Joaquin


For donations to the recovery, this is a reliable campaign: http://bahamashurricanerelief.com/


This has been a challenging blog entry.  I still feel a little unsettled and will do my best to capture our experience.

The storm has been exhausting.  It snuck up on us, giving the islands only a few days to prepare.  When it arrived, it was very slow-moving and stayed a while.  And when it passed, the physical work that followed was more tiring than the mental work of getting through the storm.

During:

Unbelievably, we had power and Internet at our house in Exuma for most of the time that Joaquin was hovering nearby.  We continued business as usual and logged in to work on our normal schedule.  By Monday, the stores and schools had closed, the roads were quiet, and it was either work or wait.  It felt lonely.  The wind outside was constant for three days, and it became mentally tolling.  It was dark – at first because of the cloud cover, and later because we decided to put the storm shutters up.

And we were understandably anxious: neither of us (or anyone) could guess what the elements had in store.  We listened to the boaters moored in Elizabeth Harbor over VHF radio, where they debated for hours about how much longer the hurricane would stay and how many miles it might crawl.  A few of them took to the land for the worst parts of the storm.  We also heard an eerie search call for El Faro, the ill-fated ship that proved to have been sunk with 33 crew members aboard.

View from our house during the middle of things

View from our house during the middle of things

When we started feeling that the worst had passed by Thursday, we relaxed.  We had friends come over and play cards.  On Friday, we went beachcombing, had beers and generally celebrated ourselves for outliving Joaquin.

Then rumors started trickling in about our neighbors 30 miles east: Long Island had been destroyed, deaths were in the double digits, our friends couldn’t contact their family members.  And we realized that Facebook had indeed gotten quiet.

John theorized that the power had been out in most places, and people’s phones were dead.  If your phone isn’t charged, you can’t post to Facebook or message anyone on WhatsApp.  Or if your phone is charged, you could be suffering from a fault of the mobile pay-it-forward system: the cellular company here has a pre-pay system which allows you to stop in to most stores and “Top Up,” giving a few bucks in exchange for mobile minutes and data.  If your pre-pay runs out, you’re stuck until you get to a store to Top Up. All the stores have surely been closed.

Aftermath:

But hopeful theories aside, those aerial photos weren’t lying.  We saw tiny planes going back and forth from Exuma that day (and we still are seeing them now that things have moved into a relief phase).  In a place as small as the Bahamas, people could easily recognize which neighborhood the pictures depicted, and even whose home was underwater.  The power lines were clearly downed, cell service was out of the question, and the airports were underwater.

joaquin

Click to see the location of islands vs. the storm

Note: At this point I need to clearly state that others islands took a hard hit, too.  The hurricane caused significant damage to Acklins Island, Crooked Island, Rum Cay, and San Salvador.  Our experience was limited to Long Island because of our personal friendships and physical proximity.

On Sunday morning, the first flight out of Nassau delivered a group of Long Islanders to the closest open airport: Exuma International.  We knew they were coming because our dear friend Graeme was with them and told us he was coming.  We drove them to boats for the 90-minute ride.

I hadn’t really met these guys before, but they were the right guys to be sending down there.  They had two satellite phones and extensive personal connections within and without the islands.  I think that the earliest relief efforts, eyewitness assessments, and rally cries can be attributed to them.  I would also give Outstanding Citizenship Awards to our friends who drove their personal boats to ferry survival supplies and people throughout that and the following days.

We went to Long Island the next day.  I was worried about what I would see or how I could even help.  Before leaving Exuma, people met us at the boat dock with clothing donations, cases of water, baby supplies, and best guesses on what would be helpful based on the reports.  As with most experiences, the small things mean a lot: we had a cooler full of ice with us and kept a rotation of water bottles going.  This allowed us to hand cold water to people who hadn’t had anything cold in 5 days and it was received as treasure.  (Remember that it’s still over 80° here.)  I’ll let the pictures do a lot of the talking from here, but some final thoughts:

  • Even in the worst times, I have to truly commend how resilient the people here are.  They are able to smile and appreciate their safety in the face of lost homes.  You will even hear some jokes and happiness when they recount the stories.  My favorite is about a family (including Gramps) who stayed in a tree for 6 hours to avoid rushing flood waters amid 90mph+ winds.  Evidently the 90 year old thought the whole thing was pretty exciting while up there… and the family thinks it’s a great story!
  • When I posted some pictures of our trip to a public group on Facebook, I didn’t realize that a poorly cropped photo would reveal that someone’s mother was ok.  And I didn’t realize that a blurry shot would give someone relief to see that their family survived.  If I could do it over, I would take a picture of every face I saw and post them for their families.
  • The rumors were horrible and largely unfounded.  It’s a miracle, but I think that only one life was lost in Long Island.  The importance of staying calm and verifying information cannot be understated when people are fearing for their families.
  • Long Islanders are exceptional at living off of the land: Unfortunately, the flooding has contaminated the wells, and the storm tore apart farms.  I truly hope that whatever the recovery efforts bring, it does not change the strong relationship that they have with their environment.  Or with each other!  This is an incredible community.
  • It’s really impressive how effectively Exuma was able to assist those less fortunate from the hurricane.  The airport here was used as a jumping ground to the impacted islands, and Exumians collected and delivered supplies to be loaded onto the planes.  Using Facebook, information was able to spread quickly and people could see the impact they were making.  We were put here to be helpful.

Finally, there is a confusing flurry of ways to donate to the short and long-term recovery efforts.  I would suggest this one: http://bahamashurricanerelief.com/

Funds raised here will go to the Long Islanders Association, which is a responsible organization and will also share the funds with the other severely impacted islands.

Today is Bahamian Independence Day

Happy Independence, Bahamas!

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Flag and seal of The Bahamas

Fun Facts:

  • British settlers arrived in the Bahamas as far back as 1647.  Read this to learn about why the islands were empty from between the time Christopher Columbus left and the British arrived.
  • Empty except for all the pirates, that is!
  • In 1973, Independence was gained for the Bahamas.  I didn’t realize there were papers for this sort of thing, but the British “delivered the official documents” to the late Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, of Nassau.
  • The Bahamian flag represents the sand of the beach between the sea and the sky.  The black arrow represents the strength and determination of the Bahamian people.
  • There are people alive here who remember when the Bahamas were not independent.  Maybe that’s a naive thing to be impressed about, but I think it’s pretty neat.

While researching this history, I ran across a press statement issued *today* by John Kerry, US Secretary of State. I have to share it.

On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I congratulate the people of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas as you celebrate 42 years of independence on July 10.

The Bahamas is a trusted partner and friend.  Your country’s abundant natural beauty is why Americans, such as Ernest Hemingway and Martin Luther King, Jr., flock to your shores.  And it is why more than six million Americans follow in their footsteps each year….The United States is a committed partner in working to build a safer and more prosperous Bahamas.

On this day of celebration, I wish all Bahamians a joyful Independence Day.

One final thing –

The 3rd country that’s currently in my life is also celebrating their Independence this week (Argentina!).  So what’s up with July?  Is there something *revolutionary* in the air this time of year? USA – July 4, Argentina – July 9, Bahamas – July 10

Living with a little less

At some point while we were collecting advice on moving to Exuma, someone said we should bring measuring cups for the kitchen. It seemed like an especially random thing to mention considering that when you are moving to a new country, there are seemingly way more important things to worry about.  The sheer randomness of the measuring cups had the benefit of making us remember to bring some.  Which is good: our fully furnished house did not come with any.

Our storage unit in California.  I'm not even sure what's in there now.

Our storage unit in California. I’m not even sure what’s in there now.

I’m learning how to live and consume differently here.  It’s based on a general lack of access to ‘things’ that I was totally taking for granted in California.  There is a subconscious security there in which you can always find, replace, or order whatever you need or want.  Or even things that you aren’t sure you really want, but are cheap enough and easy enough to get that, sure…you’ll give it a try.  Oh, the luxury of impulse purchases!
Bone fide American iced coffee.  A routine I still miss dearly.

Bone fide American iced coffee. A routine I still miss dearly.

Have you ever walked into a store and not wanted a single item in it?  Probably not.  I’ll admit that purposeless shopping has been a way for me to unwind: walking into a brightly lit store, full of colorful and distracting things for me to touch and think about owning with the flippant ability to justify whether or not I really *need* something.  This does not happen for me here in Exuma.  In fact, I often leave empty-handed.  I won’t say that I don’t miss it, but there are some interesting benefits.

Perhaps its due to the remoteness of our new location, or living in an economy that only covers the necessities, but the fact that some things are so hard to get is leading to an unintentionally Zen way of life.  Simpler, more beautiful.

Let me give some examples:
  • Fresh produce comes once a week, by boat.  Get it early, or…don’t get it.
  • There were 3 gas stations on the island, until one closed.  Now we think about gas consumption and when the good times to refill are without experiencing super long lines.
  • We walked into the convenience store for masking tape and Q-tips.  They were out of stock…of both.  Our projects can wait.
  • We don’t have a street address.  But people know which house we live in.
  • I waited until my mom came to visit so that she could bring my tennis shoes.  I don’t know where you can get them here.  I still have no idea where people buy underwear.
  • Why use a rubber band, when you can use something that creates no waste and costs nothing?
onions tied without rubber bands

But don’t let me give the impression that there aren’t other options.  It’s common practice to order things online, and have it jumbled into a giant weekly shipment from Fort Lauderdale to Exuma.  This, however, is expensive.  It’s safe to estimate that you will pay an average of 45% customs duty for whatever you bring in.  They are going to go through your stuff (and we’ve experienced some sticky fingers).  Then you have to pay the customs broker who works with the customs officers to make sure you are paying the correct amount in customs.  And, of course, there are ye old-timey shipping fees.

This has led me to really examine how badly I want something.  I now make myself define the need for something before ordering.  And guess what – I’ve basically stopped shopping.

So what is this teaching us about stuff?  I think it comes down to these things:  Make sure you need it, take care of it once you have it, and help each other.  It’s a BIG deal to lend someone a drill bit.  You have saved the person at least $20, in addition to the trouble of driving to every store on the island until they find the right one.  As the owner of the drill bit, you are taking a risk about ever getting it back or having to replace it.  Which is also expensive and takes a lot of time.  But we’re in this together, right?  You’ll eventually have something I don’t but that I’ll need to borrow. Just keep a sense of humor about things and it generally works out.
Sharing is caring

Sharing is caring

The craziest thing and possibly the hardest to come to terms with is the final lesson.

You have enough.

Those are some powerful words.

I am totally fine disclosing that I have a shopping list for my next trip back to the States, but for now my needs are being met with what we have and with what we have access to.   In reality, I can do without everything on that list.  I have a community of people that I can help and who I can ask for help from if I need it.  But the stuff of want – vanity, comfort, fun – are going to drive me to make those purchases.  Which is OK; that’s what we work for.  But really, you and I have enough.

sandbars are good for your soul

I’m having a hard time understanding sandbars.  Sandbars are quickly becoming my favorite “place” on Earth and as much as I want to know more about them, I kind of am enjoying the wonder that comes with…not knowing.

sandbar party

sandbar party

Things like, do they ever get named?  (I only found one search result that indicated named sandbars, so I guess not?) Or, how come if they are supposedly made of sand being slowly moved around from one beach to another, the sandbar itself manages to stay in pretty much the same place? And what the heck makes this shape (see photo)?

What the heck is this?

What the heck is this?

And why aren’t more people doing time-lapse videos of them as the tide changes? And how is it that there are so many sandbars in the Bahamas, making it the best place in the world? Maybe I actually want these questions (and google searches) to remain unanswered for a while. I love sandbars.  They represent a time and place that by its very nature is finite.  I guess if you think about it, they spend half the time under ocean water.  When you first arrive at low tide, it’s a clean and empty beach.  Just ripples that have been suggested into the sand while it was submerged. In some areas of life, I think that anticipating an end to something can make it seems less satisfying.  Yet sandbars feel different in that respect.  You can arrive and get lucky; maybe the tide has just gone out and you have a couple of hours in a magical, safe place.  But you know that the tide will come back and we will have to leave.  But nobody ever hears the clock ticking in the back of their heads, counting down until it’s over.  The time at the sandbar is very “now.”

It’s almost like sandbars are the gentlest lesson in impermanence.  An enjoyable one, even. There is something exhilarating about setting foot in a place that is temporary.  (Burning Man, anyone?)  The sandbar won’t always be above water when you want, but it will be back eventually.  And it will be clean slate…no matter how much you tore it up last time with foot and dog prints.

A Weekend in Long Island

Island time is rubbing off on us.  We took this trip back in September, and here we are barely posting it within 2014.

On incredibly short notice, our friends organized what turned out to be a ridiculously fun to trip to Long Island.  Long Island is larger than Exuma, but has half the population.  This leaves room for literally miles of empty beaches.  John’s secret talent #7,805 is the ability to draw maps.  Enjoy.

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The practical/economic way to get from Exuma to Long Island is to take a boat.  Either your friend’s boat, or the twice-weekly ferry on its route to Nassau and back.  If you want to take an airline, you must fly to Nassau first and take a second flight to Long Island.  Both of those flights are likely to be significantly delayed.  Our journey was less typical; there was an increase of traffic to Long Island from Exuma due to a funeral, and we were grateful to tag along in the mayhem.  John, Shots, and I shared an 18-minute chartered flight with some nonplussed Bahamians (because remember that dogs are treated differently here).

Saying you took a chartered flight can sound glamorous, but the rest of the journey involved a 40 minute, horrifically cramped car ride.  Our mistake!  We’re still in the Bahamas, and we’re still on an adventure, and leave it to us to expect that you’d be able to rent a car or get a taxi at the airport.  We puddled in to the trunk of a Jeep Liberty with a cooler and a dog.

Like Exuma, Long Island has one major highway, going from end of the island to the other.  Long Island is 80 miles long, and we drove up and down the whole thing.  By the time we were headed back home, our Bahamian friends took over the wheel because John was too slow.  John – by California standards – is not slow.

A notable stop is what is called the Columbus Monument, but which is actually dedicated to the native Bahamians who were the Lucayan Indians.  Turns out we’ve all been a little misinformed about Columbus, and the Lucayans were totally wiped out by the explorer and his crew.  I’m so bummed we didn’t get to go inside, but I believe Long Island Museum has Lucayan artifacts.

Over our time there, we had many pit-stops up and down the island for food, beer, and air plants!  We found a literal forest of wild air plants, with the biggest I’ve ever seen.

One stop I will mention was the local Tourism office.  They had a ton of info on Long Island’s history and current points of interest, and sell locally made art (yay!) and jams.  Why jams? Like guava jam and sapodilla jam?  Long Island is the source of some incredible produce, and also raises mutton for much of the Bahamas.  Side note: the island also has a sponging industry that’s hanging on, as well as fishing and boat-building.

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The most famous spot on the island has got to be Dean’s Blue Hole.  For as big as these types of events can actually get, there is a huge international free-diving competition held here every year.  We stopped and had a swim.  I did not go in, swim over, or really try hard to acknowledge it because it is impressively scary.  You really just need to Google this.

There was a lot that we didn’t get to cover on this trip.  It is seriously the most beautiful place and there’s more heritage to learn about there.  We’ll be back!

sea beans

It’s starting to feel like winter here.  It’s still in the 70s everyday, but the temperature hardiness John and I brought with us has been destroyed.  Our spoiled selves are starting to find the water almost too cold to swim in (also in the 70s), and we’re noticing a fresh crispness in the air.

We’ve been having a lot of windy weather lately, and this week brought a huge amount of seaweed and lightweight flotsam to shore.  Yesterday we put on long pants and hung out on the beach, where I got to work picking up a depressing amount of plastic that had washed ashore.  (I’ll talk about the volume of plastic that I find in another post.)

But we found something new and interesting!  Behold, sea beans.

Ours don’t look very heart-y, but from what I could figure out online, this specific type of ocean-faring seed is called a ‘sea heart.’  I guess some of them look like hearts.

Sea hearts fall out of their giant seed pods and plop into the water somewhere in the tropical rainforest.  They come from a plant called a monkey ladder, which is a type of Liana vine.  You’ve got to click through to this website to see some crazy pictures of this plant and the journey of these seed out of the Amazon!  They can float in saltwater for 2 years and still produce a baby plant in the right environment.

The amount of websites that come up when searching for sea beans/seeds/hearts is pretty fascinating.  It’s an entire category of beach combing!  I was also able to identify these whiter seeds as mangoes.

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So yeah, something new to collect!

A bit of history, you old salt

I’m reading a book called Wind from the Carolinas.  It’s fiction, but people seem to agree that it can be considered an accurate portrayal of a very significant time in Bahamian history.  I have to say that it’s a good read either way.  I’m no historian and can’t really speak to its accuracy, but author Robert Wilder enjoyably captures an attitude of Bahamians that I can see today. The history goes that after America became independent …*ahem* declared in 1776, fought for until 1783 … the Loyalist plantation owners did not want to participate in the new democracy. Quoth Wilder from the forward to his novel:

At the close of the War for Independence they found life all but unedurable.  They were hated and reviled…subjected to taunts and violence.  At their request the Royal Navy took entire families, their slaves, livestock, furnishings … to the Bahamas.  There they attempted to recreate the Colonial magnificence they had known.

The crown (as it was called) paid to move these families and their slaves to the Bahamas, where they were given land grants to recreate the plantation lifestyle and continue to export cotton to Britain.  This is in itself is interesting to me because this is a totally underrepresented viewpoint!  I mean, I know I’m not alone when I admit that I did not hear about this in history class. IMG_4130 Photo of plantation ruins on Little Exuma island by Bruno Yasoni under Creative Commons

It took less than half a generation for this endeavor to totally fail.  Let me put it this way:  the compost that John and I are making is the only dirt in the yard aside from the stuff we intentionally bought.  These islands are solid rock and any dirt here has too little nutrition to support a plantation. It’s kind of a sad story, because there wasn’t (isn’t) enough profit to be made to go around.  So what does this have to do with salt?  Not a ton, but it sure beefed up this post.  It’s a segway. Something that had been turning a small profit even before the failure of the plantations was salt.  The island of Little Exuma (attached by a one-lane bridge to Great Exuma) had a salt harvest/export operation starting in the 1790s at the latest, and continuing until the 1860s.  A huge pillar was put up to indicate where ships should come and get it.

It’s an impressive monument, but now you see the need for the beefing up.  I don’t know if there is more to say about it.  Nearby is a beach-front restaurant that’s actually open during the slow season.  We sat down and got some free entertainment!  These kids weren’t practicing for anything….they probably just don’t have iPhones. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghkptHhWBY4