before & then again after to determine the cost of the purchase. It’s happening. There is change. We are changing. It will continue. Hope is not lost.
Finally, I have learned acceptance. My daily prayer started as a young girl riding to school in my Mom’s car reciting: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Courage, to change the things I can & wisdom to know the difference.’
This daily prayer has filled me with light on darker days. I had no choice but to put this to practice. I now have a really powerful life skill that I am confident will keep me at bay for any other difficult journeys I have to endure. Life is full of transitions & change. It all adds up & we evolve. These experiences shape us.
Me? I’m grateful for the people I’ve met along this journey, the new, genuine people I have connected with along the way because of the turns my life took after Hurricane Irma. Sometimes, life comes at you harder than you can come at life & you don’t really have time to prepare for the blow. But you can accept what you cannot change & change what you can. And so, this chapter of my life is now complete, with 365 days since Hurricane Irma passed over my island - a place I am forever proud to call my home. My life has taken a drastic 180 degree turn & I know it may not ever go back to that full 360 but the perspectives & people I have gained in my life are invaluable. Thank you, Irma.
The reggae band Orange Grove whom I grew up listening to depicted the hours before & after the storm in this video. It is worth a watch.