Where It All Began…
I was had originally planned something completely different for this week’s blog post, but when I looked at the calendar and noticed the date my heart changed my mind. December 11, 2008. 12 years ago. The beginning of a week that would forever change my life. My first international adventure!
Picture this: you’re in your third year of college, majoring in Social Studies, and you’re looking at classes to take for the next semester. Of course, you have to take your required English, multiple History of _fill in the blanks_, and whatever foreign language you’ve chosen… but you also have to take an upper division Poli-Sci and Geography. Only one Political class fits your schedule. Easy. Done. You move onto looking for your Geography course and as your scrolling down the list you spot one that’s called “Geography in the Bahamas.” That grabs your attention. Now, imagine reading the description and seeing that not only is this an upper division Geography class that only meets once a week during the semester and fits perfectly into your schedule, but the final project is literally spending a week in the Bahamas! (Doing research, of course.) There is no reason to look any further! You found your class!
This was real life for me in 2008 at Youngstown State University. Yes, I had found my class! And apparently my sister had found hers, too, because as soon as I told her about it she found a reason to enroll as well.
A Brief Geography and History Lesson
Only 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, San Salvador is the Eastern most island in the Bahamas. The island itself is actually the exposed peak of an underwater mountain range that rises up 15,000 feet from the ocean’s floor. The capital is Cockburn Town, which is pronounced ‘ko-burn.’ Aside from magnificent beaches, a tropical climate, and crystal-clear water, San Salvador also offers a Great Lake that expands the length of the island, several natural caves, and multiple coral reefs that are absolutely breathtaking.
Originally named ‘Guanahani,’ meaning “Welcome,” by the Lucayan Indians- an indigenous Arawak tribe- the island has gone through many name changes throughout its history. When Christopher Columbus set out on his voyage in 1492, it is widely believed that he first made landfall on this island, and it was he who named it ‘San Salvador’ meaning “Holy Savior.” In the 17th century a Pirate named Captain George Watling took over the island and renamed it ‘Watling’s Island” after himself. You are still able to see remains of ‘Watling’s Castle’ on the island at Sandy Point. In 1925 the island’s name was officially changed back to San Salvador.
San Salvador is home to just over 1000 residents, and tourism is the main industry on the island. Diving and fishing are two of the biggest drivers of tourism, as both have gained praise by adventure-seekers from around the world. The Riding Rock Inn Resort and Marina is family-owned and has been sharing these experiences with travelers for 60 years. Club Med also bring a large number of travelers from all over the world to the island with the allure of pristine white sand beaches and a promise of seclusion. Another unique aspect of tourism on San Salvador (and my favorite) is the Gerace Research Center, also known as the Bahamas Field Station. The GRC, formerly a US Naval Base, has been operating as an educational research facility for over 30 years now. Research groups and students from universities are able to stay here while studying and conducting research in fields such as Geology, Oceanography, Archeology, Biology, and much more.
The fall semester came and went, and as I sat taking all of my other Finals, I really only had one thing on my mind: The Bahamas! I had already packed, unpacked, and repacked about a dozen times, when in reality I should have been studying. I did the typical countdown… One week until we’re basking in the sun! 5 days until we are swimming in the ocean! 2 days until it’s 80° again! 24 hours until Finals are over! Tomorrow! Tomorrow I’m leaving for the beach!
Having not slept at all that night, we headed for the airport around 4am. We only lived a little more than an hour away, but we lived in Ohio and this was December, so naturally we had to battle a major snowstorm on the way there. I remember seeing another one of our classmates as we walked into the airport and feeling an overwhelming amount of joy! While I was fortunate enough to be traveling with my sister, most of the class was traveling with people they really didn’t know. –One thing I highly recommend is, at some point in your life, do this! Travel alone! Take a trip where you don’t know anyone, meet new people, make new friends, and do all of the things you want to do. Safely, of course. But do it!– Ok, where was I? Oh, yes…. One by one the rest of our classmates continued to arrive, and eventually we were all there.
My first taste of thing-don’t-always-go-as-planned came as we went to check in. Due to the blizzard that we drove through that morning, our flight was cancelled. Naturally, I panicked. I think a lot of us did. Thankfully, our professor, Dr. Ronald Shaklee (Shak), was a seasoned traveler who had made this trip many times before, stayed calm and dealt with the situation like a pro. His calm though all of this is something that will always stay with me. Another thing that will always stay with me is how terribly other people were treating the ticket agents upon getting this news. I may have felt bad for us, but I felt really bad for them.
Listen guys, don’t be that person. I get that it’s frustrating, and we all have places we need to be, but screaming at someone who literally has NO control over the situation does not help! Be like Shak- speak with them about the things that you can control. What are our next options?
We ended up with rooms for the night and a flight rescheduled for the next morning. While we were all a little disappointed that we wouldn’t be spending the night in a much warmer climate, this gave us all the perfect opportunity to get to know each other, and looking back, I’m kind of glad it happened this way.
The next morning we were on our way. For real. This was my first plane ride and I was excited! I was excited to take off. I was excited to see the world hundreds of miles below me. I was excited to watch the flight attendants vacantly motion through the ‘in case of emergency’ instructions. I was excited for everything! It all lived up to my expectations.
We had a brief layover in Charlotte where we barely had time to grab a snack before jumping on the next plane, and then within a couple of hours we finally landed in Nassau! We would stay here for the night and get to do a little exploring, and then off to San Salvador!
Nassau was nice but, we weren’t there long enough to do any real exploring. When I travel now, I want to see and do everything. I want to fully emerge myself into the culture. But that was not for this trip. Nassau was merely a layover for us. However, I have been fortunate enough to have made this trip three times, and each time we tried to do something a little different. We ate street food, checked out some straw markets, partied at Señor Frogs, and were even fortunate enough to be there during their annual Junkanoo festival and parade!
The next morning we boarded another, much smaller plane, and were off to our final destination!
I couldn’t believe my eyes as we got off the plane directly from the runway. It was as if we had landed in Heaven. Sure, the airport was a one room, open-air building, but we were greeted with open arms by Bernie! You will never meet a more welcoming person than Bernie. (Who, aside from being the airport attendant, is also a boatman, entrepreneur, and a musician!)
Now, if you are looking for 5-star accommodations and round the clock service, you will need to look elsewhere, because you will not find it in my story. Maybe try Club Med if that’s what you’re into…
Once we collected our luggage, we loaded it, and ourselves, onto the back of our open aired truck, we made our way up Queen’s Highway- the one major road on the island. We went directly to our lodgings at the Gerace Research Center. Remember how I said this was a former Naval base? I will admit that it was not what I was expecting at first glance, but we grew to absolutely love the place! It’s now been 10 years since I’ve last been there, but I heard they’ve made some renovations since then. I guess I will have to go back to see for myself.
Breakfast was at 7. You needed to be on the Truck at 8. And you were to bring everything you would need for the day, as once we left the facility we would not be returning until late afternoon. Lunch was provided every day from a cooler on the back of the truck, and let me tell you something about their sandwiches… I have no idea what the meat was, but the bread was homemade and it was the absolute best I had ever eaten. I sometimes have dreams about that bread. If I think about it real hard I can almost remember the taste…. And don’t even get me started on the conch fritters and their specialty mac’n’cheese!… Anyways.
Our group was divided into two smaller groups based on which class you had signed up for. You were in the Geography group if you had signed up for the Geography credit, and there was also a group of students taking the course for Archeology credit, so they were the aptly named Archeology group. The Archeology group, led by Tom Delvaux, trekked into the jungle to a claimed dig site where they cleared debris, places gridlines, excavated the area, and recorded what they found. We were fortunate enough to get to join them for a day and it was fantastic. In the three year that I have been there we found lots of pottery, many hand-rolled beads, and what we believed to be a hearth made by the original inhabitants of the island, the Lucayans (pre-Columbus era.) Not to brag, but I, myself, made many discoveries, AND became quite the master of the machete!
The Geography team, led by Shak, had our own agenda. We spent our days touring all over the island learning about the geography, history, climate, culture, and so much more. Yes, we spent time on the beaches, and in the ocean, but it was all part of the learning process. Why look at pictures of coral reefs when you could swim out to them and see the real thing? Why read about what life is like on an island when you can actually talk to the people who live on it? Why just discuss the effects cruise ships have on the environment when you can walk along the east coast beaches and see the devastation first-hand? So yes, while we got to spend an entire 10 days “on vacation” it really was a learning experience.
Our project was ‘A Study of Entombed Beach Debris on San Salvador Island.’ Simply put, we documented trash that was carried in from the ocean and buried in the sand. This was done in a very similar manner to what our fellow Archeologist friends were doing. “Excavations were conducted at ten-meter intervals along a transect beginning at the low tide line and extending to the fringe of secondary dunes lining the beach.” -Sarah Roscoe-Wilson (Yes, I literally just quoted myself from the report we did on this project. I sounded a lot smarter back in my college days.) This was a disheartening project to work on, as it showed tourism at its worst. Most of the debris we found was believed to have washed ashore after being tossed overboard from by-passing cruise ships. And yes, it was, in fact, embedded in the sand along the dune lines where it will likely stay forever.
Please, guys, don’t litter. It’s disgusting and morally wrong. We only have one Earth. Let’s respect her.
Oh, and on our 3rd trip I also found a message in a bottle! The writing was too faded to make out, but it looked as if it was greetings from a fishing boat. (Exciting, but again, please don’t litter!)
This trip wasn’t all work, however, we did get to spend more than a fair amount of time playing on beaches, snorkeling, having impromptu photoshoots, and just having a great time. Aside from the beaches we also got to see many other amazing things. We saw several Christopher Columbus monuments, the ‘Mexico’ monument that commemorates the 1968 Olympic games, remains of ‘Watling’s Castle,’ gorgeous coral reefs, the Dixon Hill Lighthouse, and got to explore multiple caves- including an under water one! (The caves were my favorite part of the trip!)
More importantly, we got to meet many amazing people who make up the island over the years! The wonderful staff at the GRC who allowed us to visit and provided us our accommodations and meals; Kenny the wood-carver, and his associate, Roy; Bernie- of course -Man of the island; A group of very serious Dominoes players who graciously allowed me to play with them (until I started winning); Our favorite bar tender, Neil, who made sure we were well taken care of every night; Some friendly locals who invited us all to their fish fry and let us party with them, and many others. Oh, and of course, all the patrons of the ShortStop bar that we walked 2 miles to get to every night. My time on San Salvador would have meant nothing if it were not for all of the people who made the experience so memorable.
We made many memories throughout our time on the island, but one of my favorite memories was in our third year- 2010. There was a group of five of us who had made this trip together over the past three years, and three of us were about to graduate. However, by going on this trip we would be missing our graduation ceremony back at university. The solution? Bring our caps and gowns with us! So that is what we did. Packed alongside our snorkeling masks and sunscreen we folded up our robes to make the journey with us. Then, on that December morning when we might have been packed inside a crowded auditorium for a 3-hour ceremony, Shak lead us along the beach on the east coast of the island to the Chicago Monument and conducted a personal, very meaningful, ceremony for the three of us. We got to graduate with the sun as our stage light and the ocean as our backdrop… And it took all of 20 minutes. It was the perfect ceremony.
As you can see, these trips have been meaningful to me in a magnitude of ways. I still talk to many of the people I met in my classes. One of them was even in my wedding! But this opened my eyes and my heart to traveling. Up to this point in my life traveling was all about taking a ‘vacation.’ Sit on the beach. Drink some cocktails. Swim in the pool. Remain relatively oblivious to everything going on around me. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with wanting to leave all the woes of the world behind you and just relax in your own special way, but now I wanted more.
When I travel now, I don’t consider it a ‘vacation,’ but rather an adventure. An experience. I like to research the places I visit and learn as much about them as I can. What is their history? What’s the climate like? Where can I find the best local food? What’s the language and what are some phrases I should learn? Of course, I will always want to do some of the touristy things -you don’t go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower- but I prefer to emerge myself in the culture. I want to know how the locals live from day-to-day. How is it similar to how I live? How does it differ?
I think this is what made me want to be a travel agent, and a travel blogger. I want to learn about the world, see it, and then show it to others. It all started here, on a little island in the Bahamas called San Salvador.
I know this one was a little long-winded, but if you made it to the end, I want to personally thank you. Truthfully, I could have gone on writing on this topic indefinitely. This IS the condensed version.
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