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Escaping the Atlantis Resort: Taking the bus to understand the HIV context of the Bahamas

I had the good fortune to be a respondent for the opening plenary at the Caribbean HIV Prevention Conference at the Atlantis Resort and Casino in the Bahamas, a choice of location that seemed rather odd and extravagant given the seriousness of the event, particularly its goal of highlighting the Caribbean’s epidemically high, but oft forgotten HIV rates.  I associate the Atlantis Resort with hedonism, escapism, over-priced fruity cocktails, and screaming children.  Sort of like a cruise ship that doesn’t move.  And what a strange trip it was.

I was an invited speaker at a professional conference, so I didn’t go with any family or colleagues from work, but Atlantis is a big resort, so the entire conference happened in a somewhat surreal atmosphere co-mingling partying tourists, vacationing families looking for entertainment and fun, and HIV advocates, researchers and community members.  Very weird.
I appreciated the opportunity to learn about the strategies and tactics used by grassroots organizations unlike the HIV/AIDS “community” organization machines that we have created in the United States. Apparently, in places like Jamaica and Trinidad HIV stigma is very high and HIV knowledge is still somewhat low. To address those challenges while trying to raise HIV awareness they employ what we call “guerilla marketing”.  For instance, a community provider described how staff will take on roles and characteristics in a public space such as McDonalds.  They then start to have a conversation about how one was “outed” as being HIV positive in the workplace. They are having this conversation pretty loudly and it gets “heated” to the point that a fellow customer (who is actually a staff person) intervenes to give their opinion and that causes a ripple effect. In short, this piece of street theater spontaneously fosters a community dialogue.  They stay in character as long as possible, only at the end disclosing who they really are. This type of play is acted out in numerous venues with the goal of embedding HIV prevention and destigmatization messages throughout the community space. What I loved is the innovation and ability to do a lot of inventive things with few resources. Of course, such a program may be hard to evaluate and perhaps implement in the U.S., but perhaps funders should pay heed.

I loved being a respondent in the opening plenary and participating on a panel of distinguished academics.  As on other panels, I am often the sole female and sole Latina. Sometimes I admit I do feel like a token, but it’s what we make of the situation that helps us rise above the labels and boxes others set us in.  In my remarks I noted that while we have made major biomedical advances we are still a ways from community readiness. Not too sure the panelists were ready to hear that, but the audience seemed ready to take up that cause.
Lastly, I was amazed at how many of the resort guests (conference attendees and others alike) refused to venture out of the resort–where apparently some tourists spend entire 7 day vacations, never visiting anywhere else on the island. Even though there was an extensive beach and grand waters to play in, I felt suffocated and constrained by the resort and conference walls. So I found me a partner in crime and we sauntered off the grounds into the actual town. Mind you, as we walked under the blazing sun and deserted streets we wondered if we were in our right minds or if the rum and tropical sunshine weren’t giving us heat stroke. But we ventured forth. We came across the touristy downtown section that’s frequented by those coming off the cruise ships. There was something even less real than other cruise-ship ports I’ve been to, such as San Juan, Puerto Vallarta, St. Croix, or Piraeus, Greece. There was a distinct disconnect between the merchants and tourists. At one point I was even shoved aside in a non-crowded venue. There was an underlying anger, a sense of barely contained seething hatred for non-islanders.  I wondered if the HIV ads that were so openly placed had anything to do with it or symbolized rather a larger issue. Did they feel used and quickly cast aside? Was this a vestigial resentment of colonialism?  People may duck into town for a few hours and purchase numerous goods on the cheap without lending much to the actual growth of the economy, and as I had witnessed most resort guests don’t venture out, barely getting to know the real Bahamas.
Not discouraged by that environment, we went on to take a $3 local bus that gave us a three hour “tour” of the non-touristy parts of the town. What’s funny is that there is the number 10 “local” bus that tends to take the cruiseship folk around a certain route that’s been pretty cleaned up. On our “true” local bus experience we got to meet local folk and see unsanitized, local life. I saw men getting on and off at random places to buy fish sold at the side of the road. I saw houses evenly interspersed with different types of churches, from grand stone buildings to tents. I wondered how faith networks are involved in HIV prevention. Local Talk Radio was blaring on the bus and there was a heated debate over how tourism impacts the Bahamas versus Jamaica. I saw beauty shops housed within private homes, where I imagined HIV discussions could possibly occur. Community based organizations were not readily visible to me, making me wonder how those types of organizations survive, let alone thrive. No wonder guerilla marketing tactics take hold. I could see that tactic working throughout our bus route. We were even tempted to try it out ourselves there, but managed to harness our scientific impulses. We saw no chickens on the bus. That’s a different type of trip. But we did manage to slip past the veil of immediate anger and remoteness into an enhanced understanding of the beauty and challenges in the Bahamas.

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