Junkanoo!

Junkanoo: it’s a funny word, sort of like ‘hurdy gurdy—which is my musical instrument of choice. And like ‘hurdy gurdy’, the origins of the word are obscure. I prefer the colorful legendary one: that ‘junkanoo’ is derived from “John Canoe”, the name of a 17th African slave trader. The story goes that the slaves would run from him, hide in the bushes, and occupy themselves with music and dance and costumes made from bits of leaves and debris. The celebration, Wikipedia says, became associated with freedom and is a celebration of independence.

Whether that’s true or not (and there are more scholarly historical and linguistic versions of how the festival came to be), here on the Bahamian Island of Eleuthera, whose very name of which means ‘freedom’, junkanoo celebrations are extremely joyous and an honor to the Bahamian heritage.

We held one in Tarpum Bay last night. It was a Children’s Junkanoo—and I need to explain that. A junkanoo is basically a big street party: think Mardi Gras in the Bahamas. The most elaborate celebrations are held at Christmas time, on Boxing Day and New Years’ Day, in many of the islands of the Bahamas. Junkanoo is also held at other times—independence day, and on Eleuthera, for the Pineapple Festival. The highlight of a junkanoo is always a parade which features goombay music and dance, and elaborate costumes made from crepe paper. The ‘rush’ (celebration) traditionally begins at midnight and lasts until the sun comes up. Over the years the activity has become quite formalized, with cash prizes for participating groups and an elaborate judging system. The national Bahamian community recognizes the junkanoo as a cultural expression which should be encouraged and preserved—that’s why the contest structure was developed to encourage tradition.

The preservation efforts resulted in the development of an activity known as the  Children’s Junkanoo, which features school children, with parades and contests judged on costumes, music, and dance. That’s what Tarpum Bay hosted last night, and schools came from very far away to compete. Abaco, an island close to Eleuthera, was represented, as was Spanish Wells, a unique settlement almost 70 miles away from our town. Participating schools spend all year rehearsing, making costumes, and building elaborate banners. According to the national junkanoo rules, everything must be constructed by the children, though banners and costumes can be designed by adults. (In Traverse City’s Cherry Festival, the parents of a school’s ‘royalty’ are ‘honored” with the float building job). For the weeks I’ve been in Tarpum Bay, I’ve heard the drummers practicing in the afternoons after elementary school lets out, and I thought this probably took the place of the American marching band.

It certainly does.

The Tarpum Bay Junior Junkanoo started about 3 in the afternoon, as the buses arrived with children of all ages. The kids immediately began drumming, playing basketball in the town park, and clustering around the food stands selling hot dogs and conch fritters. By about five, when I got there, they were pretty much in costume and the big activity was to walk up and down the parade route, showing off costumes and greeting friends. Adults were beginning to gather as well—mothers with strollers, men with drinks and food, and general onlookers, many women dressed up in their most elaborate sparkling sandals and huge hoop earrings. Young men had on their best ‘pants on the ground’ outfits and everybody was chattering, eating, and drinking with great enthusiasm. “You alright?” is the Bahamian greeting, and it was shouted everywhere.

It was an eclectic mix of folks, too: Bahamians come in all colors and heritages. The Tarpum Bay area has its share of white residents , though last night the older ones seemed to keep to themselves, wearing plaid shorts and shirts with embroidered animals and sockless boat shoes.  Many seemed to be  carrying small fluffy dogs. They were aloof, didn’t greet anyone (including me), drank designer water, and avoided the gloriously greasy conch fritters and sauce-soaked barbecued ribs.

The parade goes on for hours. Everybody’s pretty casual about when to start: the magic signal seemed to be whenever everyone in a group was in the vicinity it would march down the street. There was often a half hour or more between parade entries, but nobody cared: that’s when you did your eating and socializing. Then, when a group did come down the street, it was a signal for everyone watching to join in and shout encouragement to the kids, who danced the whole six blocks, stopping only in front of the judges’ stand to perform their most elaborate routines and music. There was no feeling of being a passive bystander in this parade: even the youngest children danced and clapped as the groups came down the street.

For a little idea of what a junkanoo parade is like, you can watch this clip on You Tube .

The music is hypnotizing. The goombay drum, a drum with a single goatskin head, is played with the hands in a repeated rhythm. Layered over the drum are cowbells, whistles, brass instruments, and—more rarely—clarinets and saxophones. In the You Tube clip you can clearly hear the whistles, which are of the police or sports whistle variety. In the Tarpum Bay parade, even the smallest children played them as they danced down the street.

I was at the celebration for four hours. I think I got to see all the parade entries, and unlike my other pale-skinned participants, I ate barbecued chicken and baked macaroni and cheese, and drank soda. When I left I noticed that the first entry was back at the starting position, ready to begin the cycle all over again.

That’s another feature of the junkanoo parade: the show just circles around in an endless loop, and everybody parties until the sun comes up.

Take a break, and then it's back to the party!

(To see all of the photos, visit my Facebook page)

Proud Teacher

She'll be dancing next year!

The World According to Godfrey

Out walking today, enjoying the sunshine, when my friend Godfrey pulled into the yard in front of me, honking and waving from his taxi van.

“Miss Judith! Having a stroll? You looking good!”

I thank him: I am in fact getting a little stronger and more agile every day, and today I sat in the sun for a while. I tan quickly, so my skin is taking on a healthy brown glow and my Seasonal Affective Disorder is about gone, so I am even smiling as I walk.

My skin will never be as dark as Godfrey’s, of course, nor will my eyes ever be as bright blue. Not much I can do about that, but I can learn from his optimism and his enjoyment of life.

Today, however, Godfrey is worried. As we talk, we’re watching the young men of Tarpum Bay stroll up and down King Street. It’s the middle of a Monday afternoon, and there are probably a dozen or so handsome guys wandering up and down the street, smoking cigarettes, bored. “These young people,” he says, “it’s a shame. They doing nothing. It isn’t like when we were kids.”

I nod appreciatively.

“We worked,” he continues (in Bahamian dialect, it comes out ‘woiked’). “We worked every day. And I still work every day!” Godfrey drives a cab, rents cars, and owns several rental cottage in Tarpum Bay.

“And we took care of ourselves. I still do, even if I got The Sugar. I went swimmin’ this morning. I likes to go every day, and if I can’t get my exercise I feel like something is missing.

“Now these youth,” he continues, nodding toward the parade of young men, “they don’t do nothing worthwhile. They just walks around, do some drugs, get in trouble.

“And the girls (‘goils’), they’s worse. All they wants is some quick cash.

“Now Miss Judy, I never was no angel. I usta like my rum, I did. And maybe a little, you know, smoke now and then. And I always liked the ladies—still do, in fact. But I took care of myself, and I worked all the time. I did my bidness, and I was successful. These youth, now, they don’t get it. They’s gonna ruin our island. I fears it, Miss Judy. I do.”

Godfrey puts his cab in gear, backs up, and drives away. Before I could tell him that he’s not alone in this world.

Miss Barbie has a Housewarming


I been livin in this same house for 37 years,” Miss Barbie tells me. “Been home to my kids, my grand kids, and my rest’rant. Now I turnin’ my old place over to my daughter, and movin’ to my new home!”

And with this statement, she invites me to her housewarming party, to be held on Sunday, after church.

Shortly after one o’clock on Sunday, my phone rings. “Miss Judy!” Brenda shouts (she always shouts on the phone when she’s talking to me). “Miss Judy! Kervin pick you up. We go to Miss Barbie’s party!” And within a few minutes, Kervin’s white pickup is outside my door, horn honking, his two grand children in the truck bed. Brenda, Kervin and I squeeze ourselves into the truck cab and we careen down the road at 50 miles an hour.

Just beyond Mr. Kinky’s service station, we turn down a two-track, coral crusted road which winds through the scrub thickets and stops in a clearing containing a few houses. One of them is brand new, blue and white and shining in the sun. Several cars are parked in front: clearly this is the location of the party.

Kervin, who doesn’t like parties, drops us off and we enter it through the back door, into the kitchen. Miss Barbie, as you may recall, is the proprietress of Tarpum Bay’s finest dining establishment which, coincidentally, is just across the street from my cottage. I am devoted to her coconut tarts and her barbecued chicken and her spotless little restaurant with its four tables covered with shiny plastic tablecloths. In her own new home, Barbie’s kitchen contains a beautiful large stove and a large counter loaded with food: ham, chicken, lobster salad, fruit, and the ever-present Bahamian national dishes: platters of baked macaroni and bowls of “peas and rice”.

I am immediately handed a plate and told to help myself. Barbie gives me a verbal tour of each selection on the counter, including the contents and the cooking method. “That ham, we brought it from Miami when we was there for Christmas. We came back with that ham and lots of cheese in our cooler on the ferry. Ham only cost $26 in Miami. It was twice as much in Eleut’ra.”

I fill my plate and find a seat at a table next to my old friend, Mr. Tim Bert Carey, who is nattily attired in his Sunday suit (where do they find dry cleaners on this island, I wonder?). Mr. Tim Bert did the electrical work on my cottage, and on Miss Barbara’s house as well. He pours me a large glass of cranberry juice (it’s Sunday, of course) and we settle in for a long talk about the unseasonably cool weather in Florida.

There are about 30 guests squeezed into the living room. The noise is tremendous: there are as many different conversations as there are people, most are shouted across the room. Before much time passes, the children come in from outside and cluster around the two tables, bringing board games to play. The adults say goodbye, carefully thanking Miss Barbie and her husband Peter for their generosity and congratulating them on their new home.

Brenda shows no desire to leave, however. Bahamians love games and cards, and she’s is no exception. She’s totally consumed by a board game called “Trouble”, and she’s the center of a group of whooping, clapping children. Friendly but spirited arguments erupt over whose turn it is, and whether the proper number of spaces have been navigated. “Brenda,” I remind her, “Don’t fight with the children!” They collapse in laughter.

Well, I’m tired,” Miss Barbie confides in me. “Me, too,” I say. “Way too much excitement…and good food. But we’ll never get Miss Brenda away from the children and their games.”

Oh, yes we will,” Barbie says. And she grabs Brenda’s jacket and knit cap and says, “Brenda! I’m taking y’all home.” And she leads us out to her car.

It’s Magic



It’s the second day of a crisis, and I am not happy: my internet access has been fading in and out like the sun between the clouds. I can’t communicate with my family, I can’t “Skype” my clients, and I can only work when the little blue envelope icon appears on my laptop screen and tells me I’m connected to email. I remember this situation from last year, I think to myself.

Eventually, I call Cable Bahamas. Now that’s not easy either: I don’t have a phone book, there’s no internet access, and if the telephone company has an information service it is kept as secret as a CIA document. I trudge over to Bert’s For the Best Grocery and they give me the number. I head back home to call, knowing that I’ll need to be near the little modem box which only has two out of five lights blinking. Why do I need to be there? Because the support person will say, “Unplug everything and plug all the chords back in.”

I call the Nassau office, a couple of islands away.

“Cable Bahamas. How may I help you?”

I explain that my internet service is totally out, and has been on and off for two days.

“Ah. How many lights are blinking on your modem?”

I tell him: two.

“Could you perform a task for me? Could you unplug all three chords going into the modem and then plug them back in?”

I do so. All five lights come on.

“Hey!” I say. “It worked! All the lights are on! How come that didn’t work all the other times I tried that before I called you?”

“Um. Well. I did a few things on my end too. Glad it worked. Have a nice day.”

The solution lasts less than an hour. “Oh,” said the same rich Bahamian voice. “Let me check something.” Long pause. “Hello? There’s an outage in your area. They are working on it. No, I don’t know when. Goodbye.”

Oh sure, I think, this sounds a lot like home in Traverse City. After some searching, I discover another accessible wireless network—weak but working–which I later learned is a DSL connection from the church across the street, and I reconfigure my laptop so I can get my email. Eventually, I call Nassau cable service once again. This time, nobody at Bahamas Cable answers, so I leave a harsh voice mail message designed to attract the support person’s attention when he wakes up from his 3 PM nap, or whatever he’s doing.

There’s no return phone call.

It isn’t until the next morning when I wander outside that I see a rusty bucket truck, diesel engine running, parked across the street from the Hi-Way Dep’t Store. Three large men are standing in the street, staring up at a junction box perched high up on a utility pole. They are motionless and silent, gaze fixed on the metal box. Finally, one man climbs into the bucket and is lifted up to within a few feet of the box. He doesn’t touch anything, he simply continues to stare at the object. After a few moments he is lowered to the ground.

One of the other men walks across the street to Bert’s, and comes back with three cans of Goombay Punch. They continue to stare at the junction box as they sip the sweet pineapple drink, apparently waiting for their sugar highs to kick in. I can’t stand the suspense, so I go to Bert’s myself and buy a few supplies.

When I come back out, a two more citizens of Tarpum Bay have joined the vigil: a young school girl in a starched white blouse and plaid skirt on her way home from school, and Miss Rose, the proprietress of the Hi-Way Dep’t Store, stand craning their necks, looking up at the top of the pole.

“Any progress?” I ask.

“Don’t look like it,” Rose says.

We all watch silently for a while, until the soda cans are empty. Then the three men climb into the cab of the truck and drive away.

The excitement is over. I go back to my house, store my bread and peanut butter in the fridge, and sit down at my computer. All the modem lights are on. The internet connection works.

Girls Day Out

I’m really not much of a shopper. Oh, it’s fun when I’m at Sarah’s house in Washington: we have our favorite stores to browse, and places to eat lunch. And when I’m home, I enjoy a quick trip to Sutton’s Bay to see what’s on sale at Lima Bean clothing. But mostly I’m an internet shopper. I head for Amazon, or eBay, or Musician’s Friend to buy what I need—happy to know it will show up in my mailbox in a couple of days.

In Eleuthera, however, things are different. There’s no mail delivery in Tarpum Bay, and I’ve never seen a delivery truck—I assume that by the time you order, pay shipping, taxes, and duty, all convenience and savings is lost. Here on the island, time is not a treasured commodity anyway—everybody has an abundance of it. (The resource of too much time compensates for the consistent lack of money and possessions, and creates a learning experience for American visitors. But more on that, later.)

Today was shopping day. I’ve written before about the adventure of shopping with Brenda—and it’s still an adventure, no matter how many times I’ve done it. We planned this day—Brenda didn’t have to work, and she had some errands as well. I suggested we rent a car (both of her family cars were ‘with the garage man’) and Brenda picked me up in a quite astounding vehicle: it outdid the bright yellow sports car with the air foils that she used to meet me at the airport last Friday!

This one was a metallic burgundy Chevy Malibu. What made it so amazing was the windows: they were coated all around with a matching window coating—also in shimmering burgundy. Only the front windshield was clear. Kervin had washed and polished the car before Brenda left, it glowed and glistened in the sunlight. Of course, nobody could see who was inside. I know these windows would be illegal in Michigan (though the sticker said the car was assembled in Lansing). I fantasized that in its past life, it was probably a drug mobile in Miami Beach or a pimp wagon in New Orleans.

At any rate, off we zoomed to Rock Sound, looking for a few items I felt were necessary for my comfort during the next couple of months.

Brenda had to pay some bills, as well. In a community with no real postal service and no credit cards or personal checks (and certainly no online banking), one pays bills by showing up at the utility office and forking over the cash,. It’s a pretty hard system for me to embrace, but I guess there’s something to be said for face-to-face interaction with one’s customers. There’s certainly enough personal contact with the Eleutheran method of purchasing utilities and again, when you have an abundance of time, who cares about convenience?

The lack of signage in Eleuthera is another clue that one is not in the United States. After all, when you’re on an island that’s only 2 miles wide, how lost can you get? And if you’ve lived here all your life, why would you need a sign? As a result, shopping with Brenda means pulling up to an anonymous ramshackle building, slipping through a darkened doorway (lights aren’t needed until there are customers), and finding yourself in a huge cavern loaded with boxes and bins of dusty goods, most of it unsorted and stacked randomly throughout the interior.

One store had the chairs we were looking for stacked above the milk and soda coolers. “How much for dem plastic chairs?” Brenda asks. Without looking at where she points, the store owner says, “Twenty five dollar each”, and doesn’t ask if he can get one down for us to look at more closely.

We check out several stores in Rock Sound, and then head for Governor’s Harbour, Eleuthera’s capitol. ‘Governor’s’ is about 25 miles to the North, but it’s a good hour drive, given the narrow roads and potholes. Straight stretches, though, Brenda makes it up to 55 in the Burgundy Bomb, even though the ocean is lapping over the seawall in some places. We repeat our forays into the recesses of dark concrete buildings: in one store there are at least 200 baseball caps hanging from the ceiling. I wonder how long they’ve been there: I almost never see anyone in Eleuthera wearing a ball cap—forwards, backwards, or sideways. Many of the stores still have dusty metallic Christmas wreaths still in their boxes, unsold this season and probably for several seasons before this one, from the looks of them.

Finally I say, “Miss Brenda, I have to have lunch! Stop shopping!”

“You hungry, Miss Judith?”

“Argh!”

We head for the docks in Governor’s, to a little snack shop right next to the Customs building. It’s tiny, four stools at the counter and one small table for two. There are plenty of chairs and tables on the patio in front, but it’s cold out, and Brenda and I seat ourselves inside at the lone table.

There are two remarkable things about this place: (1) it is absolutely the cleanest and most pink and white restaurant I’ve ever seen, and (2) the food is amazingly good. I ordered conch, which was deep fried but with a batter more like tempura. Brenda had the juiciest cheeseburger I’ve found anywhere but Sledder’s in Traverse City—and while we ate we had a delightful conversation with the woman behind the counter. Brenda and Kervin are related to many people on the island, and so wherever we go Brenda establishes whatever 6 degrees of separation (usually much less than 6) exist with shopkeepers, waitresses, and gas station attendants.

It was fun listening to the two women discuss mutual friends, common relatives, and who was the minister at the Methodist church in Tarpum Bay these days. Most everybody knows Lynn’s and my house (the two-story pink one next to Miss Barbie’s Take-Away), and the pink-shirted hostess was no exception.

Our last stop was the Tarpum Bay furniture store. They know me there: it’s where Lynn and I parked the car that wouldn’t stop honking its horn last year, and where—on another trip—I mistakenly walked away with the old man’s cane. Once again I ended up with some significant expenditures from this store: a computer desk, a chair, and a charcoal grill to be precise.

Since we couldn’t get my purchases in The Burgundy Bomb, the proprietor fired up his delivery truck and followed us to my house, bringing everything in and putting it in the proper places before he left.

Brenda left soon after: she brought Kervin a conch dinner from our restaurant, and both of us were exhausted.

Girls Day Out. Rough life.

Tarpum Bay Welcome

“Miss Judith, here I is!”

Yes, there she is, my Bahamas sister, Miss Brenda. She was resplendent in her flowered yellow dress and her beautiful smile, and we both laughed with delight at the silly bright yellow sports car she’d rented to pick me up. Several large men willingly helped us stow my over sized bags in the tiny trunk and back seat, and away we went, down the road to the Tarpum Bay cottage.

Brenda showed me the work that Kervin, her husband, had done while I was gone: new steps, lattice work on the patio, some new cement on the deck. And she gave me my homecoming gift, a beautiful coconut tart Kervin’s sister had made and Brenda had carefully carried back on the airplane from Nassau.

My world grows as it shrinks. For the next three months I’ll be surrounded by the pink and white walls of this small cottage, the blue sea and white beach a few steps from my door, and the rich smiles of my Bahamian friends and neighbors.

I write this on a Sunday morning, a warm clear day. The Methodists next door sing enthusiastically, if not tunefully, of God’s love, and I think the drummer has improved since last year—even if the organist has some more practicing to do. I muse on how chaotic their church service seems: we white folk seem so neurotic about the order of things—Welcome, Hymn, Reading, Hymn, Sermon, Hymn, Benediction, Coffee. My neighbors here, on the other hand, begin singing, pray a little, sing some more, shout and clap some, sing happy birthday to everyone with a celebration this week, and end the hour and a half with more singing. All tunes are accompanied by organ and drums, and swaying and clapping.

It’s hard to keep my body still, across the narrow street where I am sitting on the deck watching the sea and listening to the singing. Grizzly, Brenda’s dog, has adopted me and naps at my feet, rousing himself only to bark at some imagined threat. He stays on the deck through the night, not wanting food or water, just an occasional pat or a friendly word.

Later, I’ll have some of the fresh watermelon my friend Mano brought yesterday when he came to show off his new baby daughter Kitty, and his girlfriend Rachel. My first art commission of the season: the trade of a watermelon for a sketch of Kitty!

Tonight Miss Brenda will bring me dinner—macaroni and cheese and some baked grouper. “You don’t really have to feed me,” I say. “Miss Judith,” she says, “everybody needs Sunday dinner.” (So much for my diet plans). I did go over to Bert’s for the Best grocery yesterday and stock up on eggs and oatmeal, and such. I also had to buy a five gallon jug of water, and I said to Kenneth, who was checking out my groceries, “I’ll find a strong guy to come and get the water.” He looked at me in surprise and said, “I’ll take it to your house.” He loaded my bags and the big water jug into a grocery cart and brought it all down the block, up the steps and into my kitchen. Now THAT gives a whole new meaning to the concept of ‘carry out boy’.

It’s seventy degrees here, and breezy. Everyone but me wears jackets and knit caps, and Brenda wraps herself in my pink Christmas Snuggy when she visits my house with its windows open. Me, I just sit in the sun, in my t-shirt and shorts and bare feet. Life is good.