It’s continuing to be a hootenanny down here, or whatever the Bahamian equivalent is. After Warderick Wells we headed for Staniel Cay, the biggest settlement we’d seen in the Exumas thus far, although its population probably topped out at a hundred. It’s a popular spot for cruisers, though, thanks to a few unique sights.
First was Thunderball Grotto, famous for the James Bond film named after it. From the outside it looked like yet another small limestone island with scruffy foliage on top, but hidden inside was a large oval grotto, open to the sky. We worked up the courage to swim underwater for a short span and then surfaced. The rock faces were dripping with mangrove trunks and spidery bromeliads, and the water glowed bright blue in the sun. Hundreds of fish flocked to Soren, who was holding a stale piece of bread we’d brought along from the boat. (We were no longer in the Land and Sea Park so feeding fish was a-ok.) A nurse shark slid by. We kicked all around and it was like exploring a cave, but with an open roof.
After an hour or so we heaved ourselves back into the dinghy and motored north around a point to another favorite destination, Big Majors Spot, home of the famous swimming pigs.
The pig story, as it was told to us by a fellow on the beach who sounded authoritative, began in 1992, when Operation Desert Storm was about to commence. A resident, worried that the war might lead to food shortages, brought four pigs to the island. But the pigs soon escaped and started roaming about and breeding. The west side of Big Majors happens to be a favorite anchorage for boaters; they saw the pigs on the beach and gave them scraps. Over time the pigs trod further and further into the water to be sure they got a treat, and at some point one pig came out far enough that he or she had to swim. It was only a matter of time before the rest of them learned to do the same.
We slowed as we neared the beach to watch the pigs, but they didn’t give us much time to marvel. Two of them heard us, marched smartly into the water and began churning their little legs to make their way over. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. They led with their snouts and huge nostrils, holding them just above the waterline and snorting, like horses fording a stream. When they came alongside they opened their mouths so wide we could see all their teeth (100 or more) and their giant muscly tongues. The kids tossed them some carrots but most of the pieces pinged off their teeth and ended up floating in the water. Then the piggies churned around in circles trying to find the lost treats. Eventually we drifted so close to shore that they could stand — we realized this when suddenly one of them was up on his hind legs and scrambling his front hooves over and into our dinghy. Yikes. We pitched some leftover bread into the water and that was enough to lure him away.
We came ashore and moseyed around on the sand for a bit. There was a lone rooster picking his way along. Then a mama pig came out from the brush with four little babies following behind — squeee! Eventually they burrowed into the sand with her to nurse.
Our last day in the area we sailed south to Bitter Guana Cay, a short 45-minute hop. Bitter Guana, as its name suggests, is home to a colony of iguanas. There’s actually another island north of Highbourne Cay that has a much larger and more famous iguana population, Allans Cay, but with so many visitors feeding them scraps, some of the iguanas have become a little aggressive. The hard cases are deported to Bitter Guana, which prohibits feeding. In other words, we were visiting an iguana penal colony. As we pulled ashore there were of course lots of jokes about striped uniforms, numbers instead of names, etc.
There were 15 or 20 iguanas right there on the beach. They had iridescent skin and knife-thin wattles, and held our gaze cooly when we squatted down to their level on the sand. They seemed pretty territorial and would chase each other around at regular intervals. Towering behind them was a huge, white limestone cliff, so we climbed up and behind it to enjoy the view. You could see both the sound side and the Exuma banks for miles and miles. Beautiful day.
All along, the Bahamian locals we’ve met have been unfailingly friendly and welcoming. Our first day ashore in Staniel Cay we asked a man trimming foliage from the roadside which way to the grocery store. He pointed and explained and we thought we understood perfectly, but then we walked on and promptly missed the first turn. A few minutes later he caught up to us in his golf cart (everyone here drives golf carts instead of cars), pointed where we should have turned, then led us in a slow golf cart procession up and around to the first grocery store. (There were two: the Blue store and the Pink store. We shopped at both.) The woman who ran the Pink store (which was pink, as was her shirt), seeing all our bags and our flat of beer, asked an acquaintance to give us a ride in his golf cart back to the dinghy dock. So nice.
Equally generous were the folks on Black Point Settlement, where we headed after Bitter Guana. The kids got to go to school there! Another boat we’d befriended, Renewal, had arrived a few days earlier with their girls and made enquiries. Ida, who runs the laundromat (and also cuts hair, cooks conch fritters, operates a little store that sells eggs and motor oil and souvenirs, and rents three cottages nearby) knew the school principal and introduced them. Yes indeed, the principal said, they would be welcome. So our kids arrived the following morning at 8:30 for assembly and stayed the whole day.
There were thirty or forty students altogether, divided into three mixed-grade classes: primary, elementary and middle. They all wore uniforms — dark green trousers or pleated skirts, and light green button-down shirts. Our kids joined the elementary group. They started straight in on their times tables and then moved to typing. At lunchtime the children all went home, so we met ours at the laundromat — brown bag lunch for the kids, Ida’s conch fritters for the grownups.
After school everyone played basketball. At one point a group of local boys asked to use the whole court for a game, and could any of us be a ref? Stacie on Renewal, it turned out, used to referee semi-pro basketball in Portugal. Those boys had no idea what they were getting into. Drew detached a whistle from his backpack strap for Stacie and off she went. At the end of the game the boys very sweetly invited our kids and other bystanders to join in. Soren came running up to me at one point and said, “Basketball is exhilarating!” (We thought you’d love that, Po.)
Next door to the school was Lorraine’s restaurant, a local institution. In addition to yummy food she had air-conditioning and WiFi, so it was popular with cruisers too. Next to Lorraine’s you could get home-baked bread from Lorraine’s mom. “Home-baked” in the literal sense — behind the restaurant was the little white house where she lived. We knocked on the door and a small voice said “Come in,” so we stepped inside to the smell of fresh-baked bread, walked through the living room and back to the kitchen. There stood Lorraine’s mom, five feet tall in her dress and apron, with an open smile. (We asked her her name and she said, “Everyone calls me ‘Lorraine’s mom.’”) We’d been told to get the coconut bread, three loaves of which were cooling on the counter. “Do you like cinnamon raisin too? I’ll have a batch ready in an hour if you come back,” she said. We couldn’t resist and ordered one of each. (The whole scene reminded me of “The Matrix,” when Neo meets the Oracle.) We saw her the next day at the cafe and told her we’d made french toast out of the coconut bread for breakfast. “That’s off the hook,” she said. You go, granny.
After Black Point we sailed down to Little Farmer’s Cay. This island has an interesting history: It was settled by a freed slave and her two sons, and its residents are all descendents of those boys. (One son had 13 children; the other had five.) While filling up our water tanks at the island’s “yacht club” (one orange building with a restaurant and pool table, plus a dock out front), the dock manager Nixon told us the local church was having a fundraising lunch and we were welcome to join them. They were calling it a “grill and chill.” Sounded great.
We walked down the road about 20 minutes to the church. The moment folks spotted us they shouted welcome and waved us in. They were serving a plate lunch, with BBQ chicken or ribs and a whole complement of sides: jalapeño mac and cheese, baked potato, corn on the cob, and salad. It was delicious. The fundraiser was for the children’s program, so they could provide Easter baskets for the kids (a nice justification for getting both rum cake and upside-down pineapple cake to take home). When we were all done we went outside and found Elsa and Soren showing some of the Farmer’s Cay kids how to build fairy houses. Very cute.
Now we’re waiting on weather so we can head south to George Town, the largest settlement in the Exumas. It also sounds like one of those towns where travellers come and never leave. We’ll let you know …