Planning a trip to the Caribbean in the late summer or fall is always something of a dicey proposition, given the possibilities for hurricanes and other tropical depressions. That was made painfully obvious little more than a month ago when Hurricane Irene slammed into the Bahamas before heading on to ravage Vermont. This time is no different, but I seem to have gotten lucky, and by the time I get to Nassau, the current storm has moved northward and is currently drenching the East Coast of the US.
This trip got its origins in some free Thank You™ points I got for opening an account in Citibank, 40,000 to be exact, not bad given an off-the-cuff conversion ratio @ 1%= $400. Of course I don’t much trust frequent-flyer programs these days, with their new ‘use ‘em or lose ‘em’ policies, so when my 40th high school reunion came up down south, I immediately started scheming, specifically about the Bahamas, the only country in the entire Western hemisphere that I have yet to visit. Naturally I thought first about the ferry shuttle from Ft. Lauderdale, but a further search revealed that a flight to Nassau was no more than Miami, so obviously the better choice, especially since I’ve already visited Miami, especially on Air Tran, which is something of a budget option. So I got the whole travel itinerary LAX-ATL-NASSAU-LAX for $100 and change plus the cost of a bus from Atlanta to Jackson, MS, helluva deal.
Well, the airlines changed my schedule 3-4 times, but the flights were on time, surprise surprise, rather important with a thirty-minute connection at 6am. But we parked only two gates away from my connection at Milwaukee, so that helped a tight connection go smoothly. There are all the usual characters that you find on red-eye flights, including Government Issue Joe and his fatigued flat-top G.I. come-on lines. And the Milwaukee flight attendants all have 80’s-era ‘Big Hairdo’s, something of a cross between classic Valerie Bertinelli and John Bon Jovi, big guys, too, making me feel very small, even at my heaviest. Red-eye flyers have nothing on Greyhound riders, though. Now that’s a ragged bunch, especially the loud-mouthed girls going across the country to California… by bus? Bacteria dream of this…
It’s my first high school reunion, so quite the time travel experience. You need a computer program to shave away the years to match expectations, but any awkwardness is easily overshadowed by the general well-being of most of my previous classmates, many of whom came from quite humble backgrounds in rural Mississippi. In short- a good time was had by all. The temperature was sublime, too, the South at its best, deciduous trees loosening the grip they’ve taken on temporary leaves and getting ready to hunker down for the fall. It’s been a long hot summer they say, so any cooling-off period is welcome. Still the air is so thick and sweet, even in October, that all I can think about is… evolution, yeah, biological evolution, swimming in the gene pool…
So I take a side trip to the ‘golden triangle’ region of northeast Mississippi to visit some of my peeps, and the sublimity continues. Deer come up into the yard looking for fresh garden vegetables. Squirrels practically eat out of your hand. Too bad its cultural uniqueness has been so totally given over to franchises and fast-food chains. It’s worth a detour off the interstate highway into the old traditional town centers- where they still exist- just to see how it used to be. Faulkner never wrote about suburb people, you know. Neither did Dostoyevsky. Still I envy somewhat my friends’ big houses, big cars, and comfy lives. But this is not my fate… though not for lack of resources. It’s a choice I made long ago. I’m a pilgrim.
So I spend my days playing ketchup with old friends and fretting over my current publishing project. On the way back to Atlanta I stop over to visit more friends in Tuscaloosa, and continue my tour of the South. Notwithstanding the bus’s inability to maintain a schedule, the landscape rolls underneath like the fecund form of a female, rack optional, lying there in wait, for what only God knows. After a forgetful night near the Atlanta airport and probably the worst coffee I’ve ever had in my life, the only thing standing between me and a Bahamian sojourn is the sprawling complex known as Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, an entity capable of redefining the word ‘shambolic’ for you. That means security queues snaking through the food court in the early morning hours, and probably enough time to drink a decent cup of coffee before going through checkpoint Charlie. You can only carry it through inside you.
Once off the ground, the weather is a bit cloudy and gray, but gets nicer as we go. This should be a cream-puff country, number 140 on my list. It is, more or less. It should be, for the prices they charge. I had a hard time finding a room for under $100, and while I’m satisfied with my humble digs, I’d be more satisfied at half the price. There is no breakfast, and the wi-fi is strictly power-sharing; two at a time won’t work. In general things seem to be about twice the price they should be, which may be fine for a weekend tourist out of Ft. Lauderdale, but not especially good value for a serious traveler. You could do better in Antigua, something similar for almost a week at the same price. But still it’s pretty nice. I’m only a half-hour walk from town out here by the Heritage Village aka ‘Da Fish Fry,’ the local equivalent of an outdoor food court or night bazaar, maybe. You get the idea. The Caribbean starts here.
The main specialty food dish seems to be conch, everything conch- conch fritter, conch salad, conch this conch that. Prices seem high, but then, what do you compare to? Where can you even get conch stateside? You can get chicken souse and Johnny cakes here for $7, so that might be helpful if I knew what it was. It sounds intestinal. You CAN get grits here, too. I’m sure that’s what you wanted to know. The Starbucks and other fast-food chains all seem higher than ‘normal’ stateside prices. ‘Native’ food seems to revolve around the dockside, seafood and fish in a variety of forms, mostly fried. There’s not much there for a vegetarian, though, so I’m relegated to the middle aisles of the local ‘supermarket’, perusing the dried noodles and peanut butter. On the long walk home I stop to admire the local produce, and, after being informed that custard apples are here referred to as ‘sugar apples’ and are not yet ripe anyway, I inquire about the price of okra.
“You want gumbo?”
I smile. That’s exactly what I want. “That’s what we call it back in Africa,” I respond.
Every linguist, except maybe Chomsky, knows that ‘gumbo’ is the West African word for ‘okra’. Cajuns making their brown gravy roux may make some fine foods to go with blackened this and blackened that, but it’s not ‘gumbo’, not really, just like what’s called ‘chop suey’ in America is no such thing, not really. Thus the DNA of cuisine continues its evolution in the palates and palettes of our tastes and our tables, mutating and adapting and adopting new positions in order to survive and thrive. Meanwhile my needs are more basic. I cut up okra slices and put them in with my instant noodles and nuke the mother for about five minutes, the mother of invention now validated many times over, five-minute gumbo, ready-to-eat.
Nassau lives off the fruits of the cruise ships that roll in every day like the Nile flooding its banks. There were two parked there yesterday and three today, and I don’t think they spend the night. That’s fresh meat for the barbie every day. There is no other industry that I know of, the same as in much of the rest of the Caribbean Basin. You can only drink so much rum and play so much reggae. The sugar’s no longer competitive. Different countries come up with different programs at different times, but with not much effect. Grenada had a plan to promote mango production, so now you can pick them up off the ground all over. Most of the foods sold in the Caribbean, both packaged and produce, come from the US. Tourism is the big deal in the Caribbean, no doubt. Without it, it’d crumble like a house of cards. They live off the crumbs we drop, and are doing quite well, thank you. The Bahamas are among the wealthiest of Caribbean islands.
I first heard about Nassau in the song “Funky Nassau,” but the history of the Bahamas is much more than that, constantly influenced by its proximity to the US. British loyalists fled here after the US War of Independence, and freed slaves were sent here after cessation of the British slave trade in 1807 and outright abolition in 1834. They say that offshore banking is a large industry here, too, but I found nothing attractive there. 5-year CD’s paying 2.34% for residents and even less for ‘non’, “subject to negotiation”? I’ll pass. Why would there be two rates in the first place?
Bahamian currency is interchangeable with USD here, if not there, so that’s convenient. Real estate looks pricey, as much or more than LA. I wonder how much ‘underground economy’ there is here. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to picture a fleet of speedboats taking advantage of 700 islands in order to flood the US with a steady stream of cocaine and other recreational pharmaceuticals. Just wondering… ‘Straw’ crafts still live on here and Junkanoo around Christmas and New Year seems like the year’s biggest and most colorful celebrations. It seems like there’s a bit of clubbing and music going on weekends here, though I haven’t had the opportunity to observe directly.
Many businesses require visitors to be ‘buzzed in’ so customary Third World precautions would seem to be in order, better safe than sorry. The other side of town beyond the tourist wharf from here seems totally- I mean TOTALLY- shut down, a bit scary even in daylight hours to be honest. Cable Beach down the shoreline in the other direction is a sizeable collection of resorts and businesses, but seems mostly residential. The Bahamas seem like nothing so much as a suburb of Miami, though having its own dialect of English helps maintain the difference.
The water’s nice enough, even if it’s not the Caribbean proper. And the capital city is nice enough, even if it is overrun with tourists every day. The ambiance is nice enough, too, even if it IS a bit overpriced. It’s just about right for a three-day getaway. I’m sure I’d come here often if I lived in southern Florida. Right now, I’m just gonna’ chill till my plane goes back, country 140 under my belt, a little bit older and maybe even a little bit wiser. “Nassau”s gone funky / Nassau”s gone soul / We”ve got a doggone beat now / We gonna call our very own / Nassau rock and Nassau roll”…