Can’t Get the Caribbean Off My Mind

I missed the first 1/2 of September when my birthday vacation to St. Martin (French side) turned into surviving Hurricane Irma. I arrived on the island on September 1st, and was having a glorious time — ziplining, parasailing, swimming, drinking, eating good food and enjoying the beauty of the people and the place. My boyfriend is West Indian, so I spend a lot of time in the region. Bequia, the largest of the Grenadines in his country, is my favorite place in the world. Every day since I got out, I wake up and fall asleep thinking about the devastation across the region.

Mostly, I think about how different the stories on the news are compared to what’s actually happening. It’s much bleaker and way more tragic than the news coverage, but I guess you have to witness it firsthand to truly understand. I saw people turn to stealing and looting, not necessarily because they were bad people, but because the situation was just that hopeless. It triggers something in your mind, and can break you. Some stole food and basic necessities, others stole more useless things, like electronics. Rather than condemning them for it, it made me think.

For the poorest citizens who were struggling before the storm, imagine what it must feel like to have had so little, be struggling to survive, and then lose what little you had. The wealthiest always have a greater capacity to rebuild their lives, including having better housing to weather storms, the ability to charter planes out, relocate, etc.

When the police and army came to help, the primary goal for evacuation was tourists. Imagine how that must feel to people who make their home there. I only spent six days in those conditions and then I left. For the residents, particularly the poorer ones, they are home and there is no ability to evacuate, even temporarily. There is also no immediate restoration of modern comforts occurring. It will be a long time before anyone there lives normally again.

Being in that situation changes you. My mind is consumed with thoughts of all the people who didn’t make it out, who lost everything, who have to start over and have no means to do so. And, taking things to make that easier suddenly becomes a lot more understandable. We cannot continue to have such disparity in this world and refuse to address it because we are ok. Globalism is important because we all share the same planet. Even if you have never left America, you impact the lives of people all over the world.

Every single morning when I wake up, I think of a local woman in St. Martin that I saw while in the van to the airport. Prior to the storm, my boyfriend and I went to her family’s house so he could have his hair braided. Because he’s West Indian, he prefers to take local transport to really experience the entire island wherever we visit. We don’t ever bother to rent a car. When he was done, one of the woman at the house offered us a ride home. She had her sons — two very cute, sweet little boys with her. My boyfriend bought the boys food on the way home as a thank you, and we listened to the older son rap, helped them play games on my phone, and just laughed at their banter. Her younger son even brought up the storm because we stopped to talk to his dad on the way. He wanted his father to come with us, but he was too busy boarding up the windows at their home and preparing.

That was Monday. All the flights off the island were stopped mid-day Sunday, and there was nothing to do but hunker down. We went to a shelter on Tuesday, and were in survival mode from the time the storm hit until we made it to Guadeloupe on Sunday. It was difficult — no running water, power, access to bank accounts (we had some cash), and limited access to food or water. But, we knew that because we were foreign tourists, not only would someone eventually look for us, but that the situation was temporary.

When they finally came for us, we felt relieved. But, we also felt bad for everyone left behind. That feeling really hit home as we were given water by the French government on the drive to the airport. As we drove slowly through the crowded street, I saw that sweet woman again, and banged on the window to get her attention. When we locked eyes and she saw me, she ran to the van, banging back on the window and screaming for water. I have seen a lot of things in my life, but I have never, ever seen anything like the panic that I saw on her face. It actually made me scared — not of her, but for what she must have been going through.

My boyfriend tried to pass the bottle of water they gave us out the window, but because of the crowds and situation, the van would not stop. What little water that finally made it to St. Martin that Sunday was being thrown at people from moving vehicles. Not from a place of cruelty, but because that situation was volatile — thirsty and starving people, and not nearly enough for all. The surge of the crowd towards the water wasn’t even something they could control. It was innate and primal — it was survival.

5 and 10 — that’s how old her boys were. And, every day when I wake up, I think of her face and those little boys, and I wonder if they are okay. I have cried about it every single day since I got home. I pray to God, I write to drive awareness, but that is not enough. So, I went in search of a charity to support and settled on Oxfam, which is focused on the Caribbean relief effort. Lest we forget that Puerto Rico is struggling as well, I also found a charity that specifically focused on the Puerto Rican recovery efforts.

For those of you who have spent good times in the Caribbean, have familial connections to the region, or are just a citizen of the world, please consider donating. We live on this planet together. I would like to help speed up the recovery, and I dream of going back to St. Martin and finding her and those sweet little boys.

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