Bahama Mama

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Central America Caribbean » Bahamas » Nassau » Bahamas
October 28th 2012
Published: January 7th 2013
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My decision to go to The Bahamas came up in a strange way. It all started when I met a friend of my sister’s at her wedding last summer. Being friendly and exotic, that was enough for me to keep in touch. Being friends from St. Johns University for 4 years, I felt comfortable enough to pursue a friendship with a friend of my dear sister.

After learning that my roommate, a Delta employee, had extra buddy passes to use up before they expired, I took advantage of the opportunity and told Brian I would be visiting his country. Plus, I was in much in need of a vacation. Teaching is a great profession for me, but even the best teachers need a break. This would also offer a way for me to pursue my dream of learning about other cultures and experiencing new places. I was also very curious to see how the education system was set up in The Bahamas.

I didn’t really sleep the night before, having been up really late packing and finishing up. Any time I travel, my nerves of anxiousness and also excitement always keep me up. I was so happy to be traveling again (it had almost been a year that I had been on a plane), that it didn’t really hit me that I arrived at the MSP airport at 5am. I was trying to catch the first flight out on stand-by. When I didn’t get on, I waited until the next flight. Naturally, I should have been upset, but I was just really happy to be in the airport. I like knowing anything is possible and the airport offers that for me. People are always coming and going, there are reunions of loved ones and solo travelers like me who travel to learn, grow, and experience the world.

Due to missing the 5am flight, I missed my connecting flight from Atlanta, and took advantage of hanging out in the gate area for the next flight into Nassau. I was taking extra notice of the type of people who fly into The Bahamas, who mostly consisted of who appeared to be relatives or natives to the island and also tourists. I was told by the gate agent that I would get a first class ticket, but when the passenger with that seat arrived at the last minute, I was bumped back to coach. Darn….I did have a lovely conversation with an older woman who was a director at a school in an area that was a former slave village. Her husband assured me that whoever I was visiting would definitely take care of me, if they were a true Bahamian. I had faith that that would be true.

Back in coach, I heard a conversation among a couple on their honeymoon who were from a small farm town. Neither of them had traveled before. I was so happy for them. Next to me, I had the best conversation with a gentleman whose family is from Nassau. He told me of all the hot spots to travel to. I always love meeting my seat buddies, since you never know who you will meet. That’s the beauty of traveling, going to airports and flying: you never know who you will meet and strike up a conversation with. I guess you could say I feed on opportunity.

I felt it the moment I stepped off the plane and onto the jet bridge; my eye glasses instantly filled with fog and it felt great. As I was walking through the small yet modern airport, I couldn’t help but notice all the advertisements on the wall, promoting The Bahamas, Junkanoo (their version of carnival which is celebrated every December) and Atlantis, the super hotel resort. It really bothered me that all of the ads featured white, rich people. Although it is true that there are white Bahamians, stemming back to the days of British colonization, they aren’t representative of the whole island. Plus, I didn’t come to Nassau to stay in a resort and sip fancy martinis. I came to experience real, everyday life, even if it wasn’t glamorous.

Brian was waiting for me as soon as I passed immigration and got that lovely stamp into my passport. As is natural in a small island nation, he had run into a friend. I walked outside with him, feeling great that I was in the type of place where you naturally run into people you know all the time. Was already feeling a familiarity about this place. Once again, the Bahamian light rain and fog hit me again as we stepped outside into the parking lot.

I usually go for places that are a little out of my comfort zone with food, language, or culture, and I was feeling that I needed a healthy dose of culture shock. I got it when I stepped to the right side of the car, about to put my stuff in. I was excited to hear that they drive on the left side of the road and that unless I wanted to drive, I should go to the other side of the car. Driving along the coast on the left side of the road while sitting on the left side of the car, I couldn’t help but notice how water was everywhere here. Coming from a land-locked state myself, this was such a breath of fresh air for me. My memory transported me to my former travels. The grass and shrubs were of a shorter cut, which reminded me of Florida. The deep gutters and hand-painted traffic signs reminded me of Nicaragua. I was just where I wanted to be at that moment. The sun also happened to be setting as we were curving along the beautiful coast with turquoise waters.

We pulled into Fox Hill, a neighborhood that used to be a former slave village, on the far East side of the island. Brian’s family lives on this side of the island, set apart from the craziness of Bay Street and other tourist destinations. It was his great uncle’s birthday, and his family was celebrating with cake and wine. The homes in this area had marble driveways and grey brick squares etched with beautiful floral designs to let in cool air. The doors were gated and it reminded me of the homes in Nicaragua. It was a moment of familiarity. I was happy to be welcomed into the noisy and boisterous home, complete with Brian’s mother scolding him that he should have come sooner. Here, what appears to be yelling is just a lot of passion and love. Brian’s sister and cousin were watching Glee, one of my favorite shows. Just like McDonalds and Starbucks, there are some things you will find anywhere. I guess music, along with English, is a universal language. I was instantly given cake and a drink and asked about my family and country. I loved the curiosity. I was happy to talk with another one of Brian’s cousin, who is also a teacher in The Bahamas. Even though I was a stranger, I felt like a part of the
Adelaide VillageAdelaide VillageAdelaide Village

Liberated American meets Adelaide Village.
family already.

Later that night, I went with Brian for band practice on the North side of the island. We entered the driveway, complete with a security gate that you had to open and three barking dogs (once again, this was Nicaragua all over again) that greeted us. Brian is a part of a few ensembles. This particular one is called Blood and Justice, with lead singer Brent Justice. It featured Justice on voice and guitar, Blood on drums, and Brian on piano. I was transported into a world where people smoke the reefer like it is a part of them and was a little surprised at the haze. I felt like I was back in the 70’s. Luckily for me, the air conditioner unit was on. I just sat in the corner and observed. First of all, to see a home studio was truly amazing. Things are very expensive in The Bahamas, since almost everything minus sugar, salt, fruit, and rum is imported. I could see that Justice put in a lot of money and time into creating this beautiful space, complete with wood floors and soundproof walls.

The men are developing a new style of music called Junka, which you can actually find on iTunes. Look for Brent Justice for the song: “Come make we go down,” which is a song about the struggles of native Bahamians before the time of tourism. The lyrics talk about a person who needs to go to the river to get water and was their clothes without soap. I really like it because it talks about how the people survived back in the day and overcame the struggles of their time before the tourists came and changed everything. It is a happy song as well, which is true of everyday Bahamians, who see life as an adventure. If you are a grammar guru, you may have a hard time listening to the song, as the artist uses common Bahamian expressions and verb phrases, which are not what we know them to be here.

I specifically asked Brian to show me the real Bahamas, and the real Bahamas is what I got. I spent my time shadowing Brian and his family as they lived their lives. The one touristy thing I did was go to Cable Beach, which was at high tide at the time. The salt water hit my face, and I felt like it was healed and healthier. They say salt water is excellent for the skin. J As I looked over my shoulder, I saw the guests of the Sandals resort which owned part of the beach, as they went jet skiing. Oh, how I never want to be them… a tourist. Luckily for me, even though I was a tourist, I was at the care of Brian’s family. I hoped to pass for a white Bahamian at best.

That same night, Brian and I took a walk to a beach on a private property that was being constructed. Since no one lived in the house, we figured it was okay to use their beach too. As I walked into the cool, fresh waters, I let the cool air touch my pale, white skin, as the waves slowly ebbed and flowed against my ankles. In that moment as I was standing in the amazing waters of The Bahamas, staring up at the moon and feeling the rush of the waves, I took time to reflect that I was actually here, in a place where I felt like a different person. It was here that I would add to the empty canvas that was my life.

Other highlights of the trip included staying with a family that loves to cook. Brian’s family cooked me the most delicious soups, my favorite one being a dumpling soup. On Sunday, I awoke to the sound of church bells and Johnny bread, sweet and delicious bread that is common down there. On Sundays, it is a tradition in this country to go to church and eat a lot of food and relax.

I was honored to meet Brian’s grandmother, who is a saint for her neighborhood. As I chowed down on my greasy hamburger and fries from the Bamboo Shack, I listened to Brian’s grandmother tell me stories back in her day, of when she would help patrol the neighborhood safety program in this particular area of Nassau. I also met Brian’s father and aunt, who were all at the house. As us women talked, I couldn’t help but peer out of the corner of my eye to see the men watching pro football on the big screen. It felt like a typical scene from my family house.

The weekend was filled with touring the island and going to an international food festival. Unlike Jamaica and other island nations, The Bahamas is pretty flat. I would recommend going to all parts of the island. The airport is on the West end where there is a lot of expensive real estate. There are some nice beaches like Cable Beach in the central part of the island along with Bay Street, the place where all the tourists flock to after leaving the cruise ship. I was lucky enough to go to the Northern part of the island, where we hung out in a place called Adelaide Village, a town that seems set back in time. I enjoyed passing bars in the middle of nowhere among the trees and foliage where the men were playing the national game, Dominoes. We happened on a very quiet beach where we were able to relax under the palm trees, listening to the light wind and swim without the sight of tourists. It made me really happy to see a group of Bahamian children swimming 100 yards away without swimming suits, laughing and jumping in the water. I was reminded of my time in Ometepe Island, my island paradise in Nicaragua, on the black sand beach swimming with my kids with t shirts and shorts.

For the food festival that night, I dressed up and even curled my hair with the hot rollers I packed (I knew they would come in handy). I wore long, flowy white pants, and a nice tank top. I was trying to look glamorous, but I should have thought more about the environment. Since it was the wet season, the festival was soggy, wet, and muddy. My wedges and long white pants got so dirty. However, I loved the feeling of being the lucky North American woman, who happened to have a team of locals at my side, holding the umbrella over my head in the drizzle, buying me food and drinks, and making sure I was having fun. I even liked standing out, just as a tall ginger from the USA would if he was in China. There are few times in your life you can feel like a celebrity, and this was one of them.

Inside, I met some of Brian’s cousins, who were a surprise, since they were white. I guess I can never assume what the cultural make-up will be of the country I visit. We did go into a tent where there were a lot of white tourists and for a splitting moment, I felt like I also belonged with them. However, another part of me didn’t want to feel too comfortable. When you travel, it can be easy to be attracted to and feel comfortable with people you perceive to be the same as you. The best part of the festival was witnessing the performance of the Nassau marching band. The drum majors had batons and whistles and marched with so much style. The color guard blew my mind away! Imagine a team of pro dancers for Beyoncee or Justin Beeber who hold flags and do a lot of cool stuff. I was impressed with their natural Bahamian moves and hip movements and thought about how straight laced my high school color guard was.

That night, we were going to see Brian perform at Viola’s on Paradise Island, with his other band, 30 Something. This particular Saturday was special, as I invited the Rotaractors from West and East Nassau to meet me there for some good Bahamian Rotary fun. The lead singer, Shelly, from 30 Something, was off the island this particular Saturday, which allowed Brian to sing more. Not only was he able to sing, he was able to sing his originals. Since 30 Something is a cover band, I was happy to hear the native songs about Bahamian life that Brian had spent a lot of time writing.

I was most excited to go into school with Brian, who was employed with the Catholic school system. He was lucky enough to have the perspective of working at both a primary and secondary school. Although that also means he is extra busy traveling between schools and working practically full time at both, it also means he gets to touch a lot of kid’s lives with the gift of music. I was introduced as a special guest, a teacher, from the main land of the USA. The director took a liking to me, probably because I was a trained and educated teacher from a very rich and prosperous country, and gave me the tour. Although I don’t like to be perceived as an “American” when I travel, one of the perks is that there is a level of superiority that people place on you. It sometimes makes me uncomfortable, as I am so intrigued at the people I am visiting and think they are the amazing ones.

The kids at St. Bede’s Primary School love Mr. Cooper, especially the little 1st graders. They jumped up and down as he entered. They even blockaded the door after music class so he couldn’t leave. I also remember the 3rd graders, who were given an assignment of mathematical music, to add up formulas of quarter notes, eighth notes and whole notes. Being the natural helper and teacher I am, even at the adult level, I wanted to help the ones I perceived as struggling and found some colored blocks that represented the notes. I would show them the blocks and have them count them up. I quickly learned that most of the kids just wanted the attention and didn’t have a good self-motivation. Oh, the joys of teaching little tikes. The 5th graders were also very cool, as they were practicing for their Christmas concert. They were singing a song native to the Bahamas, about Junkanoo, and the girls and boys naturally set separate in class, the girls swaying their pleated uniform skirts and whispering in each others’ ears while the boys were trying to act all cool. My favorite people were the Spanish teacher, native to Costa Rica, and the gym teacher who was like any gym teacher I knew: Mr. Cool and a fun person who liked to use his whistle a lot.

The high school was fun to see as well. It is a new school and the director took a lot of pride in her school and staff. She loved Brian and even recruited him to work for her while Brian was a college student on tour in The Bahamas with his brass quintet from St. Johns University in Minnesota. Before he graduated, Brian already had a contract to work for the Catholic school system for 4 years. I sat in on the practice of the students performing “Grease” that coming weekend. Brian was recruited to play Vince Vontaine, the host of the radio show during the dance scene in the play. I could tell that the students there have a lot of energy and talent and look up to Brian. To them, he is the cool teacher, who is a part of a few bands and has a featured music video and a few singles for sale. However, he is also Mr. Cooper, who teaches trumpet and piano lessons.

The play was interrupted with a PA, saying that the tropical storm had escalated to a hurricane, and that school was canceled for the rest of the week. I quickly got on the Internet and secured a sub and informed my boss that I likely wouldn’t arrive the next day. The airport would be closed for a few days as well, starting the next day. When you fly stand-by, this is never good, as the volume of people trying to get on flights will go up for the next available flights due to the canceled flights. My flight was scheduled to leave at 4pm that day, and I had a feeling it wouldn’t go as planned.

However, I prepared to pack up my belongings and go through the motions of leaving. The airport was completely empty, the skies were already starting to get dark and the winds were picking up. It was like a scene from a horror movie. Going through security with my boarding pass, I was starting to feel sick to my stomach. I really didn’t want to leave The Bahamas. I wasn’t ready. As I sat in the gate area, I was saddened to see that nobody had checked into the flight yet. Perhaps I would actually make it on…I saw another stand-by person with a lower priority than me, and offered to give her my ticket if I happened to get one. Unlike me, she was anxious to get out.

At the last minute, about 45 minutes scheduled for departure, tons of people rushed into the gate area and tried to get on the flight. I found out it would be the last flight into Atlanta. Go figure…the paying customers probably changed their itinerary to this flight instead of the next days when the airport would be closed. My anxiousness started to wean, as I saw one person after another get on the flight. I heard the final announcement that the flight was completely booked. Just to make sure this wasn’t a dream, I went up to the gate agent and had her confirm that I wasn’t getting on this flight. So happy with her answer, I sped away to find the main doors where the pay phones were. However, I realized there was no way to get back to the main doors of the airport. I was locked on the 2nd floor. I had to go back to the gate agent, who had to personally escort me and the other stand-by to the main level. Good thing I had no bags to check, as it would have been a nightmare trying to get my bag back after checking in. One piece of advice to those traveling: if you fly stand-by, you never know if you will get on a flight. So, to avoid having to get your bag off a flight if you don’t make it on, don’t check one.

I called Brian’s cousin, who I was instructed to call in case this would happen, and I heard him talking on the other end of the line. I was frustrated that he kept hanging up on me. I later learned that the receiver of your call cannot hear you until you press the star key. I was grateful that I could ask the airport employees in English what was going on with the pay phones. Sometimes, the little frustrations and set-backs are what make part of your adventure unique. They said they would be right over, even though the airport was on the opposite side of the island from where they lived.

By the time I made it outside, the skier were darker. As the last flight into Atlanta loomed over my head, it was drizzling outside. None of this mattered to me, as I was just so elated to still be in the tropics. The airport employees were starting to pack up and go home, the women waiting for their rides. They were huddled into a group just inside the front door. I should have followed their example, but I was outside in the elements. A piece of palm trees zipped past me, cutting through the air as the winds picked up. I was getting some stares from the women, probably wondering why the hotel shuttle hadn’t picked me up yet. I waited for Brian and his cousin to come. They finally did…an hour later. They hoisted my stuff into the back as I jumped into the car. I loved showing those Bahamian women that yes, I did have a ride, and it wasn’t the tourist bus. J

Our first stop was the gas station, which had a long line. I guess word got out quickly of Hurricane Sandy looming this way. As the vehicle was getting filled up, Brian and I were dropped off at the local grocery store where everyone and their uncle were stocking up on non-perishable items. The bread and water isles were pretty much empty.

Twenty four hours later, I huddled into the living room with the family. The window in the living room wasn’t permanently shut as it was just a twist system with hard plastic. I could hear the winds hurl in. The lights went out. It was officially the night the hurricane swept past the island. We scrambled to find batteries to operate the radio and had to find candles that were put into conch shells. I remember not eating much food. The next day, the food in the fridge was getting worse, so we had to put ice in the fridge. Luckily we remembered picking some up at the store.

The next day, we toured the damage the storm had left on the island. Nothing was open, not even banks. However, the liquor stores had business. As we neared the West end of the island, the hardest hit, I saw piles of sand on the highway and trees broken and strewn out all over. The only place we knew of that had Internet was Paradise Island, the neighboring island from New Providence/Nassau where you had to pay a toll to enter. It angered me that every place on Paradise Island, along with Atlantis Resort, had a generator, and were probably the only places that could afford one. What happened to all those other native Bahamians who couldn’t afford property on Paradise Island, who didn’t have access to amenities? Local Bahamians cannot even afford property on this island, one of the most beautiful, because prices have escalated due to tourism. It is sad then the favor goes to the person with the most money. I checked my Facebook page, where my dad had posted a few times on my wall that he was worried about me and that he wanted to know my exact coordinates. Brian and I walked over to the private beach at Atlantis, which is supposed to be beautiful. It is angering that the beach is closed to guests of the resort. We ignored the signs, figuring they weren’t enforced after the storm, and went to the beach anyways. To my amazement, the waves were humongous! We were perched up on the hills above the beach and could feel the sand being whipped into our faces and hair from the powerful waves. Paradise Island stands North of New Providence, which means the beaches are more dangerous here. I wonder what the waves would be like during the calm, low tides. We saw some tourists walking down by the waves…but we knew better. Never play with Mother Nature.

That same day, I visited a monastery that is connected with St John’s University in Minnesota. A Bahamian priest that Brian knows helped send Brian to St. Johns. He is one of many Bahamians who have attended the school; there is a strong connection. This particular monastery hosts St John’s graduates who want to volunteer in the Bahamas for a year. I was pleased to meet some great minds and hearts that wanted to make a difference in their community. They reminded me of myself 5 years ago, when I set out to do the same thing in Central America. It was really good to play familiar card games and talk about Minnesota and great volunteer organizations to be a part of when traveling. The best part about these volunteer corp. members was that they baked bread for the community every week. We were lucky to have as much as we wanted.

The night before I left Nassau, I was at my second Saturday night gig of 30 Something band. And, I was with the band again. I had never been a groupie before, but when people pay the band a compliment, I felt the joys with the band members. It delighted me so much that the reggae infused music inspired the customers at Viola’s to get up and dance again, along with the local Bahamians that frequent the place. Tis the way of the Bahamian: a party and a journey.

Traveling through the island one last time to the airport on a beautiful Sunday morning, I was happy that God answered my prayer to keep me here a little extra longer. It had been an adventure, exactly what I had hoped for. During my last moments in the car, soaking up the sun and views of the ocean, I was reminded of a quote from Jon Krakauer: “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind. But in reality, nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a woman than a secure future...The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun”.


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