Bahamas - Hassles in Nassau
Bill had wanted to give me at least one night in a hotel. I like nice hotels and although I had become quite attached to sleeping in the rocking boat, a hot shower and clean sheets sounded good. His travel agent had booked us into the Marriott Crystal Palace for Christmas Eve.
Nassau Harbor was huge and deep. It was designed to accomodate freighters and cruise ships as well as pleasure craft and small commerical boats. It was crossed by several very tall bridges, and the volume of traffic there was like nothing I had seen before. To the right we passed a giant sailing ship, restored and used to take tourists out for brief sails. Around it were huge flat barges and tugboats. To the left a number of sailboats had taken anchorage. Private luxury yachts populated the marinas, and multi-leveled cruise ships lurked in a channel behind an industrial loading area. We cruised along slowly, squinting at the larger buildings in search of our hotel.
Both of us wanted lunch and we needed to get two of our scuba tanks filled. We spotted a festively-painted dockside restaurant and turned in toward it. Tying up between a decrepit working fishing boat and a small dingy, we climbed onto the high dock with difficulty. The restaurant was closed, but someone inside recommended another place close by.
As we walked past a small shack, the pier's security person asked us if we were going to be long. We asked if docking there was a problem, and said we were just going to grab lunch. The guard was a tall skinny guy with a big smile and slouched shoulders. His oversized blue tee-shirt hung in folds over baggy jeans. "Go to de Quarterdeck, man," he said. "Or Rachel's, dey got good food." He pronounced Rachel as Rockel. We walked down a narrow street lined with old cars, stepped over the squashed maggot-infested remains of a large rat, and turned left onto a busy street.
We spotted Rachel's and went in; they had no bathrooms and I really needed to wash my hands. We tried the Quarterdeck, upstairs from Rachel's, but they weren't serving lunch. They recommended another restaurant down the street. That place looked like a regular bar, only the patrons weren't drinking or eating; they seemed to be one huge family that was just hanging out. They had no bathroom either, and weren't serving lunch. "Go to d'Pacific Inn," they said. All of them. As we walked out the door, they were still calling after us. "The Pacific Inn, man, dey got de good food."
I assumed this complex network of business referral must be hinged on familial relationships. We walked a few blocks down the crowded street. The narrow roadway was jammed with cars of all makes and models, old, new, sparkling, shabby. Large trucks negotiated their way around ninety-degree turns into tiny alleys. Taxis honked their horns uselessly, like they do everywhere in the world, and the sidewalks were jammed with local people. Like the cars, some were sparkling, some were shabby. We saw no other tourists.
The Pacific Inn was a medium-sized room brightly lit by the sunlight pouring in the two large plate-glass windows in front. To the right was an old cash register on top of a glass counter containing cigarettes and candy. Behind the register was a mirrored wall containing shelves of liquor and boxes of cigars. Behind the register sat a small Chinese man with a fu manchu mustache and a newsboy cap. Next to the glass counter was a small bar with a television behind it. Each of the five stools there was occupied by men who seemed to be on their lunch breaks.
To the left were three large tables. Only the first was occupied, by a number of people who seemed to be related by the fact that they were not alike. An elderly man watching TV; two teenage girls looking out at the street; a young woman with a baby; two older women who were playing cards. Beyond the tables and the bar was a pool table being used by four men playing doubles.
As we entered, the proprietess, a large slow-moving woman with yellow skin and huge glossy hair approached us. She walked with her knees bent toward each other and her feet splayed sideways, as if her legs were slowly collapsing under her weight. She looked us up and down with suspicion and purpose, unsmiling. Bill asked, "Are you serving lunch?" and she finally smiled, seeming to have made her mind at that moment that we were all right.
Lunch took a long time to arrive. Bill joked that they had to run up to Rachel's to get it. While we waited, we drank iced tea and shared another cigar. The television was showing a news channel; we watched a piece on holiday travel delays; the video was from our local area's airports and train stations, and we snickered with each other about the poor schmucks all wrapped up in coats and scarves and stuck in Washington, D.C. With a snow storm expected.
After lunch we wandered back to the boat and crossed the harbor to get fuel. At the fuel dock we asked the young guy running the pumps if he knew where our hotel was. He did, he said, but there was no dock at the hotel. Nassau was jammed for the holidays and slips were hard to come by; listening to the VHF on the way in we'd heard a number of boats trying unsuccessfully to make docking arrangements. The fuel guy told us to come back if we couldn't find a place to tie up and he'd squeeze us in. "How much?" we asked.
He shrugged. "A little something."
On land, we could have gotten a cash advance to pay the man, but in a boat we were not so lucky. Bill put the GPS in tracking mode and we headed west toward Cable Beach. We were told the hotel was a large colorful building, and we told right. Each floor of the hotel was a different gaudy color. The only dock was a covered pier from which the jet ski concession was run. Near the dock were three wooden steps that jutted over the sea wall and stopped. There was no place to dock, so Bill decided that we would have to moor the boat in the shallows, and he would swim in. He dropped me at the wooden step so I could check us in and make sure it was alright for us to moor there.
The jet ski concession was manned by three or four young men, who became very involved in our process of maneuvering to the steps and getting me onto them. While Bill swung the boat, they called down, "Did you come from America in that?" I hollered that we did. "You got guts, man!"
On land, I weaved through the lounge chairs filled with hotel customers, passed a volleyball game of college students, dodged families with small children around the lunch bar, and went into the cool darkness of the lobby. I travel frequently for business, and am accustomed to being catered to, to an extent. I didn't find that to be the case at this hotel. I asked the front desk personnel about mooring the boat in the shallows and the response was, "I don't know."
"Can you find out?" I asked.
A whispered conference between two of the staff led one of them to tell me to call Security. I had to ask for the number of the Security department, and then I had to ask where the phone was. I was annoyed by then; I felt the front desk staff should do all this for me, or at least ring the concierge and have him do it. A call to Security was equally fruitless. The person I spoke to tried to tell me that we couldn't stay there, and I said to him, "We came here in the boat, it's here and we all have to deal with it together. The alternative is that we cancel our reservation with no penalty and we'll get in our boat and go."
I was feeling like an Ugly American at this point, but it seemed to be the way to go. The security man said it would probably be all right, but he needed the boat's ID number.
I went back out through the families, the college students, and the loungers. As I approached the water, one of the jet ski concessionaires called to Bill, "Here comes the boss lady!" I liked that concessionaire. I liked him a lot.
It took about ten minutes for Bill to get back to the steps. I explained the situation to him and he gave me the boat registration. I returned to the hotel and called Security a second time with the ID number. Now the security person said it would probably be all right for us to anchor, but he had to check with his manager. His manager was out. I should call back in fifteen minutes, at 2:45. He told me that they were closing at three.
Back again, families, college students, loungers. As the steps came into view, so did a large sightseeing boat that was pulling up to the steps to unload passengers. In the distance, I could see Bill and the Crownline, bobbing in the shallows.
It took about twenty-five minutes for the big boat to unload its passengers and for Bill to move back to the dock. We agreed that since the security desk would be closed by the time I got back there, we would just go ahead and anchor. Bill passed the bags and charts up to me on the wooden steps and took the boat out to our self-proclaimed anchorage.
I asked a passing waitress to send a bellman down to help me, and then sat in a lounge chair and waited. And waited some more. After forty-five minutes, no bellman had come. Bill was busy doing some chores on the boat and preparing to lock it up. He hailed a passing dingy and caught a ride in with two young sunburned Americans. On shore, he picked up most of the bags, leaving the chart kit and one light bag for me, and we dragged through the massive structure in search of our room.
We were nervous about the boat and uncomfortable with the large crowds of people. It had taken surprisingly little time to become acclimated to our isolation. In the room, I placed a call to let my parents know I was still alive while Bill played Doom on his laptop. We were getting ready to take a shower when the phone rang; Security. They hadn't closed at three after all.
They said we could keep the boat there but they weren't responsible for its security. That set us on edge. We showered at length and went out to check on the boat. Bill needed to get something from it, and negotiated with one of the jet ski drivers that lined the beach with their machines. For five dollars he got a ride to the boat and back.
I wanted a drink so we searched for a bar and were directed to the casino, where the only bar was a huge cafeteria-style delicatessen restaurant with mixed drinks for five dollars. I said to Bill, "For five dollars a drink, I want atmosphere. I'll have a drink in the room."
On the long walk back we decided to relax in the room for a while, and then we'd go out in town. Bill was willing to swim out to the boat for the sake of getting out of the hotel. We had felt more comfortable in the seedy side of town where we'd had lunch.
We made drinks and spread the charts out on the bed. Cross-referencing between the charts and the Guide, we decided that we would head for Dunmore Town in the Harbour Islands the next day.
Bill gave me the handheld VHF radio and went to get the boat. He told me to come down in ten minutes. I dawdled in front of the mirror and then set out toward the wooden steps. It was dark now, and the hotel waterfront was deserted, except for an Oriental man and his two sons sitting near the wooden steps. I walked by them and down to the bottom step. Almost as soon as I spotted the Crownline's stern light, its running lights came on and it headed toward me. Bill quickly came astern to the steps and helped me down into the boat. We went back out to the spot he'd been anchored before to check on a mooring buoy he'd dropped, and then did a fast curve and headed east into Nassau Harbor.
We moved through the dark water at a nice pace, relying on the GPS to navigate for us. As we passed under the first bridge we passed a fishing boat moving in the opposite direction at high speed. Behind it, lit only by the stern light on the fishing vessel, we saw an dingy hitching in its wake.
Throughout the day we had witnessed boats of all kinds cruising through the harbor at speeds much higher than that allowed in most harbors. Harbors and docking areas are normally posted with speed limitations and 'No Wake' signs, to prevent fast boats from creating waves large enough to smash docked vessels against their piers or each other. There didn't seem to be any rules in Nassau Harbor.
Since he'd swam out to get the boat, Bill was still in his bathing suit. He had a towel draped around his waist and a loose shirt hanging open. As we were turning right to the dockage we'd used earlier that day, a small boat came alongside and hailed us. "Oh no," Bill said. "Harbor police." He immediately started looking for all the items that are usually checked when he's rousted at home. In our area the Department of Natural Resources polices the waters, and if they stop you they ask to see your papers, your logbook, your first-aid kit, your PFDs, and everything else that you are required to carry by law.
"Good evening, sir," a voice called. The boat came into the light. The two harbor police were neatly dressed in khaki uniforms. "Why are you going so fast?"
Bill stood in the light they were shining on us, and explained that we hadn't known but we would refrain from speeding in the future.
The harbor police continued. "You must go slow, sir, it is the holidays and the harbor is filled with tourist traffic." We said goodnight and I leaned over to Bill. "You notice they didn't think you were a tourist?" I asked him. "It's 'cuz you're not wearing any PANTS."
Pulling up the same dock we'd used earlier, the same security man came out to greet us. He helped us tie up and we stood chatting. His name was Chuck and he said we could dock there and he'd keep an eye on the boat. We thanked him with a ten dollar bill and were leaving when his boss came onto the dock, along with some other men. Chuck waved them over. "Hey, come meet my friends!" he called.
The men who came over weren't as friendly as the first one. "Were you going?" asked the boss, who was a young man himself.
Bill being clueless at names, I spoke up. "The Quarterdeck." "The Quarterdeck? Okay then." And he walked away. Another relative, I wondered? Or is there some elaborate system of penny-ante kickbacks going on that I can't even imagine?
We told Chuck we'd bring him back some dinner and headed down the narrow street past the dead rat and the same old cars.
The Quarterdeck, empty when we'd been there earlier, was now pretty crowded. We grabbed the last two seats at the bar and looked around. There were some pool tables, dining tables, and a small bar; a blackboard had the day's menu. Lamb souse. On the mirrored barback was a large sign: "No Foul Language."
The quiet young woman behind the bar took my order for a vodka and diet coke. She gave me a pint of vodka, a can of diet coke, and a plastic cup of ice. Evidently the custom was that you bought the bottle and she poured the drinks. She mixed our drinks and set the bottle on its side on the bar in front of us.
The other patrons eyed us warily as we made ourselves comfortable at the bar. We were stared at for quite a while, particularly by the few female customers, older women in housedresses who sat at the tables in small mixed groups. I considered going to the bathroom, but decided I would attract the least amount of negative attention if I sat still.
Lamb souse turned out to be a bowl of lamb and potato chunks in a lime-tinged sauce. It was served in a bowl that was set on a rimmed tray. The purpose of the tray became obvious as we struggled to break the lamb into small enough pieces using the sides of our spoons. Broth slopped freely out of the bowl.
After we'd eaten, the other patrons seemed to become used to us and a few of them started conversations. Next to Bill was a heavy-set young man wearing all camouflage. Cami pants, cami jacket, green tee-shirt, and cami hat. I assumed he was police or military, although I was pretty the Bahamas is without an army. He was intimidating not only in dress but in demeanor.
Bill started talking to him and it turned he was a fisherman. His name was Antony Montano and he told Bill about his fishing and his boat. I leaned close to hear better. Most of the men we talked to directed their responses to Bill, even if I had been the one to initiate conversation. Antony Montano asked us how we liked the islands. We told him we loved them, but hadn't liked the hotel we were in. We said we preferred the real Nassau. "You doin' pretty good, den," he said. "You de only whiteys in here!"
After a while I heard the man next to me talking about diving, and when his friend left I asked him some questions about diving in the Bahamas. Soon the fisherman left and Bill and I were both in conversation with the diver. He told us that he had seen jewfish thirty and forty feet long, which I knew wasn't true, and then he talked about sharks. I took his remarks with a grain of salt, but Bill hadn't heard the jewfish tale and didn't know he had an unreliable source.
He introduced us to a sour old man sitting down the bar, who I'd noticed giving us some hard stares when we'd come in, and said, "This is the man who knows about the fish. He's been fishing here forever, he's seen everything."
The old man brightened up and started telling us stories that neither of us could understand. We didn't get a thing he said. So we bought him a beer and listened anyway. When it was time to leave we took an order of lamb souse for Chuck at the dock, and hit the street.
Back at the hotel Bill put me on the steps and went to moor the boat. A few American teenagers were smoking on the jet ski dock as he took the boat out to the mooring buoy. I waited on the steps, a little anxious about Bill having to swim back in the dark. Sooner than I expected, his white head appeared in the rim of light around the jet ski concession. I saw the teenagers startle and point as he became more visible, looking like a disembodied head.
The next day we woke up looking forward to living on the boat again. There was one final hassle with the Crystal Palace, though. I needed to hit the cash machine but their three cash machines were all out of order. A bellman directed us to Atlantis. "Dey de biggest casino on the island, dey got four cash machine dere," he said. He helped us to the wooden steps with our bags and waited while Bill crossed the beach to the jet ski operators and offered five dollars for a ride to the boat.
I told the bellman there was no need for him to wait, and tried to hand him his tip. "No, no," he said. "I want to see the boat." He said that he and his brother owned a nineteen-foot boat that they mostly fished with, and he asked some questions about Bill's engine. We talked about the coral heads that made some areas treacherous, and about how the bellman ended up working Christmas Day. "Triple pay," he said, "and I'm off at two."
Meanwhile, Bill was looking for a ride to the boat. He gave a five to a driver and was getting onto the jet ski when the driver he'd hired the previous day came by and started an argument about Bill being his customer, not the new driver's. As Bill and the new driver headed toward the boat, the original driver raced into the water and sent a big wall of water over Bill and the competitor, soaking them both.
We pulled away from the Crystal Palace with relief.
A few minutes later we were pulling up to the fuel dock at Hurricane Hole, the closest marina to Atlantis. It's located on Paradise Island, a tiny piece of land that composes the north side of Nassau Harbor. I exited the boat and headed up the dock toward where I believed the casino to be. I was wearing a light ankle-length shift with a bold black and white graphic and no sandals on my feet. My cat's-eye tortoiseshell shades protected my eyes from the glare. The dock ended on a narrow point of land that was blocked by a building. I went to the side and picked my way along the top of a foot-wide stone seawall, gingerly stepping over coiled lines and at one point ducking down to avoid a long section of chainlink that had collapsed partially over the wall, I was aware of the fishermen on the shabby boats that were tied there watching with curiousity as I passed. I was aware that I didn't exactly blend into my environment.
The seawall ended and I had to climb a hill toward what appeared to be a road. I was now wishing I had put shoes on, since the hill was spotted with old building materials that had been thrown down from the road above. I made it to the road without injury and took a look around.
Paradise Island felt like a Disney enterprise. The lawns and hedges were neatly manicured -- gardeners were at work as I passed, on Christmas Day. The only businesses were contained in a tidy little shopping area of identical facades of gray wooden siding with yellow trim. I followed the sidewalk until it culminated inevitably at the entrance to Atlantis.
Inside I got my cash successfully and stopped in one of the hotel stores to pick up cigarettes. They were $5.50 a pack.
I made my way back to the boat. Over the ropes, under the chainlink, and onto the dock. Halfway down the dock was a yard-square piece of cardboard, on top of which were arranged several dozen conch shells in neat rows. The sun sparkled on the still-wet shells throwing miniature prisms of light in all directions, and their inner pinkness, deep and creamy, gleamed against the background of wet brown cardboard.
On my way down the dock a dark muscular man in a powerboat said hello and asked me where I was going. By now I'd learned to be more wary with strangers than I would be naturally. The boat had been getting a lot of attention and I was still nervous about pirates. I said, "Just walking down the dock. Beautiful day, isn't it?" He tried to continue the conversation but I kept walking.
When I got the boat, Bill told me that some guy, and he described the man I'd just spoken to, had come by and been too curious about the Crownline. The man had wanted to come aboard but Bill had refused, saying he had stuff all over and was trying to straighten up. Eventually, Bill had dug out a boating magazine and ripped out the page with the Crownline ad to get rid of the guy.
We crossed the harbor to see if a market we'd heard was there was open. As we approached the dock, a man there talked to us and tried to get Bill to give him a ride across the harbor. "Naw, man, we gotta get going," Bill said. There was a bridge was directly next to the dock.
We exited the harbor and were just setting out into open water. It was a sunny day, the wind wasn't in our face, and we expected to be in the Harbor Islands by lunchtime.
Ahead of us to starboard, a very large yacht complete with radar bubbles and davits was halted in the water. As we headed their direction a helicopter appeared in the sky to our port. "Hey!" Bill said, "it's gonna land on the boat!" Sure enough, the helicopter paused above the yacht and then descended. "We better get out of here," he joked. "They might have to kill us now that we've seen 'em."