I love an island where you can smell the pungent humidity in the air, seeping into your pores like sunshine. I love a country where the billowing clouds anchor in the bay of the sky like tallship windjammers. I love a country where the sun varnishes the calm sea into an antique hammered copper plate. I love a country where the view is like Neapolitan ice cream, the sand, and sea and sky a tri-color of blanc, indigo and rouge. I love a country where the birds trill in the bushes, out of sight, the background music to a living soundtrack.
We departed Gun Hill with the first rum punch under our belts. There are 900 miles of paved road on the island, but we were on safari, so we took the bumpy route through the sugar cane fields. The cane grew high and we were lost in the maze of green lush. Philip pulls up to chop a couple of cane stalks for chewing and chomping on at the next rum punch stop. Then we were splooshed into the "Pigsty", so named because there is always knee-deep water in the gully. "You don't want to be here in a hurricane," said Philip. Did you know that hurrican (sic) is an indigenous Amerindian/Arawak word that describes these horrific winds?
Suddenly we were high and dry, looking down on the Pigsty from the 250-year-old Molasses Bridge, held together by the mortar of molasses and eggs, one of the strongest spans in Barbados.
Because 70 miles of Barbados coastline is the closest landmass to the African continent, slavers first came to Barbados to use the island as a slave distribution center for the rest of the Caribbean. But slavery was outlawed in Barbados long before Britain or the United States emancipated their slaves; the country became independent in 1966, with a parliamentary system based on the British system of government. There is very little land sold for development, it is saved for agricultural purposes, so there is plenty of green space on the island, and all the beaches are public, even in front of the luxury hotels dotting the coastline.
We were off to visit Edge Cliff, so named because it is the edge of a cliff. The wind blew a streaming constant from the Atlantic Ocean 140 feet below. Yes, it was time for rum punch and a snack of sugar cane stalks.
Later, we passed Malvern House Plantation, now a colon clinic with riding stables. Don't ask about any analogies. There is an old sugar factory across from Malvern House. Philip pointed out an Indian Almond tree, similar in appearance to the poisonous Machioneel. The croplands were planted in sweet potatoes and yams, with young sugar cane growing between the sweet potato rows. The sweet potatoes will mature first, so farmers get more use from the same acreage.
We pass the Andrew Sugar Cane Factory that still produces more sugar cane mash than the modern factories. It is not the biggest, but it has been in operation for over 116 years. There are two types of molasses, but the black strap variety is used in Barbados for rum. The local Sugar Cane Research Institute is nearby, the #1 home for cane species in the world. The first whites in Barbados were indentured Scots and Brits serving petty crime sentences of 5-7 years, and they developed the first cane fields. They harvest cane now with combines. They don't burn the cane like on other islands, so they can cut the cane back for additional growth and cuttings. Come to Barbados for the annual "Crop Over", a celebration of the traditional cane-cutting era, held in July and August each year.
We were now in St. John's Parish, home to a 150-year-old church, built on the cliff. The ancient cemetery is the last resting ground of one of the Paleologi, a direct descendent of Emperor Constantine the Great, dethroned by the Turks at the fall of Constantinople. We don't park under the mahogany trees at the church; the falling pear-sized seedpods will put a dent in the safari wagon. There is one of the oldest banyan trees on the island in the area, with its unusual root system named by the first Portuguese and Spanish "Los Banyos", or the "bearded one" because the roots gave the shady trees a bearded appearance. The Portuguese were here 100 years before the British but never settled, nor did the Spanish. There was no value seen for the island.
The divorce rate is high in Barbados because there are three women for every man and the men want to satisfy all the women, so I guess there are a lot of marriages at the church.
Below the cliffs of St. John's Church is the banana country. No bananas are exported, with the crop grown only for domestic use. The Buffet is a small, fat, purple banana. Bajans call the banana fingers "figs". Planter's bananas are more tapered on the end and they are round, not angular, as in other species. The Barbados bananas are ripe when still green. Plantains are boiled or grilled. This is the eastern side of the island, where first light of day makes the crops more munificent and lush. Mangos are as sweet as the sugar apples. Also grown in the region are soursop, ackee, avocado, and tea leaves used for fever, star apples, and golden apples. Papaya or papaws have an enzyme cleanser that can also be used as a meat tenderizer. Water coconuts are good for cleansing the liver.
Suddenly. a mongoose skitters across the road, then another. "Is it mongoose or mongeese?" Philip asks. There is no snake problem on the island because there are no snakes, so I question the importance of the pest.
We do not stop at the beautiful Andromeda Gardens, which I note for a return visit. The gardens were inaugurated in 1953 and it is now part of the Barbados National Trust. Flowers from the gardens were the first to showcase Barbados' vibrant blooms at the international Chelsea Flower Show in England.
We pass many sleepy villages, with little traffic on the road. Colorful murals are painted on the road cut-bank exposed rocks.
Barbados is known for its telecommunication industry, with quick internet and phone connections via the satellite "Earth Station" located at Ponsett Bay. I notice the sat dishes on each home. There is no cable on the island. Caribsurf is the primary internet host, part of the Wire and Cable conglomerate. "It is hard to get a second phone line," says Philip. "Channel 8 is the local TV; the annual TV license is paid by the homeowners, although no one seems to pay for it." Some things never change from country to country.
We are en route to Bathsheba, in St. Joseph Parish, once the main stop for the original sugar and banana trains, but these days mostly surfers hang out to glide the pounding Atlantic waves at the Soup Bowl. The original train station has the only porcelain pit stop on the trip, so everyone bails out to do their thing, "or it is the first bush on your left," comments Philip.
Bathsheba is noted for its slow pace and for its vacation rentals. It is also one of the lushest areas on the island. Barbados' national flower, the Poinciana, grows in profusion, as does the African Tulip Tree and the red flaming Flamboyant Tree. The yellow Christmas Candle flowers looks just like candles on a festive bush.
The grind back out of coastal Bathsheba puts us into the rugged Scotland District, so named because the first resident Scots thought the range of limestone hills resembled their own highlands. We pass Morgan Lewis Windmill, used from 1772 to 1941, now on the World Heritage list of top 100 most endangered sites in the Caribbean.
We drive through a gauntlet of mahogany trees with a commanding view from Cherry Hill, which produces no cherries, but the view is "peachy!" We then skirt the edge of Farley Hill National Park, in St. Peter Parish, a preserve for bird life, ferns, mahogany trees, and the Barbados green monkey. The Barbados Wildlife Reserve is across the street from Farley Hill Plantation, now in ruins, but once a magnificent sugar baron mansion which is glimpsed in the 1957 movie "Island in the Sun," starring James Mason. The mansion is the annual outdoor venue for the Barbados Jazz Festival held in January.
Cliffton House Plantation at Newcastle Park is one of the last remaining and working plantations on the island. There is illegal racing on Sunday in the area, with trucks, cars, vans, motorbikes, and even tractors vying for non-existent trophies. Bajans love to drive. There are 2.2 cars per household, so the island of 250,000 people is unduly road crowded with 85,000 registered vehicles, mostly cheap Japanese models.
Our next major stop is Joe River Forest in the northern-most parish, St. Lucy, featuring 100 acres of reforested gullies. At one time Barbados was nothing but forest. There are little genus identification signs on the trees. The birds love the termite nests in the tree cracks and notches. You can camp or hike or bike the Joe River Forest trails, and eco-cabins are planned within the forest in the near future. The golden and sable palms predate the era of the dinosaurs. We come across another "bearded one," with figs carpeting the forest floor. Monkeys are thick in the thickets. The last water buffalo in the area was killed by the army, and the last raccoon was seen in 1968. We bushwacked out of Joe River Forest to encountered steep and stepped open and rolling savannahs. Mosquito larva are raised in the area as a feed for fish in the rearing ponds, and in turn the fish feed the locals and tourists.
We stop at the local humane society, actually a shack owned by a man who loves animals that others can't care for. He has a menagerie of birds and monkeys and pigs. The green monkeys jump all over the hood and top of the Land Rover, bouncing through the interior looking for peanut or banana handouts. They go ape shit over nuts and sugar cane. The pads on their feet are so soft that I can hardly feel them sitting on my shoulders.
We park on the cliffs overlooking Pico Tenerife, so named because of the resemblance to the Canary Islands. The Machioneel trees lined up on the coast are wind swept like a Marge Simpson hairdo. If you stand under this tree in a rain storm the oils and resins will blister the skin with a rash.
Nearby is a thoroughbred stud farm. Horse racing and polo are big money sports in Barbados. Barbados has had three jockeys named "jockey of the year" in Canada. The polo season begins in early November and runs through May, with matches each Thursday and Saturday (Call the Barbados Polo Club at 432-1802.). The Barbados Turf Club (www.barbadosturfclub.com) runs the horseracing events at Garrison Savannah , and is also the host of the annual Sandy Lane Gold Cup.
We stopped to give a cigarette to a Rasta speaking friend of the driver; both speaking in Patois, and Philip told him to save him a future peanut crop. The grazing sheep in the pastures were bred in England, especially for the Barbados climate, and they are now exported to Costa Rica and cross-bred in Australia.
Nigel Vann, "The Black Destroyer," is a boxer who grew up in the area and his aunt now runs a shop called "Rum Punch," but we still have enough of the elixir on board so we don't take in the libations.
In Speightstown, on the Caribbean coast, we pass Quaker Chapel, managed by the Anglican Church. We pull into the back entrance of the Sandy Ridge Hotel, on the beach, for a buffet lunch at the Mango Restaurant, also the home of the island's best humidor. You can get Cuban cigars here if you ask. Philip comments that the Fisherman's Pub in Speighstown is the best for drinking. But we are at the Mango for a wonderful lunch of flying fish, barbecued chicken, fruit drinks, Bajan ginger beer, Banks Beer, and more rum punch. I was seated at a table with an English couple in the garbage business, and the lady was feeling her punches as she natters on about their trade.
I have to thank Philip for his gracious, expert hosting on the trip. I was able to see a side of the island most others do not see, and ask me if you need to know anything about the trash business in Britain! Now it is back to the hotel to partake in those other two Arawak vernauclar past-times, hitting the hammock, and then off to a barbecue.
Last road fact: 55% of Barbados' offshore oil is exported to the U.S., but it is refined in Venezuela. Their oil used to be refined in Trinidad before the fishing treaty rift broke up that alliance.
By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine. Photos courtesy of Kris King, www.kriskingphotography.com