31 July 2012

An Enquiry in to the Betterness of the Bahamas

Dear readers,

My original intent for this post was to offer you my insights on The Bahamas, it's people, it's land, and so forth. It was, in fact, to have been the first in an ongoing series of exposes into the culturally inscribed DNA of the citizenry of the various countries into which we temporarily ensconce ourselves. To that end, I had been collecting some choice phrases with which to add a certain journalistic flair to my reflections, phrases such as, "Behind the rugged backdrop of (appropriate land formation to have been inserted here), a (flattering character trait here) people..." or, "Undaunted by a legacy of (hardship or uncertainty or colonialism, etc., etc.) the Bahamian people look ever (something)ly toward the future.

That post will have to wait, however, as I have more pressing things to report. It's just as well actually as my efforts have yielded far less information from which to compile an incisive report than I expected. I, too, am a bit baffled by this. It may simply be that Bahamians are an exceptionally guarded people. This, at least, is the impression I have come away with. How else to explain the resistance I have encountered when trying to draw these people out? When I consider the number of times I have inquired with significance as to the well being of the person handing me my change at the market or my bill at a restaurant all while offering them my most inviting, most empathic smile only to receive as friendly, yet somehow distantly polite a "fine, thank you" as one can imagine, I can find no other reasonable explanation. It was as though the invitation to tell me about their lives was not plain as day in my demeanor.

There have been, I am pleased to report, scant exceptions to this teal wall of silence. Though even in the aggregate, these instances of meaningful contact fall short of the robustness necessary for a valid cultural analysis. Thus, they offer the reader a merely anecdotal account of the essence of Bahamianism. Of these noteworthy instances, I am perhaps most gratified by an encounter we had with a gentlemen by the name of Antony on the island of Andros. (We have observed a charming tendency among Bahamians to place the accent on the penultimate syllable of polysyllabic words and on the latter syllable of words possessing two syllables. Thus, instead of pronouncing the Bahamian capital city "NASSau", as we do in The States, they pronounce it "nassAU". Likewise, when Antony introduced himself, he pronounced his name "anTONy" and his home island, "anDROS.") We were obliged to check in with customs and immigration upon our return to the Bahamas at the end of June and chose Andros as our port of entry due to its proximity to Key West. There are two settlements on the east side of Andros, one about forty miles to the north of the other. Since we had no other reason for stopping at Andros, it was preferable to us, naturally, that we be able to check in at the more southern settlement, Kemps Bay. To do this, however, we needed to contact Immigration at the Congo Town airport to ascertain whether they would drive down to meet us, or whether we'd need to make our way up the coast to the more northern settlement, Driggs Hill. To do that, we needed to put minutes on our Bahamian phone card.

Pulling into what was advertised in our guidebook as a dock, we went immediately aground. We were undeterred by this turn of events and dropped the anchor in case the tide rose enough to cause us to drift off. Then while I lowered the dinghy, Jane spent a few moments making herself presentable for a visit onshore. According to maritime law, the captain of a vessel alone may go ashore until that vessel and her crew have been checked into the country. On top of this, we agreed that JOY shouldn't be left alone while she sat aground so I stayed behind. With a bit of apprehension to be sure, did I watch Jane speed off in the dinghy.

We both assumed that the BaTelCo office, where she could put more minutes on our phone, could not be more than short walk away in a settlement as small as any on Andros must be. In this, we were greatly mistaken Antony explained to Jane when he showed up out of nowhere to offer her a ride.

During the trip, first to the BaTelCo office, which was closed for lunch and then to the convenience store because Antony insisted that she not have to wait, he explained to her how he'd been employed by a bone fishing lodge on the island until it closed down and had since been out of work. She even met his five sons who came along for the ride. We were very fortunate to have run into Antony. He was atypically candid, all but laying bare his entire existence before us.

Also, there was the owner of the Chat 'n' Chill, a tiki bar on Stocking Island in the Exumas. As it is well past the cruising season and also because it was just before their closing time, we had the place to ourselves. A gentleman, whose name I failed to obtain, introduced himself as the owner of the establishment and engaged us in the usual rounds of small talk. Unbeknownst to him, however, I was not going to let this precious opportunity to assemble some sense of the essential character of the Bahamian people get away from me. I cannot overstate what a wise choice that was on my part. The gentleman proved to be a fascinating admixture of ambition and ease. A graduate of the University of Chicago's Economics program, (which, I informed Jane when he revealed this nugget, has graduated more Nobel Laureates in Economics than any other institution in the world, establishing, I could tell, an instant rapport between him and me, as was my intention) he, rather than join the rank and file immediately, chose to travel around the world before returning to his homeland to begin his own enterprise.

He sat with us for awhile discussing sundry topics. Jane conversed with him in a traditional manner while I, keenly aware of my mission, opted for enthusiastic, yet noncommittal intonations. When he was at last convinced that he had met his intellectual equals, he excused himself and returned to his seat at a corner table.  Finally, I felt that perhaps I was beginning to see a chink or two in the social armor of this insular society.

Our last worthwhile interchange took place with a guide from the Bahamian National Park service who we engaged, ostensibly, to give us a tour of the park and its colony of pink flamingos. By this time, I realized that I would need to take a more cunning approach if I was ever to wrest any useful impressions from these people and this seemed the perfect opportunity to do so.

Mr. Nixon, the bird warden for the park and our guide picked us up in front of the General Store at eight in the morning as agreed. We were a little early and I passed the time until his arrival by studying the notices on the bulletin board outside of the store, a preponderance of which advertised all manner of activities and events related to something called "Homecoming." A more perfect conversation starter, I could not have found. Between that and an explanation of the purpose of the very short, pitched roof dwellings found on almost every parcel of land adjacent to their main structures, I had plenty of fodder with which to draw out our guide on matters unrelated to the island's ornithological diversity.

The answer to the small dwelling question turned out to be not all that interesting; they housed rain barrels and date from before the island was plumbed for fresh water, though many are used to collect rainwater still. The explanation of Homecoming was far more fruitful. It turns out that Bahamians have enormous respect for the concept of family values. So much so that they have declared a national holiday to promote them.  Homecoming is an annual event held in August. Bahamians living abroad return to their home islands to be with family and friends. As Mr. Nikon explained it, Homecoming has something to do with commemorating the emancipation of their enslaved ancestors. But regardless of whatever they might choose to serve as a catalyst for this annual migration, their dedication to and enthusiasm for this pilgrimage and to the pilgrims themselves, welcoming them with parties, sporting events, "fests" and many other types of revelry is most illustrative. I believe, in fact, it is the key to understanding why interest expressed by outsiders, no matter how sincere or fervent is met with indifference. The support they receive from their own, their extreme commitment to one another's welfare is what makes them an inward looking people

I feel certain that when Mr. Nixon answered my question, he had no idea what a sympathetic and unbiased ethnographer he was dealing with. I wish only that the many other individuals I strove to engage would have been more forthcoming. But even their reticence speaks volumes to someone who knows how to read between their cryptic lines.

It is with no small amount of disappointment, however, that I must reiterate: these few encounters, satisfying in their own right as they may have been, are nonetheless inadequate to the task I'd set out to accomplish. Obviously, no valid study of the tenor of a society can be either rendered or inferred from such a woefully insufficient data pool.

Yet all may not be lost for my national ethos study series, returning to the more pressing matter at hand. I am hopeful that the two days we have to spend in Haiti will prove more profitable, withal and, I am most excited to report, I have reason to believe it will be so. I have already had my first contact with a Haitian and we haven't yet been off the boat.

It happened fairly early in the morning as we were motoring along the coast near where the fisherpeople cast their nets. I looked up from my book to see a man approaching in a wooden boat which he was propelling with a single oar. He raised his arm in a gesture of greeting and I did likewise.

"Eh!" he called out. I was greatly pleased to be this close to a native as it afforded me a much anticipated opportunity to use the French I'd been practicing.

"Bonjour. Je ne parle pas francais!" I yelled in a cheery voice and shrugged amiably.

He made some sound in answer which I couldn't make out and kept advancing toward me. Understandably, this made me a little nervous. I sensed he was trying to get me to buy some fish, utterly uncognizant of what it would take to stop a yacht as large as ours to transact business mid-ocean or the complete unfeasibility of regaining steerage should one be so foolish as to try. Fortuitously, JOY motored much faster than the man could row. I did not wish to appear uncivil though, so I waved again calling out "Au revoir!" as I left him in my wake.

I finished my pleasant exchange with the man in the boat just in time to veer out of the way of a fishing buoy. Had I seen it a moment later, I might very well have gotten the net attached to it tangled in our prop, causing our passage to come to a quick halt, yes, but more tragically, putting an end to someone's career.  I must say I find it a little surprising that the fisherpeople don't consider one another's equipment more often when attempting to accost, albeit in a most friendly manner, transiting vessels. Clearly, my work in revealing to you, my readers, the essence of Haitian culture is cut out for me.


  1. So glad you made it, though not completely safe and sound! Though I feel your snorkeling skills may be about to improve. So please read White woman green bicycle by Roffey. It's set in Trinidad but an interesting insite to the Carribean. I'm guessing y'all have Kindle or one of those electronic books!

  2. Jane'll have plenty of time to read for the next four weeks, but snorkeling in a plaster cast...

    Sounds like you had a great time in TC. I hate it when I miss the food fests.