gall and gumption

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Making Asses of Themselves Again

This bit of news, as you can see, reached all the way to San Francisco.

The truth is that gay cruises have been going to Nevis for some time -- they regularly showed up when I was living there last year, and a little buzz would go around the island. There would be men dancing with men at Sunshine's. So what is interesting to me is why all of a sudden they take this action now.

On beaches in Nevis and in St. Kitts one of the strange things is that a lot of local women will not wear less than shorts, a t-shirt and a shower cap to go in the water. None of them will go far out into the water either. On big public holidays when everyone goes to Friar's Bay in St. Kitts, all the local women are usually found sort of paddling and flopping about in the shallows, in their T-shirts and shorts and shower caps. Women who have lived overseas seem not to have this level of apprehension of exposing themselves.


Nevis also has at least one nude beach. I myself have swum nude at that one and at one of the unfrequented ones on the Windward side of the island, and at one other beach, Sand Dollar, just north of Four Seasons and near the village of Jessups where my other favorite horribly sordid rum shop was located. The one nude beach, Lover's Lane, is not far from the airport. It is unofficially nude you might say.

I note that Erasmus, the Prime Minister's press secretary, makes a point of saying that all are welcome. There is a law against nudity but it is not really enforced as no one tests it on the popular beaches where locals might comment. The Douglas government is pragmatic enough and mostly aware enough of international opinion on a point like this to want to let things be. I mean, they would go after a foreigner who was gay/swam nude and criticized the government publicly. If they thought they could quietly get away with it. Well, some of them would.

St. Kitts and Nevis, the Federation, is the most xenophobic place in the Caribbean. It is really shocking as it dawns on a fellow West Indian, especially to a Jamaican, as Jamaicans pride themselves on a tradition of expansive and recklessly generous hospitality. Certainly that was true in my family, where we would entertain visitors for months at a stretch. Like these two incredibly nice Americans my father met sailing. Nevis is actually culturally distinct from St. Kitts in some subtle ways and in one not-so-subtle way: they are ten times less hospitable then the Kittitians. Their attitude to foreigners takes a mad veer into paranoia, resentment, bigotry and unbelievable petty malice every couple months or so.

This sort of thing is what I was referring to in my last post when I alluded to the trials of Deborah LaLouche. In July 2003 a group of parents opened a Waldorf-type school in Nevis and hired a Waldorf-certified teacher to teach it. This group was a mix of expats and some of the more prosperous locals. The teacher, a man named Bob, came down to teach it and lasted there about three months before they ran him out of the place. (By the way, he was gay and this was not a problem for anybody). They ran him out because the school was doing well, the children were loving it, it was an apparent success. He had shipped down about US$40,000 worth of educational materials and quite simply, one or two parents who happened to be on the board saw all this wealth of prestige and importance, and they could not stand the idea that some gay white man from overseas should be in control of it in their little kingdom of Nevis. So they hounded and terrorized the man right out of the job. They were horrible to him. He was a nice man, and he really had made a beautiful little school. He left after three months, packed up all his supplies and his dogs and everything and just got the hell out of the place.

Or take last year when this poor old American woman died in her house. She lived up near the Hermitage. Her house had been pointed out to me as having been broken into at least once. Well last fall she was found dead in her kitchen from a blow to the head. The police did not to a very good job of communicating the fruits of their investigation to her family. They were in the States and all they knew was that their mother was mysteriously dead, apparently by violence, in Nevis. They wrote to the SKN mailiing list their complaint about the way the police had behaved to them and they asked for help in solving what they assumed was a crime. Because, as happens throughout the Caribbean, foreigners do occasionally get attacked in their homes. It happened to me. The people on the SKN mailing list threw a fit. Their island was being slandered by these Jews, etc. etc. It's all posted on the Yahoo St. Kitts Nevis mailing list. It would make your hair stand on end if you didn't understand that they are all pretty much a set of bootoo. It doesn't excuse them but you understand that they are backward people. Now they are attacking James Gaskell, an Englishman who has lived there for more than 40 years, helped more than any one person to bring Nevis as a tourism destination to the world's attention. Why? Because the government wants to put a road through his property and he objects. How dare he? Nothing is really considered to belong to a foreigner in Nevis. Not the fruits of their own work, no right. At any moment they will go off in one of these fits of xenophobia and you will hear all about how this person or that person stole something from the Nevisian people. Gaskell bought his land when Nevisians were practically walking away from it. In the 1950s and 1960s, nearly half the population of Nevis moved overseas, to England and Canada. All they asked from their land was the price of the ticket to get them there. Now you have these people down there claiming Gaskell stole their land from them by buying it at fire sale prices when they themselves were practically giving it away and haven't ever gone back there to live as it turns out.

Of course the really strange thing is that Nevis's economy depends absolutely on foreigners. It has two main sources of income: tourism and what remains of the offshore industry. So you would think that there would be some concern there to cultivate good will and to keep abreast of public opinion in two such capricious markets. But this is the level of pigheadedness you see.

Just as periodically they will suddenly decide that all the poor Guyanese that they have working there illegally at starvation wages are threatening their livelihoods. So they threaten to deport a few and these few go off to spend a few days or weeks in Antigua or St. Maarten and come back.

My father, who is well-traveled, lives in Indiana. He has lived in Saudi Arabia, traveled all over the world, had meals with Bedouins and driven across the Middle East and he has barely a good word to say for the culture of St. Kitts-Nevis. Because this is what this topic is about, it's not that there are no good people there, I knew many many wonderful people there who I still think of fondly and with admiration, people I am grateful to have known. But there is also culture, you know, social norms and manners and sort of traditional ways of doing things, things like a tradition of generous hospitality or what you do on New Year's Eve or what you do on Sunday (church or the beach?). And in Nevis those cultural norms and institutions are narrow-minded, and the hysterical, belligerent-short-man xenophobia is one of them. It has been the cause of unhappiness to many good people who have come among them wishing them nothing but good and exerting themeslves to give good things to Nevis.

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