Dining Out in Tarpum Bay

Conch Shells

Conch Shells

Saturday evening, and dinner time. Our two guests, escapees from Michigan, Lynn and I decide to wander down to the beach for dinner at the No-Name restaurant, a little bar and food place run by Donovan and Diane. It’s just reopened, after having been raided by the health department for operating without a current liquor license (during which activity there were some suspicious ‘organic substances’ discovered by the authorities). But the restaurant is back in business now, and for Tarpum Bay it is ‘jumping’: there are two guys at the stand-up bar and some rake and scrape music playing loudly from a small radio.

No-Name restaurant is clean and pleasant inside, with two tables for four and the tiny bar. One of the men at the bar detaches himself from his drink long enough to hold the chair for me and utter a long string of works which I can’t really understand, given the fact that he seems to have been at the bar a rather long time, and has a pretty thick Bahamian patois in the best of times. Our volunteer maitre d’ is quite effusive and totally unintelligible, but he proudly points out the little black and white house next door, and I do catch it when he proudly says that he has been living in that very same house for 40 years.

He wants to know where we live, and Lynn tells him that we live in the pink house, “the one that Kervin built.” The latter identification causes him to nod vigorously: it seems that everyone recognizes Kervin’s great building job, and probably envies the fact that he had a year’s worth of work just down the road from his own house. At any rate, we are now welcomed even more warmly by our friend, who proceeds to plant a kiss on the top of my head. He then weaves a few steps back to the bar, and orders another beer.

Diane takes our order: it’s grouper fingers or conch—dipped in batter and fried, of course, with french fries and salad. And we begin the traditional wait: food here is cooked to order, and from my balcony I have often watched Donovan head out to the fish cage he keeps off shore and bring back fresh fish or conch for the evening menu.

But it takes a long time—nobody moves quickly, ever, and there are a couple of take-away orders ahead of ours. Our buddy at the bar seems to think we need entertainment, so he comes back over to our table and proceeds to kiss me on the head a few more times, and tell me that I am his mother, his girlfriend, and his sister, all rolled into one, and he respects me. Since it’s clear that we don’t share any genetic heritage, we all find this pronouncement pretty amusing, but he seems quite serious.

Then he pops the question: Do I like shells? Try asking this question after many beers: it comes out something like “Youalllikeshellsh?” and it took me a couple of tries to get it.

“Sure,” I say.

“Ibringyoushellsh, then,” he says and lurches to the door. We see him go past our window and head for the little black and white cottage, soon to return with two beautiful, perfect sea shells—a tulip shell and a perfect helmet. “These are for you,” he says, putting them in front of me. “Only for you.”

“Wow. What did I do to deserve this?” In the way of an answer, he kisses me on my head again.

Assured that we like them, he is a man with a mission: he heads back to his cottage and returns with a couple more shells, smaller, but no less perfect, cleaned and polished.

Again, we oooh and ahhh, and place them reverently in the middle of our table.

He’s in his stride now, so he lurches out the door and returns with a somewhat battered envelop from the Bahamas Electric Company. He presents it to me and directs me to open it. I am suspicious: am I supposed to pay his electric bill in return for these gifts? A kiss on the head may not be enough for this guy? I hand it back to him, but he insists that I open it.

“OK,” I say to my friends, “You are witnesses. He asked me to open this envelope.” They nod, and I unstick the flap, aware that it’s been opened several times before. I unfold the papers inside, and discover that it’s a check from BEC for $1,146. “Are you Arthur?” I ask. “You’re a lucky guy.”

“You keep it,” he says. “I ain’t got no children anymore.”

“No, Arthur.” I hand it back to him. “You get to a bank. You can live on this for, say, ten years.”

He laughs and goes back to the bar, tucking the check in his pocket, probably with great relief that his offer has been rejected. (However, we notice later that he tries to pay his bar bill with it, much to the disgust of Donovan, who can’t make change and realizes that Arthur has no other money in his pocket.)

Our meal comes at last, and it’s delicious. By now, several other customers have wandered in for snacks or take-away dinner or a Kalik beer. Donovan has had about enough of our friend Arthur (whom we later find out, has the nickname “Goatie”) and refuses to serve him any more beer, an action probably inspired by the fact that he’s discovered that his customer has no money and an uncashable check. A fairly loud discussion ensues as Donovan encourages Arthur to observe bedtime in his black and white cottage, and suggests that something severe will happen if Goatie doesn’t share the proceeds of the check-cashing operation with his next door bartender.

As we leave, Goatie emerges from the bushes for a farewell and we reinforce the necessity of his getting a good nights sleep, thank him once again for the shells, and head up the hill to the pink house that Kervin built.

Dinner at the Culmer Cottage

"Chris", a pencil sketch by Judith Lindenau

"Chris", a pencil sketch by Judith Lindenau

“Very nice fish, Lynn. I surely do love fresh grouper.”

“Probably would have been better if I had dredged it in a little flour before I cooked it, but when it’s only an hour out of the ocean, you can’t go wrong.’

“You know, Kervin must be arround here somewhere. I hear his ignition dinging—he’s left the key in the truck and the door open. Always a sign that he’s here.”

“Of course he’s here, Judith. It’s dinner time, isn’t it?”

“MIZLYNN! MIZJUDITH! MIZLYNN! HEY! I GOT THE THINGUM FOR THE PICTURE FRAME.”

“Come in, Kervin. You’re just in time for some grouper and some potatoes.”

“MIZLYNN! NO! I CAN’T STAY. I GOT TO GO HOME. NO!”

“Sure you can have some. Here. Sit down and eat. We have plenty.”

“OK. What’s this fish?”

“Grouper, Kervin. I just bought it off the dock.”

“MizLynn! How you know dis is grouper? How you know dat?”

“Kervin, I know it because the fisherman at the dock told me.”

“You don’t know grouper. I know grouper. I got some in my cooler. Why don’t you come to my house and get grouper? These guys at the dock, they tell you anything! I don’t know what kinda fish this is. You come to ME, MizLynn, when you want fish.”

“Well, Kervin, it must be ok. You seem to have polished it right off.”

“MizJudith, it’s a SNACK! I been fishin’ all day, nuttin since coffee this mornin’. I am gonna go home and cook boxer fish and pasta for my dinner.”

“Would you like a beer?”

“No, MizLynn. I got a little bottle of scotch, I am gonna have for this evening because Brenda, she’s in Nassau.”

“Well, before you go, Kervin, will you look at the new weed whacker? I got some gas in it, but I can’t get it started.”

“MIZLYNN! I TELL YOU NOT TO USE THAT WEEDWHACKER! DON’T! YOU PAY SOMEBODY TO USE WEEDWHACKER ON THESE ROCKS! I TELL YOU, MIZLYNN!”

“ Sure, sure, Kervin. But would you please see if it works? I couldn’t get it started yesterday.”

“MIZLYNN! SEE THIS BUTTON? YOU GOTTA HAVE IT PUSHED DOWN. IT SAY R-U-N, RUN! YOU DON’T PUSH IT DOWN, IT WON’T START. Stand back, now. I will show you.”

“Kervin! Kervin! Shut that thing down! I want to keep those little yellow flowers. Kervin! Can you hear me? Shut that down! It’s dark, and you can’t see what you are doing. Stop! The little yellow….”

“OK, OK, Mizlynn. See how easy it is? Don’t you do it. I got to go now, cook box fish.”

“Hey Kervin, before you go, could I ask you one question?”

“What, MizJudith? I tole you I gots to go now.”

“Well Kervin, why is there water under the sink? See how wet the wood is over there in the corner?”

“Yeah, and that bottom drawer is all swollen shut, too, Kervin.”

“MIZLYNN! MIZJUDITH! THIS IS NOT GOOD! WHY YOU NOT TELL ME SOONER?”

“Because, Kervin, I just noticed it yesterday, and you haven’t been around.”

“Oh, I gotta fix this. Oh, I gotta get some wood and stuff. I gotta fix this. I gotta go to Rock Sound tomorrow and get stuff and fix this. Now I go home. Goodbye.”

“Bye, Kervin. Hi, Chris.”

“Hi, MizLynn. I am back from my job in the Harbour Island for a few days. I came to see you.”

“Hi, Chris. You know Miss Judith?”

“Oh, yes, we’ve met. Hi, Miss Judith. You have a lovely house. But what’s that dripping noise I hear?”

“Oh, Chris, that’s the drip that Kervin just found.”

“Sounds more like a waterfall to me. Oh, look! There’s a huge puddle under the sink. Oh, that’s not good. Look at that! Perhaps I’d better turn off the water here until you get it fixed. You can call Mr. Tim-Bert Carey in the morning.”

“Thank you, Chris, that would be perfect. It’s so good to see you. And thank you so much for coming to visit and saving us from the waterfall. Plan on coming to our housewarming party next month. Bye.”

“Well, Lynn, at least we don’t have to do the dishes….”

“I agree. Let’s turn off the porch light and shut the door. We surely don’t need any more visitors.”

Adventuring

Glass Window, by Winslow Homer

Glass Window, by Winslow Homer

Lynn, my partner in the Great Bahamian Home Ownership Adventure, has been here for a week. And while we’re different in many ways, and we’re good at respecting each other’s differences, we also have many adventures together. Both of us enjoy our Bahamian friends, and we’re both very much in love with this island and its culture. Lynn’s a lot more outgoing than I, so as a result our house is often full of people and I learn more about people and events because she doesn’t hesitate to jump out of the car and ask what’s going on.

Today, for instance, we set out early on our way to the Island Garden Store. Clyde, the Bahamian who owns it, welcomed us warmly: two years ago he’d rescued us from an over-heated engine car disaster, and remembered who we were immediately. (Says something about the level of excitement on Eleuthera: all we had was a steamy radiator!). Anyway, here came the Steamer Ladies, hot after the fresh-baked rolls and bread which is available on Tuesdays and Fridays at Clyde’s place. The bread is wonderful: I bought a long. crispy baguette filled with a tomato-olive paste. It was still warm from the oven, and we went happily down the road, tearing off large chunks of the fragrant, hot loaf.

Lynn wanted to visit this beautiful stretch of beach right next to a little resort: we hadn’t been back to that beach since our visit last time, and it is a breathtakingly beautiful site. But as we pulled down the lane to the pink sandy shoreline, which is usually deserted, we saw two large trucks parked right in the middle of the road. “Oh,” said Lynn, “those look like camera dollies. They are filming something!” And she hopped out of the car.

“Sure enough,” a friendly guy told her. “We’re filming commercials for a major line of cosmetics. This is their sun block commercial.” Turns out the photographer is a major-league player from Miami, and was happy to talk about filming commercials, his home in Eastern Europe, and how beautiful it was in Northern Michigan, where we live. “Did you want to drive past us down this road?” he finally asked. “I’ll be glad to move the trucks.”

No, we said. We are on our way to another beach. But the beach where we wanted to go was windy and a little cool. We read in the sun for a while, and then moved on, heading north through Governor’s Harbour, the capital of Eleuthera, past the airport, to an appliance store named “Lord Byron’s”.

Lord Byron’s Appliances and Home Improvement. God rest my MFA in literature! The store was a fairly large concrete block warehouse with a lumberyard behind it, and sat baking in the noonday sun under the blue and gold of the national flag. Three young Bahamians were inside watching TV—it was a slow morning at Lord Byron’s. Surprisingly,though, we found what we wanted, and for a good price. However, checking out was a little on the slow side—the Bahamian television show seemed too interesting to be interrupted. Suddenly, one of the tv characters screamed, “Release your inner pimp!!!”

“WHAT?” said Lynn. “Release my inner pimp? You gotta be kidding.” All five of us collapsed in laughter.

Leaving Lord Byron’s Appliances (having released our inner pimp), we continued north—passed Surfer’s Beach and Preacher’s Cave and into Gregory Town, home of Lenny Kravitz. We passed Elvina’s, where Lenny and friends jam on Tuesday night, and found a couple of shops and a take-away restaurant named Mona’s. Mona’s is just a little shack, equipped with a griddle and a deep fat fryer and a cooler full of Kalik beer—but the cheeseburgers were good (for $3.50) and the conch fritters (5 for $1) were wonderful, if artery clogging. We ate outside on the picnic table, having first discovered where Lenny lives (“Ain’t no secrets on THIS island, girl!) from Mona, and that he was indeed on the island and hanging out at Elvina’s.

Heading home, we picked up a hitch hiker, who turned out to be an interesting tour guide. He was a former banker who left his job at Chase Manhattan to come to Eleuthera where he met his wife. He’d been in over 30 countries in his banking days, and was now a construction foreman working on the Glass Window Bridge repair work. This is a highly dangerous job, he told us. And having been to the Bridge, I could imagine: the Bridge is a man-made bridge formed over a 200 yard wide strip of land where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean meet underneath. The current bridge replaced the natural arch which was painted by Winslow Homer and subsequently destroyed by the waves. Still, it’s a breath-taking place, though the bridge itself is often unsafe: there are no reefs to protect it on the ocean side, and sudden rogue waves, called ‘rages’ by Eleutherans, have been known to sweep people (and vehicles) off its surface. Our passenger told us that the rages, often 100 feet high, can hit the bridge for several days at a time, and the one-lane bridge is shut down entirely during that period. The bridge is again being repaired, but as our guest told us, “it will never be safe.”

North Eleuthera was, at one time, a highly productive agricultural area as well. As we drove through the fields, we saw the remains of a dozen or so concrete silos where grain crops were stored. Pineapples, too, were a staple, until the US ceased to become a market as it developed the Hawaiian islands in the 1960’s. Add to that, our rider told us, the devastating effect of the drug trade on the Eleutheran people. Many people had lots of money, and corruption and money-laundering activities were everywhere. The Bahamian government was young and inexperienced, he said, and unable to deal with the many problems that arose. In many instances, the government over-reacted to these trends and banking became difficult, foreigners were unwelcome, and the Eleutherans themselves lost the ability to become self-sustaining because money was so abundant.

“But I wouldn’t,” he said, “ever leave Eleuthera again. I’ve traveled all over the world, and lived in Nassau and New York. This island is the best place I’ve ever found.”

Thirty miles later, we dropped him off at his immaculate bungalow not far from our own cottage, happy to have spent time with this interesting man and his wealth of information and insight about the history and culture of this island.

Glass Window from the air

Glass Window from the air

Economics of Island Life

Pen drawing by Judith Lindenau

Pen drawing by Judith Lindenau

The construction work in the parish hall next door seems to have come to an end, at least the buzzing and banging and singing part. That means that traffic has slowed down on Adeline Street: all of the action attracted a lot of passers-by and “How’s it doin’” and conversations from the teen aged boys whose friends were working the job.

The town bard seems to have put other locales on his itinerary as well. He’s quite a vision around here: from early in the morning until sunset he walks the town, strumming on a gourd mandolin and chanting tunelessly. He’s usually invoking God, often at the top of his monotonal vocal cords, although when he sees me he sings something that I can faintly discern has the words ‘evil woman’ in it. I suspect that’s because I’m in shorts, or perhaps because I don’t hand him a dollar or two every time I go to Bert’s for the Best.

There’s a creche display across Queen’s Highway from Bert’s. It’s just the little shed part that’s left over from a Christmas display and a big pile of dried weeds, but that’s where he sits—in the manger, looking for handouts from the grocery store change.

That’s where he is now, sheltered from the ocean breeze, and it’s quiet across the street in the rectory. This is the first morning the four weeks that it’s been silent, and I can think some, and try to tell you a little bit about the economic realities of living here.

I am always faintly annoyed by the comment I so often heard, “You live in Traverse City, eh? Beautiful place, but how do you make a living there? I would be there in a heartbeat if I could fund the rest of my life.”

The same thing is true here, of course. It’s beautiful, but there’s not much living to be made. The Bahamian government is a parliamentary democracy, stable but poor. Of course the logistics of trying to govern 500 or more islands is difficult and expensive. Many of those islands, like Eleuthera, really don’t have a sustainable economy of their own and need the most basic of government services—accessibility infrastructures like harbors and air strips, education, medical services. So while it’s beautiful here, one of the reasons the beauty remains  is the remoteness, and that isolation which preserves also makes it difficult to earn a living.

How do the inhabitants do it? There’s some service sector economy—caretaking services for the wealthy propety owners or the few small resorts scattered about. There’s fishing, some construction, and a little farming in some spots. But by and large, the economy is based on barter and community caring, daycare services for a platter of macaroni and cheese or a fresh grouper.

What isn’t barter is cash. No checks or credit cards, and if you want to pay your electric bill you show up in person at Bahamas Electric, dollar bills in hand. Since there’s no income tax, and no property tax for most of the native landowners, there’s little reason for record keeping. The principal is simple: if you have the money, you pay for the item or the services. If you don’t have the money, you either trade something you have, someone in your family gives it to you, or you don’t get it at all.

Let’s assume you had some money: what would you spend it on? Food, of course, and perhaps electricity. If you have a phone, it would most likely be a pay-as-you-go cell phone, though if you were well-to-do you might have a telephone and a DSL hook-up for your internet. Maybe a television, though there don’t seem to be a lot of those around.

Children receive government health care  until the age of 18. After that, it’s pay as you go medicine, and fundraisers are common. Kervin’s only sister has cancer, and he hopes to be able to give her $30,000—that’s why he saves. Well, there’s Brenda too: she has some medical problems as well, and will need health care over the years. Hence, the savings accounts.

Cars are utility vehicles. The sea air doesn’t keep them running for long and certainly keeps them from being pretty—they are covered with sand and dust and salt spray. So nobody buys a classy looking car or truck as a regular thing: most buy stripped-down second hand vehicles and run them until they die. Sharing rides and hitch hiking is common: Brenda will stop and pick up women most of the time, and children.  She’s not one for giving rides to men unless I’m in the car, and even then she hums a hymn under her breath for the first mile or two with the passenger.

The same with houses–they are utilitarian.   Most of my neighbors are very clean, and their clothes—and the children’s clothes– are always washed and pressed. Brenda cleans her small house every day, and doesn’t venture out until everything has been swept, dusted, and washed. But there’s no pretense in the housing structures themselves. They are just  shelter—functional, usually neat outside as well as inside, and painted in pastel colors. Houses are  sturdy to withstand the weather, but there are no decorations and moving parts which could blow away and/or become missiles in a strong wind.

People don’t seem to visit each other’s houses much, either: parties and gathering are community wide and held in public places so again, not much house-pride or reason to build a pretentious dwelling place. There are no property taxes unless you own a highly valued property (over $250,000) which most local people don’t.

If you are old or disabled, you receive some government support—about $250 a month. Your family, your church or your neighbors contribute to the rest of your expenses.

So it goes. Kervin tells me that in a month he makes about as much as a fisherman as my weekly take-home pay when I was working. But then, he has no house payments, no taxes, no TV, no land-line phone. He has his sister and his wife to care for, and two grandchildren that he is raising for a few more years. He says he could enjoy being a contractor, and he would make more money, but he gets angry when people don’t pay him, and he has to keep enough cash on hand to pay his employees when the money doesn’t come in on time. He’s a good builder, as I’ve experienced, but fishing is a lot simpler: fish, clean, freeze, and sell. Your overhead expenses are a boat and a freezer. Some day he will complete his captain’s license requirements and further expand his business.

That’s it. That’s how you live in a place like Eleuthera, or Traverse City. In Traverse City we say, “A view of the Bay is worth half the pay (you might get in the real world).” Same thing here in the Bahamian family islands: it’s not money, it’s a state of mind. Money doesn’t buy lifestyle in either place. These are places where ‘letting go’ is the discipline of the day, and your sustainability is based on your faith in the rightness of your values.

Lunch In Governors Harbor

watercolor, by Judith Lindenau

watercolor, by Judith Lindenau

Governors Harbor is the capitol of Eleuthera. It’s the midpoint of the one hundred mile-long island and for the most point is a delightful, picturesque seaside town. I say “for the most part” because directly in the middle of town is a huge, ugly, misshapen parking lot, surrounded by retail establishments and other haphazardly placed buildings. However, Governors (as the locals call it) is the commercial seat of the island—there’s the shipping dock, the Haynes library, some banks and government offices, and grocery stores large enough to offer some brand choices.

Miss Brenda stops by on Friday and says, “I going to Governors. Want to go?’

“Sure,” I say, eager to leave the blinking green lights which signify that my internet connection is down again. “But only if I can take you to lunch.”

She looks pleased, and says I should wear my new Barack Obama t-shirt which I bought on our last shopping trip at the no-name grocery store. The shirt is black, and has a striking profile of the President on it—very dramatic, and the Bahamians always smile when they see me in it.

I change and off we go. We stop to get gas at Kervin’s cousin’s ramshackle single pump gas station in Savannah Sound, and the cousin (who looks a lot like Kervin himself) regales us with the hold-up story from his adventure of the week. Seems as how the thief was waiting in the proprietor’s house being the gas station with a knife. Kervin’s cousin disarmed him, getting himself cut severely in the process (he shows us the wounds on his head and hands), and called the police. Apparently, this same guy had held him up twice before (nobody said crooks were smart) and so the third time was definitely NOT a charm for this alcoholic knife-wielder.

Brenda says, “Thank Jesus”, and we head on.

After her chores, we think about lunch. “I never go nowhere. I don’t know any places,” she says. But I do, and I take her to Buccaneer’s, an outdoor restaurant under a huge shady tree. We both order cheeseburgers because in the land of fish and chicken and macaroni, beef is a welcome change. The only other occupant of the large patio is a white man, reading a newspaper and dressed in tourist garb (khaki shorts and a knit shirt, just like those guys at the dog show). He has a burger too, and a beer, and climbs in his new Jeep and drives away just as our food comes.

It’s good—a huge sandwich. When the waitress comes to find out how we like things (she’s learned how to make sure you have your mouth full before she asks), Brenda tells her that lettuce needs to be sliced up more finely—both of us had a pretty thick hunk of iceburg on our burgers. There’s nothing confrontational in the exchange, just Brenda gently suggesting a better way to do things. The waitress smiles and within minutes the cook herself, a wide woman in a very dirty apron, emerges and the two of them have a discussion about it, cook to cook. We part in a friendly fashion, everyone calling out goodbyes.

The last errand is to stop at the bakery and pick up some fresh rolls for the church dinner Brenda cooks on Fridays. She gets over in that part of Governors, and asks a man sitting motionless on a chair in front of his house for directions to the bakery. He tells her, gesturing widely with his arm to the general area on the next street over. We go around the block, and see the same man running wildly down the street in our direction. “He’s coming to make sure I go right,” she says and sure enough—the man, verrucose, horribly covered with the skin disfigurement, has come to make sure we go one more block and turn left. We do, and there it is—the bakery.

On the way home, the only incident occurs when something thumps loudly in the back seat. The rolls are back there, and a couple of small packages, but this sounded different. Brenda slows, and we look behind us curiously. No cause for the strange noise is apparent.

“Probably a visit from the devil,” she says. “You just never know about his tricks. But I got Jesus, and he will get me home ok.” She then breaks into a hymn, which she often does when she drives, sings a couple of verses, and we resume our journey.