Dina could not be more of a Londoner. She was born and educated in the capital and now, as a thirty-two year old, it is where she lives and works. Added to this, most of her close family – mother, sisters, aunts and uncle – live only a short bus-ride away. Despite all this, she feels like a stranger. In London she is continually confronted by hurtful and insulting messages implying that: ‘This is not your home; you will always be seen as a outsider’. Dina is black.
I have known Dina since she was born. My wife, Rohan, and I bought our first house in 1969. We were warmly welcomed by our new neighbours who have remained close friends ever since. One of the girls living next door, who was seven at the time, now has a family of her own. Dina is her eldest daughter.
Earlier this year Dina went on a voyage of discovery. She had been saving to buy a flat, but soon realised that, with current exorbitant property prices, her funds would never be sufficient. Out of a mixture of frustration and disappointment she decided to ‘blow’ her savings on an extravagant, once-in-a-lifetime holiday. She would take extended leave from work and spend ninety days in the Caribbean. For much of the time she would travel alone.
Research for the holiday took over a year with bookings for hotels and flights between the islands made well in advance. Nothing was left to chance. She would stay for around ten days in each of nine of the larger islands, starting in Trinidad and Tobago in the south east and then travelling up to Cuba and the Bahamas in the north west. Jamaica, with which she was already familiar, was not to be on her route. For five of the islands a member of her family flew out to join her. Being with them allowed her both to share her experiences and to explore places where, as a single woman, she felt it would be unwise to venture alone. She was determined to discover for herself what life in the Caribbean was like.
In several ways, parts of the holiday were predictable. Hotels in the larger towns were dull places to stay, as they are all over the world. In those towns that were cruise ‘destination ports’, the days when liners docked were a nightmare. Hundreds of passengers would invade with pushing, bustling and buying everywhere. On such occasions it was best to keep well clear. Often she visited one of the museums or historical sites dotted over the islands which she found gave her an important grounding.
The climate, the vegetation, the beaches and the countryside were a delight. For those living there, although overall conditions were poor and life was less sophisticated, there was something wholesome about how they related and how they went about their business; life felt authentic. There were differences between the islands with Domenica, Tobago and Cuba being her favourites. But, no matter the differences, throughout the trip Dina felt at home. When she was with people, she was accepted without any need for explanation. Here was somewhere she could relax and be herself.
Naturally she had concerns. Even in the larger towns she could find no equivalent to the enterprise culture she liked in London. Moreover, if she were to live there it was unlikely that she would be able to do clinical work in a mental health setting as she does at present. This was a worry.
We met in a cafe to talk about her trip soon after Dina returned. Rohan and I had spoken briefly with her before she left and had followed her journey through a go-between aunt. In so many ways, catching up with Dina was fascinating. Although I had known her for years, this was our first ‘adult’ conversation. Clearly, the trip had been a wonderful experience. She had learned so much about herself and about society at large – her three months’ adventure was worth “every penny”.
Now back in London her everyday experience of racism again resurfaced as did her feeling of not being at home. She realised how she had managed to cope with prejudice for years and perhaps would have to tolerate it for ever, but after her trip she now knew that there was an alternative. The dream of going back to a Caribbean island for longer to see what life there was like in practice, is still very real. She might even be accompanied by some of her family.
It appals me to hear yet another example of the UK’s endemic racism. It will be interesting to see in which land Dina will choose to live.
For help with writing this blog, I would like to thank Dina (not her real name), Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration shows a map of the Caribbean with its island archipelago.