It’s not always possible to have that kind of a vacation experience. The tourism industry tends to put up barriers between islanders and visitors. Resorts try to keep tourists within their compounds, telling the curious that it’s dangerous to step outside the gates. Many of them hire workers that are from other countries, as far away as Malaysia and China. Some forbid employees from engaging in conversations with the guests. Cruise ships provide packaged experiences ashore that have little to do with the actual culture of the island visited. (I wonder how many people going ashore at Labadee know that they are in Haiti.)
Tom and I were lucky. When we first went to North Caicos in 1990, it was the off-season and we booked at the locally-owned Pelican Beach Hotel. The only night life was hanging around the hotel bar, talking with locals, temporary workers from other countries and the irrepressible Clifford Gardiner, owner of the hotel and the small place that brought us across from Providenciales. Agnes Swann, who was handling the hotel restaurant, and Clifford’s wife Susie, who did our breakfasts, were happy to answer questions, as was Lovey Forbes, who entertained at the bar.
That first week was the beginning of many other visits, during which I began to write for Times of the Islands magazine. We discovered that Susie always knew how to get in touch with our interview subjects, and what she couldn’t figure out for us, Mac Campbell could. Among them and Clifford, we began to meet people all over the island and learn its history in a very personal way.
Mind you, not every local person on every island is a wonderful human being. People everywhere have a mix of good and bad, and some negative initial contacts can color one’s perception of an entire island. And the tourism industry can bring out resentment and contempt; our introduction to Antigua, for example, was the aggression and greediness of an airport porter who, unasked, moved our bags three feet, then held out his hand for a tip. Yet honest travel always involves balancing the particular and the general, and island cultures are always a mix. The trick is to see the real island, not just the living brochure.
The two men in this accompanying photo have met a lot of visitors. Lovey Forbes (left) is a North Caicos native who has been entertaining tourists for many years, but he also crosses the “stage” wall to talk with guests who happen by his property and share his personal stories with them. Bryan Naqqi Manco was not born on North Caicos, but he has lived there and studied its flora and fauna so much that he is now considered the expert on local plants and land animals. He, too, goes beyond his day job to talk with anyone interested in the island’s ecological well-being.
Both guys are among those I think of when I tell others that I put the people of North above its beauty and peacefulness as island assets. That’s because they are helping to turn tourists, who seek only their own comfort and gratification, into travelers, who understand that islands are living places, not theme parks.