Saturday, August 25, 2007

Pittstown Point, Crooked Island, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E 10-15 knots

On the boat yesterday afternoon, Karl showed up to drag me away from my peaceful solitary activities and drag me to the commissioner’s office to renew our cruising permit. I had mainly forgotten that our four-month extension expired on Sunday, so it was a good thing he remembered and asked Nappy to drive us down there. It went smoothly, no worries, but the commissioner on Crooked Island only gave us an extra month instead of two. I’m not worried about that either, but I am confused about what happens after our six month cruising permit is up. Can we just buy another one? Or do we have to leave the country? Either way, we’ll figure it out. It’d probably be good for us to be forced to leave the country--it’d force us to make a decision one way or the other.

After the successful renewal, Nappy drove us all around the island as usual, which was amusing as usual. The hard part about it is still listening to everyone beg for jobs all the time. One guy enumerated all of the tools he had bought, as if this somehow qualified him to be a builder. After we drove away, I asked Nappy why he didn’t give any of them a chance. “Trust me,” Nappy said, and then told us about his prior history of drug addiction. In my mind, people deserve a second chance, but I understand why Nappy doesn’t want to risk such a major and expensive project.

The other bizarre thing is the way people consistently ask him for money. Nappy is utterly fed up with it, apparently, but it’s interesting to me because of reading my brother’s blog, in which he quotes a doctoral dissertation written about “demand giving.” Evidently, in hunter-gatherer cultures, financial security is based not on competition, as in capitalism, but on the sharing of resources. It makes sense that in a world of limited resources, a community would need to band together to stave off hunger and death, but it does seem alien to our American way of thinking. So, in these sharing cultures, if those with much don’t voluntarily share of their wealth by throwing big parties or giving away their surplus, those with little can “demand” it, in what would seem to us like begging.

My brother encountered this “demand giving” often in his summer among the tribal Moken fisherpeople, and eventually decided that as a rich member of the community, it was his responsibility to give as much as he could. So he did, and was surprised when people’s small requests for a dollar or two didn’t avalanche into hordes of people asking for hundreds of dollars. As missionary kids, we were both steeled against the demands of beggars, who, we were taught, were part of massive mafia-run cartels and more often than not were pretending. Thais, on the other hand, give compulsorily, as a way of earning Buddhist karma. It always struck me as weird, though, not to give, no matter what happened to our donation. Christ clearly states in the gospels, without caveat, “give to those who ask.” It’s God’s business what happens next.

It’s interesting to me to watch the way in which old-fashioned Bahamian tribalism is intersecting with civilized-world capitalism. Nappy’s trying to run a business. He can’t just give jobs to everyone, or give money to everyone, or even pay the exorbitantly higher rates than everyone charges him for services. He had a local restauranteur charge him $145 for dinnner for three. We’ve seen it ourselves--people will charge him $10 for a meal that should cost $6, or $60 for a ferry ride that they’d ask $20 for from anyone else.

He complains about it all the time. “Don’t people understand,” he says, “that you can’t run a business that way?” We agree, having seen how successful business are run in the States, in the magic land of free enterprise. When local workmen charge Nappy five times the going rate for goods or services, he just goes elsewhere for them, to Nassau or the States. He’d rather fly in a tileman or an electrician from Nassau, at $300 just for the plane fare, than have to deal with the unrealistic prices and substandard performance given to him by the kids he grew up with. It makes sense from their end too, though. Why shouldn’t they ask for more when he has so much?

Reading my brother’s analysis also made a lot of past experiences we’ve had make sense, for instance being fed for free all the time in San Salvador. In San Salvador, everyone was swimming in Club Med money, so it made sense that they threw a giant birthday party barbecue every third day and invited the whole island to eat. It was a way of evening out the island’s resources, a way for those with work to share with those without. What’s funny, and flattering in some ways, is that no one ever asks us for anything, whether out of a sense of hospitality, or an awareness that we have far less than even those here do. Even those asking Nappy for jobs can go out and dive lobster for $10 a pop if they feel like it. Everyone has a boat, most of them with engines five times more powerful than ours. We’re exactly what we look like. We’re living like the lilies.

No comments: