Leaving Antigua, W. I.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Layin' Low in Bimini

I’ve recently had some correspondence about Bimini with another writer, and her comments conjured up some fond memories.  The year we started cruising full time, we enjoyed a few weeks in Bimini, our first foreign port of call.  As I dusted off my recollections, I found a youtube clip that took me back to a pleasant evening in the Compleat Angler, where we heard this as a live performance:  "Layin' Low in Bimini - Stevie S.and the Calypsonians"

I was saddened to learn that the Compleat Angler was destroyed by fire a few years ago, and the owner and all of his Hemingway memorabilia perished as well.  Sic transit gloria mundi.


I was “Layin’ low in Bimini” one Sunday morning, relaxing by the pool at the Bimini Bluewater Marina, when two women intruded upon my solitude.

“Where are you from?”  One of them asked me.

“Well, ...” I said, in a down island tempo.

“C’mon!  That’s not a hard question.  Where do you live?”  She asked impatiently, her speech dripping New York.

I was rescued by an older Bahamian man who was sitting nearby, enjoying a rum and Coke.  “De mon, he live on de green boat, jus’ da,” he explained, gesturing toward the dock to show which green boat he meant.

“Yeah, but where do you live, really?”

“Where de green boat set.  Jus’ now in Bimini, I t’ink,” I answered, slipping into the local patois.

The old man nodded, sipping his rum drink and grinning a gap-toothed grin.  The woman picked up her book and pointedly began a whispered conversation with her female companion, obviously unhappy with my response.  After a few minutes, they gathered up their things and left.

“De ladies, dey from New York.  Push-push.  Dey come to relax, but dey don’ know relax,” the old man said.

Bimini, at the time we visited, was almost deserted during the week.  On the weekends, people in big, fast boats came from south Florida to fish and party.  A few tourists flew in on Chalk Airlines, on the little seaplanes that landed in the harbor a few hundred feet from our boat.  We had watched them take off from Miami Beach, from the Government Cut ship channel when we were there a few days earlier.  The visitors spent their time fishing or scuba diving from the fleet of charter boats in the harbor, and they spent the evenings at the Compleat Angler after dining at one of the tourist restaurants like the Anchorage, which had been Michael Lerner’s cottage.  Ernest Hemingway lived there while he wrote To Have and Have Not. 

The whole of Alice Town was like a shrine to Hemingway, and it would not have been a surprise to encounter him in any of the little open-air, dirt-floored bars along King’s Highway, Alice Town’s one street.  The bars doubtless looked much as they had when he was in residence.

Bimini was always a haven for smugglers, and it thrived during the prohibition era, enjoying another economic surge in the 80s from the drug trade.  By the time we visited, the drug runners had moved on to more efficient means of shipment, although there was ample evidence that small-time smuggling was still an active pursuit.  Duty-free rum for a few dollars a liter and Cuban cigars were readily available to tempt the boaters from Florida, and more nefarious items were rumored to be at hand, as well.  In passing time with some of the locals, we learned that things were relatively quiet in Bimini these days, although just a few years earlier, gun fights between drug dealers along King’s Highway were said to be a common occurrence.

We explored the island on foot, walking from the south end all the way to the north end.  As we passed through Bailey Town, which was much more residential than Alice Town, we made note of a hand-lettered cardboard sign hanging outside a loosely fenced compound.  The sign offered stuffed lobster dinners for $10 on Sunday night.  I checked my watch and discovered that it was Sunday. 

We studied the establishment for a few minutes, noticing that it looked deserted.  It comprised about an acre, with a few strands of broken barbed wire draped casually around the perimeter.  Just to the left of the driveway entrance, there was a shack about 12 feet square.  It sat on concrete blocks and had a large padlock on the door.  Goats and chickens foraged among the weeds and dust.  There were a few partly dismantled, wrecked automobiles in the yard, along with some small boats and large, rusty appliances. 

At the back of the lot was a two-storey structure that vaguely resembled a suburban split-level house assembled from mismatched materials.  High on the front of the house was a large sign proclaiming it to be “Tiger and Pat’s – hardware, building materials, groceries, auto & appliance parts and repairs, and plumbing supplies.”  We decided to return later and try the lobster.

We walked back to “Tiger and Pat’s” an hour or so after sundown, accompanied by two friends from another boat.  There were dim lights scattered around the yard, and the door to the small shack was open.  The inside of the shack was brightly lighted.  We went up a few rickety steps and found ourselves in a tiny grocery store, well stocked with canned goods and liquor.  There was a pleasant-looking woman behind a small counter.

“Good evening,” she said.

“Good evening. How are you?”  I asked.

“Fine.  And you folks?”

“We’re well, thanks.”

“Can I help you find something?”  She offered.

“Are we too late for the lobster dinner?”

“No.  You want 4 dinners?”

“Yes, please.”

“I will get them.  Cold drinks are in the refrigerator.  You may help yourselves,” she said, gesturing to a rusty old household refrigerator in one corner.

She went through an unnoticed door into a tiny, adjoining kitchen, and began assembling our dinners, loading an incredible amount of food into Styrofoam containers.  She brought them back in a few minutes and collected our money, suggesting that we have a seat outside as she flipped some light switches.

We went outside to discover a large cable spool tipped on its side under a tree, now brightly lighted by bulbs dangling from the limbs.  The makeshift table was surrounded by barstools.  We settled on the stools and opened our containers to find that we each had a huge stuffed lobster tail, mounds of peas and rice, and fresh green salad.  As we tucked in, a musical rumble came from the shadows nearby.

I glanced up to see a giant emerging from the dark, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as he shuffled his feet in what I would have called a Gullah ‘shout’ in my youth.  Back in the days of slavery, rigid Baptists had forbidden dancing, but their strictures were circumvented by the expedient of ‘shouting’ prayers with rhythmic motions of feet, hands, and bodies.  This man’s movements were quite familiar to a boy from Geechee country.  He concluded his performance to our soft applause, bowed modestly, and introduced himself.

“Welcome, and good evening,” the big man said, in a smooth, almost impossibly deep, melodious voice.  “I’m Tiger.  My wife, Pat, made your dinner.  We’re glad you are here in Bimini with us.  Are you enjoying your visit?”

“Certainly, we are,” Leslie responded.

“Good,” he boomed, nodding.  “Bimini is mostly peaceful, now, but if anybody bothers you, you just tell them that Tiger looks after you.  Then no one will bother you, I promise.”

“Thank you, Tiger,” I said.

“You are welcome.  Enjoy your dinner, and if you are here next Sunday, come and hear me preach at the Baptist church overlooking the beach.  We would be pleased to have you visit.”

And with that, he faded back into the darkness, leaving us to reflect upon the diverse skills bred by life on a small island, and the fellowship that extended to all who ventured off the tourist path.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Farewell to the Islands

Most years, we leave Play Actor for a month or so of visiting family in the States.  This year, we’re making an extended visit, leaving her stored ashore in Antigua while we renew our experience of life on dirt.  This is the first time we’ve left Play Actor in Antigua, and only the second time in twelve years that we’ve left her for the entire hurricane season.

We arrived in Antigua at about 1:00 a.m. after a long, slow sail from St. Martin, and dropped the anchor a mile or so offshore to get a few hours of rest before dealing with the formalities of entering the country.   We took Play Actor in to the Customs dock at about 9:00 the next morning, and while Leslie went ashore to deal with the officials, I tidied the boat.  After a few minutes, the customs officer walked out onto the dock.

“Good morning,” he said, looking her over with an experienced eye.

“Good morning,” I responded.  “Will you come aboard?”

“Oh, no.  That’s not necessary. I just came out to welcome you to Antigua.  The captain (that’s Leslie) tells me you’re leaving Play Actor at Jolly Harbour until November.”

“Yes, we are,” I agreed.

“Well, don’t worry.  Everything will be fine.  The marina will take good care of her, and all of the paperwork will be handled directly.  Your wife will tell you all about it once she finishes with Immigration and the Port Authority.  We do this all the time.”

Leaving the boat for an extended period during hurricane season requires that we strip the exterior of sails, canvas, and any other removable items that add wind resistance.  Further, we shut down almost all of her systems – pressure water, electrical, refrigeration, etc.  This takes a few days to accomplish and leaves a vessel that isn’t really an attractive place to live.  We made arrangements with the boat yard to haul Play Actor early on Tuesday, and our flight to the states left early on Wednesday, so we elected to stay in a hotel near the airport for our last night in the islands.

Hotels in the islands fall into two categories.  There are resorts geared to foreigners, and there are basic hotels for the local folks.  The resorts are expensive – several hundred dollars per night in season; a few hundred during the summer.  For a place to sleep for a few hours, that’s too expensive for us, so we’ve always sought accommodations at the other end of the spectrum.  Finding them is a bit of a challenge.  They don’t advertise.  You won’t find them on the Internet, and there are no local equivalents to the AAA guidebooks, so you have to ask.

When we ask about local hotels, we’re invariably steered to the tourist places at first.  “Where would you stay, if you were visiting and just wanted a basic, clean place to sleep?”  We asked the ladies who work in the marina office, a few days before our haul-out date.  That resulted in side conversations as they came up with a list of places.

“The Amaryllis,” one of the ladies suggested
“It is finished,” another lady answered.

“Closed?”  The first lady asked.

“Yes.  Out of business.”

“The Loft,” a third lady offered.  “Very close by here.  Is nice.”

“Beachcomber,” the first lady volunteered.  “Or the airport hotel.”

“Yes, yes.  Airport hotel.  Very close.  Walk to the airport.”

“Do you have phone numbers?”  Leslie asked.  Telephone directories are rare, and always out of date, often with the key pages missing.  This resulted in another conference involving everyone in the office.  Several folks called friends – everyone has a cell phone – to ask for numbers.  After a few minutes, the receptionist presented us with a post-it note with three phone numbers, including “The Loft,” “The Beachcomber,” and “airport hotel.”

“Does the airport hotel have a name?”  Leslie asked.

“No.  Well, maybe, but everybody just calls it the airport hotel.  Everybody knows,” the receptionist explained.  “The number for The Loft isn’t actually for The Loft.  It’s for a person who knows the phone number, but I couldn’t get him to answer just now.  So, if you wish to call The Loft, you must call this person and explain.”

Back aboard the boat, Leslie called the airport hotel.  “I’m looking for a room for Tuesday night,” she said.

“Yes.  I have rooms.  $75 U.S. with a fan, $95 U.S. with air conditioning.  No problem.”

“I’d like to reserve one for Tuesday, please.”

“No, no need.  Plenty of rooms.  Just you come.”

“You’re sure you don’t want my name?”

“No… Well, all right.  What is your name? No, wait.  I must find the pencil… okay.”

“My name is Leslie Dougherty.”

“Leslie.  Okay, what time will you arrive?”


“Okay Leslie.  Don’ worry.  Plenty rooms.”

By noon the next day, Play Actor was out of the water, hanging in slings, and the yard crew was chipping a few barnacles from her bottom.  After handling the paperwork with the marina office, we caught a cab
“You go to the airport?”  The driver asked, eyeing our duffel bags.

“The airport hotel,” I said.  “Do you know it?”

“Of course, but who recommended it to you?”

“The ladies in the office.   Is it all right?”

“Yes, but not many visitors stay there.  Most stay in the resorts.  When is your flight?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Leslie said.

“You are taking British Airways to London?”

“No.  American Airlines to California.”

“Ah, but I thought you were British.”

We hear this often in the islands.  For whatever reason – appearance, manner, or speech patterns -- we are seldom recognized as American.

“Where is your accent from?”  He asked, looking at me in the rear view mirror.

“Savannah, Georgia.  It’s a tidewater accent,” I replied.

“You sound more English than American.”

After a few minutes, we arrived at the airport hotel.  It presented a spare, clean appearance, and there was no sign out front.  As the man told Leslie on the phone, “Everybody knows.”

We were greeted by two ladies behind the reception desk, one of whom presented a registration form to Leslie.

“What time is your flight?”  The other lady asked.

“9:00 a.m.,” Leslie responded.

“Okay. 9 o’clock; you must be there at 7.  You will wake up at 6 o’clock, and leave here at 6:50.”

“Will you arrange a taxi for us?”

“No.  No taxi.  We will take you.  Our guests do not take taxis.  At 6 o’clock, my husband will bang on your door until you answer.  He will check back after a few minutes to be sure you didn’t fall back to sleep.  He will take you to the airport when it is time.”

And so it happened.  We miss the islands, where everyone looks out for everyone else, and no one is too busy to take an interest in a visitor.  The transition was abrupt when we got off the plane at the Dallas – Fort Worth airport and joined the impersonal herd rushing about to cope with delayed and cancelled flights, but it’s good to be home, at least for a while.