The Caribbean is sold as a promise—of unparalleled beauty, of escape from responsibility, of impenetrable paradise. Largely untouched by hurricanes Irma and Maria, which displaced millions and killed thousands of people on sister islands, Barbados remains a carefully kept tourist’s dream. Wedged between the placid Caribbean Sea on the west coast and the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean on the east, the pace of life here is slow, but the seduction is fast-acting. Barely 10 minutes into my trip, I lie back in my hotel chaise and snap a photo of pale blue waves lapping up against uninterrupted stretches of smooth sand. Not even a footprint would dare spoil the curated perfection that lies in front of me.
Economic stability in this part of the world depends on tourism and the successful sale of this image. A former British colony and center of the slave trade, Barbados is portrayed to outsiders less like a living, breathing island than a singular lounge chair to be sat upon. Out from beneath the shade of the beach umbrellas, however, there are artists, thinkers, farmers, chefs, and service workers who have a different view of their island home, a place they know to be diverse, vibrant, conflicted, and very much alive. While tourists may flock for the sole purpose of napping in the sun, the local person’s Caribbean is a conscious one—alert, aware, and thoughtful.
On my trip, I receive a different kind of island tour by way of my driver, Emerson. In between stories about his stepchildren and his four Chihuahuas, he apologizes profusely for the mounds of Sargasso seaweed that blanket the beaches of the jagged, windswept east coast—seaweed that has drifted south due to changing ocean climates. In his voice I sense worry about the eroding façade of his not-so-perfect island. I tell him I think it’s beautiful no matter what, and I mean it.