23 August 2009

A traveler's tale: high adventure with broken, rented Jeep

My friends JD, Scott and I flew to Cat Island, The Bahamas on the eighth of August. It was JD's and my eighth visit and Scott's first. We rented the same cottage on the beach where JD and I had stayed many times previously. We flew over in a single-engine four seater and were staying for a week. Three men and their gear in a small plane left no room to bring food from home and the plan was to go native for the week. We'd eat what Cat Islanders ate.

Cat Island is approximately 40 miles long and four miles wide at its widest. It's home to a thousand people who scratch out a living by whatever means they can. Grocery options are limited to say the least. There are four or five general stores dotted along the King's Highway and they sell whatever the weekly mail boat brings and whatever produce can be coaxed out of the rocky, thin soil. Fish and lobster are abundant, though they're alive and swimming free. This is easily remedied by handing a Bahamian kid a $20 bill.

A well placed $20 guarantees a ready supply of seafood and an equally ready supply of the stories of Cat Island.

I'd made arrangements a couple of weeks earlier to rent a jeep from a couple who run one of the general stores, Simon and his wife Neda. "Jeep" is a generic term on Cat for anything with four-wheel drive. The jeep in question was a Mitsubishi Bighorn, that's a Japanese SUV meant for non-US parts of the world. Bahamians drive on the left and my Bighorn had a steering wheel on the right, all the better to better immerse me in opposite-handed driving. The Bighorn had a diesel engine and before I agreed to take it, I made Neda assure me that diesel fuel was available. She dismissed my concerns with a rapid-fire set of instructions on how to get to the only diesel pump on the island. She kept pointing south and I figured that since there's only one road on the island, all I had to do was drive south and I'd find it.

Having a car was a God send when it came to hunting and gathering. The three of us agreed that I'd cook for the week and frankly, I was looking forward to it. Making the rounds of the general stores was a great opportunity to test my kitchen mettle. It's amazing the meals that can be made from a bag of rice, some cans of peas, a handful of bird peppers and a cassava or two. Giant spiny lobsters and still flapping yellowtails don't hurt either.

Toward the end of the week, I knew that I needed to buy a tank of diesel and decided that Thursday afternoon was going to be my fuel run. Thursday afternoon arrived with little fanfare and I couldn't entice either JD or Scott to come with me. That was fine, I was looking forward to stopping along the way to kick around some of the 18th century ruins that dot the island.

(my photo from a previous grocery run)

I pulled onto the main road and headed south. I'd forgotten to take my camera and I was kicking myself for my oversight. Most of the photos that accompany this post are from Flickr and Picasa due to the same oversight.

Cat Island has very little development of any kind on it and the power lines that run alongside the King's Highway have only been there for the last ten years or so. There are two cellular towers now and Bahamas Telecom has finally united the people who live along the 40 miles of paved road. This is great for the islanders, but iPhones don't work. Needless to say, I was phoneless for my fuel run.

Cat Island has a severe beauty to it, the rocky scrubland that clings to the countryside stands in stark counterpoint to the nearly fluorescent blue water that laps against the shoreline. Life for Cat Islanders is hard and getting by with very little seems to be a primary way of life. Poverty there is very real. I've seen developing world poverty in other countries, but theirs seems to be of a different stripe. Unlike the poverty I've witnessed in other parts of the world, no one on Cat seems to lack basic necessities. The overriding air of frustration present in the slums of Cartagena or Kingston is utterly missing. The harsh landscape and isolation keeps Cat Islanders on the outs when it comes to the benefits of living in the developed world, but in exchange they get to keep and maintain a sense of family and community.

Bahamians look to Cat as the place where Bahamian culture is kept alive. Indigenous music, called Rake n' Scrape, reaches its zenith on Cat as does the Bahamian art of story telling. Cat Islanders are the descendants of slaves abandoned by English planters in the late 18th century and their African heritage is a large part of the Bahamian identity. Undergirding a lot of life on Cat is an under the radar belief system called Obeah. Unfortunately, no one's real willing to talk about Obeah with someone who looks like me. That's OK, I'm a patient man. I'll hear about it one of these days.

I drove about ten miles south, through the settlements of New Bight, Freetown, Moss Town, Old Bight and was headed toward Bain Town when I found the gas station. The gas station was a single pump in front of a corrugated tin garage and both were set adrift in a parking lot made by scraping back the scrub and letting the dust swirl. No one was around, or so it seemed.

I turned off the ignition and got out of the car. A teen aged boy came ambling across the lot and I called out to him, "You have diesel?" He walked up to me, pointed to his ear and shook his head no. Being a smart study, I figured out that he was deaf so I took out my wallet and pointed to the gas pump. He nodded then stopped and looked at me, questioning. I showed him a $20 bill and he started pumping. When he was finished he took my money, smiled, and ambled back across the lot.

I got back into the car and turned the ignition. Silence. I tried it again. Nothing. "Shit. Now what?" I thought to myself. There I was, ten miles from where I was staying. I had no phone and I was quite literally in the middle of no where. Before I had the chance to craft a plan, a boy of around ten rode up on a rusty bicycle.

"You goina burn up dat stahtah. Turn de key half way and let it sit. Den turn it da whole way." I laughed and looked at him, "You sure know your engines young man." I tried his suggestion and the engine very nearly turned over. His face lit up like a lantern, "Try it again man! I'm a mechanic!" I tried it again and the engine failed to turn over.

"Pop de hood," he told me. So I popped the hood. "Do it again," he shouted. I tried to crank the engine again to no avail. "It's ya battry." He ran across the lot and into the tin building. He came back a moment later and he was wheeling a huge battery charger. Following right behind him was his deaf older brother who was unraveling an orange power cord as he walked. In a matter of moments, they had the charger connected to the battery in the SUV. "We got it now," the ten-year-old boasted, "we got it now."

Just then, a woman of about 40 came barreling across the lot. "Jacob! What dis? Did you tell dis man you wuzzah mechanic?" My ten-year-old savior looked down at his feet. His mother continued, "Ya'd a boy, too young!" She then looked at me, "I'm da mechanic. We get chu goine again, we got it."

A more impossible-looking mechanic I can't imagine. I learned her name is Patsy and she was indeed the boys' mother and she was indeed a mechanic. Patsy was sporting two-inch acrylic nails and the most complicated, braided hairdo I've ever seen. She barked a couple of orders to her son Jacob and he ran into the garage. He returned with her toolbox almost instantly and she proceeded to troubleshoot the engine of my rented SUV. She worked with the speed and skill of a surgeon. Not one of those acrylic nails so much as got bent as her hands fluttered from one potential problem to the next.

She figured out that the oil hadn't been changed or added to in months, "maybe never!" and I told her that the car was Simon and Neda's. "Oh I know dis jeep," she assured me. "Dey don know how ta take care a dis jeep." She yelled to Jacob again, "Biy, get me m'phone." Jacob ran into the garage and came back with her phone. She called Neda.

Great gobs of Bahamian patois filled the air and hung there like taffy as she berated Neda for not maintaining her car and leaving me stranded. I couldn't follow their conversation by the words Patsy used so much as her inflections and her volume. Based on that alone I knew I never wanted to get on Patsy's bad side.

Patsy put a quart of oil in the crankcase, confirmed that my battery was charged and then waited until I had the car running before getting ready to send me on my way. "You take dis jeep back to Neda, she goine a get chu new 'un. Don stop 'til ya get dere." I stood there, thanking her profusely and started digging through my wallet for some money. She saw was I was doing and stopped me. "We cool man. Dat's how we do it here on da island. We look out fah eachaddah." She then turned on her heels and marched back across the lot. I signaled to Jacob to wait. When Patsy was back inside and out of sight, I handed a $20 to Jacob and got that electric smile again. "Tank yah suh!" he beamed and then took off on his rusty bike.

I pulled back onto the road and headed north to Neda and Simon's store. I passed one car as I was driving and when I'd gone about 3/4 of the way there I was feeling pretty great. I was cruising along at about 60 kilometers an hour and as I crested a hill the engine died. I coasted to a stop and maneuvered the jeep off to the side of the road. I knew I was a couple of miles from Neda's and I knew too that it was nearing the end of her day and I doubted she was going to keep her store open for me to get there. It was too far a distance to walk in a short period of time, so I popped the hood. I hoped that seeing a popped hood along the side of the highway would be a sign that I was in trouble. I leaned against the jeep and waited for someone to drive past.

About 15 minutes later a beat up Astro van with the word "Taxi" hand painted on the side pulled over. I walked over to to the van and the driver asked me if there were some kind of trouble. I explained that I was trying to get to Neda and Simon's to return their jeep. He told me to get in and we were on our way. There were two Bahamian woman in the back of the van, Miss Olive and Miss Olivia. My latest hero and driver was Mr. Curtis. Simon (whom I should be calling Mr. Simon) is Mr. Curtis' cousin. Miss Olive and Miss Olivia were (Miss) Neda's sisters. Complaining about Neda and Simon's ability to maintain their rental jeep wouldn't have gone over well, so we talked about Father Jerome instead.

Mr. Curtis dropped me off at Neda and Simon's store in very short order and I handed him another $20. I think this was the most expensive gas run I'd ever been on. Anyhow, Neda was standing behind the counter of her store looking ashamed. I explained that their rental jeep had died about three miles down the road and that I was ready for her to "get me new un." She slid a car key across the counter. "Dah tuba," she said. "Tuba" is Bahamian for Trooper. I thanked her and left. The tuba turned over as expected and I drove back to the cottage.

(my photo of the King's Highway in Smith Town, just north of where we stay)

I'd been gone for nearly three hours at that point and I was laughing to myself over what a great adventure that had been. I thought too about how differently I would have dealt with that situation had I been at home. I would have had a fit and a half and would have shunned whoever the rental agency was for life. But because I was a stranger in another country and the people I'd rented the car from needed the income their rental cars generated to keep food on the table, the situation was different entirely.

As it is, Patsy, the deaf boy, Jacob, Mr. Curtis, Miss Olive, Miss Olivia and even Mr. Simon and Miss Neda showed me more about their island and their culture than any tourist brochure ever could. Cat Island is a pocket want that's easy to pass by. In doing so though, it's easy to miss that it's a pocket of fundamental kindness and decency. In the absence of an American culture born of cynicism and reality TV, the people I met that day had managed to keep alive the best of themselves. I experienced real hospitality and it was nearly shocking in its contrast to my normal way of approaching the world. So I'm left with the thought of how does thoroughly American, constantly reachable, deeply cynical me can integrate some of what I saw that day into my life now that I'm home? We'll see.


  1. This is what being a traveler, as opposed to a tourist, is all about. You're right, we should all be better travelers wherever we are. Lovely story beautifully told. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Nancie. When I got back to the cottage that evening and told my story to JD and Scott they laughed and all but accused me of breaking down on purpose in order to further my quest for authentic experiences. I don't think even I could have planned something like the adventure of my gas run.

  3. Great story, Paul. How do the islanders react to your red hair? I think you would be a ball to travel with!

  4. Thanks Kathy. I don't think they notice. Really. I think it's a matter of all white people looking the same and that's that.


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