I never want to seem like a tourist. I would rather ride the 3 train from 145th street in Manhattan down to Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn before glancing at a subway map or asking for directions from a grim-faced New Yorker who wants nothing to do with me. The first time I went to New York city in twelfth grade, I blushed (as much as my dark skin would permit) when I noticed that my starch-pressed khaki skort and aqua-blue flip flops signaled to New Yorkers my obvious tourist status. I avoided Times Square because tourists congested the sidewalks and snapped photos of the brightly lit billboards. In Ireland, I was the worst tourist I could be: me and forty raucous Vassar College Rugby players. At all hours of the night, we squawked drunkenly, bellowed, jogged through Dublin side streets as if the city was our playground.
When I say I dislike being a tourist, I don’t mean to suggest people shouldn’t travel. We should just travel better than we do. Growing up, I wasted hours in the Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island, Bahamas, partying with tourists, sneaking into tweeny pop nightclubs, evading questions about whether I rode a dolphin to school. Tourists are loved and loathed in The Bahamas, loved perhaps only because our economy relies so stubbornly on their contributions to our economic development. Last December, I visited Grand Bahama, Bahamas, where I was the closest to being a “tourist” as I could be in The Bahamas, having never visited Freeport, Grand Bahama (I was born in Nassau). I went to conduct research into a riot that happened in 1964, during which hotel employees complained about unfair work practices, but I had great difficulty explaining this to anyone who asked me.
I stayed at the Sunrise Resort & Marina, where I was charged on top of my regular bill what they called a ‘tourist tax’ for every night of my stay. I was taxed $20 every night just for being a tourist, and I was so shocked by the charge I did nothing to say I wasn’t one. Perhaps too, I dislike being seen as a tourist because I’m so often mistaken as one. After my trip, I discovered the Sunrise Resort & Marina is owned by two men from West Virginia and the irony of a tourist tax became painfully laughable.
I spent much of my trip visiting deserted tourist destinations, catching taxi rides to and from tourist designated plazas. On one of the nights I was in Grand Bahama, I went to the fish fry. I was in line behind a couple from Saskatchewan, Canada, who weren’t sure if they wanted to eat the fish. I refrained from asking why they came to the Fish Fry, what exactly they were expecting. The sprightly young woman, with braided blonde hair, bought the grilled chicken. She received her change (a Bahamian ten dollar bill), flipped the money in her hand, and asked contemptuously, “What is that?” It was after my trip, I discovered there are two Fish Frys on Grand Bahama. One for the tourists and one for the locals.
At some point during my trip, I was driven around by a woman, who’s the girlfriend of my mother’s boyfriend’s friend. Tanya was a heavy-set, broad-shouldered woman with a wonderful blonde flop of her hair like Flock-of-Seagulls haircut. She wore leopard-printed hoops and a faux-leather jacket that I believe trendy stores like Express now try to market as Leatherette (proving that to make anything sound fancy one only needs to make it sound French). Tanya was born in Grand Bahama, and she didn’t like Nassau. On the ride, Tanya spoke of many topics: politics, her self-employment as a straw market vendor, her romantic life, sexuality, and her spiritual background, which she never specifies other than to say she has a spiritual background.
Tanya worked in the straw market. When she told me this, I thought of the straw market women I’d seen earlier and my grandmother, who when she was alive wove straw baskets and wallets. Tanya explained to me how all the straw market women nowadays buy shirts and bags from an American wholesaler, then sell them in their stalls, only passing them off as Bahamian products. “Port Lucaya is no longer the possible place for tourist, nor the International Bazaar,” she said to me. “The Port Lucaya is becoming so empty now because most of the tourists, who come in on cruise ships, are told to go to the Harbor now instead. Where the tourists go depends entirely on what they’re told on the ship.” If the cruise ships tell the tourists to go to the Harbor they won’t pay the fifteen-dollar cab ride to visit Port Lucaya, especially if everything they want is at the Harbor. She explained the fickleness of the tourism industry as she drove and I watched the night uncurl before us. I imagined the tourists like sheep going to where they are led. I wasn’t sure if I liked Tanya. She went off on a long tirade after this about homosexuality and the devil, but I did empathize with her and as she drove me around I felt this unmeasurable sadness when I thought about whose lives and whose safety, the island privileged. She sighed, “Whenever you’re in a tourist area you’ll see police officers, but where the locals are you won’t find them.”
To be a tourist in The Bahamas, one should expect to be bombarded by straw market vendors, taxi drivers, hair-braiders, who depend greatly on the moods of visiting foreigners. To be a tourist, one should expect to feel as if one’s happiness is the country’s national priority and if not, it should be; though, this is not entirely the fault of the tourist, but of the tourism industry that encourages it. Really though, to be a better traveler one only needs to be respectful of the country that one visits. Here are three helpful things to know as the weather warms up, people awake from hibernation and you make travel plans to go places:
- If you are traveling to a developing country, please don’t expect it to be as quick or developed as your country
- Be kind to locals, not patronizing. There is a difference.
- Don’t travel expecting your life to change or some magical or spiritual experience
- Research the country you’re visiting before you go so you can know those simple details about the culture (e.g currency, food, customs)