There are dozens of things I love about doing a PhD – particularly since my topic is islands – specifically how artists on the islands of Newfoundland and Tasmania express their "islandness" through their art.
One of the perks is getting to travel to so many wonderful islands – mostly for meetings or conferences or to do my research, but sometimes for pleasure, too. Over the years I’ve noted that most of these islands have been cold-water islands: Iceland, the Faroes, and Åland; the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Herm; Bornholm in Denmark and Ven in Sweden; Kagoshima in Japan; and Tasmania and Bruny Island in Australia. And then there are those closer to my home island of Prince Edward Island: Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island – not to mention the island on which I spent many of growing-up years: Vancouver Island. But in recent years, I managed to find a few warm-water ones, such as Maui; Isla Mujeires and Isla Holbox, off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula; and Hamilton Island, in the Whitsunday Islands in North Queensland. The cold still outnumber the warm, but I keep dreaming. I think it's part of my conditioning that the warm-water islands seem so much more exotic than the cold, but are they really?
|Isla Holbox, Mexico|
|Isla Holbox, Mexico|
All these islands have their different and distinctive attractions – but there are a few things – beyond the obvious water that surrounds them – that bind them together. Sometimes it’s difficult or expensive transportation links, isolation, or the insular nature of the island. Other times it’s jobs (or lack thereof), environmental concerns, or migration (mostly “out-“ but sometimes “in-“). Indeed, I first noticed the excitement generated by discovering shared traits of islandness at my first island studies conference, “An Island Living,” which we organized at the Institute of Island Studies back in 1992. The 50-some delegates didn’t stop talking from the time we picked them up at the airport until the time we dropped them off. It’s still the same. Usually the conversation begins with comments about the weather, with the conclusion: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” And it goes from there.
Two weeks ago I was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, attending NorthAtlantic Forum 2011, a biennial conference that focuses on economic development and governance issues of North Atlantic islands. (And it rained most of the time, but at least it didn't snow!) Hosted by the North Atlantic Forum (which is based out of the Leslie Harris Centre for Regional Development at Memorial University of Newfoundland), the national Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF), Cruise Newfoundland and Labrador, and Memorial University, this year’s NAF had the added sponsorship of the Small Island Cultures Research Initiative (SICRI) – which looks at comparative island cultural studies. The theme of the conference was “Culture, Place and Identity at the Heart of Regional Development.”
Over a hundred delegates came from all over Newfoundland and Labrador, various regions of Canada, as well as Iceland, Denmark, and Tasmania. They included academics and business people, civil servants and rural development practitioners, and artists and musicians. At the heart of the discussion was how to keep our distinctive (mostly island) cultures dynamic in an increasingly globalized world, and how to share those cultures with tourists without ruining what made them special to begin with.
The keynote speaker who generated perhaps the most buzz was Zita Cobb, a native of Joe Batt's Arm on Fogo Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Zita did what many young Newfoundlanders do: she left for central Canada to get her education and find work, but ended up one of Canada's wealthiest women after leaving a top post at the fibre optic company JDS Uniphase.
A multimillionaire, she has now returned to her home to create Shorefast, a registered charity that encourages economic growth and revitalization in Fogo and Change Islands. Shorefast takes its name from the line and mooring used to attach a cod trap to the shore, and “is a strong symbol of the cod fishing heritage of the islands and a metaphor for being bound to place and community.” Zita believes in the power of authentic connections between individuals and their communities, culture, and physical place. She noted that many people suffer from a profound sense of disorientation, having lost meaningful connection to the natural world. Through “geotourism” – tourism that connects with the earth – and by supporting arts and culture by creating such offerings as international artistic residencies in purpose-built studios and an eco-friendly inn with art gallery, she hopes to create a place where, “if ever you feel lost in this world, you go there and you’re instantly found.” Zita Cobb’s efforts have not been without their detractors, but she is the first to admit that she’s continuing to learn about doing things at “the right scale, and the right speed.”
Midway through the conference, Godfrey Baldacchino, Canada Research Chair in Island Studies – and never one to mince words – did a reality check by talking about the pitfalls of place, culture, and identity, taking particular aim at the practice of “place-branding” by asking some searching questions.
Why, for example, are people leaving their place? Why are those most passionate about their place the CFAs or come-from-aways, or those who have left and returned? Why do we malign “the tourist gaze,” yet we construct cultural tourism products and package them for the tourist? Why, if we’re so concerned about the effects of global warming, do we want tourists to travel to us? Why do we encourage everyone to “buy local,” yet we export our goods and expect others to buy them? Why, when we are saddened by our own population decline, do we encourage newcomers, but we don’t question when they’ve left their loved ones behind? And where are the Aboriginal voices in all these discussions? Suddenly people started thinking about their presentations differently – and the final hours of the conference were dedicated to some solid brainstorming about how to be true to place, culture, and identity without sacrificing our integrity.
And, after listening to several presentations about strategies to attract refugees from the city – usually upper-income retirees – by citing quality of life, psychic renewal, and “belonging” in stunningly beautiful rural areas (e.g., Newfoundland’s Fogo Island), I ask: is there a danger that “place” will become the luxury domain of only the very rich?
Hard questions, yes, but ones that even now I ponder as, two weeks on, I find myself on what is almost an island – and a warm-water island at that: a little village called Puerto Morelos just south of Cancun on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I say “almost an island” because the town is bounded by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean to the east and a government-protected biosphere of mangrove swamps to the north, west, and south – only passable via a three-kilometre stretch of road from the village to the main highway that runs along the Yucatan’s east coast. And occasionally the road becomes impassable when the mangroves flood, making it a 100 per cent island.
We came for the first time last year and fell in love with the small-town feel of a working port that’s been brushed by tourism – unlike the overcrowded and over-indulgent tourist meccas of Cancun’s hotel strip to the north and Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue to the south, and the luxury all-inclusive resorts that are popping up like mushrooms after rain on Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and along what was in 1999 branded the “Mayan Riviera.”
|Isla Mujeres ("Island of the Women")|
|Mayan ruins at Ek-Balam|
|Swimming in a cenote|
Whereas some towns in the area showcase Mayan culture through folk dance and music, or offer guided tours to the ruins and cenotes, Puerto Morelos just is what it is: fishing boats tie up to posts along the sugary-soft white-sand beach, with mostly Mayan men alternating between fishing for a living and taking tourists out to snorkel on the second-largest coral reef in the world.
|A testament to weather...|
|El Cid Resort, south of Puerto Morelos|
I’m selfish enough to hope it never changes, but at the same time I’d love to be able to organize my life so I could live here for six months of the year, thus contributing to what would seem to be inevitable. Here in this coastal paradise, it’s even more apparent: is place, culture, and identity a luxury that only the rich can afford? Or is this place resilient enough to hold onto what’s important while still benefiting from people who like it as much as I do?
And then there’s the weather…
We were here only three days before hearing about Hurricane Rina. On Monday morning, October 24, it was going to be a tropical storm. On Tuesday morning they were forecasting a Category 1 hurricane; and by the evening it was up to a Category 3. Wednesday it went back down to a 1, and by Thursday, when it hit, it was a tropical storm again. But all along the beach, and throughout the town, people boarded up their windows, brought in extra water and food, hauled out their boats, and generally prepared for the worst. They'd even evacuated the 3,000 residents of Isla Holbox, where we'd been just last year...
|Ready for Rina|
The massive sound and light show went on for hours; the rain bucketed and the winds whiplashed the palms. Always one to enjoy a good snowstorm at home, I was excited to see what it would be like – and I wasn’t disappointed. In the end, I was glad it was “just” a tropical storm…
But in the way of small places the world over, on the Friday-morning-after we were walking downtown, surveying the damage – which was pretty much non-existent – when we saw some guys with a TV camera. One of them asked, “Are you by any chance Canadian?”
We ended up on CTV news (October 28, 2011, part 3), one of Canada's leading national broadcasters, being interviewed by Los Angeles Bureau Chief Tom Walters about what it was like to be here during the storm. Only on an (almost) small island would we end up on national TV talking about the weather…
|(l-r) David Agren, CTV's Tom Walters, Brad (the cameraman) and Mike|