Well, it looked like a good deal on paper. Escape the winter on the cheap–spend a week living on the beach in the Bahamas! What was not to like?
It was February 1993, back before we were married. D and I conned her brother into joining us. We caught a flight to Miami, rented a car and made it to Fort Lauderdale where we met our charter plane captain. “Buy your groceries in Fort Lauderdale,” they advised us. “You won’t find much more than canned food and conch on Bimini.” You could reach Bimini by boat, charter plane and Chalk's International Airlines. I remembered Chalk from my days in Miami. They flew float planes out of the Miami harbor taking off alongside the mombo cruise ships. Since our yacht was in dry dock and the captain had gone off on another drinking binge in Puerto Vallarta, we decided to charter a plane on the way out, and return on Chalk.
It was a short hop from Fort Lauderdale–an hour at most–on a twin-engine plane so small I rode in the co-captain’s seat. Holy cow, lookit that steering wheel thingy! What’s cool about a small plane is how close you feel to the blue water you’re flying across, which is also what makes you feel very fragile, all the engine noise, vibrations and wings flexing. Taking off in a jumbo jet, I wonder how on earth can this steel behemoth get off the ground? In a Piper Cub, it’s all light air.
Circling on approach, the captain pointed out several wrecked airplanes sprawled in the sawgrass–my first thought was they’d missed sticking the landing. In fact, the wrecks were yet to be cleared from when the drug runners crash landed being pursued by the US Coast Guard. He said Bimini was a drop point for what was coming from Colombia.
From my years in Miami, a friend told the story about fishing in Florida Bay, upon witnessing a Coast Guard boat run aground, volunteered to haul them off the sand bar, and being thanked with a bale of marijuana previously tossed from the boat the Coast Guard crew was pursuing. You can’t make this stuff up.
So when our pilot mentioned Bimini was a way stop on the drug interstate, it hardly seemed surprising.
“We’re landing pretty late, so let me do the talking when we go through Customs.” The captain was a 30-ish man who seemed too laid back to be a pilot. In shorts and an Izod sports shirt, he was more like a golfer who’d wandered into the trade by accident.
The Bimini airport had no control tower, just an airstrip located on South Bimini surrounded by sawgrass. The Customs Office was lime green with no AC. And it was indeed shutting down by the time we’d landed. Clearing Customs (there were two agents), we climbed on the open-air bus squeezing in with the Customs agents heading home. The Customs agents were planning their weekend, chatty and happy to be done with another work week. It sounded like they were heading to a party later that night, while we just needed to be dropped off a few miles up the road.
Before too long we arrived at a sandy, unpaved road, where we stepped off. We trudged a ways to come on a modest clapboard cottage with blue plywood window awnings and blue trim, planted under several tall Australian pines, the blue green ocean caressing a white beach just beyond. The cottage was raised possibly a foot above the sand, and the island itself was perhaps another 4-5 feet above sea level.
Years previously, Australian pines were introduced to Florida for wind breaks. Like most ill-considered horticulture projects, the fast-growing trees found the Florida environment quite to their liking, one more invasive species. They’d even push into the mangroves given any opportunity – if you’ve never fished the mangroves in Florida Bay, you ain’t never lived, bub.
Either the pinecones traveled to Bimini, or those folks imported them as well.
Bimini actually refers to a small chain of islands, (not so terra firma) with the largest named, logically enough, North and South Bimini, two specs of land poking up from the ocean between Grand Bahama to the north (hit by Dorian) and Nassau. We were staying on South Bimini. North Bimini was where the weekend yachts coming from Florida anchored. North Bimini had a handful of hotels and bars, so it was probably the best place to watch basketball in ’93. D’s brother thought so, anyway.
The fishing cottage we stayed in was about as primitive as it gets. Small living room, smaller kitchen off one side of the living room, two bedrooms the size of closets and one bathroom. Weak AC, but if you kept the windows open, the ocean breeze took care of things.
It was just us three, several feral cats and ten million hungry mosquitoes. No other houses in the immediate vicinity. Ironically, it was owned by the retired mayor of Alexandria, Charles Beatley. The deal was, a friend from the gym had these charity raffle tickets for a stay, donated by the mayor.
The well water we were told wasn’t for drinking; it had become salinized. Very much so, as we learned on taking our first showers. But there was a ten gallon water container sitting on the kitchen counter, and our instructions were to take it over to North Bimini to get it filled for drinking water. Seems we’d gone native in every sense of the word.
A narrow channel where the boats came in separated the two islands. Only way across was the ferry service. So we trudged, water container in hand, down the road to the ferry landing and caught the ferry across to North Bimini. Bus service Bimini style. Which was how we got to know Mathew Man (pronounced ‘Mattue Mon,’ mon.) Mathew Man was a 30-something brother who spoke only when necessary–like life needed to be kept a secret. Mathew Man worked on being cool. With his island brogue, you needed to listen closely when he did speak, though he seemed free enough with other islanders. Perhaps we were too scurrilous for his taste.
There was something about the ferry captain’s reticence–like he wasn’t being exactly forthcoming. It seemed strange given the friendliness of the other islanders. Remembering the crashed drug planes flying in, my hunch was he ferried more than passengers in his off hours. One night he missed the last scheduled run back to South Bimini, leaving my soon brother-in-law in the lurch. He spent the night on a friend’s yacht tied up at North Bimini–a friend he’d made while watching basketball and drinking beer at the bar. D’s brother didn’t drag his weary self back to our fabulous cottage until mid-morning the next day.
We learned quickly two key features of South Bimini: we were the only people with decent incomes in evidence, and the beach was not for sunbathing unless you wanted to donate a couple pints to the mosquitoes. We’d sleep at night with the sheet pulled over our heads to keep them away.
One day D’s brother returned triumphantly with food he’d bought in North Bimini. Somehow, with sign language to overcome the language barrier, he’d climbed behind a young man’s motor scooter, rode up island to the bro’s house, where he bought, dirt cheap, frozen conch and some lobster straight from the box freezer.
How to Prepare Conch
It’s not the cooking of conch that’s the challenge; it’s the beating it into something less resembling hard rubber. Pieces of conch flying from the wooden mallet pretty much sprayed the entire small kitchen. D and I did a marinara sauce, and her brother fried some. His turned out better than ours at the chewing part. But with shots of tequila between bites we made do.
In fact, tequila was a staple of our time on Bimini. That and poker.
Card games abounded in the evenings. D’s brother would head over to North Bimini to get his daily basketball fix, and we’d play cards to kill the evening. He became close to the bartender at one of the bars. I believe we had electricity in the fishing shack, but no TV–no cell phone coverage–and the Internet was still in the future. Roughing it for sure.
The mayor of Alexandria had a custodian looking out for the cottage when he wasn’t there. The lean, friendly man showed up unannounced one day (no phones) with a loaf of his wife’s Bimini bread. As soon as I cut into the loaf, I recalled the taste from bars in Fort Lauderdale that served it with the beer: light as air with a thin, golden brown crust. Great stuff.
The custodian invited us to meet his wife for another loaf, and we took him up on it. He and his wife had lived in the States for a while. His British accent surprised us; not the usual island accent; he was as dignified as any you might find in Britain. When asked, he told us he was the son of a Bahamian politician whose name escapes me. They lived in an even smaller apartment in Alice Town on–of course–the north island. We were fast realizing no one wanted to live on the south island.
Fun Facts About Bimini
Bimini is the closest Bahamian island to Florida, lying 48 nautical miles due east of Miami. It’s a fast cruise by boat, and the fishing’s a serious attraction along with showing off your latest power yacht. Also known for its diving, being at the edge of the barrier reef. Scuba divers looking to snorkel the reefs, or plumb the depths of the ocean trench are drawn to Bimini. As are US presidential candidates looking to have an affair–it was a much a tamer time when Gary Hart was caught fibbing, now wasn’t it?
Bimini in The Past
The 1971 NY Times article article by Ira Glass captures a lost time. Though I suspect times since haven’t been too different. The best way to describe the Bimini we visited is to say life was slow and all accepting of life’s limitations. Something about living on a speck of land surrounded by ocean might make you that way. Appliances, autos, building materials, everything needed to be shipped in by inter-island freighters small enough to navigate the shallow waters. Likewise, since there were no landfills, old cars, refrigerators, etc. needed to be hauled away by ship, which probably explained the appliance carcasses tumbled down the embankment at the edge of the water.
Taking photographs of a western sunset, my back was to the dead appliances just the other say. White man lies, I suppose.
Stories claim Earnest Hemingway wrote Old Man and The Sea from his time on Bimini. But of course Hemingway spent time in lots of out of the way places. The six-toed cats in Key West are rumored descendants from Hemingway’s cats – which says something about genetics, I think.
We did a day trip to a hard times resort at the northern tip of North Bimini.
We took a cab from Alice Town, to discover a place that time forgot. It was from the 50s–jalousie windows and a vast dining room serving just the three of us. Beer. That’s all they had to serve. We talked to a few of the few people working there. They said they were going to reopen the resort after a long time being closed. But there was no demand for a new tourist destination, far as we could tell. The best accommodations on Bimini were the oversized yachts tied off on the piers jutting out into Bimini Bay. Keep in mind it was 1993; no telling what it looks like today.
Returning to Miami on Chalk Air lines, it was a kick to be coming in on water, eyeing the cruise ships. We never returned to Bimini. Not because it was hateful; we got an education of sorts seeing how these people lived. And D’s brother got to watch a lot of basketball.
After Dorian grinded through the Bahamas, I couldn’t help but wonder how the folks on Bimini faired. They surely endured a frightening two days; the eye of the hurricane didn’t pass but fifty miles or so north of them. 220 mph. Can’t comprehend how terrifying that would be to live through. Particularly for the island dogs who never even knew it was coming.