How we pay for things

In cash.

We pay for things in cash.

It’s not compulsory.  We could pay with a credit card at a few places on the island … with with a ~%5 additional fee from the store!  They charge you!  (I’m not even sure that’s legal).  But overall, credit card machines are a minority presence.

So we pay in cash.  Cell phone bills, car insurance, gas, beer, everything.  (It requires a lot of in-person transactions.)  It’s exhilarating to have to carry cash!  There’s nothing that feels or smells quite like a big wad of it.

But, I can’t believe

    • how quickly it goes.
    • how frequently you need to beg someone to break a large bill.
    • how much your day just ends when you run out of it.

····· Exuma has 4 ATM locations.  Stock up before long weekends.

When was the last time you asked someone if you could borrow some money to buy gas?  When did you last actually need help paying a $25 tab?  It’s funny but I feel like these sorts of interactions with friends never happen in the US.  I personally try to pay people back as.soon.as.possible because, OMG the guilt of debt is intolerable!

Outside of borrowing cash from friends exists the concept of CREDIT.  I put it in all caps, because … the signs.

Credit is harder to come by than friends.  At this point in our time here, we have a few places that will give us credit and I always feel like we won something.

Currency

The Bahamian dollar is valued to the US dollar 1:1.  It makes math pretty easy and both currencies are accepted.  There is a huge amount of US currency here – maybe because of proximity and tourism.  When you get change from a transaction, you’ll get a mixed handful of US and Bahamian dollars and coins.  What’s extra exciting is that Bahamian pennies have changed sizes over the years…and the US dime is significantly smaller than the Bahamian dime.  This adds additional variation and excitement when it comes time to roll them up (see below).

Coins and VAT

We enjoyed not paying sales tax when we began our time here.  Things cost what they said they cost, and purchase totals always came out to delightfully even dollar amounts.  But then VAT appeared and everyone had a coin problem: consumers had way too many and businesses never had enough.  John’s pants threatened to fall off because his pockets were full of change.  I think things have evened out since.  I just roll a lot more coins and can still “sell” them to businesses in exchange for paper cash.

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If you’re feeling politically adventurous, go to a bar and ask loudly “So what happened to all the VAT money that the government collected?”

Receipts

When you check out at a store, you generally get a printed receipt. But many places handle things by hand.  At restaurants, you even have to turn the bill back in with the payment.  I find it more personal and charming to do things this way.  SLOW DOWN, right?  (Unless I’m in a hurry because I’m actually not on vacation here.)

Casino Banking

I won’t say too much about this because I’ll probably say something incorrect.  But there are gambling businesses which operate like franchises in the Bahamas, with locations all over.  Called numbers houses, they are full of computers like internet cafes.  You log in with your account to play / gamble.  Your numbers house account is linked to your bank account.

We once paid someone by taking cash to a numbers house, where a clerk received it and added the value to our friend’s account.  We got a receipt!  Seems legit!

A note about shopping

When buying one item….from anyone…you get a plastic bag.  It might even be double-bagged, depending on what the item is.  There is a strong cultural difference with the amount of plastic bags used here.  Please, stop the madness and refuse the bag! 

When I refuse a bag or bring my own, they think I’m totally weird and find sneaky ways to get me to leave with a plastic bag.  Or they’ll make me re-ask to not have a bag each time I visit the store.  I’ll never give up!  Let’s make a positive change.

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.

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!

Meet Shots!

You may have seen some hints about this in the last couple of posts.  I’m honestly not sure why it took so long for us to introduce her here, but we adopted the cutest, chillest, most Bahamian dog in the world.  We named her Shots, after the greeting that we use with our friends here.  Walk into a bar where your friends are already hanging out?  “SHOTS!”

* Note: We pretty much never actually do shots, but it’s been known to have happened.

Shots pier

There are plenty of stray dogs.  This is not America, where dogs are coddled.  They live outside in the elements, don’t go to the vet or get groomed, and eat chicken bones.  The first dog we met in the Bahamas was eating a dinner of straight-up chicken bones.  Alarmed, we told the owner, who replied “she’s a Bahamian dog.  They can eat chicken bones.”  While that still doesn’t make it a good thing to give to a dog, it speaks to the cultural difference in pet-ownership attitudes, as well as the incredible resilience of this defacto breed of mutt.

On the islands, there is not a lot of new variety introduced to the dog gene pool.  There is also close to nothing on the doggie-birth control scene.  What’s emerged is a Caribbean breed of mutt called a potcake.  Shots is a potcake.  To understand what a potcake is, you have to know two things about the Bahamas.

  • The staple side dish of every meal is peas and rice.  Not green peas, but lentil-looking things.  It’s very flavorful and the good kind probably includes all sorts of grease and fish juice that I don’t want to know about.
  • When you make peas and rice, the bottom of the pot ends up with a crusty “cake.”  This is what you feed the dog, because dog food is frivolous.  Thus, the name potcake.  (By the way, Shots eats puppy chow.)

They are sturdy and resourceful dogs.  With Shots, she seemed to instinctually run to the shade underneath cars when we first brought her home.  I think our house may have been her first time inside anything.

We take her out all the time, which is a weird thing to do here and gets us lots of looks.  Good thing she’s so cute!  We want her to be social and comfortable in all situations: we take her on the boat, to get dinner or drinks, to the beach – which she LOVES – and just around town.

I think she grows a little each time we feed her.  I keep telling her to stop, but she’s not listening.  As she’s starting to settle and grow, her personality is starting to come out, and I think we got really, really lucky.  Having a dog hanging out with you is pretty freaking cool.


Here’s a bonus video.  Shots’ best friend and look-alike, Chance, taught her how to get in the water.  She had previously been too scared!

The Car Arrives

The car has arrived on Exuma and is strutting around town!

John worked tirelessly with the company that handled customs after the car arrived in Nassau.  They were meant to get the car on the boat from Nassau to George Town the week the car arrived….but it didn’t happen.  The boat is an overnight passenger, car, and cargo ferry that only travels to George Town twice a week.  But the real cause of the delay was the surge in traffic to Exuma leading up to the Rolleville homecoming.  It’s a pretty big party, and people bring their cars over from other islands…which meant our car couldn’t get a ticket to ride!

When it finally did get on the boat on Nassau, John spotted its arrival to Exuma from our porch at about 7 am the next morning.  We rushed to the dock to watch the boat unload…and it was a scene!  People were picking up friends, family, and/or pallets of stuff.  Two forklifts had come with the boat and began quickly unloading.  It was loud, busy and entertaining.  It looked as if someone had even shipped themselves a dog in a kennel.

But our car!  About a half hour after the unloading began and three or four cars had been driven off, we could see it.  The real moment of truth came when a worker got in and DROVE IT on to the dock…it runs!

Buying a car on the Internet is harrowing, to say the least.  I think we got really lucky – it’s in better shape than we expected and it’s sexy!  Since it’s from Japan, name possibilities so far are Sushi and Miyagi.  We’re relieved, excited, and mobile.

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!