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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Chancers, beggars and dirty rotten scoundrels.

Any waterfront where sailors come ashore and where trade is carried out has forever been rich pickings for the less morally affected of society. It is the same here, where our yacht, and even our dinghy, may represent more money than some of these men will see in a lifetime of fishing or farming. This has led to the development of numerous techniques to try and obtain ones money.

I don't mind, in fact I want to, pay a fair price for goods and services in these islands. We have things we want to do and are happy to support those who offer them. Yet the frequency with which you are offered things you don't need, or quoted a silly price, becomes tiresome and we find ourselves becoming wary and standoffish on first contact.

Outright theft is rare. There is a local sailor who collects reports of crime against yachts, and she runs a daily radio network to allow reports and feedback on events. The outright numbers are very low in the first place, and then Venezuela and St Vincent dominate the reports. ( if you are interested). Here in St Lucia, there were a couple of break-ins to empty yachts in the marina itself in January, and a similar boarding and theft down near Soufriere. The local rangers told us that the guy is now in jail. We take the obvious precautions of locking all the hatches when we leave the boat, and locking the dinghy alongside at night. Here, we have even taken to lifting the outboard off the dinghy at night and locking it in it's storage place on the rail of the yacht, where it is much harder to steal.

Violent crime is rarer still, and seems confined to areas further south and usually closely linked to drugs. There often seems to be more to the reports than first meets the eye - a dreadful sounding attack on a professional skipper who had taken his guests ashore for dinner appears now to have been at least partly the skippers fault as he has skipped the country when released from hospital and is wanted by the local police.

More common is attempted robbery dressed up as business. I've already mentioned the boat boys who hang around in anything from a smart motor boat to kneeling on a surfboard. So far we have seen:
- Giving you a mooring line as you approach a buoy. We used to keep the boat on a mooring and really do know how to pick one up. We just say clearly that we don't pay for that then they can help us if they want but it's for free. If it's a difficult pick-up and they still help, I'll donate a couple of cans of beer.
- Selling second rate goods. Offers to go get you nice fruit or fish are not worth trying, ref. my experience with the tuna! Likewise the fruit in boxes on board their boats, at least you can pick and choose but prices are high and quality still poor compared to the stores or the women who set up a stall on the streets each day.
- Arranging taxis and tours. There must be large commissions going for this, and gullible sailors who have a different perception of prices. We've never even bothered going as far as a negotiation on a taxi tour with these guys, the only one we have arranged is the Indian River Tour we plan to do back in Dominica, where our consistent 'no thanks' has brought the price down from about $200 to half that.
- Taking rubbish for you. They all want to do this for a fee and we always refuse. In Soufriere we were proved right; at the end of the dinghy dock, in a nice piece of woodland was a pile of split and festering plastic bags with rubbish that had clearly come from yachts. When I went to take ours to the skip in the fisherman's dock I got chatting to a local fisherman who said that only that morning, a boat boy had dumped a load of bags on their quay and sped off, leaving them to tidy up behind him. This one is less about saving money than making sure the rubbish goes right to the bin.

Once you get past the waterbourne salesmanship you are ready to meet those on shore. Locking our dinghy to the dock in Soufriere, we meet the well known 'dinghy watchers'. Apparently the beach is full of naughty children and nasty thieves who will abuse and remove your dinghy the minute you leave. These guys will happily chase them away and keep your possessions safe. Uh huh. 'We're in charge of the dock', says one. I chuckle, 'who put you in charge then?' 'The Hummingbird did' That's the beachside restaurant, and I know they don't employ anyone for this, certainly not these two dodgy looking characters. 'Oh good, then, if they're paying you to do that that's great'. 'No, no, you pay us.' 'Oh, so if I ask at the Hummingbird they'll say this is OK?'.'Er, yes, sure mon. Now, you go into town and we settle when you come back, yes?'. 'No, sorry, I don't pay for dinghy watching.'

Just to make a point of it, I pop my head round the gate at the Hummingbird and say hello to their security guard. He confirms that these guys are nothing to do with them, and says he'll keep an eye on it anyway, not that there's any need. A few steps further on and we get chatting to a nice Swedish family backpacking around the islands for a month. They'll be on the beach all day, they'll look out for anyone messing with the dinghy. We head off for the shopping.

As we return, we say Hi to the Swedish family. No one's been near the dinghy that they saw. One of our 'dinghy watching' friends approaches me. 'Hey, good thing you came back. There were a couple of kids messing with your dinghy, they got in it and I chased them away'. 'Really?'. 'Yeh, mon, they even got the engine started and were messing around but I sorted them good. What you gonna pay me?'. 'I'm sorry, I don't believe you.' 'No, they were', he says, putting on a hurt and wounded demeanour at my terrible accusation that he's lying. The conversation continues a bit until I say 'Look, you told me the Hummingbird get you to watch dinghies, they don't. You tell me someone's been messing, my friends there saw nothing. Why should I believe you?'. 'I don't like your style, mon'. 'Huh, you don't like my style? I catch you lying to me and call you on it, of course you don't like it.'

He's still insisting he's not lying, and I notice that the crew of Tuppence, a yacht we know, are still sitting in their cockpit just 15 metres away from the dock. I reckon they've been there all afternoon. I point this out and say they'll have seen him saving our dinghy, right? 'Oh no, mon, they won't have seen nothing, too far away.'. 'Look, I'm going to get in the dinghy now and go ask them. If they saw you, I come back and give you $20, OK.'

Now he's totally caught out and it's time not to push it any further. He asks outright for a few dollars for food (strong rum, more likely) and then says 'Which boat is yours? You going out tonight?' He knows full well which boat is ours, but his thinly veiled and empty threat is easily answered. Nope, with these kids we just get them to bed and stay aboard in the evenings. Sigh.

When we're coming back from town the next day, we're met by a different chap we've seen on the beach. He calls me over and tries to tell me the same 'kids playing in the dinghy just now' story. 'Oh,' says I, 'that's interesting. Yesterday one of the guys told me the same thing and he was either lying or a bit funny in the head because my friends were watching that dinghy all day'. He pauses, looks me up and down then just shakes my hand and says 'you have a good day now, mon.' and saunters on his way. When we're having a drink in the local bar later, he wanders in and just asks outright if I'll buy him a beer. Ah well, I'm caught in a moment of weakness, he's not been pushy and for a few dollars why not. He actually takes a double strength rum (80% alcohol!) in a plastic cup to go. It cost me eighty english pence, and I get to chat to the barkeeper about him and his friends. Apparently they're OK really, can be a bit of trouble at times but spend most of the day sleeping off the previous night.

Generally, all this is a sort of edgy entertainment that goes with being in interesting parts of the world. I get the feeling that India wouldn't be for me, but here it's fairly enjoyable to walk the fine line between doing business, fending off unwanted efforts and not being downright rude. I just wish it didn't leave us constantly on alert for being hustled - I think we miss out on a lot of chances for friendly, informative chat with the generally wonderful people who live here.


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