Captain needed a local cell phone to contact our Bahamian business partners. Saint, Artist and I jumped at the opportunity to go ashore and purchase one with a few damp twenties. It was an excuse to get off the boat for a little while and stimulate our senses with something other than the water, with which we had been surrounded by for the past month.
After a short dinghy ride, we found ourselves walking down East Bay Street, the main road that led to the cruise ships from the dock at Green Parrot Bar. It was hot, dusty and loud from zooming cars on the English side of the road, where a constant symphony of beeps, honks, toots, and outright blasts passed with nearly every car.
In America the national pastime while driving is texting; it’s our way to keep in touch with friends as we go about our business. In the Bahamas, they practice a similar thing, but on a more immediate level. Rather than connecting with other people over ethereal electromagnetic waves, they prefer the sonic ones of a car horn. Cell phones are more expensive in Nassau, as it turned out. It felt good to be around people in the noisy business of their daily lives: walking on the sidewalk, going into restaurants, sitting on porches, staying out of the hot island sun.
Soon we arrived at the cruise ship mega-entertain-o-plex, and weaved through throngs of tourists, who were laughing, eating ice cream and holding souvenirs while taking pictures of each other. On the sidewalk overlooking the waterfront, vendors on blankets dealt Cuban cigars, conch shells and hand-painted pictures of sunsets. Little kids blew bamboo flutes in my face and shouted, “One dollar, one dollar,” in between atonal bleats. Deckhands in crisp white shirts walked past and yelled about various snorkeling trips at low prices. Stores that sold $3,000 diamond-encrusted wristwatches duty-free shared buildings with trinket hustlers who sold tawdry goods, blurry photographs on T-shirts, postcards of sunsets that said, “Life in the Bahamas: Ya Mon!” or “Conch Get Enough of Dis,” and pirate heads made out of discarded husks of coconuts. Some poor, sad black teenager worked the register while sweaty white people in loud clothing milled around and prodded the merchandise.
We went into a giant air-conditioned building called the “Straw Market.” Behind the labyrinth of booths, we found the help desk, and sitting in the sagging chair behind it was a Bahamian boy, heavyset and about 12. He wore green basketball shorts and a faded red shirt. We asked for directions to the Bahamian Telephone Company, the government-regulated telecommunications monopoly.
“Follow me, I show you,” he said. “Grandma, I’m going.”
The old Bahamian woman sat in a chair in the back of his booth and nodded. He set off and weaved through the aisles full of Bahamian vendors selling hand-woven textiles and high-quality wooden model sailboats. The artist, the saint and I followed closely. He took us back onto East Bay Street, crossed it and turned left. We passed ice cream shops and the McDonald’s.
I was up front and asked, “So have you been having a good day?”
He considered this, then said with a faint nod, “E.T.C.”
“E.T.C.?” I said. “What does that mean?”
“In Nassau, when you ask someone how their day is going, you say, how go?” he said, then he paused and waited for me to pick up on it.
“How go?” I attempted.
“E.T.C.,” he replied. “Every-ting cool.”
“Ah, I get it. E.T.C., man. Good to hear. Hey Saint, how go?”
“E.T.C.,” he said with a grin. “Artist, how go?”
“What are we doing?” she said. She was in back and couldn’t hear us over the buzz of traffic and passing snippets of hundreds of conversations besides our own. We explained it to her.
“E.T.C.,” she said.
The little boy kept walking, slower now, as if hunting for a secret entrance. This place must be hard to find. Finally, bashfully, he sidled up to a police officer directing traffic at an intersection and said something in patois. The police officer looked at him, looked at us, and burst into laughter.
“Man, don’t you remember they moved it last month? It’s on the other side of East Bay, past the market. You dummy!” He looked at our pale group with a smile. “Just walk back that way a while and you’re sure to see it. It’s on the left, just past the bend in the road.”
“Thanks,” we said.
Our boy guide looked at us sheepishly and headed back to his grandmother. We said goodbye to him, found BTC, bought our phone and started to head back to the ship. We elected to take a different route than how we came.
Wandering outside the immediate ring of the cruise ships, downtown Nassau was quite pretty. It combines a post-colonial British knack for layout and handsome monuments and squares with a tropical motif of palm trees, bleached-white buildings, and lizards that scurry between shade and sun. I particularly fell in love with the little two-story octagonal-shaped public library (that used to be a jail) in one of the open knolls. There was a park lined with imposingly tall palm trees and a monolith commemorating the Bahamian dead from one of the world wars.
On a cobblestone-lined street that boasted a pirate museum, a suspiciously relaxed black man sat sprawled on a bench and promised us he could get us any kind of drug we could possibly want, provided we fronted him some cash. We politely declined, and instead began to walk up the hill that separated and contained the cruise ships from the rest of the island, curious to see what was on the other side.
* * * * *
“Last week? On dat side of da hill,” said the Bahamian man on crutches who sold newspapers by the side of the road. “Dere were 14 murders.”
He was selling water at his little stand, alongside sodas, candy bars and newspapers. He peddled to the cars that passed on the road that led over the hill. There was no seat for him.
“That’s got to be personal matters or something, right?” Saint asked. He was the one who walked up to the man in the first place to ask what there was to do on that side of the hill. The hill separated the cruise ship megaplex from whatever was on the other side. The man on crutches shook his head.
“No, mon,” he said, “shooting into crowds. No reason to it.”
A car drove past and honked at him; his eyes met the drivers and he raised his forehead in recognition, a universal “sup” motion, accompanied by a small, down-low wave.
“But why don’t you stay over here, eh? What you want over dare?”
“Just curious, I guess.”
The man clicked his tongue and shook his head. “Mon, stay on dat side,” he said, and gestured back the way we came. “It’s well lit. It’s clean. You can buy everything you want.”
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.
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