Jimmy shouted, “Jump!”
The flames had shot down the path to the gasoline can in the sailboat cabin. My conscious brain hadn’t caught up with the surge of adrenaline as the cabin blew up like someone had put way too much lighter fluid on a barbeque.
His words caught me in mid-jump.
The water is warm and inviting in the Bahamas, so jumping wasn’t bad at all, but the hotels of Paradise Island and the Nassau waterfront were tiny. It looked like a very long swim.
Everything I had with me was now part of a column of smoke that already seemed to be stretching to the sky. I knew that one of the countless pleasure boats around us would be drawn to the column of smoke and rescue us. I wasn’t worried.
It seemed almost a normal part of my trip.
Just another day in the Bahamas.
Earlier, I had been sitting in the seat in the plane on the way to the Bahamas, contemplating the events that had brought me where I was. The stewardess, medium length dark brown hair, blue eyes, and a warm smile asked me, “Were you the guy that was smoking a joint in the bathroom?”
“Oh no,” I said, alarmed, “not me.” (I was, but you could smoke on planes in those days, only tobacco, though).
She went on her way and not too much later she returned and said, “Come on, I have checked the whole plane. It must be you. My girlfriends and I would really like a joint.”
Well, ok, then. That’s cool. I didn’t want to bring the rest of what I had through customs, anyway.
The plane was nearly empty and she sat down next to me.
“Are you going to Miami?” she asked.
“No, I’m going to the Bahamas.”
“Oh, I have meant to go there, but we usually just stay in Miami, you need to switch airlines to get there and it doesn’t cost me anything to fly on this one.”
“Me and my girlfriends, the other women that work on this plane. We have an apartment in San Francisco and one in Miami – hey, you ought to come stay with us in Miami.”
“I have a flight right away to the Bahamas.” I had absolutely no idea what I would do if I missed it.
“Oh well, you can come visit us another time, we’ll show you around Miami.”
“It’s kind of expensive to fly from San Francisco to Miami.”
“No, it isn’t. This plane stops in Las Vegas. Just buy a ticket to Las Vegas and don’t get off. On the way back it stops in Tampa, just buy a ticket to Tampa, and don’t get off.”
“Yeah, our friends do it all the time.”
I never did get a chance to try that.
The plane from Miami to Nassau gave the impression it was flapping its wings to take off of the runway. It rattled into the air, and in minutes the world outside the window was blue. The sky was blue, the ocean was blue up to the sharp, green edge of the coastline receding into the distance.
When the blue was again interrupted by green, we flew towards it and into it until we bounced along a runway and cruised up to the small terminal. The airport was surrounded by palms, just like you would expect at an airport in a tropical paradise.
A shuttle took me, my suitcase, and my guitar and dropped us off on the main street of Nassau.
I looked up and down the street and tried to sort out what I was seeing.
Small shops with peeling paint were interspersed with colossal marble buildings and immaculately painted hotels and restaurants. I could see some taller buildings over the rooftops. The parked cars that lined the street were a mixture heavily weighted towards Triumphs, MGs, Renaults, and other British and European cars. I half-expected to see James Bond’s Austin Martin parked in front of one of the fancy restaurants.
Between the street and the shops, there was some action on the sidewalk. There were displays in front of shops and people standing in shop doors talking to friends. On the main streets, the shopkeepers were mainly white. The shops for the locals were on the side streets and spread to the edge of town. Hand-lettered signs saying “No Park Here” claimed space for the locals.
Wondering how to find a cheap hotel, I walked around trying to find something. On a side street, a few blocks from the main street there was a hotel that looked like a Bahamian version of a Motel Six. They took my traveler’s checks, and I booked a room.
I’ll look for cheaper places later.
I stashed my suitcase and guitar and walked out into the street to try to make sense of this place.
There weren’t many people on the streets. I threaded my way through the signs and displays on the sidewalk, occasionally passing a half door with someone looking out to the street. Through one open door, I saw a counter and tables, obviously, a bar of some sort. It was empty except for a few people sitting at a table near the back, and no one sitting at the bar.
The guy tending the bar looked like the archetype of an Englishman, tall, thin, pointy nose, straight sandy blonde hair. He looked like Sherlock Holmes looks in various portrayals. It was hot, so I ordered a cold beer.
“That will be eight dollars.”
“Eight dollars? Why so much?”
Taxes, there are high taxes on some imports to help the local businesses.
“I’m a student, so I have a tight budget, what’s local?”
“Ok, I’ll have that.”
He brought me a small bottle of rum and a can of Coke.
“I would go easy on the Coke, if you are on a budget, it’s taxed too and costs about the same as rum.”
“Wow, that’s different, thanks for the advice. How come cigarettes are cheaper?”
“You have some hefty taxes on them in the US.”
“Yeah, I’ll get a pack of those too. It’s not the busiest town I have ever been in.” We both lit a cigarette.
“Oh, it will be, when the cruise ships come In on Thursday, they bring the tourists, and the town fills up. On Sunday, they leave, and it empties out.”
It was Monday, so I was going to see the bare bones of the town for a few days, which was great with me.
“So what’s with the giant marble buildings?”
“They are mostly banks here, but if you keep going down that street, they are the government buildings. The Bahamas was a British colony until this year.”
“Yes, they were buildings that were built years ago, but since we became our own country banks have been moving here because we have laws that make life easy for them.”
“Do many people work for the banks?”
“Not so many, some of them live on the other side of the island, in mansions, most people here are in the tourist business.”
I thanked him, settled and continued exploring.
Besides the ornate banks and government buildings, all the places I had seen so far were either hyper-slick tourist places, giant pseudo-Victorian hotels, or were funky. I figured I’d have to go to the other side of the island and check it out when the other half lived.
I had a little buzz from the rum, and the heat made me even mellower. Too much activity was downright unpleasant. I left the bar and continued investigating the town.
Not far from the main street, the town abruptly ended at a seawall. A plaza with parked cars goes right to the edge. The only barrier is a wall a few feet high. Beyond the wall, I could see the seabed with conch shells piled off into the distance.
Along the seawall were the cabin cruisers of the rich and powerful, dilapidated fishing boats, and other boats whose purpose was a mystery. In fact, it was all mysterious to me. Some were simply anchored near the seawall and not moored to a pier at all.
Eventually, there were no more piers, and the town thinned out. Parking lots abutted the seawall. I could see there was more town beyond the parking lot so I kept walking along. In the middle of the parking lot, sitting on the seawall was a heavyset black guy.
Laid out on the ground in front of him were about a dozen conch shells.
As I passed, he said, “Hey mon, you want to buy conk shell?”
I looked at the shells piled up in the sea behind him and asked, “Why should I buy them from you when I can just jump in the water and pick them up right there?”
“Mine are very clean,” he responded, looking a bit hurt.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t have that much money, so I think if I want one I will jump in the ocean and get it myself.”
“You won’t find ones like this, mine very good.”
“Well, it would be fun to try,” I said, feeling a tiny bit annoyed.
“What you do heah mon?”
“I am here to check it out, I like music, I want to see what it’s like.”
“You come to Gumba Friday, you heah music then.”
“Thanks, you live around here?”
“Not far, come on mon, you buy conk, ok?”
“I am not a rich tourist.”
“You have job, no work heah.”
“Actually, I don’t have a job right now.”
“Where you stay?”
“At a hotel up there,” I pointed in the direction of my hotel.
“Come on, you buy conk.”
I sighed at his persistence, “I don’t need one now, maybe I’ll buy one right before I go home.”
“You buy conk from me, mine are best, I’m Jalen, don’t forget.”
“I’m Don, I am sure I will see you again if you are here a lot.”
“Yeah, I heah.”
I walked back to my part of town. One parking lot I had walked by rows of motor-scooters for rent. I remembered what the bartender had told me about the other side of the island. I rented a scooter and took off driving down the left-hand side of the road.
I worked my way through the jumble of vehicles in downtown Nassau to circle New Providence.
Not far from town, the vibe changed considerably. The houses increased in size until some became vast estates surrounded by walls. I peered through the gates into the gardens and to the compounds within, but there was nothing that would welcome me. There wasn’t much to do but to head back to town.
Back in town, I was waiting at a cross street when a bicycle pulled up next to me. The rider was a tall guy about 25. He had sandy blonde hair and greenish eyes. Like almost everyone, he was wearing shorts and a non-descript shirt to keep off the worst of the sun. His light skin would never be tan, but what he had on and skin damage gave him protection.
“What’s happening?” he asked me.
“I am just checking out the Island.”
“Why are you here?”
“I just wanted to check out how people live here, I like it.”
“That’s cool, where you staying?”
“At a place up that street over there,” I said, pointing to the street where I was staying.
“How much are you paying?” he asked.
“$15 per night.”
“Shit, you can stay on my boat for $5 a night.”
“Ok, I’ll check it out.” That would extend my stay considerably and I didn’t know any other way to find a cheaper place.
“Come on, I’ll show it to you, you can swim, right?”
“Yeah, I have been swimming since I was four years old, but I need to bring back this scooter.”
“Ok, I’ll come with you.”
We dropped off the scooter and led me back to the waterfront walking his bike. Our path brought us by Jalen still sitting there with his conch shells.
“Hi, Jimmy,” Jalen said.
Jimmy scowled at him and gave a half wave.
“Hi Jalen,” I chimed in.
We walked along silently for a bit and Jimmy said, “Jalen’s an asshole.”
I had no reason to defend him, “Why?” I asked.
“He just sits there all day hustling people.”
“Yeah, he tried to sell me conch shells when they are everywhere.”
“Yeah, he does shit like that.”
Jimmy led me to a beach that was attached to a gigantic, colonial style hotel. It was one of those places where there were stacks of towels for the guests and bins to throw the used ones and row after row of lounge chairs to sunbathe in.
Jimmy stopped me, “Here we are.” He locked his bike onto a lamppost and led me around to the hotel beach.
“Leave your shirt and sandals here.”
“Are we just going to swim?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy replied.
“Don’t you have a rowboat or something?”
“Yeah, but it’s still out at the boat. We can come back and get your stuff. Mostly, it’s a pain, so I don’t bother.”
I had already discovered that Bahamian money survived getting wet just fine so I kept my money in my swimsuit pocket or as traveler’s checks in my hotel room.
“Come on,” he said, then he waded out and motioned for me to follow him.
He looked up at me and said again, “Come on, we’re just over there,” and he jerked his head towards a little flotilla of sailboats and started swimming. I jumped in and followed him a short distance, less than 20 meters.
I followed him up the ladder to the deck.
As I my head cleared the top of the ladder and I could see into the boat a calm looking and fluid young woman emerged out of the cabin about the same time.
“Hey, this is Don, he will be staying here,” Jimmy said in a way that had a touch of deference.
When she smiled, I could see that at first, it was not at me at but a smile at the situation. In a flash, her smile was directed at me.
“This is Gail,” Jimmy said.
Gail had an attractive face that was clean, fresh, and slightly sunburned. She was living on a boat with Jimmy in Nassau harbor. Like Jimmy, she had dirty blonde hair, but her eyes were brown. There was no sign of disapproval or concern at my arrival.
I had been on a sailboat once before, so long ago that I could barely remember it. It looked just like I expected a sailboat to look. It had a tall mast and a boom with the sail wrapped around it. There was a cabin with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and not much else. It had windows around it that let in natural light.
There were narrow areas around the cabin where you could walk, and on top of the cabin, there was an area on which you could perch. I later found it was mostly used for manipulating the sails.
The deck was partially covered. I was told that it was a 27-foot boat.
“You can stay here,” Jimmy said, pointing to an area that doubled as a place to sit. It had a thin cushion and it was protected from the sun (and rain) by canvas that was tied to metal railings that were part of the boat.
It wasn’t luxury, but it looked like fun and I didn’t come all this way to stay in a hotel.
Jimmy’s “dingy” was an inflated lifeboat that could hold four people.
“I use it when I need to get food, cigarettes, stuff like that. I just stash it on the beach.”
We rowed to the hotel beach and dragged on to the sand. We walked back to my hotel, I checked out, took my suitcase and guitar. We put them in the dingy, up and returned to the boat. We stashed my stuff in the cabin.
Not far from Jimmy’s boat were other boats. They were anchored in the harbor. I found out that slips cost money and there were not that many of them. Out where we were, it was more of a free-for-all.
That day, I went back into town and didn’t do much at all. Then I came back to the boat and Jimmy and Gail made some food, I brought back some rum. We sat around and talked. Jimmy was from Philadelphia.
Jimmy had an abrupt way about him. He wasn’t exactly what you would call “laid back.”
“I take tourists out diving and fishing,” he said, “we all do that around here.”
“It looks like there are a lot of commercial outfits that do that with their boats moored to the docks.”
“Yeah, but we’re cheaper. We have to be careful because it isn’t really legal.”
“How do you find customers?”
“As I did with you, we talk to people, we all do that around here. You been snorkeling yet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
Ok, we’ll take you sailing tomorrow.”
I started to learn their story.
Gail had hooked up with Jimmy and they had been living there for about eight months.
“See that boat over there?” Jimmy asked, pointing to a boat about 50 meters away.
“That’s Chris and Elsie, they’re from Florida, we hang with them sometimes. Over there, that Alan’s boat and he’s cool. You’ll get to know them.”
From the boat, it was not far to the bridge to Paradise Island. Paradise Island is a small island that is almost totally covered by giant casinos/hotels. The casinos are one of the big draws of the Bahamas.
The bridge was elegant and at night it was always lit. A bridge to paradise.
They prepared my sleeping space. It was easy to sleep with the gentle lapping of the waves and rocking of the boat in the warm, peaceful harbor. Peaceful, at least, until the fishing boats came and went just after dawn, a task with seemed to require many instructions to each other at loud volume.
The next morning, I went into town and had breakfast at a tiny café. Stashing my clothes in an out-of-the-way place right at the barrier between the edge of town and the beach hotel had become second nature. Jimmy had shown me how to surreptitiously use the hotel towels to dry myself when I got to shore.
We set out soon after I came back. The sailboat had a motor and Jimmy took the helm. We navigated out of the harbor onto the open sea.
“Do use the motor much, or can you sail out of the harbor?”
“I can, but it is a pain.”
When we were clear of the harbor, Jimmy and Gail raised the sails so we could use the wind to propel us.
Gail was used to her role. She ran around the boat freeing up the sails and Jimmy would pull on the ropes to hoist them. It was apparent they had done this countless times. My job was to stay out of the way.
“Watch out for the boom,” Jimmy said, “You can get knocked in the head or right off the boat into the water.”
Once the sails were up, Jimmy took the helm and we started off.
“The wind’s behind us,” Jimmy said, “so we will get there quickly.”
“Where are we going?”
“It’s not too far, it’s a good place to snorkel.”
Jimmy seemed to be one with the boat. At first, he would turn the wheel on the helm and adjust the pullies to set the angle of the sails, but shortly, he just lay back in the chair behind the wheel and only needed to turn it a bit.
I looked over at the coastline and asked questions, “What is that?” pointing to some land.
“There are lots of little islands with no one on them because there is no water.”
I looked out at the ocean and walked to every part of the boat. The wind and waves and warmth and sounds and smells made something that could be nothing, sailing along on featureless blue, into something almost overwhelming.
I am not sure how long it was until Jimmy and Gail started their sail-furling dance again, pulling down the sails and rolling them back into their homes. We were not far from a coastline and Jimmy threw in an anchor.
Gail opened a cabinet on the boat and offered me several fins so I could find a pair that fit. She handed me a mask and snorkel.
Jimmy pointed to an area between the boat and the shore and said: “that’s where we are going, we will stay near you, keep the boat in sight.”
He was pointing to an area where I could see a rainbow of coral in the water.
“Watch out for sea urchins and scorpion fish.”
“If you step on them or grab them, they can get stuck in you. They have barbs so they don’t come out if you pull them. You need to dig them out. Hurts like hell. Scorpionfish are deadly poison, if they sting you, you will be dead in a couple of minutes.”
Gail chimed in, “he’s giving you a hard time, we’ve never seen one, and they don’t care about you. You would have to grab one to get bit. Just don’t grab any fish.”
“What about sharks?”
“Nah, they don’t like it around here, except for some big dumb ones, don’t worry about that.”
I jumped in and the water was so warm I was immediately comfortable. I adjusted my mask and snorkel, put my face into the water, and was transported to a world I could hardly have imagined.
Sure, I had been in aquariums and I had seen Jacque Cousteau specials on TV, but they don’t come close to the brilliant blue of coral illuminated by the bright tropical sunlight in the clear water.
And the life … It is not something that I was looking at, I was in it. Blue colored fish were almost invisible against the coral. Next to them were yellow fish that were in sharp contrast to the blue, as far from invisible as could be.
Blue fish, yellow fish, rainbow fish, funny looking thin fish with protruding, round mouths (barracudas) … big fish, little fish, fish in schools, solitary fish …
Coral are living things that have all manner of barnacles, shells, blobs of brown, spiky things ….
The sea bottom was alive with creatures as well. Some I knew of … urchins, anemones, crabs, seaweed … but most were mysteries.
I dove down to inspect the coral more closely, to inspect the bottom more closely, to get close to a school of fish, to get close to an unusual fish … so many things to see.
The coral landscape changed. There was yellow coral where the yellow fish were almost invisible and the blue ones were striking and blue coral with invisible blue fish and striking yellow ones.
In places, the coral would come so close to the surface I would scrape my stomach as I passed it and then the coral opened into rooms dancing with life … a chorus of anemones swaying on the bottom and a ballet of fish dancing to their secret music.
Sailing back, I felt like I belonged on the sea. The rocking and the gentle lapping of the waves as I fell asleep that night were becoming part of me. I found that the ground rocked when I left the boat and the boat became solid ground.
I got to know the others that lived as we were, anchored in Nassau Harbor, living on a budget and enjoying the swirl of activity. There were Bill and Ed, older ex-pats that managed to have a berth on the docks. Ed has opinions on politics, religion, and almost every aspect of life that he enjoyed sharing over rum and Coke. Alan managed to navigate and sail his boat alone. I saw Chris and Elise often.
In the near distance, there were cruise ships for half the week. Floating cities with almost every conceivable amenity. Restaurants, buffets, and cafes scattered on every deck. Bars and clubs where you can dance to live bands. Shopping malls with high-end clothing and other things people might need on a cruise ship. Beautiful swimming pools with rows of sundecks where you can lay in the hot sun, eat, drink, and contemplate going to one of the many gyms available for working out.
They arrive in the harbor on Thursday, swelling the town of Nassau to near bursting, and on Sundays, they leave and Nassau shrinks like letting air out of a balloon. Boats large enough to ferry thousands of cruise ship dwellers quickly into town stream from the ships. They swarmed over the town picking through the native fare and populating the restaurants, like Señor Frog’s, where the price of a meal and a couple of drinks would have knocked a couple of weeks off my vacation.
Plenty of them discovered the reasonable prices of the island rum, as well.
On Friday nights, the town was packed with tourists, but there was extra music and commotion. I followed the sound and as I got closer locals were drumming along to a band. Locals were using makeshift instruments, Coke bottles, trash can lids, or whatever was at hand. They were dancing as they played. The tourists danced with the locals, their white faces among the black ones. Some fit in, others had the robotic movement of Steve Martin in The Jerk. But, because of the rum, they were more relaxed.
On Sunday afternoon, the tourists are sucked back into the cruise ship vortex and Nassau went back to being a sleepy tropical paradise.
The first Sunday I was on Jimmy’s boat I lamented, “The liquor stores are closed, I can’t buy any rum.” Nassau had blue laws and liquor stores were closed.
“Follow me,” he said and we walked into an alley up some rickety stairs and into a smoky room where some old black guys were playing cards. The room was large. The walls had peeling paint and the tables looked like they had a previous life. They were used and worn.
They looked at me suspiciously and seemed a little miffed at Jimmy for bringing me. Scowling, one guy, with skin like leather from a lifetime in the Bahamian sun got up from the table and walked over to us.
Jimmy did not intend to spend his money so, even though I was standing right there, he negotiated and I paid.
I don’t remember, specifically, consuming that bottle of rum, but it was consumed along with many more.
I would swim back and forth from the boat to town finding more and more people to talk to, including the ever-present Jalen who was not always alone.
One day standing talking to Jalen was a tall thin guy in a suit with vertical red and white stripes.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I said as I was walking past.
The guy in the striped suit gave an amused smile and said, “You like Nassau town?”
“Love it,” I replied.
“What chu do heah, mon?”
“I am living on a boat over there.” I pointed.
“What you like about Nassau town?”
“What’s not to like? Great weather, lots to do, nice people, good food.”
“You been ’round the island?”
“Yeah, I rented a scooter and went to the other side where the mansions are.”
“Not just mansions here.”
“I can see that.”
“What food you eat?”
“Fish and fruit.”
He cracked up, “lots of that here. I’m Candy,” he said. I suppressed a smile being as he was dressed like a candy cane. I couldn’t help but wonder how long he had had that suit since it seemed to be tied to his identity.
“I’m Don,” I said, returning the greeting.
Candy looked over at Jalen and asked, “You know Don?”
“He be around.”
I suppose Jalen didn’t have any percentage in dissing me. It would make it harder to hustle me. Hope springs eternal.
They had been talking, so I let them be and went on my way.
One day, when I swam back to the boat from town, Jimmy said, “we are going out to get some lobsters.”
This time, we set sail as part of a flotilla with Alan, Chris, and Elsie. Three boats.
When we anchored this time, Alan detached a dinghy with an outboard motor from his boat and so did Chris. We got in Alan’s boat and Chris and Elie were on their own. Gail stayed on the boat.
Besides the usual fins and snorkel, I was equipped with a spear gun.
“You put the spear in here,” Jimmy said. “It’s attached by this line so you won’t lose it.” It was, basically, a metal bar with a trigger, a rubber tube, and a spear that is attached with a string. The tube acts as a powerful rubber band. You pull back the band until the spear latches in the trigger.
“The lobsters hide under rocks rock shelves, so you have to look under them and if you see one, shoot him with the spear gun and bring him back up. Here, come with me, I’ll show you.”
I followed him to the bottom of the ocean which was three or four meters deep. There were many places where coral or rocks did not fit firmly on the bottom and there were hiding places for critters. Jimmy looked under one, and then another and we came up for breath.
We repeated this until Jimmy fired his spear gun under a rock and pulled out a lobster.
When I tried it on my own, I would peak carefully under the rocks and quickly run out of breath. I rarely even saw a lobster but Alan was a lobster catching machine.
Jimmy said, “he just grabs the rock and sticks his head right under the ledges, I would be afraid a Morey Eel would jump out and chomp me in the face,” but Alan would dive to the bottom and dump a lobster into the dinghy every half dozen dives or so. Jimmy caught a few and I caught exactly none. I still had visions of sea urchins and scorpion fish and didn’t want to grab any place I couldn’t clearly see. Alan had gloves.
Fortunately, I was not excluded from feasting on them. When we got back to the harbor, I swam in and picked up some rum and Coke and made my contribution.
When we weren’t sailing, I would knock around the town meeting new people or talking to ones I had already met.
On the day I walked over the bridge towards the glimmering hotels and casinos I was bewildered by what I was seeing. They didn’t seem to have a front door but, rather, huge lobbies attended by men in tuxedos. I had been in the casinos in Reno and Las Vegas before, so I thought I had an idea what to expect, but I did not even make it in the entrance before I was intercepted.
“Hello, sir,” the extremely well-dressed man with an English accent said in a polite tone, “You need to go up to your room and change to enjoy the activities available in this portion of the hotel.”
“I’m not staying here.”
His tone remained polite, but he looked down his nose at my long hair, shorts, sandals, and his voice became condescending. “Well, sir, you are welcome, but we do need you to dress appropriately.”
Not only didn’t I have a tuxedo, but I didn’t even have a suit with me, so I gave up on that plan.
I was reasonably welcome at Jalen’s conch selling empire, and Candy was there when I got back to the poor side of the bridge.
I liked it when Candy was with Jalen. Candy always seemed to be amused by what was going on. He seemed to find me amusing, asking me where I was from and about how I lived back in the US.
“You ever try Bahamian food?” Candy asked me.
I was a bit puzzled but said, “Sure.”
“You come to my house for dinner.”
“Wow, thanks, that is very nice of you.”
“It’s ok, you come hea five o’clock tonight.”
With a vision of sitting at a table in one of the small houses or apartments crammed into the backstreets of the town, I arrived at five o’clock. Jalen was already there and Candy arrived a few minutes later.
“I show you Nassau now, come on.”
Jalen and I followed him up a street I knew, past where it was familiar. The buildings grew more and more ramshackle. Little shops were randomly interspersed until the town lost its density. The buildings started to lack foundations and look increasingly makeshift. Roofs were corrugated steel, plywood, unidentifiable plastic, and other creative material. The road disappeared and become a path between the improvised structures. I was the only white person around.
We arrived at a small shanty. The roof was plywood and the walls were unfinished two by twos. It had two small rooms each with doors to the outside on rough hinges.
Candy ushered us through one of the doors into a space that was a bedroom and living room. It had a bed in the corner and several chairs positioned around its perimeter.
When we entered, a small woman came out of the other room and Candy said: “this is my wife, Tyesha.”
Tyesha said, “Hello” quietly and vanished back into the other room.
Jalen was mostly quiet. We talked about rum prices, taxes, British Colonialism, the Bahamian police, Fox Hill Jail (the local hoosegow). Candy continued to be interested in what it was like living in the US.
Tyesha brought out plates of corn beef and cabbage. Not what I expected.
“You like Bahamian food?”
“It’s delicious, thank you very much.”
Candy turned to Jalen and said, “Don’s a friend of mine, you understand what that means, don’t you?”
Jalen looked startled and fear flashed across his face. I realized that in this alien world that Candy must have some sort of power. It hadn’t even occurred to me that going into a poor black shanty town with two people I didn’t know might not be the safest thing to do. I was just protected.
They walked me back to the seawall. I was safe and happy to have made new friends in a new place. Friends who, with so little, would share what they have with me.
Back on the boats, it was not many days later that Elsie and Gail lead a charge for us all to go to a particularly lovely island. There was a large, lovely beach. It was near beautiful reefs.
We stocked the boat with supplies, including copious amounts of rum, and set sail.
When we pulled out of the harbor and hoisted the sails, Jimmy started giving me more sailing lessons.
“They are heading that direction because they think they will have to tact less, but they are wrong.”
“Are we racing?”
“No, not really, but anytime two sailboats are going the same place they are racing.”
“Here,” Jimmy said, “take the wheel, you shouldn’t have to turn it much at all, just keep the sail there at the angle that it is.” He watched me for a bit, headed into the cabin, and reappeared with two cups, a can of Coke and a quart of rum. He mixed us drinks. We drank and talked with the other boats not far away. Gail was with us for a bit and then went into the cabin.
So, there we were … rum, warm sun, identical stretches of ocean … rum, warm sun, identical stretches of ocean … Jimmy decided it was time to take a break and take a nap. Gail was not happy.
“Jimmy, we need to keep up with them.”
“Fuck you, I need to sleep for a little while, help me with the sails.”
Gail did as she was told but was clearly miffed. Personally, I could see Jimmy’s point and fell asleep shortly after we cast anchor.
When I woke up, Jimmy was still asleep. I went into the cabin to find Gail, but she was gone. My moving around woke up Jimmy who was still half drunk. It took him nearly a minute to realize that Gail was gone. Our companion boats were nowhere to be seen.
Though it was obvious, I asked, “Where’d she go?”
“She went with those fuckers.” When our boat stopped, they must have come back to see what was happening and she left on one of their boats.
Jimmy flew into a rage and picked up various objects from around him and hurled them into the cabin punctuating each toss by saying “fucking bitch,” “she can’t do this to me,” “god damn her,” and related phrases.
Finally, he calmed down a bit and lit a cigarette and tossed the lit match onto the deck.
When I saw the flames snake towards the cabin, I instantly realized that one of the objects he threw was a gas can which was not empty, after all. In less than 10 seconds the cabin was completely ablaze. During the first few seconds, Jimmy tried to get to a fire extinguisher, but it was too close to the cabin. By then Jimmy knew what we needed to do and shouted, “Jump.” By then, I already had.
As we tread water, Jimmy said, “Oh shit, fuck … oh shit … “over and over until he interrupted himself and said, “I have insurance!”
He paddled in silence for several seconds lost in thought and he said to me, “Hey, this was an accident. The insurance company needs to know it was an accident.”
I started thinking about my possessions, including my guitar, and I figured it would be a good deal if the insurance company paid up, so it made sense to me. By the time a boat pulled up to rescue us we had worked out the story. Basically, we don’t know what happened. Considering how much rum we had been drinking, it was pretty much true.
We climbed aboard the boat of our rescuers.
“Where do you guys live?”
“On the boat.”
“OK, where do you want to go?”
Beyond the fact that I wanted to go to the beach and recover my clothes, I didn’t have a clear idea.
They dropped us off on the beach recommending we try the Salvation Army.
So, there we were, no possessions, no place to sleep, and Jimmy didn’t even have shoes.
We located the Salvation Army, which had a few beds and donated clothes, and Jimmy got some shoes. They put us up in a barren room with a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and a half dozen beds arranged around the walls. We were the only people there.
“It is messed up losing your boat.”
“Just remember what we talked about if they call you, it was an accident.”
“Ok, ok … I remember.”
Jimmy lightened up. “Man, this place is funky. The cockroaches here are the size of rats. I expect them to do a floor show, put on little hats and tap dance.” There wasn’t much else to do but to fall asleep.
The next day I went to the Embassy and to see if I could recover my traveler’s checks. Jimmy went off to try and do something about his boat. I have never seen him since.
The Embassy wrote me a letter saying that I claimed to be an American citizen.
I needed to call American Express. I found out that to call the US, I needed to go to the phone company.
The phone company consisted of 2 teller windows, 4 phone booths, and benches to wait. I waited in line at a teller window, paid for a call to the US, and then sat down and waited for my name to be called. When it was called, they told me which phone both go to and it rang through to the number I had given them. American Express agreed that they would do it, but it would take days, and by then I hoped to be back in the US.
I managed to get the airline to agree to fly me back to Miami.
At the airport, I ran into Gail.
“Are you going home now?” she asked.
“Yeah, where’s Jimmy?”
“Oh, Jimmy,” she sighed.
“He will be able to get insurance,” I said, hopefully.
“I think so.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s with Chris and Elsie.”
“I thought he was mad at them.”
“He was mad at me.”
“What’s going to happen with you guys?”
“I don’t know, I have to go to catch my flight, so I can’t hang out.”
I put my arms around her and we kissed. She flashed me a sweet look. I said, “Goodbye,” and she went off to her plane.
I was soon on my way back to Miami, but my ticket from there to California was ash.
That’s another story.