It’s an ordinary weekday morning in Speightstown, a charming little fishing village on the west coast of Barbados. The Caribbean is flat and clear, the color of turquoise, and the prevailing January trade winds push a procession of ever-changing clouds across a big blue sky. Already the local fleet has gone out to sea in pursuit of flying fish, all but a couple of ancient skiffs – Elsie, Fondue II – that are beached and bleaching in the sun by the Fisherman’s Pub, where the lunch special today is macaroni and creamed potatoes. The pub is a cheerful, busy, rowdy spot, especially at night, so there are cautionary signs posted inside forbidding the use of obscene language and the nabbing of draft beer. The signs, it must be admitted, are frequently ignored.
Down the dusty Speightstown lanes come the married women of the village, off to do their shop-ping, immaculately groomed and dressed as though for church in bright dresses and fancy hats. They carry purses and comport themselves with great dignity even as they stroll past hardscrabble yards in which roosters crow and tethered goats munch on blades of grass.
The houses here are compact and made of wood, almost always freshly painted and resting on a foundation of concrete or coral stone from which they can be easily detached and transported. They’re known as chattel houses – chattel being a person’s movable property – and in the old days people routinely moved them from place to place, sometimes following the sugarcane harvest.
Radios are turned up loud in many of the houses, blasting reggae music and its Bajan derivatives. In one yard, a grizzled old man sits on his steps, nips steadily at a bottle of Mount Gay rum, and talks nonstop to the clouds. It would be beneath the women to comment or take notice of him. Barbados was a colony of Great Britain from 1625 to 1966, and its most sophisticated citizens still have a reserve that’s peculiar to the British, an ability to ignore any trace of unpleasantness and keep one’s feet, as it were, on the imperial high road.
This makes for an orderly, polite society, largely untroubled by problems you might find elsewhere in the Caribbean. It shows in the demeanor of schoolchildren arriving on buses, each boy and girl in a spotlessly clean uniform, quiet, well-mannered, and respectful of their elders.
Other women, the wives of farmers in from the countryside, are arrayed along the town’s main street to sell fruits and vegetables from baskets, carts, and tables. They are often elderly and weary-looking, their faces deeply creased. As they preside over beautiful displays of tomatoes, yams, breadfruit, green beans, and a half-dozen other treats, they banter with their customers in a melodious Bajan English, a form of pidgin that’s so allusive and encoded most English-speaking tourists cannot decipher it. Their standard greeting, though, is intelligible.
“All right with you?” they ask, or, simply, “Is all right?”
I have been on the island for two days now and have learned a proper response. Whenever a trader lady calls out to me, I smile and say, “I cool.”
I am in Barbados on holiday, obligated to live like a pasha for a while on the west coast – also known as the Gold or Platinum Coast – which is the most striking, lush, and expensive acreage around.
The high season is beginning here, a time when wealthy Brits flee from the drippy grayness of another English winter to bask in brilliant, bone-warming sunshine such as they have never experienced at home. They are a curious sight, really, formal in their studied informality, half-naked in their bathing suits and yet still striding about the beach with the determined gait of financiers bound for the City, a ghost copy of The Times under their arms. They love the heat of the tropics, but they resist its sensuality. I imagine them all to be related to the Royal Family and entertain myself by inventing whimsical names for them – Lord Demerol, Lady Smyth-Sonian, and the devilish Sir Tommy Shortpants.
My outpost in St. Michael Parish is a luxury resort a half-mile or so from Speightstown. I have a lovely suite of rooms ten yards from the sea. I go to sleep to the crashing of waves and wake to the sound of rustling palm trees and the fragrant smell of tropical flowers. Everywhere I look I see blazing primary colors, a welcoming world from which the concept of hard work has been banished.
At breakfast every morning I devise a recreational plan for the next 12 or so hours that involves swimming, snorkeling, tanning, reading, and at least one nap. It’s a brutal, grueling schedule that would kill a lesser man. Always, too, over my tea and toast, I listen to the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation’s drive-time deejay, who delivers important news about cricket matches and impending calypso concerts.
This deejay is something of a comedian. Yesterday he put through a surprise phone call to a farmer outside Bridgetown, the island’s capital. The phone rang about 20 times before the farmer finally picked it up.
“You sleepin’ in your yard of your house?” the deejay asked him, in a comprehensible semipidgin. “Or you in that yard feedin’ some pigs?”
“No pigs,” the farmer replied, utterly unfazed to be talking to a stranger. “Just some sheep in a pasture. What I can do for you, mon?”
“Harry, we learn it’s your birthday! You’re plainly over 40! We hear you gonna marry that woman over in Christ Church Parish!”
“You never know, mon,” Harry said flatly.
“Harry!” cried the deejay. “I go play a special song for you by Lesley Gore.”
“Say by who?”
“Lesley Gore, mon!” Then came the tinny, nasal bleat of “It’s My Party,” a song that, like Dracula, apparently will never die. I switched off the radio and hiked into town to buy some oranges and Banks beer, a local brew essential for survival.
At the Alexandra School, an Anglican institution, bountiful teenage girls were entering the grounds under the watchful, probing eyes of several young men across the street. The young men can always be found hanging around a wildly painted house, where their ostensible business is the repairing of “tyres.” I think of them as the Tyre Repair Gang and believe that their actual purpose in life is to try and seduce the Alexandra girls. When the girls are in classrooms, the Tyre Repair Gang grow restless. They argue, joke, wrestle, and indulge in vicious games of dominoes. Sometimes they fall asleep under the palm trees in their yard, dreaming the usual dreams.
Summer is the true rainy season in Barbados, when fierce hurricanes pose a threat to islands throughout the Caribbean. It isn’t supposed to rain heavily in late January, but one morning during my stay we suffered through a cloudburst, one of those thundering tropical storms that saturates the earth with endless amounts of water in a matter of minutes.
In my living room I sat listening to the downpour and watching a little bananaquit bird, bright yellow, suck the residue of honey from the bottom of my teacup. I read the Advocate, too, a leading Bajan paper, and was distressed to learn that some readers felt the local calypso tradition was at an all-time low. One correspondent, Hal Hewitt, tackled the issue head-on.
“All that’s necessary these days to make a hit calypso is to get a fairly good backing band,” wrote Hewitt, “and repeat the following lines over and over: Shake yuh bum bum; Jam in de party and Jump and wave.“
Winter cloudbursts on the island are thankfully brief. By ten o’clock the sky was blue again, and Lord Demerol, whom I’d last seen nursing an after-dinner rum punch at the hotel bar, marched purposefully toward the beach as if to secure it, his snorkel tube in hand.
Two Bajan men, bare-chested and muscular, sped by the resort in a skiff powered by an outboard motor, may-be Speightstown fishermen getting a late start on the day. They reminded me of the handsome, powerful men that Winslow Homer painted in the Bahamas, those stunning watercolors in which you can feel the artist’s spirit taking flight in response to the very lightness of the atmosphere, so different from the oppressive chill of his adopted Maine.
My plan for the day was to go exploring. I had a rental car and had marked a route on a map that would allow me to cross the island to the Atlantic Ocean, where the scenery was supposed to be spectacular and the surf dangerous. Barbados is quite small, only 166 square miles, so the trip would take less than an hour if I remembered to stay on the left-hand side of the road. If I failed to remember, the trip might never even be completed.
The really important thing, though, was to have a loud, dependable horn.Bajan motorists blow their horns constantly to alert cyclists, pedestrians, cattle, cattle egrets, and small mammals in their path that they are approaching around blind curves, up steep hills, or along tiny, two-lane roads that provide no margin for error. Some roads, I discovered, are just one-and-a-half laners, and it requires some skillful calculation, or a silent prayer, to avoid an accident.
I set off around noon, drove through Speightstown, and climbed up a narrow road that flattened out after a few minutes and then ran through huge fields of sugarcane, a mainstay of the local economy for more than 300 years, although tourism has now surpassed it in economic value.
British colonials established the sugar trade here in the mid-1600s and imported slaves from Africa to do the backbreaking labor. By the end of the 17th century just a few plantation owners controlled the entire wealth of the island. They employed some white servants, but the black slaves outnumbered the indentured whites by about thirty to one. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, after which, very slowly, a period of emancipation began at last.
I went through the village of Belleplaine, then swung onto East Coast Road, a highway skirting the edge of the Atlantic. The landscape changed dramatically. It became less wooded and more open, offering broad vistas in every direction. I could see cliffs of exposed coral and a few trails worn into the grassy hills. The ocean was the same pellucid blue as the Caribbean, but the surf was foamy and pounding, far too rough for most swimmers.
A few surfers, both Bajans and tourists, were paddling about on their boards, the harbingers of a budding surfing scene. While the waves that day were not world-class, there was still plenty of space for everyone.
At Barclay’s Park, a little caf¿ on the ocean, I ate a flying fish sandwich for lunch. The fish was delicate and delicious, dipped in batter, deep-fried, and popped into a soft roll. Another customer watched me with pleasure. He identified himself as Dexter from Bridgetown. Dexter was drinking a Banks, and it did not seem to be his first of the afternoon.
He chuckled to himself, pointed at my sandwich, and said, “You know that fish you eatin’, mon? You ever see ’em fly?”
“Not yet,” I said.
“Any fish like that fly in your country?” he asked.
“Not that I know of.”
Dexter gave me a friendly clap on the shoulder and shared a cultural equation he formulated on the spot: “Barbados, we got flying fishes and the best in cricket. You people over there, you got NBA basketball and movies from Hollywood. Is so?”
“It’s so,” I agreed.
“All right, then,” said Dexter, laughing and shaking my hand.
Sir Tommy Shortpants, the old rogue, was responsible for touting me on the horse races in Bridgetown. He was stretched out next to me on a chaise longue by the swimming pool, reading about them in the Advocate. They would be running on Saturday, he said, at the Garrison Savannah under the auspices of the Barbados Turf Club.
I decided I would attend out of curiosity, to see what sort of spin the Bajans had put on the Sport of Kings. Their attitude toward gambling was somewhat contradictory, I knew. They were often religious and staunchly opposed to a current move to open Vegas-style casinos on the island, but at the same time they plunged mightily on the national lottery and indulged, as did the Tyre Repair Gang, in many petty games of chance, including checkers, darts, pool, and cards, along with dominoes.
“I like Passionata in the feature race,” Sir Tommy whispered, serving up a tip. His skin, after a week in the sun, had turned the tawny color of a mahogany tree. “You won’t go wrong with that filly.”
“Passionata it is,” I agreed.
“Jolly good!” He really said such things. “Well done!”
Bridgetown is a densely settled city of about 250,000, but I would guess that on a Saturday the number almost doubles. Bajans from the provinces travel long distances to shop in the big department stores and also to see and be seen, so the downtown streets are awash with people cruising, promenading, and gossiping. Neighbors bump into neighbors and cousins into cousins.
A “tuk band,” a combo – bass, snare drum, triangle, and pennywhistle – that is unique to Barbados, was giving a concert in Trafalgar Square, passing the hat while six or so teenage girls were dancing. The girls shook their bum bums in a brazenly sexual way, as if to liberate the energies that they normally had to conceal while they were in school and in uniform.
Garrison Savannah is in a parklike area just outside town. Troops from Britain had once been stationed there, and a few buildings from the early 1800s still stand, excellent examples of Georgian architecture as practiced in the Caribbean. The racetrack itself was a standard oval with an old-fashioned, pre-electronic tote board. As I passed through an admissions gate, I heard Bob Marley wailing “Buffalo Soldier” through a pair of gigantic speakers.
The first race was about to go off, and I couldn’t resist putting a few dollars on Brown Sugar, even though I hadn’t yet opened the local version of a racing program. Brown Sugar, who proved to be eight years old, went down in defeat.
All the racing in Great Britain is carried out on the turf, and the same is true in Barbados. The grandstand was stuffed with a multitude of different types, black and white, all social classes. Women in Ascoty hats, aging doubles for the Queen Mother, were seated next to cheap-speed blonds who clutched the arms of Bajan men outlandishly adorned in enough flashy gold jewelry to sink the Bismarck. The atmosphere was a happy combination of Jamaica Sunsplash and Santa Anita.
The second race brought me a bit of unexpected luck. My horse, First Home, acted up before the start, unseating her jockey, falling down, and rolling over. I felt doomed, naturally, but First Home managed to right herself and still had enough feistiness in her to nip Jumpjet at the wire, paying three-to-one. A groom paraded the filly before the grandstand like a debutante, and she received a muted round of applause and a few sighs of approval.
In the next race I made the mistake of letting my winnings ride on Yeltsin, a strapping gelding, but he fared as badly as his namesake has been faring in Russia. The only cure for it was a glass of Banks at a concession stand, where Bob Marley was now singing “Redemption Song.”
By the time the featured race rolled around, late in the afternoon, there were as many Bajans outside the Garrison as inside it. Taxi drivers, coconut and pineapple vendors, children kicking soccer balls, a few dogs and cats and goats – they were all hugging a fence beside the track, both soaking up and adding to the growing excitement surrounding the big race, which carried a $30,000 purse.
I approached the parimutuel windows fully prepared to bet on Holy Smoke, a handsome gray gelding, but Sir Tommy’s tip kept ringing in my ears, and I changed my mind at the last possible instant and put my money on Passionata, a horse that none of the island’s handicappers had listed among their favorites. Passionata, alas, was not nearly passionate enough and faded from view long before the eventual winner, Loan Ranger, was unmasked.
Edward “Budge” O’Hara, a Londoner by birth, and his wife, Cynthia, have operated a resort on Barbados since 1956, first as managers and currently, in company with their three children, as owners. In many ways their tenure mirrors the story of tourism on the island.
O’Hara is a tall, engaging, no-nonsense fellow whose service in the Royal Navy still shows in his bearing. An Oxford graduate in physics, he was wearing bermuda shorts with knee socks and a crisp white shirt with the resort logo on one pocket, as he explained to me over drinks one afternoon how he had strayed from the academic path.
The age-old fantasy of living on your own tropical island had helped to create the resort, O’Hara said. Another ex-naval officer named Ted Powell had decided after retiring that he’d endured quite enough of England’s dour weather. Powell had an understandable craving for sunshine, so in 1949, on the basis of an ad in The Times of London, he bought a hundred-acre island in the British West Indies sight unseen.
The island, Calavini, was off the coast of Grenada and cost him ¿2,500. He stayed there for two years, but he began to fear that he would go totally native and absolutely bonkers. Calavini, Powell concluded, had to be sold. A member of the Cunard shipping family bought it from him for ¿12,500, and he realized enough of a profit to move to Barbados and start a little resort.
By 1956 the resort was not so little anymore. Powell needed to hire a manager, and a friend suggested Budge O’Hara, who, having drifted away from physics, was working at a hotel in the Cotswolds. After a bit of negotiating, O’Hara signed a three-year contract on blind faith and set sail for Barbados with his bride, Cynthia.
O’Hara still remembers his deep disappointment when the ship pulled into Bridgetown in a September drizzle. He and Cynthia simply didn’t want to get off, and they waited until every other passenger had descended the gangplank before they accepted their fate. Things improved, of course, when the sun broke through the clouds.
“What were your guests like back then?” I asked.
“They were adventurous,” O’Hara said, spiritedly. “Like pioneers, really.”
A plane trip from Britain in those days took 21 hours, and you could count on a rocky ride. The resort had just 24 rooms and no air-conditioning. Yet it wasn’t uncommon for guests to spend three months in winter. Diplomats, consular officials, affluent sun lovers from Venezuela or Colombia all came and stayed.
Barbados stood for high society. It had a flourishing gay scene, too, much of it centering on English stage designer Oliver Messel, whose fanciful touches still grace some of the most prized villas around. Agatha Christie also once visited. She set a mystery in the Caribbean and patterned the murderer after a young hotelier she’d met, someone not unlike Budge himself.
Even as the resort has expanded,O’Hara continues to be a hands-on manager. He and his family try to greet every new arrival, and he treats his staff as family, too. There are waiters, maids, barmen, and cooks who are directly related to employees he hired in the 1960s.
Guests can also be numbered in generations, island veterans of 20 or 30 years, some of whom return every February, at the height of the season. Such guests, Canadians and Americans now as well as Brits, are the most demanding, O’Hara confided, and they expect every detail of their stay to be exactly as it was the last time, and the time before that.
“What keeps them coming back?” I asked. “What’s so special?”
O’Hara replied, “Barbados is a beautiful place but I think, really, it’s the people here. They’re polite and generous – it’s the Bajans who make this island special.”
A turquoise sea, a warm breeze, salt drying on my skin, those ever-changing clouds. I spent my last day in Barbados slowly walking and swimming along the west coast to Speightstown, passing beach merchants who wandered from resort to resort selling coral necklaces and healing pieces of aloe vera; some Bajan women carried kits filled with beads they used to braid the hair of tourists.
There were big coral outcrops to get around, each of them alive with tiny, skittering crabs. Sloops sailed by, and Jet Skis threw showers of froth into the air. Next to handsome villas and mansions were more humble homes, often hammered together from scrap wood and corrugated aluminum, their backyards stacked with fishing floats, broken oars, and battered dinghies.
I came to a sweet scallop of beach where I saw Sir Tommy, darker than ever now, dozing in an oceanfront chaise longue, his body and soul apparently at peace. Finally, in Speightstown I emerged from the Caribbean tired and dripping, and I slipped into the soggy sneakers and T-shirt I’d carried in a little pack. They’d dry quickly enough, I knew.
I strolled the main drag and saw that Pizza Man Doc had some hungry customers outside his restaurant, while at Modern Technique Dental Studio, a few patients sat quietly in the waiting room. The Tyre Repair Gang’s place was ominously silent, with three young men asleep under the trees and another on a picnic table, all of them no doubt conserving their energy for the Friday night ahead.
From a causeway, I watched a skiff land. The four men inside hauled their catch up to the Speightstown Fish Market, a dark blue building that serves as a social center. They had buckets of flying fish and one big, bloody, beheaded shark that the youngest of the crew, smiling proudly, shouldered up to the market like a trophy. Women with sharp knives set to gutting and filleting the catch, and soon Bajans were lining up to buy flying fish, two for 50 cents, wrapped in old newspaper or dropped into a plastic sack.
I eased over to where one woman was working her way through a bucket and looked closely at the flying fish, all silvery blue and about 12 inches long, mackerel-like schoolers remarkably identical in size.
I hadn’t seen any of them fly this trip, but it’s true that they do, sometimes for several hundred feet at a time, several feet above the water. A typical flight goes on for ten seconds or less, but the fishes’ wings – pectoral fins actually – don’t really flap. The main force that propels them is their tail. They beat it in a sculling motion to attain flying speed. They fly, researchers believe, to escape from the dorado, or dolphin fish, that prey on them. So would I, and so would you.
Reggae music was pouring out of the Fisherman’s Pub, and the bar inside was packed with Bajans celebrating the end of the week. I bought a pint of Banks and took it out to a deck over the water. A sunset ribbon of pink fluttered on the horizon. The Caribbean was so transparent I could see two skinny barracudas in the shallows.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, Anna, the pub’s waitress, scooped up my glass to replenish it. We had struck up a friendship of sorts. It was impossible, really, not to be a friend of Anna’s. She is round and upbeat and wears a paper cook’s hat on her head and always has a grin on her face. As a sideline she sells T-shirts – printed with Bob Marley or I Love Barbados – and I promised her I would tell everybody at home to go to the pub when they got to the island and buy one from her.
Anna blew me a kiss. “Is all right, baby?” she asked.
“Is all right, Anna,” I told her.