Trouble in paradise, beyond the beach

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By: Mallory St. Claire <mstclaire@hilite.org>

Sometime in my hectic summer flurry, I was carted off by the family to a weeklong vacation in the Virgin Islands. More specifically, we beached ourselves on the island of St. Croix.

I can’t complain. I was out on the beach everyday sipping virgin piña coladas and staring out at a flawless turquoise ocean. I had lunch in my swimsuit, wore breezy sundresses all day, got massages, snorkeled off the beach hunting for barracudas and the temperature never slipped below 80.

However, the one thing I looked for from the moment we stepped off our plane, was life outside of the trussed up resort. Anyone who has been to the Caribbean as a tourist can attest to this – the living conditions of the island’s citizens are, plainly, crap.

I’ve never felt so fortunate and so guilty in my life when we drove through St. Croix’s capital, Christianstead. The old British buildings and forts are still there as tourist locations, but all the windows and doors had bars on them. Outside of the main street, almost every building I passed was crumbling, yards were filled with trash and many of the fences had razor wire coming across the top. The road to our resort was past an elementary school that was fully enclosed with chain-link fences, sported peeling paint, and had no air conditioning.

St. Croix is a territory of the United States. Like Puerto Rico and Guam, St. Croix isn’t a state, doesn’t vote, and doesn’t pay taxes, but it is technically United States soil. For someone whose never set foot outside of her country, I definitely felt like I was in a third-world nation rather than a dependency of America.

I couldn’t help but wonder what two cents the government is throwing into this mess. Granted, with the war in Iraq and elections coming up, a surviving dependency is hardly on anyone’s mind. Most people don’t know where St. Croix is. I know I didn’t.

But, gradually, I found something interesting on the island – oil. The northern tip of the island is covered with oilrigs sucking the black gold out day and night. Aren’t countries with oil resources supposed to be ostentatiously rich, Saudi Arabia?

However, oil isn’t a conclusion to leap to, with gas being half as expensive as it is here. The tourism business, on the other hand – where most resorts are owned by white families and corporations – don’t seem to be giving much back to the community, yet are capable of providing luxurious expenditures to the visitors. My resort, for example, was owned by a wealthy European family for eight generations and was formerly a slave sugar plantation. As countries like Monaco can pertain to, tourism isn’t a half-bad way to rake in the ol’ moola.

Traces of our government could be seen here and there amid the pathetic infrastructure. I passed a government decree, by the odd random department, declaring territory here and there. The American flag flew almost haughtily over buildings. Randomly on the road, I saw a few “Freedom for St. Croix” bumper stickers, and I wondered if anyone on the mainland would even care if America let the island slip through its fingers.

Until my trip this summer, I could never fully grasp the amount of influence America has over other countries. St. Croix is an almost perpetual example to the great responsibility our country has. With a few twists of the wrist, we may have created ourselves an island playground at the expense of its citizens. Sadly, it’s not a conscious realization to the degree our country does this. It is almost a second hand haze, and it wouldn’t be overkill to say we don’t know our own strength.

Youngsters, such as I, don’t know this either. My brother, who’s younger than me and mightily more culturally aware, was also surprised. It doesn’t seem like the vast tangle of international relations is going to be resolved by simply sitting down and not thinking we have an affect on anything. For America to begin solving its problems abroad, it seems that we should start at home, in our personal awareness.

On one of our last nights in Christianstead, we were talking with our cab driver. He brought up the topic of how American tourists are calling their children “kids” and how citizens of St. Croix are now starting to do so too. It was a small comment on variation in language. We all agreed it was a subconscious alteration, and he felt that it was demeaning. But because the American tourists were using that word, citizens of St. Croix had now started using “kid.”

“America leads, and the world follows,” the cab driver said.

Yes indeed, but lead carefully.

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