When most people (myself included, until a few months ago) think of life in the islands, simplicity comes to mind. Ease. Life without worries. But when you start realizing the complexity of sustaining these small, remote communities, getting on “island time” is as much of a necessity as it is a luxury.
First, a definition. The Abacos are considered out islands of the Bahamas. Out islands are any of the hundreds of islands that are “out” from Nassau on New Providence Island (the biggest city in the Bahamas – home to around 80% of the Bahamian population). Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island is the biggest city in the Abacos and serves as the heart of the island chain, from where all goods and services flow, to the even more remote islands, the out-out-islands, like Man-O-War Cay and Great Guana Cay.
Stores on the more populated islands are open Monday through Saturday and most of them close for lunch from 1 to 2 p.m. every day. Stores on the out-out islands are open more or less at the whim of the owner, and nothing is open on Sundays.
The out island grocery stores get shipments in by ferry from Marsh Harbour, and Marsh gets supplied primarily by Nassau, which is primarily supplied by the U.S. Not many things grow successfully on these islands, and attempts at sustaining livestock have mostly failed. Given the song and dance required to get a gallon of milk, you begin to understand the pricing.
While staples like dry goods are consistently stocked, other items, like fresh fruits and vegetables, and dairy, are happenstance. If you see something you want in stock, buy it, because they might get something completely different the following week. Sometimes, the shipments to the restaurants and the grocery stores get mixed up, and you just make do with what’s available.
And when there’s inclement weather, cold fronts, kicked up seas, etc., the shipments are on hold. When we visited the grocery store on Green Turtle Cay the second week of January, their shelves were low, as a boat hadn’t come since before Christmas.
It may not be obvious, what with rainbows of shimmering blue in every direction, but drinkable water on the islands is a precious commodity. There’s no immediate fresh water source, like rivers or lakes, so most islands use reverse osmosis and also catch rain water in cisterns. In almost all restaurant restrooms, there are signs to use the water sparingly.
Mail is also very much weather dependent and processed on “island time,” and the post offices run on a whimsical schedule. The small office may or may not be open, and if it is, your mail will make its way down to the mail boat pickup whenever it does. Once the mail boat picks up the outgoing mail, it’s off to Marsh Harbour. But even there, it gets sorted when it gets sorted. The same goes for the reverse. Friends that we met in Man-O-War in late January were still awaiting a Christmas card that had been sent to them in early December.
A side note regarding addresses: In the out islands, a car is a rare siting. Most everyone travels by golf cart. But some also live on archipelagos where there simply aren’t roads, their dwellings accessible only by boat. Which also means that streets are absent in their addresses, and as such, their properties all have call names. “Sue Jones, Sunset Splendor, Dickie’s Cay, Abacos.” Sounds as magical as it does remote.
Each island that has residents has a bank – or, I should say, they have a building that serves as a bank. In Hope Town, for example, the bank is open only on Tuesdays, and only for four or five hours. A representative from the Royal Bank of Canada handles the needs of the islanders, but the transacting is more rudimentary. For instance, we needed to get more cash and ATMs on the island do not exist, including at the bank, even when it was open. We queued on the Tuesday we were in town for 15-20 minutes and then Aaron requested a cash advance on our credit card – the only way we could get the paper money we needed. The bank did not charge any transaction fees, other than what Visa charges us, and it was a rather easy affair.
Islands with more residents have health clinics, though these are not the emergency walk-in facilities frequented in the States. They are staffed mostly by nurses, with doctors who visit on specific days of the week to assess specific cases. Like the stores, these clinics are open Monday through Saturday, closed on Sunday, and if you visit the building as a walk-in, you may see a sign on the door that the staff has gone to do a house call and will return later. There are no emergency numbers to call for after-hours consultations.
Communication also works a bit differently in the islands. Given that the islands are all very much maritime communities, much of the correspondence between friends and businesses is done on designated channels on the VHF radio – including for those who live on land. Work also does not happen at the nail-biting, life-or-death pace that courses through our veins in the States. If you call a business to inquire about inventory, or getting work done, they may or may not call you back the same day. They may or may not respond to email. And if you have a verbal agreement for them to come out and assist, they may just get too busy that day. “It will get done.”
When we first arrived in the Abacos, I initially saw all of the negatives in this less-structured framework. What if I need groceries on Sunday, and what if they don’t have what I want? What if I can’t make it to the clinic before 5? Should I even bother to send postcards? It took me awhile to shed the heavy burden of immediate gratification in all things.
But the longer we’re here, the more I develop a calmer rhythm, and I respect, as I should have all along, that all people, including business owners, should be able to spend Sunday at church or with their families. Having certain businesses, like banks, only open one day a week has made us both more intentional about our schedule and more relaxed.
With a complete absence of convenience, I’m redefining “need.” I’m becoming more adaptable, more flexible, more resourceful.
Island time…. I think I’m just about there.