If you’re planning to trade your civilized existence for a decidedly less structured life in the tropics, there is something you should know before you get here. I’m not talking about the basics – like finding no bananas in the grocery store on a regular basis or struggling with internet speeds that, if you’re lucky, hit 10 Mbs. Rather, I’d like to illuminate something slightly more obscure – yet equally frustrating – that awaits you in the land of palm trees and salty seas.
Before I get started, let me assure you that even an island girl of my seasoned status occasionally falls victim to these surreal scenarios. I should know better. Yet in a moment of weakness, I cannot help myself. Terrible, no?
And let me add one more caveat. I am not sharing this in an effort to deter you from joining me with your toes in the sand and a cocktail in hand. The beach is big enough for all of us, even if I don’t always want to share my beach blanket. Rather, I offer this insight to help you best prepare for your entreé into island life. Or, as in my case, a crash refresher course in island etiquette.
Let’s begin, shall we?
There is a universal truth known to all seasoned islanders. There is no such thing as customer service in the Caribbean. At least not what you’re used to back in the civilized world.
Allow me to share two examples that illustrate this cheeky – yet true – statement.
Recently, I needed replacement ink cartridges for the cheap-o printer I purchased at the local “department” store. Why the quotes? Because the Caribbean doesn’t really have department stores, at least not along the lines of Nordstrom or even Target. I wish.
The store in question is called City Shop where you’ll find basic items loosely displayed by category (furniture, electronics, appliances, etc.), all sharing one characteristic – everything is exorbitantly priced. Yet as the only option in town, they have, as they say, cornered the market. Which is why I bought a basic printer there a few months ago. (I refuse to splurge on expensive printers, as the weather here destroys them every few months anyway.)
And after that straightforward (albeit pricey) purchase, you wouldn’t blame me for thinking that returning to buy something like replacement ink cartridges should be a simple, straightforward, and, dare I say, pleasant experience. You’d be wrong.
My first mistake when returning to the store for fresh ink was not sufficiently noting the cartridge number. Instead, in my haste to get out the door to run errands that morning, I jotted down the printer model and name. Obviously, I was thinking that since I bought the damn printer at the same store, it would be easy to identify the replacement cartridge. Critical error #1.
When I walked in, I noted that I was, indeed, the only person in the entire, spacious store. Well, me and about ten unsmiling sales associates. Still believing I was on an easy mission, I approached the electronics counter where two young women wearing bright yellow shirts were sitting behind computers. Knowing the importance of always maintaining a saccharine-sweet demeanor to make any progress whatsoever on this island, I pleasantly asked unsmiling girl #1 if I could get replacement printer cartridges for my specific printer model.
This is the actual exchange that followed:
Girl #1 (Barely glancing up from her phone and certainly not smiling): Cartridge number?
Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t write it down. I only have the printer info.
Girl #1: I can’t find the cartridge without the cartridge model number. (At which point she stopped clacking on her phone’s keyboard with her dragon-lady nails and leveled a very blank stare at me.)
Me (Despite her icy glare, I kept smiling. Yet simultaneously made my second critical error): Could you possibly look the cartridge number up for me? (WTH, Liz! Never, never, never ask a Caribbean sales clerk to do anything remotely beyond the bare minimums of their jobs. I know this, yet the words flew out of my mouth before I could stop them. The atmosphere got decidedly chillier than the already air-conditioned 72F.)
Girl #1: No. I don’t have internet. (I don’t believe this. Not for a second. She was just rapidly WhatsApping.) You can’t get the cartridge without the cartridge number.
Me (Getting mildly annoyed both by my own stupidity and her attitude, I attempted to employ reason and logic to the situation. Mistake #3.): Um, ok. Well, the printer was the blue and white ones that you guys were selling for $69 a month ago. Do you recall the cartridges that fit those printers? (Damn it, Liz, again? You asked ANOTHER effin’ question? WTF are you thinking?!)
Girl #1: No, I don’t.
At which point, I walked a few feet away to the shelves full of printers and pointed at one that looked similar to the printer I bought. In hindsight, I’m not really sure what I hoped to accomplish by this, other than, perhaps, to move beyond slapping distance of this sales girl who was really starting to annoy me.
Me: It looked like this one (Pointing at a similar-looking HP model).
Girl #1: All printers have different cartridges (Fair point). Without the cartridge number, I can’t help you. (Of course not.)
Me (Moving back to the counter): And you can’t look it up? (mistake #4. STFU, Liz, you’re only making this worse. She already said no. Clearly.)
Girl #1: No. I don’t have internet. (This. Is. A. Total. Lie. I know this in my heart.)
Me (Getting flustered, even though I know better.): Ok, fine. I DO have internet (said in a snotty tone while I pulled my iPhone with the overpriced data plan from my purse with a dramatic flourish). I will look it up. No worries! (As you can already guess, my demeanor and actions combined were critical error #5. At the same time, my confidence in getting any ink cartridge that day was rapidly waning. Yet somehow I couldn’t help myself. Everything I’d ever learned in seven years about surviving as an Island Girl just flew out the window.)
Girl #1 (Frowning, she shot me a withering stare while simultaneously glancing side-eyed at her colleague who has by now stopped texting with HER dragon lady nails on HER phone to glare at me, too.): You mean the printers that were stacked right there? (Pointing with one glittering talon to the spot where the cheap-o printers were indeed stacked when they were available).
Me: Yes, those printers.
Girl #1: Those need cartridge 664. (Huh? Bravo for her sudden recollection!)
Me (In a general state of total disbelief at this turn of events): Um, ok. Do you have any?
Girl #1 (Nonchalantly, as if the entire preceding conversation had never taken place): Do you want color or black & white?
Me (Unable to contain the look of disdain on my face. Rookie mistake #6. No matter how irritated you may be, you cannot let on that you are anything but thrilled that someone is waiting on you. Eternally grateful that the clerk has, in fact, gone so far beyond the call of duty that you feel compelled to offer a kidney or your first-born in a grand gesture of undying gratitude.): Both. The extra large ones (rationalizing that I won’t have to come back as soon to repeat this charade).
At which point, Girl #1 dramatically sighs and gets up off her chair to go into the storage area to find my ink cartridges. Of course, I am still not sure that I will actually get my cartridges since she could still decide that I am not deserving and tell me they are out of stock. After all, I have made numerous missteps in the complicated Caribbean customer/clerk dance.
But through some miracle that I shall never question, two very overpriced ink cartridges appeared from the abyss and I handed over $70. As soon as I had the coveted cartridges in my possession and stowed safely in my purse, I hastily made my exit from the store. Not before, of course, overhearing Girl #1 and Girl #2 animatedly chatting. Even if I didn’t fully understand the language, their tone made it abundantly clear it was about me. And not in a good way.
Of course, I should have known better. This was all my own fault. I fully understand that my role in any consumer transaction here is to grovel and accept whatever treatment is thrown my way. After all, if I fail to plan and cannot wait for an Amazon order to get here, I am at the mercy of the price-gouging vendors and their decidedly unhelpful employees. I know this. But sometimes you just can’t help yourself. Thankfully, I now have enough ink to last me a while. At least until my next Amazon order arrives.
Example number two happened to someone I know. Needing help with her home internet, she popped into the Telbo store (one of our phone/internet service providers) to chat with a customer service clerk. Noting two open windows, only one being occupied by a customer, she smilingly approached the empty window where a girl behind the glass was texting on her phone with her dragon-lady/airbrushed nails. I sense an island trend.
My Acquaintance: Hello, I need to add a service to my home internet package (roughly translated into “I want to voluntarily give you MORE of my money for even MORE of your crappy service).
Clerk (looking up, clearly perturbed at being interrupted): You need to take a number.
My Acquaintance (Looking around at the empty reception area devoid of any other customers.): But there’s no one else here. Just me. (Critical error #1, challenging the clerk.)
Clerk (Unsmiling and looking even more perturbed.): You need to go back to the reception desk, take a number, then sit down and wait for your turn. That’s how it works.
Now, my acquaintance is not stupid. She’s been here a really long time. Far longer than me, and definitely long enough to perfect her island customer service responses. So she went back and got a number, then took her seat in the still-empty waiting area. Meanwhile, the girl behind the glass resumed texting on her phone, never looking up. My acquaintance waited. And waited. And waited. Like forty-five minutes.
Eventually, the second clerk finished with his client, walked her to the exit, shook her hand, and sent her on her way. Upon resuming his position behind his window, the magical bell dinged and my acquaintance’s number illuminated on the overhead display. Thinking that perhaps only the male clerk was actually serving clients that day, imagine my acquaintance’s surprise when she was called to the window of the girl who originally told her to take a number.
Clerk (with a smirk and a tap of her nails on the counter): Hello, how can I help you today?
Knowing what’s good for her, my acquaintance smiled back and dutifully sat down. As you can see, my acquaintance has mastered the art of island customer service. I could still learn a lot from her, it seems.
Got questions? Comments? Want to know more about island life? Thinking about making a big life change? I’d love to hear from you.