I stepped off the Disney ship and into the Bahamas, expecting the assembly of aggressive island salesman that assault tourists at any port.
“Hi there, handsome, what you need? Hat, sunglasses, jacket, hand-carved toys for the kiddies?”
“Hey, brother, come and get some island special!”
“American! I have a drink for you!”
“Get ya hair braided here! Four dollars per inch!”
“Taxi or cab, taxi or cab, ride to Atlantis four dollars! You want taxi to beach!”
I kept my eyes averted, knowing that any eye contact or conversation would lead to further attempts at sales. I saw a may eye my wallet pocket, and then give me a grin, filled with missing teeth, when he saw me notice. When a small girl, only seven, called me ‘handsome American’ and invited me to her family booth, I walked more quickly away, feeling sad and overwhelmed.
I walked briefly through the Straw Market, where dozens of women sold homemade wares in a building cooled only by high-powered fans. They each sat in hardback chairs, fanning themselves, attempting to engage me as I walked by. The whole place was a rather sad version of Pike Market in Seattle, and I wondered what the daily life for these women was, working back-breaking hours at this small market to rent spaces.
I walked up the streets of Nassau quickly and evenly, passing through the westernized commercial district, where I saw McDonalds and Burger King among the bars, tattoo shops, liquor shops, and souvenir shops. I walked through the more historic district, where a statue of the first Queen Elizabeth stood in an unkempt courtyard; past the Supreme Court of the Bahamas, a small building with bright pink walls; and past a sex education clinic with two large billboards, one reading “Abstain or Condomize” and another that announced “Protect Ya Tings!” Thinking back to the man eyeing my wallet, I slid a hand in my pocket protectively and thought that sign had good advice.
Around another corner, I came across another court building, this one emblazoned with a large plaque of the Coat of Arms of the Bahamas. I was struck by the detailed artistic image, and baffled by its complexities and bizarre imagery. A budding flower surrounded by palm fronds seemingly grew out of a conch shell across the top, and the shell, itself blooming blue and orange blossoms or ribbons, sat atop a shield divided in two, the top half showing a bold and brilliant sun and the bottom half showing an old English ship, meant to represent the famous Columbus ship the Santa Maria, on the ocean. The shield pierced the ground in two, one side of it ocean and the other side land, and banners reading the words “Forward, Onward, Upward Together”. Most striking, and most strange, were the two animals on either side holding up the shield, a Marlin, standing on its tail on the ocean’s surface, and a Flamingo, one leg raised appropriately, the other securely on the ground.
With a bit of research and conversation, I learned a bit more about the Bahamas themselves. A chain of literally hundreds of islands with a population of nearly 400,000. The Bahamas had been populated by Native people for hundreds of years before Columbus landed in 1492 on the island of Guanahani. He promptly renamed it San Salvador Island, took over the “savage” people, and populated the island and those nearby with white settlers and African slaves, who could plunder the wealth of the islands for its new conquerors. The forests were chopped down, the sea life depleted, and the white man’s government was set up, passing from country to country until England took over. The capital city of Nassau (a frequent staging base for pirates) was set up as the seat of government, and established on New Providence Island. The following centuries were full of political strife, involvement in World Wars, and governmental growth until the Bahamas became its own nation a mere five decades ago.
Later in the day, with my sons and a few family members, I took a bus tour of Nassau, and listened to the driver recite historical facts as we drove through streets. I wondered what daily life here would be like, in a city that clearly struggles with poverty. I saw farms in backyards full of broken down cars, busted windows, exhausted looking elderly people sitting on dilapidated porches. The driver discussed the layout of the islands and travel between them, how 85 per cent of the locals are directly descended from the African slaves brought to the islands by Columbus and his men, and the pride the people put into their government. He discussed how the island had been ravaged by hurricanes, and how it took years to recover after each one.
The driver high-lighted the flying Bahamas flag, a simple image, like any flag, with so much symbolic meaning. He stated that the black triangle represented the people and their strength they carried, the gold stripe represented sand and sun, and the aquamarine fields represented the ocean around them.
As the bus pulled into the dock, and I prepared to board the ship again, I held my sons close in to me. We talked about life in other countries and history and my brain was filled with profound thoughts I needed to get on to paper soon. One of my sons guzzled half a bottle of water while the other leaned in and whispered, “I love you, daddy.”
I grinned as we got off the bus, their hands in mine, and thought, “Protect Ya Tings!” once again.