Friday, March 21, 2014

Musing on an Emerald Sea

Kintala has been wandering around the Abaco Islands for a few weeks now, which is also the longest time I have ever spent outside US borders. This is a fantastically beautiful place and I start most days sitting on deck, sipping coffee, and somewhat amazed at being where I am. Which is not to say there are not fantastically beautiful places in the US. Having flown over and motorcycled through much of the country I have seen, not just oceans and beaches and rocky coasts, but painted deserts and towering mountains, breathtaking canyons, spires and thundering rivers, and the ancient forested ridges that make up the Allegheny mountain range. (My original stomping grounds and still one of the prettiest places Mother Earth has to offer.)

As fascinating as the scenery is here, the people are even more so; confounding my American prejudices. We took a long walk along the beach at Treasure Cay. At the far end is a resort called Treasure Sands, which seemed like a good place to get a cold drink and take a break. It was a slow mid-afternoon at the outside bar so several of the people who work at the resort were gathered at the end close to us, chatting and telling stories. I watched and listened, enjoying the musical cadence and inflections that make their version of English so much more pleasing to the ear than that of the States. As I both listened and reflected over our short time here, I realized just how different this place is from my home. These are just first impressions of course, but they are radically different from the first impressions given by America.

From what I have seen the Bahamian people are pretty tolerant of each other. In fact they seem to genuinely like themselves and those who come to visit them. I have seen no hint of racial tensions. That might be because pasty white skin is the minority and we don't make the rules in this place. The US is a society riven across racial lines. We don't practice legal slavery anymore, but that isn't anything to boast of in the year 2014. Yet the very first chance they got, Southern states moved to limit voting access to minorities, particularly black voters, with complete disregard that they are betraying a basic tenet of democracy and assaulting the civil rights of other Americans. We are also a society torn across economic class and ideology, political borders, and religious affiliations. Americans don't like even other Americans very much, have abandoned any pretense of tolerating even minor differences in people, and really don't like most foreigners.

So far I haven't run across anyone who sparked a threat assessment. Nearly everyone I meet smiles and wishes me a good day. There has been no hesitation at all to approach someone looking for directions or some bit of information. In the States, particularly in St. Louis, many (not most, but many) people moved into my awareness first as potential threats. How many, how big, how young, are they likely armed, do I sense any aggression, do they appear to be hunting or working with a team? Pretty regularly the conclusion was that there may be a potential problem. Occasionally some counteraction seemed prudent; move to the other side of the street, change speed to pass at more distance, or make some move that suggests here is dangerous prey and maybe a hunter as well. On a very few occasions things tensed right up to the point where violence was surely imminent, only to fade when it became clear that the violence was going to flow two ways. Twice, it has.

I haven't seen a single gun since I left the US. Not in the Customs office, not in a store, not hung in the back of a pick-up truck; no "Don't worry about the Dog" stickers, no "Gun Control is hitting what you aim at" signs. This society isn't pro-gun. It doesn't seem to be anti-gun either. It appears that guns to a Bahamian are like English Cricket to an American, "Who Cares?" The US is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, and the only society that equates gun violence with personal freedom. Guns are a central theme in America's self image, particularly handguns, and they are everywhere. All Americans simply get used to it, living with daily gun killings as if they are normal because, in the US, they are.

Yet even without an armed population to fight off the government, this society is at least as free as ours, maybe even more so. There are no warning signs on every little thing. Deb's prescription came in a bottle that actually opens like a bottle should. She filled it by simply walking into the drug store and showing them the bottle from the States. No fuss, no muss, and at 1/3 the cost. Apparently no one cares what kind of container you pump gas into at the pump, and you can do it with the engine running while talking on a cellphone. If it floats and you have a desire (or need) to take it out on the water, go. If it gets the job done, fine. The people here seem to do pretty much as they please without looking over their shoulder for a lawyer, a cop, or a preacher. This might be because they live so close to the ocean. Regardless of who thinks they might be in charge, once a person is on big water in a small boat all bets are off, nature rules, and each citizen is completely responsible for their own well being. That seems to be the basic attitude around here, "I am an adult, and I will look out for myself."

There is very little "official presence" here. A few days ago we took part a gathering of people for the world's "Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade". Nearly 200 of us foreigners milled around and then filled the 300 foot long parade route, conch horns and whistles blowing, as we made our way to the free beer stop, blocking traffic and waving at the little kids in the cars. There was not a single security person in sight anywhere, none, no kind of uniform at all. Two hundred foreigners gathered together and blocking traffic in the third largest town in America (Chicago) would have made the evening news and probably resulted in a few arrests. Certainly the route would have been lined by police and every single face in the parade scanned and passed through recognition software being run on some of the world's most powerful computers, looking for one of the hundreds of thousands of people currently on a USA "watch list". Then again, getting a permit for such a thing (even without a free beer stop) would probably take years and a whole office full of lawyers; so we are likely safe from foreigners throwing parades on our shores.

There have been no military uniforms. There are no tanks sitting in front of VFW clubs, no fighter planes on sticks in front of airports. There have been no war machines in the sky, on the streets, or on the water. The US is a thoroughly militarized nation in a constant state of war. Fighter planes and bombers regularly prowl American skies and utilize most civilian airports. Military convoys on highways are common. We all have friends and/or family in uniform. Military spending consumes much of our budget. To support it we sacrifice schools, bridges, and health care. This has become our "new normal" and it is probably permanent. This is the life we constantly vote to support, and none of us are likely to live in a nation at peace ever again; not my generation, nor that of my kids, nor that of my grand kids.

If it wasn't for Daughters 3, Grand babies 7, and the big ugly hurricanes that threaten these islands every summer, I'm not sure I would ever leave this place. Unless it was to see if there are others like it in the world.


Unknown said...

I have been following your wonderful blog to dream of retirement on the sea and have enjoyed it thoroughly.

And now this.

Brilliant social commentary.

Well said.

Allan S said...

I read a lot of blogs and this was by far the best entry I have read to date.

S/V Island Bound said...

You can't see me but I am clapping and giving you a standing ovation!

I couldn't say it any better than Biff....what he said.

Great pictures too!

S/V Veranda said...

Greta post. We just made it up to the Abacos. We're down at Lynyard Cay and will be meandering north slowly. We need to have cocktails on the Veranda....

TJ said...

Bill, we are currently in Treasure Cay waiting out the next couple of cold fronts.

Unknown said...

Another excellent post. I was especially interested because Ron and I had planned to be in the Abacos this spring but our departure was delayed by several months. So jealous imagining your being there, but we will make it within the next year, I'm sure. Please continue to let us know how your journey goes.