You hear a lot of crazy stories living in the islands. About eight or nine years ago, while living in the Bahamas, I once heard about the local supply store being overrun by a herd of hogs. Supposedly, a local resident had let them loose. After they ran in (right through the front door, of course), customers climbed shelves and sought refuge on counters, allowing the animals to destroy every last can of creamed corn and jalapeño Spam in the place. We’re talking complete and total destruction brought to pass by an enraged herd while customers feared for their lives. I have no idea why the hogs were enraged. It’s just how the story went. When I expressed my slight disbelief in the truth of the story (because I knew of no one in the area who actually raised pigs), I was told that the former pig woman had washed her hands of pork after that unfortunate episode and was now raising pit bulls. Back then, new to island ways, I still had my doubts. But now, after living over a decade on these crazy little rocks, I would not be surprised at all by that story.
All the wild tales that float around really increase your gullibility factor. Not because you’re easy to fool, but when you find out things like your friendly neighbor who often brings over fresh-baked cookies and grouper loaf once tried to poison his entire 20+ man fishing crew with rat poison, you start to believe anything. This was the same guy that showed us the rooster he’d taught to sit on his shoulder and smoke a cigarette (and likely other substances). This story was incredible and mind-blowing. But in fact, I was told that story not because it was incredible or because I was being warned he was a psychopath, it was just a friend simply warning me to perhaps be careful about the grouper loaf offerings. He was still a generally well-accepted member of the community. Because everyone makes a mistake every now and then, right? Hence my capacity for island crazy is pretty high.
A few years back, my Facebook feed blew up one afternoon with local island friends bidding everyone to beware of a tiger, loose on the northside of St Thomas. Some friends were asking if anyone had seen it, while others were letting the general Facebook world know that we shouldn’t expect them to leave their homes until the creature was caught. And after the number that years of island-crazy has done to my head, my first thought wasn’t, “That’s ridiculous.”, it was, “How did a tiger get to St Thomas?” There are no zoos here and tigers certainly aren’t native… I’m not saying I 100% believed there was a tiger on the loose, I’m just saying I didn’t not believe it. My theory was that someone may have snuck it here as a cub and raised it in one of the more remote areas of the island. It might sound like a wild thing to do, but I know people of that level of insanity and they exist in higher concentrations in the islands (my theory is that the real world population won’t tolerate them, so they all migrate South).
In the end, all the hubbub was shown to arise from a misprinted ad in the local newspaper. Someone was looking for their lost cat. It had stripes like a tiger. Or they called it a tiger cat. I can’t remember. But something along the lines of “lost tiger” was what got printed in the paper (because when you lose your tiger, the best way to have it returned to you is to list it in the Classifieds). That was enough to cause 24 hours of Facebook panic and a follow-up article in the newspaper, all on the tiger worry. Like I said, when you’ve lived here long enough, you’re a lot more likely to believe stuff.
And now I bet you think I’m done talking about tigers, don’t you? Because how much tiger drama can one island girl have? More than that, let me assure you. Just last week, my Facebook feed was again suddenly overrun with tiger madness. Not from St Thomas friends this time, but from my Bahamian friends. Except this time, I wasn’t buying it. There was no way there was a tiger on that tiny island. I learned my tiger lesson once – I wasn’t falling for that one again. Yet this time, people were talking about multiple tiger sightings. That’s how their tiger madness began. Not with a misprinted newspaper ad, but with people actually seeing a tiger wandering around in the bush. Then friends from other Bahamian islands started posting. Then an online news publication, which even went so far as to include a generic picture of an angry tiger (for any online news readers who had no idea what a tiger looks like, I’m assuming). This time, the time I thought I had learned my lesson, there turned out to be an actual tiger on the loose. Sort of.
In the end, it was a Siberian-something or other. It had tiger-ish stripes on parts of its body and leopard-ish spots on others. And it wasn’t as big as a tiger. It seemed to have come off of one of the many yachts that pass by the island and anchor for a while. Some say it swam to shore. Some say the owners brought it to shore to give it some exercise. Either way, we’ll never know. When the owners discovered it was missing, they yachted themselves right out of the area, so as not to get caught. My guess is that they’re now sipping on Cristal and riding their illegal ostrich around the lido deck somewhere in the Turks and Caicos, talking about what a close call that was.
And so my beloved little Bahamian island now has an exotic resident. The police were out stomping around in the bush for awhile trying to locate it, but from what I hear, that didn’t turn up anything. The general public seems to assume it has no desire to rip their face off the same way a tiger might, although I doubt they’ll be running around in the bush at night after heavy rains trying to catch crab for dinner anytime soon. And I don’t feel so bad about believing that there may have actually been a tiger the first time around. Because these stories aren’t crazy. In most cases they’re actually somewhat, if not completely, true. So if you’re going to protect yourself from roaming tigers, rat-poisoned grouper loaf, and enraged hogs, you have to be ready to believe pretty much everything. Otherwise you can expect to pay the unfortunate island consequences.
Back when my husband and I first got married, we lived on a somewhat small and very sparsely populated island in the southern Bahamas. All the Bahamian locals were friendly and welcoming. A lot of them remain good friends today that I still keep in touch with. We were asked to dinner often and while it was always delicious, it was always “local”: Jamaican curry goat, fish and grits, and all the lobster a girl could dream of (steamed, boiled, grilled, baked, sautéed). Lobster was plentiful there because everyone, including me, speared it themselves.
But these dinners were always out of my comfort zone as well. As fun as they were, they were never quite “comfortable”. I had to explain over and over again why, because of my suburban Atlanta upbringing, I didn’t mind one bit giving up the eyeballs out of my fish to someone more excited about the treat. Or why I wasn’t “finishing” my chicken by sucking every last bit of gristle and tendon off and even removing the marrow from the bone. Or that I really would rather let the home’s resident nine-year-old finish my Vita Malt (I could never figure out exactly what the thick, warm, heavily-malted beverage was good with). No one was ever rude about my finicky nature and I wouldn’t give up the years I lived among those friends for anything, but due to my polite Southern upbringing (you finish what the host serves you, say thank you, and possibly take another helping), I always left feeling like I had been somewhat rude for leaving the fins of the fish on my plate. And no one likes to constantly leave dinner parties feeling rude.
Toward the end of our time on that island, a couple from Key West moved in a few dirt roads down from ours. They had spent many many years of their life living on their sailboat and decided it was time to settle down (for at least half the year) and build a permanent structure they could spend winters in. It was so nice to have people moving in near us because our home was so remote. Maybe 3-4 other people lived out on our long road in our sparsely populated settlement. Multiple days could go by without another car driving down our road. So here we were, with new potential friends right in the “neighborhood.” They invited us over one night for a little dinner party, and the thought was so comforting and familiar (steak fajitas! margaritas! guacamole!) that I could barely stand the wait. When you live and eat outside of your comfort zone for long stretches at a time, the thought of a brief encounter with the familiar really lifts your spirits. They even invited us to bring my dog over instead of leaving her home alone. New friends (not easy to come by in such a small place). Familiar food. An evening I had no way of failing at.
You see where this is going, don’t you…
On the highly anticipated evening of our little gathering, Seth and I loaded ourselves, our appetizer contribution, a bottle of wine, and my dog, Saylor, up into our truck for the 1/2 mile dirt road drive to their place. Once there, Saylor bounded out of the truck and tore furiously around the yard. Because I didn’t have a fence at our house, she didn’t get a lot of free time outside. I decided to let her run while I carried the appetizer inside. About three minutes later, I came out and called her name. Nothing. I wandered down the driveway a bit a called again. Nothing. Annoyed that she might have run into the dense island bush surrounding their yard, I called louder. Then I wandered out into the road, and there she was. I could see her shape lit up under a lonely street lamp on the little dirt road, not moving, lying on her side. None of us had heard the car. Maybe one, two at most, would drive down our road in a day’s time. But in the three minutes I had carried our appetizer inside for our glorious, long-anticipated dinner party (steak! on our island! completely unheard of!) with our new potential friends, someone had driven by and hit her without stopping.
I stood in the road, crying, and yelled for Seth. He came out with our new friends following behind him. They were now confronted with us: two people they had just met for a total of ten minutes, invited into their home, now standing and crying in the road with my dead dog lying ten feet away. (Clarification: I was distraught. Saylor, named after a very dear friend, had been my dog prior to marriage and Seth’s arrival on the island. She had kept me company as I lived there alone for a few years. Seth didn’t have much of a problem holding himself together.) There were no vets on our island. One would come from a bigger island once every few months. If you had a dog you needed spayed or neutered, he’d do it for you then. In your driveway. Or on a back patio table. So there was nowhere to take her. I was so thankful that we were able to determine that she was, in fact, dead because on that island when you had an animal that was suffering, the only option was to call a police officer and have them shoot it. You think having your dog hit by a car can ruin a dinner party? Imagine having the police come over to shoot it in the head. That’s pretty much the definition of party foul. But fortunately, that wasn’t necessary.
Our new friends offered to help us bury her. So with our fajitas and fresh guac waiting inside, we loaded my dead dog into the truck and drove her home as I continued to cry. Seth and our brand new friends took turns and dug a big hole in our side yard, wrapped her up in an empty dog food bag (as a deterrent to other dogs thinking they’d dig her up), covered her with rocks (also a deterrent), and buried her. They even brought a palm tree to plant on top of her (another deterrent – though this was a long way from home where my family buried hamsters wrapped up in pretty cloth and planted azaleas on top of them). After burying our dog, our new potential friends said something along the lines of, “Well, we still have fajitas…”
Remember when I said I was so excited about this dinner party because I knew it would be comfortable and familiar? Almost like I was home again? That there was no way I could mess it up? No fish heads to leave on my plate? Or bits of a goat’s leg bone chips to spit out? Well, yeah, having my dog die and then allowing practical strangers to help us bury her within the first 30 minutes of our dinner party topped all of those. So I drank margaritas and cried all the way through the next few hours. And they made sure my glass stayed full.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the night, but we must have made a good impression because we’re still friends with this couple today. (Meaning, Seth must have made a good impression because I lost count of my margaritas and the tears only increased per drink.) We went beaching with them. They gave us plants for our yard and helped me learn about gardening. We exchanged recipes that were possible with the limited ingredients available on island. When we needed it months later, they helped us out with some of the moving process as we prepared to move our life to another island. But, I can’t say I remember being invited to any other dinner parties at their house.