The Bahamas tourism board, probably based in Florida, has done a stellar job over the years. Bahamas has long been touted as the ultimate sea, surf, and sun destination. And it may very well be that. Or parts of it might be. It encompasses, after all, over 400 miles of nearly a thousand tiny islands.
Back when our sailing dream was in the works, we talked of the places we fantasized about visiting and Bahamas was right at the top of that list. Once we moved aboard the boat and chatted with seasoned cruisers, the dream only intensified. “The Bahamas is gorgeous!” they said. “Amazing. A must see.” “You will LOVE it!” and so on… So, it has grown over the past 10 years into a mecca destination of sorts in our minds. The mighty and ethereal Bahamas.
We arrived yesterday, after some rough and some equally blissful days on the journey from Puerto Rico.
Yippee! We’ve arrived! Only it wasn’t like that. At all.
Mayaguana – not a funny Spanish name for marijuana, but a 26 mile long, marsh-like, semi-inhabited outlet, served as our port of entry. Wow. I should have read that one important caption in our cruising guide that claims, had this island not been located where it is, precisely between two other well traveled places, it would largely remain unvisited.
And well, apart from the blue, blue waters out in Abraham’s Bay, I’d have to agree.
My first impression of the Bahamas is of a dusty forgotten semblance of a village, sewage seeping slowly along beside us, penetrating nostrils and flipping stomachs, as we walked the lonely mile from the jetty into the unpaved 4 building main road. Our welcome at the government buildings, the remnants of a national flag, long gone threadbare and faded by the sun, looked more like a giant flapping spider’s web than a proud symbol of the country.
We stumbled into the tiny kiosk marked Post Office, dripping with sweat and the town’s white dust clinging to us, it was difficult to adjust our eyes. Inside, dark with 1970’s wood paneling and dim lighting, we were met with a tinted glass wall of window, smudged with the fingerprints of the town’s few, desperately sending out penned letters and awaiting money orders from family abroad. The only new things, three proud male faces, framed and perched way above our heads, peering down at us, the main government officials who no doubt live elsewhere.
A voice mumbled from within, and we explained our mission. Piles of books came through the tiny opening, all in triplicate, the government paperwork. Our three boat crews, cramped and stifled in the depressing little space, spilled out onto the road, while the few of us stayed to print all of our details, over and over, along the narrow lip of a counter top. An hour passed as papers were shoved, in and out through the tiny hole. A printer in the back, chugged a painfully slow, clunk and shiver as it prepped our documents, island time.
Eventually, in the midst of the molasses slow processes, the official came out through the wooden door and stood among us. She held a paper. It was dirty and creased and had signatures with amounts of money scrawled down. She explained her daughter was headed to Atlanta, this was her first journey, could we donate. And there it was. We pooled a few dollars despite our surprise, and she took it gratefully, disappearing then, back into her grotto.
My eyes adjusted. The tinted glass began to reveal this, the main and only government office on Mayaguana. One small room, dusty papers piled high in every corner, mismatched desk and chair, lost under the weight of a waste of unfiled documentation. Papers. Shelves overflowing with papers, some on the floor, kicked aside and molded into the background, part of the dismal scene, forever. Days and months of styrofoam coffee cups and soup bowls peered out, partly lost under the grubby mounds.
Close to 2 hours passed before I saw daylight again, my pocket $300 lighter, for having paid into this little hovel, our cruising permit.
We went in search of bread, as cruisers do, having been far from grocery stores for days. The town consisted of 4 dirt roads, about 20 structures (homes?), most in varying states of disrepair. Boards roughly nailed where windows would be. Garbage, cans, bottles, diapers, and more paper lined our pathway. We passed a few houses with hand painted ‘convenience store’ scrawled on the walls, but all were conveniently shut. The sun beat down, the wind abandoned us in this place, a shiny, optimistic crowd of sailors, in a sad, forsaken piece of land. We saw a few young men, sitting in a dilapidated gazebo, their eyes tired, empty. They waved limply.
We finally found a friendly lady with a shop (the only other person we actually saw), who opened it for us kindly, removing the padlock and swinging aside the creaking door to reveal a rudimentary, dusty and windowless chamber of largely empty wooden shelves. She explained that the only supplies on the island came weekly on a mail boat. Obviously it was close to the end of the week. Loaves of bread were roughly shoved into a coke fridge, on the top shelf. Each was slightly frozen and completely stale. We decided bread for toast would do and nodded that we’d take it. $6.
$6 for stale bread?! How do the locals here afford that? There is no industry, about 3 jobs, fishing…. Pretty much nothing. So the answer is, they don’t. That’s why it was stale. Mayaguana is stale. The overwhelming question sat on our shoulders as we kicked up dust and inhaled the sewage on the way back to the jetty – why would anyone live here?
Apparently there are less than 300 people on the island, divided into 3 settlements. Less than 75 in this place, though we never saw more than 10. No goats or chickens or children playing in the road. Apparently there is a highschool which surprised me. If I was a teenager I’d stow away on that mail boat and never look back.
My cruiser’s guide tells me that Mayaguana was once part of the United States missile tracking network. The Americans built an 11,000 foot long runway and a huge concrete dock – both are slowly decaying.
Apparently there are also 4 aircraft grounded here, seized from drug runners. So maybe at one time Mayaguana was alive, with shady US government projects and cocaine traffickers. But there is no sign of life here anymore. Except for the garbage. Oh, and the sewage.
So, we’re heading onward and upward today. Away from this neglected outpost to the parts of the Bahamas that the brochures boast about. But I will remember Mayaguana.
And just as I’m wondering whether this must be Bahamas’ dirty little secret or a glimpse of the reality behind the brochures, a huge family of dolphins surrounds our flotilla and escorts us away, jumping and diving and frolicking and begging us to keep judgements at bay.