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Fear and Loathing in Nassau

Marching band boys in front of Pirates of Nassau Museum

The last time I was in Nassau was in 2003. Spring Break. An ill-advised trip with my college roommates, with whom I had little in common besides a shared bathroom. We stayed in a $75-a-night dim box of a motel room, with a scabby door and liver-colored carpet spongy with mildew. By day, my roommates exercised their ambitious and thoroughly pre-planned tanning regimens, laying like corpses on rental loungers at Cable Beach, stirring only to flip themselves at appointed intervals. When the sun gave me a migraine, I walked through the artificial midnight of the black-ceilinged casino, listening to the narcotizing tinkle of slot machines and watching bouffant-ed ladies drip cigarette ash onto the carpet. By night, we plied the neon-lit environs of Senor Frogs and the Waterloo, eating soggy nachos and dancing desultorily with frat boys in upside-down white visor hats.

Midway through the trip, the US invaded Iraq. I spent the rest of the week in the hotel room watching CNN, growing more depressed by the hour. When it got too hot, I climbed in a cold bathtub with a bottle of duty-free rum and a library book. One afternoon, I ventured across the street to the seaweed-strewn public beach to find a crowd of people staring at something floating in the water. It took everyone a minute to realize that it was a human baby. Someone plucked the limp body from the water and laid it on the sand, unbreathing, unmoving. An American tourist rushed over, began CPR. After a nauseating interval, the baby began to cry.

Needless to say, I was not keen to get back to Nassau.

But, like most things, Nassau was not at all like I imagined/half-remembered. Yes, there are daily cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers into the daiquiri bars and duty-free diamond stores of Bay Street. Yes, there’s enough pollution to leave a scrim of gray around your ankles by the end of a long, sweaty day. Yes, lunch costs $30.

And yet. Nassau has its charms. Downtown has all your dreamy, decaying Colonial glamor – crumbling pink-and-gray mansions, sun-bleached graveyards wreathed with tangles of casuarina, ornate wrought iron fences surrounding hibiscus- and azalea-choked churchyards. The far west side of the island has a number of cool little hotels and restaurants, even an organic farm. There’s a Dunkin Donuts!

I stayed in a little downtown guesthouse run by a sweet, somewhat deaf elderly Greek couple, Mary and Steve. Sample dialog between me and Mary:

Emily (returning to guesthouse in the evening): Hi. How are you today?

Mary: Ehh, not so good. My medicines are giving me the constipation.


I visited a yoga ashram hidden beneath the palms in the shadow of Atlantis, where I was introduced to the orange robed swami in charge. What does being a swami entail? I asked my tour guide, a poker-faced Canadian with an improbable Hindu name.

It means he’s renounced certain things? she said.

Like what?

A lot of things.

Well, if the ashram was about renunciation, the rest of Nassau and Paradise Island is about gleeful consumption – and that’s not a criticism. The gleaming pinnacle of all this consumption is the madness that is the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island. Imagine Sea World meets Disney meets Fifth Avenue meets St Peter’s Basilica, every bit of its vast acreage designed down to the doorknobs to resemble an Indiana Jonesish version of the Lost World of Atlantis – a vast domed lobby shellacked with with gilded mermaids, hallways carved with fake hieroglyphs, a water park with slides made to look like ruined pyramids. There’s a dolphin lagoon, an aquarium, a massive casino, a private movie theater, restaurants from Nobu and Bobby Flay, a swim-through shark tank. You need a GPS – and a half-day – to navigate the place.

After a guided tour, I returned to my guesthouse feeling somewhat disappointed that it lacked a water slide.

Other Nassau highlights included checking out the semi-secret dungeon beneath the public library, which was the jail back in Nassau’s pirate days. I asked the librarian if it was true that there was a dungeon beneath the building. She rolled her eyes and got out her keys. The “dungeon” – now a dump for broken chairs and torn books – still bears the hatch marks from centuries-ago prisoners counting the days until…until what? Release? Hanging?

Graycliff torcedores

In the spooky-cool 18th-century Graycliff Hotel, I visited a cigar-rolling shop staffed by a dozen imported Cubans. The scene could have been straight out of 1905 or 1925 or 1955 – cigar rollers sitting at battered wooden desks in a narrow tiled room, cigars hanging from their mouths as they rolled translucent dried tobacco leaves so fast their hands blurred. The air was yellow with smoke, a tinny radio playing in the corner.

Until last year, the rollers – called ‘torcedores’ in Spanish – used to work under the direction of the late Avelino Lara, the former personal torcedor to Fidel Castro. But since the tobacco is not Cuban, the cigars are perfectly legal for export to the US. Sadly, neither I nor anyone else in my life these days has much interest in cigar-smoking, however wonderful said cigars may be.

The other great draw of Nassau is duty-free shopping. Almost every afternoon as I strolled down Bay Street on my way to the guesthouse, I would duck into the blissfully air conditioned Colombian Emeralds store to try on gaudy, grass-green cocktail rings and speculate with the shopgirls about which $30,000 bauble my husband might like to purchase for me when he arrived on Friday.

When Jamin did arrive, our plans did not, sadly, involve shopping for emerald jewelry. But that’s a story for next time….

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