The boat edged through clear green water and stopped against a wooden jetty leading to the fine white sand of Stocking Beach.
"This is it, folks," said the captain. "We'll be back for you at 3:30 -- Bahamian time. Enjoy yourselves and don't leave any litter on the beach." -
Two days earlier, when I first saw the benches of Nassau lapped by this wonderfully clear water, I would have thought such a request unnecessary. What kind of clod would spoil such beauty with litter?
Five minutes at Nassau Beach Hotel and I realized the grains of sand are almost outnumbered by cigarette butts and cold-drink straws sticking up like little gravestones. As one of our party observed: "I feel as if I'm sitting in one of those ashtrays they have in foyers, the ones with sand."
Stocking Beach, however, looked litter free. I left the rest of our party to their scuba diving and headed off for a hill overlooking the beach from which, I was told, one has a fine view for miles around. I set off and encountered a vibrant little bird not more than three inches long; then I met a beer bottle poking its ugly snout through the grass. A lizard skittered over dry leaves, and several cola cans offended my eyes.
At the top I found a beacon. Below the hill I could see turquoise water lapping a white beach, then the sea turned dark blue as it advanced to a pencil-sharp horizon and a lighter blue sky. I could see secluded inlets with ocean-going sailboats sitting as still as ducks. Wind rustled small bushes with green and reddish-brown leaves. Under the bushes were bottles and cans; not many, maybe five or six, but enough to destroy a sense of oneness with nature.
Having lunch at the Out Island Inn, a lovely coral and wood building perched where two curved beaches meet on Great Exuma Island, I watched a seagull immaculate in his white, gray and black tuxedo. He was standing beside a torn plastic bottle and several rusty cans.
Walking along a dirt road outside George Town, I passed scores of cans and bottles in the grass verge.
Someone said: "There's almost as much litter here as in the States."
Over 1.7 million people visited the Bahamas last year, and 75 percent were Americans. Does that tell us something?
The man who made the remark about sitting in an ashtray felt the hotel could overcome that problem with a fine rake, as hotels do in other places, but the Bahamians cannot patrol all the beaches and hilltops picking up behind the careless visitor. The Bahamas consist of 700 islands and many hundreds of beaches and coves, scores of them uninhabited. All are blessed with lucid water, white sand and burning sun.
Clearly, most tourists don't mind seeing and contributing to a bit of litter, for tourism goes up every year. This resort nation of 220,000 has been called the "playground of the Western world."
I found the litter mildly jarring, but one should get it in perspective. The Bahamas still is the playground and not the dustbin of the Western world; the litter is a drop in the ocean compared with the natural and man-made beauty. Nassau is an exceptionally clean town with a fascinating blend of American luxury. British style and Bahamian informality.
Music is everywhere -- sometimes when you don't want it. We were cruising in a catamarian listening to the soft slap of water on the hull, listening to the silence when the boat's calypso band struck up exuberantly. "I could do without the music," murmured one contemplative type.
But most of the people loved it. They danced. One man said to me: "Life's passing you by, fella; you only get one chance." I danced. "That's more like it," he encouraged, slapping me on the back.
We were returning to Nassau after a morning of sailing and swimming and eating coconuts on Cabbage Beach. I was watching a woodcarver in the marketplace. Beside him a radio blared disco. Not only was it loud, but I could hardly distinguish the notes from the atmospheric crackles. But he carved happily and rapidly.
Bahamian woodcarving is not of high quality, but I liked the grass work and necklaces and rings made from indigenous materials such as shell and wood. Patterned one-piece Bahamian dresses also are very colorful.
Not everything you can buy in Nassau is folksy. Bahamians say you can save on sophisticated products from countries such as Japan, England and Switzerland. You can take back to the States duty-free $300 worth of goods; on $300 to $800 worth you pay only 10 percent duty. The Bahamian dollar is on a par with the U.S. dollar, so you don't lose, as you do in many other places, from devaluation.
There's also plenty of night entertainment in the Bahamas from local calypso and limbo to skilled jugglers and comic gymnasts from Spain and Sweden, scuba diving to water skiing and parasailing. If you've come to relax there's the sun and sand -- but please, don't leave any litter!