We were a group of five gringoes standing beside the main road, a strip of narrow, pale pavement, unlined although there were supposedly two lanes. Flexible lanes, determined by the route best to avoid potholes or other cars.
Steve, the Kiwi, and Cammie from Luxembourg, both off Proxima Vida, our buddy boat. Chris, one of the pair of owners of our boat, Galeb. Alice, the twenty-year-old adventuring artist from Quebec, and myself. We stood awkwardly looking up and down the road, the bay behind us, not sure where we wanted to go today or how we were going to get there. We just wanted to explore Barbados.
Three pale, doughy people were loading into a small sedan and I walked over to get some advice.
“We want to see some of the island, some beautiful spots,” I asked, assuming they had been doing their own touring. The woman replied in a Scottish accent that she lived here, and she rattled off some of the spots we’d already heard about. Harrison Cave in the center, Botanical Gardens, Nature Reserve, Painted Animal Cave, Rum Factories. I asked her if there was anything to do that was free perhaps, as most of the attractions staked a $15-$30 US entrance fee.
“You can just go to North Point and walk around, it’s really beautiful. There are busses.”
So I returned to the group with the acquired knowledge and we stood some more, gauging the island transportation system. Alice, a seasoned hitchhiker, stuck out her thumb and was ignored by every car that passed.
I learned later that no one hitches here, mostly because there is no need. There are three kinds of busses and hoards of taxis constantly circling the island. Big yellow or blue busses and minibus taxis are only $2 Barbados, about $1 US.
After only a short while, a taxi van stopped in the road to chat with us. “To Northpoint? $30 US,” he said. We waved him on, waiting for the bus. Hardly out of his fumes, a mini-van tweeted his horn, coming from the wrong direction, the driver’s assistant leaning out of the window.
“Where you want to go? North Point? We’ll take you. We will just go turn around in town.” They were eager to fill their van with this jackpot of passengers.
“That’s fine,” we said, “but how much?”
“$2 Barbados, just like the bus.” We piled in and had hardly sat in our fake red leather seats before the van swept on. Chris, a motorcycle rock and roller, was very pleased by the blaring reggae and he grinned to be seated on the thumping speaker. We flew faster than we had in months, zipping around potholes and curves. The helper sat by the sliding door, fares filed between the fingers of his left hand, which he hung out the window so the bills whipped in the wind, threatening to escape.
They scoured the road for passengers, even stopping and reversing to collect someone hidden by bushes. They tooted the horn at every pedestrian, most who waved us on. Those Bajan horns, so pleasant, never aggressive, tweeting benevolent messages. Some honk out musical ditties. I imagine a road conflict, the driver slams his fist to blare out a curse, and instead toots a cheerful carnival tune. He must resent his horn at times.
We sped along the northwest coast before turning inland. Up there the island seemed rural, shore scrub, overgrown open fields, some planted with small crops of sweet potatoes and greens. Sugar cane. Twenty minutes later, the bus dumped us at a weedy crossroads. We stumbled out of the van, the driver pointed us down a long dirt road, and then sped away, leaving us standing in sudden silence.
A gravel road stretched out before us, a few modest booths at the start selling trinkets, but the tenders were undemanding, as willing to chat as to make a sale. We walked to the ocean, over a barren rocky plateau and peered off abrupt cliffs down to the wild ocean. Thousands of miles of trade winds and waves finally met rock, carving caves, blasting blowholes.
To the left was the Painted Animal Cave, $15 US, and a smattering of craft shops and restaurants. To the right stretched a mile or so of plateau, abandoned cement buildings far in the distance. We went right, exploring the vast cliffs, wandering away from each other on our own private meditations, surrounded by thundering waves and spray. I dipped down into a sandy bowl, lost in exploration, collecting trash. When I finally emerged, the plateau was abandoned, my group had disappeared down a crack in the ground, into their own secret cave, with a still, glimmering infinity pool.
I walked to the restaurants to look for them, to dump my load of trash in the stone-walled bins, disguised like little wells. Still no sign of them, had they gone home? I turned back to the coast, the way I had come. A group of tourists wandered around, snapping selfies, not them. Finally in the distance, another group of four appeared out of the ground and set off towards the buildings at the end of the plateau. They were far away, a long walk if I was mistaken. I squinted, trying to recall their clothes and postures. Reassured by Alice’s long white legs sticking from short black shorts, I set off after them, catching up as they disappeared again into the cement ruins.
Shrubs parted to reveal a complex of long, two-story buildings, crumbling stairs and walls, collapsed roofs. Condominiums perhaps, a development run out of money? That was common. A low wall ran the lip of the cliff to stairs descending to a beach, a crescent of sand tucked among the sheer cliffs. I noticed heavy, turbulent waves, barely surf-able.
We stepped over fallen blocks and around a corner to find a giant pool terrace, lined with little palm huts, the thatched roofs more intact than those of the buildings. Vines crept tentatively from the surrounding brush, peeking out at the absence of humans before racing and twirling uninhibited across the terrace, reclaiming their space.
The empty pool was olympic sized, with blue tiles marking lanes on the bottom. Two sturdy cement diving boards poised over a square annex, deep and filled with a water so dark green it looked black. I couldn’t see how deep.
A hotel then. As I scanned my eyes around the terrace, it came alive. Women sunning in high-wasted bikinis, muscled men in short trunks standing on the high dive, waiting for the women to look up before plunging down. Servers in crisp white shirts running trays from the bar to the pool chairs.
What could have happened here? A hurricane would not have caused such damage to concrete walls. An earthquake perhaps? Inside the poolside bar and restaurant, the walls wore murals of island life, palmed beaches and locals in fishing skiffs. The artist’s signature revealed a date, 1977. Not so long ago after all.
Our mystery was cut short by a smartphone. Cammie looked up that it was a surf hotel, popular in the mid 60’s, abandoned in the seventies. Simple enough. Or is it? Why was it abandoned? Dun dun DUN!…I haven’t looked into it. I prefer the mystery.
Before we walked down the long drive, past the overgrown gatehouse to wait for a bus, we returned to the sea, down the stairs to sit on boulders overlooking the beach. I gazed at waves and could see the guests, mostly men, in their fitted shorts, carrying heavy longboards down the stairs, riding waves. The ghosts of this place swirled my mind. Do humans leave an energetic stain on a place, or just on the imagination? Ruins, like corpses, tremble with a vibration, a reverberation of the life they’ve lived. I entertain wispy visions of their past lives, their fleeting human existence, even as I observe their surrender back to the jungle from where they came.
A peaceful spot, this abandoned hotel. I would love to camp here with the sun-kissed upper-crust surfer ghosts.
The first big blue bus that came said “SCHOOL”, but stopped for us regardless. It rattled like bare bones, stark seats and several strings loosely knotted together to extend the stop bell to the back. Empty except for five school children in their white tops and dark blue bottoms. We sat up front next to a boy all alone. In the very back, an older girl joked with two older boys, and two rows ahead, a plump girl with a bow in her hair faced forward.
I watched their dynamics, wondering if the two lone children felt left out, if there was the same school bus drama I’d seen growing up. But as they filed off at their respective stops, they all greeted each other, and fist bumped, and smiled. Finally, just the plump girl was left, an entire bus length between her and the gringoes.
An empty bus on an empty road. I gazed out the smudged window at blurs of grass and tamarind trees. At some point I noticed a soft singing over the rattling engine. I followed the sound towards the back and there sat the girl, held tilted to the side, eyes squeezed shut, singing unashamed, her voice powerful, passionate, and proud. A confidence she must have learned in church, alongside a whole community of proud plump singing women. I turned my eyes away and my ear more direct and enjoyed her gospel until she strutted off at her stop.
I am greedy for plant wisdom. Which is bush medicine, which can be woven, which is food? How does it grow? How do you cook it? I found it serendipitous to be bumping along in the truck of a local botanist, the new owner of Flower Forest Botanical Gardens. I blast him with questions. My excitement feels exaggerated against his subdued demeanor. Like I’m stretching my expectations so thin they might tear. I often feel that way in the presence of the accomplished. They have already lived the dreamer’s idealism, have worked their way beyond fantasy into reality. They have grinded their way through the grit of which dreams are actually made. They are humbled, sometimes cynical.
David, is a local. He moved with his mother from Canada when he was twelve. He grew up barefoot, baking breadfruit in beach fires, and speaks with a hint of Bajan accent, his mouth moving in small, gentle syllables, soft words, as you might expect from someone who spends a lot of time with plants. But there is also something suppressed it seems, a melancholy weighing his eyebrows.
He is the friend of Mamta, a friend of Galeb, and he has invited her to invite her friends to tour his gardens for free. He appears smitten with Mamta. He tolerates my questions, but ignores my excitement. I am an intrusion between him and his fancy. I can feel it, but I can’t seem to stop. I feel entitled to this experience, like it was made for me. Why? Because I like plants? Because I have grands schemes to cultivate the Caribbean like some sort of savior? Self-importance? Vanity?
The streets are crowded today. Traffic deflates my idealistic impression of transportation on this island. David drives carefully and flirts respectfully with Mamta between patiently answering my barrage of questions. About Barbados waste management, employment, geology. I can’t seem to stop, to give him his moment for courtship. I’m too hungry for knowledge.
The island, I learn, is coral thrust up from the sea, with clay layers. Rain filters through the coral, hits the clay, and runs back out as pure spring water. David also runs a pottery, one of the signature Bajan crafts. “No, we don’t use the clay from the island anymore, we buy it from the US in plastic bags. It is more reliable. Everyone wants to buy local, but local clay might chip and then the customers would be upset.”
We walk the paths of Flower Forest, his art expressed in hues of jungle flowers. We take pictures of gingers and heliconias. I write names of trees and he pacifies me with seeds of indigo and Annatto, which I know as Achiote, a seed used to color food. He jokes about marrying Mamta on the beautiful tiled spiral overlooking a valley of Royal Palms. We buy local treats at the gift shop, guava cheese, tamarind candy, local fudge, coconut candy, mostly sugar. As we’re leaving, his manager loads two biodegradable clamshells with fried fish cakes (bread balls with a faint fish flavor), and we nibble as David drives the scenic crest road to the east side of the island.
He drops us at Bathsheba bay, where busloads of tourists snap picture of the awkward coral boulders squatting in the surf. He tells us that at some point they mysteriously rolled down from the mountains and plopped into the water, where the waves set to work nibbling their undersides into narrow pedestals. We shake hands goodbye an he tells me to write if I have any questions, that he will be my point person. Maybe I was not such a pest after all. Then he rushes back to work.
We walk the beach, ankle deep in piled sargasso seaweed. (I’d asked my Brandon’s Beach friend, Nick, about using it for fertilizer and he said it’s very good once the salt was rinsed out, that just enough salt remains to keep the snails away.) Again I harvest a bag of trash, and we go to a bar for cheap beers, four for $10 Barbados.
I buy young coconuts from Shirley, a strong, tall, toothless man in the concrete bus stop. He picks the “best” two from his wheelbarrow and nicks off the tops with his machete. I drink the life-giving water with no straw, the salty solution rushing giddy into my cells. Then Shirley chops them in thirds, whacking towards his palm with perfect splitting-without-dismembering force, three petals falling open to reveal the sweet jelly inside. He slices three little scoops out of the husk, biodegradable spoons, and peels a short stick of sugar cane, a gift because he likes me.
Our bus home was the mid-size, the mama bear, somewhere between the reggae minivan, and the full sized “school” bus. Small, yellow, rattling as usual, with fifteen or so rows of double seats. The driver stopped at every stop, putting no limit on capacity. Luckily there was only one hill to cross, because even that one we barely crested, in first gear and smoking. I gave my seat to two small children who smiled and snuggled, and stood in the aisle, joining the big butts rubbing nonchalantly. I too felt unashamed, conscious but unconcerned with bare arms rubbing my my arms, a marked difference from when I was younger, uncertain of my boundaries and uncomfortable with contact.
We offloaded in Bridgetown, at a busy, sticky bus stop, and walked the littered streets and alleys back towards the shore. We tucked into an open-air market to try our luck with produce, mentally translating the Eastern Caribbean prices into our own currencies. I knew it was all too much. Six bananas for six dollars? Five EC per pound of papaya? But haggling is a game I’ve yet to master, and might never. It is not for those honest of speech or timid of confrontation. It requires some story telling, some suspicion. I tend to just walk away without food, hoping they will call me back and accept my offer. They rarely do. Where there are many tourists they know they can miss a sale.
Rather than walk away empty handed, I made a pride purchase, a couple of pounds of overpriced taro, locally known as Dasheen. The boisterous vendor demanded we take a picture. “Take a selfie with Priscilla! Priscilla and her five boat girls!”
The IPhone snapped and there we were, uncertainly surrounding the big, beaming Priscilla. Luci, English-born Chinese, Mamta, English-born Indian, Cammie from Luxemburg, Alice from Quebec, and me, the American, sulking with my pathetically small bag of taro.
Despite high prices and stubborn vendors, in our two weeks in Barbados, I hardly met a pushy local. The closest I came to a negative interaction was after the weekly fish-fry in Oistons.
Every Friday the Oistons park fills with food vendors and people, music and dancing. The two “stages” proved nothing more than a couple of big speakers hooked up to a couple of computers. In an open plaza surrounded by plastic dining tables, older couples danced conservatively to gentle country music.
Through winding alleys of booths wafting fried fish, we came to the “younger” stage, a slightly raised terrace playing dancehall reggae. On the terrace, a few men took their dancing seriously, one woman in a long-sleeved spandex leotard showed her incredible gluteal control, but mostly the crowd just milled around, bobbing passively. Nothing fancy, a weekly gathering for locals.
As we turned to leave, the taxi drivers descended. There were no more busses, they assured, and no lower prices. I felt bombarded, pushed and haggled. Con-men talked fast and followed us down the sidewalk, competing for our fares. Alone, I would have walked away, finding myself with no way home, just to escape the barrage. But being in a group of six, we somehow ended up in a luxury minivan, heading back to the boat, paying $10 EC per person.
I felt bitter, cheated. But as we stepped out and paid, the driver was smiling, joking with Luci because she had been too smart to give him an extra tip. He had transformed from the con-man back into a jovial local, and I remembered that it is all a game. They can do it because they don’t let it get to them, they roll it off and spin back to themselves right away. Coming from a culture where confrontation and anger is taken seriously, absorbed to the bone, I have a lot to learn here