COVID threw everything into disarray, including this blog. It was always meant to be a travel blog and that, of course, abruptly stopped. We tried to post about “traveling” close to home. Okay, they were mostly posts about picking up garbage and taking joy in old trash. Once we started taking day trips they often felt more like probation than adventure.
Yesterday, I found myself on an airplane for the first time in two years. It was like riding a bike…while having a panic attack. I jest! Sort of. COVID precautions are very serious for our family and this was the first time any of us has traveled. We’ve only eaten inside a restaurant a handful of times since the pandemic began, let alone faced crowded terminals and planes. This was a work trip, so armed with every precaution, I took to the skies.
The last two years have been tough. The last year has been really tough. The last month has been tougher. It has been a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other existence of late. Spontaneity has been hard to come by. When I got on the plane, I knew where I would be staying, what I would be doing, and even where I would be eating. It was planned down to the minute.
I was headed south along State Road 67, about 20 minutes from Indianapolis International Airport, when my head whipped over to read a sign along the highway. I read it quickly three times trying to resolve what I was reading with where I was. I had a decision to make – continue south to my destination as planned or go back and investigate. Impulsively, I jumped into the left lane and made a U-turn. I figured they would be closed, but I still wanted to check it out.
Let’s step back in time for a moment to reveal my geeky past and to help explain the sheer joy in this discovery…
Inside was an absolute candy store for Dr. Who fans. Not only did they have the expected merch – including toys, books, CDs, dishes, and more – there was also a museum in the store. If they had had a 13th Dr. coat it would have been the world’s greatest impulse buy, but alas it was one of the few things they didn’t have.
I selected a few items and gifts, knowing I had to get back on the road, but feeling so much better with this unexpected discovery. And now the 13th Dr. and I are traveling together in Indiana.
In case you wondered, the store is indeed bigger on the inside.
We arrive at the Straw Market around 9:00 a.m., just as its vendors begin throwing back the blue plastic tarps that shield their wares from the passing tropical showers that douse Nassau, like most else in these latitudes, every few hours.
Opening time, and the most industrious sellers of this bustling city block-size flea market are already hawking their goods to the handful of intrepid tourists that presage the imminent cruise ship invasion. One woman, still unwrapping her stall, draws us in by appealing to Garnet with a wooden folding knife, which she offers to engrave on the spot for a grand total of $10. It’s a cool piece, and a rare opportunity for a kid whose name will never appear on those little bicycle license plates for sale in every seaside five-and-ten from Cape Cod to Key West. Sold.
We walk on, and other vendors begin to swoop in like seagulls circling a bucket of boardwalk fries. They’re hawking tie-dyes and wood carvings, ball caps and bongs, African masks, Bob Marley beach towels and, of course, straw goods. From stall to stall, much of it is redundant, and the same “Bahamian” mementos that 500 miles to the south are stamped “Kingston”. Still, a closer look will reveal some fine locally-hewn crafts.
Just outside the Market’s west wing we meet Winston, a beaming older local who sits with his hatchet, carving rough wooden figures which he sells alongside the mass-produced pieces. We buy one of his masks, and he offers to pose for a picture.
Inside, we navigate the tight aisles which, in some cases, are all that distinguish one stall from the next. Garnet buys me a starfish shot glass for my birthday, before moving on in search of a stuffy. He and Davida advance to the next booth while I run to the rest room, which is remarkably bright, clean, and well-kept.
I catch up with them at a booth where Garnet is considering a blue plush bear with Bahamas embroidered on it while Davida contemplates one bamboo-adorned photo album over another. She steps away to help Garnet with his selection, and somehow, I wind up with both albums in hand, making me a clear mark for the vendor, a fast-talking Bahamian woman who has already moved in.
“Fifteen dollars,” she says. Then, sensing my indecision, shrewdly adds, “Two for twenty-five.”
Why not? Tangible flotsam adrift in a digital sea.
“Deal.” I open my wallet. Nothing but twenties. Goddamn ATMs. I pull out $40, and the woman eyes the two bills like an informant who’s about to put the Jackson twins away for the next five to seven years.
“Tell you what,” she says, grabbing a third photo album and adding it to the pair in my hands, “take this one, too. Ten dollars.”
I laugh to myself, but roll with it. Our philosophy generally runs like this: if we can afford to be here, for nothing more than a few days of fun, we can afford to spend a few dollars – it is part of the budget. Unlike nearby Paradise Island, with its international chains and faux-tropicalia, these dollars will go straight into the local economy.
I nod and hand her the money.
“So – let’s see. I owe you…five dollars.” She pulls a few bills from her pocket and begins counting out singles into my hand. “One…two…three…four…” Hamilton stares back from his ten-spot.
“Let’s see,” she says, scanning the booth. From a nearby shelf, she seizes a small shot glass adorned with cartoon fish which she promptly adds to my stack. “Here – take this.” It’s a done deal. And with that she moves on to the cruise ship invaders now storming the Market. They don’t stand a chance.
As we move on, I reflect on my lesson in Straw Market economics. Know that everyone needs to make a buck and understand you are that buck, nothing personal. Be prepared for toe-to-toe trade in a spirited setting. Enjoy the experience of mingling with locals whose livelihoods, in their own unique way, depend upon the daily tourist invasion.
The Bahamas are a cultural and economic crossroads and have been for centuries. It is one of many places Christopher Columbus is given credit for “discovering,” ignoring millennia of native history and culture. The indigenous Lucayans were largely wiped out by European invaders. The islands were claimed for Spain but were later ceded to Britain in 1783 in exchange for East Florida. On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas gained independence from the United Kingdom.
Nassau, on New Providence Island, was established as a commercial port in 1670. The island is approximately 80 square miles, 21 miles long at its widest point. For centuries it was a hub for pirates, slave traders, and British and other European colonists. With the southern blockade during the American Civil War, British merchants used the Bahamas as a trading post for cotton. The Bahamas also benefited from the US’s prohibition on alcohol.
About 85% of the Bahamian population is descended from slaves, mostly African, brought or escaping to the islands. Many were freed when Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, some were brought to the islands by British loyalists who left America after the American Revolution, and others escaped the US to gain freedom. About 70% of the population of the Bahamas lives on New Providence Island (approx. 250K people). Of the 6.2 million people who visit the Bahamas annually, well more than half visit the nation’s capital, Nassau.
The Bahamas is among the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean. Due of the lack of abundant natural resources, the Bahamas has long depended on location and outsiders to fuel the economy, essentially importing tourists along with many other commodities. While the Bahamian dollar is tied to the US dollar for exchange rates, most food and other goods are imported resulting in increased retail costs. (On average, I’d say we spent about 35% more on the grocery items we purchased, especially pre-packaged foods.) Currently, tourism accounts for about 45% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs about half of the working population. Banking is the other major industry. The GDP per capita in the Bahamas in 2010 was $24,312. In 2016, it was down to $20,568, which is a sizable decline, showing the ongoing effects of the world economic downturn that started in 2007.
The Hotel and Steam Ship Service Act of 1898 launched the Bahamas tourism industry. After Cuba was closed to American tourists, there was an additional increase of tourism. In 1959, work began to transform Hog Island, once owned by Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren, a wealthy a Swedish entrepreneur, into Paradise Island. The bulk of tourists either see Nassau from the cruise ship dock or from one of the many hotels and resorts on Paradise Island. Approximately 3.6 million people visited New Providence in 2016, with over 70% arriving via cruise ship. The remaining one million arrive by air and most stay at the Paradise Island resorts.
We spent the week exploring as much of the island as possible. There are sections so manicured and veneered to impress tourists that you’d expect to see Mr. Roarke standing outside waiting to greet them in his white suit. We drove through other sections where a hand-to-mouth existence was evident. We passed gates where the 1% of the 1% vacation, and others where the only thing left of the house was a gate hanging askew on the hinges. We saw past hurricane damage and areas obviously hit by the recession. We visited Adelaide Village, where 157 freed African slaves settled the area in 1831. We drove past refineries belching a chemical stink on the east end of the island. These places are all part of New Providence Island. At times it felt like guidebooks, and even locals, wanted to pretend that areas outside of Nassau didn’t exist to outsiders. There was a sharp contrast in the quality of the roads that lead away from the airport and those on the fringes.
In 2012, tourists brought approximately $2.3 billion into the Bahamian economy. The bulk of visitors report wanting to go to the beach, relax, snorkel, dive, and tour the islands. It is also worth noting that some of the primary environmental concerns include coral reef decay, waste disposal, and water pollution, all of which are negatively impacted by tourism. On the other hand, some of the tourist activities teach visitors about endemic endangered animals and respect for the reefs and oceans, so nothing is black and white.
It is also worth noting the climate’s influence on culture. It is hot, it rains regularly, temperatures only fluctuate about 10 degrees each day, and for half of the year, there is the threat of hurricanes. It is easy to mistake the stereotypical laid-back island persona as a result of living in paradise. It may instead be a result of accepting life as it comes, including the predictably unpredictable weather and knowing it is too fucking hot to get worked up over nothing. Understanding that problems occur. Pragmatic fatalism? All I know is that it is an attitude I can get behind and it forces me to realize I often get stressed over meaningless bullshit. That laid-back persona is also a way for locals to test attitudes. Underestimating other people is a fool’s game, but I saw it happen, so I get why people are guarded.
The majority of the people we interacted with were in some way dependent on tourism for their livelihood. It creates an odd socioeconomic dynamic. You see the same love-hate at shore towns in the states overrun by wealthy outsiders three months out of the year. We recognized the economy for what it is and did what we could to stay, eat, and shop locally, and tried not to be assholes. While the resorts most definitely provide jobs, the owners are foreign investors and some of that money leaves the islands. We also made additional efforts to tip, figuring that if we could afford to be there we could likewise afford to tip appropriately; that money goes straight into the local economy.
When we visited Grand Bahama Island in 2004 I knew little about the history and culture of the Bahamas. This time I paid more attention. I thought about the duality of how the Bahamas are perceived by outsiders and had just a glimpse of the other side thanks to locals who took the time to talk with us. Traveling with blinders may be appealing, but ultimately you don’t learn about place. Explore a little, meet locals, read – there will still be time for Bahama Mamas and snorkel charters.
Up next, we start exploring the island and introduce you to Orange Hill Beach and the Orange Hill Beach Inn.
One of the reasons we started Next Exit Travel was to share those amazing, unexpected moments that appear when you travel. Yesterday, I went to Washington, DC for work. With the meeting concluded, I was offered a tour of an iconic landmark in Georgetown. While there are 100’s of iconic spots all over DC, this was one I actually wanted to see – the stairs from The Exorcist. Better yet, I got to descend the steep stairs with not only a PhD in religious studies, but a pastor as well.
In case you need to refresh yourself with the stair scene, check out this clip. This past Halloween the stairs were designated as an official tourist location. If you want to see the stairs out for yourself, they are at the corner of Prospect Street and 36th Street, near M Street in Georgetown.
Bonus Exorcist trivia – Linda Blair is now an animal activist and wants you to adopt a companion dog.
I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants. The mercury was high for January – nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sand was cool, though not quite cold, to my bare feet. But the sun warmed my bare arms as I surveyed the vast high dunes – at 80 to 100 feet, the East Coast’s tallest – of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, one of the many natural wonders to be found on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Now ready, I joined my son in taking a flying leap from the top of the park’s tallest dune while Davida snapped our pictures. We laughed hysterically as we tumbled down its sandy face, steep enough that visitors can hang-glide from the highest peaks. At 9, he’s the same age now that I was the first time I visited this place in the mid-1980s.
At 40, I didn’t hesitate when he insisted that we climb back up and do it again.
The unexpectedly warm temperatures helped to perpetuate the magic of these “walking” dunes, which are subject to the whims of the temperamental winds and water. The last time I was here, in the very early Aughts, the shifting sands had yielded the defiant spires of a medieval castle – the ruins of a miniature golf course swallowed whole by Jockey’s Ridge years before. Their present absence said the dunes had once again reclaimed their bounty. Indeed, like the act of traveling itself, the dynamic nature of a barrier island ensures a certain degree of spontaneity; you never know what you might find just around the next corner.
A few tumbles later, I suggested that we walk up the next dune – toward NC highway 158, which like a fish bone forms the central spine for vehicular travel along the Banks – for a better view of the surrounding town of Nags Head. We gathered up our shoes and made our way across this oasis of sand in a saltwater desert.
It was the boy, of course, who made the summit first. When I caught up, he was staring intently at yet the next dune over.
“Is that Boba Fett?” he asked, referring to the bounty hunter from Star Wars.
“There,” he said, pointing to the next peak. “Is that Boba Fett?”
I wasn’t wearing my glasses, having shed them and every other lose object on my person before tumbling down the hill. Years earlier I had lost my wallet doing the very same thing; thankfully, a park ranger had found it a short time later and taken it to the visitors’ center, where I retrieved it.
I squinted at the next peak, bustling with an unseasonably large number of people. I surmised that my son must be referring to one particular form swathed in a dark brown blanket.
“No, sport,” I laughed, “that’s just someone trying to keep warm.”
“No,” he insisted. “That is Boba Fett! Look!”
This time one distinctive figure, gleaming white from head to toe, stood out among the group. No, not Boba Fett…but a stormtrooper! Now I looked again at the blanketed form, this time realizing that it was not, in fact, a blanket, but a cloak. Obi-Wan Kenobi! And there, in their midst, stood the unmistakable form of the bounty hunter, Boba Fett.
Davida, toting the rest of our gear, caught up with us. I put on my glasses, and we told her about the cast of Star Wars inhabiting the next dune. Davida, noticing Obi-Wan (note: we’ve since learned that this was not Obi-Wan, but a Jedi of the wearer’s own creation) now walking toward our dune, suggested we go find out what was up.
Turned out, members of 501st Legion Carolina Garrison OBX StormTroopers, 501st Garrison Tyranus, The Rebel Legion, and Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club, also taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather, had gathered for a promotional photo shoot on the shifting sands of Jockey’s Ridge, which, when carefully cropped, bears a striking resemblance to Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tattooine. The full-costume groups regularly participate in charity events. Also on hand that day, among others, were the characters Rey and Kylo Ren from 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The costumers proved very friendly, and they graciously agreed to take pictures with our son, amplifying an already memorable experience.
The sands grew cooler as the sun sank into Roanoke Sound, and I put on my shoes and sweatshirt as the fading daylight chased the troupe and its cameras farther and farther up the dune, the long winter light lending an air of drama to the scene. With the park closing at dusk, we decided to make our way back to our car. I remarked on the gorgeous sunset, in case Davida cared to photograph it, but doing so seemed a bit anticlimactic following our cinematic experience – one of those odd bits of happenstance that eludes the best-planned itinerary. Besides, further adventures awaited us, just over the next dune…
I flew out to Denver for a work conference, assuming the short (just over 50 hour) trip would be too jammed packed to offer enough fodder for a post. I was wrong and found Denver quite enjoyable. After a long cab ride from Denver International Airport (more on that later), I dropped my bags at the hotel and went out in search of food. Denver is amazingly vegan-friendly and had my pick of places. I decided on Watercourse Foods and devoured a plate of homefries, pancakes, scrambled tofu, and tofu bacon. I wandered for a while and eventually found myself at the opulent Brown Palace Hotel and headed into the Ship Tavern. I sipped a pear cocktail, read a zine, and filled out a few postcards. I enjoy these quiet, anonymous moments of solitary travel.
I returned to the hotel for the reception and dinner and decided I would maturely go back to my room and retire for the night. Thankfully a co-worker convinced me that was not in my best interest and cajoled me to go with her to a conference-related gathering. What had I been thinking?!
I’m glad she did, because I was not only treated to a view of Denver at night from the 22nd floor of a clock tower, I got to watch a thunderstorm breaking around the city from that height. One of my travel loves is seeing, hearing, and smelling thunderstorms in different places. We were even allowed to climb the spiral staircase to the very top of the bell tower. Giving people drinks and then sanctioning this activity seemed overly trusting.
Despite the semi-late night, I was up at 6am and exploring the city before a breakfast meeting with a friend who lives in Denver. We met at City O’ City, where I had scrambled tofu smothered in green chile, queso fresco, cilantro, homefries, corn tortillas, and some warm house-made gluten-free bread. Breakfast foods, especially at conference hotels, tend to be very gluten-y and not very vegan-friendly, so this was a huge treat and kept me going all day. So did such a pleasant meeting and good conversation so early in the day.
I was busy with work stuff the rest of the day, but the next morning awoke once again at the crack of dawn. City O’ City’s menu called to me on the 21st floor of my hotel room and I found myself wandering again, this time pondering the waffles I had seen on the menu. They make savory waffles. Waffles as food-food. This is perhaps the best idea ever. I ordered the “waffle of the week”, a tex-mex waffle topped with black beans, spicy peppers and onions, cilantro, a chipotle aioli, and avocado. It was one of the best meals I have ever had. Seriously.
I headed back to the hotel and got caught in the beginnings of the Pride festivities. Areas around the hotel were cordoned off with fences, but I made it back in time for the start of the sessions. I had a break and walked to Tattered Cover, a renowned local bookstore. Across the street is Rockmount, famous for their western wear shirts since 1946. They are well-made and very cool looking, but pricy and I ended up leaving empty- handed.
The airport is fairly far outside of the city, about 25 miles, and by Saturday afternoon we were all conferenced-out. I decided to leave a bit early with my boss and a colleague so I could explore the weird murals in what is a very weird airport. According to conspiracy experts, the airport is everything from a massive underground base providing safety to a new world order to a secret Nazi and/or Freemason site. It would appear there is an entire segment of the internet devoted to the DIA conspiracy (go ahead, Google it!). No matter what tin hat you are wearing, the airport is simply weird. Greeting you as you arrive at DIA is a giant blue horse sculpture with red glowing eyes dubbed Blucifer…that killed the sculptor. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Inside the baggage claim area are four wildly colorful murals by Chicano muralist Leo Tanguma that promote world peace and express fears of mass extinction, but first you have to get past a giant, threatening gas mask-wearing, sword wielding figure and a lot of dead and crying kids to get the message. The images show misery and death, a quote from a child who died at Auschwitz, a dead jaguar, and kids toppling the gas mask figure. I just can’t figure out how this got past a public art planning committee. I wonder what weary travelers make of these scenes? Here are the four murals and some close ups:
Plaque explaining the mural: “Children of the World Dream of Peace is a powerful mural expressing the artist’s desire to abolish violence in society. One section of the piece speaks to the tragedy and devastation of war and its impact on humanity. The mural then moves on to images of smiling children, dressed in traditional folk costumes from around the world, celebrating peace prevailing over war.”
Plaque explaining the mural: “In Peace and Harmony with Nature references the social realist murals of Mexico while addressing a modern theme: the destruction of the environment. The first half of the mural shows children displaying great sadness over the destruction and extinction of life, as the second half of the artwork depicts humanity coming together to rehabilitate and celebrate nature.” Further reading: http://diaconspiracyfiles.com/2009/05/12/more-murals-by-leo-tanguma/ And then there is this part of the train system that looks inspired by ancient ruins.
The airport is HUGE. It takes up 53 square miles and you need to take a train to your gate. There are rumors of underground bunkers and speculation about who really built the airport. The runways are said to be in a deliberate swastika shape. I don’t know about any of that, but I do know they have a TCBY that has vegan soft-serve and that really helped the storm-related delays. Denver is a seemingly unassuming place with unexpected (and often peculiar) treasures.
Between the holdover time in Boston, the duration of the flight, and the five-hour time difference, we were thoroughly exhausted by the time we reached Clontarf Castle. Nevertheless, figuring our best bet for acclimating to local time was to forge on until bedtime, we checked in, threw down our bags, and after a short rest were off for Dublin Town.
Traveling with a 9-year-old (who’d held up amazingly well thus far) meant that our first stop should be of correlative interest. And so it was that we found ourselves at the door of the National Leprechaun Museum. Despite the hokey implications of its name, the Museum could be as easily marketed as a crash course in Irish mythology – Aos Sí 101 – which manifests throughout Irish culture to this day.
As our seanchai led us through a series of exhibits depicting leprechauns of lore as well as their modern convention (rooted in the 1959 Disney film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People), elaborating upon the púca and bean sídhe, Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fenian Cycle, I recalled, of all things, one Friday night in high school, when a friend and I drove a half-hour to see Schindler’s List. However, we faltered at the ticket window. Were we, a pair of strapping lads perched at the precipice of the weekend, really up to facing three-hours of celluloid-induced depression?
Indeed, common sense prevailed, and we blew off the Oscar-winning Holocaust epic in favor of seeing Leprechaun 2 (which happens to contain one of the most hilariously inconsistent nude body-doubles ever committed to film, but that’s another story). I related this tale to Warwick Davis (who plays the namesake leprechaun) a decade later at a horror-con in Baltimore. His reaction belied an unparalleled sense of diplomacy.
But back to the matter at hand. A noteworthy gift shop awaits visitors at the end of this rainbow. However, a word of note: although the National Leprechaun Museum is indoors, there seemed to be no source of heating, so should you go there in January, dress accordingly.
Davida and I first crossed paths with Bram Stoker in January 2000, on the moors of North Yorkshire. With daylight bleeding out and many miles till Edinburgh, we arbitrarily decided to seek lodging in a brooding little waterfront town on the North Sea.
It was by chance, for us, that Whitby bears the literary distinction of being the point at which Stoker deposited his greatest creation, Count Dracula, on Albion shores. Although I had read Dracula, it had been many years since, and I had no recollection of the town or its role in the novel. However, this connection, we soon learned, has made Whitby, with its lurid tourist draws and ruined cliff-top abbey overlooking the sea, the Coney Island of goth culture that it is today.
We still travel this way – every January, often spending the night wherever the day has taken us. Ireland in the off-season, we figured, would be no exception. In fact, when planning our January 2015 road trip of the Emerald Isle, we had booked lodging for only one of our seven nights – the first, not far from Dublin Airport.
Online, Clontarf Castle had appeared a bit more upscale than our usual digs, but we figured some comfortable sprawling room might be in order following a full day and night of travel; plus, our son would enjoy the prospect of spending his first night abroad in a castle.
Now an affluent suburb on the north side of Dublin, Clontarf was, a thousand years ago, the site of an epic battle that in the annals of Irish history commands a hallowed status comparable to that of, say, Gettysburg for Americans. It was here, in 1014, that Irish Ard Ri (or high king) Brian Boru defeated a joint force of Viking marauders and contentious Irish factions from the kingdoms of Dublin and Leinster. Nearly every commander on all sides , including Brian, died that April 23 – Good Friday – but the bloody Battle of Clontarf effectively ended 200 years of Viking raids in Ireland. Unfortunately, with Brian’s death, it also spelled the end of the fragile alliance between various Irish clans that he had spent a lifetime crafting, setting the stage for socio-political unrest that would pave the way for invading Normans in 1169.
In the 1960s, songwriter Dominic Behan (brother of author and playwright Brendan Behan) poetically summarized the Battle of Clontarf in his oft-covered tune, “The Sea Around Us”:
The Danes came to Ireland with nothin’ to do But dream of the plundered old Irish they slew “Yeh will in your Vikings,” says Brian Boru As he pushed them back into the ocean
Those combatants would recognize nothing of Clontarf today…save, perhaps, for nearby Dublin Bay. However, the extant Clontarf Castle, which dates (only) to the 19th century, might be a familiar sight for the area’s most renowned native son – one Abraham Stoker, born here in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine. Fifty years later, Stoker would turn loose upon the world one of the most enduring icons of gothic horror with the publication of his magnum opus, Dracula.
While I knew Bram Stoker was Irish by birth, I could not have told you his particular place of origin – that was, until Clontarf, where, to our mutual astonishment, we once again found ourselves in his presence. Fifteen years and who-know-how-many-thousands-of-miles had found us on the very grounds of the ruined church in which he had been baptized, and but a short walk from his birthplace. Indeed, it was enough to render the most rational mind superstitious.
But that could be said for much of Ireland – and this was only the beginning…