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Island Time -

January 9, 2003

David contemplates cultural differences in how activity is scheduled

A few days ago we were in Little Farmers Cay in the southern Bahamas. Little Farmers boasts a population of 55 people, about the same number of chickens, some rather noisy dogs, and a bunch of goats. A walking tour of the settlement takes maybe five minutes max. We were last there almost three years ago during the island's annual February regatta, and the place was packed with visitors from Nassau and the neighbouring islands. No one was in sight when we visited this time. It was drizzling rain and the whole town seemed deserted, except for the chickens, goats and barking dogs. Although it was only mid-afternoon, the two small shops on the main road (actually, the only road), had shuttered windows and bolted doors.

Normally, the happening place in town is the Ocean Cabin bar and restaurant, perched on top of the hill overlooking the shallow inner harbour. We climbed the curved path to the Ocean Cabin and discovered it, too, appeared closed. This is what was written on the sign by the front door:


Most days about 9 or 10.
Occasionally as early as 7,
but some days as late as 12 or 1

We close about 5 or 6,
or maybe about 4 or 5

Some days or afternoons we aren't
here at all, and lately we've
been here about all the time,
except when we're someplace else...
But we might be here then too.

Encouraged by the last line on the sign, we walked around the building and found an open side door. A beaming woman behind a counter motioned us in. We explained we were hoping to buy a loaf of bread, but couldn't find anyplace that was open. She suggested we could probably find Corenne at her home next to her store, and she would open it up for us. "But she doesn't have any bread. I'm baking some now if you'd like to come back in an hour."

We looked at the darkening clouds overhead. "How about tomorrow?" Eileen asked. "Are you open tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow? Sure, we're open tomorrow, of course," she chuckled.

Not for a lack of trying, we left Little Farmers a couple of days later without any fresh bread (but David managed to score a box of corn flakes when he noticed the owners of one of the "closed" stores slip in through a back door). No big deal, if we got desperate enough, we could always bake some ourselves. As they say in the islands, "Relax, mon, why you in a hurry?"

Many North Americans, especially city folk, would be frustrated by the lack of precision in how things are scheduled down here. It's not a place for people who rely on quartz crystal watches and palm pilots to organize their lives. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that "island time" means no concern for when an activity or event might occur. There's logic to the pace and rhythm of life here, but it's not necessarily related to Universal Co-ordinated Time or the Gregorian calendar. The movements of the sun and moon, and their effect on daylight, temperature, tides and currents are much more important.

Work tends to start early, by North American standards. We'll hear the outboard engines of local fishing boats pass by when it's still dark outside. Activity languishes at midday and picks up again in the cooler evening hours (you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen...). The mail boat arrives at high tide, when it can clear the banks. Local boats pass through the cuts when the current is flooding and not opposed to the prevailing winds. If the winds are blowing too hard, or the swell has grown too high due to distant storms, they stay in port. We've learned to respect this approach to timing - ignoring natural forces for the dictates of an artificially contrived schedule can have serious consequences.

Last year, friends of ours were hurrying down the Exuma island chain to arrive at George Town in time to meet their son and brand-new granddaughter. They exited one of the cuts on an ebbing tide against strong northeasterlies. Their family's flight arrived on time; they almost didn't arrive at all. But they were lucky, their impatience only cost them their canvas dodger and bimini (newly installed), swept overboard by a wall of water.

On Monday afternoon, when we approached Conch Cay cut - the entrance to George Town's Elizabeth Harbour - we were hit by a sudden rain squall. We could hardly see Little Gidding's bow in the downpour, much less the two parallel reefs that guard the harbour entrance. Our GPS urged us forward with a series of precisely demarcated waypoints. We resisted its siren call and hove to until the squall passed. We know of too many cruisers who didn't use their eyes through the cut and lost their boats as a result. We dropped the anchor in front of town later than we had initially planned, but with no regrets. The sun was shining, we were safe, and the mail boat with fresh fruit and vegetables wasn't due until Tuesday. What's the hurry, mon?

David & Eileen