Travel Tales: Barbuda

December 10, 2009

ISLANDS Audio Series: Hear author Mattew Miller’s audio account of hunting for bottles on Barbuda.

On the coast with the world’s highest concentration of messages in bottles, jagged coral rock bites into my shoes as I scan pockets of beach. I see no bottles except for a few withered plastic jugs, but I’m imagining the messages I might find up ahead. Adventure Antigua owner Eli Fuller says the rugged northeast coast of Barbuda has some of the Caribbean’s prettiest scenery, despite its name on the map — Rubbish Bay. Scenery entices me, but Eli also says: “I’ve never walked that shoreline without finding a message in a bottle.” I’m here to find mine.

I’ve always wanted to find a message in a bottle, to read what a far-off stranger had to convey to me by the world’s most romantic and hopeless mode of communication. What might my perfect stranger say? Darling, all is forgiven. Come home.


Lynton Thomas , former Barbuda senator, found a bottled note from a girl in New Jersey 18 months after she’d tossed it in. He contacted her when he visited the States. And his rare blood type saved her dying child? Well, no, but they made a connection — against all odds. Jason, gate man at Jolly Beach Resort, told me he’d found bottles on Antigua beaches, but he’d put off going to Barbuda all his life. “Wait till I old like a shoe,” he said. Anyway, his mother had warned him of uncorking rogue bottles — someone might put a curse in there.

But never mind curses; messages compel me. I’d taken the Barbuda Express ferry from St. John’s, docking at the south end of Barbuda. Taxi man George drove me in his four-wheeldrive truck to the end of the road at Two Foot Bay. A couple played in the surf, their bikes unlocked against a tree. By the time we arrived I had just two hours to cover the four-mile round-trip to Rubbish Bay and make my ferry home. George parked in the shade and fell asleep while waiting.

Now I’m jogging along a thorn-choked track winding between rocky outcrops and the surf. It’s wiltingly hot, but I feel pretty good — until a stabbing pain shoots into my foot. I sit down on a rock and extract a two-inch cactus spine pierced clear through my rubber sole and causing a puncture wound that will take two weeks to heal.


Then out of habit, I check my phone. No calls, no texts, no signal — I’m out of touch. A mile beyond George and that couple, I am completely alone. The surf carves the coral away from below, and waves wash beneath me, visible through the porous rock. Limestone hills rise behind, the windy caves running through them rumored to contain Arawak petroglyphs . Waves and wind — that’s all I can hear. If you want to reach me, ink on paper sealed and set afloat is your only hope.

And a wee small hope it is. Sparsely populated and nearly pavement-free, Barbuda sits at the windward end of the Leeward Islands and thus smack in the North Equatorial Current, part of that system of ocean currents rotating clockwise around the North Atlantic. Along with fish and boats, the currents carry millions of tons of trash — sad to say. Humankind deposits waste by the barge-load into the oceanic gyre. Paper dissolves. Metal sinks and eventually dissolves. What’s left floating is mostly plastic, rubber and foam — plus a rare few well-sealed glass vessels — traveling till the hydrodynamic fates deposit it all back on the beach.

A bottle loaded with a message — Miss you. Call me — and cast beyond the shore tides off the coast of, say, Portugal, might tour the Atlantic rim for months, catch the North Atlantic Drift, sidle eventually through the Kuroshio off Japan, spend years in equatorial streams and counterstreams, tour the sea rivers of Brazil and Mozambique, survive monsoons and typhoons, bobbing around the globe for decades. Or it might spring a leak and sink. That bottle landing on Barbuda thus constitutes not random occurrence, but intentional communication borne on currents of destiny. Or maybe it’s just litter and luck.


Guessing that I’ve reached Rubbish Bay, unmarked except by all the rubbish, I slow down. Trash lies in drifts here — foam floats, snarls of nylon rope, yellow hard hats, water bottles — all of it laved clean by the sea. The place feels like a vast midden, what alien archaeologists will find when we’re gone — Dear Mother Ship, these creatures worshiped plastics. The junk doesn’t undermine the beauty; it just adds a layer of melancholy.

Amid the clutter, I spot a square green bottle wedged in the sand right next to a battered, white plastic helmet. My heart beating fast, I pull the bottle loose. Bokma, it says — a Dutch gin. Salt has eaten through the cap. The bottle contains pulpy shreds of paper in two inches of seawater. A message in a bottle! I hold this artifact, imagining its voyage. Though thrilled by my success — I found one! — I’m also crushed because the message is ruined.

Down the beach I find a Suntory whisky bottle with paper inside — gobs of soaked paper. I pour cloudy seawater onto the sand and stare at the runes it forms. I can’t glean a single word. The search itself has been rewarding. For one thing, I’ve discovered this rare, untamed place where no one can reach me, not by any means. Still, I know if I stayed, someone would reach me. I would find my message, and I really want to know what it says. But the only ferry back to Antigua leaves in 59 minutes, and I’m an hour from the dock. I’ll have to return to Barbuda.


Meanwhile, I have a few messages for would-be message bottlers: First and most important, please stop throwing trash in the ocean. Forgo destiny and littering. Next (if you must throw trash in the ocean), use permanent ink on waterproof paper and seal it thoroughly in a glass bottle. And last, write something worth reading. Not “Rum is delicious” or “Your subscription is about to expire.” We know. A treasure map? Blueprints for a car that runs on rain water? Send us something we can use.

Just as I turn back, I find a clear glass wine bottle with a fragment of paper in the bottom and a remnant of cork almost sealing its mouth. I can see ink on the salty scraps, but a few drops of moisture have blurred the text. It’s heartbreaking, this near missive. I found your letter, but the words were gone. Resend? Running for my ferry, I’m panting and lightheaded, pulling thorns from my feet, laughing — and still scanning the water for signs.


More Caribbean