Chuck Thompson’s book ” Smile when you’re lying” is sub-titled ” Confessions of a rogue travel writer” and it is an apt description . In his book, Thompson tells us what he really feels about some of the places he has been to. The chapters have titles like “Canned Hams, Kendo Beatdowns and the Penis Olympics : The Education of an Accidental Ambassador to Japan” and ” Why Latin America isn’t the World’s Number One Tourist Destination and Probably Never Will be “. Thompson doesn’t mince words and this book is a raunchy, rollicking good read even if you may not always agree with him.
In the chapter ” Am I the Only One Who Can’t Stand the Caribbean?” Thompson gives us a litany of reasons for his dislike. Surly locals. Pushy guides. Beaches crowded by tourists. Indifferent food; watered down rum punches. All-inclusive luxury resorts that only accentuate the pervasive poverty you see when you venture outside the gates etc., etc..
Thompson’s gripes are for, the most part, understandable but I think they could be applicable to most of the world’s tourist destinations.While I haven’t traveled as widely as Thompson, I have been fortunate enough to visit the Caribbean several times… St. Maarten, Anguilla, Jamaica ( twice), St. Lucia, Antigua and the Dominican Republic. I’ve also been to Bermuda which is in the Atlantic but , in lifestyle and vegetation, is very similar to the others named. At first, I too was made uncomfortable by the disparity between my circumstances and those of most of the locals. However, I quickly came to realize that any middle class American who is able to afford such a vacation is in the top 10% of the world’s wealthy. No point in comparing oneself to the locals anywhere in the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia ( except Japan). Yes, this is easier said than done and I assuaged my guilt feelings by not driving too hard a bargain when shopping and by overtipping the hotel help. Poverty exists everywhere and the Caribbean is by no means the poorest area of the world.
As far as pushy guides are concerned, I still remember shelling out $ 60 to a a dreadlocked Jamaican for showing us around a perfectly ordinary nature preserve. ( He was carrying a machete at the time and I didn’t try to bargain with him ). Yes, pushy guides do exist in the Caribbean but the Caribbean is no patch on India where one is beset by hordes of guides at the major tourist attractions.
I don’t agree that the “locals ” are surly. Some of them sure but , on the whole, I found them friendly and helpful as is only to be expected when the economy is so wholly dependent on tourism. Not only that, I they have a delightful joie de vivre , a refreshing contrast to my fellow tourists from the cold North East. And Yes, the beaches were crowded but the sand was clean and white ( sometimes pink because of an overlay of crushed seashells ) and the water was a startling blue that I’ve never encountered elsewhere. I still remember our first sight of the Caribbean back in 1992. It was February and we were flying to St. Maarten. As the plane banked to make it’s approach, I caught a glimpse of the sea , a startlingly deep blue. And then , as the plane landed , there was a row of palm trees. Now I’ve seen plenty of palm trees, thousands of them in my youth in India, but this sight affected me powerfully. Gone were thoughts of the gray wintry skies of New Jersey. Together with the azure sea and the blinding sunlight , they held out the promise of fun and warmth and calypso.
I am ambivalent about all-inclusive resorts. On the one hand, they are convenient… the beach is right there, you don’t have to plan where to go for food, there are activities for the kids, you don’t have to worry about tipping after every meal and the facilities are luxurious. But there are drawbacks too. The biggest disadvantage is that it’s like living in a cocoon, comfortable but bland, and you have absolutely no connection with the local culture. The food is plentiful and beautifully presented but bland and ” institutional”.The drinks definitely are watered down but perhaps it’s understandable. When it’s all-inclusive, people tend to make pigs of themselves.
When we stay at such resorts, we have our own way of connecting with the locals and experiencing Caribbean life. We venture out of the resort , go to the nearest town and have at least one meal each day in a local eatery. I remember, when we were at Negril ( Jamaica), we went to Ozzie’s Jerk Shack, located within a stone’s throw of our resort. A dozen years later I still remember that meal. Succulent chunks of jerk pork and jerk chicken, slathered with hot sauce, rice and peas, and washed down with Red Stripe, the best beer in the world. The bill was a shock until we realized that it was in Jamaican dollars !!( 1 $ US = $ 38 Jamaican ).
To be sure, the Caribbean has it’s share of disappointments. The historical places are a bust. For instance, we had heard a lot about English Harbor in Antigua. Touted as a place of historical importance ( Capt. Cook once put in there), it’s chief feature proved to be a huge shed where people were selling T=shirts and other souvenirs. In Antigua also, we drove right through the famous ” rain forest” before we knew it. One moment the signs said it was ahead of us ; the next , the sign said it was behind us !
With my love of books, I decided to pick up a book on West Indian cricket. In Montego Bay, I finally found a bookstore but it had not a single book on cricket. Worse, all the books appeared to be printed in England, nothing Jamaican.
But I am not being fair.
The Caribbean is all about hot sun, sandy beaches, cerulean seas and calypso music . It’s a great place to unwind particularly in the midst of winter. For a few golden days you can forget about shovelling snow , the cold and commuting to work. In February, there is no place I’d rather be except, perhaps, Hawaii.
This post is not a book review but if you are interested in Thompson’s book, the particulars are as follows…
Smile when you’re lying by Chuck Thompson. (A Holt Paperback. Henry Holt, N.Y 2007) $15.