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Tobago love’s lost

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Joshua Surtees, a Briton who worked for this paper last year, wrote in last week’s Guardian about a recent vacation in Tobago which experience left something to be desired.

His opinion, while sympathetic, was unambiguous: “I don’t want to paint all Tobagonians as insufferably rude; they’re not, some are delightful. But many are too rude and unfriendly to let it slide.” Not only that, “Like the moody hotel handyman in Walcott’s Tobago-set play, Pantomime, who is eternally cursing the colonial master and the lasting effects of slavery, Tobagonians too often appear embittered.”

These sentiments appear from time to time in letters from frustrated tourists. Like Gerry Gajadharsingh, a Trini-born UK doctor (published in the Business Guardian in September 2014.) His problems began with the CAL air bridge: along with his companions, “we felt as passengers we were treated as an inconvenience and that we were lucky to get a flight at all.”

It took seven hours to get to Tobago from Trinidad. And once there, he got “the sense that many locals in Tobago see the customer service industries as beneath them.” And “there also seems to be a perception that foreigners are sometimes resented and must all be wealthy.”

People I know who live in Tobago now also report increases in pathologically loud music in residential communities. Complaints are met with hostility and racial epithets depending on who complains. The police, hospital and civil service attitudes are identical.

The point is, in Tobago, hostility seems to be an epidemic, and much of it is pointed to tourists and foreigners. Surtees and Gajadharsingh noted exceptions: for Surtees, the further away from the town and airport you got, behaviour improved. For the doctor, Coco Reef was the exception to the bad service culture. But combine the status quo with recent murders of tourists, and you’ve got a recipe for economic suicide as oil revenue dwindles. The questions here are why has Tobago got so bad and what to do?

The reasons are not as simple as they appear. I’ve been to Tobago two or three times in the last few years, once to do a story on tourism. I spoke to people from the tourist industry, the Government and residents, plus a few people I have known for years who live there.

The consensus from the few people I spoke to for this article is that the hostility is a new thing. Some of them can even date its appearance. About 20 years ago, the place and people seemed to be just what the brochures said: clean, safe, and friendly. This all changed a little over a decade ago. To many readers, this might not ring any bells, but this was a crucial period about which there seems to be a concerted effort among politicians, regular people, and social scientists alike to forget.

Thirteen years ago (2002) was the last of three elections in as many years. The purpose was to remove the UNC from power, which was orchestrated in the media, the PNM, and its agents in various institutions, like the Presidency—Mr ANR Robinson was then in the chair—Trevor Sudama and a couple of other politicians, and the Jamaat Al Muslimeen. This accusation sounds bald and brutish, but this was the spirit of the times.

The campaign grew ever more racially vicious and enraged. Talk radio shows were saying all manner of repulsive trash, every day, hours a day. Calypsonians were repeating it, and so were letters published in the papers. It all continued well after 2002. 

Many people forget that between 1996 and 2000, the murder rate had fallen below 100 per year, and public confidence in the police service had risen sharply—this was the front page of a daily paper on February 1, 1998. This too changed rapidly and violently from about 2002.

I think even the people who lived through that era have chosen to forget the intensity and ubiquity of that violence, racial and otherwise, and the abruptness of its irruption. Around the period that Tobago lost its innocence, Cepep and “community leaders” became a part of the national politics and there was an explosion of murder and kidnapping rates in Trinidad.

From this origin the violent, enraged society we live in today was inevitable from the emotional and psychological atmosphere. The racial rage, the sense of entitlement at the expense of all others the PNM’s constituency was inculcated with at that time, and the general sense of anarchic laissez which spread virally throughout the society, have remained and snowballed, because no one acknowledged their presence.

(Except Dr John Prince (head of Tatt in 2005), who likened the radio rage to what was going on in Rwanda and Burundi.)

These years of conditioning were crucial as to the question of how populations learn appropriate behaviour. Because there is a determined silence on what went on radio, in Parliament, and in society, between 1997 to 2007, almost deliberate amnesia, this change in Tobago’s equanimity seems like a mystery. But it’s not.

I might be off the mark here, though I doubt it. Perhaps the reasons are otherwise. But the fact remains that a new value system came into being around the turn of the century. Tobago is a small, tightly-knit community, where formal and informal knowledge transmission mechanisms can be identified and easily studied. There is no reason we should not know what Tobagonians feel, why, and how to remedy it.

Unfortunately, like its predecessor, this Government seems to rely more on general ignorance than general knowledge, even if T&T’s livelihood and lives depend on it, which in fact they do.


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