Margaritaville is the name of the restaurant I found myself sitting in while waiting for my best friend’s plane to land in Puerto Rico an hour after mine last month. What was on the menu? Coconut shrimp and other Tex Mex offerings like nachos and quesadillas. There wasn’t a rice, bean, or tostone to be found, and though I expected as much in an airport, that welcome into the US commonwealth was a strong foreshadowing of how the rest of our Americanized trip would go. In fact, by the time we got to our hotel on top of a CVS and I hadn’t even muttered as much as an “hola,” I was done.
Unfortunately, my experience in PR wasn’t unlike many others throughout the Caribbean and even Central America where the hunger to please American and European tourists leaves many like myself hungry for more of the culture which I traveled X amount of miles to experience. During a 5-hour layover in El Salvador this past May, I was appalled to find hamburgers, pizza, and a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu of an airport restaurant. In Costa Rica, our shuttle driver turned off cumbia and blasted Chris Brown instead during our day trip to Puerto Viejo, and when I asked waiters at resorts in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica why there was a themed restaurant for every culture but their own on the premises, i.e. why I couldn’t find a plate of rice and beans or jerk chicken to save my life, I was told, “they don’t want that type of stuff?” Who is they? Oh, the people who get their passports stamped to travel somewhere exotic to lay around pools and eat the same food they consume at home. Wouldn’t Florida be cheaper?
That’s exactly where I feel like I am during most visits to the Caribbean. Of course, I venture off resorts — or don’t stay at them at all anymore — to truly experience the culture of the place where I chose to travel. But it pains me to see locals living in places that have already been colonized by Europeans once still having to assimilate to those ideals for their livelihood because of the catch 22 that is tourism in many of these poor islands. Since watching Anthony Bourdain’s episode of Parts Unknown when he traveled to Jamaica, I haven’t been able to get the sad reality that locals in Montego Bay have been relegated to using one beach on the island, as businessman have bought up all the others and turned them into resort land. Bourdain asked: “Who gets to own paradise? Use paradise? Or even visit it?” The unfortunate truth is foreigners get to own it, use it, and transform it to their liking for their temporary stays, and then return to their home countries, leaving locals to live with the distorted remnants because they have no choice. They rely on western tourism to live.
And that’s why Caribbeans have to serve watered down versions of themselves at every turn, rather than celebrate what makes their country unique and encourage others to embrace the culture of the land they chose to set their feet upon. Too many westerners aren’t interested in experiencing a new culture when they travel, they’re more concerned with adapting a new place to fit their needs, and the financial predicament of these islands has put them in a position in which they are eagerly ready to oblige. It’s not their fault they have to make hamburger patties over beef patties or french fries over fried plantain. I just wish more western travelers would ask themselves why that’s so. You shouldn’t have to seek out an authentic experience when you visit the Caribbean, it should already been waiting for tourists to experience with open arms.