Whenever I tell someone that I do coral reef monitoring work in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), the first response is usually something like, “Oh, do you need an assistant?! I’d love to come with you!” or “It must be really hard work! ha ha ha.” as if they can’t believe we actually do anything there other than lay around on the beach. I don’t really blame people for having this reaction, but it is starting to annoy me more and more. You see the Caribbean is so much more than just a playground for Americans or Europeans or other visitors. Real people actually live there full time, some for many generations, some for just a few years. And for them, it is not a vacation. For many people, especially the Haitian refugees and their families, and the Turks Islanders (the “Belongers”)- life can be pretty harsh there. For, ex-patriots from many, many countries, it is their home- with its ups and downs, but it is not a fantasy land.
All of the people that I know that live on Providenciales (the most populated island in TCI) work extremely hard, primarily in the tourism industry. Not surprisingly, tourism is the main source of revenue for TCI (as it is in the rest of the Caribbean, Bahamas and many other places), so packaging these islands as ‘Paradise’ and ‘Beautiful by Nature’ is critical to their success at attracting visitors. I get that, I really do. I enjoy the beautiful water, the sunsets, the warmth, the beaches and an occasional pina colada for sure. And I understand this need to keep up the reputation as a place to go for fun. But there is a lot of illusion built into this concept of paradise in the Caribbean in general. People work really hard so that you are whisked off in an air-conditioned vehicle from the airport, and quickly down the high way past the streets that turn off towards Blue Hills and other places that are residences for many local people. They work hard so that you are deposited into your hotel or all-inclusive on the beach and don’t experience much of the rest of the island. They work hard to carefully sweep the beaches every day and remove the natural debris that washes up from the ocean so that you think this pristine white sand is what beaches naturally look like. They work hard to make sure you have a good time parasailing, or snorkeling, or diving, or horse-back riding on the beach and so on. They work hard to make wonderful dishes at restaurants with local seafood. They work hard to make you believe that you are in paradise.
What you may not see are all of the impacts that this has on the environment- on the fragile coral reefs, on the freshwater supply, on other habitats like the mangroves and seagrass beds. And what you may not also see is that many people are trapped in low-wage service jobs for their whole lives. It isn’t paradise for them. The tropical air, warm temperatures and mostly clear blue water do not actually translate to paradise for most people that live there.
When we go there to monitor the reefs, or work with local TCI students, or teach a Keene State College class there, we are not on vacation. It is wonderful, rewarding work. I love the water, I am thrilled and inspired every time I dive and encounter the rich marine life. I am truly happy to spend 10-12 hours/day schlepping heavy equipment long distances in the blistering heat, preparing food for students, shopping for supplies and groceries, driving students around from one end of the island to the other and back again, addressing medical needs, rinsing salt water off of dive gear, logging data, teaching students to snorkel, meeting with government officials, going back again and again to the government official offices because they weren’t there the first time, begging for money from fundraisers, eating peanut butter for lunch every day because food costs are high. I really am truly happy to do all this, I chose this work and I love it. But I am not on vacation.