Memories from one of the Ten Most Ethical Destinations
I came of age in a two week ceremony of illicit rum, charismatic tarantulas, and a desperate wispy crush on a lithe girl named Molly. She broke my heart with innocence, but still we drifted over coral reefs, hand in hand, shy smiles letting water into our snorkeling masks.
One of The World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations for 2014 is the Bahamas, and I missed most of what they said about it (60% of the country’s GDP comes from tourism), lost in a Caribbean drift of recollection.
I owe eternal thanks to my high school English teacher and a science teacher I never had, but who somehow knew of me anyway, for nominating me for the Student Challenge Award, in cooperation with Earthwatch, an organization that connects volunteers with scientific researchers around the world.
In my application essay I mentioned my obsession with sharks, and made some comment about being willing to go to Hawaii. The example expeditions were in Oregon, Nevada, and Vallejo, swell places to be sure, but I thought I was being a tad roguish by mentioning somewhere as tropically idyllic as Hawaii. Turns out I wasn’t aspiring high enough.
They sent me on an all-expenses-paid two week research trip to an untouristed town in the Bahamas, where we tested samples of sea sponges for antiviral and antibacterial properties (did you know sea sponges basically don’t get sick?), sampled and measured the chemical properties of water taken from various depths of the country’s picturesque blue holes (cenotes), and accompanied a botany class from George Mason University on their field walks through the jungle. I remember their professor was infatuated with orchids, and reminded me of a charismatic Hemingway.
We tagged butterflies for population estimates, gathered garbage off a remote beach to help study ocean currents, and heard some living history from a village witch doctor with projectile teeth no one noticed, since we were busy not looking at the two gigantic goiters throbbing and wobbling on her neck.
The woman, speaking Caribbean English that had to be translated by our program director, had prescribed herself a local herb as an antidote to a curse placed on her by a jealous rival. It worked against the curse, but also blocked her iodine absorption, so now she carried two ripe flesh mangoes below her jaw.
The curses of obeah, a Caribbean variant of voodoo, are not to be trifled with. She also told us about a local millionaire, who, flush with the invincibility of the hyper-wealthy in a developing nation, raped a local girl then went on vacation. Little did he know that this girl’s mother was an obeah priestess, and as he was disembarking from his private plane on the runway in Miami, a powerful wind of obeah justice blew him off the steps and into the propeller.
We stopped staring at her goiters and listened respectfully after that. (And drove home past his former mansion, reclaimed by the jungle, but which had stood unlooted for years, the expensive possessions within tainted by the curse, until a hurricane was deemed to have cleansed it.)
That trip was my first non-family-vacation overseas experience, and exposed me to many of the truths that have delighted and sustained me since then. The incomparable succulence of local food eaten in situ after a long hot day of whatevering. The powerful appeal of foreign cultures, languages, and customs. And the brazen hospitality of people who have so little, by western standards of wealth, but who smile wider, brighter, and more frequently than any of us in the “First” World.
Poor arrogant First Worlders. First to what, exactly? First in line to work long hours to buy stuff we don’t need? Come to de islan, dey goin show you what is impotant.
My experience on the incomparable isle of Andros, in a town so small they hadn’t decided whether it was spelled Stanyard Creek or Staniard, was an intense one, which makes it all the more bizarre that the seed of wanderlust it sowed was dormant for nearly ten years. Instead I worked long hours…to buy stuff I didn’t need. Hell, I didn’t even do that, I worked long hours to foster a bank account I didn’t use.
How tragically responsible of me.
But now, with a few more stamps in my passport, I can sit back and remember that trip, blow a kiss to Molly, taste the coconut rice and freshly caught fish, and laugh at the typically ridiculous kid I was when I bought one of those colorful woven Jamaican/rasta/Bob Marley beanies and wore it home like it was the new me. (I still have it, in the suitcase where I store my extra stuff when I’m abroad. I’ve never worn it since but can’t throw it away. Anybody want it?)
I remember heat lightning in the distance at night, land rover rides through the jungle when the trees sprang up again behind us when we finished running them over, and the endless rubber chewiness of conch fritters, served in the house of a town leader, because we needed a third place to eat in our rotation, and the town only had two restaurants.
Wendy, one of the locals who helped us out, made me the cake for my eighteenth birthday. I don’t remember what I wished for as I blew those candles out, but in that place, with those people, there really wasn’t a need to ask for more.