El Faro finds

Sometime around the 24th or 25th of this month, cargo that is thought the be from the sunken El Faro started washing up along the entire island of Exuma and surrounding Cays.  The news spread on Facebook and people headed to the shore to ‘salvage’ what was washing up.  Salvaging is an old Bahamian practice of collecting goods from sunken ships.  In some historical cases, the ships were deliberately misled into crashes so that the cargo could be claimed.  In The Ferry, Little Exuma, there is a small church which was built entirely from materials salvaged from an (accidentally) sunken ship.

The El Faro debris has deposited hundreds of Frontline tick-prevention medication for pets across various beaches. There are also lots of tubes of mini-m&ms (predominately empty), lots of hypodermic needles (for diabetes), mayonnaise packets, and various Avon products (like deodorants).  It sort of feels like this must be coming from a container for a Drug Store. We might be able to find out – there is a rumor that part of a container ran aground on Duck Cay, which is a rock we’ve been to many-a-weekend.

It’s definitely weird to associate these finds with the drowned sailors aboard the ship.  They must have been so near to us.  I do like the idea that anything useable that washed up is going to be used.  This stuff is getting cleaned up off of the beach one way or another.  The local vet office is going to receive a bounty of donated Frontline, that’s for sure.



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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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

Fresh fish

Our friends were in a boating mood this weekend.  We were so lucky to hang out with such awesome people.  Of course we had to make the obligatory stops at favorite beach-side bars…both days.  But we definitely had some new experiences, namely the chance to see some incredible spearfishing.  This was our first time swimming with Bahamians, and I am humbled!

Our friend Graeme grew up southeast of here on Long Island, where his family lives largely off the land…and sea.  We made open-water snorkeling stops and Graeme made spearfishing look as effortless as a trip to the grocery store.  Equally impressive were the kids!  They would fearlessly leap into the water to free dive and learn how to hunt from Graeme.  In one of these pictures, you can see 8-year old Dimitri bring up a conch.  If the reef wasn’t fruitful enough, we all just got back in the boat and looked for another one.

The only fish caught on a line was a barracuda.  John and I have been curious to try it…It’s basically an off-the-menu item so the chance hadn’t come up.  When we got back that night, Graeme cooked up the catches, and now I can say I’ve eaten barracuda, preceded by a Long Island-style conch salad!