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Political debate in a parking lot

October 9, 2011

Bahamians have elevated the simple act of hanging out in a parking lot to an art form. The absence of open container laws turns many liquor stores into local hangouts, each with their own crowd of regulars and unique personalities. Bill and I have two favorite spots for after-work beers to beat the heat and catch up on the news of the day. We’re often joined by Bill’s best buddy Rev, a native Exumian who has become my personal tutor for all things (or “tings”) Bahamian.

The closest option is Bristol’s Wines & Spirits, which is across the street from Sandals, making it a popular spot for the golf crew in the afternoons. Rev and Bill have nicknamed it the “Shark Shack” since some of the regulars can get a bit too pushy asking others for a free beer, particularly when their wallets are a little light as payday approaches. Bristol’s is next to one of our two grocery stores, Emerald Isle Market, so I’ll swing in the store to pick up a couple things while Bill and Rev stake out our spot at Bristol’s.

Last week at Bristol’s, Rev was telling me his perspective of some of the things I had read in a Bahamian history book, which helps me understand how things really work over here. Two other friends joined our conversation, quickly leading to a scene I have never witnessed in the U.S. In the time it took for me to open a beer, the three men started debating politics and history with a passion working class men in the states usually reserve for liquor-infused arguments about the flaws of the BCS or Chevy versus Ford.

I’m still trying to learn about the political structure and positions of the various political parties in the Bahamas, so stating my personal opinion is premature at best and irrelevant to my experience at Bristol’s. It wasn’t the content of their arguments I found so intriguing; their national pride was so raw and on display that I stopped listening to their words and found myself wrapped up in the overall scene. Most of the men in the parking lot were born around the same time the country gained its independence, so the people and the nation are growing up together. The debates and news articles are not as polished as what I’m used to in the states, but most political commentary rarely rise above an 8th grade level regardless of location.

One of my j-school professors told us journalism is the first draft of history. Every time I read editorials in the Nassau Guardian, listen to our radio talk shows, and even jump into parking lot debates, I feel like I’m witnessing the first draft of the next chapter of the history of the Bahamas. If we had a Bahamian version of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, my world would be complete.

The right way, the wrong way, and the Bahamian way

October 1, 2011
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For the first time in over a month I now have secure, reliable access to the internet, thus bringing an end to my blogging hiatus. After Hurricane Irene skipped across our cays I miraculously had internet and electricity within a day of the storm’s passing. It was too good to be true. Within a week my internet connection disappeared, throwing me back into the prehistoric world I lived in for my first four months in Exuma. A bit of history…

As I said before, Bill arrived in Exuma about a month before I did. In early March he visited the Bahamas Telecommunication Company (BTC) to set up our home internet connection. Sounds like a simple transaction. After multiple visits to the office in Farmer’s Hill and then even more frequent trips and phone calls to the main office in George Town I found out BTC was in the middle of upgrading the internet service in my little section of paradise. Apparently about 30 other people were also eagerly awaiting internet connection in Tar Bay. I didn’t even know we had that many houses in this area.

In the beginning of August I was once again I was sitting in the office of my favorite BTC manager when he finally called a technician not assigned to my area. After a brief exchange in hushed tones, likely for dramatic effect to appease my pain, I had a technician heading to my house in 30 minutes – a mere four and a half months after our initial service request. I had internet for about six glorious weeks. Life was good. And then one week after the hurricane my internet connection disappeared, washed out to sea along with half the sand on my beach.

Back to my old routine calling and visiting BTC ad nauseam, but this time I also started stalking BTC service trucks on the side of the road and in parking lots. A few technicians made half-hearted promises to squeeze me in their schedule or call me later, but today I hit the jackpot. I pleaded my case to a very nice BTC technician I met on my way home from running errands, and after assuring him my dogs would be safely locked in another room, he came to the house and restored my internet service.

Through trial and error and hounding locals and seasoned expats for advice, I’m starting to learn how to get things done the Bahamian way. In my six months on the island I’ve found the cheapest beer, freshest bread, the only propane supplier, ice on Sundays, and now the best way to restore internet connection. My next quest is for the best souse in Exuma.

We plan, God laughs

August 22, 2011

the calm before the storm

Before I left Florida in March, I purchased a plane ticket to come back to the states in August for a little shopping and to visit my grandmother in Wisconsin. I’m a native Floridian, so I should know better than to schedule travel between the Bahamas and Florida at the peak of hurricane season. But as a Florida kid, I also have a strong aversion to visiting Wisconsin in the fall since there could be snow, something I fear more than a hurricane. So here I am, watching the Weather Channel track Hurricane Irene as she quickly approaches the Bahamas.

I have a ticket to fly to Ft. Lauderdale tomorrow afternoon where I will then drive to Tampa. On Thursday, my mom and I are flying from Tampa to Wisconsin to visit my grandmother, assuming I make it to the states on Tuesday. A few weeks ago there was a slim chance Tropical Storm Emily would flirt with the islands, but we hardly got a drop of rain from that non-event. However, the airport in Exuma shut down the day before the suspected landfall as a precautionary measure. Will they do the same tomorrow in anticipation of Hurricane Irene? Guess I’ll find out sometime tomorrow.

I called the airport yesterday inquiring about possible early closures or flight cancellations and was told they would know on Tuesday if they were doing anything. On Tuesday. In hindsight, I should have known the answer but it didn’t hurt to ask. I was even willing to pay the fee to change my ticket to fly out today to get ahead of the storm, but the flight was booked. All 19 seats on the plane.

So here I am, working on a few different contingency plans: packing for my trip to Tampa/Wisconsin in hopes that my flight leaves tomorrow as scheduled, packing an overnight bag for Bill and the hounds in case they decide to spend the night at Sandals when/if the storm hits the island, gathering hurricane supplies for Bill and the hounds to have at the house, and bringing in all the possible projectiles from outside. I’m not concerned. I’m annoyed.

When we arrived in Exuma, other expats advised us to go off island every two to three months so we didn’t go crazy. I’ve been here five months and have not felt the need to leave. All I want to do in the states is go to Target, see my grandmother, get my hair cut and colored, and eat some of my favorite junk food I can’t get in Exuma. In full disclosure, the biggest thing I want from the states is a new vacuum cleaner. When I moved here I gave my Dyson upright to my mother and in exchange she has ordered me the small canister version since I can pack it in a suitcase to bring back to Exuma. Right now I have a cordless stick vac that was not designed to clean a house on the beach with two dogs and two cats. I desperately need this vacuum.

I have a feeling I’ll need to update this blog post in the near future. For now, it’s back to hurricane prep and vacation packing.

George Town Public Library

August 16, 2011

Bring a book to donate on your trip to Exuma.

Now that I am unemployed I have much more free time to kick back with a book, and I don’t feel the pressure to read a book “for pleasure” that really is based on work. I don’t have a Kindle/Nook/iPad and I’m not certain when or if I’ll break down and buy an e-book reader. Bill has an iPad but if I hijacked it to read a book I might end up in divorce court. So it’s just me and the old trusty book, ink on paper. I shipped a Rubbermaid bin of books to Exuma when we made the move since books are considered educational materials and therefore are exempt from duty fees. But in my quest to learn more about Exuma, I went to the library to check out a couple books and to get a glimpse into what a library is like on the island.

The George Town Public Library is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., so you need to plan your day accordingly if you’re going to make a visit. The library is in “downtown” George Town across the street from the straw market in a small, one-story building that looks like it used to be a house. The library is operated off donations and is run by a group of volunteers. They will gladly take your used books to add to the collection, or if they already have the book in circulation it will be placed on their shelf of books for sale.

I purchased my annual pass for $3, which is probably the best investment I’ve made in Exuma. Forget the Dewey Decimal System, if you can remember it, since the library is organized more like a Barnes and Noble with sections for children, self help, classics, boating, biographies, mystery, and so on. Finding your book is a bit of a scavenger hunt, but that’s what makes it fun.

I worked in higher education for 10 years so I’m used to books and library cards with barcodes. Now I feel like I’m back at Orange Park Elementary School with the pocket glued to the inside back cover holding the card with due dates stamped down the rows. When you bring your book to the desk by the door, the library lady pulls the card from the book and files it in her drawer under your last name. Now here’s the kicker. Some books are more popular, or valuable, or both, so you have to put down a deposit if you’re going to check out one of these books. Of course the first book I wanted required a deposit, which I was happy to do, but the nice library ladies working on Mondays don’t ask me for a deposit.

I like to get their recommendations for books on the Bahamas and Exuma, so my first read was Wind from the Carolinas by Robert Wilder. It’s a fictional account of a Loyalist family moving to Exuma after the Revolutionary War in a failed attempt to replicate the plantation life of the South in the Bahamas. While it is fiction, it’s a fairly accurate representation of the history of the Family Islands and is the perfect introduction to Bahamian history and culture. On my trip to the library yesterday, the lovely library ladies encouraged me to check out Out-Island Doctor by Evans W. Cottman and I also picked up A History of the Bahamas by Michael Craton (both sans deposit).

On my way home from the library I did my good deed for the day and gave some tourists a ride back to the Coconut Cove Hotel. They were from Sweden and were on their honeymoon. Very nice folks, but I suspect the August heat in Exuma made them feel like they were standing on the surface of the sun. In my former life I worked in PR so I couldn’t resist giving them the address for my blog. Maybe I’ll get an international following.

Gone fishin’

August 14, 2011

Saturday's haul

I’m from Florida, so I’m used to sweltering August temperatures. The Bahamas is very similar to Florida but many days we have a nice breeze that makes it somewhat bearable outside. This past week the breeze was nonexistent, so the heat was insane and the mosquitoes attacked with a vengeance. The bright side of the miserable heat on days like this is the still water is in prime condition for our flats boat and fishing.

We shipped our 15 foot flats boat over from Florida and it lives on a trailer parked in our garage. We launch it from the boat ramp in George Town almost every weekend and cruise the shoreline and the channel between the mainland and Stocking Island, which is usually a calm strip of water. Our house is on the lee shore of the island, so we have the nicer breeze which also brings the rougher water. On days when the water is still, we can run the boat up to the shore of our house and explore the areas that are usually inaccessible in our little boat. This weekend was the perfect time to bring the boat in front of the house and anchor it without worry overnight.

We brought the boat around to the back of the house on Saturday and had a quick sandwich before heading out to hunt down some new fishing spots. My theory on fishing is that I will either catch fish or catch a buzz, so either way it’s a fun day on the water. This weekend was all about the fish. About two minutes after dropping anchor, we had fish on the line. Can’t beat that!

I’m not one to brag, but I did catch more fish than Bill, and I caught the big guys. On Saturday we caught seven keepers and on Sunday we brought home ten fish. We caught some yellowtail snapper and schoolmaster, and Bill was hitting what must have been a nursery school for grouper because every other fish he brought in the boat was a tiny grouper. Cute little guys, but they went back in the water to get big and fat. For my plate.

Fishing in the Bahamas is quite different than flats fishing back in the Tampa area. Down here we’re using heavier line, and steel leaders are beneficial for fishing around coral. Bait is simple and plentiful at the grocery store: squid. Both grocery stores and a few convenience stores sell boxes of frozen squid, so it’s a must to have a box handy at home. We’re still learning the fishing strategies of the Bahamas, and while we are not bringing home a cooler full of fish or landing any big guys, it’s still fun and puts food on the table. With cheese grits. Apparently Bahamians have never heard of one of the South’s favorite fried fish side dishes. They eat grits and mac and cheese is a staple, but somehow cheese grits has not made it to the islands. Consider this my contribution to Exuma.

Basset bonding on the beach

August 11, 2011

ear scratching on the beach

Abbey and Cooper enjoyed some bonding time and a good ear scratching with their dad after work last week. This is why I vacuum the house every day and still have sand clinging to every surface. I also have a great photo of Cooper sharing a beer with Bill, but I’m afraid the Humane Society may feel we are contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

History lesson: salt ponds

August 10, 2011

salt beacon

The waters surrounding Exuma offer some of the most breathtaking scenes in the Bahamas. The water is the reason we moved to Exuma, and we try to spend as much time by, on, and in the water as possible. We’re renting a house on the beach, so my backyard is sand and my view is an endless sea spotted with a few cays. On the weekend we’re usually out on our small flats boat exploring the waters and finding new snorkeling spots. I have a healthy respect and admiration for the water and all the creatures that call it home, but before coming to Exuma I never gave much thought to what makes the ocean unique. Salt.

The first people to come to Exuma were a bit more insightful than me about the gifts of the ocean. When the first groups of Loyalists came to settle in Exuma in the 1700s, they found rankers working the salt ponds in Little Exuma. The salt ponds cover more than 200 acres of land near shore where the sea water flows into the shallow ponds through sluice gates. Moving the concentrated salt water from one section to the next to continue to dry out and bleach in the sun was a horrid job. Luckily when Bill and I visited the salt pond with my folks, we found some spots where other people had raked salt onto rocks to dry. We scooped the little patches of salt they left behind on the corners of the rocks into a Rubbermaid container, and I’ve been using at home ever since.

The salt ponds are in Williamstown, a small settlement in Little Exuma, which is at the southeast end of the island. Little Exuma is technically a separate island and is separated from Great Exuma by a small, one-lane bridge that requires you to look down the bridge to make sure nobody else is coming and then to hold onto your balls (physically or metaphorically) and make a run for it. But not too fast – they are likely a couple guys using a hand line to fish on the six inches of pavement between the edge of the bridge and your car.

On the shore by the salt ponds is a marker that looks like a Grecian column on steroids. The marker functioned like an unlit lighthouse for ships to find the cove to dock to load up the salt. When you’re standing in the heat of salt ponds and looking at the waves crash over the rocks and coral in the cove, it makes you think about the horrible work so many were forced to do to collect the salt and the dangerous journeys the ships took to pick up salt and bring it to other countries.

In true nerd fashion, I took several pictures of the historical markers at the salt ponds and the salt beacon so I could transcribe the text for the blog. Try to out-geek this move:

The Salt Ponds

Land around most of the major salt ponds on Exuma were not granted to one person but was worked as a joint venture. Generally, the work was done by slaves and poor whites. Raking salt was terrible work. It meant standing in brine with the bright sun reflecting off the salt water and white sand. The result was often blindness and ulcerated cuts that would not heal.

Sluice gates were closed to cut off the flow of seawater into the pond. The water was evaporated by the heat of the sun. When the brine concentrated, it was moved from one pan to another to allow further evaporation to take place. The salt produced was then gathered into piles by rakers. It was dried, bleached out in the sun, and carried in baskets to the waterfront to be loaded onto the waiting boats anchored off the island. One annual harvest from three Little Exuma ponds was reported to be as high as 300,000 bushels. Nowadays, a little salt is gathered only by locals for their own use or as a souvenir for visitors.

The Salt Marker

Overlooking Exuma Sound and the “Great Salina” of Williams Town, thirty-foot-tall marker situated on this low waterfront cliff guided ships to pick up salt harvested from Little Exuma’s three salt ponds. Designed as a Tuscan column, the marker was most likely constructed in the Loyalist Era of the late 18th or early 19th century.

Salt was a very valuable commodity used worldwide to preserve fish and meat. In 1670, John Darrell, a Loyalist, while hunting whales in Bahamian waters, reported sighting a salt pond on Little Exuma.

Thus, long before there were any year-round residents on Little Exuma, the salina was worked, first by Bermudans and then by rakers from New Providence. In the 1700s, as many as sixty boats made up the salt fleet, which was often accompanied by armed vessels to ward off attacks by pirates or the Spanish.

Today, not only is the pillar in need of repair, but should the cliff on which it stands be further undermined by wave action, after more than 200 years as a landmark, our column may end up as a pile of rubble.