05 April 2012

What Would Bimini Be?

Alice Town, North Bimini, Bahamas

Sunday morning.

We're sitting at a table against the far wall of Capt. Bob's restaurant.  If this were a New York deli its wall space would be plastered with autographed headshots of celebrities.  Here it is given over to the local corollary: sport fishermen displaying their catch.  Capt. Bob's is reputed by our guidebook to have the best breakfast in Bimini and true enough, the place is nearly full when we walk in.  We are, I notice, the only customers to arrive as a duo.  Seated at the other tables are groups of all men, all dressed in the uniform of sportfishermen: white, long sleeve Ts, commemorating some previous sport fishing event,  cargo shorts, flip-flops and randomly-logoed ball caps (the cruiser uniform is nearly identical differing only in that the ball cap is usually replaced by a visor and the  well-washed T-shirt invariably advertises some Caribbean locale).
Most of the breakfast selections are local facsimiles of American favorites; a very few  are authentically Bahamian.  Jane orders an egg, bacon, and cheese sandwich on Bimini Bread (think Texas toast only very slightly sweeter). In keeping with my "eat what you haven't et" philosophy, I order the grouper stew.  A few minutes later, the waitress brings over two identical plates, stating, "bacon, egg, and cheese."  No sooner do I attempt to set things straight than she realizes her mistake and delivers them to the table behind us.  Before Jane is served her breakfast sandwich, two more of exactly the same are delivered behind us as well.  Jane's bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich is the fifth in a row.  I suspect they keep up with demand only by making them continually.  My grouper stew arrives about 10 minutes later, only after our waitress notices that I have no food which seems to remind her to remind the cook.  When she does finally put it down in front of me, she announces with a wide smile that the grouper had been caught fresh that morning and from the taste of it, I judge she is telling the truth.  Unlike their breakfast sandwiches, their idea of stew is very different from ours.  My grouper, cut into hunks then lightly breaded and deep fried, floats vegetableless in a bowl of what looks  like brown gravy, but is spicy and tangy.  On this occasion I am rewarded for my gastronomical courage.  It is very tasty.

As we finish our breakfasts (or, more accurately, as I finish mine, Jane having got a huge headstart), we notice a change in the clientele.  Tables of fishermen, now fortified and gone off to sea are replaced by groups of locals.  They seem to be there to visit more than to eat.  The vibe is louder yet somehow more relaxed.  I sense the staff doesn't mind this collective mood swing.

We pay our tab and step back out onto King's Highway, to the joyful sound of live gospel music. About a block down, outside of the Bimini Museum, a group of women  and men, dressed as if for church, stand under a tent.  As we get nearer, we realize they are the church. Attendees arrive by golf-cart which double as pews.  Those too young to drive come on foot and line the steps to museum's second story entrance.  The hymns are performed in multiple part harmonies and sung to the accompaniment of a  portable keyboard.  These don't end as much as they slowly fade away, their choruses repeated for as long as the singers see they are holding "the crowd's" attention.  

I watch the other tourists (our cameras, souvenir shop bags and white skin make us easy to spot) and I watch Biminites watching us observe this celebration of the gospel.  While we cannot be prohibited from attending (being right  out on the main street), I sense neither are we particularly invited other than that welcoming all into God's fold, they understand, is incumbent upon them as Christians.  Then again, Jesus never said we had to get giddy with excitement at the prospect of welcoming the stranger.

All of this makes me wonder: what would Bimini be if weren't so entirely dependent on American tourist dollars?  What could Bimini be if it weren't "the game fishing capital of the world?"  Alice Town, the commercial center of North Bimini, is dominated by marinas which collectively cater to sport fishermen in every budget range.  From Weech's on the one end, barely more than a secure slip for you boat and shore power, to Bimini Big Game Marina, a full-service resort with everything from an outdoor pool and outdoor pool tables to aged Angus burgers and mandarin orange salads in the upscale restaurant, not to mention complimentary wi-fi.  Bimini is a third-world country; Bimini Big Game Marina is a little America.  Walk through the entrance and you are instantly transported to a completely different world.  "What a difference a gate makes," I remarked to Jane when we walked over from our marina later in the day for cocktails and a hotspot.  How can Biminites not resent Americans for running roughshod over their country?  How is it not made worse by the utterly complete racial disparity--we are always white; they are always black.  They are the descendants of slaves, too.  But on the other hand, Bimini would have no viable industry were it not for the Americans with their compensatorily oversized fishing boats and the service being able to afford them makes them feel they are entitled to.  This ongoing, unsolvable tension is plain on the faces of Biminites who greet us as we pass.  They wish we would just leave but they know they desperately need us to keep coming back.

As an American traveling abroad, I wonder at my abiding responsibility in all this.  I attended seminary for too long not to take this joy thing seriously.  We Earthlings are, I believe, the primary cause of one another's happiness or absence thereof.  If there is to be "more joy everywhere" it will only come about because people spread it.  If not me then who?  If not now then when?  How do I pay back all that I owe, or if not "owe" exactly, how can I pay forward some of what I get?  A lot of the countries we intend to visit belong to the  "two-thirds world"so this, I know, will come up again.  It is not, as the theologian, Eric Bonhoeffer put it, "cheap grace" I'm talking about, I'm not looking for a way to assuage my (nonexistent) guilt. I want to really help in ways that our nomadic lifestyle renders us especially suited to offer.

My thoughts dissipate with a break in the traffic.  We want to take a few moments to visit the museum, but to do so we need to squeeze past the "choir" and don't want to interrupt the hymn which we are beginning to doubt will ever end.  Jane points out a couple standing at the entrance to the museum with the opposite problem.  Finally, the keyboardist stops, cueing the singers to quit.  Jane makes a run for it.  I want a picture of them so I run over to a wicker basket sitting on a chair to the left of the keyboard player.  I ask him if it's the donation basket--there is no other money in it--he confirms that it is and I toss in a five dollar bill, precious to us because it's American, but I have no Bahamian on me.  I ask if I may take a picture of them, he tells me I can, I run back across the street to get the shot so that I can run back again before they start the next song.  Jane has already disappeared inside and the other couple has made a hasty escape as well.

The small, one room museum, more on the order of a three-dimensional scrapbook, is dedicated to the history of Bimini, or so it says.  On the wall opposite the entrance, there is the requisite description of the Arawaks or Lucayans, the pre-colombian civilization wiped out within 30 years of Columbus' first visit to the new world.  The entire era of "wrecking" is covered with one picture and three paragraphs.  There are mentions of those who have been large patrons of the island chain and displays of those who have received the honor of the MBE (Member of the British Empire), under-appreciated by the likes of me.  Far more space overall is dedicated to--what else--sportfishermen and their catches.  It is a curated version of Capt. Bob's' walls, with the name of each fisherman along with the kind, weight, and date of his catch.  The "catch of the day" for us though is the history of the phrase, "the real McCoy."  It turns out there really was a "real McCoy."  Huh.

I happen to glance over at the wall to the left of the entrance where patrons of the museum are listed (Jimmy Buffet  is one), and become aware that down below the singing is over and the preaching has begun. I can see that one of the singers, a tall man with a greying goatee, is launching, with due urgency, into the heart of his message.  Hell, he assures the sparsely gathered flock, is the only eternal destination for those who do not accept Jesus into their lives as their Lord and Savior.  Like the hymns, he repeats this warning (albeit worded slightly differently) for as long as he thinks people will listen.  I catch up with Jane and we make our way through the rest of the wall displays.  We note that anyone who has ever had any connection with Bimini is mentioned.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s visit to Bimini, during which he wrote part of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech gets nearly a whole wall.  Notably absent from the museum (if not elsewhere on the island), is mention of famed sport fisher (and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist) Ernest Hemingway, who apparently hung out here with his fishing pals.  "Good for them," I think.  Unlike Key West and Oak Park, IL and Cuba for all I know, who will forever leverage their own Hemingway connections for all they are worth, Bimini has its own ethos, its own identity.  Fraught as it may be. 

When we've finished our tour of the museum, we come to the pragmatic conclusion that it is less sinful to sneak past speaking than singing.   We edge past the step-occupying children on our way down the stairs and sidle past one of the now resting members of the choir.  The preacher is still assuring all those within earshot of the grave consequences of denying God through Jesus.  We don't stick around to hear the part where he will, I'm sure, promise glorious eternal life to those who do accept Jesus.  In retrospect, I think I'm a little envious.  He's already found his way of spreading joy; I'm still looking for mine.

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