Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bimini, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: NE 5-10 knots
Seas: Two feet on the Atlantic

Today began the culture shock. For Karl, who’s never traveled internationally aside from Canada and Mexico, it’s exhilarating, and for me, too, but everyone goes through that little jolt of discomfort when realizing that you’re actually someplace new and foreign. I’ve seen it already in cruisers, those who klatch together and think that everything in the new country is deficient in some way, the subtle racism and xenophobia. Or not so subtle. We’ve already been told that Bahamians are “lazy.” We’ve been told (by South Africans) to watch out for the “blacks.”

I guess my culture shock has less to do with the Bahamians--I’m already completely in love with this country--than watching the horrific cross-cultural interactions of the Americans. It’s always been our goal to go as “goers” not tourists. But this island is rife with people who want nothing more than to be tourists. Not our fellow cruisers, but all the weekenders who jet over from Miami and want everything to be like it is back home.

We decided to stick around a second night at the marina, partly to try to get everything straighted out on the boat so we won’t have to stop off in Nassau, the capital, and partly just to orient ourselves to our new surroundings. We spent most of the morning chatting with Kiminy, the Bahamian dockmaster at the marina, who’s probably around 25. He told us how the island has changed in the last ten years, how the big resort they’re building at the end of the island is bringing in jobs but also strangers. He used to know everyone on the island, he said. He told us about the hurricanes that have hit here, and being sent away to school in Nassau, which used to be the nearest place to get an education. He told us about the town drunks and crazies, and also the cheapest place to buy diesel and ice.

We wandered around the dusty little town all day, trying to engage shopkeepers and locals in conversation. Their immediate reaction is to expect you to be like every other American who visits the island. I like to think they thought we were different. We look different, at least. I think I’m the only foreigner I saw wearing a skirt, and Karl in his beard and his tattered straw hat looks like Huck Finn grown up. I don’t know if we look like dirtbags or hippies or what we are, people who are here for the long haul.

The Americans are consistently shocking. We saw a girl walking down the middle of the street, probably 21, wearing a thong bikini. From the back she looked completely naked, nothing to indicate she was wearing clothing except two strings. All the Bahamian men craned their necks to watch her pass, and she sauntered down the street, back to her gated marina and her million-dollar powerboat. What must they think of us? I keep asking myself. How can they even think of us as human beings? Americans to them are slutty drunk girls and rich obnoxious foul-mouthed men.

Hiking trails and living in New England I became fairly accustomed to the way today’s youth seem to use profanity as punctuation, but in a foreign land the habit seems disgusting and obscene. The marina we’re in is very cheap and low-key, but the big powerboats dock here to clear in before they jet off to nighttime anchorages. They lounge around on their gigantic sport-fishing boats, drinking beers and complaining about the customs fees. I’ve seen several groups that made my jaw drop. One group of kids in what appeared to be some dad’s boat walked by at eleven o’clock in the morning glassy-eyed and completely wasted. The girl was wearing a designer wrap and $500 sunglasses. Most Bahamians appear to be decently well-off, but the Americans here flaunt their wealth like it’s a weapon. No wonder we have to worry about pirates! Even Kiminy, who has a great job, probably makes about $500 a month. And kids in America walk around wearing that on their faces.

One woman, walking back to her hotel room lugging a cooler full of ice, beer, and the Bahamian fish they had just caught, quipped, bitterly, “Where’s the bellhop?” Another, when a dockboy tried to sell her some conch, said, “$10? That’s all?” The girl with the sunglasses, walking by, said, “It’s the Bahamas, bitch.” A man, complaining about the new conch restrictions (only Bahamians can take them now, since they were so severely overfished) complained to Kiminy, “I have to justify the gas it takes to get over here, you know.”

We’re just finishing up The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman, the third in a brilliant British fantasy trilogy that I can’t recommend highly enough. In it, in a crazy parallel universe, these giant white swan-like birds who use their wings like sails come periodically to our heroes’ village and pillage everything in sight. They’re called tualapi. They waddle through the houses, tear apart the food stores, steal everything of value, leave droppings everywhere, and then sail off over the ocean. I can’t help think of Americans like tualapi, at least here. They soar over here in their beautiful spotless white boats, burning all of the world’s oil, fish the ocean out of all its valuable big game, and then look down their noses at their hosts. They crap on everything they see.

Our goal, as we travel, is to be different. To change how people see us, to be noble ambassadors of our country, of our race. That may be a taller order than I had envisioned.

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