One thing we love to do when we travel is to experience local festivals. Not necessarily the big famous ones like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Brazil or St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, but the real, grassroots local festivals that are specific to a certain city or region. Italy is a great place for regional festivals and we’ve really enjoyed seeing them in cities like Arezzo, Siena and Pisa, but I think our new favourite festival experience is the one we had on New Year’s Day in the Bahamas called Junkanoo.
Now Nassau, the capitol of the Bahamas, did not make a very favourable impression last time we were there. We stopped there for a day on a previous cruise and while it wasn’t horrible or anything it didn’t have much to recommend it. We prefer to skip the excursions operated by the cruise ships whenever possible and just explore new cities on our own, but Nassau did not really lend itself to that approach. We found crumbling sidewalks, potholed streets and boarded up shops on the main street. We walked up to an interesting fort overlooking the city that had a lot of potential but not a lot of info or signage and a few interesting looking shops, but that’s about it. I found it hard to believe that a major cruise ship stop with thousands of tourists pouring in every day would be so shabby when many other much poorer countries give a much better first impression.
We didn’t really have any desire to return to Nassau, but a lot of ships stop there and when I saw that our recent New Year’s cruise stopped there I decided to give the city another shot. I picked up a few books on the Bahamas from the library and I was intrigued when one of them had a section on a festival called Junkanoo, which takes place starting at midnight and into the morning hours on Boxing Day and on New Year’s Day every year. In had many similarities to Mardi Gras with participants in elaborate costumes dancing in the streets and groups of people organized into “crews” that coordinated their costumes and dance moves and competed with other crews to put on the most elaborate spectacle.
As soon as I read this I double checked our itinerary and sure enough, we were docked at Nassau on the first of January, the day when the second round of Junkanoo celebrations was to take place. Unfortunately, aside from the small section in the one travel book, it was very hard to get any exact information. The parades were to take place on the main street and “surrounding streets”, but I couldn’t find any more precise information about the routes or viewing areas. What worried me even more was the fact that the information I found seemed to indicate that most of the action happened overnight, with most activities wrapping up by eight or nine am. Since our boat only docked at eight, I thought that perhaps we’d get to the town to find nothing happening and only the last remnants of trash being swept away.
There was even less information to be found on the ship itself. I love cruising, but one of my pet peeves is the cruise lines’ determination to keep you completely in the dark about the places you are visiting. They’ll give you a shopping “map” highlighting the direct route to a few overpriced stores and they’ll be more than happy to sell you a sponsored excursion but they’ll act like the rest of the place doesn’t even exist. The closest the cruise ship staff came to mentioning Junkanoo in Nassau was a warning to people on excursions that some roads were closed downtown for a “local event” and they may need to allow extra time for traffic.
So, I decided that the best way to get some information in Nassau was to just head out and see what’s going on for myself. We actually arrived in port a bit early and so I slipped out of bed while the rest of the family was still sleeping and headed to the gangplank. I think I surprised the staff member who was manning the exit station and he told me that I was the first passenger off the ship that morning. I quickly walked through the port, which seemed to be still waking up, and soon began to hear the sound of……something as I walked towards the main part of town.
As I tried to follow the sounds of the music I found several side streets blocked off where they joined the main street through town. I moved a few blocks in and I soon began to see signs of activity with stands selling peanuts cold drinks as well as parents heading home for a rest, dragging weary looking children along behind. The parade rout was only about a five minute walk from the dock and once I found it I didn’t have too much trouble finding a good viewing spot. There was a bit of a break in the action right when I arrived, but about ten minutes later everything started up again and it was well worth the wait.
First came a couple of small floats followed by people dressed in the most amazing costumes; towering creations of paper mache, beads and feathers held up with poles, wires and metal supports. In the middle was a group of dancers, dressed more simply and performing choreographed routines and finally came the marching band, beating drums and playing battered trumpets and tubas. The most exciting part was the group of men at the end who marched through the streets with two cowbells in each hand, ringing them along to the beat of the band, creating a rhythmic, almost hypnotizing sound.
The group moved quite slowly and it took about 30 minutes for that crew to go past. I could hear the music of other groups in the background so I asked a police man how long the parade would go on. He told me that the final groups wouldn’t be wrapping up until about noon, so I returned to the ship to join my family and share what I’d seen. We decided to head back into town at about ten am and see what we could find. This time the streets had a few more tourists mingling around, but it was still primarily a local crowd. Once again, we followed the music once we got off the ship and this time we found ourselves at a different street watching a new crew of dancers and musicians coming through. Despite the fact that the parades had been going on all night and even the spectators were looking pretty tired, the participants seemed to have an endless supply of energy. The streets buzzed with excitement as the parade moved by and the audience shouted in appreciation. There was no corporate sponsorship, no TV cameras, no advertisements or slick marketing, just local families celebrating together and enjoying some friendly competition. My husband and I both agreed that it was one of the highlights of our trip.
So if you’re ever lucky enough to be in the Bahamas for Boxing Day or New Year’s Day, make sure that you don’t miss Junkanoo. It could become one of your favourite festivals too.