Recently I took a photography expedition to Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas for some classic shots of paradise. I’d never done this before. I’m not a cruise goer but I got a deal I couldn’t turn down and went strictly for the photography. We all know what we expect: the perfect island in the commercials. What I found was a desolate third world country in tatters in the best of times, but recently devastated by a hurricane and the US and global economies. Their main industry is tourism, with the second largest portion being offshore banking with their tax haven laws. As they say there, “When America blows its nose, The Bahamas catch the cold.”
You all know how important it is to do your research on a place you’re going to visit, so naturally I went with printouts of maps and a long list of sites to hit. Much more importantly, the best thing you can do is stick that list in your back pocket and ask the locals what you should see that the tourists normally are unaware of.
To preface this story, I hadn’t been able to sleep the last couple days due to my roommate’s snoring, and I was extremely tired and sore from hauling equipment and other activities around the ship related to the photo excursion with the group. I was up first thing in the morning, wearing my Dr prescribed Tens Unit with electrodes on my back. The weather was heavy rain most of the time with some breaks of only heavy cloud cover, not what you want to deal with on a photography expedition in the Bahamas, while I am backpacking heavy gear plus two cameras on my shoulders through waves of torrential downpours with only a trash bag to cover my cameras, while the umbrella brought with me was already destroyed by the wind on the walk off the ship.
This was only a 12 hour port of call and given the weather I decided my first stop off the boat was now The Queen’s Staircase which could be enhanced by both the wet look and the clouds and provide a shortcut to Bennet’s Hill where the fort sits. The Queen’s Staircase is a gorgeous, narrow, 65 step, 102ft high staircase hand-carved out of a solid piece of limestone by what were first Britain’s African Slaves, and then later when Queen Victoria freed them and released sovereignty of the island to the people and freed the slaves they finished construction in her honor, thus the Queen’s Staircase. It is covered in a canopy of trees that grow straight up looking for sunlight until they reach the top and only then do they branch out. The result is spectacular. Huge, bare, dark walls of limestone pockmarked by the natural texture of the material with a ceiling of lush green that nearly blocks out the sky.
Lining the entrance, and the street above are all plywood shacks along the roadside used by street vendors to sell wares to tourists. The vendors’ livelihoods are totally dependant on the number of ships in and out of port any given day, and more importantly, the weather. As you approach the base of the stairs, a very animated local jumps out and gives a history lesson on the staircase to get the tourists to stop long enough to check the vendors’ wares, one of whom is his wife. I took some shots with lenses covered in water droplets and fog from the AC on the ship trapped in my camera bag against the humid heat of the tropics.
I spent some time at the top of the staircase shooting Fort Fincastle and Fort Fincastle Lighthouse, aka The Water Tower. Unfortunately due to the failure of the elevator in the lighthouse combined with a refusal of anyone to climb the internal staircase, the high vantage point was closed off. As the fort closed for the day I made my way down The Queen’s Staircase to reshoot without the crowd when I ran into Tony, the local historian from earlier. For his detailed knowledge of the island I asked him to show me around and since it was such a slow business day due to weather he was anxious to share his knowledge with someone genuinely interested.
We took off at a fast pace hiking though the streets (in soaked shoes) of Nassau, New Providence stopping at several destroyed buildings, the grave of the founder of the country, museaums, churches several hundred years old, museums which used to be government buildings, sites of famous high profile governemt murders, and much more. Several of the areas I video recorded him on my SLR talking about the history of the site for later when I edit the pictures.
He enjoyed bragging about his upcoming marriage and showed me his marriage license application with name, address, etc, and later his voter card with the same info (I never asked for ID, he just wanted to show me.) As I was reaching my limit my tour guide offered to carry my pack. I had a good feeling about him so I agreed and kept him in view out of the corner of my eye, giving him several great opportunities to try to make off with it, which he never did.
As we left Fort Charolette with the daylight dwindling, we got on bus 10 to stop at McDonald’s to eat and wait out the daylight, with the final ring of the tour planned to be night shots of the several amazing historic churches and other areas I wanted night spots. The bus driver stopped, my guide grabbed my bag of lenses, lighting, tripod and more, instructed me to pay the driver, and jumped off the bus. For a fare of $2.50 US or Bohemian for us both, I only had $2 and a $20 bill so the bus driver decided he did not want to make change and risk a parking ticket at a non bus stop, and took off with me pleading for him to stop as he drove away from all my gear.
At the official bus stop area of the road I got out with ruined knees, back and feet and ran as hard as could back towards the McDonald’s, trying to hold my 2 cameras still around my neck from smacking me in the hips. As I was buzzed into McDonald’s, the security guard said he hadn’t seen anyone with a backpack come in. I went up and down the street thinking he may have been looking for me while asking everyone in the street if they had seen a Bohemian with a backpack.
In front of the US Embassy I asked the same question of a Bohemian police officer who called for a patrol car to come drive me around and look for him. As I waited I gave the officer all the information on my guide: name, work place, wife’s car, and showed him one of the videos. The officer did not recognize him, and the wheels in my head were turning in overdrive. He knows I know where he works, who he is, that I have his face and voice on video; he’s way too smart of a guy to steal this knowing that, except why isn’t he at McDonald’s?
I went to sit on a set of stairs when my ziplock of 800mg motrin fell out of my pocket, and the officer felt that it resembled an illegal substance and convinced himself I was trying to throw it away. Now I’ve lost a thousands of dollars of camera gear and my boat is leaving in a few hours, most likely without me while they hold me to test my meds for a few weeks as I rot in a Bohemian prison. I’m really thinking hard at this point of making a run to the US Embassy gate about 20 feet away.
The patrol car arrived, took one look at my baggy and told the officer on guard at the US Embassy that it was not illegal and I played the video for him. The following comment is not what someone in my state of mind wants to ever hear. “Oh yeah I know him, everyone on the island knows him. I don’t think he would steal it, he’s trying to be Christian now since he got out of prison.” I was very clear repeatedly with the officer that I agreed and this was all the bus driver’s fault, except where is he?
We drove around the immediate area and not finding him, started doing police work. We started by circling the area to see if he was looking for me, then on through the straw market. We couldn’t find him and when I asked, the officer said pretty much anyone here could and would fence stolen camera gear, there are many pro photographers who live on the island plus a steady stream of hungry tourists. We visited his known hangouts, and at The Queen’s Staircase someone said he worked nights for a guard dog company.
We went to the hospital to track him down, why a hospital need guard dogs, I have no idea, but behind the barbed wire, the security in the parking lot was unsure who my officer was referring to, and as soon as I played them the video they said no, he didn’t work there. We visited his cousin’s house, explained that he isn’t in trouble but it is direly time sensitive. At this point my boat is leaving in just a couple hours. She gave us an address to try and the officer gave her his cell phone number to call when she found out what his cell phone number was.
As we were leaving his cousin’s house, we got an emergency call and suddenly I was in the front seat of a high speed police chase. Now I should make a point of saying that The Bahamas are a left-hand operation, right-hand drive country (opposite of the US), so the driver sits on the normal side of the car but drives on the left side of the road. Every time a car came around a corner I was bracing for impact. Now we were drifting into power slides through corners of wet, extremely narrow pitching and winding roads barely big enough for 2 cars to pass each other before you consider the cars parked on both sides of the street.
After that dispute at the gas station was resolved, knowing I really don’t want to know the answer, I asked what he was in trouble for. I found out he was an ex security specialist and black belt who was attacked, and in self defense subdued his attacker. Due to his martial arts background, the court system felt he was excessive in force and imprisoned him, the victim. Great, now he’s a good guy too? Where is he?!
Soon after, we got a call from the cousin that my he was waiting at the port terminal for me. He tried McDonald’s after I left and the guard told him I was looking for him, he immediately took at bus to the police station and filed a report (Why that wasn’t relayed to the officer I was with, who knows), the defense force, port authority, and and finally was waiting at the terminal. On the way there I asked the officer to be sure to give him a ride home. When we arrived, the authorities had me inspect the bag which he was adamant he had not opened (I had no doubt of that), and as it was very important to me that he knew, I made sure the officer told him that I never accused him, always the bus driver. I gave him what I could afford for his service as a tour guide, we exchanged contact information, took a few pictures together (he kept making me laugh the entire time), and parted ways.
I decided to call it a day and give up on the night shots of Parliament Square and all the historic churches, as there was no way I could make the walk again, and just returned to my ship to dry my shoes. As I was clearing customs at the base of my ship and regaling the guards with the story of what had just happened, the person behind me in line was from the same tiny town in North Carolina that my next photoshoot was located, which I had to from Florida as soon as the ship docked. Guess who’s my next local guide!
I wish I could say insanity like this doesn’t happen very often, but when you’re chasing down the perfect shot or trying to see everything with no time, sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone and, let’s face it, it’s not a successful trip without a story to tell. All’s well that ends well, so with my feet bleeding, knees & back in unbelievable pain, and likely a few years of my life taken from me in stress, I left with a sense of pride and renewed faith in humanity, along with a new friend I can’t wait to see again, back at his home or mine.