Silver Linings: An Unanticipated Stop in Barbados

2013-08-16 18.37.28I am living my dream.  I love my job and my colleagues.  I love my location, I love the life I am building and I’m happy with what I’ve built thus far.

But I’m also slightly under the weather and have been for a while.  En plus, I’ve been on the road a lot in the past few months which has only compounded it/dragged it out.  My own denial in the hope that it would go away so that I could get on with enjoying my life has undoubtedly Not Helped.  Alas, I is but a mere mortal.

Please note, under the weather, really means just that.  I’m not playing down a terminal illness.  It’s just that when you are leading a high-energy lifestyle, a bit poorly can feel like a death sentence.

Travelling alone to an unknown place needs a lot of thought if you’re going to be safe as a solo female traveller, and doubly so if your face will mark you out as a non-local.  When you’re under the weather with your instincts slightly off-kilter, your reactions slower than usual, and your all-round vulnerability much heightened, it’s simply not a good idea.  Thus being slightly under the weather killed part of my planned transatlantic itinerary dead.

But on the up side, I had a surprise reunion with mumsy and 2 unanticipated weeks in Barbados – which I will write up because I’m always a bit harsh on my maternal island home which I’m sure grates on my mum who goes home annually, and is slightly unfair.

It’s mostly cos I personally prefer St Lucia and with a parent from each I felt the need to choose.  With reason – it’s an incomparably beautiful place (okay comparable only to Dominica but given that Dominica doesn’t have an international airport, it’s only for the determined or local) that I have a lot of happy memories in.

But I’ve come round to the idea that actually, Barbados does have it’s pluses.  Big ones.  For a start, it has an incredible night life, no shortage of eateries and all kinds of watering holes from rum shops to swanky bars, plus regular government transport til midnight.

2013-08-16 17.43.25Barbados is particularly renowned (at least in England) for it’s white sand beaches.  And while they’re not exactly a rarity in this part of the word, Bim does have white-to-translucent sand beaches with bright blue sea all the way round it.  Even if you are a fan of silvery-black sand beaches (I am), white sand continues to flaunt its own charm.

Something no one ever seems to mention is that Barbados actually works well for a range of budgets.  Yes it has hotels for Simon Cowell (exclusive west coasts resorts) and his financial peers, but Barbados’s tourism industry is well-developed and hoteliers cater to all, right down to me and my family’s options (affordable South coast). I paid £300 for two weeks in a (2 person) room at a beach hotel in Christ Church (the major tourist spot) about 5 years ago.  With the tourism industry hit by the recession, prices for tourists are now probably even better.

Plus there’s the upscale-but-not-millionaires-only parts of the west coast, and the 3-5 star spots on the south coast.  Barbados is also great for apartment hiring – a couple of my cousins did that and paid something crazy like £1500 for 10 days wit 3 adults and 2 kids staying in a luxurious 4-bed beachside apartment with a jacuzzi and swimming pool.  There are lots of deals to be found in low season.  For the budget traveller proper, apartments and low season are a good combination.

I have decided that Barbados is The place to go for a long girly/boys weekend.  If you’re elsewhere in the Caribbean (or rolling like that) great public transport, plus taxis galore, lots of places to eat and drink out – and again for a range of budgets – plus a number of nightlife hotspots as well as venues make it perfect for a short break of partying hard and sleeping off the hangover on the beach.  Cos you only live once.

Admittedly you won't get my granny's flying fish and coucou, but it's the national dish so do try!

Admittedly you won’t get my granny’s flying fish and coucou, but it’s the national dish so do try!

That said, Barbados is not Ibiza or Napa.  Barbados remains a conservative kinda place so if you can hold your drink and party hard, great.  There’ll be none of that throwing up on the pavement here.  Bajans are big on courtesy.  Just by the entrance to the famous fisheries complex where every night is turning into a Friday night vibe from what I could tell, there’s a visible-from-the-road large sign informing you that ‘A good attitude leaves an impression’ before suggesting you enjoy yourself.  Hint:  You want to make a good impression round here.

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Barbados is a must-stop for history buffs – being home to some of the oldest housing in this hemisphere (although St Kitts’ Brimstone Hill remains my favourite imperial historical monument in the Caribbean), an early major source of much of the riches which funded England’s industrial revolution, and the 2nd oldest parliamentary democracy in the whole world.  As a self-confessed geek, I obviously have to flag up the library and bookshop at the Cave Hill campus, part of the University of the West Indies.  Though it must be said, I’m not sure any part of the Caribbean isn’t steeped to drowning in history; it’s part of the appeal of the region.

Bridgetown, the capital, is a UNESCO-recognised big deal historically

Bridgetown, the capital, is a UNESCO-recognised big deal historically

If you’re interested in black history, you have no business leaving Barbados without passing by Cave Hill I now realise.  If you’re seriously interested in British history you should probably make an appointment too.  As a black Briton always trying to understand the link between past and present, I spent three days reading through rare and old biographies of some of the most important-if-forgotten black intellectuals of the nineteenth century (Henry Sylvestre Williams, coiner of the term ‘Pan-African’ and Edward Wilmot Blyden, who George Padmore named his first child after).  The staff were really helpful and lovely and I was actually on cloud nine the whole time I was there.  But books can make me go a bit funny in the head it must be said.

I read and roamed in Barbados, consuming (finally!) Manning Marable’s Malcolm X biography which was towards the end a heart-racing page turner.  Downside?  It left me with that Grisham-esque emptiness at the end.  You know, when you’re super-invested, and then it’s over and it all feels a bit underwhelming?  No?  I’m now working through the ‘Real not Reinvented’ response book, which warms my cockles because things that I found irritating has really twisted some of the contributors’ knickers…but I think I’ve already mentioned my slight Malcolm X obsession.  Also got onto some Sophie Kinsella and John Le Carre to stop myself brooding too much after the intense Malcolm time (Kinsella = helpful, Le Carre, not so much) and then Lorraine Hansberry’s autobiography Young, Gifted and Black.

A friend passed me the Hansberry and I found it difficult to read.  Hence I haven’t finished it yet.  Her spirit seems to just pour out of it.  She is so full of can-do and positive energy grounded in a determination to live rather than a rose-tinted view of the world.  It is really challenging.  Why aren’t I fighting tooth and nail to make sure my dreams come true she seems to be saying to me.  Who says my ideas don’t matter? She asks, as if there’s a difference between my intellectual and emotional interpretations of the world I grew up in.  Or maybe that’s just how I read it.  Definitely a compelling read.  But to what?

I also wandered up to Drax Hall in Barbados, a feat when it was built in the 17th century and no less impressive (oppressive?) is that it’s still standing and inhabited by the same family over 400 years later.  I’d learned a lot about 17th century Barbados thanks to Matthew Parker’s novel The Sugar Barons on my last trip so though not an awesome sight in the traditional sense of the word, was worth seeing.  The book’s a history written like a family saga (and there were a lot of high-profile families who made Dough from Barbados slaving, like the Browns of Brown University in the US, the Winthrops of the Mayflower).  It clarified for me why Barbados is so highly reputed of the Caribbean islands, when in terms of beauty, it’s a bit like someone saying to you ‘You’re going to England?  Man, you have to go to Milton Keynes, it’s amazing.’  Don’t know Milton Keynes? No worries, suffice to say it’s a bit of a non-entity in terms of impressive English landscape.

Barbados has over St Lucia its young and ‘happening’ vibe, and a much more developed/successful economy and infrastructure, but to look out a window and lose your breath? I’ve yet to lay my eyes on any place on the planet more naturally beautiful than Dominica, and the only place that comes close is St Lucia.  It’s the vast rolling hills, with their curves and steep drops, the valleys which accompany the highways, the expansive lush tropical vegetation everywhere, and the open sky above.  It’s the undeniable sensation of being outside and outside being infinite and infinitely beautiful.  Barbados is easy on the eye, pleasant even, but it certainly doesn’t have the wow factor for me.   I did a round the island tour starting in St Phillip on the East coast, across the centre, up the west coast, and back down the east and Barbados has beautiful coastline but I guess at the end of the day, it’s too flat.  It’s makes for some really lovely views on the one hand, but I guess I’m uncommonly attached to my mornes.

But I seriously digress.

Five things you shouldn’t miss in Barbados:

1)  Crop Over.  Cutting sugar cane is backbreaking work.  It was even harder when you were kidnapped from Africa to do it and you and your fellow kidnappees and offspring treated like chattel for the rest of your life.  When the cane was finally harvested and the tyranny of the crop was over (for now) it was cause for a party and the tradition has continued through the centuries.  It’s Barbados’ carnival and the party of the year.   As the season is only June – August, however, partying can also be done in a number of institutions in St Lawrence Gap and various places in Christ Church and Bridgetown year round.

2)  Oistins Fish Fry on a Friday, or Martins Bay on a Thursday.  Fresh catches cooked by locals.  Oistins has grown from a place good for a nice piece of fish and a lime on a Friday to a mega-lime.

Look for this sign for Oistins

Look for this sign for Oistins

3)  Museum of Barbados.  Brilliant for a walk-through of the many turns of Barbados’ social and political history from the Arawaks and Caribs to the present day.  Set aside a few hours to really get into it.  I went expecting nothing and loved it so maybe I’ve hyped it up and you’ll hate it.  Soz.

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4)  Chefette.  And Jenn’s.  There’s no McDonald’s in Barbados (though KFC is very popular).  They’ve tried opening one (twice), the people just don’t take to them.  Chefette is a local fast food outlet selling rotis as well as fried chicken which is everywhere in Barbados.  They used to do amazing milkshakes and still do decent local ice-creams.  When the guilt has subsided and it’s time for the next meal, head to Jenn’s in Bridgetown, a local health food shop which also serves amazing food for a fraction of the standard meal prices.  Barbados is apparently one place where healthy food is cheaper.

5)  The art galleries and craft villages.  Barbados does a roaring trade in locally produced crafts.  And good ones, not tat.  I’m very against tat.  Crap that you buy as a keepsake of your holiday, but actually serves no purpose and so you end up chucking out as a useless waste of space and money.  I like functional things which look pretty.  Round the back of Bridgetown there’s the Pelican Craft Village, and there’s also a spot in St. James worth checking out.  There also lots of random galleries so if it’s worth checking out local art.  As a sign in front of the airport souvenir points out ‘Was the sand on the beach you lay on Made In China?  Was the sea you swam in?  Why settle for souvenirs that are Made In China?  Buy local!’

Indeed.

So I’m not a huge fan of cricket so couldn’t point you to the places to go re that quintessentially English Caribbean sport, though the National Heroes Museum in Bridgetown is probably a good place to start.  I’m not American so a visit to the George Washington Museum – Barbados is the only place outside the US the first American president ever visited and he stayed a good while – didn’t particularly appeal although it’s supposed to be good.  If you need me to tell you to head to the beach, well, Barbados probably isn’t for you.

I will tell you though, that Cloisters is a bookshop I always make a beeline for, and there’s a mall across the road to the right which is home to a Christian bookshop.  Two shops behind that is a jewellery shop, Shamane owned by two cute Rastas who are brothers.  They sell gorgeous wooden/coral/cowrie earrings bracelets and necklaces at prices which are good if you get paid in Barbados dollars, if you get paid in a stronger currency they’re a steal. I spent BDS$100 or about £30 and came home with two pieces of Orthodox Ethopian Church prints, and literally about 8 pairs of earrings, one of which are swinging gaily from my ears as I type this.   And there’s a fabulous duty free bags and shoes shop other than Cave Shepherd in the centre of town…ummm…I kind of like to shop in Barbados.

This trip, random as it was, was my first stay in Barbados of more than a few days in a few years and it was a bit like returning to my first love.  Once upon a time I wanted to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in the sea at Miami beach I loved it so much.  Barbados was the first Caribbean island I developed my own relationship with.  Aside from the fact that my parents were ‘from there’, I had my own cherished memories, friends, and stories from my many summers spent in Barbados.  I fell in love deeply twice in Barbados, and this third time, with the library at Cave Hill, was the first time the object of my affections was not male.

As I wind up I realised that for all my talk of partying in Barbados, I forgot to mention music.  Barbados is the other soca powerhouse in the Caribbean.  Rupee, Alison Hinds, Square One, Edwin Yearwood, Krosfyah and Lil Rick all hail from Barbados and are huge – some even legendary – soca artists.  Ask Rihanna if you don’t believe me.

Back in the day like clockwork I would at 6pm be watching Days of Our Lives with my grandmother (and calling my holiday romance on the dot at 7 when the news came on).  This trip, I developed my own routines and rhythms.  For a health-giving break, Barbados was fantastic.  I got some high-quality family time in, some great shopping, and reconnected with…Barbados.  Not bad for an unplanned detour.

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