Cable Beach is known as the Bahamian Riviera on New Providence island. When we left California the first time, we chose this area because after so many years of visiting we were very comfortable there. It felt like our second home.
We also located a good school and a hospital nearby for our son. He was so little, we could not risk living on some sandy spec of an island far from public services.
We rented a condo in Cable Beach and searched for a home to purchase. BahaMar, a multi-billion-dollar resort, was transforming the entire neighborhood and everyone had BahaMar Fever. Especially us. I had done tons of research online using sites like Escape Artist and others. I looked at every single home that was listed online but soon learned that the “MLS” in the Bahamas was not well maintained. We would have better luck finding a place when we were actually there.
Mistake #1: Getting Caught Up in Fake Real Estate Frenzy
In order to get “residency” (worth little more than not having to leave the island every few months) expats were encouraged to invest a minimum of $500,000.00. Magically, that number became the benchmark for real estate pricing. It was far more than I wanted to spend, but after looking at homes in the $250-350K range, we learned that our taste did not match our budget.
“We came here for the sea,” Betty said. “If we can’t live on the ocean, what’s the point?” She was making a lot of sense, but in later years I would curse her words when storms battered our home repeatedly, costing tens of thousands of dollars in repairs every time.
There is a reason why most Bahamians cannot swim and very few live on the coast. The first reason is the cost. The second reason is they are smart. Mother Nature wreaks havoc on the islands of The Bahamas regularly and the beach properties take the most damage. But this knowledge is all hindsight. Our eyes were blinded by the dream of a Caribbean beach house. The lure of real estate riches as the new resort was driving the market up only fanned the flames. The aging resorts would be torn down and replaced with the grandest of them all. The roads and infrastructure would all be improved. Thousands of jobs and millions of visitors were destined to transform an old star with a fresh face. And we would be there to reap the profits. Or, so we thought.
We paid full listing price for a $500,000.00 condo on the beach in cash, plus another $100,000.00 in fees and since back then we were in a race to see how much money we could burn, we then paid a local decorator to completely update and furnish our new home, costing another $60,000.00.
Idiots. We were absolute idiots.
As we drove around Orlando looking at possible condo rentals for our son, I was reminded at each stop that we were not locals.
“You’ll get used to the weather.” Most people would say.
“We lived in The Bahamas. We got used to it, but it was still hot and humid.” I agreed.
“Our traffic is horrible, but you’ll get used to it.” They said.
“Actually, your traffic is really not that bad compared to the SF Bay,” I said.
“Our condos come with pest control and we spray each week.” A condo rep told us as we walked the grounds.
“Spray for what?” I asked.
“Ohhhh, boy…” She laughed but did not answer. Perhaps she thought I was kidding but I really did not know. Apparently, there were bugs in Orlando big enough to carry off cats and small dogs. The mosquitoes could get so bad that people avoided entering their homes through the front door. They use the garage door attempting to stop swarms of mosquitoes from entering the house. The aerial spray of DDT (or some such chemical) used by the city to ward off insects is apparently not enough so most condo associations also spray. I also read that they use something called a “sentinel chicken” in Orlando. I imagined a rooster in body armor but it’s more like a canary in a coalmine technique used to monitor possible infectious diseases like Zika, Dengue and West Nile Virus spread by mosquitoes. If the chicken dies horribly, we’re next.
Mistake #2: Local Knowledge is King
Visiting a place and living there are two different things. Had we rented on the island for a year first, we would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. The more we learned about living in The Bahamas, the more the specter of doubt crept into my perfect island life plans. Had I met older me, my advice to younger me would have been to live in a new country for at least a year and rent before you buy. But, younger me would not have listened. Younger me had BahaMar tunnel-vision and a pocket full of money ready to be spent.
Had I listened to older me, one thing I would have learned that first year is that most Caribbean nations are limited in so many ways. Most are small islands, so everything must be shipped there increasing prices and limiting selection. Food, utilities, and basic necessities all cost more, sometimes a LOT more. Without going into a detailed budget breakdown, suffice to say that if you want to live on the beach in The Bahamas you had better bring buckets of money.
There is a different side of The Bahamas that travel websites won’t tell you. It has a dark side. There is rampant crime, a murder rate that will shock you and a Haitian immigrant issue most Bahamians try to ignore, until they need some really hard work done. Then it’s, “Get the Haitian.”
Most Bahamians live on just a few of the hundreds of islands and ours was the most populated. With about 333,000 total inhabitants nationally, in 2005 as they do now, most Bahamians chose to live on New Providence island. We experienced epic traffic jams on our freeway-free island that still used roads called “carriageways” because that’s what they were designed for: horse-drawn buggies. Public events and celebrations were electric with energy but nearly impossible to attend due to the number of people there. And parking downtown (or anywhere near the cruise ship port) was more difficult than downtown San Francisco. The little island nation had outgrown its infrastructure.
One day, while lamenting my $750.00 power bill (guess we used the AC too much that month) I received an email about a local thief called “Spider Man” who was known for beaching his Jet Ski near private residences and climbing into open condo windows two or three floors up. I called our HOA representative and she answered with her usual dismissive demeanor.
“I thought we just dealt with this guy,” I said. “Wasn’t he caught?”
“Well, who was the guy the police got? The one lighting fires in our building?” I asked.
“He was called Fire Bug,” She said as she exhaled hard, talking to me must have been so much work.
“Do all the criminals here have nicknames?” I asked.
“Dey famous. Dey get caught, dey get release. Dey get famous,” She said.
Great. Now we have another superbad crime-blighter.
“We have a gate on one side of the property, an ocean on the other, gate codes, door codes and a full-time groundskeeper and we still can’t keep the thieves out. What is happening here?” I asked her.
“Seems the rightful owners of dey property come back to claim it.” She said.
And I never forgot her saying that. She meant it. We were considered trespassers in this land and she wanted me to understand that fact.
Mistake #3: You Will Never Be a Local
Especially if you are a privileged white guy from California like me, you will always be the expat, the Gringo, the Haole, the foreigner, the outsider, the Conchy Joe or worse. You may make friends, but it will take a long time for those friendships to take hold.
“I see a lot of people like you. Dey come and dey go.” A local Bahamian I had known for about six months once told me. He was explaining to me why he was hesitant to get close to me, to rely upon me as a friend.
“Conchy Joe’s, dey stay. But most whites come and go. It ain’t easy livin’ here!” He said.
I had learned that a Conchy Joe is a white Bahamian. That slur, along with the dig that most whites like me can’t handle living someplace difficult would have made me head for a good cry session in my safe space if I were a millennial…but I’m not. I understood where my Bahamian friend was coming from and took his verbiage in stride. And he was right. Less than three years in the Bahamas was all we could do before we decided to leave in 2008 when the financial crisis hit. We had had enough of paradise for a while.
Renting our place out turned out to be a nightmare. Profitable tenants were nearly impossible to find so we put the condo up for sale and lost our shorts. I forgot to mention, BahaMar failed around 2008. We waited a few years for it to resurface with new funding but by the time it did, we had given up. I’m told the final version of the resort was nowhere near the original plan and that the quality of the construction of the existing hotels was suspect, but I have not confirmed this. Property value has still not recovered to the BahaMar Fever days.
I try to balance every story with the good and the bad, but this one is tough. The Bahamas is a beautiful place with some of the friendliest people I have ever met. But you cannot just go to the beach every day. Beyond that gin-bottle clear water and white sand, there is not much to do there. It can get boring and island fever is common. The cost of living and the crime rate seemed to be climbing to outpace each other in a race of doom. I was completely enamored with that nation for decades. I uprooted my family and bought into their culture completely. I truly loved the idea of The Bahamas. The reality was just not enough. In the end, I invested and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars but we learned a lot and had a lot of fun along the way. My advice is to visit the islands, enjoy yourself and go back home. Personally, I don’t miss The Bahamas and will probably never visit again. There is much more to see.
After visiting five or six condo developments in Orlando, we found three nice places where our son could live, two of which seemed almost perfect.
“Pretty different from the Sunset District garage-conversion I lived in while attending SFSU,” I said to my son. “I had to do my dishes in the concrete garage sink. I had use of a clothes washer didn’t have a clothes dryer, so I had to hang my stuff on a line in the backyard.”
My son looked at me and twisted his head a bit like a dog that just heard something odd.
“Imagine how long it took me to dry my clothing in such a foggy and damp area,” I said but he still looked puzzled.
“Why would you line up your clothes?” He asked. “Where is the Sunset District?”
“Nevermind,” I said, knowing I’d just told him a snowy, uphill-both-ways story.
“Your sink was made of concrete?” He asked. I nodded.
“It was next to the clothes washing machine and the gray water from the machine drained into that sink,” I explained but he looked very confused.
I didn’t lie to him, yet I was sure I sounded like my grandparents. I decided to stop sharing my college tales for today.
My nose was getting used to the slightly moldy smell that emanated from the vents of our rental car. The smell stopped bringing back those memories of our life in The Bahamas. The trip down memory lane was complete. Odd. I had been so enamored with that place for decades and now, for the first time, I did not wonder what my ex-lover was up to. I truly did not care.