Paradise Found

I take it back. Everything—well, almost everything—I said about cruising in the Bahamas in my last blog post goes out the window. Yes, it’s still tough sailing. Yes, the wind keeps coming from the wrong direction, too strong, or not at all. Yes, we have had a few more, thankfully minor, equipment mishaps, and we continue to make clumsy, rookie mistakes. But forget all that.

Look where we are! Just look at this! I keep trying to take photos from different angles, but not one of them begins to do it justice.

This is Warderick Wells in Exuma Land and Sea Park, 176 square miles of spectacular water, coral reefs, soft sand beaches and rugged cays. Established in 1958, the park is completely protected—no fishing, no collecting, take only photos, leave only footprints. Aside from the park headquarters, dinghy dock and mooring balls, boats are on their own. There are no public restrooms or showers, no grocery store, no restaurant or bar, no fresh water or fuel, no laundry, no dumping of trash.

It must also be said that the interior of the island, which you can traverse on a number of hiking paths, presents quite a different aspect. Sand, wind, salt water and jagged limestone rock are a harsh environment in which to survive. The black mangroves and other plants are stunted, and we have spotted only a few small lizards and birds as wildlife. There is also a population of nocturnal rodents called hutias that eat the plants and kill them off.

To complete the picture, the park warden and the three Bahamian military police stationed here must contend with drug smuggling, poaching and human trafficking; the warden mentioned Haiti in particular. Given their isolated location and the sparse population on most of the islands, the Bahamas are an ideal hideaway/stopover for any sort of illegal trade between South America, the Caribbean and the US. It’s not what you want to think about when gazing at this incredible panorama of sea and sky, but it shouldn’t be glossed over either.

Meanwhile, with another frontal system approaching, we are staying put and enjoying paradise. The cost to moor here is $20/night, and you can make arrangements to stay for even less if you volunteer your services at the park office. Since one of our goals on the voyage is to seek out volunteer opportunities wherever we go, we promptly spoke up.

So far we have:

Cleared all or part of three trails. Armed with clippers and a machete, we hacked and thwacked our way through the scrub, being careful to avoid the poisonwood trees that can give you a nasty itch. One path led past the stone ruins of an old plantation to a stone wall that crosses the island. It’s hard to imagine what was grown here. One of the little coves below is rather disturbingly named “Slave Dip.”

Cleaned two small beaches of trash. The good news is that there was very little of it, and all of it seems to have washed ashore by accident rather than being deliberately dumped.

Filled 40 bags with ice from the ice making machine. These sell in the park store for $7.

Roller painted the lower half of a two-story building with diesel fuel. New wood siding had just been put up and the diesel helps preserve the wood before the paint goes on.

Dismantled the remnants of an old dock/deck. The bolts were salvageable, and everything gets saved here and reused or repurposed.

Sanded a picnic table, four deck chairs and two badly weathered chaise lounges. The chaise lounges may have come from the Queen Elizabeth I. Seriously. Both had little metal plates attached that read “Queen Elizabeth” and “1st Class Only.” The older model of the two had a third plate that was unreadable but may have been a manufacturer’s label. Eric felt the metal fittings, which could be either bronze or brass, were very well crafted and unique. If they did indeed come from the QEI, who knows who sat in them? King George VI and Queen Elizabeth? Princess Elizabeth or Margaret? An old-time movie star? How did they end up here? They could be worth a fortune on “Antiques Roadshow”! Instead, our next assignment is to give them a fresh coat of polyurethane.

And this, to me, is paradise. Eric and I love to travel, to roam and explore. But we don’t want to just port hop to beautiful places. Wherever we go, we want to learn and interact—to meet the people, experience the culture, absorb the history and ecology. Most important, we want to contribute something to the places we visit, to make a difference, however small. And because our previous stays have been too short and too consumed with planning, provisioning and repairs to look beyond ourselves, that element has been missing from our voyage so far.

Now it feels like the voyage is starting to come together. I feel satisfied. I feel whole. I am no saint. I need this. I volunteer because it makes me happy. I am probably one of the most selfish people I know. Ironically, after all my complaints about the weather, we have bad weather to thank for forcing us to stop longer here.

As we continue our voyage, we’ll seek out more volunteer assignments. Not every stop will be as beautiful as this, but that won’t matter. Paradise is when you put your heart into something you care about, whatever it may be, wherever you are.