In 1986 I was a petulant teenager with a pseudo mullet living in Florida when I received the opportunity of a lifetime, a trip to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas. I’d like to say that I was asked to be included in a student exchange program that catered exclusively to exceptional students who desired to study in close proximity to paradise. I’d also like to say I paid for the trip with leftover prize money from getting a conga line of Capuchin Monkeys to dance out of my ass on The Gong Show. I’d like to say these things simply because the truth is much more bland. Over the course of the previous year I befriended a kid my age from Spanish Wells who was staying in Florida and his parents didn’t want him to fly back alone, so I got to tag along for free. I packed a bag, pegged my pants, slipped on my Oakley Frogskins and headed off to the Caribbean.
Our journey began with a commercial flight into Nassau. From there we boarded a dented, primer speckled 4 seater Cessna and flew north towards Spanish Wells. The old plane cut through the air with the stability of a canoe in rough seas. It was like standing on a water bed while riding in an elevator – drunk. The more the plane pitched and fell in random directions, the more my fingernails dug into the back seat. Adding to my anxiety was the broken latch on one rear window that banged open and closed in a staccato rhythm. Using the size of the boats on the ocean below us as a gauge, I guessed we were flying at an altitude around 5000 feet. Judging by his blood red eyes resting at half mast, I guessed our pilot was even higher. He had the same dazed, vacant smile I’d seen on phenobarbital users and Vogue cover models. Mercifully, the flight was short and we soon touched down on a dirt runway – instantly blowing a tire and skidding to an abrupt stop. The pilot seemed unaffected by this. I crawled out of the plane and spent the next few minutes caressing the ground.
From this point we took a quick boat ride to the island of Spanish Wells. I wondered absently why the ‘airport’ was on a neighboring island. If I hadn’t had my eyes closed during the approach while I muttered the Lord’s Prayer over and over, I would have seen that Spanish Wells was too small to accommodate both houses and a runway.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of this place. Tropical paradise seems rather banal and exotic Caribbean Utopia sounds cheap. I will say that I’ve never seen water that clear, not even in a country club swimming pool. (Note to self: don’t pee while swimming) The deep green foliage of the island sat in stark contrast to the bleached white sand which supported it. The ocean that surrounded it was positively neon. It was one of the most bold and luminous colors I’d ever seen in my life – and this was the mid ’80s.
As we maneuvered our way into the marina the first thing that struck me was the number of fishing boats anchored there. It reminded me of a wharf in New England, simultaneously blue collar and beautiful. Pulling up to the dock I noticed a car and was quickly informed it was the car, as in the only car on the island. I asked how people got around the island. As if on cue, a motorcycle pulled up to the dock. It was a street bike that had two milk crates strapped to the back with a bungee cords. Glancing around the marina’s lot I spotted other motorcycles, some scooters, and a few golf carts.
Hopping off the boat I was ushered to one of the golf carts and immediately given a quick tour of the island. Less than two miles long and half a mile wide, it didn’t take long. The first thing I noticed was that the residences looked similar to a middle class Florida neighborhood. Quaint bungalows and modest ranch houses. Everything clean, kempt and sun scrubbed. The second thing I noticed was the people of the island all looked the same.
Strictly caucasian, they had blue eyes, blond hair bleached almost white from the sun, and the kind of deep tan normally reserved for Thanksgiving turkeys. They looked like a tribe of Aryans slathered with Bain de Soleil mega tan. After learning most of the population where descendents of Great Britain and had been here for generations, I must admit I did wonder if some the islander’s family trees where a bit, uh…linear.
Finishing the tour at my friend’s house, I was given a welcome present that rendered me speechless – a mid 70’s Yamaha DT175. No one bothered with trivial details, like providing me with a helmet or asking if I even knew how to ride a motorcycle. I was so appreciative of this kind gesture I found it impossible to admit that in fact, I didn’t know how to ride. The two experiences I’d had on a motorcycle had been as a little kid and rather brief.
The first was when I crashed a kids bike in his garage while I merely sat on it with the engine running. The second consisted of me riding on the back of a moped up and down the street with my older sisters boyfriend. Luckily nobody in the welcome committee suggested I hop on and go for a spin. After everyone left and I had settled in, I confessed all this to my host. He was nonchalant when I voiced concerns about not knowing how to ride and completely apathetic about the possibility of me breaking the bike. “Don’t worry…” He assured me. “It’s my cousin’s bike.”
The next morning I was given a riding lesson that lasted all of 2 minutes. I was shown how to start the bike, its major components, how they worked, and wished good luck. After careful consideration it seemed logical to me that the best place to learn how to ride would be on the soft sand of the beach. This would provide a gentle landing area should I fall. So I fired up the bike and headed off to the beach only a few hundred yards away. My progress in getting there came in six inch increments. Slowly turn the throttle, gently ease out the clutch and….stall the bike. Restart, repeat. After close to an hour of this I finally made it to the beach, tired but satisfied that I had made it to what would be my training ground. As it turns out, soft sand is a terrible place to learn how to ride a motorcycle. After struggling to get into the sand, then to get out of it, I began my arduous journey back completely exhausted and totally deflated.
The next day began with more of the same. Just as I was about to park the thing in disgust something miraculous happened – I suddenly got it. I was riding a motorcycle! I celebrated my victory by taking some parade laps around the block. Filled with confidence I shifted into second and began to explore the island.
Puttering around I was surprised not so much by what I saw, but what I didn’t see. No condos or big hotels. No tourists or gift shops. No hospital or medical clinic, no police station or jail. A general store (the only store) the size of a food mart. One restaurant. A one room school house without a sports field or playground. No garages, no driveways, no stop signs (or signs of any kind). No signs of commercialism or capitalism. Then came the big one, a subtlety that took me all day to notice. There were no locks on any doors, anywhere.
It didn’t take a grad student in Anthropology to understand this was a one off culture from my own. Over the course of the next few days I learned that just beneath the surface of this tropical suburbia, Spanish Wells was in fact a fishing village. Family owned commercial fishing boats were the life blood of this island. Most of the boys on the island dropped out of school in the 6th grade to work on the family boats, skin diving for Spiny Lobster. These kids were an anomaly; they chain smoked Marlboro Reds and could hold their breath underwater for close to 5 minutes. Most marriages began when the couple were teens. Men retired from working when they dropped dead. The more I learned about life on the island, the more questions I asked. The more questions I asked, the more ambiguous the answers became. While hardly treated as an interloper, it was obvious the islanders didn’t care to divulge many details about their unique way of life to a tourist.
My curiosity really piqued with the discovery of the plane wreck. At one end of the island, half buried in the white sand of the beach, lay a post WW2 cargo plane. Apparently the plane crash- landed there in the middle of the night several years earlier. When the occupants of the closest house (less than 100 yards) rushed down to help, they found the plane empty. My repeated inquiries as to what was in the plane, what happened to the pilots, or what any investigation unveiled was met with vague answers and shoulder shrugs. Eventually I just assumed it had something to do with drugs and that the pilots were rescued by the locals who were in turn paid handsomely for their silence. Of course this is probably the kind of intrigue my sixteen year old brain wanted to believe all along.
The night before I left I was invited to play Capture the Flag with the other teenagers. I hadn’t played since I was in elementary school and dismissed it as a juvenile form of entertainment. Then I was told that instead of using backyards we would use the whole island, and instead of being on foot we would use motorcycles and scooters. Having become adept at not stalling the DT, this sounded like a lot of fun.
It also sounded like a good occasion to debut the white Miami Vice pants I had brought along. This turned to out to be a fateful decision. Late afternoon thunderstorms had left the cobblestone roads slick and almost immediately my front tire washed out around a turn, sending the DT and I sliding across the street into a low stone wall. I suffered some road rash and the DT lost some paint, but my Sonny Crocket pants were annihilated. Accepting this as my price of admission, I played for hours that evening. This was a whole new level of fun for me, with high speed night riding providing steady thrills and chaotic near collisions.
My last morning on Spanish Wells brought bittersweet emotions. It had been a wonderful experience meeting such friendly and unique people in a truly idyllic setting, but I was sad to leave the Yamaha behind. Any slight bit of assimilation I had achieved with the islanders and their culture had been achieved through this motorcycle. The DT and I had formed a bond. Before I packed my bags I decided to ride down to the beach for one last swim. I soon found myself riding through the soft sand I had once struggled with and cruising along the shoreline. Second gear turned to third, then fourth, then fifth and suddenly I was hurtling down the empty beach at full speed wearing nothing but Op shorts and flip flops. While I would stop short of calling this an epiphany, it was definitely one of the most visceral experiences of my life. And in hindsight, monumentally stupid…but as they say God protects fools and children, technically I was both.
This trip was an exceptional learning experience that offered many valuable life lessons. A greater understanding of different cultures or possibly a deeper appreciation of the beauty of nature. Maybe a broader view of the world in general. Nope, I didn’t grasp any of that. All these years later the one thing that has stuck with me has been the feeling of riding that DT175 flat out down a vacant beach in the Caribbean. From that moment on, I stopped viewing motorcycles as machines and started seeing them as bikes. And no matter how old I get, nothing grounds me to my inner child more than riding my bike.