By Mitch Traphagen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
FREEPORT, BAHAMAS - It all started with a bad day in the Florida Keys. This was not a run of the mill bad day, this was a seriously bad day. It was time to lick my wounds, it was time to be somewhere other than here.
Miami International Airport is truly international. Without even attempting to eavesdrop, it would seem that virtually every known language could be overheard in the terminal. For the most part, with the exception of one friendly American Airlines greeter and the crew of my flight, most of the people who actually spoke English were rude. What a weird thought. But what was even weirder was that I had the passing thought that I was looking forward to getting to the Bahamas because everyone spoke English there. It is a strange world in Miami.
I have a very understanding wife. She knew that I had just come out of one of the most difficult days of my life. If it bothered her when I gave her the news that in a few hours I would be boarding a flight out of the country, she didnít let on. She understood and she supported me.
As I made my way north on U.S. 1 out of the Keys, I knew that I needed to get a new perspective from outside - outside of the Keys and even outside of Florida. Other than having my passport, I hadnít packed for or planned on a trip to the Bahamas. As it turned out, it was not altogether easy to buy a last minute ticket out of the country. I called an internet travel service that I frequently use and was told that they could not book a ticket for same day travel out of the U.S. I would have to go directly to the airline to purchase it. They did offer a hotel reservation, however.
Unfortunately since they couldnít book the flight, I had to pass on the hotel reservation until I knew I could actually get there. I called the airline and was told I could get on a flight in a few hours. They even had a travel service with hotel specials. Great! I asked to be put through. They would be happy to make a hotel reservation for me but they needed five days notice. Not so great! I placed another call to the internet travel service for the hotel.
As things go, particularly on that day, the hotel I had hoped for had booked up. I was offered another hotel - one the agent wasnít familiar with. I asked the agent if her computer showed anything about reports of tourists missing or dead in that hotel and was greeted by silence. Not a good sign.
There was virtually no one at the Grand Bahama International Airport at 8:30 on a Tuesday night. There was no mad rush for luggage and the process of immigrations and customs was a breeze. Outside the airport, a friendly taxi driver named Fred picked me up. When I told him the name of my hotel he said that it was fine but it was too bad I didnít ask him for a recommendation. Definitely not a good sign.
As with the airport, there was no one at the hotel when I arrived. That was only a problem because there was no one to check me in. The resortís ferry boat captain was there to make his next run and he made some calls for me. A woman in a different part of the resort complex was still on duty and I was sent to see her. After briefly getting lost, I found her small office and discovered they didnít know I was scheduled to arrive. Not a particularly good sign.
The very nice woman in the small office wrote my name down on a piece of paper and gave me a key. She told me to ask any questions now because her shift had ended. I was on an unplanned trip to a foreign country, lost in a resort during the hours of darkness so naturally I told her that I didnít have any questions. She was concerned that I would get hungry so she told me how to find a place for dinner and then wished me a good night.
I found my room and I couldnít believe it.
The room was completely marble and tile with a bed on a pedestal in the center. Directly behind the bed was a large jacuzzi. There was a huge bathroom with a glass shower and a kitchenette off to the side. There was even satellite television. On top of all that, the room was literally feet from the beach.
I have never spent $75 so well. Actually, since no one had taken my credit card, I hadnít even spent $75 yet.
It was getting late but I managed to meet the helpful ferry boat captain again by catching the last ferry over to the Lucaya Marketplace for sodas and a Bahamas phone card. I was told to try again tomorrow on the phone card - they were sold out so a big piece of cheesecake-to-go took its place on my shopping list.
Just Another Day in Paradise
Four years ago my wife and I spent five months in the Bahamas aboard our sailboat. Four years, however, is far too long to be away from the Bahamas. It is too easy to forget what it is like there.
The next morning I went over to the small office to pay for my room. The friendly woman from last night was there again and she mentioned that I might be able to keep my room for this, my last night. I was originally told that because I was paying for the less expensive hotel, I would probably be moved. It was great news to hear that I could keep that fantastic room.
I mentioned that I hadnít paid for anything yet. She made some calls and then collected $30 in room taxes and told me to go to another office. When I got to the other office the woman there told me that since I was supposed to be checked into the less-expensive hotel I should go over there to pay.
I walked across the street to the hotel and told the woman there that I wanted to pay for my room. She looked at the paper that said I had paid the room taxes, made some calls and said that we had to go back across the street to yet another office. At that office they made a photocopy of the paper that said I had paid the taxes, she handed back my original and said, "Youíre all set."
I told her that I still hadnít paid for my room. We then went back into the office we had just left and they collected $20 for a key deposit. Then we went back to the office where my morning began, still staffed by the first woman I had met.
After a brief conversation between the two women, the second woman told me to pack up my stuff because I was going to have to move to a different room. The first woman said something to the effect of, "No, donít move him!" The second woman then said, "I am taking you to Tiano!"
Now in my imagination that was a dramatic statement. If this had all been a television show there would have been an orchestra to loudly punctuate the statement, "I am taking you to Tiano!"
The first woman had a sad look on her face and the other people who had gathered in the office were giving me what seemed to be apologetic looks. I was beginning to be seriously concerned about what it was like over in the hotel - the place that I was supposed to be staying. In our journey between offices in the resort complex, the second woman had been very nice and pleasant to me. Was it possible that she was going to make me pay dearly for my night of undeserved luxury?
I packed up quickly and said good-bye to my wonderful room and almost fearfully made my way back to the small office. I followed the second woman out and to my surprise we did not cross the street to the hotel but rather we walked over to another part of the resort.
To my even greater surprise, upon opening the door to my new room I discovered that I was being given an even larger room. This one wasnít right on the beach but there were tile floors, a separate bedroom and even my own terrace.
The second woman then apologized for all of the running around and wished me a good day. As I watched her walk away the thought occurred to me that I still had not paid for my room.
My wonderful accommodations werenít the only surprise of the trip. The city of Freeport itself turned out to be a huge surprise. Due to its cruise ship port and a plethora of 30 minute flights from Florida, I feared the worst in terms of everything from crime to a miserable tourist hell. Freeport, however, turned out to be the opposite of my fears.
Itís No Problem, Baby
The Lucaya Marketplace is a cool collection of shops, restaurants and a number of small vendors making up a straw market.
Sally herded me into her shop and tried to push everything from T-shirts to jewelry on me. She asked why I was here and I told her that I had a really bad day yesterday in the Keys and suddenly wound up in the Bahamas. She tapped my chest and said, "You have a good heart. Just pray about it and God will answer." I bought a T-shirt and a gift for my wife and left her little shop feeling better.
Throughout the marketplace, young school girls wearing neat plaid skirts and white shirts visited in and out of the shops and people everywhere seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was refreshing to see both tourists and Bahamians frequenting the market. It told me that Freeport was not just a playground for foreigners built at the expense of the locals.
There is a clear distinction between Bahamians and North Americans or Europeans. The Bahamians tend towards a certain shyness but are always absolutely polite. They rarely fail to wish you well with their Caribbean accent mixed with a distinct British clip.
Perhaps it is early in the season but the people in Freeport have been, without exception, the most polite, most friendly people that Iíve encountered in the Bahamas.
I purchased some straw purses for my daughters from a small vendor in the marketplace. "Itís no problem, baby," she said as she carefully sewed their names on the purses. "Youíre welcome, baby," she said when I thanked her for her thoughtful effort.
"Baby" was not used in some sixties-hippy fashion, it was an almost motherly term of endearment. As the woman carefully packed up my purchases she told me that her artificial Christmas tree was now shorter than her children and she would soon need to buy a new one. She knew that such trees were available in Florida for $50 but in the Bahamas that same tree could cost upwards of $400. Definitely a major purchase.
I asked her how they celebrate Christmas in the Bahamas. "In the Christian way," she said. "We get together with our families. On Christmas morning, the children rush down to open their presents."
In Freeport, there are no jam packed shopping malls filled with stressed out suburbanites. Having spent a Christmas in the Bahamas years ago, I know that it tends to be a simple and happy affair.
The next morning Fred the taxi driver picked me up and delivered me back to the airport. Fred is a really nice person and clearly a very smart guy. On the way there he talked about how people in the States, people in the Bahamas, people everywhere are really all the same. But there is a difference in the Bahamas and that is....
I couldnít make out what he said. But even so, I have no doubt that he was right - there is a difference in the Bahamas. Maybe I wasnít meant to actually know what the difference is, maybe I was just meant to appreciate it.
When we landed in Miami I stopped to get a snack and a soda from a small shop in the airport. Crowds and traffic awaited and I was getting ready to hit the freeway and return to the real world. I paid the woman behind the counter, thanked her and was just walking away when she said, "Youíre welcome, baby." I made my way home feeling much better.
Do you have questions or comments about this story? Would you like Fred the taxi driverís phone number? Iíd love to hear from you. Feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Mitch Traphagen Photos
© Copyright 2003, M&M Printing, Inc. and the Observer News and Riverview Current. All rights reserved.