As a travel junkie and a writer, I always look forward to my favourite travel magazine arriving in my mailbox. There is something alluring about that glossy cover, the beautiful photographs (always much better than my own) and that smell of ink and dust. I love thinking about the kilometers it has travelled to arrive in my hands. How cool an idea: a travel magazine that travels. Very cool, I’ve decided.
January is the month I most look forward to my travel magazine arriving not for the pleasure just of reading it, but as a poor substitute for a means of escape. It’s cold where I live, and I don’t mean chilly. I mean “strip-your-bones-bare” cold. I plug my car in, and not because it’s electric. I shovel my walk at least once a week (ok, my husband shovels…) I have defrosted my water pipes with my blow-dryer. All this to say, it’s bloody cold. I imagine I’m not alone in secretly hating those visitors who live in more temperate climes who lie to my face, saying “It’s not that bad. I suppose it just takes some getting used to.” Those people, ladies and gentlemen, are wrong. Unequivocally. WRONG.
It really is that bad. I know, because unlike those visitors, I live here and I know one doesn’t get used to it, or the infernal bleeping of the snow plows as they go up our street (if they go up our street.) We merely endure it because, well, this is where we live. Anyway, back to that magazine: January’s issue arrived (Joy!); Cover shot: a lovely mountain chalet, banks of snow and a title that encourages me to celebrate, no, praise winter and a smarmy list of 42 reasons why? (Groan!) It has become clear to me: those list-makers do not live in a cold climate. Yes: they are those temperate climate bastards.
The mitigating factor of January’s issue was this: it also contained an article about sunny, seductive Barbados. Yes! This is where one should be going in January, you temperate climate worshippers of winter! NOT Switzerland! As charming as I’m sure your chalet is, I still have to build a fire and wear an itchy sweater. Barbados, on the other hand… ah, the very mention of the place brings on visions of Caribbean blue waters and soft sandy beaches, bathing suits, seafood at every meal and outrageous colours that pale, bleak winter cannot begin to compete with. Barbados: where there’s not a single sweater in sight. Now this is my January issue.
I had occasion to visit Barbados by surprise. Until April of 2010 it had been years since our last family vacation. On our last vacation together we five crammed into a 1984 Dodge Caravan and drove across the northern United States to visit my grandmother in British Columbia, and this was before the days of portable blue-ray players, satellite radio and iPods. By 2010, our family had grown to eight (4 adult couples.) Sadly, we lost both our grandparents the year before and this was the real reason for our latest family gathering. Our parents surprised us with this trip because we needed time together to make some new family memories.
We touched down at Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados for two weeks of sun and with no real agenda. We knew someone would gather us at the airport, and take us to our lodgings. That was it. Winston, our driver, picked us up tardily but we were too enamored of the blessed heat to care a whit. Winston welcomed us with a hearty Bajun hello and his proclamation of Barbados’ own Banks beer being the coldest thing about the island’s weather. I could tell I was going to like this place.
Barbados is a Caribbean island nation of around 200,000 citizens and is a former British colony which gained its full independence in 1966. This “little Britain” takes its name from the Portuguese phrase “os barbados” meaning: “the bearded ones” and is so named not for the hairy-faced early visitors to the island, but for the bearded fig trees that are native to the land. Today, Barbados is a stunning clash of opposites and has grown into its Carribean own with hints of British parentage. Our drive home took us up the west side of the island to the parish of St. Peter and almost exactly halfway between Holetown and Speightstown (and within walking distance of each although the bus ride, as we found out, was 30 Bajun cents per traveler.)
As we drove away from Bridgetown and up the Platinum Coast, it was evident where those clashes of opposite existed: between neighbours and between neighbourhoods. Street people mixed with the ultra-rich, and mostly British, tourists. BMWs zinged past women with baskets on their heads. Walmart-esque supermarkets mashed up against local fruit stalls. As disheartening as this kind of commercial consumerism can be for many travelers, the people of Barbados seem to bear it well. It’s as if they know that while we are busy decrying the creep of McDonald’s and are trying to save the turtles, they can relax with their bottle of Banks. I suppose they can, in a way: the only McDonald’s on the island closed down in under a year of business. In Barbados, Chefette is king and has its own island flavour. Sure, it’s still fast food, but when have you seen roti on a McDonald’s menu board?
Our accommodation was Dragon Lodge, a spacious but not over-the-top house of 5 bedrooms, kitchen and dining room with a pool and grounds tucked away off the main road and with vacant lots on either side. Our neighbours were a troupe of green monkeys and the feral cats who occasionally made their homes under our couch and chair. It was, in my opinion, perfect. It was not so grand as to make us feel that we were those mingy tourists who eschew local flavour, and not so local to feel as though we would dash to the nearest Holiday Inn to use a proper washroom. We lived in our bathing suits. To be quite specific, I lived in my bathing suit in the kitchen. When I’m not writing, those closest to me know to find me in the kitchen with a batch of scones on the go, and the occasional soup disaster to clean up. For me, being with my family and feeding them (after all, we are Hungarian Canadians) makes me happy.
With two weeks stretched before us, a trip to Jordan’s Supermarket in Speightstown for local ingredients was paramount. We (read here I) chose Jordan’s because we (I) wanted to see what real Bajuns were eating, and also because it was cheaper. Our walk in to Speightstown was beautiful of course, but necessitated several stops in the shade for our yet uninitiated party. Barbados’ heat is intense and the humidity is fantastic. All along the way, we reminded ourselves to watch for vehicles on the “wrong” side of the street. As Barbados is a former British Colony, drivers come from the other direction when crossing the roads.
Jordan’s Supermarket is a simple and smallish store with a surprisingly expansive coffer of things to marvel at. It reminded me of a trading post: you can buy milk, strange fruits, bulk expired deodorant and postcards. Important to note for those travelling to Barbados: the Bajun currency is worth roughly half of the Canadian dollar and therefore to purchase staples, your trip to the market is rather cheap. You are paying roughly half of the total at the till in your home currency. However, Barbados is an island, meaning that your regular rations are roughly double the price than those at home. Wanting to surprise my sweet husband with real cream for his coffee, and discovering the price for one litre was $17.00 Bajun dollars ($8.50 in Canadian funds) I decided, rather, to show him my tan lines instead.
I think most travelers will agree, one of the best parts of travelling is eating. I love to cook, because I love to eat. During the day I searched the internet (thank you, Wi-Fi) for authentic Bajun recipes (between swims and beers), shopped for ingredients and attempted to channel the Caribbean trade winds in my cooking every day we were in Barbados. Sometimes I was successful, and sometimes we ate spaghetti. The family loved my Johnny Cake cornmeal muffins with pineapple jam centers. My Jerk Chicken (ok, not authentically Bajun, but Caribbean anyway) was of course, too hot for their palettes. Sissies! Pigeon peas and dirty rice was one of my favourites so I made it often, knowing that not a single pigeon pea was to be had as soon as we returned home. My husband and I also loved pig tails, but as they looked too much like “those most English parts of a man”, they were left untouched by most of our party. I figure it’s what one does. In Sicily, you eat tomatoes. In Ortona, you eat donkey. In Barbados, you eat pig tails.
On days when I was off KP duty, we ventured into town in search of other blissful things to eat. Seafood is, of course, abundant in Barbados, and there is no better place to eat the official fish of Barbados, the flying fish, than straight off the nearest beach bar grill. Hot and fresh and smacking of trade spices, those tiny filets slipped down our gullets by the dozen. Other Bajun culinary marvels are goat, breadfruit and cassava root. There is a saying that one cannot die of starvation in Barbados, because if you have nothing, your neighbour will always have a breadfruit.
Our days of beaching (and burning, and peeling) and eating was most often completed by beer and, dare I say it? Karaoke. No kidding folks. Karaoke is BIG in Barbados. After a few beers, we convinced ourselves to go down the road to a bar we saw advertised on a piece of cardboard tied to a lamppost with a bit of twine: Zuma’s Place. “It’s an island,” we proclaimed. “As soon as we leave, no one will remember our shame and humiliation at karaoke night.” Wow. We’re we wrong. Here’s something of which I am convinced: every single soul on the island of Barbados can sing like an angel. I really did think the bar was playing a CD when we strolled off the highway to the corrugated metal shack with tarped-off bar-be-cue, separate (and immaculate) washroom and adjacent open sewage field (charming) and clearly without regard for any local noise violation by-law (if they exist, which I doubt.)
In point of fact, the sound of the angel singing at Zuma’s was an actual human, actually singing the kind of song that makes you weep to hear it, and who makes your comparative wailing sound like something from a B-list zombie flick. Thankfully, the warmest part of Barbados is the Bajuns themselves. They didn’t care how much we sang (or sucked) and were interested to know who we are where we came from and if there was anything they could do for us during our stay with them. They asked us interesting and pointed questions about politics, about Canada, about ice fishing, how our education systems worked, what employment was like, how did we feel about our stay here? Did we feel safe? Did we need help finding something? Did we plan to come back and when? By the end of our two week association, I was cooking in their kitchen and my batch of scones made with Neville Edwards’ famous Bajun hot sauce was even too hot for them! Sissies?
Karaoke became a nightly event for us. In Morgan’s Bar in Speightstown, my brother belted out an impressive “Sex Bomb” after which several British women jumped up and mauled him. I even sang a not-so-terrible version of Maroon Five’s “She Will Be Loved” in Holetown, which I believe was videotaped by the attending DJ, and which I also believe is now circulating on YouTube… “Music is everywhere in Barbados,” said our friend Winston. “It is in the soul of every Bajun person and we are soulful people.” Amen, Winston. Barbados is fairly studded with churches and during afternoon walks you can hear the anthems of the Lord drifting into the street. People call hello to you from their porches and when they pass you on the road, they look you in the eye to bid you a good afternoon. Gentlemen here still tip their hats. Everyone has time to visit as they rake their gardens, wash their windows and burn their palm cuttings. Barbados is a wonderful place because of the warmth and soulfulness of its people.
Here are some other things you need to know about Barbados: Your hair will never be prettier than every Bajun girl who gets on the same bus as you. All beaches on the island are public beaches and are therefore free, but the beach accoutrement will cost you. Most staples can be purchased at any gas station. Be courteous with everyone (obviously) as you will likely see them at your next evening out, possibly as they finish a stirring rendition of “Born Free” and dance on glass while wearing leopard print spandex pants. Yes, that could happen… Your laundry will fade in the sun if you leave it beyond several hours. Those animals in people’s yards are sheep, not goats. Barbados is the birthplace of rum, and is aptly named Mount Gay. The people of Barbados will welcome you warmly, and I feel, not just for your shiny tourist dollars but for want of a real association of spirit and the warmth that is inherent in them and in their sunny island nation. And the beer is damn cold.