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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Bahamian Personality

Three-Day Vacation, Final Day Dept.: Some were natives, some transplants, some wanderers who found the easygoing climate conducive to staying for a while. Here are some of the people I met during my first visit, 22 years ago, to Nassau, Bahamas.


Michael Holly
IN THE MIDST of the most sedate supper you can imagine, a riot of noise erupts in the restaurant. A mob of male voices yelling in anger or pain, it seems. An astonishing contrast to the formal trappings of the Riviera, the premier restaurant of Carnival’s Crystal Palace Resort & Casino.

The chaos is heading toward our table, revealed as a dozen waiters singing a raucous, rhythmic “Happy Birthday,” completely unlike the version we know. The maitre d’, singing as loud as the rest of them, bears a candlelit slice of cake.

If it’s possible to come up with a nationalistic generalization after only a few days’ visit, I’d pick contrast as a distinguishing feature of the Bahamas. It hides behind those placid days of balmy, tropical weather, bursting forth with the intensity of one of the rainstorms that will suddenly spatter one side of a street.

“You must have brought this with you,” says Basil Neely as we ride from the Nassau airport to a Paradise Island hotel. Basil is driving the limousine through a burst of rain. He has a rumbly, musical voice with the colorful vowel sounds partly inherited from the English.

Years of British colonialism brought stiffness and too much formality to the tropics, where collar buttons never should be buttoned. While friendly politeness persists, you can feel the relief when a Bahamian cuts loose with a spontaneous giggle. The candor also is impressive.

“Only two things to worry about here,” says Basil, turning in his seat to make eye contact with time-honored taxi-driver technique. “First thing is the water. They tell you the water’s okay here, but...” he shakes his head and grins. “First thing, tourist goes to the doctor, doctor asks, ‘What you been drinking?’ He knows.” Basil laughs. “Second thing is junkies.” He pronounces it “joonkies.” “You probably won’t see them, not if you stay around hotels. But in the streets sometimes, man comes up to you, he asks you for dollar – you go in the other direction.”

We had no problem with either, but, then again, we didn’t drink the water. (There’s a big business in bottled water on the islands.) Because of the heavy dependence on tourism, the island bustles to accommodate the visitor. And without the sense of incipient hatred that you find, say, in tourist towns in Maine. If anything, the attitude is more whimsical.

“When white man get old, he relax, spend his money.” A conch-seller named Archie is philosophizing at Potter’s Cay Market, a tiny peninsula under the Paradise Island Bridge where vendors gather every morning to sell the day’s catch or harvest. Archie spreads his arms to indicate restfulness. “That’s what I’m gonna do, man.” He’s speaking to a fellow native but shoots an amused glance at my group of white tourists dripping with cameras.

An islands trademark is the junkanoo, a celebration replete with outdoor cooking and a manic dance performed in costume to the rhythms of an assortment of percussion instruments. There again you’ll find the characteristic contrast: we’re treated to a tourist-intensive fashion show at a hotel garden that suddenly gives way to another riot of noise as the junkanoo dancers burst in, dragging the audience into the melee.

Contrast lurks even in the more rarefied corners of the posh hotels. Cy Roberts is the sales manager of Carnival’s Crystal Palace Resort & Casino, and is a well-dressed, well-spoken gentleman who keeps you at your ease with a nobleman’s touch. He speaks with the characteristic Bahamian drawl in a voice filled with music – which turns out to be no accident.

“I used to be an entertainer,” he says, modestly obscuring the impressive fact that he was a singer and disk jockey during that time. “I spent six and a half years in that business, then decided it was time to do something else.”

That itch to move on is surfacing again. “I’ve been here for about six years now,” he observes. “And I think it’s getting to be time to go elsewhere. I’ll probably try something completely different.”

An easygoing mixture of natives and newcomers spices the personality of the islands. Michael Holly is a headliner with “Jubilation,” the Vegas-style revue playing at the Crystal Palace. He has the unenviable job of getting the audience laughing right at the start of the show, which he does with a mixture of outrageous jokes and virtuoso juggling.

“I grew up in California, then went to live in New York so I could be with a girlfriend. That didn’t work out,” he says with a bashful smile. Holly has the classic southern-California look –  handsome, tanned, dirty-blond hair – that blends right in on Cable Beach. “I was looking for something to do, so I decided to try what I saw the street performers doing in Washington Square, right outside my window.”

He took up juggling and began an odyssey that carried him back to California for a stint studying theatrics. Cruise ship work first brought him to the islands, and here he remains – for a while. He gets his share of Bahamian contrast working the audience night after night, “and every night it’s different. That’s what makes the job exhilarating.”

Holly can juggle a baseball, a bowling ball and an M&M. Which is probably as good a metaphor as you’re likely to find to describe the flow of the noisy, tropical and yet peaceful island life.

– Schenectady Gazette, Feb. 24, 1990

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