Well, we escaped the Land of the Lotus-Eaters.
After returning from Seattle we sailed south to George Town, Great Exuma, the southern terminus for most visitors to these islands and a place where people stay for weeks on end. (One of its nicknames is “Chicken Harbor” because few boats have the courage to go further south — there are almost no people, water or provisions until you get to the Dominican Republic.) We saw over a hundred boats spread across the bay when we arrived. This was actually fewer than usual; in normal years there can be three or four hundred.
George Town is the largest town in the Exumas, but we still managed to walk from end to end in fifteen minutes. Like other towns here everything shut down on Sundays and in the evenings, but it had an excellent grocery store, a well stocked five-and-dime, and several nice lunch places.
For cruisers, though, the real attraction seemed to be Stocking Island, a barrier island across the bay, next to which most of the boats anchored. The center of activity was a place called Volleyball Beach, where everyone gathered in the afternoons for happy hour. Our kids loved it because underneath two large trees were a slack line and several ropes to swing from (launching off of a picnic table or, for the truly brave, the higher branches of a tree). Every Sunday there was a pig roast, which brought a big crowd of locals and cruisers — eating, chatting, playing checkers, and attempting to play volleyball. We counted at least 20 kids one afternoon.
The whole vibe reminded me of towns in India or Thailand where backpackers came and never left. It was inexpensive, you were surrounded by similarly scruffy travellers, and no one really did much during the day.
On the other hand, people were pretty organized. Each morning at 8:00 a.m. a volunteer hosted a “cruisers net” on VHF 68. Everyone tuned in to hear a weather report, announcements from local businesses, greetings from newly arrived boats, farewells from those leaving, questions and requests for help, and a “thought of the day” to close the program. It was carefully moderated and you could only speak when called upon. Quite a production.
We had a fascinating lunch in town one afternoon with two local Bahamians, one a property developer and the other a real estate guy. We talked about New Urbanism and how cars have negatively affected development — favorite topics of Drew’s. They also told us that cruisers don’t actually have a great reputation here. They don’t contribute much to the local economy (everone’s trying to keep expenses down), squat on wifi, and leave a fair bit of trash. Far worse, the local grocery store has found that the vast majority of shoplifting, as seen on camera, was done by boaters. (!) I realized that in large numbers, cruisers can seem a bit like stereotypical gypsies — travelling en masse, looking disheveled, throwing their trash out the window, and moving on. Not a great image.
Volleyball Beach was also frequented by three tame stingrays who had learned to swim up for snacks. They were like the swimming pigs of Staniel Cay: When they saw a pair of legs and feet in the water they flapped right up, hoping for a treat. We fed them scraps from a “conch bar” on the shore (the chef threw his scraps into a bucket, which anyone could help themselves to). The boldest stingray kept butting his head against Soren’s ankles, insisting on more food, so we nicknamed him “Roomba.” Their skin was amazingly soft to the touch, and we could see their blinking eyes and busy gills pumping water.
The beach had resident cats and one of them had three new kittens (squee!), so as you can imagine the kids didn’t want to leave. But after several days it was definitely time to move on. So we stayed long enough to celebrate Elsa’s birthday (she’s now NINE years old!), and then headed out. Elsa dubbed her birthday “BBBBE”: Best Bahamas Beach Birthday Ever. We set up a treasure hunt on the boat in the morning for her to find her presents, then dinghied to a beach for a picnic lunch, snorkelling, and bashing open a piñata that she’d made two days earlier. Then we headed to Volleyball Beach to play on the ropes, and with the kittens and stingrays. That night we had dinner of her choice (spaghetti bolognese), a cake she helped bake, and we watched “My Neighbor Totoro.” Great fun.
Partly on the recommendation of the Bahamians we lunched with, we headed north from George Town to Cat Island. It’s one of the “Out Islands”, so called because they’re further out from the main population centers and less touristed. “That’s the real Bahamas,” our lunch companions said. It was terrific: beautiful and rural. We were the only boat around the last few nights of our stay. One day we rented a car from a fellow named Dennis King. He picked us up on the shore where EXIT was anchored, drove us back to his house, had us fill out some paperwork, and then handed over the keys. Basically we were borrowing his car for the day.
Mr. King looked a little like Sidney Poitier, who grew up here on Cat Island, in Arthurs Town. In fact, we realized after a few days that several of the people we’d met — the reverend who sold us produce from the back of his van, one of the guys at a “grill and chill” and kids’ basketball tournament — sounded like Sidney Poitier too. There must be an accent particular to the island. You just have to imagine Poitier in more casual clothing, or dressed as a Rastafarian, or in urban street wear, but the voices are uncannily familiar.
We drove nearly the length of Cat Island that day, from the bluffs at the far north end to a hermitage near the southern end, situated on the highest point in the Bahamas — 206 feet! It was hand-built in the 1940’s by an English priest named Father Jerome. A fan of St. Francis of Assisi, he spent several years living in a nearby cave and hauling limestone blocks up the hill with his donkey to build the structure, then lived the rest of his life up there. He came down daily to minister to people in the nearby village, and built four other churches on the island as well.
So very glad we came here. It was a nice to spend more time with local Bahamians again, rather than hanging around with other cruisers. Don’t get me wrong, just about every sailor we’ve met has been lovely and interesting. But we really like meeting locals when we travel too, and the Bahamaians are incredibly kind.
Now it’s on to Eleuthera, where we’re having a replacement part for our generator shipped. But more on that in a subsequent post.