I’ve been rediscovering our beaches of late – in part because of a turn in my life that has made me want to re-discover the simple pleasures, the things that bring me joy. I am reminded of how lying on my back on the water covered by the sky can also bring me peace while quieting my mind and bringing some healing to my body.
I lived on another Caribbean island for a time. It, too, had beautiful beaches. But I was surprised to discover in my time there that the concept of all beaches being public was not a Caribbean wide right. I was happy, at this discovery, that I came from a place where I had never had to question that. Even if I would never get around to getting to all 365 beaches, I could get to them if I could; such was my right…as I understood it.
I am reminded that the erosion of rights doesn’t happen in grand sweeps. That’s why freedom and Independence demand that we keep our eyes open if we want either to be more than ceremony. It’s a subtle thing. It doesn’t begin with physical fences either (though I was there, reporting, in the late 90s when such a barrier stretching out in to the sea was torn down by locals). It begins with the seed of an idea that in the name of jobs, you must sacrifice this; that nobody came all this way to be subjected to your presence on their beach. The invisible “don’t disturb the tourist” sign. On the surface of it, concepts like “tourism is everybody’s business” are good ideas; a reminder that the fate of our main industry is our collective responsibility. But when creating a welcoming environment for our visitors morphs to privileging our visitor, over ourselves, the erosion of this common understanding, this perceived right, this shared knowledge that our beaches are ours to access and enjoy at our pleasure, no “please, may we”, accelerates.
And we begin to feel ourselves being corralled in-land (as one friend put it to me), directed to the muddy back entrance of our own paradise feeling like second class citizens (as one media personality was heard to complain). Within these expressed sentiments, there is a sense of elitism – whether of race or class (can be debated) – at play. A fence on this beach, a locked gate on this other beach, security guards that look like us shooing us like fowl from our own beaches. Well, how are we to feel about this?
Let me be clear. While this article and the debate it stirred makes this topical (here in Antigua and Barbuda), this isn’t a new concern of mine (just ask my friends), nor are my musings political (in intention or otherwise), and as someone who has worked in environmental education, I am keenly aware of and concerned about the beach litter problem (but barring us from our beaches is not the solution). This post is reflective of a soul-deep unsettledness at conversation about which line on which beach we are permitted to show ourselves. To my mind, and in my ancestors memory, for all they sacrificed so that we could have ownership of ourselves and this land we occupy, transforming it in the process from plantation into home, these beaches are our beaches (which visitors to our islands are welcomed to share in and enjoy). And our children must know what it is to walk them freely.
I feel like I’ve always known this, that whatever resort development projects may come and go, beach access for locals is a given; but, of course, I can only speak to my experience and my knowing. And maybe it was all a dream…?
I hope not because I would never want to give up this sense of one-ness my re-introduction to our beaches is allowing me.
p.s. FYI, while not set on a beach, the people’s relationship with their land being more than pocket-deep is a subject touched on in my novel Oh Gad!