Landing in Humanity
Stranger in a Beautifully Strange Land
When I sailed away from Florida in June of 2015, I doubt any officials noticed or monitored my departure. No border guards, security forces or TSA agents appeared at Mystique's broadsides. Of course, why would they? I had not committed any infractions or crimes that I was aware of. But in our present world that doesn't usually stop authorities from appearing. Suspicions run high these days and often seem good enough justification to question one's destination and intentions. But then again I was but one person leaving on a small sailboat from a remote location. Barely a blimp on any radar screen.
So no one except some family and friends knew I was leaving. And none knew my predicament. And later, no one knew I had been delayed overnight by a shoal until I notified the US Coast Guard and BOATUS. Even two fishing boats that passed close by after I ran aground barely acknowledged my presence even though my predicament was obvious to any who cared. Oh, well, it's not that I needed to be noticed.... except, of course, if I had been in real distress.
So while leaving seems pretty mundane, arriving has all kinds of interesting possibilities. It is, after all, different or strange until it becomes familiar. At least that is what I thought before I landed ashore here in George Town, Great Exuma. This was my second visit to these islands, so I had some familiarity, but this was my first experience checking into the country in this seaside town. Last year I checked into the Bahamas when Customs and Immigration came to my boat at at Emerald Bay Marina. This time, however, I would observe this land's culture, identity, character and reality in a different, more personal way. This time would prove much more interesting.
Had I just wandered onto a set for a Seinfeld episode?
As I dinghied ashore, I knew immediately I had entered another world. A culture already moving and shaking without my presence and participation making the slightest difference. That is the way it always is. The world moves with or without us. And as I walked the dusty main one-way street towards Customs I was reminded how insignificant my existence is. I was a stranger, an outsider, a foreigner and a newcomer making my presence known. I had only to check in to be aknowledged and recognized. Or did I?
Until I asked for directions from a passing pedestrian, I could have been invisible for all I knew. No one had given me any indication they noticed me. I knew my validation wasn't at the mercy of others. Then again I didn't really need it. While I knew I truly existed, I liked being the stranger. Until the young woman told me Customs and Imigration was just around the corner, I felt I was then officially ashore. I had safely arrived in the midst of shore life. And very soon I became part of a sitcom already in progress.
The 58 hours sailing alone on my boat reassured me that I had not misplaced my passion for adventure, nature's beauty and challenges of changing circumstances. Sailing has always offered me physical and mental challenges I can count on. TIt always provides me with the freedom and solitude that I can't seem to find ashore. And as much as I loved the adrenaline rush of sailing these past few days, the shore always offers totally different kind of disconnected entertainment. The theatre of the absurd comes to mind.
Mostly observer, I still became part of the sitcom as I ran some errands on land. None of these would have happened at sea. Im'm mostly the narrator of my own comedy. It is only when I am noticed and initiate that my unreality appears ashore. Reality always feels truer afloat on a boat for me.
See what you think...
After arriving last night after my 4-day sail on Mystique from Key Biscayne to Great Exuma. I had had my first good sleep (12 hours) in three days so I actually felt wide awake like never before. So this morning I motored my inflatable dinghy across Elizabeth Strait to George Town, and there I checked into Bahamian Customs and Immigration. The experiences at both offices felt markedly different. As did my time at a BTC, a local phone company and a bar/internet cafe later that morning.
It was around 8:45 am as I was directed to the Customs building. Outside of the front door without any posted hours, I pulled the handle and noticed the door unlocked. So I walked in, asked one of the three people sitting at their individual desk if I could check in as I had arrived by boat last night. Nothing resembling a cordial welcome to the island, only a series of questions and answers and then handed 3 forms to fill out.
When I told the woman behind the counter who was helping me asked where my crew was. I told her they would be flying in next week. Nothing about my arriving on a boat alone. Guess that happens every day around here with maybe 300 cruising boats anchored between Stocking Island and George Town. I then asked if she wanted their names. "No", but she told me they would have to have round trip tickets. I said 4 of them would be flying back home on Feb 13, but one would be staying on the boat and returning to the states with me.
"Why would she need to buy a ticket if she were returning to the states by boat?", I asked.
“She would have to purchase a round trip so we know she actually left the country.” the official explained.
“She already has purchased a one-way ticket and I have 3 more people arriving later in February who will be sailing back to the states and have already purchased their one way tickets.”, I replied.
Trying to wrap my feeble brain around this logic - why anyone in their right mind would purchase a roundtrip ticket for one-way travel? How does a plane ticket accomplish anything about learning a person's whereabouts if he or she is returning by boat? If new arrivals don't show up at the airport and claim their seat, does that mean they left by boat?
Maybe all the 30 boaters I saw arrive today already have their cruising permit. And maybe they all checked in at the airport. And I'm sure most of the sailing yachts ( there are at least 400 here right now) sailed into this country and then checked in
Almost as if I had asked this question for the first time in recorded history, the woman official goes to ask her superior for clarification. He comes to the counter and tells me it is not yet 9:00 am and asks how I got in. I said the door was unlocked and there was no posted office hours so I walked in. He said he could not answer my questions until 9:00. I looked at my phone; it was now 8:58. He then went back to his office chair and never returned. Maybe I offended them by asking something no one else had ever addressed. Difficult to believe, but it seemed like absurd logic that might fit this reality.
Then the woman official 5 minutes later me said I needed evidence of where I came from. I took at my passport indicating I am an American citizen, and I again told her I left Florida alone and sailed here. She said my passport was not enough; she said I needed proof. "Do you have any receipts for fuel?" Yes, I said, back on the boat. I then looked in my wallet and showed her a receipt for $2.00 I paid for riding my bike permit when I entered the Billy Bragg Cape Florida State Park a few days earlier. She then started the paperwork to give me a Cruising Permit for the Bahamas.
I then told her I had been here last year and was familiar with the permit. She asked if I still had my receipt from paying last year's permit. I said I don't think so, but I will look for it when I get back to the boat. I asked her what relevance would last year's cruising permit be. No answer. "Just please bring it back."
When I was leaving, I noticed no computers at any of the desks and one official leafing through a stack of papers two feet high.
When I returned a couple days later with what additional older documentation and PROOF I could locate on board Mystique that I was in the states a few days previously. I could not locate last year's copy of my cruising permit. I'm pretty sure I left that document home as it had expired. The woman who met me at the counter just whispered "Just go".
I couldn't help but think...Are we all forgetting I voluntarily notified you I had arrived? You wouldn't have known / cared / realized my whereabouts by sea / by boat anyway.
Who are we kidding? You have no navy, coast guard or border agents cruising your watery borders. Do Bahamas officials think they have border guards and surveillance at their watery borders to assure anyone coming or going by boat ? Let's be honest here. The airport isn't the only method of arriving in a country. And let's be honest once again. It is obvious that Exumas Customs only functions because most boaters act from their own sense of honor. At least that was my impression. But come to think of it, it was a little odd both times I entered the Customs building I did not once see anyone resembling a boater. In fact, except for four rather bored-looking uniformed Exumians sitting at their desks not one other person entered the building during my almost hour "checkin in". Has everyone else checked in or am I the only one duped into believing in this charade?
Had I entered THE TWILIGHT ZONE?
Customs is interested in the place where you are residing while in their country. For that they charge you and your boat $300 for the first 3 people who are on th boat. I am not sure what happens if you have more than 3. They did not explain that. But I did leave there with my permit - good for a year if I stay in the country, but if I leave within 90 days and return I have to pay another $300. ???? Why is it good for a year then? It's all about leaving and reentering! But how do they know if I leave if I am on a boat? Maybe I should purchase another a roundtrip air ticket!
When I walked a few hundred yards up main street to Immigration, I discovered Immigration is mostly interested in people’s plans and travel. They don’t charge you anything or take any of your money. Maybe they don't think they are that important. And I discovered from the nicest attendent, they aren't going to charge me for leaving the country. BTW, Turk and Caicos taxed us last year with a departure tax. They actually tax you coming and going. Its like paying for a ticket to see the exhibit and then paying to exit the theatre. Is that absurd or what? Where is the public outrage? There is none because it only affects the visitors and they aren't staying around long enough to express outrage. And besides they want to have fun, not complain or express outrage. Well, most tourists. I better be quiet or it will become someone's bright idea here.
After my pleasant exchange with the woman at Immigration, just don't the hallway, I encountered an American woman who was securing the leashes of her two dogs to a railing- and I asked was one of them a Corgi. She replied it was a hybrid between a border collie and a Corgi?” I replied. “Do you get good mileage?” She said chuckling, “Yes, she is like a canine Prius.”.
Maybe I was in an OZ.
A few steps away I walked into BTC (Bahamas Telephone Company) and asked the service agent for assistance purchasing an inexpensive phone so I could notify people back home that I have indeed arrived in the Exumas. Before I left the states I had called SPRINT and arranged to have my phone converted to have international service from the Bahamas. They told me the rates and said all I had to do was restart my phone once I had arrived back in the Bahamas. Sprint informed that I could without inserting any SIM card, I would be able to make calls once I was ashore. Well, I quickly discovered that Sprint has no service in the Exumas. The walk down to BTC was have been more different than Customs. Like I stepped into OZ; the employees couldn't have been more friendly and helpful. Within moments I explained my needs and I had a phone that fit my bill and budget and I was calling home to the joy to confirm I had survived. Ah, more evidence I still exist. BTW, BTC was even nice enough to tell me that incoming calls are FREE. (but that was misleading as I discovered later...free for me, but not for the caller!)
I was indeed in the Land of OZ.
A few minutes later I arrived at Eddie's Edgewater, an Internet cafe just down the street. Inside was a typical bar with two large glass doored soda typical for any convenience store in the states. A forlorn soul sat on the end stool munching conch fritters while above him at almost deafening volume played some b-rated movie about a psychopathic killer praying on a woman and her son. The only other human present stood behind the cash register. I asked her if I needed a password for the free wifi, and she responded with “open”. I wasn't sure at first what "open" meant, whether the bar was open? open my mouth? I had left a door open? open to a open relationship? Ah, open wireless; quick on the draw, I eventually figured it out.
In 15 minutes I ordered some of those conch fitters with a pineapple concentrate beverage to wash down the nutritious lunch. The same waitress asked me if I wanted a plate. I said I did. 15 minutes later she returned. I was relieved I wasn’t eating conch out of its shell.
Within the next half hour the place filled with many locals and boaters ordering lunches while using the free Internet service. I was attempting to answer emails and contact people to give them an update on my whereabouts and some details about the last 4 days. It was indeed challenging with another movie dominating the noise level. Though it may not seem believable I was barely paying attention though it was difficult to avoid the plot - scintillating story focused on a young man recently moved into a new community when all hell breaks loose when his secret background gets revealed to the townspeople. I somehow imagined my dark and shadowy past catching up to me causing an island ruckus and revolt.
But what drew my attention was a Jewish woman wearing sunglasses and dressed for a satyr, could have been Jerry Seinfeld's mother, accompanied by her black companion, speaking as if everyone was hard of hearing. Maybe it was the TV! She made it perfectly clear to all those who could hear her above the blaring psychodrama she was so aghast that a BLT could cost $12. Then she became so emphatically incensed and insistent about the waitress making sure her order did not include any fries. Then, as if this were her last ordered meal or as if she were ordering from high-falluting, hoity-toity East-side restaurant, she insisted that her order have the mayo on the side, not touching the toasted white bread....and with no catchup or mustard. Then as if that wasn't clear enough, she then made sure her order was correct and that it was TO GO. This woman, out of central casting, had the waitress repeat the order to her. Not only did I think I had been somehow been transported to a Syossett, NY bistro, but I all of a sudden started feeling sorry for the waitress who still was the only employee now servicing a growing onslaught of hungry humanity. To her credit, she handled the customer without any attitude or reaction. I had entered a Seinfeld-like episode once again.
It felt as if I were living various realities.
Usually we humans make our impression on the world by our involvement. Our identity is really often associated with our doings, comings and goings.
And life often seems most noticeable and memorable when leaving and arriving. It can be viewed as a transitory time between dimensions, differences, dividing lines into another realm. Only ends and beginnings to old and new...or nothing.
One thing is certain about departing and leaving land, nothing is strange any more.
Strange is the new norm. It would be really strange if humanity became normal. It would leave us with limited entertainment.
But I'll still take a small sampling of land, thank you.