Paddling in Paradise

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The floating caravan comes ashore.
The floating caravan comes ashore.

Our tents flew up. Bardy whipped together a pasta salad from tortellini and dried tomatoes. Then—wouldn't you know it—just when you're too tired to entertain, company arrives. A launch pulled away from one of the anchored boats and a 50ish couple waded ashore, wine bottle in hand.

Tez and Eddy, from Annapolis, Maryland, told us they decided to put their everyday lives in storage and sail the Caribbean until the thrill or the money was gone. They had been away from home six months, and still counting.

"A lot of things happen, but nothing really happens," Eddy said philosophically, putting into perspective all the breaking news they'd missed. Althought the joy of being perpetually tan hadn't worn off, Eddy's sense of time was beginning to fray around the edges. Somebody had recently given him a tattered copy of The Economist, and he eagerly offered to go fetch it in case we were print-starved. Uh, thanks, Eddy, but we've been escaping reality for less than a week—and besides, that issue came out several months before we set sail.

When Eddy and Tez returned to their boat and moldy magazines, we continued celebrating. A full moon was shining and wine was flowing. We sang the Canadian national anthem to a yacht anchored nearby that was flying the familiar red maple leaf. (Well, we hummed the Canadian national anthem, since nobody knew any of the words after"Oh, Canada.") Bud erupted into an impromptu Zorba the Greek goat dance. Kathleen crooned "Blue Moon" and four middle-aged men added doo-wop harmony. We howled our way through the Fifties and Sixties as Andrew looked on bemused and confused, a young American marooned on Planet of the Forty Plusers.

Before turning in, Bardy, ever the dutiful guide, told us about a crumbling 18-century Loyalist plantation on Hawksbill Cay. Then he mentioned "hutias," the island's resident whistling pigs.

"They're nocturnal whistling pigs," Bardy insisted upon further questioning, "foot-long guinea pigs that were reintroduced to the island in the Seventies."

The next morning Bud reported that he had, indeed, heard the amazing whistling pigs during the night. Not only that, but taking a moonlight stroll on the beach he stumbled into a "zombie woman". He shrewdly told the apparition, "I'm not one of your babies. You don't want me. Go home." She obediently moved on. Bud, of course, didn't have his camera with him at the time. Furthermore, he apparently forgot to ask the zombie woman to make an addition to his tie-dyed T-shirt.

By all rights, that zombie woman belongs on Norman's Cay, where we rendezvoused with our charter pilot for the return flight to Nassau. The cay reeks of bad luck. A 50-foot, low-slung blue boat is rotting dockside, tilted at a drunken angle, paint blistered by a relentless sun. It went down a few years ago, filled to capacity with Haitian refugees.

"This is what they come over on," said Bardy, shaking his head in disbelief at the sad-sack vessel."A multi-hundred-mile crossing."

A stone's throw away stood another monument to tempted fate. A C-46 airplane sits mournfully aground in shallow water. In the early Eighties, Norman's Cay was overrun by modern pirates. Cocaine lord Carlos Lehder and his Uzi-wielding cohorts booted a handful of residents off the island in order to control the airstrip. Lehder is now in jail, and Norman's Cay is slowly returning to normal. But three members of the Royal Bahaman Police Force, .38 pistols strapped to their hips, remain stationed on-site. They strolled by our camp site to say hello and make sure that we weren't a new breed of drug trafficker, moving contraband by kayak.

"It was a good landing," said one officer, a quintessentially gracious Bahaman as he gazed at the downed C-46. "He just missed the runway."

Despite such grim testimony to the fact that fortune doesn't always shine bright in the the sunny West Indies, our nomadic tribe had ridden a winning streak for eight days. We'd dipped our paddles into some of the most sparkling water on earth, drunk toasts to blazing sunsets, and conquered the big, bad Wide Opening. My only regret was not catching a glimpse of those whistling pigs. Lying in my sleeping bag that night on Hawksbill Cay, I did hear an eerie half-snort, half-hoot. However, it turned out to be emanating from the next tent. It was, appropriately enough, the strictly human sound of Hubbard Marmaduke Jones III, snoring with gusto as he figuratively kayaked through dreamland, his sleep sail raised and a strong Exuma wind at his back.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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