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.

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3 thoughts on “Economics of Island Life

  1. How very wonderful to vicariously experience parts of the world through your eyes. I vigorously agree that people who say they wish they could live in Traverse City, just lack imagination. I love calling it my home. It really wasn’t difficult. I just had to keep my eyes open for an opportunity and hang onto like a pit bull when I found it. Now, all you need is a weekly session or jam to make your life complete. How are you doing on that?

  2. Hello from frozen Suttons Bay. Lynn will be on her way tomorrow and I will sure miss her. She is very excited for good reasons. We are all ready to leave northern MI at this time of the year. I have read through several of your blogs and plan to read the rest when I am not is such a hurry. Off to the opera today and then a benefit dinner for the boosters club and then a SB basketball game.
    I look forward to returning some day to Eleuthera and seeing my friends, Matt, Chris, Kerwin and the folks at the Methodist church.
    Marty Johnson

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