Anticipating a postcard perfect tropical retreat with warm sunny days and eye soothing turquoise waters, on a bumpy ride aboard small planes, our motley crew descended through the clouds to land on a tiny spit of white sand in the Atlantic Ocean.
We’d arrived at the first group of islands in the Bahamas chain, Bimini -- with the small islands of North Bimini and South Bimini at its core – it’s only about 50 miles from Miami and all of 9.5 square miles in size. The slow pace of life on the historic atoll feels like a world away. It’s a land of simple pleasures and friendly folk, many descended from those enslaved for centuries and finally liberated by English plantation owners well in advance of those on the US mainland.
It’s where American writer Earnest Hemingway spent two years in the l930’s fishing, drinking, swimming, drinking, writing, sleeping, drinking… much like a character in his last book, Islands In the Stream.
Our group of 11 friends hailing from cooler and cold wintry climes in January soon boarded a 90 foot steel vessel, the Indigo, received a spirited if well rehearsed orientation from the captain and hunkered down for what would be some sloshy days in cool tropical storms.
The days were punctuated here and there with some plunges into the sea for intimate time with sting rays accustomed to humans and a WWI shipwreck turned corral reef and fish sanctuary. One day we spent a solid two hours in close contact with wild Atlantic Spotted dolphins along with some Bottlenose leaping and darting around our boat in pairs, threes and eventually dozens in a seeming Cirque du Soleil of cetacean aquatic acrobats flipping, flying and flashing around us in the swells. It was special.
And our picture postcard was growing damper every day with grayer, cooler, wetter days than anticipated.
What none of us had anticipated, however, was a timely encounter with history of a different kind than the infamous Bimini rum-running during the US experiment with prohibition and the well-promoted Hemingway legend.
Taking a leisurely stroll through Alice Town, North Bimini's main settlement that dates back to 1848, we found homes in various states of repair and disrepair, a museum, collection of small shops, family-owned restaurants and bars, one bank and no traffic lights. On one side street stretching down to the waterfront our group met up with 83-year-old Ansil Saunders, local legend and world-renowned boat builder laying out a keel for his latest bonefish boat in his small humble shop.
In the week leading up to a national celebration of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, to our amazement we discovered Saunders had served as his personal guide in 1964, when King wrote his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Bimini. King also returned to Bimini in 1968 to write the last speech he delivered to the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, before his death.
51 years ago King wrote part of his eulogy in Saunders' wooden boat deep in the Bimini mangroves, dense groves of shrubs dotted with clear water lagoons that provide a nursery and haven for fish, shellfish and birds.
Saunders recalled for us his sense of a deep humility in King and an even deeper sense of peace King had in his connection to nature. In this place King was inspired to write some of his most powerful words and at one point shared with Ansil that he felt more at peace here than anywhere he’d been. On his last visit, King also shared he did not think he had long to live and in fact was assassinated days later.
On the day before our departure from this world apart, Captain Ebbie who had most conveniently pulled up right alongside the dock at our rented home on a canal on South Bimini loaded us up in his motor skiff. A big stout man with a toothy grin, he seemed happy to see us and we immediately engaged in some banter with a leading question.
“Ebbie, what’s the meaning of life?”
His first and immediate response?
We sped out into a stiff breeze headed for the mangroves with a first stop at the “Healing Hole,” where Ebbie told us about a miraculous healing for a boy with cancer and the intriguing involvement of Edgar Cayce, a famous seer and healer. Ebbie insisted we all jump in the water and head up the trail to see for ourselves. Most of us let out a squeal as we hit that trail, one that splashed cool water up to our knees, then waist and eventually over our heads. We single filed along, each of us marveling at the intertwining branches and long sinuous water-seeking roots of the red mangrove, at times happening on to colorful little crabs and darting fish.
Back in the boat, led by Ebbie in a rousing chorus of Amazing Grace, (one way to get warm again!) we cruised along once again through mangrove raceways and across clear water lagoons, eventually coming to halt at a raised platform on pilings. We wondered what this lonely man-made structure was doing way out here until Ebbie had us pile onto it and there in front of us a few feet away on a pedestal rising from calm water appeared a sculpted bust of the peace and equality activist himself, Martin Luther King.
At last this man who had given so much and done so much to move a vision forward and whose life had been cut short, had come to his place of peace or at the least had been recognized in a place where others continue to seek peace in nature and peace in the knowing that the struggle for harmony and true humanity among humans continues in diverse forms of life today.
To the person, our group of friends who had gotten along famously amidst waves, wind and rain over the last 8 days was in awe. We were no longer anticipating sunny skies. We shared in that deeper oft unspoken understanding that good friends have. It’s not the conditions that rule the day, it’s how we stand, work and play together that matters most.
Thank you Martin.
This post dedicated to friends Jim, Karin, Loren and Lisa, Victor and Leslie, Daniel and Tom, Barb and Steve. May we each continue living the dream.