Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The sixties and seventies

Nassau, The Bahamas.

Three of us had been living in Nassau the capital of the Bahamas for two years. We were three Sydney boys. Richard Ovington was from Eastwood, Phil Donaghey from Manly and I used to live in Longueville. Phil and I had arrived independently, Phil from Newquay in England where he had been a lifeguard and I from Edmonton in Canada. I had been working with Unilever  selling soap to the Eskimos in far flung places like Fort St John, Lac La Biche and Grand Prairie during the winter months in Northern  Alberta and the Bahamas seemed like a good place to ‘thaw out’.

Nassau was a sensational place in the sixties for young guys tooling around the world, the island was not beautiful in the sense of the majestic cliffs of the Napali Coastline of Oahu in Hawaii or Ulawatu in Bali. Geographically it was a flat sand atoll called New Providence Island about twenty seven miles long and fifteen miles across, and was surrounded by amazingly turquoise waters.

 It had history, the British had been running the islands for hundreds of years, not for long unfortunately, before that pirates and buccaneers.The flavour, atmosphere, smells was that intoxicating tropical mix of  sea and salt. The Bahamians added the colour, who were 99% African descent, brought across from Africa for labour in the plantations. The streets and buildings were very much British Colonial architecture as were the names. Shirley Street was the main downtown thoroughfare,  quite narrow as it lead into the main square which flowed to the wharves where the cruise ships docked.The   Government and the laws very British then, as were the sports.

There were three rugby teams in the Bahamas. As we all had played  school and grade rugby we joined “the Buccaneers” a team of expats, who were a mix of  Colonials and Brits. There were two other sides ; the “Naussuvians’ which comprised of locals who were mainly black with a few white Bahamians, on the the Grand Bahama Island in Freeport there was the Freeport side. We played against each other with further  games against some of the east coast ivy league teams from Princeton and Dartmouth. The standard was the equivalent to third grade sub district - pretty dismal though the after game partying was legendary as at half time the sharing of a small keg of dark Bahamian rum was mandatory for both teams.

When we had home games we would all adjourn “over the hill” to one of the black bars and get wiped out drinking, dancing and partying to the music of “Mighty Sparrow” and  then to another club called "Charly Charlies" where Andre Toussaint’s group played to sun up, both were the forerunners to Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.

Our place of abode was the good ship “Rondelear” and inland river boat brought over to Nassau from Florida. The “Rondelear” was moored at the Nassau Yacht Haven, it had a cabin with two bunks and a wheel house, I lived on this with another Aussie, George Knapton who came from Drummoyne and who played for the ‘dirty reds’ and was the hooker for the Buccaneers. George travelled light, he had one of those maroon plastic Qantas overnite bags with a change of shorts, two T shirts, toilet bag another pair of thongs and not much else except his ukulele and huge smile that endeared him to every one including the commodore of the yacht haven who said "you can live on the boat if it's cleaned up and kept  afloat". Every morning we had to start up the bilge pump to empty the water the boat  had taken during the night and when we came back in the evening from work we had to do the same otherwise it would have water halfway up to the bunks, which was often the case after big nights at "Charlie Charlies". 

I was working as an agent for the oldest and most established travel agent, R.H.Curries, which was  third generation owned. With dark timber panelled interiors the staff were required to wear collar and ties with Jackets. My first task on waking up on the "Rondelear" was to sponge off the mildew which had collected on one of my two jackets overnight, before walking down the the jetty for a shower and shave.

I owned a red mini minor to get me to work and around the island, this had been given to me, and was a total rust bucket having no floors or windows. The seats sat on part of the body structure, my feet could touch the road if not on the accelerator or clutch and I only drove in fine weather, which was most of the time.  The roof was rusting away, the car would not die, it always started and as it was not registered the police would wait to see who owned it, they were easily avoided.

The Bahamas was a destination for cruise ships, tourists from all over, especially for Brits and Americans who stayed in the grand hotels such as the British Colonial, Emerald Beach and Paradise Island. One of the better tasks as an agent was to visit the purser on the cruise ships &  have him sign off on the Bill of Lading which meant accompanying the pilot and customs officer in the tender. The cruise ships were moored out in the channel opposite Paradise Island being where the first James Bond movie was made. As they arrived early morning allowing tourists a full day on the island, and about three times per weeek,  it also gave me the opportunity to partake of a hearty full buffet ships breakfast -' on the house' and a reprieve from island life, as one can succumb to 'rock fever'.

Often on weekends friends would drop by with boats and we would either sail or go by ski boat to one of the closer outer islands or cays,which was a sand island with very little vegetation, of which there were plenty.We would set up a camp site, there would be plenty of driftwood to enable us to barbecue our food, normally there would be no one else on these deserted cays. Our favourite was Rose Island, which was about thirty minutes from Nassau, here we would have beach barbecues, ski and hang out with friends in the sun, or as often the case on the beach under the shade of palm trees diving into the turquoise waters to keep cool.The waters of the Bahamas are so beautifully clear and blue that you want to drink them, due to the sandy ocean floor.The water is so warm you would stay in for hours and your skin would look; like all puckered as if you had been in a bath for to long.

Richard, Phil, George, Helen & I on Rose Island, Bahamas.

Nassau was a small community with a lot of young expats working in the legal and accountancy practices as it was a tax haven and in during the Sixties in the  throes of several large developments. One of them being constructed was Lyford Cay a private gated community considered to be then, one of the wealthiest and most exclusive neighbourhoods in the world. The residents read like a who's who - Henry Ford11, Rainier Prince of Monaco, Aga Khan, Stavros Niarchos.We became friends with some of the American girls whose parents had their "summer houses" at "Lyford Cay"they were all  from San Antonia, Texas : Taddy McAllister was the Governors daughter, Pat Ruffin's father owned Ruffin and Sassoon Banks which were scattered through the West indies.

This was my first exposure to the really rich. As a young Australian growing up in Sydney I was not exposed to the wealth demonstrated here, even though I went to one of the best  schools - Newington College for ten years where all the students came  from well off families, nothing compared to the wealth of some of the families who came across to Nassau from the States or Europe to stay in their summer residences. Fortunately I came from a family where money was not the the main aspiration in life and I was not intimidated by wealth however I respect it, if it does not come with arrogance or self importance.

Another big development at that time was Freeport on the Grand Bahama Island, an American - Wallace Groves  was developing a total township with port facilities and another Casino. I left R.H.Curries as I was offered a job at the "Captains Charthouse"a chain of steakhouses that were located through the West Indies and Hawaii.This was through another Australian friend, Steve Warr, who I had travelled across Canada and who had been in Freeport for the past two years and working at the "Charthouse" since it opened.

Steve and I  in Freeport on the Grand Bahama Island.

This was my first job as a waiter, my first customers were three hookers across from Miami who had been working at the Casino which was directly across the road from the "Charthouse." The restaurant had a large self serve salad bar,' eat as much as you like'. One of the hookers asked me if I would make the salads for them as they been on their backs all night working, obliging I served the salads and obviously gave good attention as they tipped me a hundred dollars - not bad in '1965.

There was one dish that I'll always remember from the Bahamas called "Conch Salad". The white meat from the Conch Shell was cut out, cubed and steeped in fresh lime juice, chopped onions, tomatoes, chilis and parsley added  seasoned with rock salt and a touch of white vinegar, served in a round deep dish. This was revered by the blacks, who reckoned it put 'roger in their dodger', still makes my mouth water.

  I was not in Freeport for long, though the money was good, it was raw and the place felt and looked like a construction site with few trees, lots of sand, concrete, dusty and hot, the heat was relentless, Steve and I were living in a tin shack near the jetty, which during the day was like an oven. Be interesting to check it out again.

The Bahamas had been granted their Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1966 and third nationals as we were termed were the first to get their marching orders, because we were deemed to be taking jobs from the locals, as we did not have any professional qualifications.As the others in Nassau were planning a trip across the States and Mexico I decided to join them.

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