Bahamian Rhapsody

I've always heard about our "sister island" in the Bahamas . I think it's Green Turtle Cay, but I'm not sure. One thing I do know is that my limited experience with our island neighbors had been, until recently, restricted to the not-so-wonderful town of Nassau . I'm sure they mean well, but as a cruise ship hub, they're known more for their "turn and burn" way of life. That all changed last week.

Back in 1999, I worked a wedding for a guy named Uwe. It was a great party at the Top of La Concha. Years later, Uwe contacted me to do some freelance work. It was cool, but nothing like the offer he made me a couple weeks ago. His company needed brochure photos of their new tours being given on Grand Bahama . Trying to control my excitement, I shut my Arby's hole and listened to the proposal. We would fly from Miami to Grand Bahama, meet a guy named Chubby, shoot a ton of photos, sleep for a bit, wake up, shoot another ton of photo, then head back to the airport (with a bottle of Havana Club rum, of course.)

With time on my side, I headed into the Miami security thing. I had my keys, notebook, change, cell phone, pens and even my Atocha bling removed and ready for radiation. Shoes were off, boarding pass and passport were at the ready, and then, of course, it happened. "Can you step over there, sir?" "But I don't want to go over there, man. I swear to God, I'm the farthest thing from a terrorist. You obviously don't know me. I'm as skittish as a third-grade girl. Do you honestly think I want my plane to explode?"
So, off I go to what I call the "Group W bench." ( Alice 's Restaurant reference.) This is where they REALLY shake you down. They also hit you with little blasts of air, which, in conjunction with the other searches adds about 20 minutes to your already, running late-as-usual, experience.

I must say that what little bit of Freeport I saw last week truly impressed me. The place was clean, clean, clean, and the people were incredibly nice.

Let's start with Chubby. His real name is not important. I'm just here to say that if you think you know a Key West bubba, and most of us do, they would bow down to this guy. Born and raised in Freeport , Chubby has worked for a travel agency for many years. Bottom line is, he knows everyone, and everyone loves him, present company included. Chubby's wife welcomed us into their extremely comfortable Chrysler 300. "What? You're not familiar with Bahamian food? You've never had peas and rice?" she asked. I wanted to answer, but couldn't stop staring at the fact, that yes, she was driving on the wrong side of the road and that my choice of would-be side orders would matter little once we slam into oncoming traffic.

So, that was fun. The photos continued.

Around sunset time, the entrees of blackened grouper and cracked conch, were served with nicely made Havana Club rum drinks. Things were looking pretty good. I've truly grown to love the fish offered in this latitude. Ohio fish always seemed to have bones, and bacon was easier to catch up there. But down here, I love me some fish. But conch? I'm still not sold, but before you tell me how it should be prepared, let me tell you about my next acquaintance and photo subject, Tony Macaroni.

Tony is one of those guys who really knows his business. Though he lived in the States for a while, he is Bahamas through and through. He's also got a killer sense of humor. This guy not only knows how to coax that slimy thing out of its shell, he understands the biology, the tradition and the art of the conch. He wasn't really sure what to think of me as stupid questions flowed effortlessly from my mouth.

After driving in circles for a while in search of another local character, they decided that a visit to the new brewery was in order. This would be another stop on one of their tours. So there we were, in front of a brand new building. The beer is called "Sands," and it's named after a guy who was born in the Bahamas . Want a synopsis? Imagine if someone came along and made a brand new beer and it was better than the stuff you love and it wasn't attached to some faceless corporate blob.

Once Chubby walked us through the door of the Sands Brewery and Retail Shop, he greeted the two or three customers he knew, as well as the employee or two he knew even better. He asked his friend if it was possible to arrange a brewery tour in the future. We were asked to wait. That's when Francis appeared. He's the sales and marketing guy and told us that, unfortunately, they weren't bottling that day, so there weren't any good photos to be had, but he'd give a quick tour anyway. Once again, the Bahamian hospitality shone through as he pulled a few drafts in their upstairs tasting room. After making plans for the near future, we were off again with only an hour to spare.

For some reason we arrived at an industrial space near the airport. I had no idea what was going on until the door swung open and a gentleman gestured. Inside, I saw more Junkanoo stuff than most have ever seen, at least around here. I later asked Chubby how many people make up a typical band. "About 300," he said. What? "It's closer to 500 per group in Nassau ."

This is serious stuff. Chubby went on to tell us that most of the practicing is done indoors, but as the competitions near, the masses head outside. "Try to imagine 300 dancers banging on drums and keeping rhythm," he said. "On top of that, there are so many people, that food stands pop up, it's like a carnival, and this is just one band's practice."

Back at the airport, it seemed like the past 24 or so hours hadn't even happened, but I've got the images to prove it did. I hope to make it back again, there's something about being surrounded by friendly people, fresh seafood and arguably the best rum and beer on the planet. But what do I know?

Rob O'Neal's columns appear in The Key West Citizen

“I have been a photographer in Key West, Florida for a while now. I've had the pleasure of meeting some famous people and some infamous people on this quirky little island. Key West has some of the best subject matter for photos in the world. The possibilities and opportunities are endless. From sunsets and green flashes, underwater photography, festivals and news events to famous celebrity photos and world figures.

Rob O'Neal ~ Photographically absorbed since 1993