It’s understandable, of course, from people struggling through a grimy London winter, and I’m not criticising the people who say those things. I just wanted to point out that they have little relation to my experience of living here.
Yes, Barbados is a beautiful place. Yes, it really does have bright sunshine almost every day, temperatures that vary between 29 and 30ºC year-round, beaches of fine white sand, clear blue water that’s just deliciously warm to swim in, gentle trade winds that take the edge off the heat, some beautiful architecture, stunning tropical vegetation, and a more relaxed way of life than I’m used to from living in London and New York.
But life is not a tourist brochure. From day to day, I don’t sit on the beach with a cocktail in my hand and a contented smile on my face. I wait at bus stops, I queue in the Post Office for twenty minutes to buy a stamp, I do laundry, I go to the supermarket. I worry about money. I schlep all over Bridgetown with heavy shopping bags and dirt and exhaust fumes in my face. I feel anxious. I struggle with my writing. Some days it all feels so futile that I struggle to get out of bed.
There are also things I dislike about Barbados. Here are some of them:
- Dramatic beach erosion due to overbuilding on the coast
- Widespread homophobia (the old British anti-sodomy laws on which Oscar Wilde was convicted are still on the books here, and there was an outcry when the government tried to repeal them recently)
- The celebration of violence against children as a cultural norm
- People driving the privately-run public buses while drunk and/or high, speeding recklessly and playing misogynistic music at ridiculous volumes
- The fact that, when you say the above buses should be better regulated, people say nothing will be done because many of them are owned by police officers and government ministers
- The fact that, though this appears to be an open secret, you won’t see it in the newspapers or hear it on the government-owned TV station
- Disregard for environmental protection
- Inability to get any kind of business transaction done in less than two weeks – unless you have a friend in the right place, in which case it takes five minutes
My point is not to lambast Barbados. I could compile similar lists of things I dislike about London and New York, and if I lived anywhere for long enough I’m sure I’d find things to dislike there too. Overall I’ve really enjoyed the year I’ve spent here, and the good has far outweighed the bad. I’ve met some wonderful people, and had some great experiences – and going to the beach most evenings is an unbeatable way to finish off the day. My point is simply that this is not paradise. It’s a real place, with real issues, like any other.
But when I talk about the reality of Barbados, I get the feeling that it’s not really what people want to hear. The mental association of “Barbados = paradise” is so strong that what I say cannot affect it. People prefer me to talk like a tourist brochure, and to send them pictures of myself lounging in the shade of a palm tree on an impossibly beautiful beach, so that they can write back and tell me how jealous they are. If I say anything else, I sense a silent accusation: “You’re so miserable, you can’t even be happy in paradise?”
Even local people here in Barbados are heavily invested in the tourist-brochure image of the place. When they ask me if I like it, they don’t want a mixed answer. They want to hear me exclaim with delight at the beauty of the beaches and the brightness of the sun, and to say I don’t want to go back home. It’s not surprising, really – they are so dependent on the success of their tourism product that they’ve come to act out the role expected of them. I noticed the same thing when I lived in the USA too, and when I went back to the UK after living abroad: national self-image is constructed for particular reasons that have little to do with current reality, and can co-exist quite happily in people’s minds with directly contradictory evidence.
“Exotic” is an interesting term, too. When I first moved here, I was truly amazed by the exotic flowers and the elegant palm trees and the succulent tropical fruit. But to people here those things are not exotic at all, and the longer I live here the more normal they become. To a Barbadian, exotic fruits are not mangoes or soursop or papaw or hog plums, but grapes. The most exotic flowers are not heliconia or bird-of-paradise, but tulips. I’m not there yet, but I am so accustomed to the way things are here that they are becoming the new normal. Exoticism is a powerful drug whose effects wear off quickly.
There’s also a problem, of course, when you’re an outsider and you criticise a place. Everybody feels proud of their home, and nobody likes to hear an outsider complaining about it. The issue is complicated here by me being a white British man in a country with a horrific and relatively recent experience of being oppressed by white British men. So mostly I keep my thoughts to myself, both here and with my friends back home, and talk about beaches and palm trees.
But it’s weird to live in a place where the image is so fixed, and where it’s difficult to talk without either quoting from a tourist brochure or contradicting it. The paradise image is so pervasive that I’m sure this post won’t puncture it – nor would I want it to, because the image is what keeps the island’s economy from collapsing. But I just felt like telling the truth for a change.