Friday, November 14, 2008

Travels: St. Vincent

Travels: St. Vincent

November 14, 2008 by Karen Berger

I was in St. Vincent and the Grenadines last week, on a travel writer trip. I saw a raft of hotels from divers’ dives to movie-star mansionettes (Johnny Depp reputedly stayed at Young Island Resort while filming Pirates of the Caribbean). I also ate a lot of fish, went scuba diving, sailing, and hiking, and got a sense for the variety of recreational, vacation, and adventure travel opportunities available on these laid-back islands.

Trips like these are the meat and potatoes of a travel writer’s job. They are fun, and exhausting, and always an education. But this time — as is so often the case — the best thing wasn’t 300-count sheets or wine on a sailboat: It was meeting local people. And last week, that meant sharing America’s election day with a bunch of people from other countries. 
Okay, let me just mention that in all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve very rarely been intimately knowledgeable about local politics. I was in Nepal for its first election ever, and in South Africa for its second… and those were memorable. I’ve also been in places that were subject to riots and terrorist bombings while I was there (Paris; Basque Country; Lima, Peru; Nakuru, Kenya, and others). But like most Americans, I’d be lucky if I could name more than a dozen international heads of state (and if you think that makes me ignorant, YOU go ahead and try….) 

But people in other countries are certainly knowledgeable about us. The Eastern Caribbean dollar is tied to the US dollar, St. Vincent’s tourism income fluctuates with our economy, and with lower per capita incomes, they are saddled with higher oil prices. What happens to us (and what we decide) matters to them.

So it wasn’t perhaps surprising that the most common question I was asked wasn’t “who do you want to win” (or the more politic “Were you pleased with the results?”) It was “WHAT are you doing HERE! You should be at home voting.”
Okay, so self-defense here: YES, my absentee ballot was duly cast, although I live in Massachusetts, so it wasn’t though anything was riding on my vote.

On election night itself, our hotel had satellite access (or at least, it had CNN, which I understand comes on after the local station signs off). But we (a group of two Americans, one Canadian, and a Turkish citizen) elected to take a boat taxi to the mainland and find a bar where we could watch the elections with whomever happened to be around.

The bar we ended up in — called “Cheers Sports Bar and Grill” was not the most happening place on the island, but we joined several Vincenzins of various ethnic backgrounds and a couple of English ex-pats, and settled in to watch — and stood up to cheer whenever the announcers said anything like “And for those of you watching from overseas….”

There wasn’t any debate about who we were rooting for. In case you need another hint, let’s just say no one was crying into their beer as the results came in, and the most negative commentary of the evening focused on the subject of Michelle Obama’s dress.

What I take back from this will stay with me. I’ve always felt on my travels that the relationship between American and the rest of the world is an organic, important one: While abroad, I’ve been challenged to “explain” (or defend) some things I find inexplicable or indefensible, and some things I know nothing about (An issue regarding the French and banana tariffs comes to mind).  In – literally — many hundreds of days traveling in other countries, my experience has been that people in other countries are intensely interested in America and American politics. While they may be critical of various American policies, they are often friendly toward Americans, even as they chortle at our cultural gaffes, our inability to speak even a few words in their languages, and our ignorance about their politics and leaders.

But this election was more than that. This time, they weren’t only interested: they cared. After eight years of an administration that has high-handedly flouted international relations in every way imaginable, and had a disastrous effect around the world, the scenes in bars and restaurants and homes around the world was, very much, like what I experienced in St. Vincent. There were cheers and sighs of relief; in some cases there was jubilation. But mostly there was hope.

Now the hard work begins. There is a huge mess to clean up. It’s a good time for prayers.