Book Review: A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I've got to share one of my very favorite books this year, and also one of my favorite new friends. Who? Gary Buslik. We met Gary this summer at TBEX '09, the Travel Blog Exchange Conference held in Chicago this summer. It was a pleasure to meet someone in person with whom I'd laughed quite a bit, on email. Gary has written one of the funniest books I've ever read, A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean (Travelers' Tales). When I first opened the book, the VERY FIRST chapter made me laugh (The Time I Accidentally Urinated on Idi Amin). It gets even funnier from there - Gary explores different cultures, ethics, philosophy, race, religion, and more - all the while making the reader laugh, with his wry sense of humor. I've read this book twice now, and keep it handy for reading aloud with good friends. The author, Gary, is truly a great (and hilarious) guy. I feel fortunate for his friendship, and to share his work on our site.  He's a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. So it's a double bonus - he's got the credentials (writing, academic, travel), and a great sense of humor. This truly funny book is a treasure. We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Gary about his book, travels, cats, people, and more. Here's what he had to say...

 

 

WE: Why are you "rotten"?

GB: I speak for the rotten person in all Americans, especially these days, when the dollar is worth less than toilet paper and is sometimes used as such in Third-World airport bathrooms. I think of myself as a travel messiah—except that Jesus wasn't willing to throw his friends under a bus for a cheap laugh. Of course, we weren't there, so who knows?

 

 

WE: Why the Caribbean?

GB: One night shortly after we met, when my now-wife and I finished making love, she sighed, "There must be more to life than this." So I suggested getting married and honeymooning in the Wisconsin Dells, where you can eat bratwurst while watching stoned Indians dance and bump into one another. Instead, she bought a travel magazine, pointed to a picture of a hammock strung between palm trees, and said, "Buy it for me." She meant the Caribbean, not the hammock, because that's how my wife thinks. I was just starting out then, so I couldn't afford to purchase the entire region, but not wanting her to think I was a piker, off we went on a one-weeker to Jamaica, which she planned on converting to a large shoe rack.

 

 

WE: How much time have you spent on the islands over the years?

GB: Years ago, when I did a lot more magazine writing, I would bundle as many assignments as possible and sometimes spend weeks at a time down there. I would keep telling my wife—who was back in Chicago—how miserable I was, but eventually she got wise and demanded I take her with or she'd file for divorce and in public records reveal that I polish my cat's toenails.

 

 

WE: What is your favorite thing about the Caribbean? Least favorite?

GB: A lot of newbie travelers rave about gorgeous sunsets and sugary sand and exotic cuisine, but my favorites are the small things. I love meeting stray dogs you see on almost every beach, giving them a good scratch on their bellies, and telling the locals to shut up and mind their own business when they try to shoo the dogs away. Last December I found a sweet cat on the beach in St. Maarten, and every morning we had breakfast together in the hotel lobby café, with me sitting in front of one plate, she another, her dirty little butt on a placemat. It drove the manager stark raving nuts, so it was a double pleasure. I also enjoy stepping on the flip-flops of margarita-slurping tourists walking in front of me.

My least favorite thing about the Caribbean are mosquito nets. Any membrane that gets between my bladder and the bathroom at two in the morning—and I include pajamas here—is never my friend. If you turn on a light in the middle of the night, your "mosquito" net—a misnomer if there ever was one; they should be called "large-furry-things-with-buck-teeth" net—resembles a Night of the Living Dead reunion. The result being that while trying to make a mad dash from under the elastic, I get more tangled up in netting than a drunken groom in a garter belt, and my wife comes to my rescue by spraying my face with something that smells suspiciously like nuclear waste.

My other least favorite thing is steel drum music. West Indian bands never take breaks. I was not alive when they built the Panama Canal, but in hearing "Yellow Bird" for the zillionth time, my eardrums can imagine what the isthmus must have felt like when that huge, hardened-steel, saw-toothed gnawing wheel ground its way from one ocean to the other.

 

 

WE: From Idi Amin to Princess Diana, you seem to be a magnet for odd encounters with interesting people. What other memorable encounters have you had with the famous (and infamous)?

GB: It's not just me. If anyone hangs around the islands long enough, I guarantee they'll bump into famous peeps. The trick is to act unimpressed. Americans are obnoxiously famous for slobbering over celebs—especially Chicagoans, whose biggest local star is Oprah, so that should tell you how celebrity deprived we are. I once chummed it up with Prince Philip while we were both eating ice cream cones when strolling down Montserrat's main street. He had absolutely no idea who I was, of course—because, in truth, I'm nobody—but he seemed concerned that my flavor may have tasted better than his, and I could see he was anguished that he had made a mistake by order strawberry instead of chocolate. I offered him a lick—he was Prince Philip, after all; he couldn't have had germs—but, being British, he demurred.

I also met Queen Beatrix of Holland in St. Maarten, and she and I, too, shared a couple of yuks. She's not a bad looker, although I had the definite impression she'd rather have been wearing sandals than those queenie pumps.

One night over dinner in Nevis, I sat with a wealthy, older gay guy who owned villas all over the world and who, after a few rum punches, regaled the table with allegedly true stories of his wild parties in the good old days, and how, in his mansion in Cannes, J. Edgard Hoover liked to slide down the banister dressed like Auntie Mame. Don't blame me. I only report the news.

 

 

WE: What do you think of the statement "Truth is stranger than fiction" as relates to your writing?

GB: Life is strange, and the world is a weird place, if you can just get your face out of the refrigerator and your fat ass off the La-Z-Boy. Some of my travel-writer friends (I don't have many, but that's not their fault) complain that there's too much to see and too little space to get it all published. To me, limited print space is a great blessing, because it forces us to distill all our experiences into literary quarks. I honestly don't know what "quarks" are, but they sound like they should be tiny, dense doohickeys. Whether we like it or not, we're all in the entertainment business (at the university where I teach, the creative writing department cringes at this notion because it seems so anti-intellectual—which is why I tell my students that if they really are serious about becoming writers, to get as far away from college as humanly possible), so readers expect, and are entitled to, getting their jollies even out of "truth." There are plenty of funny, poignant, sad, and horrible things out there, so quit griping and do your job. If you call yourself a travel writer and you're not meeting the Idi Amins and the Princess Di's, my advice is to sharpen your pencil. I'm not sure this answers your question, but I feel better. Also, when I say "you," I don't mean you. I mean them.

 

 

WE: What does your wife think of being a central, spendthrift character in your writing?

GB: My wife makes a studious effort not to read my writing, and her mental health is the better for it. It's sort of "don't ask-don't tell," and it's worked, more or less, all these years, so why upset the apple cart? When we first met, she used to edit my manuscripts, until she got tired of crossing out stupid clichés like "why upset the apple cart," so about ten years ago she gave up the whole enterprise in a keen sense of self-preservation and, it must be said, disgust. It turned out to be liberating for me, too, because now I can portray her any way I want with virtual impunity. I say "virtual" because you can bet your bottom dollar (see "stupid clichés," above) that her troublemaking sister will call and say, "Did you read what Gary wrote about your vagina?!" But my wife will never confront me about it because she knows I would just reply, "Well, you shouldn't have stopped editing, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander."

 

 

WE: Do you see yourself moving to the Caribbean full time?

GB: No, because, though rudimentary, I have what's known as a cerebral cortex, which requires periodic stimulation not involving suntan oil and piña coladas. My wife is the opposite, which is why we've managed a marital compromise in which we will at least spend my winter semester breaks down there. I do happen like that time of year in the islands because Christmas in the States involves exchanging presents with people who would prefer to see me dead, and in my neighborhood mail carriers use our plastic lawn Santas for target practice.

 

 

WE: If you were stranded on an uninhabited Caribbean island, what three things would you bring with you?

GB: What a great question! This is the best interview question anyone has ever asked me. I say that because I'm stalling for a minute while I think. I'm tempted to be funny here, but, in fact, this question requires a serious answer because whenever you fly anywhere throughout the Caribbean, you should always be prepared to get stranded on an uninhabited island. On one airline the emergency door says, LOCK SECURELY, BUT ONLY IF YOU REALLY TRULY FEEL LIKE IT, and one night I was having dinner at a Nevis guest house, when one of my table mates, a pilot for the local airline, asked if I would consider going to St. Kitts the next day and, if so, would I like to be his copilot? I'm pretty sure he meant this literally, not romantically, but who knows?

But I've stalled long enough—no pun intended—and will now try to answer your question. Theoretically I would always take my cat, Babs, the love of my life. But, of course, this would be a "who," not a "what," so let me think a little harder. I know: I'd bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Diet Coke, so if it turns out to be my last meal, I'd at least die happy. I don't know if you'd count that as one item or two. If two, then my last item would be a catnip mouse, for obvious reasons.

 

 

WE: Have you perfected your Cuban cigar smuggling routine yet?

GB: When sneaking Cuban cigars past customs, the important thing is to not separate them. At the Miami airport, security agents are highly trained to spot individual cigars on an X-ray screen. If you are caught, they will waterboard you until you confess to having understated the total value of cocktail stirrers you brought back into the country, and they will cavity search your wife for illicit rubber alligators. They will also confiscate your Big & Buxom Biker Chicks magazine. On the other hand, if you tie your Cuban cigars together, they will show up on the screen as a bundle of dynamite, and you'll zip through customs like a VIP.

 

 

WE: Do you have a favorite Caribbean island?

GB: I'm fond of the Dutch islands, such as St. Maarten, Curacao, and Aruba. The Dutch run their tourism-related businesses cleanly and efficiently, in order to make up for the fact that you have to dig up tulip bulbs every fall and replant them in the spring. Also, the Dutch are funnier than other people when they're drunk. They climb palm trees for no apparent reason and tend to fall on their heads. I suspect this has something to do with tulip bulbs.

 

 

WE: What aspects of the Caribbean do you find particularly interesting, from an historical perspective?

GB: I'm intrigued by the number of Jewish synagogues that all claim to be the first in the Western Hemisphere. Almost every island has one, which you can visit for normally five dollars, but for you, three-fifty. On several islands the synagogues themselves are gone, but we know there must have been thriving pre-Columbian Hebrew communities there because you can still see plaques on ancient volcanic boulders that say GIFT OF MAX AND ESTHER FLEISCHMAN.

WE: Thanks so much, Gary! I LOVE your book, and highly recommend it.

For more information, please see:
http://www.arottenperson.com

 

 

 

Comments (1)

  • farsighted girl

    11 years 10 months ago

    Gary sent me his book several months before the travel blog exchange conference so I already had a well-developed idea of him when I saw him in his Hawaiian shirt! His persepective is very snarky and I have to say his book is like no other travel book I've ever read. My favorite story is his experience in Grenada, which was probably the most serious story in the book. Knowing the  tragedy of the war that took place shorty after makes the tale even more compelling. Since I specialize in the Caribbean region, it's interesting to get the perspective of someone who also visits frequently. I totally agree about the synagogues!

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