On Culture and Tourism
GREEN TURTLE CAY doesn’t have a bank or even an ATM, the museum and the health clinic both fail to keep the hours they post, and when I ask if there’s a police force, I learn that it’s comprised of one man — and “he isn’t always here.” But the Green Turtle residents do have a Home Depot. At least, that’s what they call it.
While Green Turtle is a clean island and its waters are some of the clearest in the world, the residents are less concerned with the deleterious effects of torching tons of trash and sundry recyclables every week. I first notice this while going on a boat trip to explore, ironically, the second best-preserved coral reef on Earth: as we prepare to take off from the Green Turtle Club marina, a great cheesy cloud of yellow-gray smoke grows up from somewhere in the middle of the island, reeking the way only burning plastic, rubber, cardboard, fabrics, and foodstuffs could reek. I learned later that this was the town dump, set ablaze periodically because of the same economical exigencies that make a case of Kalik beers here cost $50: it’s just as prohibitively expensive to boat stuff away from the island as it is to boat stuff to the island, so the locals have to torch their trash, and forgo recycling entirely.
It looks like a cauterized scar in the earth. It begins with cooling units and bits of furniture and spills down in a slope of beer bottles and tortured contortions of useless blackened metal to a bottom maybe just shy of 10 feet below me, where, beneath a carbon camouflage a Bahamian Hades might keep his back door.
I pick a hot and cloudless afternoon to visit the dump, and not much has been added since the blaze a few days prior. The burn area is, bizarrely, surrounded closely by trees, but the dumping ground itself is violently white, recalling the psychosomatically painful experiences of whiteness Mersault describes in Camus’ The Stranger. Steve (my first and faithfulest globetrotting companion; see previous entries on Dortmund) says, “I found a new kind of hell.” Steve, his cousins, and I walk past the first burn site and past another crevasse to a wide field lined with hardier junk that must have resisted earlier fires and been pushed to the side: metal piping, the bodies of a rusted sedan and a white jeep (this must be new), all on a bed of broken glass, Biblical generations of Kaliks, Sands, Guinnesses, Bud Lights. There isn’t much here right now, because of the local habit that earned the place its name. This fan might need a new belt; that couch might be torn to hell but the frame’s strong; this fridge could serve for shelf space, at least, and that golf cart’s license plate might make a nice bar decoration. If you need something, anything, especially anything big, it’ll be expensive to get to Green Turtle by boat — and there is no other way than by boat. That’s why most locals come here first, for the pickings. Hence: Home Depot.
Just as we’re about to leave I spot the bodies of brown pigs moving in the cool shaded bushes at the edge of the dump site. We’re not far off when they trot out, unhesitant, and start rooting around at the edge of some inscrutable waste-heap, looking for who knows what. I have no doubt they’ll find it, but we have to go — it’s hot, we haven’t brought any water, and the thought of piña coladas in the Green Turtle Club’s semi-AC’d Dollar Bar starts to dominate my mind.
White earth, black scar of burning, healthy pigs rooting in twisted metal under a hot Bahamian sun. It is this image — more than the beauty of nurse sharks in the marina waters at sundown or the phosphorescence of the plankton under the imponderable Milky Way at midnight; more than the unctuous whiteness of of fresh conch expertly shorn from shell and from fat; more than white pool chalk on black Bahamian hands drawing a slow bead on a cue ball or the sight of my own skin bronzing steadily in the porch panes each morning — it is this image of blinding white earth and brown rusting cars and the black scar of burning and happy healthy furry pigs rooting through all of it that captures something I want to stress about Green Turtle Cay: that though this place may depend entirely on tourism and visiting fishermen, unlike the resorts and ports that more readily come to mind when the American traveler thinks of the Caribbean or the south Atlantic islands, there is something about Green Turtle and its people that refuses to be defined by this economic fact; that resists the cosmeticization of character to reflect GDP percentages; that cannot be reduced to some mathematical formula accounting for the number of rum punches I drink between the Bluff House and Sundowners and the length of the yacht I arrived on. This place has a culture that does not strive to make itself a mere mirror for the visitor. I took plenty of fuego Snapchat and Instagram selfies during my stay on Green Turtle, but the overall experience wasn’t at all like that of the “tourist,” which is something like standing with your head in the hole of one of those cardboard facsimiles of a beach scene, ripped in Baywatch-red swim trunks and with (an equally and conveniently faceless) beach babe beside you: placing yourself, that is, for a moment in a flattering if two-dimensional context: Me, on vacation. Instead, I found a culture, a culture that needed me and me feel that I needed it, just as much; a culture that called a dump Home Depot and called my best friend “Blackout Steve.” I was honored, for 10 days, to live in it. The culture, that is — not the dump.
Bahama Brain, Or Getting Down To Speed
AN INTERESTING if facile think-piece once paired each decade of U.S. history with its epochal automobile: the Model T for the 1910s and the Pierce-Arrow for the 20s; the Hummer for the 2000s and the Prius for the 2010s. The quintessential vehicle here is the golf cart, and it’s been that way for as long as I can tell. It says something about a people that few of them care to travel any more than 15 miles an hour. The golf carts can feel like they’re really booking, as on the first night, when Steve and I drove home from the local dance-and-pool bar Sundowners severely overserved, through a rainstorm, and without directions home — but in the sober light of morning I took the golf cart out for a trip to the Green Turtle Club and found myself stomping my foot through the floor on the straightaway, frustrated. Standard golf carts just aren’t made to accelerate, apparently — and this was an important realization, because I soon came to understand that you can’t rush anything in the Bahamas. Your dinner will take an hour if you’re lucky; bartenders and service staff don’t care for multitasking; your friends and family will say things like “We have ten minutes to get to the dock” while floating upside down, beer in hand, on a cerulean waveless bay, making not a move in any direction, certainly not towards the dock, and certainly not in ten minutes; and then there are the golf carts. You learn to go with it; to crack another beer, holding it aloft out of the saltwater that floats you in a gesture I came to call the Bahamian salute.
That’s not to say the islands are short on adventure. In ten days I’ve raced with dolphins, kayaked to a private island, gotten lost, fed fresh conch to sting rays, won diving contests, and watched a barracuda’s ugly jaws tear through fish flesh just feet from my face. Unforgettable events like these would seem to lend themselves to a timeline, and I could plot them out if I tried: there was the Sunday trip to Nipper’s, and before that the night the five girls from Boca took Steve and I home from Sundowners; there was the day we went snorkeling over the “Fish Bowl” reef and then feasted on some nameless beach, eating conch and grouper we’d caught on the way; then there was the Wednesday night we saw the Gully Roosters play the Green Turtle Club, and danced outrageously. But my days on Green Turtle resist retrospective reordering — once I’ve lived each it joins the rest in a vivid sort of unspooling behind and in front of me. It might be that despite all the variety the days here begin, progress, and end in much the same way.
Sun and roosters wake me. It’s about 7:30am. In a semi-conscious semi-dread I try to recall how many drinks I had the day before: five or six rum punches, maybe 10 Kalik beers. But I am not at all hungover, and am beginning to realize that a hangover will be unlikely no matter how I spend my night. I swing my feet into swim trunks on their way to the floor, cinch the waistband, and walk out into a blazing morning, down a short path to the beach. It’s high tide, the water is cool, and bone fish play by my feet. I might see a sting ray cruising, or run into another person wading and walking, and talk for a while.
Back at the house I’ll take a coffee (Tim Hortons!) to the breezy beach-facing upper deck and read a book (I finished Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in one sitting here), looking up occasionally just to watch the fronds of the tallest palm trees sashay against their glittering backdrop. I will not know the time. When I am hungry, I will acknowledge my hunger, but do nothing about it. (It is entirely unlike the Prufrockian ennui or Millenial inertia that I’m used to feeling at home; this is more like wu wei, the Taoist term for non-action.) When I am hungry again I will still wait, and wonder why I am waiting, just watching nothing. And when the hunger comes again I might finally go into the kitchen and cut two slices of Bahamian bread (sweet, pillowy catacombs on the inside, soft crust the color of my seven-day tan) and fry it with butter and eat it with American cheese. I may or may not have my first Kalik of the day, not stopping to consider the time, which I still do not know.
There will be plans, plans that begin with exact start times and specific goals and agendas but these will deliquesce in the island’s humidity and we will end up loafing, having a second Kalik, taking two hours to walk to a salt marsh stopping for sand dollars and sea biscuits; we will stop and wade and talk of nothing easily.
Finally there will be a trip — maybe toward the Green Turtle Club, where there is ping pong and good tipsy turtles and where Brendal docks his boat, which we may take out to go diving, or to feed the swimming pigs on No Name Cay — or we might go into New Plymouth, a town of quaint colorful colonial houses and narrow streets, where we will stop for Goombay Smashes at Miss Emily’s, and her daughter Miss Violet might give us floaters of rum on top and we’ll drink one or two before some little local boys call us to play basketball with them on the court across the street.
It will have been a day shaped by successions like the waves: talking and silence, swimming and drinking, driving and planning and floating and nothing. I’m surprised such regular cycles of action and indolence (or really indolence and wei wu wei, action-without-action) have not left me rippled or ridged the way the calm waves leave the bay bottom. But at a certain point we’ll need more fortifying food than a grilled cheese or a fresh conch salad and we’ll stop to eat — maybe grilled grouper, or lobster marinaded in mango salsa, with fried plantains and mac and cheese soaked in hot sauce. The sun will set while we’re dancing, or playing volleyball, or shooting pool, and then there will be serious drinking and light talk followed by light drinking and serious talk and when I go to sleep it will be to the sound of the waves, and of frogs singing deep in the cistern. Sun and roosters will wake me.
Brendal Stevens – A Character Study
IN ANY community, and especially any small community, certain living characters become representative. They are often unelected and sometimes even unaware of their stature in others’ eyes; but when the community speaks it is in their voices. Their mortality is tacitly ignored, and in some cases not even believed.
That must have been the case with Miss Emily, whose Blue Bee Bar is home to the now world-famous Goombay Smash, the best rum punch on the island and probably in the world. She looks like a queen in her smiling portrait, which hangs amid a thousand or more business cards, ID photos, t-shirts, pennant flags, dollar bills, and other messages left by yachtsmen and fishers and celebrities from Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffet to Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon (the last was a regular on Green Turtle, and probably at Miss Emily’s bar). Having opened the bar in 1957, generations of visitors must have been unable to imagine her passing. Since her death in 1997, though, her daughter Miss Violet has operated the bar, and, as is the way with these avatars of a specific people and place, it is Miss Violet who will represent Green Turtle Cay for me the way her mother did for those who came before me.
There are others here — The Gully Roosters who play the Green Turtle Club on Wednesdays, David who serves souse for breakfast at the Plymouth Rock Liquor Store and Café — but the most charismatic and visible of these figures is Brendal Stevens, whose dive center and boat dock has catered to everyone from Marlon Brando and Jacques and Jean-Marie Cousteau to Julia Robert, Donald Trump, and all the contestants of the 2009 Miss Universe pageant. He’s a powerful man, a man with a mean recipe for grouper, a good frisbee thrower and holder of firm and goodhearted if sometimes specious opinions, and a keen observer of both marine and human nature, having worked in the Bahamian tourist industry since 1964, master of his own fleet and crew for most of those years.
Our first trip out with Brendal was to see (and feed) the swimming pigs of Abaco, a little over a dozen adult hogs and about as many piglets living on the otherwise uninhabited No Name Cay. Set against a different backdrop, the excursion could have been a third grade field trip (drive thirty minutes, feed pigs, go home), but with Brendal, it became an adventure. He broke out gallons of homemade rum punch on the ride to the island, but we didn’t need alcoholic encouragement to get down and intimate with hirsute and hungry hogs, which could get a bit aggressive.
We’re not by any means alone — two small yachts pull in blasting the Top 40 hits that every boat and bar blast down here (think OMI’s “Cheerleader,” Shaggy’s “Angel,” and Rock City’s “Locked Away”) and later we’re joined by even bigger boats, carrying some twenty-odd Floridians who offer Steve and I Labatts and Fireball shots to take a few group pictures) — but the place doesn’t yet feel crowded and certainly not touristy. Though we’re only a few days behind Kourtney Kardashian, Isabela Rangela, and Larsa Pippen, and Brendal takes a boatload of visitors here at least every other day, Green Turtle and neighboring No Name is still far enough from the major resorts that no corporate tour or “all inclusive package” will be taking hordes here any time soon. You have to have a boat, or charter a boat, or know someone with a boat to get here. To put a Rust Belt millennial’s spin on it, visiting the swimming pigs would sort of be like having a Buffalonian take you by kayak to the explore the grain elevators — not exactly a hidden secret, but still something you feel special, and sort of local, doing. And this is the key to understanding Brendal’s legendary stature — it’s all about the way he makes people feel.
And the feeling I’ll always associate with Brendal is one of devastating wonder. I put on goggles (heavily prescriptioned — who knew?) and jump off the side of his boat into the “Fish Bowl,” a particularly vibrant and swimmable section of coral reef in the Abacos. Immediately I’m surrounded: scores of minnows, yellowheads and parrotfish, gnarly scorpionfish and brilliant blue somethings and beautiful tapering spearfish, all moving through an uncanny urbanity of coral. I surface for air and a mental and spiritual recalibration (snorkeling and freediving today, lacking the time and money for SCUBA training — though I’ll do it, with Brendal, when I’m back). Above, the world is very much as I knew it — full of trees, and and sky, and choppy water. But below … I’m breathing, hard.
Steve is equally affected. But he says: “Dude. Behind you. Barracuda.” And I’m down again, twisting clumsily in the water, and I see it, not four feet away: long, muscular, with huge ugly teeth in an obscenely angled jaw.
So begins a measureless stretch of amazement. Brendal’s crew begin to toss conch scraps into the water — like, right at us — drawing more predators: I get to watch more barracuda and an absurdly large grouper chomp on the conch, seeming to eye me up the entire time. I swim closer.
And I look down again and try to follow the divers — they are hardly the most beautiful thing here, but it’s fascinating and a little comical to watch them moving about below me, to hear the communicative tapping of metal implements on dive watches, and to swim through the explosions of the bubbles they release. But soon they’re gone to places I can’t follow. I’m left to ponder greeny elkhorn coral, and bright magmalike fire coral, the furry black sea rods, the ferny sea fans, and the bulbous brainfolds of every color, unsettling me with their suggestion of a sensed intelligence behind all the intelligibility of the universe. And then of course there are all the pointed shapes that dart among these stabler forms. I don’t see a fraction of what the divers see, even when I do ditch the snorkel and swim down as far as my lungs and flippers can take me. But still, it’s a transformative experience. The volume and diversity of the life around you in a place like this is literally overwhelming — you lose your sense of yourself as a person, with fears and desires, even as a discreet entity, and you become something at once less and more — which is a powerfully lonely thing to be. I breath a long while later and swim back to the ship when one of the lenses on my goggles pop out. I have not recovered, and I don’t intend to.
Less effecting than the sight of a barracuda swallowing a live fish but also incomprehensible in its own way is the fact that Brendal does this every day. Every — single — day — he delivers people like me to a coral altar for a kind of soul-sacrifice, for transcendence, for an experience of the sublime dressed in shapes and colors even the old Romantics couldn’t imagine. He’s a priest.
PEOPLE WHO MAKE their money on charm and charisma, in my experience, generally need time to rest and recharge, need time alone. Maybe Brendal does, but I see him not only for three afternoon excursions but nearly every night of my 240 hours in the Bahamas. After our pig petting we part ways, and I’m surprised to see him again chalking his hands and taking aim with his personal cue at Sundowners, a bar that more perfectly marries the tourist and local element than any I’ve seen in my globetrotting. Fans twist cigarette smoke into linear tangos over the pool table; a visiting fisherman with a red face save for eyes pale as fresh grouper waxes on the Bahamian drug trade and warns of islands “you can’t even visit — or bang!“; a DJ spins an emotionally unsettling but nonetheless danceble reggae mix of Adele’s “Hello”; and it’s here, after saying slapping up Brendal (a complex and mutuable Bahamian handshake that is well beyond my powers of description), that Steve and I meet five lovely ladies from Boca and make plans, some time around five on Saturday morning, to charter Brendal again and ride with him to Nipper’s, the only Sunday (“Fun Day”) alternative to church in the Out Islands, a sort of weekly “spring break” on Great Guana Cay.
After docking at Great Guana and climbing to the bluff where Nipper’s sits Brendal disappears into the undulating mass of bodies on a dancefloor triangulated by two pools, steep steps to the beach, a busy bar (where I meet a man in Big Ditch Brewing tee, Bills sunglasses strap, and Sabres cap), and a hall serving a killer pork roast buffet — his arms are up, his hips are swaying, and under his cargo shorts, I know all to well, is a flamboyant Speedo that he’ll be only too willing to display when the time is right. (The time is often right for Brendal to strip to his (very skimpy) skivvies.) I won’t see him again for about five hours, and we’re both going to have a hell of a time.
“It’s not really about what you see,” he says to Mark Coffed (one of my hosts and guides, practically an islander himself). “I’m making people memories.”
And he does it again and again. There are the pigs, the conversations, the night I get to grab a djembe and jam with his band at Pineapples, and of course the time we climb up to the front of his boat with some girls we meet and lay back in the spray and the heat of the sun which is beginning to set and race dolphins — we race dolphins! — and I will always remember that one of the dolphins has a jagged dorsal fin and that, of the girls, the very tan left one has a tattoo of a dopamine molecule on her foot and the right one has a tattoo of hemlock trees on her arm, which aren’t, I’m only slightly disappointed to discover, a tribute to Socrates. “It’s the happy chemical,” the first one says, “I have depression. And “I’ve always felt trees keep us rooted,” the second one says. The injured dolphin says nothing.
At the End of the Dock
SUN AND ROOSTERS wake me. Or, they’re not really roosters, they’re some other crazy kind of bird shrieking shrilly at the window, but it’s our last morning, a few hours before I have to catch a ferry, a taxi, and three airplanes back to Buffalo, and I’m mostly naked and lying on a rug, like a cadaver, my face in a balled up beach towel. Steve is nearby in a similar condition. I remember a sunny afternoon spent at Plymouth Rock with the power out, where David pointed to Louis Armstrong’s trumpet (offered once in lieu of payment) before pouring drams (and drams and drams) from his personal rum stock, rare, sweet and dark liquors that warmed me not as much as the honor of being there. I remember how this led us to strip and jump the dock to cool off. I remember dancing, outrageously. I remember fleeting phosphorescence, the sight of meteors nightswimming the starscape, and the thought that ours were the only voices speaking in a universe that hushed to hear us. But my face is in a towel, and I am leaving. The blanks will fill in after a final morning swim, I trust, while the air is still cool and the sun still white on the water (and they do, they do). I wake Steve, and we’re off.
I have always steeled myself for long travels with silence, a sort of decathexis from the social world in preparation for hours of discomfort and isolation. Steve is much the same way. We walk in silence past the Point House at the northern tip of Gillam Bay and followed the rocks to a white wooden bench beneath a palm tree, where others before us, I think, on the mornings of their own departures, have sat and wished for oblivion from a falling coconut.
Bob Dylan once wrote that “You can always come back, but you can never come back all the way.” I’ve found this to be true in my travels: after an absence of two years from Dortmund I found the city and everyone I knew there changed; Buffalo went through a growth spurt in my year away; and I know that other cities I’ve loved, Sligo, New Orleans, or Edinburgh, will have changed when I finally return to them, as I know I will. Sitting silently on the white bench, Steve and I also know that we’ll return to Green Turtle Cay — it’s so obvious and sure that it seems cheap even to type it — but more interesting is the sense I have then, gazing out at the water, that some day I will come back for the second or the sixteenth time and the roads will be fixed, Brendal will be retired, a new mansion will have gone up and altered the landscape of Gillam Bay, there will be political intrigues and hurricanes, I will start to forget names and faces of the people who have disappeared in my absence from the island. The white bench I sit on now might be removed without a trace, and I’ll stand toeing in the sand trying in vain to figure what exact patch of shade it and I occupied on 31 July 2016. But in letting go of ephemeral things like buildings and people I will turn, and look out at the ocean, which will be still and loud with the sounds of waves crashing, golf carts rumbling, rum punched arguments and the Top 40 hits of yesteryear, the Bahamian cadences of new friends with the ghosts of old ones in their faces, breeze in the palm trees and frogs complaining deep inside the cistern of a grand house I new once.
“We should probably get going,” Steve says.
“Yeah,” I reply.
And still we sit there for what seems like precious, brief forever.