An operation in May followed by three weeks of recovery in a god-forsaken nursing home left me desperately needing an island in the summer of 2015. Although my doctor cleared me for travel at the end of the summer, he imposed two restrictions: I had to take a short flight, and I was not allowed to scuba dive. I felt like I’d been handed the consolation prize. It was not the one I’d had my eye on. I tried hard to not let disappointment cloud my outlook.
Mom and I had a simple itinerary for our August trip to the Bahamas. She would dive and I would snorkel with Stuart Cove’s, an established dive operator on the southwest coast of New Providence island. Other than that, we had no plans. After a two-and-a-half hour flight we arrived at a nearly deserted Lynden Pindling International Airport at 10:30 on a Thursday morning. We breezed through Customs and Immigration, exited the terminal, found our pre-arranged ground transportation, and got into the van for the ride to downtown Nassau’s British Colonial Hilton hotel.
Since it was too early to check into our room, we ate lunch beside the hotel pool, which overlooks Nassau Harbor and the western end of Paradise Island. Taking a stroll down West Bay Street, we had barely covered one block before stumbling into the Pirates of Nassau Museum. It didn’t take long for me to pay our admission fee and be led – by a pirate – to the starting point of our self-guided tour. At the conclusion of a brief introduction by the pirate, he opened a door, told us to allow our eyes to adjust to the dimly lit environment, and closed the door behind us. We suddenly found ourselves on a sidewalk in a recreated shantytown, a gigantic pirate ship anchored in the water beside us. I was pleasantly surprised to find the entire ship was wheelchair accessible and even included a lift that allowed me to access the upper deck. After 26 years of living in suburban Washington, D.C. and visiting the Smithsonian and other world-class museums, I was beyond impressed with the realistic displays and accessibility of the Pirates of Nassau Museum. Our long awaited vacation was off to a great start.
If there is one word that describes the British Colonial Hilton, it is "location, location, location". We could walk / roll to numerous restaurants, museums, and shops, and the sidewalks - for the most part - were in very good condition. When we encountered an obstacle or a curb cut that was steeper than I could manage, there was always someone nearby to help. Bahamians are noted for their friendliness, and even the pirate left his post outside the museum a few times to assist us across the street.
Three experiences on this trip stand out to me. On Friday nights in August, a Goombay celebration is held at Arawak Cay. Several locals we'd encountered suggested we go to Goombay, and what a disappointment it would have been had we missed it. The Goombay festival was similar to a street festival here in the U.S.. Locals dressed in their junkanoo costumes and played junkanoo music during a parade, vendors set up tents where they sold traditional food, children participated in organized games and contests, and the night culminated with a large display of fireworks. I was once again amazed at the openness and friendliness of the Bahamians. Complete strangers approached us and told us where to sit to get the best view of the parade, or grabbed a hand to lead us in dance. It was like we'd known them all our lives.
As much as I enjoyed snorkeling from a boat with Stuart Cove’s, I loved fooling around in the water at the hotel on Sunday. Since we had nothing planned for the day, we woke up and decided to spend it on the beach. There were plenty of available lounge chairs when we arrived at 10:00, so we paid two lifeguards to carry me fifteen feet and drop me onto a lounge chair, and from there I sat and watched while jet skis raced up and down the coast, ferries shuttled passengers to and from nearby Paradise Island, and catamarans, party boats, and cruise ships navigated the harbor. By noon I was baking, so we again flagged down the lifeguards and asked them to carry me out into the water. I put on my mask and snorkel and used my arms to slowly pull my body through the warm, clear water. Unlike snorkeling from Cove’s boat, there was no scheduled time for us to depart. There were no other patrons waiting for me; I could stay in as long as I wanted. And I could follow my own path through the water. I did not have to be led around by a guide. I was in control, and I was free.
Peacefully floating through the water filled me with overwhelming gratitude that my mom taught me to swim when I was young. The sun was bright and warm on my back, and while I watched the many small, colorful fish swimming beneath me, I realized that some of them were so light that before I saw their bodies, I saw their shadow on the sand. What a revelation.
Taking pictures with Mom has become a meaningful way for us to spend time together on our trips, so in the evenings we grabbed our cameras and headed out to find sights to photograph. In the process of capturing images of beautiful sunsets, the Goombay festival, and life in downtown Nassau, I finally understood that accepting the consolation prize isn’t always such a bad thing. After all, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s that you play the game.