Back in Eleuthera, 2013

     “Don’t go to the grocery, Miss Judith,” Kervin warns me.  “It ain’t Tuesday yet.”

     While that warning may not mean much to anyone else, to the whole Bahamian island of Eleuthera it’s common sense, and if the truth be told it’s one of the things I did remember: it’s why a half-dozen protein bars and a package of Starbucks coffee singles are taking up precious room in my suitcase—so I can last until Grocery Day.

     You see, the boat–referred to as ‘The Boat’ by the people who live here (you can hear the capital letters in their voices)—arrives on Tuesday morning bringing supplies to the small mom-and-pop groceries scattered throughout the island.  What that means is that there’s one day a week islanders can be sure to have fresh bread and milk and eggs, assuming they’ve planned their shopping trips and limited finances accordingly.

     It also means that the tiny market next to my house will do a frantic amount of business for the next 6 hours.  And it means that Lord Street will be filled with rusty pickups and junker cars belonging to the patrons of “Bert’s for the Best”, who  use Tuesday afternoon not only for this important opportunity to stock up for the week, but also loiter on Bert’s concrete front stoop greeting friends and relatives.

     Relatives? On an island this word takes on a new dimension.  Kervin is a Culmer, and related to pretty much everybody, it seems.  My cottage was built by his great grandfather and is rumored to be the first concrete house in the village.  He was delighted when we bought it, roofless and with a large coconut palm growing up through the middle of the kitchen area, and then hired him to remodel it.  Since then he’s taken it upon himself to be our caretaker, guide, friend, news source, termite exterminator, and airport pickup taxi whenever we come to Tarpum Bay.

     Kervin is also married to Brenda, my closest island friend, and together they are a nucleus for a family unit consisting of Brenda’s grown children, Kervin’s grown children, various aunties, uncles, and cousins, and two grandchildren whom they are currently raising.  Like most of the families on this island, they subsist on pick-up work: building, cleaning, cooking, and fishing. And like most of the families on the island, money means very little to them, except as a means of filling immediate needs.

     In this world, nobody has any money and nobody ever expects to have any—it’s an almost meaningless commodity.  If you have a toothache, pull the tooth.  If you need food, go to a relative who has some to spare.  If you need company, go sit on a street corner—the weather is always nice.

     It’s a friendly world on this Eleuthera—not idyllic, certainly, but welcoming and comforting, a place where people are indeed family, literally and figuratively.  It’s a place to which I’m always happy to return, and for which I will gladly eat protein bars and drink instant coffee, waiting until The Boat arrives.

Fundraiser in Tarpum Bay

Painting by Bahamian Artist Jackson Burnside

Saturday the Methodists held their annual church fundraiser. The church itself is just across the alley from our Tarpum Bay house, so Lynn and I are accomplices in all the congregational activities – and there are many, including choir practice, two Sunday services, Friday night youth groups, and a whole host of mission outreach volunteers  from the US who stay in the church dormitory.

In our living room, we are surrounded by Brother Ian’s Sunday exhortations, the dirge-like hymns (complete with a snare drummer with a questionable rhythm sense), and Saturday afternoon-long funerals. And just to make sure that we don’t miss anything, Brother Ian loves his microphone and speakers at full volume, into which he shouts and sings enthusiastically (if not tunefully), at the least excuse.

Being neighbors and participants (however reluctant) in daily church life, Lynn and I couldn’t avoid the fundraiser, either. The accepted fund raising activity here in Eleuthera revolves around food, of course, and is almost formulaic in its design. A ‘fundraiser’ is synonymous with  a barbeque meal, take-away fashion, served in Styrofoam compartmentalized boxes filled with an over-indulgence of carbohydrates and grease. The Methodists, who know a good thing when they see one, are no different. Here’s the menu:

Meat (chicken or steak)

Slaw (creamy with a hint of hot pepper)

Macaroni and cheese, baked

Peas (pea beans) and rice

frozen corn on the cob

rolls

dessert (the Methodist offered either a fruit tart or a pineapple upside down cake)

sodas (no wimpy ‘diet’ drinks for the Bahamians)

And, of course, the ever present conch fritters were available, 6 for $1 extra, handed to you in little brown paper sacks, dripping with grease.

This menu is pretty much the same wherever you go on the island. The meat portion may be a little different: sometimes you’ll be offered barbecued ribs or fried fish, but choices are fairly limited. Never will you find hamburgers or hot dogs or shish kabobs.

The Methodist ladies began the preparation on Friday with an all-day cleaning of the church meeting room and kitchen. Then they began cooking, and we could smell the cake-baking aromas. The men, meanwhile, set up the wood burning barbeque cookers in the parking lot behind the house, and also a tent and picnic tables, should anyone wish to eat on the premises (no one did).

We did our laundry on Friday, knowing that if we waited until Saturday our sheets would smell like woodsmoke all week. We also parked our car in another lot to give our neighbors all the room they needed to conduct the activities of the day, which began early Saturday morning.

Women from all over town began arriving early bearing pots of food. Miss Barbie provided the rolls, Geoffrey’s wife Miz made the ‘cold’ slaw, and so on. By about 11AM the fires were lighted and the smoke began drifting up. Fortunately the prevailing winds pushed it away from our house and into town. By noon, Miz began announcing that “The food is ready, it’s time to eat, thank you Jesus.”

Brother Ian began his day’s activity of bringing the meat cooked in the parking lot into the church hall where the food line was set up, and the cash table ($10 for the food, plus $1 extra if you wanted the fritters) was firmly established at the front door.

Lynn and I were among the first customers, our appetites having been stimulated by 24 hours worth of aromas of baking and barbequing. We carefully selected what we wanted as we moved down the line, admiring the offerings and gossiping as we went. We were careful not to neglect the dessert table, and carefully paid our extra dollars for the fritters which were in themselves enough food for a meal.

The fundraiser lasted through the rest of the day, with cars stopping next to our house and people running inside the church to buy their meals. Those who didn’t drive wandered down Lord Street, wrinkled bills in hand, and left carrying an all-you-can eat meal that may well serve an entire family.

If the traffic in and out  of the social hall is any indication, the Methodists should be able to pay for the new church roof in cash!

It’s customary, at a Bahamian food event, to serve everything in Styrofoam accompanied by a non-recyclable can of soda, a napkin, and a totally inadequate plastic fork. If you order more than one meal, you’ll also get a plastic bag to make it easier to carry things. And all the food is usually cooked and served in disposable aluminum foil baking pans. I mention this only because I am constantly in awe of the amount of trash generated on these islands, and the lack of concern about waste disposal.

But that’s an American concern, certainly not a Bahamian one, and on Sunday morning litter and trash was blowing up and down the parking lot and street between our house and the church.

Not to worry. At 7 AM two of the church ladies appeared, brooms in hand, and the clean up began.

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.”

 

“WHAT?”

 

“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.

The Goodbye Feast

Po and Gertie waiting for dinner

It’s 9 AM in Tarpum Bay. The sun shines, the sea is calm, and the bird that lives in the guava tree is singing his melodious and complicated song. “It’s a ‘treasure bird’ “, Kervin tells me. “No,” Brenda says, scornfully. “Kervin, it’s a TRASHER”.

An argument follows: “Brenda, you don’t know nothin’.”

“Kervin, I does know my birds. What do you know, anyway? Nothing but FISH.”

I’m at my computer, so I Google. Nothing for ‘treasure bird’. Nothing for ‘trasher’ either, but Google asks, “Did you mean thrasher?” We look at the photos. Yep — that’s what we meant.

At any rate, the bird’s song is indeed beautiful and despite Google, Kervin probably has the correct description — the bird is indeed a treasure. It’s brightening this perfect March morning as I sit on the deck, watching the sea and the children in their navy and white uniforms heading off to elementary school.

Brenda’s plan for today is to cook a feast, a farewell dinner for me. “You don’t worry, Miss Judith,” she tells me, “you will like everything.”

I know I will: Eleuthera is carbohydrate heaven. She explains the menu: fried red snapper, baked macaroni and cheese, yellow rice, pork chops, slaw, and vegetables. In addition (there’s more???), Lynn is constructing her version of the Coconut Lane Cake we experienced on our trip to Spanish Wells— and that involves a cookie-crumb crust, and mounds of fresh sweet whipped cream.

All of this is an all-day project, of course. Brenda and Kervin are both excellent cooks, but Kervin is critical. He comes by our house about noon to offer suggestions. “Brenda”, he says, “Number One, you is too slow. Number Two, you use too much salt. Number Three,” he examines the mound of finely chopped vegetables, “You chop too big. Number Four…” He tapers off, sensing the mutinous gaze of the three women in the room. “I be back later.”

‘Later’, of course, does not mean dinner hour for Kervin. At 5:30 we are all assembled — the grandchildren, Brenda, Lynn and I. But no Kervin. “He fixing the car,” Po explains.

And so we gather for the feast…and it is indeed wonderful. Brenda gives me an elegant necklace with a red coral pendant and black beads, and we cry a little: I won’t be back again until next year.

Kervin interrupts any sentimentality with his explosive entrance. He’s followed close behind by his grown son, Calvin, and Calvin is followed by Brenda’s grown son Tario — feasts, after all, are for family. The mound of food rapidly diminishes and we are left with only a few vegetables and a pile of fish bones.

And me, I am left with memories of warm and friendly people, sunshiny days, a treasure of bird song, and a lovely red coral necklace.

Goodbye, Monkey

Monkey. Pencil sketch by Judith Lindenau

A couple of Saturdays ago, the Tarpum Bay community buried Monkey.

Everybody on Eleuthera seems to have a nickname—Kervin is “Belly”, my neighbor is “Carwash”, and Kevin’s grandson Renaldo is “Po”. And so it goes.

Monkey’s birth name was Kimsley, and he was 24 years old when he died. The very ornate 12-page memory book handed out at his funeral explains that “he gain (sic) the nick name Monkey because of how fast he could climb a tree.”

His obituary tells us that “With firm guidance and much love he was groomed into an affectionate, and mannerly child….No matter where he went or who he came in contact with he would talk jokes with people or tease them, but he didn’t mean anything by it.” Monkey never married, but he was a well-loved part of a huge extended family which spread throughout the Bahamas and was centered here in the Tarpum Bay settlement on Eleuthera island.

Monkey was at work on the island of Exuma when the boat on which he was working blew up. He and another man were severely burned and flown to Nassau. Monkey was in the hospital for over a month and then received outpatient treatments. The obituary tells us he was often in pain but “reading his bible and seeking God deep in his heart…he thought he was getting better, he was making plans to come home for Jr. Junkanoo, but the Lord was on the other side making other plans for him….two weeks later his body took a change for the worst and he was readmitted…” Family and friends visited him in the hospital and sang and prayed, and on January 25, 2010 “he went on home to be with his sweet Jesus.”

Life in the beautiful settlement of Tarpum Bay will never be the same,” the obituary concludes. “Sleep on Monkey take your rest we love you, Jesus loves you best.”

Monkey’s death did indeed shake this community. He had many friends — his funeral book lists over 120 names categorized as Mother, Father, Stepfather Grandfathers, Grandmothers, Brothers, Sisters, Adopted brothers and sisters, Nephews (lots), Godchildren, Mother Like No Others, Father Figures In His Life, and Numerous Other Relatives and Friends including various places where Monkey shopped and hung out.

In addition, Monkey’s family was lacking resources to ship his body home to Tarpum Bay for the funeral. Rumor has it that the undertaker wouldn’t release the body until the family could pay cash, so the community held a fund raiser to help out: Monkey’s portrait was printed on white t-shirts which were sold to everyone. Many men attending the funeral wore these shirts under their dark suits in remembrance of their friend.

I didn’t know Monkey, although he was a very close friend of Kervin’s son Mano. Tarpum Bay takes its funerals seriously, however. Monkey’s passing was announced by a slow and somber tolling of the church bell right next to our house. People gather at the sound which, the slow, hollow toll which seems to go on forever. They stand in quiet groups in the middle of Lord Street, heads bowed, murmuring quietly.

Once the money was collected and the body brought back from Nassau, a Friday night visitation was held, followed by an all night vigil. Since the church is next door to our house, we were able to watch the huge floral arrangement being brought in for the Saturday service, and the church entryway decorated with garlands of plastic flowers.

The service itself was over two hours long. People were dressed in their finest: women in somber church suits and dresses and solemn hats, children in pressed white shirts or blouses, men in dark suits and – often– their memorial t-shirts. A shiny black hearse was parked in the alley between our house at the church, and the overflow crowd leaned against it in the hot sun. Often children and men would escape and run to Berts for the Best for a cool soda, and then return to the singing, preaching, and eulogies. When it was over, the coffin loaded in the waiting vehicle, and the five block processional began.

The settlement  cemetery is located down by the sea, right next to the cottage I rented the first time I stayed in Tarpum Bay. Because of the winds and tides and shifting sand, many of the concrete vaults are exposed, and grave tending is a futile task–but for one or two days the huge, garish plastic funeral wreaths will mark Monkey’s final resting place.

Crime in Tarpum Bay


(photo from Officer.com)

My readers who live in Northern Michigan are undoubtedly familiar with Leelanau county’s weekly paper, “The Leelanau Enterprise”–also known as “The Surprise” to those of us who eagerly await our Thursday news source.

Here in Eleuthera we have our own periodic paper, “The Eleutheran”, the Caribbean’s answer to Leelanau. In both instances, readers anxiously wait for the police report section: it’s where you find out everything! For instance, in the “Surprise” I found out my son was getting married, and that a good friend tried to drive home after having too many beers at a Superbowl party.

Here in Eleuthera, the paper performs the same function. The difference is that in the Bahamas the paper doesn’t name names, and doesn’t give anyone’s exact age. The magnitude of the crimes are pretty much the same as in Northern Michigan, however—except that Bahamian journalistic style is a little more flamboyant:

“Accident with injuries reported at Tarpum Bay. There was an accident with injuries on Eleuthera Main Road Tarpum Bay involving a blue 1990 Chevrolet Siverado being driven by a man (over 40). The driver infomed police that while travelling south along Eleuthera Main Road in the early afternoon, with a cargo of a Mattress and a passenger (over 35) from Rock Sound on the back of the vehicle the wind got under the mattress and blew the man off the truck while in the area of South Eleuthera Emergency Partners. As a result of his fall, he sustained face, forehead, shoulders, and wrist injuries. He was also unable to explain what happened as he was knocked unconscious…”

We also have drug dealers here in our little island. Check out this report:

“Search Reference to Possession of Dangerious Drugs. Police while on early evening Mobil Patrol in Tarpum Bay conducted a searchof a Ford Explorer Jeep occupied by men from New Providence. The men were searched for possession of Dangerous Drugs and on one found foil wraps in the pants pocket a grassy like substance susected of being marijuana. The suspect was arrested and cautioned and transported to the Rock Sound Police Station where a Name Check was conducted, and revealed that there were two (2) outstanding warrants for him. The suspect was charged with possession of dangerous drugs with intent to supply.”

And finally, there’s violence—in this case, finger pointing:

“Arrest ref Disorderly Behavior, Threats of Death, Obscene Lanuage & Resisting Arrest. Rock Sound police reported that while supervising a Tarpum Bay man (over 30) in the area of Tarpum Bay Ball Park on community services as ordered by Magistrate’s Court Rock Sound for about 30 minutes he became hostile towards the supervising officer and began pointing his finger in the officers (sic) while threatening and swearing at him and his family. As a result the officer placed him under arrest… He was later charged with disorderly behavior, threats of death, obscene languqage & resisting arrest.”

Whew. No wonder Miss Brenda insists that we stay in at night and lock our doors! She knows how threatening life on this island can be! I keep telling her that we have people who fall out of pickup trucks and point fingers at policemen (and even carry foil-wrapped leafy substances in their pockets) where I am from in Northern Michigan…but she just shrugs and says, “No, Miss Judy. You gots to keep all your doors locked up tight.”

“OK, Brenda,” I tell her. “I’ll just lock myself in tonight and read ‘The Eleutheran’ for excitement.”

Note: quoted passages from “The Eleutheran”, Feb/Mar 2010, p. 27.

Lynn and Gertie at work!

Lynn painting

“Hand me the yellow,” Lynn said. “And some more water.”

“Ok,” I say, agreeably—Lynn, after all, is on the top step of a ladder, which teeters now and then as its legs sink deeper into the sand.  Me,  I am most content to be Michelangelo’s water girl with my Keene sandals firmly on the ground.

Well, the comparison is a little inflated: we aren’t doing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. What we are doing is restoring the wall mural on the street side of the elementary school in Tarpum Bay, Eleuthera, Bahamas. It’s the second time we’ve done this project: the first restoration was about three years ago. Back then we used hardware store enamel and cheap brushes that textured the paint with bristles. The school, which sits by the Caribbean shoreline, is vulnerable to onshore winds and saltwater spray—no mural can last long under those conditions. Our work had faded after two years in the elements.

This mural is special, though. It’s an underwater scene, complete with coral, bright fish, snails, a lobster, and a swimming turtle. Even more importantly, it was painted by one of Tarpum Bay’s most famous residents, artist Mal Flanders. Flanders came to Eleuthera in the early 1970’s and lived and painted on the top of Bernard Hill in Tarpum Bay. Though he died in 2004, residents remember him fondly as a quiet, unassuming man who loved film as well as painting, and who used to gather the residents together in the elementary school to show Three Stooges and other classic comics.

The mural on the elementary school wall is one of Flanders’ many gifts to this community, and it is much loved by children and adults as they slow down to make the sharp curve on Queen’s Highway and head inland from Tarpum Bay.

This year we came prepared. Lynn toted about 10 pounds of acrylic paints, as well as brushes and fixative, when she traveled from Michigan. The new school principal was delighted with our offer to paint, and as soon as we got over our obsession with lounging on the beach every day, we organized for the restoration. Our plan was to start fairly early in the morning, as the wall is in full sunlight by late morning and the temperature begins to climb quickly.

It took us about three mornings, working 3-4 hours each day. Because the original was so faded, we found ourselves getting creative—a new angelfish here in the middle, and some pink and green plants in the corner. I hoped Mal forgave us our creative license, but the original was long gone in some faded sections.. Besides, the first mural had been painted on wood and attached to the wall: I envisioned Flanders in his studio under the palm trees sipping Kalik beer as he painted. Lynn and I, on the other hand, were dangling from ladders in the hot sun, working to finish before the paint dried and caked.

Part of the fun of this project is working outside the classroom windows. We were privy to third grade math problems: “There are 18 slices of bread. How many sandwiches can you make?” Most lessons were conducted verbally, with teachers asking questions and students chorusing their responses. Students also stood by their desks and chanted “Good Morning Miss Smith”, and repeated together “God is great and God is good, and we thank Him for our food” before the mid-morning snacks and recess. The children wear school uniforms: starched white shirts and navy pants or skirts—except for Fridays, which is physical education day. Then jeans are allowed, and tennis shoes.

The children were most admiring as the mural took shape. “Ooooh, look at the lobster. And that black fish!”

“What’s your favorite fish,” asked Lynn, ever the teacher.

A chorus of replies: The red one! The black one! The little yellow ones!…until every fish was named and exclaimed over.

The teachers seemed to like it all, too: they would stop by and chat briefly. And the ever supportive principal would appear quietly behind us several times each morning. “It’s coming,” he’d say. “Looking good!” One morning he made sure someone brought us a plate of steaming conch fritters as a mid-morning snack, much to our delight.

But I think the highest praise came from the proprietor of the grocery store across the street from the school. “Sure is real nice of you to fix that painting,” he said to Lynn. “Makes everybody proud.”

Completed Mural