Back in 2004 on my sailing trip to Key West, I made a stop in Ft. Myers, FL. It was going to be a quick stop to get some gas & a good night’s sleep before leaving early for the final full-day sail into Key West Harbor.
Shortly after dinner, however, I heard someone trying to call me over the marine radio. It was Winston, Eli & Hammer, the guys from S/V Witchy Woman. The same guys I met in Clearwater a few weeks earlier and had seen again in Venice, Fl. on my birthday. They were also headed to Key West, and as is the nature with the sailboat cruising community, we all became instant friends.
They had anchored their boat just about a hundred yards off of the beach, apparently in order to be within swimming distance of the best drink specials around. I agreed to meet them, not realizing it would be a 3 mile walk from my boat.
As much as I was regretting it on the hike back to my boat, mere hours before it was time to cast off, the night could have been a lot worse. I later found out that Hammer spent several hours in the back of an ambulance after getting stung by a stingray.
The name of the bar we went to that night? Junkanoo.
I tell you that story, to tell you this one.
Exactly 6 years and 2 weeks later, I land in Nassau and learn that Junkanoo is sort of like the Bahamian Mardi Gras. (Just don’t make that comparison in front of them…it’s almost as bad as ordering an “Irish Car Bomb” in Dublin.)
So “Attend Junkanoo” immediately goes on my bucket list. It was a bit of a stretch since the big Junkanoo parade happens on December 26th, but I had a feeling it would someday work out.
It worked out sooner than I could have ever expected. Only a few hours after adding it to my list, we learn from a cab driver that there would be a Junkanoo the very next night!
So the next night, after attending the Independence Celebrations, we walk downtown searching for this rumored Junkanoo. Still somewhat hungry, we stop in at the Sbarro for a quick slice. They confirmed that the Junkanoo would be passing right by the front of their building, so we were in business.
Or so we thought. In hindsight, the armed security guy standing watch over the Sbarro restrooms should have raised some concern.
Around 2am we stake our claim to a nice spot a block closer to the start of the parade, just waiting for something to happen. I was standing beside a cute talkative 20-something local, so I had the benefit of a Bahamian play-by-play account of the next 2 hours.
It went something like this.
Me: “When’s this thing supposed to start?”
Her: “Oh, they’re supposed to start around now, but we operate on Bahamian time, so it may be a little while”, said in her casual island accent.
Me: “What’s happening over there?” Pointing back in the direction of the Sbarro, about 150yds away.
Her: “Oh, nothing…I’m sure it’s just two of the gangs getting in a fight.”
Me: Silently watching the scene unfold eerily similar to the “Cops: Mardi Gras Edition” show I’d seen a few years back.
Apparently there are two main gangs in Nassau these days, and a good percentage of teenage boys take part. They generally kept to their respective sides of the street, but every 20 or 30 minutes the groups would converge. First they’d get real loud, then beer bottles would fly, then the younger kids would take off running towards us to escape the ensuing brawl.
Inevitably, the cops would arrive and order would be restored. More than once, the offending gang member got escorted by an officer down the middle of the entire parade route towards the jail. No handcuffs necessary…the cops simply dragging each of them by the back of their shirts in much the same way I imagine a teacher would have taken a kid to the principal’s office back in the day.
I learned from the local girl that this was purely to embarrass them. “If his momma sees him being dragged down the street like that, she’s going to beat the sh*t out of him when he gets home Monday. He’ll wish he’d stayed at the jail house!”
Finally around 2:45am we started to hear some racket coming down the street from the other direction, and the Junkanoo had begun. Kinda. A group of kindergarden looking kids & their parents passed by, and we finally got our first taste of the parade.
It would ultimately be the only semblance of a parade we’d see that night.
Soon after the kindergartners had gotten their post-parade juice boxes & granola bars, the gang fights started to get worse. And closer.
Finally around 3:45, after one particularly close encounter, Andy’s newly realized fatherly instinct kicked in and decided it was time for us to get out of there. Just as I started to tell them I was going to stay and see them in the morning, I turned around to hear my Bahamian friend say “screw this!” as she & her boyfriend ran to safety.
45 minutes and one terrifying cab ride later, we, all 4 of us, were back in our rental house, safe and sound.
We later heard that the parade didn’t really get started until 20 or 30 minutes after we left, and continued until almost noon the next morning. So if I ever do it again, I think I’ll take my Junkanoo in the morning.
Sure, it’s not exactly the Junkanoo I envisioned when I put it on my bucket list, but it’s like that old saying in sports…”That’s why they play the game.”
Attend Junkanoo? Check. Kinda.