From mergers to mystery

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To listen to the song mentioned in this post, “Medianoche” by Priya Parrotta, please visit here

A few tourists have returned to Condado, and with them, a reminder of the selling of paradise. I returned from the ocean this morning to find a man talking on the phone outside the newly-opened Starbucks. In the loud voice that I’ve come to associate with conventional tourism, he announced that he had a meeting later that day. This made me wonder — why is here, for a meeting which very clearly has little relevance to this place?

Then it occurred to me — maybe it doesn’t have relevance, but maybe it does. Maybe this man is here for the sort of business trip which, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was all too common. This kind of business trip takes place here largely because of the picturesque setting– the turquoise waters and swaying palm trees that signify home for “locals” …. but also because such meetings often  involve some sort of deal, some merger or some acquisition, which has deleterious implications for environmental sustainability.

The places we call paradise– places in the tropics with exquisite nature and artistic vibrancy– are more vulnerable to these sorts of exchanges than I can bear. In a neoliberal world, paradise is seen as a place to use and exploit without regard for the consequences. In its diverse manifestations across the tropical world, it is a place to enjoy in a “guilt-free” way. For conventional tourists and business-people like the man I overheard, paradise allows for recreation and gain that do a disservice and a disrespect to the people and not-people here (plants and animals on land and underwater).

After several months of respite from tourism, when my frustration at environmental dynamics in Borikén became restricted only to locals, this situation hurts. Why is it coming back? Why was it ever here in the first place?

There is an upsetting story here. In this story, the ocean serves as a backdrop, or a playground, or some disconcerting combination of the two.

A song on the new Climate Soul EP, “Medianoche,” came out of a very different relationship to the sea than the one I just described. Set at night, it celebrates the mystery and abiding magic of the ocean. Being by the ocean allows the singer to dream. This, for me, is such a big part of what being on a tropical beach is. The ocean, after all, is a world largely unknown to us. It is the dwelling place of so many forms of life, who live independently of us but are also affected by our actions. The ocean is a place where we can very easily be reminded of how tiny we are, how insignificant and yet how tied into the webs of responsibility and light that keep this planet going.

What does the paradigm of conventional tourism– or rather, neoliberal tourism– tell us about what the sea is for? The answer– something very different, and very disconcerting. The values and practices of neoliberalism that manifest itself in the kind of tourism I see in Condado resonate and replicate among local society, and perhaps vice versa. But regardless, it is a story about the selling of paradise, utterly removed from the mystery of the sea, and ultimately weak for this very reason.

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