I’m sitting on my balcony in Puerto Rico, watching water, ferries, and some odd birds—probably boobies and frigates. Soon I’ll be home, where the waves are frozen solid, the birds are smart enough to still be down south, and output pays. Thus, I should stop staring and capture some lessons of this 69-day BreakAway.
- It’s all about the buck. In general, West Indians are less greedy than your average American—and most live a third-world existence. But make no mistake: When money is concerned, there is no free lunch, ride, or drinks. Smiley, spirited folks could turn all Donald Trump when it was time to settle the tab.
- So get beyond the buck already. By settling terms and tabs early, money can become a secondary issue. Once I’d negotiated to buy five little coral carvings from a beach vendor, he went from being an assertive seller to a charming, grateful artist.
- WWW: Watch out. Sure, the internet is a great travel research tool. But it can also be full of the kind of BS that makes a run-down resort look like paradise—touting offers that no staff onsite have heard of, menus that bear no resemblance to the meals actually served, and pictures that have been cropped and photoshopped to skew reality. Moreover, advice sites can be invaded by shills and shams. Does it make trip planning easier than ever? Heavens, yes! Is it foolproof? Hell, no.
- Sometimes, there is only one degree of separation. When a Grenada resort manager happened to go to the same small Midwest university that we did—at the same time—that was a “small world” experience. When a Bequia sailboat we boarded for a daytrip had an ex-relative on its crew, that was both creepy and cool. But I had to run for mercy when a distinguished gentleman in a Bequia bar struck up a conversation about the “green flash.” Within moments, we discovered that not only had he been on the Minnesota lake I live on, he used to waterski with a neighbor of mine.
- Watch where you’re going. The temptation exists, when vacating routine and responsibility, to get TOO relaxed, buzzed, carefree. Exercise caution, and keep one eye on your kids. Water hazards, walking stumblers, and lost stuff can ruin your day—or worse.
- Ask many questions. People like to be the expert, and there’s much to learn, like where’s a raw, secluded beach or a joint where the locals have lunch. What’s more, it may be the only way to find out that the wine the waiter recommends costs $155.
- Leave the well-worn path. Here’s a classic example: If you only see the part of the island that the cruise ship dumps you in, you’ve probably seen the worst that island has to offer. But when you get to the far side where the cruisers never visit, it’s a completely different planet—in a real, good way.
- It’s smart to fit in. It can be tempting to assert one’s uniqueness and American-ness and just not worry about it. But then you may be treated like an outsider. When the Grenadians ALL dressed in their flag colors during their independence week, we did too. Suddenly, our different skin color mattered less then our matching clothes colors.
- We must be fearless. When not, fake it—especially to keep your kids calm. Whistle a happy tune, if need be. Seems like callous security types, derelicts, and dangerous drivers were the most likely to strike fear on this trip. Acting bored and bold usually makes the temporary threat pass fast enough.
- Learn people’s names. Even if they forget yours. Calling the beach attendant Mr. Cedric or knowing your housecleaner is Bernadette will win them over. And frankly, some of these folks work their butts off for low pay, no benefits, and little job security. The least we can do is give them what we all need most: Respect. Of course, a nice tip is also a good idea; tip early and they’ll take care of you the whole time you’re around.
- Be slow to judge. That aggressive vendor may have beautiful beads. A surly bartender could warm up if you make a joke. That crazy cabbie may set you up with fresh tuna—if you keep your mind open.
- Wait your turn. Avoid being the impatient vacationer. Americans have been trained to hurry, but island people rarely do. When buying a t-shirt one day, AllBoy and I had to wait for a father and daughter who sized up dozens before deciding. The salesman had all day for them, and they were excited to be buying a treat. AllBoy got edgy and Partner was rushing us. But relaxing and enjoying their encounter was a better way to go.
- What Time Is It? It’s Island Time! In the Caribbean, clocks are rare, and usually don’t work; they hang askance on the occasional wall stuck on 5:55 or 12:15 as if to ask, “Does anybody really know what time it is; does anybody really care?” Most watches are sequestered in the cruise ports—for sale to gawking and gullible tourists who will not grasp the lessons of the West Indies: glitz is silly; time is relative; a clockless day is a happy day.
These were simple lessons, but gleaned gradually by assimilating into a different, more mellow culture. But now it’s time to speed up.
So we go back to our demanding, self-absorbed lives—scheduling this and that, running from nothing to nothing. A sense of ongoing urgency will overtake most moments. Be Here Now will morph into Get Somewhere Fast. Instead of watching the waves break or the kids play, one eye will be on the clock.
That clock will work. So will we, like all good Americans. But with any luck, a little island serenity and spice will sprinkle itself into the occasional scene.