Friday, September 28, 2012

Homesick for the Bahamas

Two weeks ago I flew from Tampa to San Juan Puerto Rico solely to visit the San Juan National Historic Site in Old San Juan, and to drink a Landshark Lager at what turned out to be each of the three Margaritaville Cafes in the San Juan Airport.
I traveled to San Juan on Jet Blue Airlines, an air carrier that I am quickly beginning to like more than any of the few that remain. Previous experiences with Jet Blue have all been positive and I've flown them to Cancun (twice), Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, Ponce, Puerto, Rico, San Juan Puerto Rico, Bogota, Colombia and in a couple weeks to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Each trip on Jet Blue has been enjoyable I think because Jet Blue's philosophy of customer service is to actually provide customer service.
As we lifted off from Tampa that Thursday afternoon I was seated near the front of the nearly packed Airbus A320 jet in my now-standard window seat. Ever since getting over my irrational fear of flying 30 years ago I have always sought out window seats if for no other reason than the geography lesson a window seat provides.
Because of some nasty thunderstorms over near Ratworld we were routed south from Tampa over Sarasota and on to Fort Myers where we were vectored east and passed over the Miami International Airport. Ever since my first time in the Miami airport in July 1984 I have loved that place. It used to be that if you wanted to travel anywhere south you did so by connecting in Miami. When I lived on Grand Turk Island in 1985-1986, the only way to reach the island (other than internal flights on Turks and Caicos National Airlines) was to fly on Cayman Airways or venerable Pan Am from the Miami airport. Although its no longer necessary to fly from Miami to get somewhere warm, I still look at MIA with the same excited child-like eyes with which I viewed it the first time I landed there.
From the edge of Miami we passed over the coastline and out over the open ocean. Doing so I was taken back to the many times I have flown to the Bahamas from the United States and especially all the times I flew "home" to Nassau from the Miami Airport. A check of my travel records shows that I have landed in the Bahamas on 51 international flights (all from the United States). Most of those landings have been in Nassau and almost all of the Nassau flights originated from the Miami Airport.
A few minutes after passing over the Gulf Stream I could see the extensive salt flats on the west shore of Andros Island the largest, and to me the most mysterious of the 2,000 or so islands in the Bahamas. When I was working in the Bahamas and had an office in the US Embassy in Nassau, I came to know several Drug Enforcement Agency agents posted there. Although it was not our purpose while there, we did some surveillance for the DEA while out on some of the "Family Islands" and always dutifully reported that information back to the DEA in the Embassy. Because of that relationship the DEA in Nassau took a special interest in our safety and they specifically forbade us from traveling on official government duty to Andros Island. The reason was simple. Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Lots of drugs and Colombianns who were hell bent on bringing them into the United States. As one agent (who shall forever remain nameless) told me one day in Nassau, "You guys are going to be running around with binoculars over your necks, and carrying radio telemetry antennaes in your hands. Do you think of for a minute that Raul or Jose are going to buy your story that you're just looking for birds? Fuck no! You try that trick and we'll find you on the bottom of the harbor at Congo Town some day."
I guess it was prophetic that about a month later a Federal Aviation Administration technician landed on nearby North Bimini to fix some aircraft tracking radar. In the village on North Bimini he told everyone that he was FAA and they heard it as DEA and he was later found at the bottom of Bimini harbor with his hands tied behind his back and his legs weighted down with cement blocks.
Passing over the north end of Andros I could see New Providence island, the home of Nassau, off to port. My first view of the West Indies came from a Delta Airlines L-1011 as we were on approach to the Nassau airport on June 4 1984. My friend Chris Haney had told me about "green water" in the West Indies and I didn't believe him until we were on final approach to the Nassau airport which is bounded by green water. Whenever I have seen green water since then I have known that I was back where I belong in the West Indies.
It was to the Bahamas that I ran after my divorce long ago. It was the Bahamas that provided me with a safe haven hundreds of miles away from the heat and the passion and the dying fire that was once my marriage back in North Dakota. It was the Bahamas that provided me with palm trees and sandy beaches and warm January morning's and lots of drinks to keep me numb and pretty postcards on which I wrote goofy notes to friends back in the reality of United States. It was the Bahamas that provided me all of that and it all began in Nassau.
It was in the Nassau airport where my contact, the Cultural Attache, took out a map of the city and drew a circle around one part of it and said, matter of factly, "Do not under ANY circumstances go here. If you wind up here and you have a flat tire you drive until you are out of here. Do not stop to change your tire. Do not under any circumstances roll down your window. Do nothing other than get the hell out of there." This "there" that he talked about was a particularly nasty part of Nassau, the part that the Bahamas Tourism Authority fails to tell tourists about when they sling their marketing slogan "Its Better in the Bahamas." My Embassy contact made it abundantly clear that the better "It" was not in this part of Nassau. When I asked about the issues I was told, simply, "drugs. Lots of drugs." He then explained to me that at the time Nassau had the second highest per capita crime rate in the world. When I asked what was number one he told me "Kingston, Jamaica, and you better not go there either."
All of those flights that we took around the islands, each on Bahamas Air (the worlds largest unscheduled airline) originated at the Nassau airport. After all the times on that miserable airline I tallied up the record and found that we were late arriving or departing on every flight by at least 90 minutes. Every flight for those three years! I soon accepted the fact that any flight less than 90 minutes late on Bahamas Air was "on time." At least on island time.
A Bahamas Air Hawker-Sidley 748. Looking at the registration letters on the tail this is the exact same plane that broke while we were in mid-flight traveling from Nassau to Mayaguana island on February 20, 1985. The propeller on the right engine died while we were in flight 10,000 feet above the ocean surface. The pilot came on a calmly said in his Bahamian accent, "Ladies and gentlemen we have a slight problem, but there's nothing to worry about."
Leaving Nassau we traveled down the Exuma Keys toward Georgetown Exuma. The Exuma's have been variously described as a "sting of pearls" laying on the ocean's surface. The bar in the Hotel Peace and Plenty in Georgetown Exuma sits directly on the Tropic of Cancer where, if you position your arm just right, you can drink in the Tropics and the Subtropics at the same time.
Some of the Exumas
Now off to our left was Cat Island and just beyond it was San Salvador.It was on the latter that Columbus allegedly landed at the conclusion of his first voyage to the new world. I say allegedly landed because the lay out of San Salvador and the lay out of Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands is very similar and a debate continues to rage about which island was the real island where Columbus first landed. Nobody will ever know because the only person who knows for certain, Columbus, has been dead for 500 years and he's not saying much. San Salvador has three monuments to the "exact" spot where Columbus allegedly first stepped foot on the island. Even San Salvador residents aren't sure of the story. It was on San Salvador island where I completely lost it with Bahamas Air the first time (of many of times) because of their ineptness. It was on San Salvador that I watched a fully-loaded DC-3 land in the middle of the night, with only flashlights illuminating the edge of the runway, and then when safely parked, watched people unloading sack after sack of a valuable white substance. A week later, armed with this information, the DEA and the Royal Bahamas Police Force made a huge drug bust at the San Salvador airport - possibly when the next shipment arrived.
The San Salvador airport is today served by weekly flights on Spirit Airlines from Fort Lauderdale. The important question being - do you really want to fly on Spirit?
We continued our nostalgic run through the islands passing over the north tip of Long Island. It was here after a typical Bahamas Air flight that my assistant Paul Sievert deplaned and kneeled on the tarmac and kissed the ground because he was so elated to be off that miserable airline - at least for that day. Next we were vectored over Crooked Island which I have never visited. Its where Jimmy Buffett goes for bone fishing so I have to go there some day. Off in the distance to the east was remote and largely unexplored Samana Cay. There are no human residents on Samana but there are lots of birds and more importantly there are lots of hutia a bizarre mammal that reminds me of an island-dwelling agouti.
An adult Hutia. In the Bahamas they are found almost exclusively on Samana Cay. The only ones I've ever seen were at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where they are quite common.
My last view of the Bahamas was of huge and largely uninhabited Mayaguana island near the southern end of the Bahamas archipelago. It was on this island that we landed the day the Bahamas Air flight broke in mid air. At the time of that flight Bahamas Air flew four Hawker-Sidley 748 aircraft. They also had 3 repair crews ready to fly out to repair their planes if needed. On the day of our fateful flight the pilot radioed back to Nassau to inform Bahamas Air maintenance that we were broken down and could someone come fix the plane. He was informed by Nassau that the three fix it crews were out on three other islands fixing the three other planes. We were put up in the Mayaquana "Sheraton" a weather beaten guest house where we were fed stale corned beef for dinner. Later while walking around the town (only 800 people lived on Mayaguana back then) I came onto a bar (disco as it was called) and went inside. It was there that I had an epiphany. I was sitting among some of the poorest people I had known in my life (up until then) and they were all seemingly very happy. They worked catching fish and conchs and lived hand to mouth but they were happy. They didn't as the Buffett song says "live in a hurry." They just made the best of their situation and I didn't hear one of them complain. I never bought a beer that night because these dirt poor Bahamaians went out of their way to make this stranded visitor feel like he was home.
Mayaguana and its wonderful undisturbed scrub forest that drips with birds in winter. I hope it always stays that way
As we continued south we passed over the line separating the Bahamas from the Turks and Caicos Islands and as we did I found myself cranking my head around looking back to the north. As much as I used to complain about the Bahamas they actually became my surrogate home. People like the economically distressed fishermen on Mayaguana made it home and so did the Royal Bahamas Police Force guy on Nassau who once slammed me against the side of my car while I was doing a bird survey because he thought I was scoping out homes to rob later in the day. The crazed Bahamians on Great Abaco made me feel more welcome than I have on most places in the United States. Then there was the airport manager for Bahamas Air on Eleuthera who had fewer good things to say about his airline than I did but at least he said it with a smile. And there was the lady on Grand Bahama who saw me stumble out of a forest suffering from heat exhaustion who promptly stopped, poured water all over me and against my protestations darted off to the hospital in Freeport because she wanted to make sure I was ok.
When I first arrived in the Bahamas long ago I was a raw nerve. I demanded (in my mind) that they conform to what I thought was correct and in so doing the Bahamians showed me that I was the one out of step, not them. A lecture I received from a Bahamas Air pilot on Inagua island who once said to me "Sir, you are now in the land where time stands still" (with emphasis on the last three words) went a long way in converting me from a "I have to have it done yesterday" American to someone who learned that things will get done eventually. It might not be on my terms or on my schedule but they will get done. So just learn to chill out.
Through all of this the Bahamas have become my surrogate home and if it wasn't so expensive there I'd live on one of the islands - probably Grand Bahama or Eleuthera. However because I can't live there I will just live there vicariously through trips to the islands or by flying over them on my way to somewhere else. Now I'm getting homesick to return home and I'm thinking I need to go back again. Maybe I'll do that after Jamaica? As my Bahamian friends would say, "Yah, mon, I tink that a good idea mon."

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