The author on her balcony at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands; Photo: Francisco Collazo

What’s a writer who focuses most on environmental and social issues doing at a Marriott in St. Thomas?

Yesterday, the public relations firm Diamond PR sent nine travel writers to nine Marriott properties it represents in seven different locations in the Caribbean and Mexico. I’m one of them.

The purpose, of course, is the same as any other press trip: to expose writers who have a large audience of readers to its clients’ properties in the hopes that what those writers blog/tweet/Facebook about their experience will stimulate interest in the destinations and the properties.

If you’re a regular reader of my work, that preceding paragraph might seem incongruous with what you know about my writing. I’m not one for lavishing praise on anyone or anything unless it truly impresses me, which is tough (if you’ve got doubts about this, just check out this doozy of a book review).

And higher-end travel isn’t exactly my niche. If I had to narrow down my interests–which is tough–they’d fit more or less comfortably into the categories of political, cultural, social, and environmental movements, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

And finally, if you know me personally, you know that the word “paradise” isn’t one that makes a frequent appearance in my vocabulary… mainly because I lived in “paradise” (Puerto Rico) for 2.5 years and know that a tropical island is only paradise for people who come for a short, pleasant visit, not for the people who live there day in and day out.

So what am I doing on this trip?

There are at least two answers.

1. Though I don’t write often about higher end travel–and though it’s not my travel style when I’m footing the bill– I won’t deny that I enjoy it. I like high thread counts, I like sleeping under a duvet even better than I like saying “duvet,” and I like eating dishes that have overwrought, absurdly detailed names like: Sofrito Marinated Filet Mignon with roasted poblano crema, manchego cheese, chile-toreado salsa, and house-made cilantro-corn tortillas, garnished with cilantro petals.

A frou-frou appetizer in Oaxaca. Photo by author

And if something on those travels–a hotel or inn, a meal, an experience–impresses me, I have no problem writing about it, though it won’t be here on Matador.

2. But at the end of the day, I have to admit that I only know the difference between the salad fork and the entree fork, I don’t like to dress up, and I choose my wine based on whether I like the looks of the label, not because I really know anything about terroir.

And when it comes right down to it, I’m more comfortable with the people providing a service rather than those receiving it.

That’s the real reason I’m in St. Thomas this week.

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A few years ago, when I lived in Puerto Rico, I jumped to the cause of some locals who’d set up (illegal) residence on a beach in Carolina. “La playa no se vende!” read banners spray painted and hung limpidly between sea-salt speckled tents.

“The beach is not for sale.”

Marriott was allegedly planning to extend its domain to a public beach, gobbling up the sand and closing it off to everyone except hotel guests. Of course, I was on the locals’ side.

The problem was, I didn’t really know anything about the issue and I hadn’t talked with either side.
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A worker in St. Kitts takes a break. Photo by author

Since that time, I’ve been working on a long-term photojournalism project about the effects of big hospitality corporations on local communities, specifically in areas of the Caribbean where local industries have collapsed in the past 20 or so years.

From the outside, it’s easy to be on the side of those people on the beach. Like anything, though, once you hang around for a while and start listening to people’s stories, the “truth” is a lot more complex.
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So, long story short, I’m not in St. Thomas because I hope to experience a little slice of paradise and bring it back to you… though if I do have some incredible peak moment, you can read about it on my own blog.

I’m here because I’m always looking for the back story, the untold story, the stories of people who are overlooked. .

And if you follow my writing, that’s the ever-present thread that informs my work… no matter where I am.