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    Caribbean '99
 
Found at Sea

By Mike Tidwell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 1999; Page E01

   


The mail boat should have been here hours ago. From my stool in Blind Sonny Lloyd's tiny waterfront bar, I can see past a stand of coconut palms to the wooden deck where the boat was to have picked me up. Against a sunset sky, a quartet of pelicans sails over the dock and out to sea, beating wings above gin-clear water ornamented with coral reefs and the splash of bottlenose dolphins. Blind Sonny plays gospel songs on a squeeze box while I drink Bahamian beer.

"It's definitely not coming today," he says of the mail boat, pausing between songs. "Maybe it'll come tomorrow."

I'm waiting on Barreterre Cay, on the southern end of the Bahamas' Exuma Cays. Barreterre is a stop on the Bahamian mail boat circuit, and in theory a ship stops here weekly carrying cargo, mail and passengers between Nassau and the other islands. Mail boats are the conveyance of choice for poor Bahamians and the occasional backpacker. My goal, if the boat ever comes, is to hop on board, sail 110 miles southeast along a forgotten archipelago of sun-kissed cays, and get myself marooned on a desert island. That's "marooned," as in stranded, and "desert," as in sand dunes, cactuses, wind-blown palms, spectacular lagoons and beaches, maybe an iguana or two.

This attractive and probably ill-advised mission is partly mundane: a chance to dodge the ice and cold of a D.C. winter. It's also a test. Travel writer laureate Paul Theroux is fond of claiming that even in a shrinking world of mass tourism, genuinely obscure landscapes and cultures still exist for the determined traveler. Examining my map of the West Indies one freezing December night in Takoma Park, I decided to take Theroux at his word. My eyes tripped over a microscopic raft of land called Ragged Island, 250 miles southeast of Nassau, all alone on the far edge of the Great Bahama Bank. The two-by-five-mile island bore a single settlement: Duncan Town, population 89.

Getting any additional information about Ragged Island soon proved nearly impossible. I consulted the guidebook "Hidden Bahamas," which specializes in part in getting travelers off the beaten track--but not a single mention of Ragged Island. I called the Bahamas Out-Islands Promotion Board in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Never heard of it," said a woman named Maura. "We have zero information on the place. Sorry."

But this much I learned quickly: There are no commercial flights to Ragged Island. Unless you have your own yacht, which I emphatically do not, or you can charter a plane, which I can't afford, then the only way to get on and off this unfrequented, end-of-the-line place 65 miles from Cuba is by mail boat. And the more I learned about the extremely erratic ways of Bahamian mail boats, the more I realized that having one drop you off on an island with the promise of picking you up a week later is very much a way of getting stuck. Which is to say marooned.

Even here on Barreterre, a lovely cay on the more trammeled Bahamian path and a key stop on the Nassau-to-Duncan Town mail run, no one knows anything about Ragged Island. "Sorry, mon," says Blind Sonny. "I never been there. Don't think I know anyone who has. Probably just fishermen there." A shopkeeper next door did see the island, as a kid, from the distant remove of a sponge-diving boat. But that, he tells me, was almost 70 years ago.

I might not get there either, of course, if the mail boat doesn't come pick me up. It might come tomorrow. It might come in a week. The boats are famous for breaking down.

According to my pre-trip research, one person who had been to Ragged Island was none other than Christopher Columbus--on his maiden voyage to the new world. How paradoxical that one of the first places visited by European explorers still lies completely off the obscurity charts 500 years later. In a way, too, Columbus sailed the very first mail boat of the West Indies, hopping from island to island, picking up supplies, dropping off men. In early 1493, Columbus left most of his crew on the island of Hispaniola and raced back to Spain to report his find. When he returned in late 1493, fully stocked with new supplies and, presumably, at least a few letters for the men, he could not find any of the 39 stranded crew members. They had all died of disease. Or they'd been murdered.

"Hey, mon, I think you missed your boat!" the bartender yells to me.

Different day, different bar, same thing: I've been waiting all morning with my gear--and still no boat.

"She just passed by," the bartender says, pointing out to sea. "The tide's too low here right now. She's decided to go straight to Ragged Island!"

I blink, uncomprehending: You mean even when the boat comes, it doesn't stop?

Two sympathetic carpenters drinking rum see me banging my head against a table with alarming force. They heroically grab my gear and lead me to a 17-foot Boston whaler. To my amazement, we're soon heading out to sea across pounding waves, spray dampening our clothes, closing in on the 80-foot mail boat that has the vague look of a big, beat-up shrimp boat. It's steaming toward open water and a sinking sun when someone throws down a ladder and I climb up.

On board at last.

The carpenters refuse money, waving goodbye as a crew member with dreadlocks leads me to a small cabin with six bunks. The cabin's all mine, he says. There are only three passengers on the boat. Only three human beings in the whole world traveling to Ragged Island this week--me and two Bahamians. The crew outnumber us by more than two-to-one.

I stash my gear, noticing out my port window the island of Great Exuma fading to a dot in a sea of stunning emerald. I go on deck to inspect the boat, amazed at what I find: From stem to stern the entire rig's made of wood. No steel-and-rivets gunwales. No fiberglass hull. Just wood planking.

"She's one of the last wooden boats in the whole Bahamian mail boat fleet," says first mate Cephas Maycock. He's in the wheelhouse, barefoot, steering us at a groaning 10 mph toward far-off Ragged Island. "By law, all the new mail boats, they have to be made of steel."

There's a definite chewing-gum-and-baling-wire feel to the vessel. Cephas, 38, says he's more than a day behind schedule because an engine alternator went out in Nassau and he couldn't fix it or replace it. If the engines cut off, he'll have a heck of a time restarting them at sea.

As for not stopping at Barreterre, Cephas apologizes--but I'm not mad. I'm on board now, ticket in pocket, a warm trade wind riffling through my clothes. From the wheelhouse deck, I look straight down through 14 feet of water to an ocean floor of delicately rippled sand. Two giant stingrays wing past with utter grace; a translucent jelly fish pulses toward the calm surface. The green, luminous water goes on forever, stretching till the Earth's curvature stops the eye just below a tangerine sun.

Through the open wheelhouse door, Cephas finally begins to unwrap the mystery of Ragged Island.

"I'm from Ragged Island," he tells me. "Born and raised there. The island used to be 400 people, thanks to the salt flats and a sisal plantation. But that's all died away now and we're less than 100 people--fishermen and lobster divers is all. I've steered mail boats all over the Bahamas and this island is the most far away. The people are the loneliest."

And any visitors? I ask. Cephas laughs: The odd backpacker and the very, very occasional yacht. The island's not on the way to anywhere. No one comes.

And beaches? "Very nice beaches on Ragged Island," he says. "Very, very nice beaches."

These words are still on my mind as, by moonlight, I head down the deck ladder to my room, open my cabin window to the breeze, and let the boat rock me to sleep.

I awake at 6:30 to stillness. We've arrived--and already cargo is moving off the boat. A flotilla of fishermen in 18-foot outboards has motored out to meet the mail boat, which is anchored offshore. Behind the fishing boats is Ragged Island itself, all scrub trees and limestone bluffs with Duncan Town spread across one hillside. The town's a ramble of wobbly docks and 30 mostly old and sun-bleached buildings, no two the exact same shade of pastel: pink, green, blue, yellow.

Eagerly, I lower my gear and myself into one of the fishing boats, which have come laden with bounty: 50-pound bags of lobster, conch and grouper for shipment to distant markets. They return with staples from planet Nassau. My boat carries bunches of green plantains, sacks of potatoes, PVC pipe, a stereo.

With some apprehension, I wave goodbye to the mail boat crew. By noon they'll weigh anchor, blow a horn and head back to Nassau, returning--maybe--in a week. "But don't worry, mon," says the fisherman now taking me through a mangrove swamp toward Duncan Town. "Even when the mail boat breaks down, I've never known her to be more than three weeks late."

I finger the wad of U.S. twenties in my pocket, figuring I'll be scrubbing boat hulls for my supper by then.

Amid the hive of greeters and straw-hatted revelers on the Duncan Town quay (it's a day-long party whenever the mail boat calls here) is Angela Munroe, the island postmistress. She's dressed in shorts and flip-flops. The mail bag's already come ashore, and I'm curious: "How many letters came here this week?"

She eyes me a bit sheepishly. "Five," she says, then adds that three are for the island's Guyanese schoolteacher. "Many weeks we get no mail," she says. "The boat brings us nothing." I'm officially marooned now, walking past scattered coconut palms and palmettos and up a steep hill into town. No thatch-roofed cabanas with rainbow-colored drinks here. I have but one lodging choice: a small, clean room over a fishermen's bar called the Ponderosa. The bar's already throbbing with calypso music at 8 a.m. But what a view! A deep wicker chair on my second-floor veranda faces miles of unbroken ocean.

I unpack to the sound of rolling combers mixed with roosters crowing and the thump of my closest neighbor pounding fresh conch flesh to hang and dry on a clothesline. So what if my shower runs cold and brackish and is activated by a crescent wrench? I'm stuck here and feeling happier by the moment.

It is a centuries-old custom of shipwrecked sailors to survey their domain as a first step, thus confirming the dawning suspicion: It's an island you're on and there's no way off. And like Robinson Crusoe, I can survey my island from a single hilltop. The hill's just outside town, along the single trans-island road. Like the rest of this limestone dot of land, it's covered with the scrubby, prickly vegetation common to the southern Bahamas: thorn trees, scattered cactuses, aloe vera, tangled bushes and curling vines. The ubiquitous thorns speak of a scant existence, of scorching sun and ocean wind and parched soil. Yes, indeed: It's a desert island.

The hill reveals an eponymously ragged coastline with stunning pale-green water and reefs on three sides. To the far north, a series of tiny uninhabited cays (the Ragged Island Range) stretch back to the main Bahamas archipelago more than 100 miles away. To the west is a jumble of meandering cliffs and deep limestone caves. And in several directions my eyes find the beaches. Within five minutes I'm on a lonesome smile of sand, unlacing my shoes. Soon I'm a cliche in sunglasses and rolled-up pant legs, my feet on talcum sand that has the slightest hint of pink, fringed by untrammeled sea grass and dunes.

I walk and walk and walk. I see nurse sharks mating in the shallows, and I walk some more. I watch a gigantic hawksbill turtle surface in a lagoon. I read and swim and walk some more. I fall asleep and wake up hungry.

There's only one restaurant on Ragged Island, Sheila's Fisherman's Lounge, and it's always closed. I go to Sheila's whitewashed house with the mountain of lobster traps out front and ask her to open the restaurant. Wearing a blue beret above cataract-clouded eyes, old Sheila says, Why bother? There are never any customers on Ragged Island anyway. If I want food, I should just come straight to her house--which I do, day after day, slipping through her kitchen door to buy plates of fried lobster and turtle stew and big slabs of grouper.

After evening meals, I wander the narrow streets of Duncan Town in the golden honey of the Bahamian sunset. People are on their front porches, gripping fly swatters and swaying atop crude hammocks made from discarded fish netting. The islanders grin and wave at me and my outsider exotica--Look at that fanny pack!

Anyone can beach a yacht on one of a thousand uninhabited West Indian islands and say, "Here I am! All alone!" But if all you want is to be by yourself on a microdot of land, a weekday picnic on D.C.'s Roosevelt Island would surely save you some trouble. A better challenge is to engage people--to find a culture that is itself an island off the beaten path. And that's certainly what I find on Ragged Island. Paul Theroux is no liar.

The island men are old-school fishermen, tossing out spools of hand-held line from small boats to hook 30-pound grouper and fang-toothed barracuda. Or they hold their breath and dive 15 feet to skewer reef lobsters with a simple, lethal spear called a Hawaiian sling. The women raise kids and dry laundry on rope clotheslines and weave palm-frond baskets in a style first used by slaves 250 years ago. Numerous people still administer "bush medicine," brewing teas from island bushes and always using an odd number of bushes, never even, or it won't work.

Midweek, I get a sore throat and 70-year-old Garnella Armrister helps me make one of these soothing teas. "I cured myself of TB drinking this," she says. She lives with her blind husband, Steven, in a tilting, two-story stucco home with a wood-shingle roof. Like most of the island homes, gravity-flow plumbing brings rainwater inside from an outdoor cistern. Garnella's grandchildren go to the pink one-room schoolhouse on the village's far edge. It's past the police station fringed with red-blooming oleander flowers, where two extremely bored officers oversee a perpetually empty steel-bar cell. Nearby is the home of the island's sole Cuban refugee, a man who left a Nassau detention center and took the mail boat to the most hidden place he could find. He began fishing here like everyone else, selling his fare on the mail boat from the safe obscurity of an island where no one cares where you're from.

There are no computers on Ragged Island. Nor are there cell phones. Nor has a cruise ship ever called here. Three bars and three churches proffer vice and virtue in equal measure. At night I drop my beer money into Cuban cigar boxes atop sticky wood-plank counters. On Sunday, I drop a cash offering in a wicker basket to the peculiar Bahamian crash of gospel tambourines and cymbals in a one-room sanctuary with weathered shutters open to the ocean breeze.

But even here, on Ragged Island, the world is drawing closer. Electricity came in 1995, and already many islanders are joining that strange stratum of the Third World: satellite TV owners with outhouses. And absurdly, there are four rusting pickup trucks, a motorcycle and three golf-cart-like vehicles--all brought in by barge--that trundle Duncan Town's less than one mile of roads.

Still, the profound feeling of apartness is little disturbed. During my evening walks, that feeling gradually yields to full-blown loneliness and a sense of sadness settling over this desert island. The stiff trade wind hums and howls mournfully through Duncan Town as I stroll, whistling past the abandoned houses of all those who've decamped for the outside world. The wind blows perpetually on Ragged Island--blows and blows and blows, coming uninterrupted through the Mira Por Vos Passage, creating what some here call the "wind capital of the world" and littering eastern beaches with the flotsam of far-flung trash. The plaintive howl fills my ears as sea water darkens all around, stretching away infinitely and in every direction, leaving me appalled all over again at how cleanly isolated from the greater universe this land raft is, with no way off till the mail boat comes again. If it ever comes again.

Up ahead, scratchy calypso and reggae music spill from the Hilltop View Bar, my favorite. I buy a beer and stretch out on a fish-net hammock under some palms across the street. The wind rattles through the fronds as a fragrant hint of marijuana floats up from a nearby dock.

"Our country has forgotten this island," says Rafael, the bartender, lying in a hammock next to me because business is slow. "The government won't dredge the channel. They say we're too small and far away. We should just abandon the island and come to Nassau, they say. It's like we're lost at sea, mon. Forgotten. Lost."

The wind carries his words away and I fall asleep, waking up hours later to find the whole village has gone to bed without me. All lights are out. Groggily, I shuffle to my rough ocean-view room, a weave of hammock lines criss-crossing one side of my face.

No one will rent me a bicycle on Ragged Island. "Just take it and bring it back when you're done," people say. So I hop on an orange relic with foot brakes and fat tires and head for the south side of the island to meet an eccentric outsider named Percy Wilson. Nine years ago, a drug-smuggling plane overran the island airstrip (no airport, just an unlit runway for emergencies) and crashed. Percy somehow dragged the DC-3 out of the mangrove swamp, pushed it to the beach, and turned it into a home for his family and a bar for fishermen passing by this side of the island. He gives me a tour of the "upstairs"--cocktail tables running the length of the fuselage--and the walled-in "downstairs" where an old jukebox sits below the landing-gear cavity.

Like everyone on the island, Percy is also a fisherman, and after morning juice under the DC-3 nose cone, he takes me out for his daily catch. Soon, we're both taking deep breaths and diving in 10 feet of water, Hawaiian slings in hand, spearing lobster and grouper amid a panorama of coral. I swim past staghorn forests, delicate branching corals, purple sea fans and golden brain corals the size of boulders. This whole south side of the island, a good two miles from Duncan Town, has a magical wilderness feel, completely uninhabited except for Percy and his family in the DC-3.

Later we eat lobster under the nose cone, and Percy, who wears a braided goatee, introduces me to his pet raccoon, Cherokee, and tells me he brews a bush tea called "Naked Man" to bolster the immune system. I ask him if he ever gets lonely.

"Lonely for what?" he says. "Everything we need is right here. Food from the sea. Clean air. When I go to Nassau, that's when I get sick and lonely."

It's something I hear from everyone on Ragged Island. Those people temperamentally unsuited for the solitary fisherman's life have already departed, leaving behind a group of islanders who, forgotten or not by the rest of the world, are admirably satisfied with their lot, with the routines of their lives.

"Going out to sea is an adventure I can never get enough of," says fisherman Alvin Munroe the next day, motioning toward his Malabu whaler with its assortment of spears, a rusting trident, giant fish hooks and a spool of 30-pound test line.

To prove his point, Alvin promptly guides me out to my own excellent adventure, carefully poling his boat toward a school of 10,000 bonefish along a sand-bottom flat north of the island. Before me is a sportsman's dream: bonefish everywhere, bonefish beyond comprehension. We eat a quick breakfast of raw conch plucked straight from the water and doused with hot pepper and lemon juice. Then we wade into the water and start reeling in bonefish, one after another, some exceeding five pounds. Alvin uses his spool while I fish with the only sport rod on the island, tossing out strange flies cut from frayed denim jeans. But these work, the boat fills with fish and we finally quit when our arms get too tired to go on.

Topping off this great day, Alvin passes on some surprising news: He heard on Radio Bahamas that the Ragged Island mail boat was leaving Nassau on time. In two days, in principle, it will reach Ragged Island. I tap the wooden shaft of Alvin's trident spear and start cleaning bonefish.

At 6 a.m. Thursday I leap to my veranda and look north and sure enough: There's the mail boat anchored in the bay. A miracle. I'm happy--and not happy: I've got to leave now. Any thoughts of staying another week are dashed by fears that a week could easily become a month. It was hard enough just getting here. Why tempt fate and my cash reserves?

On board, first mate Cephas is proud to be on schedule for the first time in three weeks. I got lucky. The weather was good coming down, and he got a new alternator from Miami so he can turn off his engines without fear of being stranded at sea in this old wooden boat.

Pulling away, I feel increasingly regretful. Despite some drawbacks (the wind blows a bit too hard for my tastes) and hardships, this island flirts with paradise status, physically and culturally. Of all the places I've visited on the globe, I've never felt safer than on Ragged Island, where locks rust from disuse, people provide help without thinking of money and a whole island can go to bed without the slightest concern for the foolhardy foreigner conked out in a street-side hammock.

As it turns out, I'm the only passenger on the mail boat this time. I stash my gear in a tiny cabin and later recall something Percy had told me after our lobster dive as we waded ashore under the lavish Bahamian sun. "Think about what kind of world we'd have if every kid on the planet could grow up on an island like this. There'd be no more violence, mon. No more hatred. Just love for everybody. A big, big love."

If only Ragged Island could gobble up the rest of the world, in other words, instead of sliding slowly in the opposite direction. We could all be stranded together. Marooned as a way of life. The world as one big island.

And we wouldn't need mail boats any more.

Mike Tidwell last wrote for the Travel Section about wilderness camping in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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