Fine print: April 2012

Tropical spender
By G.D. Gearino

As far as capitalists go, I’m all talk. I think people ought to live rich and circulate as much money through the economy as possible, but I don’t actually do much circulating myself. In fact, the people I admire most are those who’ve managed to reduce their needs down to the bare-bones minimum, people like my buddy the legendary North Carolina newspaper columnist Dennis Rogers, who quit his job, shed his worldly goods and now lives in his ride. OK, it’s a pretty spectacular recreational vehicle, but even the most spacious of them still requires that you keep the air freshener handy — if you catch my drift. That’s when you know you’ve stripped life to its essentials.

It was jarring, then, to find myself living like a one-percenter a few weeks ago, cruising around the Caribbean and waking each day wondering what new and inventive money-circulating opportunities would present themselves. It was fun, but more than that it was educational. Here’s what I learned from my Week of Living Large.

Pricing in the islands is ... well, let’s say “flexible.” To step off the cruise ship was to step into a world where the cost of anything was subject to instant change, usually upward. In St. Lucia, we hired a driver to take us around the island (which, by the way, is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth). At one point, as we approached a rum distillery, he said it offered tours and had a tasting room. “Five dollars per person.” Being both curious and thirsty, we agreed. But when we got there, the woman at the door said, “Ten dollars per person.” We paid, because it seemed churlish to argue. After our fees were collected, we were herded into the distillery, passing a sign that said tours were $3 per person. Fret not, fellow consumers. I got my $10 worth in the tasting room. My favorite was the Bounty label (which the natives pronounce “Boonty”). I even left with a bottle of my own. More about that in a moment.

Your camera is a moneymaker, but not for you. In Aruba, I saw a garishly deco- rated bus (left) in Oranje- stad, the island’s capital, and decided to take a photograph. Just as I did, a man behind me shouted, “No pictures! Ten dollars!” (Apparently, $10 is the default price in the Caribbean for any nonstandard transaction.) I ignored him, and he didn’t press the matter. But I’ll bet that more often than not, tourists pay up.

That’s not spice you smell, that’s revolution. Grenada may be the world’s most prolific producer of nutmeg, but what I sniffed most in the air was social unrest. Nearly 30 years ago, the U.S., with help from six Caribbean nations, invaded Grenada after its Marxist prime minister had been executed by troops who felt he wasn’t Marxist enough, even though he had invited Fidel Castro to help him remake Grenada in Cuba’s image. The country is now a functioning democracy but with a palpable leftward tilt. I noticed numerous Soviet-style billboards with slogans such as “One Voice, One People” on them. I also saw that somebody had spray-painted “Viva Fidel” on a wall facing a busy street in St. George, the capital.
But the strangest vibe I got was in the city’s main tourist attraction, a centuries-old stone fort overlooking the harbor. There was something creepy about the place, even apart from the odd sight of a basketball goal inside it. I guessed the fort had served as a prison at some point, which a nearby security officer confirmed. It wasn’t until I got home, however, that I learned the fort was where the prime minister and seven supporters had been executed — right beneath the basketball goal. No wonder I smelled bad karma in the place.

When guns are outlawed, only police will have guns. I took a bus tour of the island of Bonaire, which is essentially beachless and thus lightly populated. As we drove, the guide pointed out a few feral pigs off in the distance and described them as the scourge of the island. One of the passengers asked whether people hunted the pigs. “Oh, there are no guns in Bonaire,” she said. “Only police have guns.”
Wait a minute. If the bad guys (or whatever passes for them in a place like Bonaire) don’t have guns, why do the cops need them? If the police don’t face lethal force, why should citizens?

Is this any way to treat a one- percenter? When it came time to pack for home, I stupidly put my bottle of Bounty rum in the carry-on bag rather than packing it in my checked suitcase. Needless to say, it didn’t make it through airport security in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dey took me Boonty, mon. (Sorry. I’ve been speaking in island patois for weeks. It’s annoying the hell out of everyone, but I can’t stop.)

However, 90 feet past the security checkpoint was the perfect capitalist enterprise: a duty-free liquor store, where travelers who’d just had their booze confiscated could buy a replacement. That’s what a one-percenter would have done, but not me. My Week of Living Large ended the moment they seized me Boonty.

G.D. Gearino is editor of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. Email him at dan.gearino@nclawyersweekly.com.