Linda Hepler

© Copyright 2002 by Linda Hepler

This was written following a brief vacation to 
the Bahamas

Photo montage of scenes from the Bahamas.

There is only one picture of our trip to the Bahamas. It was taken by the cruise ship photographer, put inside a small blue cardboard folder with the ship company logo on front, labeled “Memories.” In the photograph, my husband and I appear eager to begin our adventure, me because it has been a year since I have taken a vacation and him, no doubt, because it has been at least that long since he has been alone with me. We live with my two grown children and our one-year-old grandson. Our house is a hectic place, which is why in our haste to pack, we have forgotten the camera.

We decided to travel to Grand Bahama Island for no particular reason other than that it was an inexpensive vacation promotion. We did not know what to expect once we arrived. Poring over the shiny travel brochures, we saw what appeared to be a sunny tropical paradise. This notion was confirmed when we viewed a television travel advertisement several weeks before our departure. “Come to the Bahamas,” a friendly native voice invited as the camera panned a large expanse of pristine beach. We envisioned ourselves snorkeling by day and drinking pina coladas served in coconut shells by night, warm breezes tousling our hair and re-igniting our passion.

If we had upgraded our hotel reservations to the fancy all-inclusive resort package our travel agent suggested, these preconceived vacation expectations may have come to fruition. But frugality won out and we booked our four-day stay in a budget motel. From the beginning, we saw the island through realistic eyes.

Arriving late in the afternoon in Freeport, we were tired and eager to unburden ourselves of luggage and find something for dinner. But our appetites diminished somewhat as we opened the door to the hotel room and were hit with the overpowering odor of Lysol. “Well, it’s clean, anyway,” my husband said, his eyes taking in the Spartan room.

Undaunted, we left to find food, but walked only a short distance toward a nearby marketplace when my husband discovered that he had forgotten his wallet. Trudging back upstairs to our room, we found to our surprise that the key which had only moments before gained us entry, refused to unlock the door. Wearily, my husband went to summon the office manager. “That’s funny,” she puzzled, wiggling the key back and forth, but unable to key into the room, she telephoned the hotel owner for help.

Over an hour later, a beat-up pickup truck rattled into the parking lot, dust rising in its wake. A wiry black man emerged and cheerfully bounded up the stairs to examine the door. After jiggling the key for a few seconds, he announced, “Mon, you be slammin’ the door. If you had shut it properly, this wouldn’t have happened.”

My husband stared at him, puzzled, until the Bahamian gentleman showed him how to open the door by holding it tightly closed while he turned the key. I got the distinct impression that he had done this before, but he insisted, “it won’t happen again if you don’t slam the door.”

Not one to argue, my husband thanked the man and asked if he owed anything. The man declined the offer, but as we walked away, he called out, “I don’t want anythin’. But I drove all the way across town and if you do be givin’ me somethin’, I could buy a cold drink.”

Five dollars later, we were once again on our way to dinner. Along the route we encountered numerous offers to attend timeshare presentations and pleas for hair braiding: “lady want her hair braided?” We saw young children with trays of pies balanced on top of their heads, begging us to buy the desserts, and women beckoning to us with outstretched arms from booths in the marketplace filled with beaded trinkets and homemade dolls. Already rankling from the hotel door incident, I felt further annoyed by this boldness in soliciting business.

The following day, we found a small coffee shop in one of the nicer hotels, where we bought two pastries for breakfast along with our coffee, leaving a tip in the jar on the counter. The coffee was hot and strong, just as I like it, so we returned for a second cup. The girl in the shop smiled in recognition. She questioned us as to what we had planned for the day, and thinking that we would fall victim to another offer for a timeshare presentation, I mumbled that we would be leaving soon. “That’s too bad,” she said, “because if you want to see what the Bahamas is really like, I know what you should do.”

Instead of following her suggestion, we went snorkeling. We had been told by telephone that this was a snorkel “tour” but it was nothing more than an expensive and crowded bus ride to a remote beach, where the guide pointed out the coral reefs in the distance. The price was the same whether snorkel equipment was needed or not, and since we had our own gear and had been told otherwise, my husband protested. “You took up space on the bus, didn’t you?” the tour guide retorted. There was nothing to do but make the best of it, so we set off for the reef. High winds and waves deterred our success, however, and we returned to our hotel feeling disappointed.

In the coffee shop the next morning the girl we had met the previous day put three pastries into our bag instead of the two we had paid for. “You’re still here,” she commented. This time we asked her what she had in mind for us to do. We certainly were not having much fun in the Bahamas thus far, so we had little to lose. Giving us detailed instructions for taking a bus to the west end of the Island, she said “I send only those without cameras to the west end.”

Within an hour we were on a bus crammed with Bahamians sharing roasted chicken and stories, bound for Old Bahama Bay. Jonathan was our driver, and we learned that he had grown up on the west end of the island and knew everyone there. He told us that he would leave us for several hours and return for us later in the day. “Stay together,” he warned, “and nobody should bother you. If anyone bothers you, tell them that you know Jonathan.” A bit skeptical, we disembarked.

The next several hours were spent wandering around a poor Bahamian settlement. We watched an old man, his boat riddled with rust and holes, harvest conch. A woman met the boat as it docked and when the conch were shelled, she grabbed the remaining portion of the raw meat from the discarded shells and greedily stuffed it into her mouth. Another man took the shells across the street to a small stand where he was cleaning them and then selling them for two dollars each. Walking further, we passed tiny run-down shacks with missing doors and windows and a schoolyard with children playing outdoors but no playground equipment in sight. A young boy was beating a rhythm on a homemade steel drum. He offered us “a show” for a dollar.

Outside of the nearby cemetery, a stooped woman was staring through the gate. “I and T” she murmured as we passed. Thinking that she was confused, I started to walk past her but then following her gaze, I saw a small headstone. “Ianthy Veronique,” it read. “Gone but not forgotten.”We stopped long enough to hear how this woman’s young granddaughter had died. “She would have been 16 today,” the woman said, tears brimming her eyes.

Everywhere we went that day there was evidence of hard work and a harder life. On the bus ride home, Jonathan informed us that there is little industry or agriculture in the Bahamas. Nearly everything is imported, and thus very expensive. Jobs are few and poorly paid. “Children grow up learning to hustle,” he said. “It is either that or die.”

I saw things in a different light during the remainder of our short stay in the Bahamas. What I had at first considered intrusiveness and “begging” was in reality one of the only means of living. Dependence upon tourism had made it so. I had to admire the resourcefulness of the Bahamians in finding goods and services that appealed to tourists, whether hair braiding or a steel drum show, homemade dolls or pies.

Upon our return home, friends asked to see our vacation pictures.  They expected to see images of us lying on sugar sand beaches with rum drinks in hand, frolicking in the turquoise water, perhaps dancing the limbo.  We attempted to explain what we did and saw in the Bahamas, but words seemed inadequate.  I do not believe a camera would have helped.  But the images of the people remain vividly etched in my mind.

I am a registered nurse, freelance writer, recently sold my first piece to a consumer health E-zine. I live with my husband, two grown children, grandson, and menagerie of dogs and cats in northern Michigan.

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