Millions of tourists visit Abaco every year with intentions of snorkeling, relaxing on a beach, or fishing. However, beneath all the hustle and bustle of tourism is an undertone of struggle and hope for a better future. During my time on Abaco I was blessed to stay at Abaco Lodge - a prestigious fly fishing lodge located in the epitome of flats fishing. I was fortunate enough to visit the community of Sand Banks, a Haitian refugee village. This trip presented me with the sharp contrast of high class living and the life of a refugee, which allowed me to understand that opportunity is everything. By adventuring to these areas that tourists rarely stumble upon, I was able to peel back the layers of this island that tell stories of hope, success, and adversity.
Pollution and over development is rapidly becoming a standard of life. However, the Marls seem to be an exception; within this flourishing ecosystem one can find incredible fishing. We fished almost every morning with unbelievable guides that pointed out fish all day long. Many memories were made on those skiffs that I will never forget, including catching my first bonefish. I was guided by the famed Travis Sands on my first day fishing the world renowned Marls. The sun was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds all day long, while surges of wind made fishing tough. We found refuge fishing behind a mirage like island, where the wind was calmer. At one point the sun appeared through a gap in the clouds to reveal twenty bonefish. Travis exerted “11 o clock, 40 feet!”and my heart started racing. I started double hauling like I was casting into a 20 mph headwind for GTs on Alphonse Atoll. After what seemed like seconds I have 40 feet of line out of my rod, I went to shoot and it collapsed dead in front of me. Travis laughed hysterically with his push pole in the air and yelled “dead cobra!”, I couldn't help but laugh. Luckily that school had no clue we were there and remained tailing at 11 o'clock. I made my casting strokes lighter and laid 40 feet of line out straight as an arrow. Travis exclaimed “Strip, strip, strip, set!” before I knew it my drag was screaming and after some time I had my first bonefish in my hands. Time came screeching to a halt while I lifted the seventh fastest fish in the world out of the water. He took off straight for the mangroves after releasing him back to the sanctuary of the Marls. For the next ten minutes I was shaking from a rush of adrenaline due to the realization of the reality that I was blessed to be experiencing. That deer hair gotcha fly now lives on the bill of my Yeti hat and carries a story I will never forget. Not only is Travis an unreal guide but he is a self acclaimed comedian. I’ve never laughed so hard in all my life. When we weren’t telling jokes, life stories were shared and when the fishing was slow casting 101 began. All of this would make anyone dread the thought of making that fifteen minute run back to the dock. However, the thought of everyone gathering together and telling stories from the day was exciting to think about.
After sharing tall tales of the one that got away, we realized most of the kids caught their first bonefish that day. To celebrate, we decided we would spend the afternoon swimming at a fabled blue hole that Christiaan Pretorious told us about. He drove us to a place so off the grid that the directions were: 30 telephone poles down after the gated house. After counting to thirty, we turned down a dirt path and found ourselves at a circular oasis where the water was aqua blue and hundreds of feet deep surrounded by a sea of untouched forest. After hearing stories of crocodiles and rumors that it’s 100s of feet deep everyone was a bit hesitant to dive into the unknown. Eventually, we all left our worries behind as we dove, flipped, and cannonballed into this treasure of Abaco. As our time was coming to an end, one of the counselors, Knox, says “whoever caught their first bonefish today has to belly flop!”. One by one we hesitantly hiked up to the peak of the surrounding cliff and jumped before overthinking. I landed flat as a board on the water, and immediately felt the pain of what I had just committed to. This special moment of shared pain is what sent us well on our way to becoming a family. Throughout the week, we continually got closer as a group. The dinner table was filled with laughter and jokes, which would continually get louder as the week went on. Within a couple early mornings and long nights, we got so comfortable around each other that we would start finishing each other’s plates at dinner. Safe to say, every night only clean plates went back to the kitchen. By the time we were waking each other up with snakes we had already crossed the line of friendship and became a dysfunctional family. These close knit bonds formed provided for an electric atmosphere of the kind which Abaco Lodge has never seen before created by ten teenage boys running around a fisherman’s playground.
Stories that were told around the dinner table slowly shifted from stories on the water to sharing stories about the local people. The group focus of catching a permit or a trophy bonefish left the spotlight, and connecting with the locals took its place. Our first experience with the locals was our visit to Sand Banks, a small community of Haitian refugees who are escaping poverty and natural disaster in hopes of making it to the USA. We hopped out of the vans to find a village where a traffic barricade serves as a welcome gate. The moment we climbed over the barricade we became guests in an unfamiliar world. We found ourselves in a labyrinth of one room shacks; in place of a door, each doorway featured a homeowner adorned with pride and an infectious smile. After walking through dirt and limestone that was varnished with litter, we entered the heart of the community. The sea of shacks opened up into a dirt field where kids ran wild with sticks and played basketball using a hoop fashioned out of a milk crate and a rotting pallet. This looked like a scene from Lord of the Flies; these kids were sporting ill fitting clothes, and an apparent hierarchy existed amongst them as they commanded each other in this fantasy world they had created. Nature served as their Toys R Us where they found sticks, rocks, and bottles to play with. Throughout our exploration of this uncharted area, we acquired a following of twenty curious kids. We brought them to their “playground” which was a church’s grass yard, then the fun began.
Balls were flying everywhere while packs of ten year olds ran circles around us. Within a couple hours, they had put us through the wringer; we were covered in sweat and dirt, and it was time to take them home. As the kids caught on to us leaving, they desperately wanted us to come back, so we returned later that week. The next day we went to play basketball at a local community center. We unknowingly pulled up to fifteen teenage boys playing basketball. Most of them lacked shoes, and had to walk miles just to play at this dilapidated court covered in ants. We played against them for hours and despite their adverse situation, they played like kids from back home who are blessed with indoor courts and top of the line shoes. This was more than just an everyday neighborhood scrimmage; it was a coming together of two different cultures through a common sport where we learned from each other and became better people in the process. This single event embodies the essence of Fish for Change, that is a coming together of kids from different cultures with the similarity of our obsession for fly fishing in hopes of creating a better world. As the games continued, we let some of the kids borrow our sneakers. From the moment I found myself sharing shoes with someone to play basketball it hit me that this is more than just a fishing trip; we are here to learn from the locals and hopefully help to make their lives better using the limitless resources we have in the US. By sharing these stories we can inspire more people to come and see Abaco for what it truly is and not the tourism hub it appears to be.
A couple days later we returned to Sand Banks, this time with the intention of getting to know their stories. I was lucky enough to sit down with Wesley, an eleven-year-old boy, to interview him and in return he would interview me. Wesley lives in a one room house with two aunts, three siblings, and his father. He was born in Nassau and has lived in Sand Banks his whole life. Despite his appearingly sad situation, he loves where he lives and is able to attend school where his favorite subject is math. His favorite item is his cell phone because he can read the bible, text, and call. I asked him if he had one wish, what would it be? He quickly responded “a plane so I can fly to the United States”, like I should have known. I asked him why and he said “So I can go to college and so that my family can work.” For an eleven year old to recognize his lack of opportunity, and process that his solution is to leave Sand Banks is mind blowing. For him to already be stressing over college shows how fast these kids need to mature in order to define their future rather than let this situation determine it. Kids in America stress over what Santa is bringing for Christmas, whereas Wesley is worried about his dad’s ability to find work. I can’t even begin to comprehend having to bear this weight as an eleven year old and still be able to wear a smile. After this life altering interview I had with him, we brought the kids back home, but before he ran back to his paradise he grabbed my arm. He looked me in the eyes and said “when are you gonna come back?” Having known we weren’t coming back during this trip, I said “soon” so as not to make him upset. On the drive home, I vowed to make the most of all the opportunities I’m granted in honor of Wesley and his struggle to find opportunity. If I meet him again, I can guarantee he will still be wearing the infectious smile I left him with. At the lodge, we casually made our way down the dock to continue casting our thousand dollar fly rods; meanwhile, people down the street are struggling to make a thousand dollars a year. This sharp contrast that I experienced is something I will take to my grave with me. Realizations like this hit hard and made me rethink who I am and what my purpose is.
This trip was full of life long memories and friendships; from traveling around Abaco one day in a old truck, to cliff jumping into a blue hole, and catching my first bonefish on fly. However, the stories I will be retelling the most will be our basketball game with the locals, the interview I had with Wesley, and the smiles that the kids from Sand Banks wear despite their situation. Sure, this trip made me a better fisherman, teacher, and student. However, most importantly it taught me an invaluable lesson: to make the most of my opportunities. Given that I’m a college student, I have so many opportunities and pathways I can take from this point. The harsh reality is that no matter what a kid from Sand Banks accomplishes, he will never have the same opportunities as I; therefore, I will take great pride in the opportunities I am afforded in honor of Wesley. Currently, Abaco is undergoing the wrath of Hurricane Dorian. Despite being on the island for only a week, I feel as if I have family there going through this. Having to sit in my dorm room, knowing that Wesley is crowded in a Church basement, while the world he knows is being ripped apart by this biblical storm makes me feel beside myself. The other day I was texting my guide as well as one of my friends to make sure they were alright, and to check in with me after the storm. Forming this sense of a second family isn’t done with just fishing 24/7; it’s accomplished through immersing oneself in the community and listening closely to what others have to say. This was no ordinary fishing trip, something greater than fishing is going on here. Without Fish for Change, this trip would remain a dream for me, so I’d like to thank them for opening my eyes to the real world outside of my protected bubble.
Eric Schuhrer II