The Caribbean is not what you see in the travel brochures. It is a beautiful and wonderful place, but it’s not all powdery beaches and ocean sunsets. Behind the thin veil of the tourist industry lies the true Caribbean, a place not so clean nor as romantic as the travel magazines would have you think. If you want to know the true Caribbean – the good and the bad – you have to depart from the media hype. As you may discover, however, looking behind the facade is more than worth it.
White Sand Beaches vs. Broken Beer Bottles
Resorts and hotels pay a lot of money to keep up their grounds to the standards of the tourism industry. The sand appears clean and raked, as it is in all the photos you see. But if you leave the clean-swept beaches of the hotels and bars, if you hike along the shores until you find hidden and lonely stretches of sand, you’ll see a different side to the islands. On many, an absence of upkeep means a presence of trash. The currents catch much of the trash that is pitched into the ocean and deposit it on the beach. Along with the trash from the sea and from careless visitors, you’ll find natural litter: seaweed, animals, and rancid sargassum at certain times of the year. It’s not the tropical paradise you were expecting, but there’s something delightfully wild about these forgotten seaside alleys.
Traditional Culture vs. Struggling Transition
Like anywhere in the world, tourists search for culture and find a shallow representation that seems to satisfy their expectations. The Caribbean is no different. You will find open air markets selling trinkets, fruits, and clothing. They are fun to shop, but sometimes they are not markets, but creatively presented retail shops. Any market in a tourist zone is unlikely to be real. If you’re looking for authenticity, you will have to go where the tourists don’t and find where the locals transact. Better food, better prices—no cheap imported souvenirs. Sadly, the market is dying on many islands. Grocery stores are simply more convenient. As the Caribbean races to catch up with North America and Europe, the older generation is forgotten, along with their memories, and the younger generation is caught between two worlds: the fading memory of the old ways and the pressures of life in the social media age. Young people long for the things that first-world kids take for granted: movie theaters, malls, fast internet. Now, more than ever, sites like Facebook and Instagram remind them of what they don’t have.
Friendly Warm People vs. Jaded Service Industry Employees
The Caribbean has a reputation for being warm, friendly, and welcoming. Many tourism industry workers do a very good job of living up to this reputation-despite the demanding jobs they endure. However, ask any Caribbean local who has regular contact with American’s, and they will tell you that they do not have a lot of respect for them. They see tourists at their worst: getting drunk, being lazy and demanding to be catered to. While there’s nothing wrong with relaxing on vacation, the rude and inappropriate behavior of many tourists gives the West an unfortunate reputation. Its little wonder that this, combined with different cultural expectations of respect and communication, has caused many tourism industry workers to be closed and jaded. Caribbean locals as a culture tend to reveal their emotions more than Americans do, and this visible frustration manifests itself as rudeness and poor service, in the eyes of many tourists.
A Paradise in Limbo
The Caribbean is often described as Paradise. And why not? Coconut palms in the sand, sailboats on the water, fresh mango juice on demand. Who wouldn’t want to live here? The rich and famous all have at least one island! Yet the everyday people who inhabit the Caribbean do not feel like they live in Heaven on earth. Of course, this depends on the person and the island. In general, however, young people dream of leaving. Where do they want to go? The United States or Canada, where all the opportunities are. There is a lot of fun stuff for tourists to do in the Caribbean, but not always a whole lot of for locals to do. The Caribbean paradise is typically the crust of the island: a half-mile border that includes cruise ship terminals, shopping, beaches, and expensive seafood. The rest of the island is taken up by an interior that does not offer a whole lot of opportunity for education or fun. Unlike small North American towns in the same situation, there is no way to drive to the city. Your best bet for comparable entertainment is a rare trip to one of the larger islands, which is pretty pricey. Caribbean people do not play steel drums on the beach and sip coconut milk all day. They work hard for low wages, create entertainment out of whatever is available, and try to make the best of a life juxtaposed against those portrayed by the flashy Westerners.
Vacationville vs. Real Life
One of the biggest false assumptions about the Caribbean is that it is all about the tourism. Actually, tourism in the Caribbean is simply an industry that allows the islands to survive financially. In the winding, hilly roads and on the breezy front porches, there is life beyond the beach. While you’re dining on oysters, falsely convinced of your authentic Caribbean experience, there are people chowing down on jerk chicken and living the colorful lives, much as they have for generations. Each island in the Caribbean has its own flavor, something that has survived the tourism and Westernization of the islands. At night, the streets are filled with the music of DJs and traditional musicians, the scent of barbeque and the rhythm of dance. There is community and laughter and the accents of Caribbean voices spoken in a dozen different languages. This is something that tourists can get a glimpse of now and then, but you can never be a part of it until you learn to get past the neon hype and see the islands for what they are. To experience the real Caribbean, you must find your way into the hearts of the islanders. And when you do, you just may discover that this authentic, crazy, melting-pot messy Caribbean world is far more wonderful than the hyped-up tourism could ever be.