I awoke to the sound of torrential rain beating against our tin roof.
It’s a sound I don’t hear in Brooklyn, one that put me at ease.
It doesn’t matter that I’m on vacation, or that we had planned to explore the highly recommended beaches on the West coast.
It was time to slow down.
Imagine being carried down into the heart of the earth. You are surrounded by humid darkness. A darkness so encompassing, you are lulled into a deep calm. In the distance, you hear the steady rush of a waterfall. This sound reverberates around you, and you are overwhelmed by a sense of peace. Harrison's Cave in the St. Thomas province in Barbados is a magical place where stalagmites and stalactites break open to reveal a naturally occurring gallery of beauty.
I almost didn’t make it to Harrison’s Cave. It was not on my list of things to do. My boyfriend suggested the trek but I was hesitant. My love of nature typically applies only to things green or watery. Having never actually been to a cave, it didn’t sound particularly appealing . The word cave conjured images of a dark underground mass of dirty, slippery rocks. I would have been content to spend the day on the beach, but unable to ignore his enthusiasm, I went with the plan, fighting off images of bats diving into my hair and of rats attacking my flip-flopped feet (for surely all caves were inhabited by evil rats and bats).
Pulling up in our taxi, we were met by tropical gardens and from our vantage point on the top of a hill, a breathtaking view of the ocean. It was not what I had expected. Harrison’s Cave is unique because it exists beneath a tropical forest canopy. It was like entering a small rain forest. In seconds, my camera was out and I began snapping pictures of butterflies, lizards, and and snails. I wasn’t lucky enough to find a Green Monkey but according to the conservationist on site, they were everywhere.
Once we paid for our tour ($30 USD), we were invited to explore a nature trail as we waited for our tour number to be called. The wait was pretty long. The tours are arranged in groups of sixteen. Each tour is about an hour long and on a busy day, you are in for a bit of a wait. Luckily, there is plenty to explore.
Nature trails were abundant. Guides were available to talk about the local habitat, medicinal plants used by locals and to assist you on your search to spot one of the mysterious Green Monkeys. There were also several shops with goods ranging from local artwork and pottery to Cadbury ice cream pops. When our number was called, we were brought into a planetarium-like amphitheatre where we watched a short video on the history of the caves. After our video, we were loaded into an electric tram and were driven through the winding splendor that is Harrison’s Cave. There were two points of disembarkation, but for the most part, we were asked to remain seated with our hands inside the vehicle. As we rode, the guide talked to us about calcium deposits and limestone, pointed out stalagmites and stalactites and stopped in front of various waterfalls and formations expertly backlit, glimpses into another world.
There were no bats, no rats; instead I found peace and an appreciation for nature’s artistic edge. An hour later, we found ourselves at the base of an open canopy forest trail, squinting beneath the afternoon sun. The hike back to the visitor center was a quick ten minutes. The trail was simple, expertly landscaped, and paved with wooden planks.
A changed woman, I exited through the doors of the visitor center, with a new appreciation for caves. No longer would the term cave conjure up dark images of dank festering rocky labyrinths, I had a new image, the image of nature’s elaborate art gallery and the feeling of being blanketed in peace.
Barbados is the home of the oldest Rum company, Mt. Gay Rum. The tiny island receives much acclaim for its production of this sweet and intoxicating liquor. This being said, it seemed only proper that we take a Mt. Gay rum tour. Tours of the Mt. Gay Rum plant, last about thirty minutes and are broken down into three parts. The first part of the tour began in an exhibition room and was a formal historical look at Rum production in Barbados. Having just finished “Bury the Chains”, I was haunted by the knowledge of the brutal treatment of slaves on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean Islands. I was particularly disturbed, yet not surprised, when our tour guide skipped entirely over the slave trade, how she failed to mention that slaves in the sugar mills in Barbados fared the worst out of many other groups of slaves, how the life expectancy of a slave working in the sugar cane fields was around thirty and that oftentimes the women were worked so hard that they couldn’t even bear children. Not to be a Debby Downer, but this is truly the bulk of the history of sugar cane production, rum production. But of course, our lovely tour guide skimmed over the hard facts for our mostly British tour group and talked about the prettier glory days of rum. Despite the direct historical omissions, the tour was informative.
For the second part of the tour, we worked our way into the active factory and observed workers on an assembly line, bottling and preparing bottles of rum. I grew bored of this in about two minutes, however many people gaped in awe, so in this respect, take my word with a grain of salt.
The tour culminated with our group being received in a colonial style bar for my favorite part of the adventure, the rum tasting. We sampled two different types of rums that were so strong and aged; they tasted to me like brandy. In fact, that isn’t too surprising since apparently all of the barrels for Mt. Gay rum, are imported from a Brandy company in Tennessee, where they are smoked then used to store rum.
After the tasting, we drank and relaxed in the gardens. I tried to get the authentic recipe for rum punch from the bartender, but he spoke so fast and with such a heavy accent, all I understood was bitters and nutmeg. So it is…
The Mermaid of Black Rock is back. We met a man yesterday at Weiser's restaurant who rents kayaks (everyone here has a side hustle). For twenty American dollars we are going to be allowed to use Steve’s kayak for the entire day (forget the fact that neither Mark or I have an understanding of how to kayak).
We walked back to Brandon’s Beach from the rum factory (a quick 15 minutes) just in time to catch Steve the kayak man.
“You can swim right? You two are sure you can swim?”
“Yes, don’t worry, we can swim.”
“But you can swim I mean…like really swim?”
“Yes…I’m pretty sure.”
His concern was beginning to worry me.
“But you can swim in the ocean?”
“We have been going for swims in the ocean every day. And look, we are still here. Why?”
“No reason, am just wondering. I am just making sure. We don’t need any dead Americans.”
Dead Americans? Immediately my shark radar went off.
“Steve, are there sharks or anything in the water we should know about?”
“Not in the water, on land.” He belted. And with that, we were whisked off into the ocean.
“When you make it back, you pay!”
I would be a liar if I left out the fact that I took a good moment to send up my most earnest prayer.
The kayak was surprisingly svelte. After a few awkward strokes, I found a rhythm. Two strokes to the right and two to the left – balance. It was all about finding balance. The water was gentle, the zephyrs were light, the sun was setting. We took turns rowing and made sure to glide along horizontal to the shore to avoid going out too far. It was lovely. Eyes to the clouds and setting sun, being lulled by the waves, I was so very much at peace.
Two hours at sea, being bounced about by the waves, equals twenty dollars well spent.
After kayaking, we returned to the water to swim. The tide was beginning to come in. What was in the morning placid and clear became foggy and rambunctious. Nevertheless, we splashed and floated amongst the salty waves. The water was so warm and welcoming, having spent the day, soaking in warmth from the sun.
Crowded later in the day, the water was full of teenagers, couples off from work, fathers teaching their sons to swim, mothers and grandmothers simply catching up. It was a beautiful scene.
“Imagine.” Mark replied, gazing towards the glow of the setting sun.
I can settle into a place like this. Even the breeze takes its time. I’m not sure if it was the orchestral ensemble of midnight’s creatures from fields near and far, so loud and sweet they drowned out the traffic (I’m on a main road). Perhaps it’s the slow dramatic slip of the sun, which starts at six thirty, becoming a sweet memory by seven, but I can settle into a place like this. For the next week, I shall refer to myself as The Mermaid of Black Rock. It was a tough morning. I rose tired and groggy. Despite the ceiling fan and the oscillating fan by our bed, it was hot. At 7:30, I was in a heat coma and for lack of a better word, rendered lazy and baffled.
Clearly not from the Islands, my virgin palate was sucked dry from last night’s Mt. Gay Rum and coke experiment. I had played bartender. The same rules just don’t apply. What works in Brooklyn with Bacardi, does not work in Barbados with Mt. Gay – lesson #3. I needed to work on my portion control.
Barbados is an island 21 miles in length. Everywhere you go seems to lead to the water. The water behind our cottage house was turquoise green bliss. It was like walking back into the womb. Fine feathery sand met my feet, an expense of welcoming ocean before me. I love swimming in the ocean. I list it as one of my hobbies. That being said, I am hyper-aware of the dangers and am proud to report that they were few and far between. Warm clear water for miles, free of jellyfish and sea urchins. This was truly one of the best oceans for swimming that I have ever happened upon minus a particularly refreshing expanse of ocean off the coast of Zanzibar. When I tell you that I spent hours swimming underwater and playing dead man’s float, I am not exaggerating. We decided to walk further down the stretch of beach since we saw a cruise ship docked in the distance. We made our way barefoot and in the sand to Brandon Beach. It was if we walked a great walk to heaven. Brandon Beach was even more secluded, even clearer, even warmer and pristine than what we had left. Brandon beach was so warm and shallow, that I walked literally 40 feet into the ocean and the water never rose above my 5’5” frame. In fact, my head was fully above water the entire time. This was where the locals came to play. And I say this, with caution, because the expanse was still very secluded. Besides myself (The Mermaid of Black Rock) and Mark, I counted only seven other people. We swam and floated until sun burnt and hungry we surrendered. Where to go? What to do? We were two people on a vacation having done no research. Having purchased no guide books, possessing not even a map, we followed our noses to a locally owned restaurants on the beach and ordered two lunch specials. My fresh catch of the day, fried in local spices was AMAZING! And let’s take a moment here please to pay homage to the gods of rum punch. The rum punch was phenomenal. The punch was strong, but it was sweet, it was fruity, but it was spicy and was adorned with freshly ground nutmeg. Oh man, I could truly settle into this place.
Day one and I don’t want to return. I’m reminded of my days in Mozambique. There is something so appealing about this life, something so sacred. A voice inside tells me I am a fool to be living in Brooklyn.
After lunch, we take a nap, because when in the Islands, do as the islanders do….
Restless after twenty minutes, I took an hour to work on my writing before waking Mark to explore the capital Bridgetown.
Bridgetown was a quick ride away in the ever-familiar converted cargo van for public transportation vehicles I have learned to love from my many adventures in the developing world. The van was crowded, but well ventilated. We sped along the road, music blasting, taking in the sights and sounds of our home for the next ten days.
Downtown Bridgetown too was familiar. There is something very uniform about colonial cities, the lush gardens, the fountains and surrounded compounds. In Bridgetown, it was charming how the ocean appeared always to be just in the distance.
Unfortunately everything closed early. We walked around downtown, happened upon a group of people practicing steel pan, found a cricket game, wandered into an open gallery to check out the work of a local painter and became familiar with what is honored as the oldest tree in Barbados, an enormous Baobab. It was a beautiful tree.
We wandered aimlessly, noting things that we would come back to do in the following days. We wandered and wandered until we found ourselves at the docks, a touristy yacht infested part of town. Cruise ships dropped passengers off here where they could buy diamond jewelry at a reduced price and shop till they dropped at pricey chain stores. We passed malls that felt like Macy’s and passed restaurants bearing tacky titles like “Barbados Bills” and “Slow Grind Café”.
Out of curiosity, we stopped in one of the restaurants “Slow Wine” for a sample of rum punch. Would it be better or worse that the punch we had earlier at the bungalow restaurant? No. The punch was terrible. It tasted like Hawaiian Punch sans rum and all.
After Mark questioned the waitress as to where to go for some good local fish, we were off, to navigate our way to dinner.
It seems everyone here has a Brooklyn story. Collin lived in Brooklyn for fourteen years and recalled each and every one of his former addresses to us while speaking of his glory years as a tennis instructor at Queens College. We took our fish to go and set off in search of a bus or cargo van to take us back. “Spitesville” we learned, was the name of our stop thanks to the kind waitress who had taken the time to orient us back at “Slow Wine.”
We scuttled back to our house and anxiously ripped into our flying fish with chips. I wish I could say it was an amazing and defining meal, but it just wasn’t. It was, to be honest sub-par. But hey, you win some, you lose some, but you keep on tasting and smelling and listening and touching and looking because you’re bound to discover something amazing – eventually.
I am jolted awake. Crickets sing to me from the alarm clock on my phone. It’s four am and I’m not impressed. Clicking snooze, I roll over and wrap my arm around my sleeping boyfriend. Ten more minutes. Thirty minutes later I’m in the shower grinning to myself. Barbados – I’m on my way to Barbados. Vacation time has finally arrived and I, lucky me, will be in Barbados for ten days.
Twenty minutes later we are walking down the quiet street. Brooklyn is a cool frame before the sunrise. She sends us forth with her blessings; after all, it’s vacation time and we’re going to Barbados. Our belongings are packed into the trunk of the car and we take off breezily down the street.
The plan is to drop the car off with a friend. Leaving a car unattended on the street for ten days is a big no-no, in the world of New York parking. We have arranged to meet Dee at five in front of his brownstone where he will drop us off at the airport and take over car duty until our return.
At five sharp we are in front of the house but there is no Dee. My boyfriend, ever calm and patient in the midst of adversity begins to call his friend repeatedly. When this doesn’t work, he heads to the porch to ring the buzzer. In the passenger seat I began to fill with silent unmoving dread. Our vacation, our beautiful Barbados vacation, I can see it slipping away and I am becoming restless and angry.
Ten minutes, twenty minutes, we are running out of time. Without another moment to spare, the car is parked and the keys are left in the mailbox with a note. With the vigor of Vikings, efficiently and expeditiously we pile our bags on the curb, hail a cab, load our luggage and speed off.
No matter how prepared you are, things just may not work out as planned. I smiled to myself remembering Maputo, Mozambique, two and a half years earlier. It had been around the same hour. The southern African sky was an intricate web of constellations and flashes. Bats swooped around us as crickets sang an alto melody. Being feasted on by mosquitoes, my friend Sergio and I waited in the empty courtyard by the gate. We had been in Maputo for a week and were headed further North, I to Inhambane, he to Namantanda. A taxi had been called to pick us up at precisely four am to take us to the bus terminal.
Eager for our journey we made our way through looming eucalyptus groves and fragrant magnolia blossoms, towards the large white gates near the sleeping guard, where our taxi was scheduled to arrive. Leaning against each other’s backs for support, we made ourselves comfortable in the tall grass and waited. I didn’t mind the wait at first, neither did Sergio, the night was stunning. It represented the magnificence of Mozambique, fragrant, breathtaking, calm, melodic and mysterious.
One hour turned into two, then three. The guard ensured us that our taxi was coming. “Patienca.” He reprimanded us like children – patience. Watching the sky expand and welcome the hazy pale morning we weren’t so certain.
The mosquitoes had vanished and the sun was scorching by the time our taxi slid to a stop in front of the gate. We had missed our busses.
I hate to rush when I’m traveling. I need to be calm and balanced to get the most out of the experience. I’m easily frazzled and prefer to arrive early, take my time, have a nice breakfast, perhaps settle down with a magazine or two before boarding. My boyfriend Mark is more of an improviser. With minutes before the final boarding call, we are rushing towards the only food vendor in sight. The order is placed in my sweaty palms the moment our names are called over the loudspeaker for the final boarding call warning. We sprint to the terminal and board the plane in time to learn that we have an hour and a half wait on the runway before we will be cleared for departure.
We settled in our seats to devour our breakfasts. Two hours later, finally in the air, exhausted by four hours of sleep the night before, I drifted in and out of consciousness.
The Bajan breeze greets us around three pm. We are looking for Mark’s cousin Michael. Mark has never met this cousin, and we find ourselves in the middle of an interesting game of “Where’s Michael”. According to Mark’s grandfather, the facilitator of the arrangement, Michael would be holding a sign to identify himself. We walk back and forth to the amusement of a crowd of taxi drivers for about an hour. There is no Michael.
Mark calls home, to get Michael’s contact information. His grandfather, well into his nineties, accidentally gave Michael the wrong information, leading him to believe that our flight would come in tomorrow and not today.
After more confusion, Michael himself is contacted. At work and not expecting us, we are told to sit tight until he or his son is able to pick us up.
My mood went from pure enthusiasm to dismal. Welcome to Barbados. We sat, on a curb in front of the arrivals terminal. Eager to move, I petitioned to take a cab but Mark was content to sit and wait, naively certain our ride would come any minute.
Creating a beach chair out of our luggage I resigned myself. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine I was by the ocean, but the sound of car engines and the light smell of exhaust quickly ruined that illusion.
Three traffic humps adorn the street before the arrivals gate. Literally eye-to-eye with car tires, I am amazed. Every single car slows to a near stop easing the front tires then the back tires over the obstacle before continuing. Was this a lesson? Easy does it?
I couldn’t spot a single cross walk yet pedestrians seemed to have the right of way. If someone appeared as though they were even thinking of crossing the street, cars, slowed to a near stop to allow them safe passage.
In New York, people sped and clamored over humps as if they were things to be conquered. Here, people eased over the humps as if they were helping hands, friends to wish them a safe journey. I can’t help but relax a little.
At six thirty, the sun begins to cast a tangerine glow across the sky as it sinks down to eventually to disappear into an indigo twilight. While this magnificent show is taking place, our ride pulls up. Michael’s son, also named Michael, friendly and easy going, helps us into the car before sweeping us off to the guest-house we are renting. Cruising past fertile sugar cane plantations, the sweet breeze kissing my cheeks in welcome, I am possessed with the feeling, one that assures me everything is going to be alright.