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Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Michael and I took our first joint jaunt outside the continental United States a little over twenty years ago. Back in those halcyon days, we were young, adventurous, naive, and very poor. After a few beachside camping vacations (we're not campers), we booked a cheap package excursion to Freeport, Grand Bahamas. It seemed simple enough. Drive to Miami, board a ship, sail to Freeport, and have fun...with little money.

After loading my hand-me-down Ford Granada with our duffel bags, traveling snacks, and vodka, we set out on the 1200 mile trek to Miami.  It was an adventure. Although the Port of Miami was a hectic place to maneuver, we managed to get our ducks in a row before boarding the Scandinavian Sun, a relic of a ship retired from bygone European cruising itineraries. We had no idea what cruise ships were supposed to look like, but we had an inkling the Scandinavian Sun had seen better days. It didn't really matter. The boat was merely transportation to the Bahamas. Well appointed with restaurants and bars, it was a glorified water ferry with perks. We had a blast on the 6 hour journey. Because it was a small ship without modern day stabilizers, the ship tipped and rocked violently as it cut through the rolling swells. When the crew eventually turned the ultra hip discotheque into a sick bay for the other passengers, we mocked them with rum runners. Six hours on an archaic boat and suddenly we were sailors. Drunken sailors.

Not knowing what to expect, we finally docked in Freeport Harbor. The harbor looked like an industrial wasteland. It wasn't fancy. It wasn't anything. A few shacks, rope, water, and boats. What the hell were we thinking? After making our way down the gangway, we shuffled our way through the stifling heat, a dusty parking lot, and stray chickens to find a cab to our hotel. It wasn't the right time to second guess our apparent folly. Covered in sweaty red dirt, we hailed a cab, tumbled inside, and made our way the The Lucayan Beach Hotel & Casino ( demolished years ago, it's now the Our Lucayan Radisson Beach Resort).

The hotel vanquished the port of misery from our rum-ridden heads. It was gorgeous. Our skanky cheap room was under renovations, so they upgraded us to a suite located in one of the newer wings of the hotel. After winding our way through fragrant dangling bougainvilleas, we stepped into our unexpected and undeserved ground level floor-to-ceiling marble tiled ocean front suite. We were speechless. Instead of a coffee maker, the vanity was lined with bottles of Stolichnaya vodka and Myers Dark Rum. Boom. Booya. We dropped our bags, made cocktails, kicked open the french doors leading to the patio, and stared at the clear Caribbean Sea serenely lapping at our doorstep. Within seconds, we quietly fell into the pristine teal blue water. Naked. Raw.Wet.

Swaddled in faux luxury, we made the most of our time on limited funds. We gambled once, shared a few gazzilion-dollar shrimp cocktails, and  spent our days on the hotel beach drinking Bahama Mamas. Everything changed when the sun went down. Armed with plastic cups filled to the rim with rum, we strolled the beachfront properties of the surrounding hotels (pretending to be guests) and enjoyed their nightly complimentary Bahamian beach cookouts.On those rum-induced nights, we fell in love with  puffy conch fritters, tomato-based conch chowder, fry fish, and conch salad. I was totally smitten with the ceviche-like conch salad. With the texture of abalone or calamari, tender sweet pieces of conch were tossed with diced tomatoes, peppers, onions, and  flecks of habanero peppers before taking a quick swim  in fresh orange juice and lime juice. The brilliant combination offered a cooling respite to the warm night air and sticky dark rum. Heaven.

Eventually, the clock struck midnight and we had to leave paradise. Back into a cab. Hello chickens. Long lines at the harbor. Immigration hut? Check. Our pumpkin awaited. On the sail home, we didn't drink, gamble, or mock anyone. We climbed to the highest most forward section of the ship, rested against the hot metal siding, held hands, and melted into a sea of dreams.

Until recently, we never returned to Freeport.

20 years later, after a fabulous 7 day Caribbean cruise, we barreled into a revamped Freeport Harbor on a grand seafaring chariot. For a brief time, we were back in our forgotten paradise.

Michael wanted a watch.
I wanted conch.

We boarded a tender for a scenic sail to Port Lucaya Marketplace.  When we arrived at the dock, Mr. Brown (Da Conch Man) greeted us, arms outstretched, with fresh conch hanging from his fingertips.  We shopped around the marketplace before settling into a dockside bar.  While we waited for our Yellow Birds to arrive, I snuck behind Mr. Brown's pastel-colored wooden shed for a peek at conch cleaning. Working under the splintered shade of the conch shack, his crew split the spiral tips of the shells (cracking), snipped the tendons to release the squiggly meat (jooking), and washed the conch meat in fresh water (slopping) before slicing off the head, foot, and tough outer skin. Messy business.

With the conch dispatched and cleaned, I watched Mr. Brown prepare my conch salad.  Using a machete, he gracefully diced tomatoes, onions, green peppers, habanero peppers, and conch. After seasoning everything with a sprinkling of salt, he scooped the salad into a plastic cup before showering it with hand squeezed orange juice and lime juice.That was it. No herbs. Nothing fancy.

I grabbed my salad, plastic spoon, and paper napkin. We chugged our cocktails and boarded a bus for the short trip back to the ship.

Michael had his Movado watch.
I had my fresh conch salad.

Paradise lost.
Paradise found.
Lucky boys.

Back in our old Kentucky home, I wasn't quite ready to let go. I ordered 5 pounds of frozen cleaned conch meat from Charlie's Seafood Market. Yep. No cracking, jooking, or slopping. I let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator. The next morning I made a beeline to the farmers' market and picked up Casey County green bell peppers, Elmwood Farm cipollini onions, Stone Hedge Farm  habanero chilies, and Madison County Mountain Spring beefsteak tomatoes.

I simply mimicked Mr. Brown.
Diced. Chopped. Sliced. Squeezed. Nothing more, nothing less.

I even dished it up in the same plastic cup.

So, how did the conch salad stack up to the fresh  Freeport version?  It was close enough to turn the page, finish the chapter, and close the book on the islands.

For now.


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