#27: Bahamas: Love Portions, Bad Stomach and
Rainy Weather in the Sunny Isles
4 June 2002
Wee-Cheng at a beach resort ? That sounds like a recipe for a disaster story. Indeed, disasters large and small occurred during my final week in the Americas, after I flew into Miami from Mexico City, my favourite metropolis of the Americas.
After a night on fashionable Miami Beach, playground of wealthy Yanks as well as the ruling elite of Latin America, I boarded a 14-seater of the so-called Gulfstream International Airlines, which calls itself international because it flies to Bahamas, and yet this flight is considered as “domestic” in terms of check-in hours. Fifty turbulent minutes to reach Nassau, capital of Bahamas, during which the howling winds made me touched repeatedly my good luck talisman – the Chinese-Buddhist goddess Guan Yin – my own version of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, which I have carried with me across most of the 80-plus countries I have been to in the past decade.
I must be the only backpacker on the flight, my fellow passengers being affluent resort holiday makers, and day visitors in to play a round of golf before returning to the Sunshine State for dinner. Indeed, the airport tourist information office viewed me with a slight disapproval when I asked for the cheapest available accommodation in town. The local hostel, which offered dormitory beds at US$26, a princely sum by standards of most hostels worldwide, has closed down and the next cheapest in town was US$55/night. No choice, I just had to take it.
Next problem: How do I get to town ? There are no buses to Nassau! Why should they have any? Most tourists here stay in fancy resorts that pick them up at the airport, or have the spare change for US$25 taxi fare anyway. By then, it was raining cats and dogs, and so walking to the nearest town wasn’t quite an option. It took me a while to find an American girl willing to split the taxi fare (which in any case didn’t mean 50/50 split, but a 67% each on the US$25 because we were going to different locations, that despite the ridiculous proximity of our hotels, in accordance to the Ministry of Tourism rules, awarded the driver with a higher gain than if we were to go to the same location.).
Bahamas, a chain of islands off the eastern coast of Florida state, USA, is a bizarre combination of an oversized McDonald’s playground and Her Majesty’s sunny Caribbean outpost.
Once a British colony, Bahamas is now an independent monarchy, with the Queen of that far-flung group of islands off the coast of northwestern Europe (whose language was once described in The Economist as an American dialect of some islands off the European coast) as the Head of State, who is represented by a locally appointed Governor General, a status not much different from other far-flung ex-colonial islands like Australia and New Zealand. You still have the Royal Bahamas Police Force and Royal Bahamas Defense Force, whose band play bagpipes in bermudas and fake leopard skin. But the comparison ends there. The British have long lost their sunny islands, even well before independence.
The islands use the American dollar, masquerading as the Bahamas dollar, which is equivalent on a one-to-one basis. They hosted the royalists fleeing the American Revolution, and later the defeated Confederates. Wealthy New Englanders dropped by the islands for a momentary escape from Prohibition. During WWII, the US Navy took over under the Land Lease Programme that prevented the UK from bankruptcy while fighting the Nazis. American money has driven these islands, right from the founding of the United States. Today, McDonald’s, Sheraton and Continental run the isles with the legions of US tourists and golfers.
Even before getting to the hotel, Bahamas had already lightened my wallet. I shouldn’t complain too much, as this was a good advance reminder of London prices, which I soon have to get used to again. The rainy weather – my first major rainfall since I left the Andes – made the notion of sunny Caribbean sound like a bad joke.
I wandered around in the streets in a cheap raincoat, looking for the Bahamian street scene. How exotic – Nassau is but a one street town with such illustrious local brands like Versace, Christian Dior, Gucci and Cartier. Day tourists who have arrived on luxury cruiseships rushed around the so-called duty free shops, hoping to buy enough to make the trip worth it. A most Anglo-Saxon-looking statue of Christopher Columbus, who was supposed to have first caught sight of the Americas when he landed on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, further confirmed my suspicion that this was an island version of Disneyland. And this statue stood in front of the Government House, where the Duke of Windsor lived as Governor after being exiled from the UK, after his abdication over the love of a divorced US socialite.
Disappointed with the overpriced deep-fried Bahamian Chicken, which did not convince me how more Bahamian it was compared with the Kentucky variety, I returned to the dry shelter of the hotel. Apart from the standard American cable fare, the local channels seem to comprise mainly of preachers warning about the fires of hell for non-believers, or still advertisements congratulating local school kids who have passed examinations with good grades or neighbourhood policemen who got a promotion.
I met some Indians working in the Turks & Caicos Islands, a British colony to the southeast of Bahamas. I had considered going to the T&C from Bahamas, in my pursuit to tick off any bit of countries and dependencies worldwide, but had balked at the US$400 air fares. The accounts of these Indian expats have confirmed my suspicion that T&C would send me to the poorhouse. The cheapest hotel there cost US$90 and if that’s filled up, as it usually is, the next one starts from US$250. The Caribbean is an expensive place if you want to tick off the country boxes.
Two nights and one full day were somewhat long. Day Two is tacky resort day. In equally appalling weather, I visited Paradise Island, a smallish isle just off New Providence, the island on which Nassau was located. Previously known as Hog Island because pirates once left lots of pigs (as opposed to treasures there), it was renamed in the 1970s to give it a new lease of life.
A huge resort has since been built on it. Named after the legendary island of Atlantis, this obscene, monstrous complex rose above tiny Paradise Island, and even dominated the skyline of nearby Nassau. Strange, tacky statues of mermaids and mystical creatures decorated its rooftops and interiors – this was what Atlantis would look like if it didn’t sink into the bottom of the sea, the resort brochure proclaimed. Sharks, rays and tropical fishes swim in the resort’s many canals and pools – the second-largest marine habitat in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, according to yet another outrageous claim of the resort’s Ministry of Propaganda.
Oh, I forgot to tell you that Atlantis is run by Sun Resorts, the group that built another weird fantasy den, the Sun City of South Africa. Fake Mayan temples and equally fake Mesopotamian, Greek and Egyptian sculptures proclaim the vulgar glory of what money can buy and the outrageous dreams they sell. If you cannot afford the US$250-a-night rooms and US$20 breakfast, you may join a 1-hour guided tour of the complex for US$25 per person. I preferred, perhaps in less than totally lawful manner, a private self-guided exploration while pretending to be a respectable Far Eastern customer of the complex’s casino.
Squeezed in the channel between New Providence and Paradise Island, however, is the real Bahamas. I stopped by Clay Potter, a tiny sand bar which serves as the capital’s fresh produce market. Here they sell fresh conch, raw with salad or fried with fries. Conch, the national dish of Bahamas, is a huge clam-like shellfish that strives in the warm waters of the Caribbean, with beautiful pinkish-grey shells and a even bigger reputation of being the an aphrodisiac. The conch is a slow creature, and would all disappear if there were no controls over their harvest. Bahamian laws stipulate that they could only be caught by licensed divers who are allowed no more than 10 catches a day, with their bare arms, and diving only with snorkeling gear, i.e., scuba diving and other sophisticated equipment not allowed.
I watched a local diver in action, plunging into the waters, and coming up with these huge shells of love and unyielding passion. Brokers stood nearby, bargaining loudly over the next load of the love-shells. I popped by a roadside stall for a plate of tasty crack conch, deep-fried love flesh of sorts. Yes, they tasted good, but too bad I didn’t have a chance to test the validity of their legendary claims. Well, what did follow, however, was a mini revolution in my stomach, the sort associated more closely to unclean seafood than to anything with romantic notions.
Day Three was bye-bye day, and Nassau turned into a parade ground. It’s the opening of the new parliament. I watched the military band marching through the streets with their colonial steel helmets. The who’s-who of Bahamian society gathered in front of the Parliament building, together with the diplomatic corps and assorted tourists like me. I snapped a few pictures (which together with many others were unfortunately deleted by a rogue trader in Miami in a few days’ time) and then rushed to the airport for the flight to Miami. Or rather, I took a US$1 bus to a point 2.7 miles (you see, the Bahamians rely so much on US tourism that they haven’t bothered to use the metric standard) from the airport in order to walk there and save the US$24 in taxi fare. After half a kilometer, a friendly Bahamian gave me a lift, thus saving me from the impending rain.
And so ended my foray into the sunny islands of the Caribbean, complete with lush tropical rain, bad stomach and a lighter wallet. My stay in Miami in the next few days would further aggravate this disastrous phrase of my journey. That will be in the next entry from me.