Marty slipped the key in the padlock and the zinc-covered door creaked as he pulled it open. The pungent smell of sea-weed mixed with hot salty air greeted him. It wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, as he closed his eyes and inhaled, something familiar deep inside slipped into place. Somehow it gave him reassurance he hadn’t realized he was looking for.
The old lobster traps he’d helped his grandfather make just a few months before he died were still there. They’d take some work. And he still had no idea how he was going to get Barracuda ready again. In fact, he worried if it was too far gone to repair. There are so many other boats, just like it, scattered in nooks and crannies all over old Simpsonbay…relics of the past.
That way of life.. now a relic. Jesus! There are folks on the island from God knows where taking tourists out to go “deep-sea fishing.” Marty’s grandfather could have provided a far richer, more authentic experience. He couldn’t help thinking if he had known back in 1980 what he knows now, he’d be a millionaire.
But scarcely anyone born and raised in St. Maarten had any way of knowing. In fact, what genius anywhere in the Caribbean before 1975 could look at their ordinary everyday Third-World lives and recognize it was a thing of envy and wonder? To do that, you almost had to have come from far away.. Perception is everything.
A different Perspective
In 2001, Bert Tucker addressed over a hundred people at the PMIA Hall’s nation-building lectures and first annual Award of Excellence program. Some of our most prominent leaders sat and listened. I remember Miguel De Weaver commenting something to the effect that he had expected more insights on economic development from someone with a Masters in Economics from UWI, and another Masters in Public Administration from Harvard.
That threw me a little. The very question felt like he’d missed the entire point of the lecture. But in retrospect, it might have been a mistake on my part to downplay the fact that Bert had been one of Michael Manley’s leading economic advisers, had been in the trenches with Maurice Bishop as they attempted to shape their perspective into a popular vision for Grenada, and had been the eyes and ears of the UN in Namibia for over 6 years preparing leftist gun-toting ANC leaders for a post-Apartheid reality.
In those days scarcely anyone thought Fidel Castro did anything worthy to emulate. Many still don’t. I think my concern about Bert being heard with an open mind sacrificed some of his clout. In any case, his answer, with that wry little smile of his was something like,” You mean you wanted to hear about GNP growth and all the indicators that bureaucrats are trained to regurgitate from our text-books?”
I was trained in Youth Work for the Caribbean back in the early 80’s with a heavy nationalistic bent. St. Maarten had since become my home. But not being a son of the soil, my orientation influenced me to adopt a tone of deference out of respect for native grass-roots development. The holy grail for me was to have it sprout spontaneously from a rich fertile ground of ideas. I wasn’t too strong in putting my own opinion out there.
Now I’m just too old to give a shit. so…
After he returned to Belize, Bert was raising eyebrows planting mahogany trees in the bush. Mahogany has all but disappeared from the tropical rain forest in a land where it used to flourish in the wild. Growing up, I didn’t know the value of the wood I’d pull to make toys from my father’s huge stock. The waste I’d throw away every weekend now sells for over $300 on the rare occasion you can get it here in St. Martin, North or South. Easy come, easy go.
The British had already laid waste to the forest reserves before Independence, and by 1961 locals had been taught that “logwood” cultivation, and all other forms of agriculture, weren’t on the path to affluence. Like St. Maarten and much of the Caribbean, Belize had somehow been duped into thinking that close human ties with the land just isn’t sexy.
By the time Bert decided to return home, he’d recognized those very ties as any country’s most valuable developmental asset No constitutional change, no solution to the language of instruction issue (which Gracita brought forward as a worthy excuse), no knowledge of economics or finance, nor industry you depend on–none of it matters half as much.
Norman Girvan, his UWI mentor preached it until he passed. All industry including tourism is only sustainable beyond 50 years if built on a connection with the sea, land and climate–a connection so strong it is spiritual.
And the express purpose of our former colonial masters was to break that connection. They were very good at it. The surplus capital for the entire industrial revolution depended on it.
Therefore the first task of any decolonization process is to reconnect the people with their surrounding environment–to make them one.
It takes that kind of perspective to appreciate Bert’s focus while he was here 15 years ago. People can sense the disconnect even if they can’t put their finger on it. It’s the void Marty was sensing. It was far more than just waves of nostalgia sweeping through him looking at the remains of his grandfather’s old lobster traps. And despite their stunted ways of expressing it, I have to admit it’s an essential part of what folks like Leopold James and Miguel “The Patriot” have been trying to give a voice.
Something terribly important to our very survival as a real country is missing.
Cathedrals of Consumption
In his book, “Enchanting a Disenchanted World,” George Ritzer quotes
“According to one tourist, St. Maarten wasn’t a very attractive island….It was dirty. The shops were kind of junky.” Said another, “Jamaica was pretty run down to us.”
The tourist’s words are bad enough. When renowned social theorists start using quotations like that as fodder for a popular social science textbook, you should know you have a problem. Local policy makers at the highest levels need to pay keener attention, and their Ministers need to take heed. Ritzer’s second edition appeared in 2005, but this turd of a quote is even more relevant today because of the bigger point he was making.
By 1900, in their quest for a never-ending growth of profit, Western owners of commercial assets had to find more efficient ways to control the volume of consumption of goods and services.
The older a civilization’s cultural symbols, the deeper they are embedded in the psyche. The industrial revolution had “de-enchanted” the way of life all over Europe as people flocked to cities. There was massive discontent. They had underestimated human need for meaning-making that was now missing as folks uprooted from the enchantment provided by countryside religious networks.
Ritzer’s insightful argument is that commercial interests have learned how to manipulate the masses to consume almost at will. Through a process he calls “reenchantment,” they first did so by slowly copying the symbols of enchantment that used to be the sole concern of the Christian Church. Although devoid of real meaning, society still flocked to these “cathedrals of consumption” with religious fervor. It was no coincidence or whim. It transformed the West into a mindless commercial juggernaut.
Witness the grand design and architecture of places like Disney, chain stores, shopping malls, cruise-ships, museums, hospitals, casinos, franchises and fast food stores, meant to manipulate mythical archetypes. The interior motifs of Barnes & Noble isn’t church-like by coincidence.
Agencies all followed suit to produce their own enchanted spectacles. The juggernaut snowballed until quite recently. Then, to outdo the out-doer, they started to invent a generation of experiences designed to copy real life, only better. Baudrillard quipped about it:
One of Disneyland’s classic attractions, the simulated submarine ride, to which people flocked to see simulated undersea life, is a good example. Many more went there than to the more “genuine” aquarium just down the road. (itself however, a simulation of the not-too-distant sea)
‘What a ting!’
That’s the backdrop that set up the situation we now have in some Caribbean islands (like Gorda Cay). From the point of view of many a tourist, real island-life doesn’t measure up. All the indigenous culture has to be stripped away to provide the perfect vacation experience. That’s where the tourist’s remarks were coming from.
Sad to say, the St. Maarten experience is far down the same road as Gorda Cay, now renamed by Disney as Castaway Cay. Just like the McDonaldization of the Mom & Pop business, we now have to provide tourists with plastic pirate ships on our Pier, for starters…or arts and craft from everywhere else but our own island
See where all this is heading? If you’re one of those asking what’s the harm in that, I’m tempted to rest my case. But first I want you to take a bird’s-eye view of the scenario I’m trying to describe.
What kind of people do we become two generations down the road if:
- we have no connection with the God-given resources around us,
- therefore don’t place much value on them (the 1985 Marty),
- others from richer places DO value them,
- and have maneuvered us to dress up every day to play a part in increasingly obscene simulations to earn a living?
What legacy are we leaving our children?Loekie Morales and company are on the campaign trail espousing the tip of the iceburg of this issue (The Today Newspaper, May 16th, pp 2). “HOPE” is perfectly right in pointing out that tourists are “searching in vain for authentic St. Maarten products,” but I wonder if they have a clue how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Fortunately, there’s a silver lining.
It’s no wonder the world has (thankfully) been experiencing serious pushback to unchecked consumerism. It’s taken form inside the anti-globalization movement, minimalism, and environmental conservation. We’re also witnessing more openness to Eastern and South-of-the equator philosophies and traditions, and what the church bemoans as secularism.
These movements are changing the landscape forever by sending an increasing flow of a different kind of visitor to Caribbean shores. The problem is that the new emerging tourist is looking for more authenticity. If St. Maarten and places like Castaway Cay continue down the same path, two things will happen.
First, revenues will decrease even if we see an upsurge of visitors. Tourists seeking the “fake-fake” simulation spend less money each year, while those interested in authentic experiences vested in the people’s cultures, are spending more.
Second, and more to the point, while immigrants continue to flock to our shores authenticity-seeking visitors will flock to Cuba. Fidel did a lot of weird shit, for not so weird reasons. I can’t say how much of it was by design, but they’re set up showcase just the kind of authentic experience the emerging tourist is hungry for. Let’s take a fast look.
I’ve been hearing it for years…from folks hailing from diverse parts of the Caribbean like Basil Furgusson, a Grace Kennedy executive in Jamaica, 1978; Louis Peters in 1990, previous Director of St. Maarten Chamber of Commerce, 1990 among others. “If Cuba ever opens up, we could be in big trouble.”
Well it’s taking place rather slowly, but ready or not, President Obama has turned that corner for us. It’s my opinion these guys might not even have realized how accurate they were.
I’m saying that because we’re only throwing words a it from afar. Our entire society should now be scrambling at breakneck speed to alter our course and fix our industry for good. Simply put, the competition from Cuba is destined to make or break us…and it won’t take long.
They say all in life is a cycle. If we’re not careful, in our own lifetimes we can witness an exodus of our citizens flocking to Cuba looking for work… or for any other place in the Caribbean that reacts to the Cuban reality fast enough. How about the Dominican Republic? Don’t laugh. It’s happened before.
While this is not a comprehensive list, and I can’t go into details here are some of the most compelling things Cuba has going for it–things the emerging modern tourist is looking for:
- Deeply entrenched cultural experiences. For example, the Son is not danced and performed only by a few professional folks who studied it. It’ still done by substantial numbers of common folks all over the country
- Rich, Eco-friendly and diverse. Some things in Cuba came from the same womb as strands we see all over the Caribbean
- Relatively highly educated society. This one was indeed intentional. Fidel’s model was designed for human development before all else. The mantra was that everything else will follow sooner or later. They got this one right.
- It’s just fricking different. Millennials in particular won’t settle for anything less, and they’re coming of age. It’s clear the island was marching to a different drummer. McDonaldization didn’t take a hold here. Even among the anti-revolutionaries, they kinda like it that way
- Cleanliness. You can’t find uncollected garbage, open sewers, or even scraps of debris on public roads. It’s a VERY clean place.
- Friendliness personified to disarming perfection. And it’s not a simulation of anything. There’s still an old-style charm that practically oozes from the skin of almost every Cuban you interact with.
- In a word…Renaissance. Plain and simple. It’s almost like the only thing they were missing was the end of the embargo. Once you invest heavily in human resources, you can withhold riches from the people, but they will recreate it in record time. Cream still rises to the top as soon as you stop shaking. I predict their fledgling infrastructure will be a thing of the past within a generation.
St. Maarten Prospects
Marty’s passenger skipped through the shallow water, tip-toed into the boat, and waited for push-off. Barney, his step-uncle had come to the rescue in so many ways. He was already sitting at the bow. The Barracuda displayed its fresh coats of red, orange and blue paint. There was an excited gleam in the American teenager’s eye as he looked around, taking it all in.
“I’m Marty. What do I call you?”
“I’m Jeff. So if we bring in any lobster, I can keep a few of the catch right?”
He had a firm handshake, unlike his boyish exuberance going on a lobster run Marty still wasn’t sure his new traps could produce. Still, he could hardly hide his own joy. Barney knew his way around even after hurricanes shifted things. He nodded slightly and Marty threw in the rope. The man in charge never needed to do much talking. Another unwritten code Marty realized he had always known without realizing. Funny how many things like that had shown up over the last six weeks. Things he’d always taken for granted.
Barney had even led the way making new traps. The old ones weren’t good for anything. Barracuda took serious work, but Barney had coached him through that as well. He and Marty had bonded for the first time. Strange. It seemed like he’d spent most of his life prepping to escape this life. It was time with Barney that made him question why.
Now, as he started the outboard, the answer dawned on him. Even Barney had come alive in those weeks. His generation had prepared their offspring for what they thought were bigger things. Marty had studied in the Pennsylvania, lived in Amsterdam,and worked for 8 years in Curacao before returning home to set up his accounting practice. He’d done well enough for himself to take care of his two daughters, built a home in Defiance, and had a successful marriage. Nothing to complain about really.
But he’d never felt as alive as he was feeling right this moment. Barney drew a deep breath out of the horizon he was staring at, and smiled to himself.
“So Jeff, I thought your father was coming when he came to see me Monday.” Marty said.
“Oh he always goes fishing with a guy from Sandy Ground.”
“You don’t like fishing huh? asked Marty.
“Sure. I love it. But we do that all the time in Michigan.”
Marty fell silent. An idea took root. Six weeks and no prepping. Everything just fell in place like it was the most natural thing in the world. If this was any indication of what was to come, He made up his mind to grow this into something. Business was second-nature by now.
But this part of it, the boat bouncing on the waves, salt spray and sunlight playing a medley on his face, felt like nature itself. All he had to do was to finally be himself. He patted the bulge in his side pocket. That padlock key had a better-than average chance to open many more doors than just the zinc door of his grandfather’s old shed.
NOTICE to all readers: To continue receiving articles delving deep into the issues of the life and times in St. Maarten, you need to subscribe and become a member. As of November 1st, 2016, only members will be able to access the site. Membership is free for a limited time, so sign up now.
St Martin Forum.. content for really smart islanders
Join the savvy SXM online community
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.