Off the Map in the Bahamas

I prefer the places at the edge of the map, the small towns and sparse coastlines where you're surprised to find pieces of everyday life. A grocery store becomes a novelty; every home is a window into a recognizable but entirely foreign version of existence. And the secret is, you don’t need a transcontinental flight or a week-long overland trip to find yourself out on the fringes. Take, for example, the islands of the Bahamas. Sitting atop the Caribbean like a bland haircut, the eyes of the traveler often wander elsewhere. And for those of us who do pay attention to this chain of islands, it's often for rather inauspicious reasons: Spring Break, resorts, and cruise ships. But in the overlooked corners of the map there are always forgotten towns, hard-to-reach spots, and untold stories. How do you find them? Start by taking a closer look at the map, and you’ll find places like Hope Town.

Start by getting yourself to Florida. Checked bags? That’s one demerit point. If you can’t wear it on your back, your bag is going to be cumbersome. If it doesn't slow you down when you have to change terminals in Florida, it will be an inconvenience when you need to stow it on the tiny plane that will take you to the Bahamas. And if for some reason that all goes smoothly, heave your clunky bag into the rundown cab at the airport and lug it onto the dock to wait for your ferry to Hope Town. And if you have navigated the path of least resistance and find yourself happily on the ferry with a bag full of everything you might need, get ready to carry it from the ferry dock to your accommodations. That walk can be a mile or two unless you hitch a ride along the way.

Hope Town is one of the bigger settlements in the Abacos, the chain of islands that make up the northernmost portion of the Bahamas. Still, it’s small. As you walk off the ferry dock in town, you’ll notice the roads are driven mostly by golf carts. And keep an eye out, because while they don’t go fast they do travel on the left side of the road. Occasionally the locals will drive by in a Nissan that looks entirely out of place on potholed roads lined with palm trees, but more frequently they’ll whiz by you in a beat up pickup, headed to work. Make sure to wave hello to everyone you pass. 

The grocery stores are small, in order to keep them cool in the tropical sun. Scattered around the island, each serves a different section of the population. Their plywood shelves hold the basics, like beans and rice and root vegetables, milk and eggs and bread, as well as a few luxuries. Time your visits just after the grocery boat arrives each week, and you could be lucky enough to find cauliflower, almond milk, and veggie burgers. Regardless of what you buy, expect to pay more than you’re expecting. The prices are influenced by weight since it all comes to the island on a weekly grocery boat. So, if you’re looking to keep to your budget in Hope Town, skip the milk and cereal for breakfast and opt for oatmeal. 

The topic of cash is always on the minds of people venturing out beyond the branches of recognizable banks. Will I have enough cash? Where can I use an ATM? Do they take American Express? Here, you’re in luck because Hope Town does have an ATM. You can use it, along with everyone else, from 10 o’clock in the morning until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, every Tuesday. That’s it. So if you want to pay in cash, bring it with you. American dollars are as welcome as their Bahamian counterparts, and there is no exchange rate to worry about. But spend all your Bahamian cash before you leave because it’s not exchangeable back in the States. If all that sounds confusing, just bring your credit card. The only place that doesn’t accept cards is Munchies, a little ice cream shop in town, so bring enough cash for a coconut cone and a Visa (no American Express) and you’ll be fine.

It’s these types of amenities that make Hope Town an easy place for recurring visitors to watch grow up. While younger travelers extol the lack of push notifications and marvel at weekly mail deliveries, older visitors share stories of decades past when they made restaurant reservations, and placed their orders, by VFH radio. And it all had to be done before noon so that the meat could be thawed in time. Each visit presents a new development: roads get repaved, an ice cream shop gets erected, a new grocery store opens up. And in the background, a new home is always being built for someone, as always, eager to hide away in this island paradise.

And it does have elements of paradise. Palm trees line white sand beaches and the island enjoys an almost perpetual summer. The submarine life is tremendous, as Hope Town sits mere miles from the continental shelf and along a major chain of coral reefs, with manta rays and amber jacks bigger than the people looking at them. The microclimate atop the reef is pulsating with clown fish and blue tangs that dart behind the fan coral as you float by, only to continue their collective fluttering once the coast is clear. But there is danger in the water as well, and anyone too focused on the beauty may find themselves in an unsavory situation. The coral is alive, and brushing up against it will cut you badly. Moray eels lurk in the reef, while barracuda are common watchdogs that come to inspect any visitors. Sharks are also prevalent here, so much so that the locals have placed shark traps outside the harbor to keep them at bay. Out on the reef, though, you’re in open ocean and while trouble is rare, the potential for it is constant.

Describing any place simply as a paradise is short-changing it, and causes you to overlook that place’s particular opportunities for calamity, which always seem to go hand in hand with paradise. Paradise is a quality of place, rather than a place itself. Out on the reef, you’re a few hundred yards from the nearest island, which is a few miles from the nearest doctor, which is a plane ride from the nearest hospital back in Florida. While this can be worrying, it's also incredibly invigorating. Decisions as simple as whether or not to jump in the water have a new gravitas. You can't look up the frequency of shark sightings on the reef. There is no life guard. You can't call 911. I have never come face to face with a shark while swimming in the Bahamas, but every time I jump in the water I have to be ready for it. I don't go looking for calamity, but I love avoiding it.

The edges of the map feel sparse. Beyond the lack of territory or resources, of amenities or people, the most poignant absence is the lack of safeguards. That's what keeps drawing me out to the periphery. On the fringes, everything feels more important because there's less of everything, and everything that’s left feels utterly immediate. It's just you, the sun on your neck, the few clothes in your bag, the cash in your pocket, the food on your plate, and maybe the shark around the bend in the reef.


A version of this piece was published on The Momentist, which you can read here.