Business Bahamian Style





You haven’t heard from Gertie in a few days, and you may be wondering why the silence.


When I last wrote, Captain Jim had had a little mishap with the dinghy, as you may recall. Well, the little mishap turned into a bigger mishap than we thought: seems there was salt water in the boat motor and a rip in the seam. Jim made it out to the Ocean Dance, and the dinghy motor refused to run again. After some frantic calls and text messages, I managed to find Kervin, and we met Jim at the shore, after he rowed in. Kervin looked at the dinghy and said, “Machu can’t fix dat, and I can’t fix dat. It’sa four-stroke engine and you gotta go to a special school for that.”


Of course, Machu disagreed: “That’s easy, Mr. Jim. All you gotta do is pull the carburator.” Jim went with Kervin’s analysis of Machu’s capabilities: the engine has no carburator. Kervin suggested the names of a couple of mechanics in the vicinity, but one was busy with a regular customer and the other was nowhere to be found.


“My brudder Pedro could fix it,” Kervin said. “But he in Nassau.”


So you guessed it: Jim bought Pedro a ticket to fly from Nassau to work on the engine.


The next day was sunny and calm, and Pedro and Kervin went to work. By evening the engine was fixed, and the dinghy needed to be brought ashore to be patched. Jim would be good to go.


We celebrated with a dinner at my house: Kervin barbecued the chicken, Brenda made fried snapper and barracuda (which the locals eat, but which we didn’t try), Jim brought the rice and the sodas. It was a festive evening, with a late dinner (Kervin was late–‘Island Time’, you know). Nine people attacked the food like starving locusts, and I made a sinful coconut dessert which should have given everyone a sugar high for at least a week.


There was much joking—nobody was spared any expense . Jim had earlier observed that he never new when his new Bahamian friends were kidding and when they were not, but we got lots of practice trying to figure it out that evening.


But far too early the next morning my phone rang. “I got bad news, Miss Judith,” Kervin announced. “Pedro got pissed off and went back to Nassau on the plane this morning.”




“Yeah, he got mad and he went home. Mr. Thingum—Mr. Jim paid him $150 and Pedro say that’s an insult.”


“Kervin! Jim just gave him the plane fare. He will settle up for the work when it’s finished. Didn’t Pedro understand that?”


“I don’t guess so, Miss Judith. I try to tell him to call Jim and ax him, but Pedro he just went home.”


Kervin gets the persuasive Bahamian wheedle in his voice: “You call Mr. Jim and tell him?”


“No, Kervin, I will NOT call Mr. Jim and tell him. Pedro is your brother, and it’s your problem. If Pedro can’t make a phone call and straighten out his own business, I am not going to get in the middle of it.”


It’s difficult doing business in Eleuthera sometimes. I’ve built a house here, and we regularly rent cars and purchase goods and services from our friends and neighbors in Tarpum Bay. But there’s often a problem in communication, which leads to misunderstanding—as it did in this case.


My friends here are reluctant to set a price on themselves and their services. “Oh, Miss Judith, I ain’t charging you,” Brenda will say. “You are my friend.”


When I insist (“Brenda, you cleaned my house and I am going to pay you for it. Now how much?”), she will quote me a price which is ridiculously low. (“Miss Judith, then just give me $30. That’s all I need.”)


No amount of argument will change the price, but the semantics becomes important. “Ok, Brenda, here’s $30. And I included something for a tip.”


For the last two days, Kervin has been working on patching Jim’s boat. Jim said to him, “Kervin, I am sorry your brother didn’t understand and went home. I will certainly pay him for his work. And I will pay you for all you are doing. You just tell me how much I owe you for borrowing your dinghy will mine was being fixed, and for all the trips between your house and the boat, and for all the repair work that you did. Just tell me, and I will will pay.”


“No, Mr. Jim. You don’t worry about that. I be your friend,” is his answer.


Captain Jim Arrives in Eleuthera

Machu's Boatyard

“In Rock Sound,” the text message said.

“Yippee!” I wrote back.

It was my good friend, Captain Jim on his boat, the Ocean Dance. I’d been watching the satellite tracking of his journey to Eleuthera from Florida, and he was here at last. Brenda and I jumped in the car and headed South. (Brenda really wanted to go with me: she needed a few things to get ready for Kervin’s brother’s funeral. Plus, curiosity about my visitors was getting the best of her.)

We found Jim strolling down the middle of Queen’s Highway, having motored to shore in the dinghy from the Ocean Dance. Brenda immediately fell in love, I could tell—but then, who wouldn’t? Jim is handsome and charming, resplendent in his shorts and boat shoes, a big smile across his sea-browned face.

Since Rock Sound was his port of entry into the Bahamas, we decided to pick up Brenda’s purchases and head for the customs and immigration authorities at the Rock Sound Airport, about a mile out of town. First, though, we needed to stop at the “Convenience Superstore”, one of those surprising little businesses I’d been in on earlier trips with Brenda. In the dark, cluttered interior were all sorts of treasures—from huge jars of inexpensive spices to molded plastic lawn chairs. Brenda was on a hunt for black shoes; however, the plain pumps she found did not come in her size in black, only red. “Red at a funeral would be an insult, you know,” she explained. “They’d chase you outta the church!”

She also wanted a hairpiece, and the store owner led us to a small building behind the superstore. It had no sign, but inside every inch of space and counters was covered with beauty aids for Bahamian women: nail polish, lotions, hair jewelry, and boxes and boxes of hair pieces and extensions in all conceivable shapes, styles and colors. Brenda and Jim went at it, sorting through the options and finally deciding on a large bun with black and gold strands. Quite flattering on Brenda, and it filled the need for something on one’s head in a funeral. I might add that Jim’s opinion was clearly what mattered in this transaction….

Brenda also bought a lovely fishnet shawl to cover her arms in her sleeveless black dress—again a necessity for appropriate church attire.

We stopped at the airport on the way home and Brenda went in with Jim, determined now that she would do everything she could to make his entry into the Bahamas smooth and effortless. (And of course, since she and Kervin are related to a large percentage of the island’s population, she wields considerable power.) However, the immigration officer wasn’t there yet, and no one seemed to know when the office would be open.

“Well,” the attractive customs lady told us, “I’ll just call you when she comes in, and you can come back and talk to her.” Another of Jim’s conquests.

Kervin and his brothers and cousins were in the cemetery at Tarpum Bay. Because the cemetery is by the sea, it’s necessary to prepare a concrete vault before a burial, which is what the men were doing. When we arrived they were sitting under the tent at the grave site, a large cooler beside them, watching the concrete dry in the mid-morning sun.

“You give Miss Judith and Mr. Jim some of that chicken souse I made yesterday for the wake,” he instructed Brenda. “And,” turning to me, “You pump the brakes on that car twice. I don’t want you in no accident. Remember that: TWICE!”

Then it was back to the airport – the mysterious immigration official had appeared and was ready for us. Jim filled out an endless supply of customs forms: How long is the boat? Weight? What’s it’s value? How many crew members? How long will you stay? Do you need a fishing license?

Jim’s only question: “Do you take credit cards?” Answer: no. My question: “Do you take traveler’s checks?” Answer: no.

Between the two of us we managed to scrape up the $300+ to get the Ocean Dance permitted in the Bahamas for 90 days. “I’m sorry I’m out of fishing licenses,” the pretty woman said, smiling up at Jim. “But I’ve written across the bottom of your welcome letter that it’s OK for you to fish. If anybody asks you about it, you just call me.” And she batted her eyelashes.

The customs officer was a different story. She was located in an isolated office overlooking the runway and, once located, she clearly resented the fact that our business interrupted her Bible-reading. She too was quite attractive, dressed in a starched white blouse with epaulettes, a navy skirt, and sensible heels. Her hair and makeup were perfectly applied and she was lacking only a smile. “Where’s your crew,” she snarled. “Why did you come here? Didn’t you enter the Bahamas in Nassau or someplace else?”

When Jim explained that the crew was on the boat waiting to have passports stamped before disembarking she demanded, “Who told you to do that???” as she produced a sheaf of customs declarations. Seeing that Jim was going to be a while, and that his friendly grin didn’t seem to produce any miracles with this bureaucrat, I quietly found a seat in the waiting room, happy to use the airport’s free wireless service to check my email. (Take THAT, Cherry Capital Airport!)

A while later, Jim emerged, looking a little worse for wear but officially a legal visitor to the Bahamas.

I drove him back to the dock where he had moored his dinghy.  The little boat had not survived the prolonged customs inquisition: it was swamped with seawater, and stranded on the beach by some heavy incoming waves. A gangling young man was standing voluntary watch over the unfortunate boat.

“Do you know anybody with a boat who can pull me out of here?” Jim asked. The boy gazed silently out to the Ocean Dance, moored far off shore.

“Maybe Machu,” he said, after a while.

Machu turned out to have a small boat repair and rental operation about a quarter mile down Queens Highway. The way we were to recognize his business, our informant told us, would be when we see ‘lotsa boats in the yard.’

And right he was. The ‘lotsa boats’ turned out to be lotsa boat corpses, and Machu turned out to be Matthew, a grizzled, wiry guy who willingly agreed to bring rope and a bucket and help Jim rescue his dinghy.

The whole process took about a half hour, with both men getting thoroughly drenched in the waves. But at the end of it all, Captain Jim climbed into the now-floating dinghy. “Thanks for your help,” he yelled as he bounced out to sea. “I’ll call you once I rest up from this excursion and come ashore again. We’ll have dinner.”

I dropped a waterlogged Machu off at his boat graveyard on my way to Tarpum Bay, heading for a Bahamian funeral and a bowl of delicious chicken souse.

The Girls Go Shopping

“Miss Judith! Miss Judith! Y’all ready?”

“What, Brenda? What am I ready for?”

“Miss Judith, I done told you, you don’t say ‘what’ to somebody. That’s rude! You supposed to say ‘yes’ when somebody calls you.”

“OK, then YES, Miss Brenda? What am I supposed to be ready to do?”

“I told you yesterday. We going shopping! Get some clothes on.”

That’s three errors in Brenda’s eyes: I don’t say “Yes” when called (I always answer ‘what?’); I don’t remember making plans for a shopping trip (but I probably did. Sometimes I just get tired of trying to decipher the Bahamian language shortcuts and just nod as if I am really understanding what they are saying), and I don’t have on a skirt (a Bahamian fashion transgression. Women wear skirts, not denim shorts. )

Well, I can be partially retrained: I will answer ‘yes’ when called, but I’m not wearing a skirt to go shopping. With relief, I note that Miss Barbara’s two adult daughters also don’t wear skirts as the four of us squeeze into a miniature Chevy, rusted and sprung, with the trunk tied shut.

I’m along for the gas money, I discover, but it’s good to get out of Tarpum Bay and head north along Queens Highway. For my US friends, ‘highway’ is a bit of a misnomer—the road is two lanes wide, except where it isn’t—places where the sea has swept away a part of the second lane or the potholes have eaten out an intersection. My friends back home would notice a lack of road signs warning of dangerous curves and no passing stretches: island residents have only one main road which traverses the 100 mile length of island, and they know Queens Highway like the palms of their hands.

And where they have made mistakes there are roadside memorials: weathered wooden crosses, plastic flower mounds, and rusted auto parts.

We pass through Governors Harbour, James Cistern, Alice Town, and Gregory Town, over the Glass Window Bridge with the Atlantic Ocean on our right and the placid Caribbean on our left—all the way to the northernmost part of the island. The ladies chatter and laugh, and I catch a few snippets of conversation—who’s pregnant, in jail, or hasn’t gone to ‘choich’ lately. We do a lot of honking and waving as we travel, and when we slow down for a stop sign there’s usually someone there to be greeted: “You all right?”

At last (after about 90 minutes of travel time) we’re at our destination, the North Eleuthera Shopping Centre outside the settlement of Bluff. We pull into a parking lot. There are three cars baking in the afternoon sun next to a very large warehouse-like building. The structure is new—the original store was destroyed by fire a couple of years ago and the re-built grocery was opened again in 2009.

Inside it is large and airy, light and clean. I am delighted to see a large produce section (fresh produce is not common in Eleuthera), a variety of frozen foods and meats as well as dairy products which include more than yellow brick cheese and week-old milk. Prices are comparatively good too—there’s a large wholesale section of staples and an array of small appliances and housewares. I think of all the time I spent last year looking for curtain rods and bathmats: one afternoon at the North Eleuthera Shopping Centre would have solved my problems.

I must admit I am distressed at the huge selection of the favorite consumption product of Bahamians: junk food. Every day at my local grocery store I see school kids buying their ‘lunch’: a bag of potato chips, a dollar package of choco-chip cookies, and a soda. Today, it will be my job to hold a case of chips and pretzels on my lap as we head back to Tarpum Bay after our shopping is done.

We stock up. I buy Brenda a pair of knock-off Croc sandals in bright red, and for me some cereal bowls and other items not readily found at Berts for the Best in Tarpum Bay. I am delighted that this establishment accepts credit cards, a rarity in the out islands. One forgets how inconvenient it is to have to pay cash for two months and not have access to a money machine.

We load our groceries in the tiny car. This process necessitates flipping down the back seat to put our bags in the trunk—and even then, we all have parcels on our lap as we head south. In Palmetto Point we discover Brenda’s granddaughter, Shandera, waiting for an after-school ride, and so we load her in the car—book bag, potato chip cartons, grocery bags and all and head the 20 miles home.

A fun afternoon, shopping with ‘the girls’. But I’m glad I didn’t change my mind and wear a skirt.

When the bell tolls…and when it doesn’t.


My pink house in Tarpum Bay is right across the alley from the Methodist Church—and the Methodist Church is the communications center of our town. Immediately behind the church is the bell tower, a wood frame structure with a dangling rope and a sign which instructs people to ring the bell only in the case of an emergency—if there’s a fire, or someone is lost.


Everybody respects the bell—even the teenagers who hang out on the wall just across the street wouldn’t dare tamper with the town’s social networking system. And the only time I hear it ring is a half hour before church and then again when the service convenes—and once in a great while when it tolls slowly and ponderously because someone has died.


The bell clanged a couple of days ago, a 7:30 AM death announcement. I didn’t ask then for whom the bell tolled, but later Miss Brenda came down to tell me that it was for Kervin’s brother, who lived in Huston and was dead at 54 of a sudden heart attack. She was, she said, going to Nassau where Kervin was working in order to be with him.


Kervin gets very upset when someone dies, she told me. “Last time, they had to give him the needle,” she says. Kervin isn’t answering his cell phone now, and his sister who also lives in Nassau can’t get him to come to the door. Brenda is catching the plane in two hours, and I am taking care of the grandkids, age 9 and 15.


“OK,” I say. “You go do what you have to. This is an emergency.”


That was last week. Today, Brenda knocked on my door at 9 AM, a face of sorrows peering through the crack in the curtain. Wordlessly, she hands me one of Miss Barbie’s cheese Danish pastries and invites herself in. “Oh, Miss Judy,” she says, “You remember Goaty? The one who give you his paycheck? He dead.


“They find him last night in his back yard. He had a rope around his neck and now there’s that ugly yellow police tape all around his house! I don’t see how he could have did it to himself, how can you do that when you be sitting in a chair?”


I tell her I don’t know. I don’t know anything, I say. I don’t know how you can be dead in your own back yard while you are sitting in a chair with a rope around your neck, and I don’t know how even the jokey guy with the raspy voice could even think of such a thing on a beautiful, warm Bahamas night.


I do remember Goaty, of course. He was a regular at Donovan’s Fish Shack, and regularly Donovan had to help Goaty get home after a night of too many Kalik beers. The night Brenda was remembering was the night Goaty thought I should have his paycheck from the Bahamas Electric Corporation as a ‘present’. When I refused his gift, he went home and brought back some beautiful sea shells from his extensive collection—perfect specimens which he gravely presented with a kiss to the top of my head, and which still sit on my kitchen window sill.


Kervin told me later that Goaty was a generous man, often buying clothes for kids who needed them or giving away the money he had in his pockets. Of course, Goaty liked his Kalik—way too much, most people agreed. And he had 7 or 8 children of his own from a variety of island ‘marriages’.

But Brenda says the National Insurance will cover the burial costs and so his family “won’t need nothing more than the neighbors will provide.”


“Wait, Brenda,” I say as she prepares to leave. “I didn’t hear the church bell. It didn’t ring for Goaty.”


“No,” she says. “And it probably won’t, neither. They can’t ring it until his family makes the announcement that he’s dead. And they don’t want to talk about it just yet.”


Gertie Goes to Eleuthera, 2011


I anticipated this whole trip to Eleuthera as one big disaster. Usually I’m not a worrier—after all, I just made a trip to Africa a short time ago, and the travel accommodations were flawless. But for this trip to my Eleuthera hide-away I spent way too much time planning for all the things that could go wrong from oversleeping and missing my 6:15 AM plane to snowstorms to finding my misplaced door keys to the cottage, to nobody there to meet me at the Rock Sound Airport… And the biggest nightmare: I’d miss my connection in Nassau (the last flight of the day) , and have to spend another $120 night in a funky little run-down motel before I got to my destination.


So I repacked my bags to cut down on imagined excess weight, and left behind some new artist paints which seemed to weigh a ton. But Bobbie was waiting to take me to the airport, even though I was five minutes early, and the morning sky was cold and clear—not one snowflake between me and the stars.


My bags were approved and I wasn’t charged any fees, the TSA pat-down was early-morning lethargic, and the aircraft de-icing went without a hitch. I made my connection in Detroit, and again in Atlanta, and was bumped up to first class on both flights so I could refuse mimosas and doze in peace.


All of that perfection put me into Nassau seven minutes EARLY, on a plane large enough to have a jet bridge (not all that common in Pindling Airport). There was a wheelchair waiting, wonder of wonders! That’s never happened in Nassau before, but I know enough to know that even though my hip is pretty strong these days, changing airlines in this facility requires about a mile and a half hike. And of course, I am toting my suitcases, going through customs and bag inspections, getting new boarding passes, surviving security and the requisite pat-downs for those of us with metal implants.


But two good things happened. The first was the help of the handsome young man in charge of wheelchair assistance. He took it upon himself to beat the system—jockeying me into special processing areas, jumping up on the luggage carousel to free my stuck suitcase, winking audaciously at the beautiful girl behind the ticket counter, and blithely ignoring the customs baggage inspector by walking through an empty lane. He got me to the departure lounge of Bahamas Airlines in a record 45 minutes. I had 12 minutes before the scheduled boarding…which, of course, doesn’t always take place on schedule in the Bahamas.


I had time to do a little serious reflection about myself as I sat there, watching the gate attendant doze in the lazy afternoon heat. “Get into your Bahamas mode,” I say sternly to myself. “That’s why you come down here. Now’s the time to make your personality change. You’ve already wasted way too much energy worrying about disasters that haven’t happened.” I take off my jacket and my socks, and roll up the sleeves on my shirt, ready to walk out into the sunshine to the tiny commuter plane.


And when I get to the plane and settle in seat 2C, the attractive stewardess says in her perfect British accent, “Please sit back and relax, ladies and gentlemen. We are waiting for three passengers transferring from another airline, which was late in arriving to Nassau. When they are seated, we will fly to Rock Sound. I am sure you will understand: thank you for your patience in accommodating them.”


Somehow, leaving behind my Northern anxieties and assuming a Caribbean personality just got much easier.