West Indies

Mangroves in the Abacos are under threat by developments like Bakers Bay and Treasure Sands.

Young red mangroves, Abaco, Bahamas

Plastic Pirateships:
Disney's Abandoned Cruise Resort

Stranded on the north end of Great Guana, I see the side of Disney's abandoned cruise-ship stop I was never meant to see.

The Big Red Boat screeched and hawed, and spat a cloud of smoke, and I could see people leaning over the guard rails. A hat flew into the water. The Cruise Liner is an awful polluter: In the deep sea, it shits the poisonous excrement of potato-chip-eaters and Mountain Dew drinkers, and dumps its wastes into the water streams that follow the same route as the plankton, the jellyfish, and the birds on their way to the shallows of places like the barrier reef between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, where Jane and I are now.

Premiere Cruiselines, under contract with Disney, originally quarantined the most beautiful side of Guana Cay, and set loose a carnival of tractors to tear apart its pines and replace them with expensive palm trees from the Middle East and the Pacific. Barges came in and began one of the largest cruiseline dredging projects in history; removing sand from the ocean floor and silting the tidal highways between the cays to make way for the Big Red Boat cruiseliner.

St. Lucia Pitons

A Green Turtle in the Guana Cay coral reef.

The dredging failed, because tidal highways between the Atlantic and Caribbean kept filling up the dredged depths. This silt movement damaged or destroyed tracts of the barrier reef between the oceans in one of the last relatively untouched reef systems - and the third largest barrier reef - in the world. Nobody took notice. This was on top of a trend at the time of 'bleach' fishing, where you dump bleach canisters into a reef system to instantly kill, and therefore catch, tomorrow's market fish or lobster.

Caterpillars and garbage trucks and men with blow-torches turned a pine-forest into 'Treasure Island.' Employees were asked not to refer to the island by its native name, 'Guana Cay', and to act the part of the pirate-ship laden paradise that had been built of plastic and spare parts from California and Mexico. Disney's contracted cruiseline bought dolphins, brutalized them into submission, and built a small net for them that jutted into the silty shallows of the ocean. Some claimed the dolphins were well treated, but anybody who saw their plight after the Big Red Boat left knew that lines had been crossed and budgets cut. The Abaco native who cared for the dolphins shook his head when I asked about them. He squinted in the sun and told me not to look at them.

The Big Red Boat came to Guana Cay for a few years, but the dredged passage silted up; and so the dredging had failed, and Disney bought a nearby island and scrapped paradise for a place they called Castaway Cay. The dolphins stayed, a man was hired to feed them. Beaten by the sun, bruised, first spit on by small kids with bags of Cheetos that would end up in the sea and float to Cuba, then submitted to quarantined loneliness in the baking sun of shallow, dredge-silt water. Some lived, and were eventually shipped off to Nassau. But nobody noticed, because the plastic and spare parts of Treasure Island, abandoned, had already begun to break apart, and collapse as the native Caribbean pines and Australian casurianas overtook the Middle Eastern palms.

The Bahama Islands is associated with a kind of post-slave culture, which is true, in part. But the Bahamas is settled by blacks, and loyalists - those American Brits who sided with the Empire and then fled, and a fair number of Haitians, and other assorted Caribbean Latinos. The shame in all this is, of course, that there once existed another people. Enslaved, driven to extinction, the Lucayans were a brown race whose traditions and peculiarities are all but lost to history. At one time, they were Mongols, moving north through China, through Russia, and into Alaska. They settled in the Tundra and disbanded for New Mexico. They passed through the Isthmus, into South America, settled the Amazon Basin, and then rowed up the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. They populated islands like Saint Lucia and Martinique until Carib Indians chased them north, to the much less hospitable Bahamas.

No other race, imagine an inception in the Rift Valley of Africa, to Mongolia, to Alaska, to the Amazon, to the Bahamas, in the history of humanity, had traveled so far.

This is the puzzle of the West Indies, because its culture is lost. What remains are people who never intended to be there. The blacks had been forced, or were freemen who pondered their political fate, the loyalists pushed out of America, the Haitians were escapees. The Lucayans themselves never wanted to be there. They were pushed into the northern Caribbean islands because of the ferocity of the Caribs, who wanted to eat them. The Spanish, upon asking them about scars on their bodies, received a reply that indicated they had been constantly attacked by the Caribs.

The Spanish, of course, decided to enslave the Lucayans and sell them. But this practice didn't last long. The Lucayans, so adverse to enslavement, just died, or committed suicide, or fell prey to European diseases. Always eating light; a mix of cassava and fish, the foodless holds of the ships to Florida were enough to kill them and their already empty stomachs. One Spaniard noted that you could find your way from the Bahamas to Florida by the multitude of jettisoned Lucayan bodies floating in the sea. It was said that Lucayans, chained by their neck in a long column, would be decapitated when they began to tire, leaving a lifeless head attached to a column of people already committed to their own deaths.

The extinction of the race was quick. There is no Lucayan blood in any living human. Just a small footnote in the sorry-excuse-for-a-conquistador Spanish massacre of the entire Caribbean, which was said to have eliminated between 500,000 to 13 million people.

This is an awful shame, considering the Bahamas is the center of the Earth. I have heard many places named the center of the Earth. New York, London, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo. But only the Bahamas is the actual geological center. This is precisely where Pangaea - the original sole super-continent, broke apart into the seven continents. The Bahamas is the unlikely beginning of land.

Tourists in Bahamian hotspots - you know, Nassau, Freeport - seem to come back with the same story; 'the service is horrible, Bahamians are assholes, everything was forced on us.' I cringe at this, since I spent two years of my life here, and consider Bahamians like anybody else, anywhere in the world. Tourist centers, in the Bahamas, in Mexico, wherever, are all the same. Bad service, poor manners, all that, is hardly a reflection on the people. It is a reflection on the tourists themselves. Through their rudeness, their willingness to over-tip, or become enamored with something commercial and unrepresentative, bring a place starving for business to a worse fate - a scavenger's fate.

But tourism doesn't need to be a bad thing. That poor American - two weeks of vacation and no obligation to the in-laws in Delaware - needs a place to relax, to kick back. He's worked his whole year for something like Nassau or Freeport. A clean beach, somebody to bring his wife a drink.

St. Lucia Pitons

Laughing Gulls in flight in the Abaco Islands.

Travel writers like to distinguish themselves from tourists. They call themselves travelers, and insist they be classified in a higher light than Mr. Jones and his sun-hat. They balk at the meaninglessness of a tourist's relaxation. They laugh at the alcoholic concoctions that sell for ten dollars a piece. They insist that the traveler respects a culture, but that the tourist degrades it, makes it a pale and colorful imitation of their wealthier suburb.

But this is as nonsense as the tourist who brings down a Nassau or Freeport into a pale imitation of itself. Being a tourist does not make you wrong. It makes you in need of a bit of relaxation, end of story. There are rules which tourists should follow; among them respect, reservation, a good ear, a head enough to obey the ecological rules for a fragile place. These are the rules which preserve a place's cultural and ecological dignity - not the rules of Mr. Travel Writer, and his ego.

Jane and I are here for just that sort of thing. An empty place without other people, without anything much but ourselves. That is what makes the out-island Bahamas weird. In all of its brutal history, we can forget all that and enjoy a piney marsh of a place for what it is today - a blank slate with a lean-to infrastructure. There is nothing to do here; one over-priced restaurant, no gambling, no night-life, no gatherings, no parties. Just random people, local and not. But that brutal history - a history which Abaco fanatics easily forget - is essential to its future. Without precedent, how easy would it be to turn your head - like so many locals did when the dredging operation came to town.

Jane settles the wheel of the boat, throttle and trim, until the wake is cut tight, and the unreal aqua underneath is a blur; the black spots - sea turtles, mackeral, barracuda, melt into the speed. We are cruising to Guana Cay, several miles from the Abaco mainland.

St. Lucia Pitons

Threatened beauty in the Abaco Islands.

Bakers Bay, once the dredging grounds of the Big Red Boat, now looks somewhat like it once did. The Middle-Eastern palms are almost all gone. Those that remain are being choked, like the steel girders of Pirate Castle, which has almost fallen.

Around the north end of Guana, which faces its own barrier reef against the Atlantic, we motor hesitantly around the ravaged reef-heads and anchor in the sand. Anchoring means a mask, snorkel and thirty pounds of weight, which pulls you thirty feet down, to the sandy-edge of the reef-head. Jane is about to see the majesty of God; the bounty of balloonfish and pipefish and parrotfish, corals, sea fans and rays. I am about to see the majesty of a reef a few years removed from a dredging operation gone bad. Many of the corals are still dead - it will take a hundred more without Disney to get things back in line. But like proper justice, where the Big Red Boat failed, the reef has begun to flirt with its own resurrection. This is just a piece of the worldwide puzzle - a quarter of the world's reefs have already been destroyed by similar carelessness.

We had known each other our entire adult lives. We wrote letters - but friend's letters - just two lost people in different ends of America, with some sort of connection that never made sense. I first noticed her in German class twelve years ago. I was fascinated by her, and was surprised to find all those years later at a noisy dinner in Sacramento, and despite a dozen attempts from friends and mothers to get us on a date, that Jane was made for me. Or I was made for her.

Everybody has that one day in their life that symbolizes everything - your past and your future; your greatest accomplishment. For other people, it is not necessarily a day like this, in the drench-humid air of Abaco. That morning with the sun beating down, I asked Jane to spend the rest of her life with me.