You can picture it now, can't you? The vast blue seas, cloudless skies, quaint British shops and the sun beating down upon your bikini-clad body, a rum in hand and not a worry in sight...
Almost six weeks ago I arrived in Bermuda, a country that I have frequented since I was a little girl to visit my family and a place I thought I knew like the back of my hand: I learned to swim the day I was flung off the dock in Harrington Sound over 20 years ago, I know every inch of the Crystal Caves, I can identify the whale by its tail at the aquarium in Flatt's (if you're a regular to the island you'll know what I mean).
Yet it wasn't until this trip that I discovered that there was life beyond Front Street (Hamilton's sea-view tourist strip) and that frankly, what goes on there is a darned sight more interesting than anything you might find in your cosy tourist bubble of beaches, bars and beautiful weather.
The first time I visited 'bakatown' (the closest thing Bermuda has to a ghetto) it was 11pm on a Sunday night. I was mildly inebriated - the rum swizzles here are delicious but lethal - and I was headed for an open mic bar with my uncle. I didn't know what to expect. I'd been warned that the venue was located smack bang on arguably the roughest corner in Hamilton (Court Street and Elliot Street) a place where gang violence had broken out on more than one occasion, a place where shootings had occurred. This was not the Bermuda I knew.
But when I stepped out of the car, I felt bizarrely as if I had come home. Bakatown is the only area I've visited on this island that really exists with that uniquely urban vibe: the heady blend of many types of people coming together in one place. On one corner of the street, there was a hubbub of what looked to me like East-London trendies, converse galore, mixing with island girls in all their ratchet finery. Loitering just over the way, were the obligatory 'questionables' with their missing teeth, talking to themselves and idly burning rizzlas on to the pavement. There was a house just down the street with a window open, blasting Soca and profanities, the shadows of men in hoods creeping up the walls. It was thick with atmosphere and I was on my way to my first night of many, at what I can now honestly say is Bermuda's most worthy place to visit... Chewstick.
Chewstick is not just a bar. It is an office, a classroom, a recording studio, an open mic night, an events organization, a forum for open discussion and a symbol of hope in the heart of Bermuda's most desperate community. The Chewstick foundation (a non-profit cultural arts movement) was born out of Bermuda in 2002 - they are dedicated to breaking down social barriers and providing opportunites to empower individuals and enrich the community through the power of storytelling in every medium.
Considering that the reason I decided to travel at all (next stop Kingston, Jamaica) was to pursue my creative talents (I've been photographing a demographic of young black males all too often grouped into the same bracket, written off for their pasts, unemployable for their tattoos and markings, insecure and misguided people who's social issues are down played in any nation you can find them) you can understand that when I arrived at Chewstick, it seemed like a beacon of hope for my project, which so far hadn't really gotten itself off the ground.
I'd come to Bermuda under the illusion that like I do in London, I could move unnoticed. That because I've been visiting for years, I could wander up to anyone I liked and take a snap. That because I can understand a thick Bermudian accent (they have a unique and beautiful set of vowel sounds - down the road sounds more like "daaahn de rooehd") I was basically a local... Wrong.
If you didn't know already, Bermuda is 22 miles long and only two miles wide at its widest point with a population of around 65,000. In short, it's abso-fucking-lutely tiny. Small enough in fact that I seemed to have acquired the label "fresh meat" since I'd arrived and was even informed one day by a drunk man in Somerset, that he'd seen me in town that morning and then again riding my bike through Sandys parish four times yesterday and twice today. He was spot on. Scary. That kind of conspicuousness is unnerving for a London girl - a place where I am normally anonymous.
When there are less than 1000 people in each age category, things can get a little claustrophobic. People know your business. You've probably slept with your best friends ex or cousin or brother. The police officer drinks with you until he's sick on Saturday and is back on patrol Monday. It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have one of the most blended cultures in the world - no one blinks an eye at an interracial couple, you only have to walk in to Docksiders (one of Bermuda's most famous pub/restaurants) to see that rich ex-pats children drink alongside the kids from the bakatown in some strange symbiotic disharmony and take a drive with a local and you'll realize that the car horn's sole purpose is to beep the people you know hello along your way. On the other hand, you have a nation that's living on top of itself, caught in a bubble that was cast when it was at it's most affluent several years ago and struggling to keep up now the super rich have moved out.
Since the mass migration of ex-patriat businesses, guest-houses, hotels, restaurants and bars lie dormant all over the island. There's hardly anyone left that can afford to fill them. Many young people are unemployed, with little to do but drink, smoke ganja (which comes at an extortionate price) and stick their middle finger up to the world. Gangs have formed, guns have replaced machetes, respect has been lost and as far as I can see, little is being done to help. Everyone here is talking about it, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, yet few seem bold enough to speak up in a place where everybody seems to know your name. Yet things are changing.
It was obvious for me to see that a place like Chewstick is a shining example of exactly the kind of attitude Bermuda needs to adopt in order to instigate change. Even it's aesthetic on the street, the freshly painted red walls of the building and happy-looking-rainbow-coloured seating and art work out front, grab your attention on a run down road that looks sort of depressed in every other direction. It says: "HEY. STOP. LOOK. SMILE." And that was the feeling I got when I stepped out of the car that night. I felt like I was at home not because it looked the same as London, but because I can relate to that feeling. There is hope for us all, but only if you believe it's there. What Chewstick is saying is don't blame the area. Don't blame the people. Give them a place to exist together, give them something to do, give them a positive message and between us all, we can instigate change. This is a lesson we must all be taught, across the world.
There is a lull in tourism to Bermuda. Issues like the ones I am raising here are fast swept under the carpet in order to promote the island to the rest of the world like a glossy image on a postcard. YES, one of TripAdvisor's top ten beaches exist in this place, but what does that leave for those of us who have never been attracted to the beauty, but instead to the flaws? To me, there is no place more beautiful in Bermuda than Chewstick on it's gritty street corner, surrounded by 'bad boys' and wanderers whom directly contradict it's warm reception, inspirational founders and incredible staff (ask for Gavin, Najib, Haile or Deidre if you go, I guarantee you won't be disappointed).
Chewstick is a small company with a huge heart. I can relate. I am a tiny fish in a big pond, trying to change the world one portrait at a time. So when Chewstick took me under their wing, offered me advice and support beyond the call of duty and their already sizeable workloads, my project too began to flourish. Their close proximity to the domain of the Parkside gang and their dedication to giving everyone an equal opportunity, gave me chance to approach people from a safe space, invite them somewhere that no judgment would be placed on them, a place they knew, existed alongside and trusted. And for that I am forever grateful.
This year for the first time, I came to Bermuda not as a tourist visiting her family, but as an artist, seeking to document a place that has felt like a second home for as long as I can remember. A combination of being here in the off-season, an unprecedented amount of wind and rain (that believe it or not really chills you to the bone), my obsession with boys and a guided tour of the back streets in every parish of the island and I feel like my eyes have been opened to a whole new place.
Instead of looking out and seeing the white Bermuda roofs and pastel houses, I see the lonely properties left abandoned for years, overgrown with palms, paint peeling and roofs crumbling. I see a demographic of youth struggling to keep their heads above water during these dark times of recession. I see a British colony rich with history and authenticity that has somehow been forgotten but is somehow still remembered.
It really is a very strange and wonderful little place, full of characters and faces that you can't forget if you have your eyes open and the balls to leave your tourist guides and preconceptions behind. There's an urban underbelly here that is licked with tropical sunshine, a sense of community you won't find elsewhere and a wealth of natural beauty to be found off the beaten track. Come, explore, taste salt on your lips, climb a tree, say hello to someone you might have avoided had you been at home and if you do come here, please support Chewstick. Have a drink, listen to some music and donate at the bar, knowing that you are giving to more than just a good cause, you are contributing to an atmosphere which if replicated around the world, might just make a difference to all of us.