Here’s a good story about Rock Sound, told to me by woman who has cruised there. A single-hander went to the bank, withdrew 500 dollars, which she put in her backpack. Then she went for a hike with a friend, leaving her pack by the path. When the returned, the money was gone. They went to the police station to report. The police chief directly drove out into the community and interviewed some kids who had been hanging around the scene of the crime. They described the other kids they had seen there. Within half an hour, the police chief knew the names of the culprits. She demanded that they produce themselves, their parents, and the 500 dollars in her office, in ten minutes. The woman who lost the money did not believe that they would show up. But the kids showed up, heads down, with their parents, and 450 dollars. One of the kids was a cousin from Nassau. The police chief told him he was banned from the island, and got the parents to agree. Then the kids started to file out the door, heads down. “O, I’m not finished with you yet,” she called out. Then she handed them pails and mops and put the kids to work, swabbing the halls, cells, and bathrooms at the jail. Then she made them wash her car. That’s the way Rock Sound rolls.
How cool is this? We’re sitting on a mooring at LIttle Harbor (it’s not possible to anchor here) and the boat next to us is playing beautiful, romantic French vocal music. Ryan is doing the dishes and complaining because, actually, it was my idea that we clean up after our lovely dinner of fresh-caught mahi, baked potatoes, and grilled peppers. He got down below before I did, and there really isn’t room for more than one person in the galley, so….here I sit, writing. There isn’t anything I can do, really, and he is vociferously complaining. “It wasn’t my idea and here I am doing the actual clean up. It isn’t quite fair.” No, it’s not. I’m happy not to be down below for once, sweating over the oven or stove. He’ll get over it.
And he is over it. And all the dishes are clean, hooray! After all, I got up at 6:30 this morning and washed all the dishes from last night’s dinner, which I also cooked, partly. Well, it doesn’t matter. These are the little spats that you forget about. We are happily listening to the distant tunes from Pete’s pub, which are largely drowned out by the roaring surf. What an amazing place Pete’s parents came to back in the day. His father was an artist at a university who sailed his family away from civilization to work on his art, found this place, settled here, in caves for probably 10 years, built a foundry, and drove on . What a tyrant he must have been. What an adventuress his wife must have been!
Ryan tells the story of the last time he was here. He was with his friend Robert and his brother Brady. There were two other boats, all anchored out. There was no mooring field then. They joined the other boats at sundown for cocktails and brought a bag of wine. They were drinking and goofing around and talking about their adventures. At one point, very early on, the elderly mother on the boat grabbed the mylar bag of wine and said, “this thing, it’s disgusting, it feels like a ball sack!”
Maybe you had to be there. There was nothing here then, only a few shacks and Pete’s pub, made out of an old sailboat, with a sand floor and, often, no bartender. It operated on the honor system. You poured and paid for your own drinks. Now it’s all developed, with fancy moorings and piers and shops and condos. We haven’t gone ashore, yet. More to come.
April 2, 2016
We sailed from Eleuthera to Abaco today with no real turmoil. The jib rolling furler failed, so we had to take the sail down and proceed with just the main. The winds started out in the 20s and settled down to about 11 knots, with clear skies and four foot waves. It was a bit rolly, but not too bad, sunny and pleasant. We had to scram north while the winds were blowing that way because, as usual during this very strange winter, we were running from the wild winds. I really wanted to stay in Rock Sound, where I spent a little bit of time with a woman who feels like a spirit sister, Janice, who runs her dad’s restaurant, Sammy’s, with a great deal of wit and skill. It was sad to say goodbye so quickly, but the cold front coming down from Florida was going to keep us from getting north for quite a while, and we are decidedly heading north. I have mixed feelings about it.
I love Bahamians. And I am sad to be leaving the islands where most of the businesses are owned and run by Black women, like Lorraine’s Restaurant in Rock Sound. The food is fabulous and the service unparalleled. There’s also a very homey, ordinary feeling about the place. You can go round the corner to visit with Lorraine’s mother, who bakes sweet coconut and whole-wheat bread that she sells right at her dining table. Get there early because it sells out quickly. While you’re waiting, you can chat with Lorraine’s granddaughter. Four generations of strong women live next door to one another, keeping the restaurant going and working other jobs, as well. Lorraine’s daughter has a white-collar job on the island, so her daughter stays with her great-grandmother and grandmother after school.
I’m not so happy to be returning to the Abacos, because the racial politics are so different there. White Bahamians dominate these northern islands, even though the majority of Bahamians are Black. Many Southern loyalists settled there after the English lost the Revolutionary War, bringing their slaves, if they had them. Slavery was abolished here earlier than in the U.S., but the institutions–prejudice and segregation–are still felt in the Bahamas as at home. Generally speaking, in the Abacos Whites have better jobs and there are still islands where Blacks are not welcome as neighbors, only as workers.
Consider Man-of-War, a pretty little island, to be sure, very industrious with a fantastic boatyard. There you’ll still see the Black people stepping wearily onto the ferry at the end of the day. They go home to their own neighborhoods on Abaco, the big island, which is segregated in many ways that tourists don’t usually see. Throughout the mostly White, northern islands, Blacks work as gardeners, fishermen, garbage collectors, waiters. On Eleuthera they are shopkeepers, grocers, owners of property and property-producing businesses. Below is a photo of Rosie, who owns a gorgeous house on a cliff overlooking the sea, where she cooks up the best food on the island.
Wow! We are listening to an outstanding live jazz from a gazebo about a hundred yards from where we’ve anchored our boat in Governor’s harbor. This is by far the best live music we’ve heard in the Bahamas. We got here this afternoon, dropped the hook, invited our friends from Valinor and our new friends from Pearl for cocktails, had a wonderful little party, and now the sun has set and this amazing band started playing. The acoustics are fabulous, clear, acute. The vocalist is Gabrielle Saveli, or something like that. She’s great, so much better than Diana Krall. Governer’s harbor turns out to be pretty sophisticated. We’ll have to spend more time here next time we come down. Eleuthera is amazing. We cam here from our favorite place in the Bahamas, Rock Sound, where one of my spirit sisters lives and runs a restaurant called Sammy’s. Have you ever had that experience? When you meet someone who you know will be your friend for life? You just know.
March 19, 2015
We are still in the beautiful anchorage at Fowl Cay. The horseshoe opens up to the north, where two enormous rocks called Rocky Dundas hide deep caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Cathedrals to nature’s splendor. Fabulous elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) at the mouth of one cave.
The water is clear and aquamarine…you must get tired of hearing about it. I wonder at it and think how to describe it to convey the extreme pleasure of looking at it, of being in Yesterday was sweaty hot, even while sailing, the kind of heat that robs you of all energy and leaves you languid and parched. So just after we anchored here, I jumped into the water. The shock of the salt surprised me, as it does every time. Extreme salt that stings your eyeballs and clears out your sinuses and wrings through you like a healing tonic.
One of the reasons the water is so clear is that the salt kills most of the bacteria. There is very little algae, no bloom of brown gray green organisms, only sharks and sting rays. Coral seems to start out as small clumps of anemones and branches out into red candelabras and mustard-colored clumps that you dare not touch. The sand waves in little hillocks, blown by the currant. The needle sharp rocks are gray on the top, ochre underneath, where the waves runs in waterfalls back down into the sea. There is a narrow pale beach here and a small airplane that crashed in the sand a few feet from the waterline. Beside it is a grave marked with conch shells and a stone that reads, “Dilo, the island dog.”
I am in heaven because I am here and I am reading Little Women, which I have read many times but not for many years. What a warm and joyous imagination Louisa May Alcott had. I love living again among Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Marmee. And Hannah. No one ever talks about Hannah, the servant who lives with them and who is not described except through her speech. Is she African-American? And their father is away serving as chaplain in a war which is never indicated but which must be the Civil War. It is an interesting counterpoint to Moby Dick, which I am still dutifully recounting.
It is interesting to think about race, especially here in this nation in populated and governed primarily by the descendants of slaves.
I would love to have a conversation with two people: a Black Bahamian who has lived in the United States, and a Black American who has lived in the Bahamas. I would actually not have any pre-considered questions other than, “what is is like to live there as opposed to where you grew up?” “What are the pros and cons of each society?” This interests me because the ancestors of both groups came unwillingly from Africa, and also because my own ancestors held slaves in North Carolina, from whence many of the Bahamian slaveowners and their slaves came. In fact, it would be fun to study the traffic between the two places. No doubt someone has already done this. I can’t really speculate about how Black Bahamians or Black Americans think about their history, but I can ask.
What I can talk about is how I, a White descendant of slaveowners in North Carolina during the 18th century, respond to Bahamian society. What I notice, briefly, is a great friendliness and confidence among the people here, but not a great deal of intermingling between Blacks and Whites. There is commerce, yes, and great warmth. But I can’t help but wonder how the Bahamians respond to the subtle racism of the all-White cruising crowd, who must seem incredibly affluent to the locals, who are poor in materials as well as education.
I am getting very bored describing what happens in each chapter. I am also beginning to wonder if any one cares what I have to say about Moby Dick. It really doesn’t matter, does it? Whether anyone out there reads or likes what I have to say about this book, or anything at all. That is the beauty of it.
I shall therefore observe as I like, on what I fancy. And I do like the maritime pulpit and chapel and salty minister Melville describes. But the best line in this chapter is the last.
“Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”
But what does it mean? It seems to be a variation on Shakespeare’s famous “all the world’s a stage.” The idea of the world as a ship on its passage out, a vessel always beginning a voyage that is never finished, makes a good deal of sense, astronomically, cosmically. The world turns and turns and turns in its endless passage around the sun in a solar system that travels round the spiral Milky Way galaxy, which itself moves through the universe. We can’t measure whether the universe is going somewhere, since it is ALL that we know, but we do know that the universe, the ALL, is expanding, and everything in it moving away from everything else. Or we think we know this.
But the idea of the pulpit as a prow, as, in Ishmael’s words, “earth’s foremost part,” makes little sense to me. Whatever could he mean? It seems an awfully religious statement for someone who demonstrates little faith. “From thence [i.e., the pulpit] it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.” The “God” invoked here would seem to be the angry, monotheistic deity Christians worship. Yet the next line indicates the polytheistic faith of sailors: “From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul invoked for favorable winds.”
What is Melville up to now, I wonder?
The world is a ship traveling through the Bahamas? What could this possibly mean?
If only my son, B, who is currently facing homelessness and total despair, could book a passage. He hates the sun and hot weather. How would he manage? I don’t know how to help him.
I saw my first Junkanoo surrounded by Bahamian people and was so moved by the majesty and power of the music that a wide grin burst across my face and tears came to my eyes. Island music had been blaring out of loudspeakers all across the island for three days, but it was dead in comparison to this drumming, this living song of pride and power and beauty of the Bahamas.
I was surrounded by Bahamian people and so moved that a wide grin burst across my face and tears came to my eyes. Island music had been blaring out of loudspeakers all across the island for three days, but it was dead in comparison to this drumming, this living song of pride and power and beauty of the Bahamas.
How to help you feel and see it? I was glad I hadn’t brought a camera, becuase trying to film or photograph would have prevented me from experiencing what was so clearly not a performance for tourists, but rather something much more authentic and sacred.
For it is a kind of ritual, Junkanoo. A ritual as in a theatre, as in a liminal display when the line between quotidian reality and the fantastic blurs. The players wear elaborate feathered headdresses and masks that elevate them above their ordinary everyday roles, if only while the rhythm lasts. The Junkanoo players are young and strong, as they must be to carry the massive steel barrels and to slam, crash, and boom their hands against them.
The mesmerizing booming tempo that they create also creates them, lifts them up, fills them up with the spirit of their culture, their people, the ones who brought them this fantastic gift, this spirit that they also now return to their people all around them. That is to say, the people who observe Junkanoo, when they happen literally to be the family of the men performing, engage spiritually, or viscerally, emotionally, as passionate spectators who imbue the performers with ecstatic power, a spirit that comes both from their collective ancestors as well as from themselves, who are now creating something new.
Junkanoo is Bahamian display for Bahamians with multiple meanings over time. The first “John Canoe” parade took place in Nassau in 1801, but the precedents of this festival almost certainly derive from Africa and African, enslaved peoples. As Nicolette Bethel observes,
Of all the “national symbols” in the Bahamas, it is Junkanoo that receives the most attention. Throughout history, it has acted as a force for the construction of many different Bahamian identities. During the early 1800s it united slaves in Christmas celebrations; during the middle of that century it was adopted by Liberated Africans as a focus for their displacement; at the beginning of the twentieth century it provided members of the working class with a forum for their grievances; and later in the century it functioned both as an emblem of race and of masculine activity. Since Independence in 1973, it has become more and more integral to conceptions of the nation. Iconized, it now appears on stamps, customs stickers and five-dollar bills; restaurants bear its name, much of contemporary popular music follows its beat, and both an art gallery/cultural centre and the national beer are onomatopaeically named after the sound of drum and cowbells. Additionally, Junkanoo is promoted to tourists as the “quintessential” cultural event. Somewhat paradoxically, however, it remains primarily an occurrence produced by Bahamians for Bahamians.
Junkanoo in the Bahamas: a tale of identity
I of course experienced Junkanoo as a tourist, an outsider, but the display I witnessed was not put on for my benefit, but rather for the Bahamians who outnumbered tourists by 100 to 1. The performance took place not technically as a parade, but rather as a procession from the outside to the inside of a large restaurant on the beach, during a celebration of the end of the regatta at Little Farmer’s Cay. Two men with mariachi-like rattles in white shirts and dark sunglasses led six men carrying drums into the room, where they played for about ten minutes, and then outside to the deck on the beach, and then back in again. I followed them, enchanted, delighted, moved to dancing and smiling and tears in a kind of stupified wonder, for I had indeed never before experienced anything like it.
It seemed to me a procession every bit as solemn as a Catholic mass and infinitely more joyful. It would take a Melville to convey the intoxicating theatre of junkanoo. I cried for the sheer beauty of this tempo, this dance, this song, this music of the Bahamas.