Thursday, June 11, 2009

social inquisitions

Yesterday I suffered an episode of intensive social disorientation when Ian and I visited the market to pick up some food. I was blown away by the prices! $1.80 for an orange, $4 for a bag of onions, $8 for a box of cereal. My mind was then flooded with questions as soon as I asked myself: Can the natives afford these prices? Or do they pay cheaper prices at "local" markets? Then: How big really is the economic disparity between people that vacation here and those who we might loosely define as local (read, for my interest in this case: black) natives? If there are much fewer tourists than native Islanders, is there enough income generated by tourism jobs to sustain the living of all the natives, plus the non-natives that live here? When a house like the one we are vacationing in is on the market for $3.5 million, surrounded by dozens of houses like it in, how is this wealth distributed among the multi-generational residents of these islands, and its more transient labor and inhabitants?

For other places, namely Colombia and Morocco, I would have some answers to these questions. What makes this place unique for me is -

a) I know next to nothing about any inhabitants here, and
b) these are islands, very small, fixed geographical areas with limited resources and living spaces
c) these are U.S. "territories," implying a political relationship with the U.S. government that I know only vaguely.

Although I come with a lot of intellectual baggage, knowing almost nothing I would like to know about a place, like the who's and the how's and the why's, can actually be kind of fun. I was too lazy to research (it is a vacation, right?) before coming, but it has actually been convenient for my social inquisition. I've resolved to not look up anything on the internet til we get home, and now it's almost like detective work.

So last night I got a local newspaper, the St. John Tradewinds. There's a constitution of the USVI that's recently been passed, and no one seems to be happy about it, at least no one who wrote in the editorials. One reads: "The argument that only defined 'natives' of these islands will protect the integrity of government and the interests of average citizens is a grievous falshood." Another calls it a "discriminatory document." It's meant to go up shortly to Obama and Congress to be passed. I wondered what the so-called "natives" of the islands have to say, or if they are the same ones complaining....

When we went sailing with Captain Bob today, I asked him about this proposed constitution, and he said that the language is very questionable and controversial, with some elements of racism that gives the "locals" certain privileges, and disregards the variety of people (ex., 1st and 2nd generation whites and blacks, Puerto Rican labor, etc. etc.) that have a stake in the islands. I also learned that the black locals that one can loosely define as natives (I'll call them multi-generational inhabitants) are referred to as "West Indians," and that the language they speak is a variant of English, but can readily sound incomprehendable to us Continentals.

I have yet to talk to a "West Indian," as much as I would like to, about island life beyond the Bahama Breeze version. Chances are that I won't, but I'll keep my eyes and ears sharp for more insights.