I recently travelled from London to Houston. I had some meetings there that were timed to coincide with the Offshore Technology Conference, an annual shindig that sees 90,000 energy industry folks descend on the city, for five concentrated days of wheeling and dealing.
A friend had relocated to the Bahamas some time ago, and had invited me to visit him there. It turned out that my flight to Houston routed via Miami, which in turn is just a short thirty minute hop from the Bahamas. So I decided to make a weekend of it, and detour from London to the Bahamas via Miami en-route to Texas. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
I have been fortunate enough to visit many fascinating places, probably more so than most. Despite this, I have barely begun to scratch the travel surface. It always upsets me to think that there are thousands and thousands of places that I have never been to, and most likely never will.
These can generally be divided into three broad categories. First, there are those places that I have not been to but which I feel like I already know, mainly as a result of their frequent appearances in television shows and movies. Places like Las Vegas, or Rio, or the pyramids of Egypt.
Next there are those places which many people I know have been to, even if I haven’t. So I have at least seen photos or heard stories that give me some sense of these. The Serengeti in Africa, the islands of the Maldives, or Cape Town in South Africa, are examples in this bunch.
And finally there are the vast bulk of places categorised under “other”, that make up most of our world, and of which I have no preconceived notions, and no clue at all as to what they may be like. For some strange reason whenever I think of this kind of place the one that pops into my head first is Boise, Idaho. Go figure.
Then there is also a fourth, much smaller category, being those places that I know of purely by reputation. These may not often feature in films and magazines, and I doubt I know anyone who has ever been to them. Yet their mere mention immediately conjures up a complete image, idea and set of expectations.
Who, for instance, has ever actually been to Timbuktu? I suspect most people couldn’t even point out where it is on a map. Still, we’ve all heard of the place, and just saying the word “Timbuktu” evokes the image of an exotic, faraway land, complete with hot deserts, oases surrounded by sand dunes, and camels.
Likewise, I don’t know too many people who’ve made it to Somalia, or North Korea, or Siberia. Yet we all have a clear image of them in our minds. One is the poster-child for lawless danger zones everywhere; one is a standard-bearer for tin-pot dictatorships run by real life Dr Evils; and one is virtually synonymous with harsh, desolate wildernesses, wherever they may be. I don’t even need to tell you which one is which: our shared understanding of these never-actually-seen places means that you already know all this.
The Bahamas fits squarely into this category. Without ever having been there I felt like I “knew” the place and evidently, most other people do too. When I told friends and family of my impending trip there I invariably got a chorus of oohs and aahs, followed by comments as to how incredibly lucky I was. According to all those who have never been, I was heading to blue seas, white sand and blazing summer skies, a never-ending party of swimming pools by day, cocktails by night. In popular perception it seems “the Bahamas” is not so much an actual place as it is an ideal: widely understood shorthand for what a deluxe tropical holiday spot should be like.
All of which meant that I arrived in the Bahamas with high expectations. As my small plane began its descent towards Nassau, the capital and home to about half of the country’s 300,000 inhabitants, I was literally on the edge of my seat, staring intently out the window, trying to catch a first glimpse of the earthly paradise that awaited me.
And all of which meant I was well primed to be massively disappointed with the reality on the ground.
The Bahamas is a group of around 700 islands and cays scattered in the Atlantic Ocean, not far from Florida and Cuba. It was a largely uninhabited pirate haven until 1718, when Britain took control of the islands and turned them into a colonial outpost. About a century later the British abolished slavery in the Bahamas, and in response a steady stream of black slaves, fleeing from US plantations, made their way there. Today, the descendants of these slave-refugees make up most of the Bahamian population. More recently, the Bahamas became an independent country in 1973, although it remains part of the British Commonwealth.
The economy of the Bahamas relies enormously on tourism, which contributes most of the country’s GDP and employs roughly 50% of its people. Given this, and given its global reputation as being the very definition of an exotic, sun-drenched vacation island, I guess I expected the Bahamas to be a Caribbean version of Bali, or Hawaii, or Mykonos. I thought I’d get the familiar hustle and bustle that comes from thousands of tourists enjoying their time on palm-fringed beaches, in luxury resorts, and in beach-bars, cafes and restaurants.
Instead, to my dismay, what I found was a tourism industry that has more or less been entirely hijacked by the cruise ship industry. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, it is all so…., well, so very, very tacky.
At around ten each morning several big cruise ships dock in the harbour of Nassau town. Although to describe these ships as “big” is something of an understatement – they are truly enormous, gigantic floating cities twenty-stories tall, casting huge shadows and blocking out the sun more effectively than any cloud ever could.
Then, for the next four or five hours, these ships disgorge their human cargo onto Nassau, a lot like modern-day versions of the whale that vomited Jonah up onto shore. Except that here what is being vomited up are around ten thousand tourists at a time, who all descend onto downtown Nassau in one concentrated wave.
The camera-toting Americans and Europeans who come off these ships tend to be elderly retirees or, if younger, working-class folks. They are almost all overweight blobs of pasty sun-burnt flesh, waddling around in shorts and skimpy bikini tips, pouring directly into a grid of streets lined with quaint “ye olde” stores, where they proceed to buy up every bit of made-in-China souvenir crap they can find. It is package tourism at its ugliest.
Sooner or later, everyone seems to find their way to Junkanoo Beach (a remarkably apt name, given the rubbish it is covered in). By about lunchtime this rather small strip of sand becomes a writhing mass of sweaty bodies, all dutifully lying in the sun or sitting at cheap looking beach-side bars, drinking even cheaper-looking cocktails. Junkanoo would be an embarrassment in Australia, barely meriting the label “beach”. But in Nassau, it is the beach – the image of Bahamian holiday “perfection” that cruise-ship tourists see, photograph, and then sail away with.
And sail away they do. By late afternoon the tourists are all safely back on their ships, which leave as suddenly as they arrived. Following which central Nassau rolls over and plays dead until the next day’s onslaught. So when I drove into town, at 5.15pm on a Sunday, the last of the cruise ships was disappearing over the horizon and every single store was shut. A few hours earlier Nassau’s tourist hub had been packed to bursting, but now it was a ghost town. I half expected to see bales of tumbleweed rolling down the main street.
Junkanoo Beach was likewise deserted. I stood there alone, looking at the empty, rubbish-strewn sand, and I thought to myself: “God almighty, if I had saved up for three years to go away on a dream Bahamas holiday, and then got this, I would be seriously pissed off”.
My friend who lives in the Bahamas had warned me as much. He had told me that most ex-pats who permanently live there confine themselves to gated-communities, which offer a comfortable life of palatial homes and members-only clubs, complete with private beaches and tennis courts and swish health-spas.
Many local Bahamians, by contrast, live a very different life “over the hill”, a phrase that refers to the sprawl of residential streets that fan out southwards from downtown Nassau, behind a small ridge and thus invisible to the tourists who pour in each day.
Driving back to my friend’s house I took a wrong turn, and unexpectedly wound up in this area. Here, the pristine streets and manicured lawns of the gated-communities vanished, as did the cutesy tourist-friendly architecture of downtown. Instead, I found myself driving along rutted uneven roads, lined with shanty houses built of wood and bits of aluminium and cardboard crates. On most corners there were groups of youngish men hanging about, big hulking guys in muscle-tees who, if I must be totally honest, looked bloody scary.
All in all it was like I had landed myself in a tropical version of an inner-city American ghetto. As the light faded the mood became increasingly menacing, and I became increasingly nervous. At one point I stopped at a traffic light, where a gang of young men stared at me, in what seemed a very hostile way although I am sure it was all in my mind. There was a sudden knock on the window. It was only a panhandler, asking if I had any loose change, but I almost jumped out of my skin from fright. I handed him a dollar, then put my foot on the gas and got the fuck out of dodge, as fast as I could.
Certainly this was not quite the holiday-island paradise I had been expecting.
Later, as I was heading back to the perceived “safety” (and boredom) of a gated-community, I came across a little strip of lit-up restaurants, just off the waterfront. At 7pm on a Sunday I had finally found some human life in the Bahamas! Cars in various states of disrepair were pulling into a large open-air parking lot, and a street had been cordoned-off, along which people were strolling, or sitting at outdoor tables and chairs. Several of the restaurants had live calypso bands playing, so the air was filled with the sound of chatter and music.
It was, by and large, an entirely Bahamian affair. Locals were turning out in force, and I was one of only a handful of tourists. There were couples on dates, groups of friends, and extended families eating dinner together. Most people had made an effort to dress-up, and in particular many of the women were sporting elaborately worked hairdos, and wearing striking, quite revealing outfits. I looked out-of-place in torn shorts and a scruffy t-shirt.
I sat at a table and ordered the Bahamian national dish of Conch Salad (pronounced “konk”). The conch is basically a big sea-snail, common to the waters around the Bahamas. It has a large muscle that is ripped out from the shell, cleaned, trimmed and then cut into bite-size chunks, so in the end it looks and tastes a lot like squid or calamari. The conch is then tossed into a salad of finely chopped onions, tomatoes, peppers and chilli, with other ingredients thrown in to order. In my case, I opted for the “tropical”, which added shredded pineapple and mango, and lots of fresh lime. It was served up as a huge mound, in a paper bowl, with a plastic bag around it to catch the bits of salad and juice that fell off to the side as I ate. Conch salad is a messy business.
I washed it down with a Sky Juice – coconut water mixed with milk and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It is, of course, also meant to be laced with rum or gin, and the waitress looked at me with utter disdain when I ordered a non-alcoholic version (which she referred to as being “unleaded”, although I am not sure if she meant me or the drink).
The food was delicious, and the atmosphere incredibly pleasant. So I sat there for about an hour, watching the passing parade of locals, listening to the percussive sounds of a calypso band, and generally much happier with the world at large. For the first time since arriving in the Bahamas it felt like I had found something real and authentic, and like I had finally arrived at the place I was expecting all along.
It didn’t last.
The next morning, I returned to downtown Nassau, drove over a high dual-carriageway bridge, and finished up on Paradise Island (previously known as Hog Island, and, given those who occupy it, possibly a much better name all round). The island is privately-owned and home to three things: (i) a couple of gated communities that cater to the super-wealthy (celebrities with single-word names – like Beyoncé, Tiger and Oprah – have pads here); (ii) a few high-end hotels; and (iii) Atlantis.
In the case of this last one, I am not talking about the submerged city of Greek legend. Atlantis a-la Bahamas is a combined resort and casino comprising about 3,000 hotel rooms; a massive water-park (including a series of rides inside a gigantic faux-Mayan temple, never mind that the Mayans had fuck-all to do with the lost city of Atlantis); several aquariums that apparently make up the world’s largest open air marine habitat (at least here they have fake Greek looking debris scattered around in homage to Atlantis), and of course an enormous casino.
The whole complex occupies almost half of Paradise Island, and is capped by two over-the-top fantasy towers that rise hundred of metres up into the air. Normally I like all things kitsch and cheesy, but Atlantis takes it to a whole new level – a gaudy, mass-market tourist hell of epic proportions.
Indeed, as I wandered around I found myself longing for the classy refinements of Junkanoo Beach. That’s how bad it was.
Atlantis’ reign as the “ultimate” statement on Bahamian tourism will, however, shortly be ending, although I am not at all sure we should be thankful.
You see, driving back and forth to my friend’s house along the coastal road, I had no choice each time but to detour around a huge construction site. This is where they are building Baha Mar, supposedly the Western Hemisphere’s largest new hotel-resort development. When done, this 1,000 acre behemoth will give the Bahamas about 5,000 extra hotel rooms, the largest casino in the Caribbean, thirty restaurants and bars, a performing arts centre, and a spa that alone will be bigger than most hotels in the country. Overall, Baha Mar completely dwarfs Atlantis in scale and intent.
It is due to open in 2014, so what I saw driving past were the completed skeletons of the buildings. They tower above the neighbouring Sheratons and Hiltons, in a way that makes these ordinarily big-time hotels look like shitty, small-time motels.
Plus, I am damned sure that the finished Baha Mar product will not only be big, it will be cheesy in a way that will make Atlantis blush. This is because despite its location, the Baha Mar is coming to us courtesy of the flashy new kid on the global block: China.
The $4 billion project is being financed by a Chinese state-owned bank. It is being built by a Chinese state-owned construction company. Many of the 12,000 employees of Baha Mar, when complete, will be Chinese. Even now, hanging from the building shells I saw huge banners written entirely in Mandarin. Apparently they say things like “no violence to rules and regulations”. Their audience: the 8,150 low-paid Chinese workers who have been brought into the Bahamas, specifically to work on the construction. They live in temporary dormitories in a vast work-camp a few kilometres away. Just like back home, every morning these workers line up in rows to do traditional exercises, while Chinese music blares through loudspeakers.
It might be only half-finished, but the inherently Chinese character of Baha Mar is already unmistakable, and this came as quite a shock. Not only had the Bahamas turned out to be the exact opposite of the tropical beach paradise I had imagined. Not only had I found out that, despite its reputation, the whole place is mainly a rather sad cruise destination. Not only had I just witnessed first-hand the twin tourist horrors of Junkanoo beach and Atlantis. No, in addition to all this, it now appeared to me that the Bahamas was well on its way to becoming an outlying province of the PRC.
It was like showing up at a high-school reunion and finding out that not only has your high-school sweetheart become fat, ugly and toothless, but she is now also a man.
This substantial Chinese presence in the Bahamas is far from accidental, by the way. It is all part of a deliberate exercise by China of “soft power” – a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to get your way by co-opting rather than coercing. Increasing its use of soft power is an explicit policy aim of the Chinese government, in recognition of the view that nowadays success often “depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins” (to quote Nye).
Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, the full extent of China’s soft power involved the donation of twenty-three pandas to zoos around the world (referred to sometimes as China’s period of “Panda Diplomacy”). Roll forward a short thirty years, however, and the picture is a very different one.
The Chinese are pouring billions into hotel developments all around the Caribbean, Baha Mar included. Much bigger sums are being dished out in Africa and South America, for building of mines, properties, education and healthcare projects, and infrastructure. It extends right down to the little things. Like last year when, in the lead-up to a G77 group meeting, Beijing donated a fleet of Chinese-designed and manufactured sedans to Fiji, which were used to ferry visiting politicians and dignitaries around, in the process garnering thanks and admiration for China’s largesse.
All of this Chinese soft power has been staggeringly effective in changing the emerging world’s view of China. This is especially so in Africa, where Chinese sponsored activity has been most extensive. For example, I read that many aspiring African entrepreneurs are now choosing to migrate to China, not the USA, to chase their dreams. And recent surveys show that many Africans have come to regard China incredibly favourably, as having a positive influence in their countries and the world, and as being of equal if not greater importance to them than the tired, not to mention much poorer, other superpower.
That said, I wouldn’t be rushing out just yet to buy new chopsticks, or an English-Mandarin dictionary.
Leaving the Bahamas, I came across a small piece on the internet, from March of this year. It was about four Chinese workers at the Baha Mar construction site, who had hopped into a canoe one afternoon and attempted to row their way to the United States. The canoe capsized and they had to be rescued. They were returned to China, which is where the journalistic trail runs cold, although I am sure the ending to this story is not a happy one, at least for the failed defectors involved.
What struck me is that these Chinese workers were prepared to run the gauntlet and risk their lives, for nothing more than an improbable shot at the American dream. Clearly they had forgotten to read their own government’s soft power memo. They were just like the thousands of other would-be Americans who try to enter that country illegally, every day, from places like Cuba, Mexico and Central America, and even from as far away as Africa and Asia. Though you don’t see too many people trying to sneak across the border into China.
Whatever else may be, it seems we still live in a world where no amount of Chinese money and power – soft or hard – can replace the human yearning for liberty.
Thank God for that.