Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Long Island Review - a one road adventure

Sitting in the diner with our travel buddies, mulling over my greasy plate of fried eggs, fried sandwich ham and toasted white bread, ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ blaring from the overhead TV with bells and whistles and Americans in Halloween dress up running down the aisles, I pondered that I could be in any small town North America.
But I wasn’t. I was in a roadside café called Swamp Thing on Long Island, Bahamas. You can’t make this stuff up.
We hired our rental car and headed out on our island discovery tour, to discover there is literally one road on Long Island. It’s called The Queens Highway, but its really a one lane barely tarred road in most places. However as there are less than 3000 inhabitants on an 80 mile long island, you don’t often pass another vehicle. There are no traffic jams, not a single traffic light in fact.
There are also not many restaurants serving breakfast, so we discovered. But at the tiny 2 room museum we were told that at Swamp Thing we could rustle some up. We nearly drove by the place as there was no sign – damn, no Swamp Thing sign…. Went in to ask for directions to it, only to be told we’d reached it.
I have to admit, there was nothing ominous about the place, no swamp nearby, nothing in fact to warrant such a name. Just some locals enjoying bowls of boiled chicken in broth (called chicken souse), and bad American game shows that mesmerized the staff. 
After brekky we continued the unguided tour, and found church after church after church. We tiptoed around the oldest one on the island, Spanish built and in complete disrepair and found three mysterious grave stones. Then passed the Palestine Baptist Church, a Macedonian Baptist Church and down in Clarence Town we visited the pretty catholic church with the modern art Jesus… 

Modern Art Jesus
The Catholic Church

An abandoned church
Deadman’s is the largest settlement on the island yet we didn’t see a soul. Passing the sign for the ‘Deadman’s Health Clinic’, the irony wasn’t lost on us, we had a great chuckle.
The gem of Long Island though, has to be Dean’s Blue Hole. No idea who Dean is or was, but the hole is a natural phenomena – a frighteningly deep abyss just off the beach in a beautiful bay. We met William Trubridge, the world record free diver who practices here daily, diving down over 100 metres (or 3oo ft) with no gear – no fins, no air… Amazing, but quite scary as well. Hanging over the breathtaking site, a memorial to 3 women who died here on one day in 2008, drowned in the indigo hole…

The blue hole from above - William on the platform

The memorial site at the blue hole

Back along the road what we noticed was what wasn’t there. The place was missing people. Houses upon houses, clinics, churches, abandoned, decaying. And we knew why. Down in ‘Hard Bargain’ (again, can’t make these names up!), there used to be the Diamond Crystal Salt Mines, a huge business that employed so many, allowing the community to flourish with schools and parks and clinics and shops. And then sadly, after just over a decade, the plant closed to due financial troubles at the head office in the states. And in an instant, the prosperity of the island was crippled. The population dropped from near 11,000 to under 3,000. People packed up and left the island, looking for opportunities elsewhere. And what is left is a core group of survivors. Friendly, helpful families whose names are few and recognizable on signs and businesses all along the Queen’s Highway.
Apparently this place is quite lively during cruising season, with a crescendo at regatta time in April before everyone heads back up to the relative safety of the north for hurricane season.
A few expats do remain. Mike at Long Island Breeze Resortand Yacht club, our adopted host was one of them. We latched on to this pretty place, swimming pool, laundry, showers and yummy food were secondary to Mike’s hospitality, piling us into his pick up truck to and from the shops and the farmer’s market, and supplying us with all the inside info about the island.
The only disappointment was Chez Pierre – a French Canadian run, Italian beach side restaurant and chalets that had been recommended on Active Captain. Excitedly we drove down a winding maze of a sandy dirt road to find it, only to be literally dismissed by the owner on arrival. “Hello! Are you open?”
Grunt, sigh (obvious annoyance and disdain) “Yes, but if you have no reservation I can do nothing for you.” And with that he disappeared back through the mosquito screen protected veranda into the bowels of his never-to-be-known establishment.
And that was that. A bitter end to  great adventure on a little known out island.
Despite Pierre, we liked Long Island. We languished in Mike’s pool and licked our fingers after the Philly cheese steak subs at the Long Island breeze on our final night. We dreamt of building little beach huts down in the south where the sand and scenery were unmatched, and we tried to forget our difficult sail halfway through, pounding into 25 knots of wind to get from the south up to Salt Pond.
Chillin' in the Long Island Breeze pool

Ah, the south where the colours are indescribable

The next stop is the Exuma chain, we’re heading into much more chartered territory now, the touristy side of the Bahamas. But we won’t soon forget the quiet charm of these farther places, nor take for granted how lucky we’ve been to visit.

Visiting the Atlantic side at the top of Long Island

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day from a boat - beyond the hallmark card propaganda

It’s Mother’s Day. A day of insanity in restaurants across North America, wherein family members attempt to show gratitude for a year's mothering in one rushed, cramped meal. 
A Hallmark greeting card commercial propaganda day that reminds us of our mothers.
Mother. That bittersweet word, packed with emotion and memory and love and pain and everything in between.
Today I sit on a boat, blue waters lapping at the hulls, sunshine bathing me from all sides, but my mother is a thousand miles away. My children are even further.
Can I hug my mother with these words on a cold stark blinking computer screen? How does one reach out without arms, to say all the things hidden in the folds of the soul that can only be shared through embrace?

Mom I love you beyond the confines of the word.
I love you with chubby little hands reaching up, into your smile. You are my world.
I love you behind the self absorbed gruff façade of teen angst.
I love you as I board a plane and move away from you forever. I watch the tears pour down your sweet face as you disappear behind airport security, and it tears me up knowing how reckless I am, but you love me so much.
I love you today, all grown up, seeing you clearly, for the well rounded woman you are - scars and weaknesses and immense strengths. I admire you and I am in awe of your countless sacrifices -s o many that were unappreciated and many more that will never be known. You are the wonder of ‘mother’.
And it all comes full circle in the most heart wrenching way. As I sit here without the warm skin to touch or the bantering voices of my little boys, it aches somewhere deeper than bones, in the soul of my soul. 

As mother’s we are literally a vessel, a teacher, a counselor for our children. They grow and the follow a path we can never imagine. We will never control or keep them except within us. We have the gift of memory, the dizzyingly gentle and vulnerable smell of our babies skin, the look in those huge trusting eyes. We cherish and grasp at the ineffable bond that allows us to sleep at night even when they are so far away. Even when they have gone forever, mother or child, they are never gone to us.
Happy Mother’s Day to every mother and every child but especially my own. I love you I love you I love you.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The land that time remembered

If you see Acklins and Crooked Island, just below the Tropic of Cancer in the south Bahamas from an aerial view, they are curled into a hug. Almost touching and highly interdependent. In fact, the water between the two islands is barely 3 feet deep – you could walk across! As Kendra, a wonderful local lady with ever smiling eyes explained to us, “we are a family island. That means everyone knows and helps each other. Even if you are not family, once you join us here, you are family. 

It seems a few Americans have done just that, building winter homes along the beaches and spending half their year here forever. They are welcomed and accepted. They might have to wait a week for fresh bread when the mail boat comes through, but I’m sure it’s a trade off that is worthwhile.
After a few blissful and quiet days in the calm and protected but uninhabited Lady Slipper Bay on Acklins Island, where we walked the sandy beaches, played bocci ball and had a big bonfire beach braai, we headed to Crooked Island, to see the famous old lighthouse. We got so much more than that.

We felt the hug. Venturing over the treacherous reefs that protect the residents of Landrail Point, we brought the dinghies into a clever man made little harbor. The first thing I noticed was the cheery paint jobs on all the buildings, from bold ocean turquoise to juicy orange. There was no garbage strewn around the roads, instead, tidy bins lined the bottom of each driveway. Conch shells decorated our path from house to house down the one main road. And then we met our first person. Waves, smiles and some banter started our little walk off so well. After that it only got better. Everyone we met came to say hello and offer us a bit of info about their town or their island. 

We found a well stocked little converted bungalow grocery painted bright green. They had everything – and after a couple weeks of nothing, we were literal ‘kids in a candy shop’. We chatted to the owner, “That was me out there in the fishing boat as you sailed in!” he explained. “We were catching snapper”. And indeed, we’d seen a boat. Small town this, and very industrious folk.
In the next shop come house, we had a ball trying on the elaborate church hats and chatting with the owner about her double life as an entrepreneur and a government postal worker. We bought some beautiful locally made t-shirts and headed to Gibson’s Lunchroom #2 – the only restaurant in the settlement, and famous for it’s hospitality and home style cooking. On the road we met Willy the owner and her brother Andy the local tour guide, who’s bus also doubles as a school bus gathering the kids from the few settlements to the one school. They discussed how they might find beers for our supper as Landrail is Seventh Day Adventist and alcohol is not readily available.

An hour later we sat at the long table in Gibson’s, a veritable feast in front of us – fresh snapper fritters then home fried chicken, fresh caught grouper, macaroni and cheese, fresh baked bread, green salad, and rich brown ‘peas an’ rice’. Kendra sat with us, sharing stories about her life on Crooked Island and abroad. Her cheeky, spindly legged little girl Roshay, in her Diva t-shirt warmed up to us too after she finished her supper.

We had cold beers in hand, courtesy of Andy who’d driven to another town to find them. And just when we thought the day couldn’t get much better in Landrail, Andy set up his magic trick. A private magic show to accompany dessert of cake and ice cream.  Andy had eggs balanced on little cups, on a heavy tray under which there stood two glasses of water. Then, wielding a clunky kitchen broom he jolted forward and with a crash the tray went flying and the eggs plopped safely into the cups, suspended unbroken in the water. Wow!!!! It was quick and violent and impressive.
Andy and his magic broom

But all good things must come to an end and we had to navigate the spiky, propeller shredding reefs back to our boats before darkness settled over us and this Crooked, wonderful little place. So with hugs all around and a few cool snapshots with Roshay, we bid them all farewell and set off, back to our ocean homes.
Kendra and her winning smile

Two cool divas!

The night that followed, being tossed about in a huge surf was worth the visit to this out, out island which was home to no more than 300 people – a place that proved you can have a thriving and beautiful community in seemingly the middle of nowhere.
Visiting the crumbling lighthouse the next morning, a regal testament to times gone by, was merely the icing on this cake of a visit. Thank you Crooked Island!

Friday, May 2, 2014

What a difference a day makes!

Day 2 Bahamas: his beady little eye, a cold heartless button on his huge pale head, eyed us warily only a few feet away. His fin slapping our back ladder as he greedily tugged at our offering – a two foot barracuda caught earlier by our new master fisherman, junior captain Devon. I shrieked and scuttled back and forth on deck, Devon the brave on the bottom of the sugar scoop with the Go Pro camera on a short stick under water, and John nervously shooting stills from a safer distance.
This was the climax of a day where nature dazzled and amazed and scared us silly. A 6 foot lemon shark appeared in the crystal clear water, circling the bait of lifeless flesh we’d hung only moments before, a trail of fish blood guaranteeing shark attraction from up to five miles away.
After 12 minutes which stretched to near an hour in our minds, adrenaline pumping, he broke free with his prize and we rushed inside to view the footage. It is nothing short of amazing. Is this my life?! Filming sharks from within an arm’s length?
Apparently my life in the Bahamas also includes nearly sailing over a family of whales circling a mother giving birth, a huge cloud of brown-red blood staining the indigo ocean. Our crew bounced about pointing and shouting and imagining the carnage that might have been, had we sailed even a foot closer. A whale’s tail could throw our rudder aside, damage our hull, crumple Shiloh like a paper toy. But instead we were privy to this ever so private moment of the most regal creature. Just feet away.
But I should have known that the day would be extraordinary when it began with the send off of a huge group of playful dolphins as we left Mayaguana. It was the first time we’d seen so many, who played so long around our hulls. And later en route, it was the first time we’d caught a fish, reeling it in with glee and nerves pulsing,  jumping back as it surfaced – a barracuda with piercing black eyes and sharp pointed teeth. Then drowning the poor thing in cheap overproof rum instead of carefuling using a syringe into it’s gills as we’d heard was customary. It was the first time we’d come so close to whales, and a first ever to see them calving. It was definitely the first time we’d baited a shark and watched as it ravaged and twisted about literally on our back step.

The Bahamas is assaulting me with contradictions, from Mayaguana to West Playa Cay. My senses are alive and I’m now weary of showering off the back step. We have new reefs to explore here and maybe another fish to catch! There are countless miles of white sand beach here to cover…. and this is only stop #2 of near 1000 islands. Bahamas – bring it on!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Stale bread and sewage - welcome to the Bahamas?

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.