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Seasoned in the sun

What more to want than a sea to snorkel in, birds to watch, fish to eat, and people to meet

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By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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MATTHEW TOWN, Inagua — “The chase is all,’’ my mother used to say about men. I think of this in the prickly mangrove bush where I have been waiting, curled like a pretzel since dawn, as my subjects take off the second before my shutter clicks.

“Flamingos are tough,’’ says our guide, Colin Ingraham, a master of understatement. They pierce the sky in long, pink-and-black arrows, taking flight each time we come within a certain distance — always beyond the focal length of my lens.

Since childhood I’ve had a thing for flamingos. Yellowed notebooks show I doodled them in school. Africa being outside the budget, I’ve come to the ends of the Bahamian earth, with my sister Laurie and niece Erin, to photograph the pinup of birds.

When Nassau was just a fishing village, Great Inagua was the Bahamas’ first port of entry, on a world shipping lane, the Windward Passage. Closer to Cuba and Haiti than to Grand Bahama, it stands apart in every way. Henagua, the island’s earlier name, is thought to come from the Spanish “lleno’’ (full) and “agua’’ (water), suggesting Inagua was named for its freshwater stores. But it is also likely that the Spanish found salt here. From the Henagua Salt Pond Co. in 1848, to the Ericksons of Swampscott in 1936, to Morton Salt today, salt defines the 20-by-40-mile island. Salt creates jobs for its 1,200 residents and food for its West Indian flamingos — the largest colony in the Western Hemisphere.

Ingraham, a man of Buddha-like calm, begins our orientation at the 1870 lighthouse outside the only settlement, Matthew Town. From the top of its 120 steps, you can see Cuba on a clear day. “We call this the Inagua River. Everything starts here,’’ says Ingraham, leaning in to be heard above the roar as a pumping station lets millions of gallons of salt water in from the sea. Aided by gravity, the water flows eight miles into the interior through a labyrinth of holding ponds where it evaporates, scorched by sun and wind.

As his truck jounces over the man-made dykes, we’re aghast at first, and then mesmerized, by the surreal beauty. Harvesters roll back and forth like tiny toys in the distance scraping the reservoirs. The salt — Inagua produces about a million tons a year — looms like iridescent hills of snow. But up close, the ponds teem with life. Blue-green algae grow in them. Brine shrimp eat the algae, helping filter the water, while flamingos and other shorebirds eat the shrimp in a cooperative cycle of nature and man.

In the center of Matthew Town stand three pillars of Inaguan existence: the grocery store, a generator, and a reverse-osmosis water bottling plant. Morton buildings identifiable by their white and green colors range along Gregorie Street. “We live in a diverse place,’’ Ingraham’s friend Kervin Hanchell says of the purpose-built settlement, worried perhaps that we were expecting Atlantis Paradise Island.

We stay at a pleasant guest house, Enrica’s on Victoria Street (there are no waterfront resorts), filled with visiting consultants who instruct us in the cardinal rule of Inaguan daily sustenance — order ahead. Hanchell introduces us to some choice kitchens: S and L for Shonia’s heaping plates of steamed grouper, cracked conch, and crawfish salad; Angie’s Place, a breezy cottage where we breakfast on Maria’s delicious grouper stew and grits; Cozy Corner for chicken and mac (macaroni and cheese). And, always, freshly baked Bahamian bread and bottles of Kalik beer.

“My red wing gives me my name; epicures regard my tongue as tasty. But what if my tongue could sing?’’ The late science writer Stephen Jay Gould translated this couplet, which dates man’s appetite for flamingos to the Roman Empire. By the 1930s, Caribbean flamingos were almost wiped out. But Robert Porter Allen, an Audubon research director, learned of a flock on Inagua and hired two residents, Sam and Jimmy Nixon, to protect it. From 1,000 birds in 1952, today’s flock approaches 70,000 under warden Henry Nixon, Sam’s son.

November through January is the best time to see Inagua’s flamingos as they mass by the thousands in a mating ballet of head flagging and wing flourishes. Although they concentrate within the protected area of Inagua National Park and Lake Windsor — a giant super-saline pond — they can be seen everywhere, clumped like distant pink islands.

With Henry Nixon negotiating the washed-out roads, we head deep into the park hoping for some close-up opportunities. Along the way his eye picks out herds of wild donkeys and dozens more bird species (Nixon is considered one of the best birders in the Bahamas). After hours of tiptoeing and crawling on our bellies, my shots consist mainly of a streaking neck or pair of airborne legs, as the flock flaps madly out of the frame. Perhaps we would be this shy if we had been hunted to near extinction and laid only one egg a year.

But the chase — listening for the flamingos’ low, tender honk, stalking the landscape drowning in light — is intoxicating. I’m about to say, “Let’s keep going,’’ when I glance at my sister and niece. “How about the beach?’’ comes out instead.

Like the flamingos, Inagua’s beaches take some effort to reach, the best being located well north or south of Matthew Town. Ingraham, who charters a motorboat, suggests a better way. With him and Hanchell, who loves few things more than fishing, we putter up the coast. The sea passing under our hull is heart-stopping. As it runs to the horizon, its color blends with the sky in a seamless wash of blue.

The north beaches unravel in skeins of warm bone sand scalloped with Australian pines and occasional coconut palms. Amenities consist of what we bring with us. The stunner, Farquhason Beach, lies near Northwest Point, where vines shoot through the skeletal remains of an Anglican church, the only sign of a community that was here in the 1940s.

We snorkel among thriving sea fans and velvety brain corals, their colors electrifying in the light welling up from the white sand floor. Deeper lies the wreckage of Spanish galleons and privateers, amid reefs and limestone caves largely unexplored.

Erin puts on skins with Ingraham and learns to free dive, picking conch from the sea floor for our supper and hauling them over the side of the boat like a pro. While we’re underway, she and Hanchell sit forward on either side of the bow with their fishing rods. A friendly competition ensues as the Wisconsin farm girl reels in her first two fish while Hanchell has yet to get a hit. It gets serious when Erin’s rod bends alarmingly. “Barracuda!’’ announces Ingraham, everyone scrambling to give Erin fighting room. It’s a delicate moment for male egos. While the girl lands the big one, Laurie and I try not to smile.

The coffee might be Nescafe with sweetened condensed milk, but Inaguans have streetlights, a radio station, employment, and faultless Wi-Fi. They also have one another. Each individual matters, and everyone pitches in. Ingraham works three jobs and plays trumpet for the marching band. Nixon is both warden and customs official. Evelyn Cartwright weaves straw baskets, plays a mean rake-and-scrape saw, and accompanies the All Age School band on piano. As the only tourists — Inagua gets about 50 visitors a year — we’re made to feel that we matter, too. When Laurie drops off some music and art supplies at the principal’s office, the entire school is waiting to give us a song and dance performance, in full costume.

Geralyn Bannister used to cook at the Main House, a Morton-owned inn on Kortwright Street, where she made conch chowder every day for 37 years. In her home, she pounds the meat from our conch, tenderizes it in a pressure cooker, and grinds it into a chowder pot big enough to feed the family of 10 that she raised.

We take the chowder and a loaf of fresh bread to Kiwanis Park on the Matthew Town waterfront, where locals enjoy sunset picnics. Then Hanchell presents dessert: his wife’s guava duff, a rich baked pudding for which she’s locally famous. In the twilight, he recalls his father, who worked for the Erickson brothers in the time before mechanization, when salt was raked by hand, and the very early settlement of Cunningham Town, where Inaguans once drew water from Horse Pond.

“There was a saying, ‘Drink Horse Pond water and you’ll never leave Inagua,’ ’’ Hanchell says.

I think of the flamingos crooning to one another as they bunch in mangrove pools, necks coiled against their feathers to preen and sleep.

I’ll drink to that.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Getting there, getting around
Bahamas Air serves Inagua on Mon, Wed, Fri. Ingraham’s Rent-A-Car rents cars on the island (242-339-1677).
Where to stay
Enrica’s Inn
242-375-7261 242-453-0223
www.enricasinn.com
Comfortable, friendly, and air-conditioned, $85-$110.
The Main House
Kortwright Street
242-339-1267
www.inaguamainhouse.com
The pleasing Morton-run guest house is often filled with visiting employees, $60-$85.
Where to eat
S and L Restaurant
East Street
242-339-1515
$7-$14
Angie’s Place
Victoria Street
242-339-1321
$4.25-$8.50
Cozy Corner
Williams Street
242-339-1440
$4.25-$10
What to do
Great Inagua Tours
Burnside Street
242-453-0429 242-552-4278
Colin Ingraham offers island-wide land and fishing tours, from $30 per person.