An undisclosed number of years ago, I sailed on Semester at Sea, a shipboard study abroad program that took me around the world. Last week, I sailed again — only this time it was a reunion “cruise,” not a 100-day “voyage” (as SAS parlance dictates we refer to the academic semesters). As part of the all-voyage reunion, we sailed to Nassau, Bahamas, which happened to be the first port of my own semester itinerary. The trip marked my third visit to the island nation, and little has changed since my initial visit more than a decade ago. The capital is still aglow with buildings of pastel shades, the water visibility runs up to 200 feet (!), and the call of hair braiders rings through the air as soon as you debark at the port.
What little change has occurred is evident in most tourist-driven destinations. Hard Rock has set up shop just down the block from port. Atlantis, the largest casino on Paradise Island (formerly owned by Donald Trump, then Merv Griffin, who took a wash when he later sold it), has become a sprawling mecca and icon of the cay that lies just north of New Providence. And, of course, Starbucks has planted its roots firmly in the Bahamian soil.
But I didn’t go on the trip simply because I needed to get away (although I did), nor because of the dirt-cheap rate. I went because Desmond Tutu would be sailing on the reunion cruise, a quick trip before flitting over to India to receive the Gandhi Peace Prize, then back again to Nassau to meet the SAS ship to sail for the full length of the spring semester.
When I sailed back in [mumble mumble], we’d had the honor of having Dennis Brutus, a notable anti-apartheid activist and inmate at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, as part of our faculty. His lectures were stirring, and his presence made all the more difference when our ship pulled into Cape Town, which was still in its nascent post-apartheid stage. I can only imagine what it will be like for the students of the current voyage (which leaves Nassau tomorrow) to have someone of Tutu’s stature on board. During the reunion, I caught glimpses of him mingling with us hoi polloi, and the mundane mental snapshots of him smiling up at me as he typed on his laptop in the faculty lounge or holding his tray in the dining hall line made the trip worthwhile. (View video of his first lecture on YouTube: Part I, Part II. Apologies ahead of time for the subtitle burn-in. If you know of any good .avi conversion software, please let me know.)
Despite my aversion to all things religious, I found the Archbishop’s speech about God and family riveting, and much less proselytizing than most politician’s speeches back here in the good ol’ separation-of-church-and-state US of A. What made it all the more stirring was his laidback demeanor. If it weren’t for his gray hair, I might have thought he was a tween, what with the way he laughed and clapped at his own jokes, kicking his feet with glee as he recalled his own witticisms.
So it was with little regret that I gave up my only full dive day to hear the Nobel Prize winner speak. (Apologies to Ray at Xanadu Divers: I’d fully intended to come for the dive after his speech, but not a single phone in the port worked for me to confirm.) At least I got in a one-tank in Nassau, where I was serendipitously taken to the site of my first dive ever: Lighthouse Reef, where a 65-foot wreck lies in 35 feet of crystalline water. Although we didn’t see any sharks or eels, there were myriad yellow jacks, a grouper, and parrotfish, some of which ate food (which I suspect was kibble) right from my hand.
On my previous trip to Nassau, I’d visited the miniscule aquarium, which has since closed after the opening of the monumentally overpriced one at Atlantis. (I’ve heard that the free viewing area shows much of the same fish you can see for $30, including the giant manta ray that will soon be released due to its steadily increasing size). This visit, I’d planned on visiting the new pirate museum, but it was closed on Sunday, our only day in Nassau. So instead I wandered about the streets, snapping shots of colonial-era buildings and visiting a local Anglican church built in the early 1800s. (Despite my aforementioned aversion to all things religious, I hold an unusual fascination for places of worship, of all faiths. Architecture built in the name of a higher power never ceases to take my breath away.)
Since during my first two visits to the Bahamas I’d seen only Nassau and its immediate environs (the infamous straw market, Cable Beach, Waterloo), I’d initially been ecstatic that our two-day layover would be in Freeport, which I’d never seen. However, Grand Bahama, although more laidback and less tourist-y than New Providence, held little to see except white sand beaches. The two parks I’d visited, Rand Nature Preserve and Lucaya National Park, were hardly worth mentioning, especially since the former’s claim to fame, the West Indies flamingos, had been poached by raccoons three years hence. (The brochures and tour guides failed to mention that little fact until after we’d paid our admission and $18 cab fare. Consider yourself warned.)
Although the national park’s trademark sink holes weren’t quite as spectacular as I’d hoped, the nearby beach more than made up for it. Since we were nearly 20 miles from the main tourist drag, we were practically the only souls on the sand, which lay as powdery as talc as far as the eye could see. I’ve never been much of one to sit still, so while my companions frolicked in the multi-hued ocean blues or tanned their pure-white hides on the equally pure-white sand, I set to building a sand replica of the MV Explorer, complete with seaweed wake and driftwood smokestacks.
But kicking back was what the trip was mainly about, and my steadfast travel companion, Lauren, and I did much of just that. In between our shopping and rum expeditions to Port Lucaya (the Bahamian version of a strip mall), late-night forays at the snack bar, and the occassional educational on-ship lecture, we napped. A lot. But that’s what vacations are for. Especially when you’ve already seen as much conch as you can handle.