Saturday, December 08, 2007

Down and Out at a Westin Beach

Is blogging well the best revenge? I’m wondering if my thoughts are pure enough to write this article as I lie by the pool at the Sunshine Suites Resort in Grand Cayman, having just come back from a supposedly public beach. Come back being a euphemism for being run off, asked to leave if you rather.

There I was, or rather here I am, at a wonderful hotel that promised unrestricted access to the beach, and after 3 months of Minneapolis’ 10,000 lakes I could do with a real sea. So with beach chair and stolen towel in hand I made for the sand. It’s tempting to think of all beaches, especially in the Caribbean as the same but they’re really quite different. A Jamaican beach spits out from the mountain, as if a reward for a mad dash or a tumble from a high peak. A Cayman beach—because the land is so flat— is downright indivisible from the land. A walk from land to sea is so effortless that you only notice that you’ve gone from dry to wet as an afterthought. Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice where I was.

Under a tree, I took off my shirt, sunk into warm white sand and granted myself one cliché (this is the life—groan, I know). With my glasses off, everything became a haze, so I thought nothing of the black and white blur coming towards me. By the time I got my glasses on, the security guard was hovering overhead. I thought finally, somebody is impressed that I'm reading Borges! but instead he apologized for bothering me (Caymanians are nothing if not unfailingly polite) and then asked if I knew that this was private property. Not only that, but that anyone who wasn’t a guest of the Westin Resort was only allowed within 10 feet of the water. Like any animal stunned I was immobile and for a long time, speechless.

But that doesn’t make any sense, I said. I’m a guest of Sunshine Suites, not a local. Anybody who lives in the Caribbean knows of Tourism’s tricky racial dynamics. If a black woman is at a tourist resort she’s either the chambermaid or she works in the office. If a black man is at a resort, he’s either cleaning something, hustling something or banging a late 50’s white woman for cash. This was extremely awkward for both of us and we knew it. He apologized again and said how much he hated this part of his job. It was one of those scenarios both in and out of body at once. We both knew that were seeing ourselves and how others were seeing us at the same time. A black man lying down on a beach. Less than 10 minutes later, another black man, in uniform, approaches. He says some words to the lying black man who then gets up, folds his chair and leaves, to go to the ‘public’ section of the beach. We know what we looked like, even as I explained to him that going down to the beach made no sense since a suntan was rather redundant on a black man. He laughed, I think because he didn’t want what might had been his umpteenth scene from a black person screaming racism. I've seen it countless times, but never ever thought I would find myself being either of those men.

But I had to ask myself? Did he make sure that all the white people here were from the Westin and not some other hotel? Does whiteness immediately grant one the privilege of going wherever he pleases?—a rhetorical question, I know. Or could it be that in a tourist location white skin immediately legitimizes one presence? That’s the case in Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua, so why should it be any different in the Cayman Islands, a country for the most part given over to tourism and banking? There was just no way to play this situation correctly and we both knew it. Even playing for time was painful, since we both knew how this was going to end and I was getting angry. I have nothing against tourism or private property but as a citizen of the Caribbean I sometimes like to assume that I have some natural right to its mountains and beaches and yes, it stings, it downright offends when foreigners, interlopers tell me where I can and cannot go in my own territory. It reminded me of the Godfather's Nightclub in Kingston that used to turn away Jamaicans for flouting the dress code but allowed white tourists who did the same thing. Then I ran into my friend Lisa who reminded me that as a light skinned person she never has any incidents like this. But I've had quite a few. I remember after a business meeting at The Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, a waiter came up to us and said that he noticed our habit of congregating at this hotel and that we need to cease doing so. Immediately. People can say that this isn’t about race all they want, but they’re not on the black end of the stick.

So instead of walking down to the free, meaning local end of the beach where I can presumably disappear in the vagueness of black skin, I went back to my hotel’s poolside where I’m writing this blog. Who knows, maybe the waiters think I’m here for a 1:00 sex appointment with some 54 year old woman who saved all year and wants to ball a blackie. Or maybe that’s just Negril. Lord knows that when I’m at a Jamaican hotel and get ribald thumbs up from all the locals who work there, it’s not because they heard about the rave review in the New York Times.

I thought of going back to the beach the next day with a tape measure to make sure I’m within my ten feet. Best to prevent any incident, International or otherwise. Make no mistake— I don't confuse Cayman with the Westin and the reader shouldn't either. I had a fantastic time : the people were wonderful, I made great new friends, the food is some of the best I've had in the Caribbean and Books and Books is easily the finest Caribbean bookstore I've ever been too. Besides, it turns out that the manager, Sally Machado and I are old friends going back from 1988 ! I don't define my time there by this barely 10 minute episode, but given all that we've have been through in the Caribbean, and all that we may still go through, I can't ignore it either.

ED: The heading said Caymanian before, but I've realised that I would never have like d someone to put "Jamaican" after an experience of one beach. Hey, I'm learning here.