“I’m melting!” Dora pleads halfway between John Watling’s Distillery and Fort Fincastle. Thank goodness for a street stand selling water, she would have combusted into a puddle of humid shock. Her first time in the tropics is turning out to be a nightmare as I nonchalantly tell everybody the fort is walking distance from the rum factory. For as long as both are connected by roads, I sort of leave out the fact that one is on the western side and the other eastern in this Bahamian city of Nassau.
A night on a boat with several hundred people all clamoring for the best seats in a comedy revue can take its toll, so I, my brothers Paolo and Don, and Dora all decide to go as far away from the floating metal slug, and as far away from tourist, as ten hours would permit.
The Old Town is navigable enough as we dodge past polite ladies enticing us to have our hair braided. English colonial buildings in pastel hues doubling as watering holes for portly American tourists abound, as do the fulfilled promise of calypso
music and atomic tan at the nearby Esplanade or Junkanoo Beach. We hurriedly head to a minibus stop, away from the organized trips to the Disneyesque Paradise Island, for the half hour ride to Cable Beach, where supposedly, we can walk to a semi-secret cove through a gap between two resort buildings.
We are disappointed to see the gap being filled by a half-built, gargantuan concrete block covered in Chinese characters twice the size of the resorts on its sides. It makes one wonder how buildings of such massive footprint acquire environmental clearances. A family of six who have been
walking behind us for the same reasons are equally bummed. Their mom tells us her map shows public access a couple of blocks nearby, so we go there in the hopes that no one has decided to plop a new hotel on the sand. We are all elated because it is a public beach and it is where a lot of the locals cook barbecue and scream at their kids to stay close to shore.
I jump into the water like leech in a sea of campers’ skin and enjoy the musical cadence of creole coming out of dads’ mouths discussing cricket matches each time I bob my head out of the water. It is lunch time and there are no restaurants nearby. Paolo discovers a cart selling hotdogs and pop in bottles reminiscent of Sarsi Colas of yore. I walk the length of the beach and enjoy the sight of teenagers jumping off of each others’ shoulders into the water. Someone is putting a slab of protein on charcoal. I make languid conversation to the fellow flipping the meat in the hopes of getting invited to the party. He answers in monosyllables. I can’t blame him for thinking I’m suspect. I want to tell him I come in peace and not with resort hotel investments, but I digress and just enjoy the burning smell of non-factory farmed meat–it is harping on my nostrils, bringing me back to my weekend childhood in Opol, where the sand is as dark as it is white here in Cable Beach, and where the sound of someone singing Matt Monro’s karaoke hits impregnate the salty air.
Back in the city, we first check out the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas where, we notice, no one goes to. The tourist demography that comes in by ship seems neither concerned about nor physically able to walk the relatively challenging jaunt from the pier up a hill to the museum. The lady manning the ticket booth is half asleep when we come in. She is at once warm and protected in a way that works seamlessly with intoxicated tourists who chance on the museum after losing their way from Senor Frogs’. And for five bucks, the two-storey colonial mansion is a steal. Underscoring Bahamian culture is Junkanoo–a Caribbean take on Mardi Gras–where street dancers revel in colorful feathered costumes to the beat of drums and whistles. The museum heavily features Jackson Burnside and his contribution to the art, including whimsical costumes made from everyday cardboard boxes.
A stone’s throw away is John Watling’s Distillery which allows tourists a glimpse of the rum making process inside its 18th century manicured estate, but not before selling you a couple of bottles at the gift shop. From there we proceed to the other side of the old town to walk up the infamous Queen’s Staircase carved out of a whole limestone face by slaves to make way for a direct route into the city. The red carpet obviously had not sufficed. This leads us to Fort Fincastle, built in 1793, in whose shadows we pause to get some water, eat some conch fritters, and generally allow for Dora to catch her breath and feel human again.
We head back down to the old town where the most unimposing parliament building I’ve ever laid eyes on stands demurely. And for kicks, someone painted it pink.
Past more colorful shops, jewelry stores, and cathedrals of intoxication, is the Straw Market. Originally a center of trade for residents, it has morphed into the bauble capital of town, selling everything to keep your officemates happy back home. They have it all, even if you can’t find it in their stall, because they can bring you to a friend two aisles down, and she has five different colors of whatever it is you don’t really need.
The ship blasts its horn. Don hurriedly buys a Hello Kitty bag made of straw for Dora, Paolo buys a hat, I buy a fridge magnet because I am compelled to buy something less touristy than dread lock extensions. Because in Nassau, if you come in on a boat, you are never not a tourist.