I have been taking a lot of mental vacations lately. These tend to fall into two distinct but related camps: 1) mental breaks from days filled with Zoom work meetings, social-distancing and mask-adorned trips to the grocery, and 2) time spent recalling past vacations and trips.
I love to travel and explore new places. I am fascinated with the landscapes, the buildings, the people, and, of course, the food. This morning I found myself thinking about the Chicken Shack, a small ramshackle structure in Nicholls Town, on Andros Island in the Bahamas. Despite the name, the Chicken Shack did not serve any type of poultry. No, we went to the Chicken Shack for some of the absolute best homemade bread I have ever tasted in my life.
More than 40 years ago, I made my first trip to Nicholls Town on north Andros, along with my family. We were invited down by my mother’s parents, who had been vacationing on Andros for a few years. We flew down the March of the 7th grade year. Those were the days of actually getting dressed up to fly – blue blazers, button down shirts, a tie, loafers. We flew on good old Eastern Airlines, on a then modern Boeing 727 WhisperJet. It was an early flight – 8am departure from Friendship (now BWI) Airport. They served us breakfast – real food, on real trays, with real dishes and real metal tray-table ware.
We had a direct flight to Nassau, and as we deplaned and entered the Nassau airport arrivals hall, we were greeted by calypso music on a steel drum, amidst hundreds of colorfully dressed Bahamians and tourists like ourselves. Instead of following the hoards to Ground Transportation for taxis to Nassau, we headed over to General Aviation, to board a small 6-seat Cessna my grandfather had arranged for – the 30-minute “puddle-jumper” flight over to San Andros International Airport.
Despite its grand sounding name, the place where our plane touched down consisted of a cracked-asphalt runway leading to an open-air “terminal” that had seen better days. We were met by Sam, a middle-aged Bahamian who was one of the two taxi drivers that served the airport. We piled into Sam’s ocean-liner of a car and exited the airport. Sam’s taxi immediately settled into the left lane of this unlined two-lane road, a slightly narrower and similarly cracked version of the runway we just landed on. We all exchanged worried glances as Sam seemed oblivious to this situation. With no other traffic on the road, we began to think that perhaps we would reach our destination intact, despite the apparent gaff in Sam’s driving skills.
Alas, up ahead we all spotted a large truck heading our way. Sam continued his non-stop chatter in a lovely accent clearly influenced by many past decades of British rule. My Dad, riding “shot-gun,” was especially squirmy as the truck grew larger and larger in the windshield. Not wanting to offend the first real Bahamian we had encountered on the island, Dad simply hunched his shoulders, closed his eyes and braced for impact, as the old truck passed us harmlessly on the right side. Sam, noticing my father’s distress and reaction, laughed and remarked that as the Bahamas still report to the Queen, cars drive on the opposite side of the road from the US. This phenomenon was even more pronounced as nearly every vehicle on Andros came over from the States and therefore had the passenger facing the oncoming traffic most directly. With nervous giggles of relief, we all settled down as we approached Nicholls Town and our accommodations.
We stayed in a modest but perfectly adequate 2-bedroom villa, with no A/C and hit-or-miss water pressure. This was not a reflection on the condition of the dwelling but rather of the state of the Nicholls Town infrastructure. My grandparents told us to expect frequent power outages and to sparingly flush the toilet. No indoor showers either, as the aged and diminutive septic tank was not wholly reliable. None of this worried me, though my Mom looked a little concerned. Still, we enjoyed a wonderful week on the island, made all the more memorable by these quirks and challenges.
One of the facts of life we quickly learned was that food of any kind was more scarce and harder to get. Everything the people in Nicholls Town consumed was either grown on the island, caught in the surrounding waters, or brought over on the “mail boat” from the mainland or a more populous island. We could get a decent variety of fresh island-grown produce, and the seafood was delicious and plentiful, either purchased from the local fishermen or caught by our own hands on the reef. Everything else came from a few stores scattered around. The bread we had, however, came from two sources – and both were outstanding.
One was Mrs. Evans, the wife of our reef fishing guide, Merton Evans. Her’s was the first bread we had upon our arrival at Andros. It was warm and soft and incredible. It spoiled us all for any bread we ever bought since then, that mass-produced bread that was baked who-knows-where, packaged and shipped en masse to the store. She must have added just a pinch of sugar, enough to give it an ever-so-slight sweetness, without concealing the yeasty goodness. I can still taste it today.
The other source of bread in Nicholls Town was the Chicken Shack, owned and operated by Mrs. Russell. Like Mrs. Evans, she likely had a first name, though we only ever knew her as “Mrs. Russell.” Because Mrs. Evans only baked enough to sell on occasion, we often turned to Mrs. Russell to satisfy our gluten cravings. Not that her bread was inferior to Mrs. Evans’. Far from it. It’s just that since Mrs. Evans’ bread was the first we had, it became our go-to. Unless she wasn’t baking. Then we headed down the road to the Chicken Shack.
Like the Evans, it hard to tell how many children and grandchildren Mrs. Russell had. Though I recall that Merton (Mr. Evans) told us one day while fishing on the reef that he had many children and dozens of grandchildren – too many to count. There were always several presumably Russell children/grandchildren in and around the Chicken Shack when we went for bread. One in particular – Abbey – was a young boy who was always a little aloof, but also very intrigued by these pale-skinned strangers who would come by almost daily to buy his mother’s bread. Over the years as we continued to visit Andros, we watched Abbey grow up from a shy little boy into a troubled young man, one of many islanders to fall victim to the just-below-the-surface drug trade that infected places like Andros in the 70’s and 80’s and beyond. Three memories of Abbey remain with me to this day.
First was when he was a teenager and clearly deep in the throes of drug use. We had all gathered down by the large dock in front of the hotel to view a major arrival of some sort – possibly the mail boat, or maybe a fishing boat returning with a bounty of beautiful and delicious fish. Whatever the specific occasion, I recall that my brother Jon and I were hanging out when Abbey sauntered up to us. Eyeing us with great interest, he said something to us that was entirely unintelligible. Hoping he might move on, Jon and I just looked at him and shock our heads indicating we didn’t understand him. Not to be deterred, Abbey again repeated his (we assumed) question. Not wanting to be impolite, Jon nodded and said “Um hm, yeah.” At this Abbey perked up, smiled, and said something else we couldn’t understand as he hurried off, clearly on some mission. I immediately surmised that Abbey must have been inquiring if we wanted any drugs, and that Jon’s affirmative response was just what Abbey was hoping for. We quickly departed and headed back to the villa before Abbey returned, drugs in hand, expecting us to support his illegal enterprise.
My second memory of Abbey occurred a few years later. Abbey was older (and some how still among the living) and still very much held captive by drugs. We were sitting on the beach, reading, with very few others in site. Behind us we heard some crashing sounds coming through the vegetation along the beach. Out popped Abbey, skinny as a rail, baggy blue jeans barely staying on his non-existent hips, a three-sizes-too-big tank top and bare feet. His eyes had a jaundiced yellow hue, with half-closed lids. He barely noticed us and shuffled down to the water, where he proceeded to lie on his back at the water’s edge. He lay there for quite some time, letting the small waves roll up and over him. I recall wondering if he had just decided to lay down to die, as his body rolled limply with the waves as if he had expired. After a short while, he got up, soaked and sand-covered, and shuffled back the way he had come.
Later that day, when we made our daily bread-run to the Chicken Shack, we mentioned to Mrs. Russell that we had seen Abbey on the beach. She smiled and gave a short knowing nod and told us that Abbey often went down to the beach just as the high tide was turning. He would lie in the waves, in hopes that the receding tide would take away his demons.
My third and final memory of Abbey occurred during our last trip to Andros before my parents sold the villa. It was nighttime, dark, sometime after dinner and we were inside, probably reading or playing cards. The front door was open as it usually was, the screen door helping to bring in the cool evening air. We heard something outside and when we looked up all we could see where two pale yellow eyes looking through our screen door. It was Abbey. He asked if we wanted to buy some coconuts, two of which he had in his hands. We were certain they were coconuts from our tree in front of the villa, that Abbey had just picked up in hopes of selling them to us, to help support his habit. We politely declined and off he went, shuffling into the night.
I am still haunted by Abbey and his tortured soul. I do not know what happened to him, though I have my hunches. Nor do I know how much longer Mrs. Russell kept baking her incredible bread. I think back to those years we spent going to Andros, and to the many wonderful experiences we had in that magical, lovely spot. Like most memories that are affected by time and an aging mind, I mainly recall the good times. And I also remember Abbey, and his nap in the waves. I too return to the beach as often as possible, to put my toes in the sand, my feet in the water, and my worries out to sea.