22 x 40: The Bahamas

T’was the day after Christmas and the whole island rustled. Feathers and jewels and costumes were ruffled. Late into the night, Bahamians worked through towers of glitter, piles of masks, and rolls of colorful crepe paper. Only until the moment the great Junkanoo parade began on Bay Avenue in Nassau did the Boxing Day preparation ‘end,’ and that’s only if you count the brief moments until preparations begin for the New Year’s Eve reprieve or even next year’s cherished event. Junkanoo… Who knew? As usual, I did no planning before my trip New Providence Island in the Bahamas, so of course had no idea about this amazing display of music and culture. This is a story about how Couchsurfing makes the world a better place, and Sheila showing me Junkanoo’s beauty is only the beginning.

When I arrived on Christmas day, we didn’t do Junkanoo right away. Since the famous parade was postponed for one day, it meant we had more time for family events. Sheila graciously brought me to friends’ and family’s houses alike, sharing with me crab rice, fish, bacon mac and cheese, very VERY strong rum cake, and black cherry tea. I saw the disturbing path Hurricane Mathew left behind two years ago, heard stories of building and rebuilding Nassau, and took in the sunny 80 degrees I’d left DC’s winter for. When asked who Sheila’s guest was, my host explained that she was new to Couchsurfers and it is a great way to meet travelers, end of story. Nobody seemed to mind how I stuck out like a lightbulb either. The talk of the evening was Junkanoo this and Junkanoo that, so much so that by the end of the night I swore I could hear the fabled “cowbell beat, the COWBELL BEAT!”

 

There was no way Sheila’s friends or family – Ambrose, Max, Clem, Craig, Rosie, or Margaret – could have prepared me for what I saw and felt as those beats passed me by. 15 different groups, judged for their highly competitive thematic costumes and dance, parading in massive displays through historic downtown. Bands with hundreds of horns, drums, and you got it, cowbells. The parade lasts over 12 hours, but we only stayed through midnight. We watched Sheila and Ambrose’s daughter, Ecarscha, perform as an Egyption in the Valley Boys Ancient Civilizations dances. Why Roots won and Valley Boys came in 4th place is completely beyond me (sorry Eddie, I’m team Valley all the way!)

Sheila helped me in so many ways, well beyond the typical call of duty for Couchsurfing. When my AirBnb mysteriously cancelled, it was her reminder that prompted me to book the last remaining bed on the island in Humes Homes (I’m told Bahamians know no loyalty, is that true?). When taxis were not available and buses promptly stopped at dark, it was her family that brought me to my hostel in the middle of the night. When her beautiful daughter performed in Junkanoo’s Valley Boy “Ancient Civilations” segment, it was her that brought me to the VIP section of the historic downtown’s sites. I’m not new to Couchsurfing’s magic, but Sheila definitely brought hosting to a whole new level.

Which is a good thing because without her, Nassau would have struck me harder than most island nations’ capitals. Bus drivers will either be helpful or drunk, people are usually yelling at each other, and overall the island and her beaches seem inaccessible. The island caters toward a largely private resort/cruise audience or a depot for nature seekers to collect their tour guides and head to the other 29 habitable islands asap– not much in between for the backpacker like me (not like I represent a major revenue bracket haha). As with any country, the taxi drivers will overcharge and you will fight over the rate before and after the ride. Once, I wondered how legal the yellow mustang I sped along in was… I’d been heavily warned to not travel alone, especially at night, yet even taking the bus during the day doesn’t mean the driver will be sober. For some reason, the whole island’s focus is conspicuously east which makes one wonder what is being kept secret in the west. Few things are in walking distance, creating more challenges. Over time, however, Nassau’s clashes become less disturbing and her people more warm. It helps to remember their island is held hostage by tourists bound for Atlantis or Baha Mar and low-paying jobs they don’t have enough of. As you ride the bus through the layers of ghetto in the center of the 7 mile wide island and hear people yelling, you actually find they are loudly claiming their love for each other, and for God.

One interesting thing I observed about Bahamians is they are very knowledgable about the States and their cities, even have opinions on places like Arkansas and California. I guess that makes sense given their proximity to USA, but I don’t recall this from my visits to Mexico and Canada. We are not so far apart, you know? Another thing I loved were the pot cakes. These are not what you think, but rather very self-sufficient and calm dogs roaming the island like cats in Greece. They’re everywhere, and they’re awesome.

I teach full time and had a sole goal for my holiday getaway to a tropical location: Sit near a beach, watch the water, and write/edit videos. I wouldn’t have chosen Nassau for this type of vacation (I’d heard it was mainly a private resort kind of place), I just sort of ended up with this ticket so went with it. I knew I couldn’t afford the $400 ticket to swim with pigs in Pig Island, $200 plane tickets and $200 tour fees to swim with dolphins and sharks in Exuma or Bimini, or $150 snorkeling tours and parasailing along Paradise Island. I never even checked the horseriding on the beach. As my Brother says, I’ve done those things (save the pigs, and it was camels, not horses, but close enough). I only need water, and a laptop. Both were very hard to achieve this week, and my rest at the tiny hostel was limited. I showed up to the Bahamas tired from a very full four months on the job and in my bottom bunk, I kept having dreams about my students, good and bad. Hostel and travel-wise, I actually haven’t roughed it this hard since Albania. There were few safe places to use a personal laptop, and even fewer public spaces to simply sit and relax. There were the bone chilling bus rides with questionable drivers and my usual confusion in navigating the opposite side of the road (cars are mixed-seated here!) Beaches are either very small and very overcrowded, cluttered with jetskis, far away, or private. I did manage a long relaxing beer overlooking Cabbage Beach’s turquoise water, with my journal. Other than Junkanoo, that quiet hour was a huge highlight for me, filling for now a need unmet by my new life in DC. You never miss the water until the well runs dry.

Straws. If you know me, you know I’ve been obsessed on the topic since I innocently scrolled through an Instagram post showing their terrible effects on marine ecosystems. You tolerate me picking them up from ship’s floors moments before they fly in the ocean, ordering water with no straw, or complaining how obscenely overused they are. And now you see, with your own eyes, how many straws I picked up in less than five minutes along the white sands of Cabbage Beach. There were so many I could not collect! Fatigued from another day of seeing the beauty and peril in the ongoing clash of rich vs. poor in the Caribbean, I stopped at a great place called Pirate Republic. Here I was comforted by their biodegradable straws. All of you can thank Pirate Republic for helping me keep this straw-rant to one paragraph.

Back to Couchsurfing. This is a story about how Couchsuring.com is one of the very best things I’ve ever discovered about humanity, ever. I’ve enjoyed Couchsurfers’ company in Iceland, Taiwan, Colorado, Texas and even sailing. I know from my limited hosting – just one person from Algeria – it can be tough, nervewracking. A stranger is showing up from somewhere else and in your home, your space, your stuff. Do you just meet up for a drink and some local hosting, like Sheila? Do you feed them? Entertain them? What if they murder you? Nevermind all that. We all agree, it’s basically the best gamble of humanity, so far. It’s also a great way to mix things up with likeminded travelers in the hostel/backpacking circuit, like my hostel-mates Syed from Malaysia, Chris and Kai from Germany, Michael from Italy, and Chalar from Turkey/Montana have likely done. Sheila’s meetups proved Couchsurfing principles tenfold. Her home was heavily damaged in Matthew so used meetups with Couchsurfers instead of hosting. I tried to thank her over seafood dinner with Ecarscha, another Couchsurfer from Alaska named Heather, and Eddie, the hostel owner. Filled with conch, entrepreneurial conversation and ready for some live music, Eddie showed me New Providence’s elusive and secret west side, 21 miles away, and a very exciting place called Philosophy Smokehouse. Go, dance, and thank me later 🙂

Many things I did in Nassau, rest was not one of them. My best weird vacation ever is ended and I must go. Over coffee, Chris tells me about his relocation to the Bahamas and I’m reminded of the intriguing concept of private ownership of land and business in a country so near the USA. Time to pack my tiny and trusty 35L pack, stop by Papa Sid’s “Bring Your Own Bowl” for some sheep tongue stew on the way to the 16a bus with friendly conversation with the now recognizable bus driver Solomon (the sober one). Accept an offer to transfer to the #10 even though everyone said take the #12, then walk along the airport’s main road to depart with thousands of tourists fresh off their own holiday. Them with their tans, braided hair, and beach bags, me in my smelly travel clothes and pink tennies. I wonder what their experiences were, or if they saw the same subtle and gritty magic I saw. When compared to the resort route, maybe I actually saw the very best of Nassau afterall. I shared this with Sheila over a quick homemade curry chicken snack at a local airport shack before I left. Being in Nassau taught me I will see the best and worst of humanity every day in life – at home or on holiday – but at least here it is tropical. A patient traveler friend once told me, “One eye cries while the other laughs.”

This “Trip!” is dedicated to the pink tennies, new and old, that have brought me on these incredible adventures. #iteachibahamas #bestweirdvacationever #tickledpink #pink #humble

@fullcirclejess
(c) 2017 Full Circle J. Productions, LLC

 

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