Sunday, September 27, 2009

How To Avoid Time In A Caribbean Jail

I was shocked to hear about the plight of the six Brooklyn tourists in Antigua who have been detained and charged with the assault and battery of several police officers. My shock involved many levels of disbelief. Number one, Antigua a tiny 14-mile-long island, with a relatively stable economy and government, isn't the sort of place where brawls and fights thrive. Number two, who goes to another country and fights the law enforcement? But there it was, all over the national and international news. USA Today reported
here that the six tourists blamed the undercover police officers for not identifying themselves and starting the brawl.

Local Antigua newspapers say that the tourists used indecent language, were rowdy and generally disrespectful. The crux of the situation is that the young tourists left their Carnival cruise ship and hired a taxi driver to take them on a beach excursion, agreeing to pay $50. The driver insists that it was $50 each way and when he demanded $100, the tourists refused. He took them to the St. John's police station where the violence sparked. The six have been detained in Antigua for three weeks, awaiting trial.

Of course, there are many unexamined layers to this case. The first involves the general resentment toward American travelers. Browsing through Caribbean blogs and message boards, a large consensus feels that American boorish behavior had finally been handled properly. Complaints about American traveler's cultural ignorance, rude attitudes and expectations to be lavishly catered to filled every site. It seems that there were 11 tourists that crammed into the taxi van, even though they noticed that it was parked away from all of the other (legitimate) taxis. They asked to be taken from the port to the beach and then to use the drivers phone to call about ATV tours. When he informed them they'd have to use a phone card, he drove them to a store so that they could buy a card. They complained about the $6 phone card price and decided not to buy one. The driver drove them to the beach and then came back for them an hour later. They sang, banged on the van's ceiling and played games. When they asked again to use his phone, he asked for his fare. He had spent 2 hours driving the 11 tourists around. They handed him $50, he explained it was $50 each way. They refused to pay double so he drove to the police station.

Now, having personally experienced the intricate trickery of NY taxi drivers, I understand how the tourists might feel like they were being ripped off. They had agreed to $50 up front. On the other hand, I don't know where you can expect to pay $50 to cart 11 people around for two hours. That doesn't even cover the gas. I think there was an element of "it's a small island, they should be happy with what they get" going on. Not to mention Brooklyn residents' reputation for trying to hustle anything and anyone.

On the other hand, this particular taxi driver, known in Antigua as Hungry Bird, is notorious for cheating tourists. His taxi wasn't parked with the others because he was thrown out of the taxi association 10 years ago. The Bird family controlled Antigua through two consecutive prime ministers for decades. Bird political corruption was such that noted Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid compared them to Haiti's Duvalier family. So you know the nickname "hungry bird" does not indicate anything good. In this case, the fare that Hungry Bird asked for was not unfair but when he drove the tourists to the St. John police station and not the one at the port, fairness wasn't on his mind. The station is not clearly marked as a police station and many of the officers there don't wear uniforms. But Hungry Bird is reputed to have a friend or relative at that station. The tourists didn't know where they were or whom they were dealing with. They insist that the police started slapping, shoving and grabbing them.

This is what I know. Antigua has enjoyed a solid reputation as a peaceful destination for a long time until last year. That's when two British honeymooners were killed and earlier this year,an Australian yacht captain was murdered in a robbery attempt. Crime is rising and the Antiguan police department is not known for its effectiveness. I was in Antigua for their 25th independence celebration in 2006. I was struck by the warmth of the people. I was never hassled, come on to or treated rudely. At the independence celebration, I danced for an hour next to a guy that everybody kept photographing. He turned out to be the prime minister. I can think of a few islands where incidents like this happen all the time but Antigua isn't one of them.

When I first heard about the situation, all I could think about is what I would do and what I'd advise any tourist who found themselves in a similar predicament.

1. Research about any country you're visiting, even if its just for a day. It's clear that the tourists knew little about Antiguan culture because some of the women were walking around in bathing suits. Many of the accounts and comments noted how indecently and half dressed they were. It's considered rude and disrespectful in most of the Caribbean to walk around in swim clothes when not at the beach or pool.

2. Find out what the basic rates for taxis are and what taxi companies are recommended. There are no meters in small island taxis. If you don't know the island, you're left at the mercy of the driver. Educate yourself about what is reasonable.

3. Don't go to another country and expect things to be the same way they are at home. This goes back to number 1. Learn something about the people and culture and you will know what to expect. The tourists complained that the officers had no badges and didn't identify themselves. This is procedure in the U.S. but not in Antigua. Many officers don't wear uniforms.

4. Don't act like a fool. I sympathize with the detained tourists but only up to a point. It has been correctly pointed out all over the Caribbean blogosphere that these Brooklyn tourists would never have cursed and performed with NY cops the way they did in Antigua. There was one officer in uniform who they said didn't respond to their pleas for help and they said they feared for their lives. So they cursed and fought. Antiguan officers don't carry guns so it's not clear why they felt they were in danger. The telling detail is that only 6 were arrested. The others were released and returned to the ship. These were the tourists that weren't cursing and fighting. Whenever you're in a foreign country, it's best to be polite and follow the rules. In this case, that would have been to pay the driver the money he requested. They may have felt swindled but they would be at home and not languishing in Antigua, waiting for their trial.


Anonymous said...

un huh. I can picture these fools, drunk, belligerent and now sad & pathetic.

Beauty Is Diverse said...

People should always be on their best behavior when visiting another country. Being placed in jail in another country is not a good thing.

Fly Girl said...

Lynne, they have denied being drunk and I don't believe they were. I think that they behave that way naturally.

Tiffany, It should be basic common sense but unfornately it's not.

Eileen said...

Giving them the best possible benefit of the doubt I can hope they got caught up in herd mentality. Which is another vote for not travelling in large groups. I don¡t think two or three people would have been as likely to get belligerent and out of control.

And I admit (which I think you already know), I was born and grew up in Brooklyn. And like the rest of you, I'm not terribly surprised. Wonder who the other five were? Wives and girlfriends?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fly Girl, the situation is too complex and the accounts (on both sides) cannot be verified. This is a difficult call to make.


Fly Girl said...

Eileen, you bring up a good point. I think the herd mentality defintely influenced them. The rest were just other friends. It was a group of twenty-something siblings and friends. I think it was their first big vacation. Maybe they should practice before the next one.

Geoffrey, You're right it's a hard call to make with both sides unclear. I can only go on my experience in Antigua and observing how some tourists behave.

marina villatoro said...

My god! That is sooo crazy. I have never heard anything bad about this little island either.

You know, I stay away from learing the horrors that go on in countries. IF that was the case, no one would come to Guatemala, and it's not as bad as it's made out to be in the newspapers and press.

You just have to watch your back EVERWHERE these days in the world.

Anonymous said...

Just as easy as it is to have Chicago police arrest you for "DISORDERLY CONDUCT, RESISTING ARREST AND ASSAULT" on a officer just because you looked at them funny, dared to question them and demand their badge numbers... officers in other countries take offer when "tourists" try to tell them "what to do".

It is just as easy to get locked up with the phrase "IN AMERICA..." in any part of the world. So folks be careful. You are NOT, repeat NOT in AMERICA.

Fly Girl said...

Marina, I think you have to be aware and right functioning all the time, even if you're on vacation. I haven't heard anything negative about Guatemala but I heard plenty about Costa Rica. It didn't stop me either and I never had a problem.

Anonymous,it's not clear what the tourists did to the officers exactly, since they say they didn't know they were officers. All that's certain is that they are awaiting trial and two of the group have already apologized, hoping to go home.

Radical Selfie said...

Wow! I hadn't heard of this, and I'll definitely be passing it on to my "peeps" as we travel to the islands quite often. Though, I'm proud to say, we behave! Not just because we don't want to get arrested, but b/c it's a common sense thing, ya know?

Very informative post, thanks!

A Cuban In London said...

Your advice is sound and wise. There's a similar situation with British holidaymakers flying to cheap destinations in Europe. Rowdy and boorish behaviour.

Thanks for this post.

Greetings from London.

Fly Girl said...

Execumama, exactly, it should be common sense. Thanks for dropping by.

Cubano,I bet the British holidaymakers haven't been arrested! I think destinations that depend on tourism have put up with such behavior for decades but looks like Antigua is putting a stop to it.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

So many British people have behaved likec this abroad.

Fly Girl said...

Jean-Luc, that seems to be the consensus amoung all my Brit readers!

Heather on her travels said...

There are two sides to every story and you've given us a balanced view. I hope the majority of visitors to Antiqua have more sensitivity than this group did.

jennie said...

since we were not there, it doesn't seem right to make a judgement. originally from brooklyn, i know the stereotype. but if it were me, i wouldn't want anyone to judge me based on that since thats not my MO. i also know how unfair police can be. however, i haven't had experiences with police in antigua. too hard to call w/o adding in stereotypes.

Fly Girl said...

Heather, thanks. I do think that the uproar has made many tourists including these, re-think how they behave when they travel.

Jenna, I can't really make a judgement since so much isn't clear. I am providing tips for people to avoid this terrible situation. The tourists were just released after over a month being detained and pleading guilty to charges. They stayed with an Antiguan family and I hope that more understanding come from both sides after this situation.