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Phone calls in the islands: goats, pigs and ‘foxes’

Standing in the island’s only telephone booth back in the day and making an overseas call didn’t present the greatest atmosphere for conducting business. However, I was lucky to be in there because usually there was a line of frantic “cruisers” outside trying to find out why their credit cards were no longer working or what to do with their latest stock deal turned sour or “Whaddaya mean, alimony?”

Can you hear me now? Making a routine business call used to present some interesting challenges.

Once your turn came, you winced when the guy before you closed the door as he exited.

There was always the issue of whether it would open again. If I got it open, I was reluctant to close it behind me because I knew that the odds were significant that it wouldn’t open to let me out when I was through. But I usually gritted my teeth and took the chance because I knew that everybody in line would get very quiet, intent on listening in to see whether it was going to be an interesting call.

Next came the problem of “getting through.” Back in those days you either got a Batelco operator on the line and gave out an incredibly long series of numbers for the bucks-per-minute phone call to ensue or you bought a Batelco card, which you inserted into the slot and gave you a certain number of prepaid minutes. Sometimes your AT&T calling card would work if you remembered the 200-digit code, but usually the Batelco system circumvented outside cards in one way or another. If you got through, there was the issue of whether you’d maintain the connection because the lines went dead regularly. This was because they weren’t really “lines” but radio transmissions. But all this was just part of the problem.

I was always barefoot and in shorts (those booths got hot inside), and often I’d be speaking to my editor with at least a chicken or a goat also infesting the booth, picking around my feet or making various noises not conducive to intelligent conversation. The wasps were also always there, and an occasional black snake. Once a pig tried to open the door with his nose and come in. It wasn’t a cute little “wee wee wee” pig; it was a big, somewhat wild, island pig. At least, as I view pigs, it was wild. It was roaming the island until somebody decided to have a pig roast, which could’ve been why it was trying to get into the phone booth with me.

In addition to the problems inherent in making a phone call in the Bahamas in those days, a surprisingly large number of people wanted to make phone calls. On any day this made for long lines, which wasn’t too bad because there always seemed to be bars near phone booths. In the Bahamas, you quickly learned to be patient, whether there was a bar or not. But sometimes the line problem was solved in unique island ways.

Once I came in to make a phone call and tied my dinghy to the nearby dock. I stopped a moment to talk to a friend, knowing as I did so that the line was long. I wanted to say how-de-do to my friend and I didn’t have to “get through” any time soon, which is always a plus. But this time it wasn’t as much of a plus as I expected.

We were standing ashore at the base of the dock, having a nice conversation overlooking the peaceful Bahamas Banks. We heard some fireworks in the distance but didn’t pay it much mind because there are more holidays in the Bahamas than there are fleas on a coonhound, and fireworks are often de rigueur. As we were talking, a huge go-fast boat came roaring around the point of a nearby island and screamed up to the dock. It was full of men, none of whom looked like they’d been to Sunday school for a while. Not that it was Sunday, but you get the point.

“Uh oh,” said my friend, who happened to live on the island and knew when to say “uh oh.”

I soon saw why. As soon as the boat came alongside (with a bit of a crash), some of the men jumped off, and others stood by on board, looking nervously at another go-fast boat as it also careened around the island. This boat was also filled with a lot of tough-looking guys, but they were in uniforms of sorts, and their automatic rifles were fully revealed. It explained the heavy fireworks we had just heard. In the midst of all this, the lead guy from the boat that had already docked very calmly sauntered up to shore and approached us.

“Uh oh,” my friend said again.

But it turned out to be no big deal.

“Excuse me,” he said, “can you tell me where there’s a pay phone? I want to call my mudder.”

My friend pointed him up the hill to the booth. Unfortunately, this gentleman didn’t get the chance to call his mother, at least not at that point, because over the hill streamed a line of many more men who had just disembarked from a helo, which had landed on the other side of the hill. They, too, had automatic rifles and uniforms of one sort or another. I was wondering whether I was going to have to wait for all these guys to make phone calls, but my worry was for naught.

The guys from the helo rushed right past the phone booth and down to the dock, rounding up the leader who was lonely for a conversation with his mother. Obviously, there is much more to this story, but that’s for another time. Suffice it to say that with the “fireworks,” the helo landing and the flurry of men running with automatic weapons, I noticed that the booth was empty and the line was gone. I hastened up the hill to do my business.

* * *

Fortunately, there were other ways to call out. Some islands had Batelco stations. These were usually easy to find because of three things. They were on top of a hill, painted pink and there was a huge tower in the yard. Unlike the booths, they weren’t open all the time, and often the booths didn’t work, even though they were open. You’d launch your dinghy, motor or row in to the island, walk up the hill and go inside to the wonderfully air conditioned little room. (If the A/C was broken for the day, the telephone ladies generally took a holiday.) Then you’d say hello to all the friends and neighbors sitting around the room, waiting for their turn to call, not to mention enjoying the air conditioning.

Finding a Batelco station was usually pretty easy.

At a few of these phone offices there sometimes were other opportunities afoot while you were waiting. I remember one in which some folks also sold spectacular Easter bonnets in season and sometimes out of season. The hats were not only spectacularly beautiful but also spectacularly wide, which meant that you couldn’t sit in the chairs immediately next to the ladies who were wearing them. But usually the folks were just enjoying the air conditioning, enjoying a chat and waiting for their turn to make a call, in that order.

So you’d walk up to the desk and tell the Batelco lady the number you wanted to call. When your turn came she’d place the call, and if it went through, she’d tell you that your party was on the line. Then came the fun part, at least for everyone else. To make your call you just went to an old-fashioned type of phone hanging on the wall and started talking. Every word you said was heard by every soul waiting in the chairs. If you walked into the building and there was no chatting among the folks in the chairs, you knew there was a good telephone conversation going on. Sometimes they were to banks or divorce lawyers or CPAs back in the States. Sometimes they were to a spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend on the next island. And when your turn came, there was nothing you could do to mask your very personal conversation because you always had to shout for there to be any chance of the system carrying your message. But you weren’t trapped in, and there were seldom any goats or chickens. Never mind the cockroaches.

Eventually in the Batelco offices on the larger islands, they built little rooms with phones in them so you had some semblance of privacy. When your turn came, you sat in the room designated by the operator behind the window and waited for the phone to ring. Being directed to that little room really didn’t mean you were going to be soon talking to your party. It just meant that you were, in theory, one step closer. When the phone did finally ring, the ideas was that the party you were calling was on the line. If it was someone else’s party, there were all sorts of opportunities for fun, frivolity and new friendships. Some of us actually looked forward to trying to make a call.

As I mentioned, “waiting” was always an operative word in the Bahamas, especially if it was waiting for communications. But in the meantime, most folks usually just read. No, you didn’t take a book. There was no need to. The literature on the wall inside some of those booths was legendary. I asked an employee once why they hadn’t cleaned the walls of the booth I had just exited, and she said, “Oh, we haven’t finished reading it yet.”

But the crowning blow came when your call finally got through after maybe a couple of days of trying, and somebody’s secretary in the States, sitting with manicured nails at a plush desk in air-conditioned luxury, would say, “Oh, Mr. So-and-So can’t take your call now. He’ll call you back later today.” Of course, I had no number for a callback except for the number at the Batelco station. This meant that I’d have to sit at the Batelco office all day, hoping he would actually call and that if he did, the call would get through.

But phone calls weren’t the only means of communication. Those were the days when we all used real-paper fax machines. They were called, in true Bahamian accent, “foxes.” It worked like this.

I’d be sitting out on Chez Nous waiting for information about an upcoming assignment or some other paperized information from back in the States. The VHF was standing by on channel 16. Eventually, if I were lucky, I’d hear a lady’s voice saying, “Tom, you have a fox.” I recognized this as coming from one of my friends at the Batelco station and replied something to the effect, “Thanks, I’ll be right in.”

But it wasn’t quite so simple. First I had to launch the dinghy. Then I had to put on some clothes that weren’t dirty and full of holes and get my “dinghy briefcase” so I could carry the fox back without getting it wet. Then I had to get the outboard started — a feat in itself, considering the gas in its tank. We’re all worried about ethanol today; in those days in the Bahamas it was the water we were worried about. (That’s also another story.) Then I’d have to make my way through the cuts and the reef to the village. Next I’d have to find a place to tie up the dinghy. Then I had to walk up the hill to the pink building where I paid for and got my fox. But this was just the beginning of the problems.

Inevitably a fox received meant that a fox needed to be sent. So you had to walk back down the hill, find your dinghy in the mass of others, untie all their lines (which were tied over yours) and retie them without letting any dinghies escape, start the motor, push your way through the mass, get back to your boat and compose your reply — at which point you’d have to go back to the village and hope that the foxes were getting out at the moment. If the fox was a story in response to an editor’s request, you could be reasonably sure the deadline had passed by the time all of the pages got through.

* * *

By now you may be wondering why I didn’t just call on a cellphone. During my early years in the Bahamas, I didn’t own any cellphones, and during later times, although I had a cellphone in the States, there wasn’t any service in the Bahamas. When it came, I thought all my worries were over and dinghied in to the closest Batelco office to sign up. “You can’t sign up now, Tom. The line is too long. Everybody wants to sign up, and we don’t have enough computers to handle it.”

Nowadays, it's easier to communicate from the islands, but it isn't as entertaining as it was when it involved sharing a small sauna with livestock.

And everybody, indeed, wanted to sign up. All over the islands, especially in Nassau, it was an ultimate status symbol to have the bulge of a cellphone in your pocket — better yet, hanging in a holster on your belt. Never mind that it wasn’t “hooked up” and didn’t work. It signaled that you were “cool,” and besides, the average guy passing by on the streets didn’t know that it wasn’t hooked up. Actually I heard quite a few one-way conversations where the proud new cellphone owner, sans service, would pretend to dial and walk down the road shouting into the thing so everybody would think he was hooked up.

So I put my name in and waited to be chosen. When the time finally came, I hastened (as much as I could hasten in the Bahamas) to the local office to get hooked up. The lady told me, “That’ll be the first month’s service fee and a $250 deposit, Tom.”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars!” I exclaimed. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No, Tom, that came straight from Nassau, and that’s what it is. But don’t worry, mon, you’ll get it back when you cancel the service.”

“But I don’t want to cancel the service. I want to keep the service.”

“Oh, but Tom, you don’t understand. Everybody cancels the service.”

So I paid the money and didn’t cancel the service. But a lot of people did later. This was because the ladies were right when they told me they didn’t have enough computers. I was told by various sources that they were so anxious to get as many people signed up as possible that they spent an inordinate amount of time setting up the service system to take in the subscribers, but they were too busy to get around to setting up the billing end. So calls were being made by the thousands with no bills coming to the callers, which prompted even more calls being made by the thousands. When they finally got this part of the system up and running months later, some callers were suddenly getting cellphone bills in thousands of dollars.

However, for whatever reason, I got my bills. They were sent to the States. The mail, once it got out of the Bahamas, had to get through Miami, so my bills were often late. Because my Bahamas cellphone service was so important to me, I mailed a check for several months’ advance payment with a letter explaining it. A few weeks later, someone from Batelco called me and said I had paid too much. I explained again that I just wanted them to keep it on account in case a bill got lost in the mail or something like that.

“Oh, we can’t do that, Tom. We don’t have anything in our computers that lets us do something like that. Nobody pays ahead of time. They all pay late, and that’s what our computers are made to handle.”

But after quite a bit of discussion, I got them to accept the advance payment so I could keep my service, notwithstanding potential mail “problems.” Thus it was no surprise when the bill didn’t come for a few months during a period of time when I was back in the States. Eventually I called to ask why.

“Oh, Tom, you hadn’t made any calls for a while, so we thought you wanted to cancel the service.”

“No, I didn’t want to cancel the service, and I even paid you in advance in case there was a problem. And besides, you have my $250 deposit.”

“Oh, the time ran by to go through that advance and the $250, so your service is canceled and so is the money.”

The end of that story is that I never signed up with Batelco again. But things are better now. There are even Wi-Fi hot spots accessible from anchorages. And there are U.S. companies that sign with the Bahamas services so that their phones work there, although there may be roaming charges. Check before you go. And if you feel like complaining, try to imagine what it was like standing in a phone booth with a 100-degree interior temperature, accompanied by a few chickens and a goat, with a door that wouldn’t open and a call that wouldn’t go through.

September 2014 issue