The Bahamas Diary: brilliance, beauty, blackouts and brutality
In the Bahamas, I’ve learned, the best way to avoid dying is to cross the road quite often, the best way to avoid getting mugged is to hop into cars with strangers and, if you’re running late, the best excuse is to tell your boss someone was shot dead on the way to work.
Having spent six days on this island, I realise that’s a grossly unfair, misleading introduction, even if it happens to be true. Stick with me on this, and you’ll understand why.
A place of contrasts
It’s Sunday morning on the north coast of Nassau and a group of track and field journalists are standing on the deck of a pristine boat, sipping sweet, fruity cocktails under a blissful sun. I won’t lie; I slept in and missed that damn boat ride, so took the good ‘ol shuttle bus an hour later to the luncheon. I’ve been on this earth for over 27 years, and still don’t know the difference between a lunch and a luncheon. This, apparently, was a luncheon.
A land of amazing beauty, by Cathal Dennehy
Why did I sleep in? Blame Pacquiao and Mayweather.
The previous night – the first night of the World Relays – I had been a little slow to realise just how late it was getting when, sitting in the press conference room with a dozen others, we let time pass us by as we followed every jab, hook and uppercut thrown a couple of thousand miles away in Vegas. It was well after 1am by the time I tracked down a taxi who agreed, with a little massaging of the truth about my eventual destination, to take me to my residence in Fox Hill for $30.
As we got further away from the coast, Taximan grew increasingly upset. When he took the final turn towards the dark crossroads which I called home, he was frantically mumbling to himself. “I know I ain’t here.” I heard some prayers too. The poor guy was well and truly freaked.
Anyway, the following day I made it to the media lunch and, as Bahamian waiters served stuffed mushrooms, conch fritters, crab cakes, chicken kebabs and an array of fancy cakes and cocktails, the journalists shot the breeze on all things track and field.
I spoke to a Japanese journalist about doping in Kenya, spoke to an American journalist about an Irish doper, spoke to a group of journalists from, well, everywhere, about doping in American sprinting. I talk a lot about doping. This, I’ve realised.
In the afternoon, I venture to the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, lay on the beach, flame myself under a hot sun and swim in perfectly clear, tepid water. I wander the resort, linger in the casino, and stroll through the passage of jewelery shops whose prices are so extortionate they can’t even display them.
Everywhere you look, there is opulence. Middle-aged men with white hair and bronzed skin walk alongside Barbie dolls many years younger, tourists pose for photos with a gaudy, over-the-top glass sculpture as if it is Michelangelo’s David.
It was regal, but it was also tacky, superficial, and satisfied you only in the way that eating syrup does: very briefly. After one dose, I’d had enough, and wanted to experience the real Bahamas again.
“They won’t hurt you, just rob you”
The reason you have to keep crossing the road here is the same reason your lungs decide to keep breathing – if you don’t, you die.
A stadium enjoying relays, photo from Cathal Dennehy
By this stage, I stop pretending the journey home from Paradise Island was two to three miles. It is four miles, at least, and my blistered feet feel every step. In places, the space at the side of the road is no more than a foot wide. Cars swoosh by at 60mph, a blast of wind sending a shot of adrenaline coursing through my body.
To survive these parts, it’s essential to walk wherever is least dangerous and so, I switch sides regularly, cursing the odd thorny bush I have to dance around or under to avoid straying into oncoming traffic.
At 8pm, and having underestimated the speed at which darkness falls, I’m walking along the Fox Hill road, supposedly one of the most dangerous roads on the island – and not in the traffic sense – with another mile and a half to my residence.
A black car pulls up alongside and the window rolls down.
“Are you okay?” asks the Bahamian lady in the driver’s seat, who is in her mid-40s and dressed professionally. “Yeah, all good,” I respond, “just walking home.”
Despite the fact she’s holding up the car behind her, she doesn’t drive off.
“Where is home?”
“Up that way, about a mile. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? It’s dangerous for a white boy.”
“Yeah, I’m sure, but thanks.”
“I can bring you there if you’d like?”
“Ehh, yeah, actually, that’d be great.”
I walk around the elegant car and hop into the passenger seat and the lady, who introduces herself as Dr. Toletta, explains that she passed me a couple of miles back while dropping off a friend and wondered where in the hell I must be going. White people only come to this area for two reasons, she says – either they’re lost or they’re looking for drugs. “And you don’t have anyone with you, so you must not be looking for drugs.”
Five minutes later, we arrive at the house.
“Thanks so much,” I say.
“It’s fine, I didn’t want to see anything happen to you. A white boy walking around here isn’t safe. They won’t hurt you, just rob you. I saw you and thought I’d be a good Samaritan. I lived in England for a year and people were nice to me so I should be the same when people come here.”
How nice, I thought, and then tried to imagine the same thing happening in Dublin, or London, or New York, and I couldn’t.
Death on the streets
When I arrive home, I knock in next door to see if my newest friend from India, Joshi, could cook me dinner. He was already in the advanced stages and, what’s better, house owner Bovie was unable to make it so there was a mountain of jerk chicken, marinated potato fries, rice and dahl to feast on. As we ate, Joshi told me about his day at work, then dropped into conversation that on his way there, somewhere in downtown Nassau, there was a “shoe out”.
Breakfast of champions, photo by Cathal Dennehy
“What do you mean, a shoe?” I ask.
“Shoe out?” You know this word?
“There was a shooo tout,” he said, pronouncing it clearly so the penny finally dropped.
“Ahhhh, a shootout!”
“Yeah, a guy was killed. Cops everywhere. I was late for work because of it.”
The thing that worried Joshi the most wasn’t the fact a man died or that he was within spitting distance of a public, daytime gun-fight, it was the reaction of other passengers on the bus, the locals.
“They just glance at it, then look away,” said Joshi. “Like it’s no big deal.”
It’s Sunday evening, back at the plush Atlantis hotel and in the giant ballroom, I’m trying to choose between the lime pie and the guava cheesecake. Torn, I heap both onto my plate. Because I can.
All around, athletes, guests and media members are mixing, chatting, eating and drinking at the banquet to celebrate another successful World Relays.
Justin Gatlin sits at the table next to us, rising every few minutes for a selfie or photograph with a fawning fan, who approach him for reasons only they could explain. He smiles that forced smile that celebrities must master and poses, then the fans bounce away into the night, happy with their little rub of fame.
I have a beer but am too tired to have any more, and call it a night. Thankfully, my friend has a spare bed in his room at the Atlantis, which saves me forcing another taxi man into the dark depths of Fox Hill again.
There are three pillows on the single bed, three. The panel on the back of the door says the cost of the room per night varies from $380 to $800, depending on the season. That’s a house in some countries.
At breakfast the next morning, there are seven types of yoghurt, two chefs stationed at omelette counters ready to cater to your personal demands, five kinds of pastries and much, much more. My normal breakfast here was cornflakes in a cup, so it made a nice change. I didn’t eat. I fuelled. There’s a difference. I left with a full tank.
“You a brave white man”
On my final day, I walk alone to the Atlantis resort, with nothing but some money and a map in my pocket. Having one phone, they say, is essential. Having two phones, a luxury. True heaven, though, is having no phone at all. Today, that’s me, unable to take pictures or whatsapp or twitter or facebook or blah blah blah…
Thunderous rain slowly clears, the clouds spewing their vitriol then dissipating and leaving behind a clear blue sky. I venture around the water park, cascade down near-vertical slides, and re-visit the aquarium. Yesterday, when the weather was especially shit, I visited the aquarium with Ben, who writes for the Telegraph in Britain.
We saw sting-rays peacefully glide along the bottom of the enormous tank, always looking a little suspicious. We saw freaky-looking lobsters with the longest legs, a group of evil-looking huge silver fish who scared the living shit out of the other fish each time they passed. We saw cute little yellow seahorses, and one seemingly deranged fish that was doing speedy back-and-forth laps of its tiny tank. Before we passed that tank again a while later, Ben queried what the odds were of that fish to still be doing the exact same, meaningless little laps. I said I’d give him five bucks if it wasn’t. It was. This is my life: gambling on fish.
As the sun set, I headed for home. Once again, I was too late for the bus, so a four-mile trek awaited. Halfway there, I was stopped by a middle-aged Bahamian with very black skin and very grey hair. “Where you lookin fah, man?” he asked.
I knew my route so kept moving as I said “just up ahead, Woolf road”, but he was persistent, which made me a little suspicious.
“Where you go when you get there?”
“Ehh, Fox Hill.”
“Fox Hill? Fuck, man. You a brave white man goin Fox Hill.”
He offered me directions and just as I was saying goodbye, I tried to give him the change I had in my pocket, assuming that was why he assisted. He looked like he could have used it, but he declined, saying: “I just wanna help you get where you’re going.”
Then, a car came past and he waved at the driver, who he knew, signalling for him to turn around.
He leaned in the open window and told his friend to bring me home, and when I pointed out my destination on the map, the driver laughed. The old guy shook his head. “You not even stayin in Fox Hill, you know dat? You right by the jail.”
It’s good I learned only learned this now, on my final night.
As I get into the car, I shake hands with the old guy who stopped me. His little finger, I feel, is unable to straighten, clenched at a 90-degree angle. It makes for an awkward handshake. “I didn’t wanna see anything happen to you,” he says, still shaking his head.
When I arrive home, Joshi is once again cooking up a fantastic meal of Lentil curry, roast chicken and roti, which is an Indian flatbread.
There is also Bovie, the Bahamian house owner, Bovie’s girlfriend, Ye, from Shanghai, Bovie’s mother, and Joshi’s wife. Joshi is blaring Punjabi rap on YouTube. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but there you go.
As we finish eating, everything goes black.
Power cuts, Bovie explains, are pretty common here. “This is because dey used all de energy and generators for the stadium,” he says, “to make sure there’s no power cut for the championships.”
Behind all the glamour, lights and energy on show at the World Relays, I guess someone has to face the fallout, and this is it. We take turns lighting the room with our phones.
“We are lucky,” says Joshi. “Look at us with our Iphones. Most of the world doesn’t even have this.”
Bovie’s mother, with classic Bahamian, sunny-side-up outlook, nods her head in approval. “You know, power cuts are good sometimes,” she says. The room all pays close attention to the wisdom of this cheery old lady with a coffee-and-cream complexion.
“When there is no light, we have to go outdoors, and we look up at the stars. We see the beauty that you can’t see when you have all this electricity, all this light.”
She’s right, I realise. When’s the last time you just lay down and looked at the stars?
When Bovie leaves, along with his girlfriend and mother, Joshi and I talk in relative darkness, our phones long since dead. He tells me how foolish I was to walk around earlier with the wristband pass for the waterslides at the Atlantis on display. “They see that, they think you’re paying $500 a night for a room, so they’ll rob you.”
Fright night, photo by Cathal Dennehy
Joshi has visited 56 countries and knows how to avoid trouble. In Nigeria, he shaved his head to look more like the locals and wore the most ragged clothes he could find to avoid being kidnapped by Boko Haram. In Honduras, he was followed home by a professional mugger who swiftly had has legs blown off by a shotgun when Joshi told the gatekeeper at his residence what was happening.
“You need to look like you have nothing, because then they won’t want to rob you,” he says. “Never take the same route every day, too, otherwise they’ll know your routine.”
I tell him about my day on Paradise Island, how I lost money on blackjack then won it back again. He disapproves. “What did I tell you about staying out of bad places?” he says with a smile. “We have a saying in India, you never chase after three things – the woman, the train, and the money.”
Outside the house, sirens are heard around the area, along with shouting, cursing and slightly re-assuring laughter. Joshi says the murder rate here is about one per day. On an island of only 70,000 people, that’s a disturbing statistic if it’s even close to accurate.
We hear footsteps along the gravel path inside the house’s compound, and a man talking to himself, who sounds furious. “PO-lice tryna investigate me,” he says, metres away from the unlocked door. “Nobody can fuckin investigate me.”
Joshi bounces up from his seat and locks the door, and we see the shadow of the man walk past the window. For the next half hour, we hear his voice occasionally in the garden, talking on the phone. There is a couple of mentions of a gun.
I peek out into the garden, and see his silhouette moving along the far wall behind some trees. Joshi re-assures me that there is an adjoining house on that side of the garden, so he probably just lives there, but still., I’m semi-shitting it.
“If they want to do something, there’s nothing we can really do,” says Joshi. “They know we are here. Don’t worry, man. Nothing will happen.”
I let 20 minutes pass and walked out into the garden and round to the entrance to my room, locking the door swiftly behind me. I didn’t sleep well.
When I awoke, the rain was slamming against the window, and a hint of sadness descended that the trip, which was equal parts weird and wonderful, was over.
I packed and saw the number 11 bus chugging along the road. Buses in the Bahamas are more like group taxis. You get on, tell the driver where you’re going and, once it doesn’t divert miles away from his planned course, he’ll drop you there. The fare is $1.25, but as the driver said: “pay whatever you want, it doesn’t matter.” Some people splash coins into his cup, others just get on and sit down. Rules here, I’ve learned, are merely suggestions.
This is brought home to me by Ricky, who is the Bahamian driver of the organisers’ shuttle bus which takes me to the airport. “Everybody here drinks and drives,” says Ricky. “Everybody laid back about things.”
“Don’t the cops mind?” I ask.
“Nahhh, the same cop who could give you a ticket will be a friend of a friend. The island is so small, everybody knows everybody.”
Ricky is the latest to join the list of incredibly friendly Bahamians I’ve met on this trip, people so warm and welcoming and so keen to make sure you enjoy your trip that you simply can’t come away from this place with a negative memory.
People like Bianca, who was one of the organisers who I got chatting to when she implored me at a food stand at the stadium to try the sheep tongue stew. “I promise you, it’s amazing.”
I wussed out and got the reliable jerk chicken.
Bianca was one of the first to warn me about staying in Fox Hill, insisting I must be as crazy as the people in the mental institution which, she said, also happens to be situated there. I passed her a few times over the weekend, and each time she started laughing, saying “you made it another day! I thought you’d be dead by now”. I’m still not sure if she was joking.
And people like Ernestine, the burly woman who, for $8 each night at the national stadium, served up incredible chicken stew with sweet cake on the side. One time, while waiting in line, the Bahamian dude beside me pretended to Ernestine that I was his friend. Ernestine, looking suspicious, asked him how he knew me.
“This white boy is dating my sister,” he said.
Going along with it, I added: “yeah, I got her pregnant too.”
“They’re getting married in the summer,” he added.
Ernestine looked at us both with narrowed eyes, unsure of whether to believe us.
As she handed me my food, she said: “here, Irish boy, don’t you go getting any more Bahamian girls pregnant now.”
There were so many characters like that this week, so many warm, witty people, just like the last Bahamian I spoke to as I made my way to the airport – Ricky.
“Are you from the Bahamas originally?” I ask him.
“Bawwn and raised.”
“Bawwn and raised.”
We chat about alcohol, comparing what’s good and bad from our respective countries. He points out the Prime Minister’s house as we pass, then the cemetery where Anna Nicole Smith is buried, then the lagoon where in the summer, the school-kids have jet-ski races.
“So you’ve enjoyed your time in the Bahamas?” he asks as we approach the airport terminal.
“Loved it,” I say.
“You’ll come back then?”
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