The Plural Island
A single Bardados, a couple of coasts
This became our morning ritual. The drive. The climb. Jumping into the channel that smelled like fish and tossed us around below the raw coast. The wave was fun, but the feeling of being with friends, alone in the elements, was ecstatic. On the day that most of the group left, the swell was at its peak. Well overhead sets churned across the reef. It wasn’t a heavy wave but we were out to sea, and there was power. We didn’t come to Barbados for a Jacuzzi. We came for this.
One of the resorts on the west coast advertises, “The richness of the local culture and its vibrant scenery, together with a fantastic climate, have created an alluring place to escape and live amidst an equally captivating landscape. Welcome to the Platinum Coast, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Welcome to Fairmont Royal Pavilion, one of the most exclusive luxury resorts in Barbados.” Is it possible, though, to have both? For the time being we did. Air conditioning by night and the wild by day. But would enough people, wanting the same thing, tip the scales with platinum?
At dinner one night, with the pool lights casting phantom shadows around our villa, my cousin gave a birthday toast. “It’s so special to have everyone come together,” he said. “And the more time goes by, the more special it becomes.” In so many ways, it didn’t matter where we were. We had all we needed.
We took one last photo, the 12 of us lining the mansion’s second floor balcony overlooking the groomed, glittering Atlantic. Then the four of us who remained drove east. From a thin strip bending around the north coast and fanning southward, encompassing the east coast and its mountainous interior, is The Barbados National Park. The colour is green. Green pastures and green ridges – the houses aren’t built on top of but within the land.
The east coast is shaped like a cupped leaf. Bathsheba, home of the renowned Soup Bowls, is where the water collects. On our way there waves detonated on anonymous stretches of sand and reef. Salt mist hung in the air. This time, there was too much swell to distinguish surf spots. The road took us vertically into the mountains, where cinderblock houses clung faithfully to the slope. We descended upon Bathsheba. Soup Bowls looked crazy. There were a few takers, locals, navigating the sets and avoiding disaster. Every once and a while they pulled into green caverns. My adrenaline glands itched, though it was beyond my limit.
That night, close to a small cabin we rented further down the coast, I got our car stuck in mud on a pitch-black road (right after my girlfriend warned, “I wouldn’t go any further.”) The owner of the cabin showed up: a white man speaking in a deep Bajan accent. He took us to a house with a few beat up cars in the driveway. Greasy tools were scattered about. An old man emerged: silent, wiry and strong, maybe 75. He drove ahead of us in a tiny two-wheel drive hatchback and, with expert handling, charged the muddy section of road to where we were stuck.
For the next 45 minutes, with a combination of towing, negotiating, and calculating, with headlights slanting into the sugarcane beyond, the man maneuvered the two cars out. He whistled the whole time. His car was filthy and its bumper unhinged. Before I could give him cash or thanks, he drove away. The owner of the cabin reflected, “The people around here. They’re special.” Courtney and I ate dinner on the porch overlooking the rugged expanse of the east coast. The trade winds rattled the leaves and the moon rose red.
The next day was still pulsing double overhead at Soup Bowls. The wind was onshore but the waves were heaving. My friend and I stood on the beach, contemplating the paddle out. A current was ripping across the inside, straight past the channel into a stretch of mutant closeouts. A kid with braces, one of the few surfers out the day before, walked to the water’s edge. We jumped in after him. I picked scraps as the real chargers air-dropped into glory or oblivion.
Behind us was the small town of Bathsheba, its tin roofs and lush fauna. The east coast, powerful and imperfect, reflected the waves. We watched from the cliffs at sunset as the clouds imploded pink and the winds died. A peanut gallery of locals whistled and screamed at the surfers. One wave was memorable: a lump on the horizon, a speck free-falling with the lip, a cannon of spit, and a surfer standing proud beneath the guillotine. The crowd erupted.
Bathsheba was uplifting. It fell under the government’s mission, “To ensure that the use and management of the land and marine resources in the Park is of a sustainable nature and is supportive of the social and economic development of local communities.” And, “To establish a strong presumption against activities which conflict with or are detrimental to the landscape, seascape and environmental qualities that led to National Park designation.” The locals seemed to have a pride in the town and its hospitality. “It’s paradise,” said a woman bodyboarder and jewellery maker. “On the east coast, we open. We talk to anybody,” said Bell, an instant friend we made. “Anytime. You come by anytime,” said Sea Foo, who surfs when there are waves and spear fishes when there aren’t. I had to ask myself, why couldn’t everywhere be like this? We slept like hell. As romantic as our cabin was, the fans weren’t enough to cool our sweat or shoo away the mosquitos. We scratched in a half-sleep delirium. Although we’d lose a night’s payment, we decided to move to a hotel. I wanted to be closer to Soup Bowls, but in our heart of hearts, we wanted A.C.
The groundskeeper was nicknamed Sea Cat. He was incredibly kind and had a profound glaze over his eyes. Sea Cat was one of the original surfers of Barbados. Before foreigners brought surfboards, him and his crew rode “sea boards” – glorified wooden bodyboards that, “You had to paddle with one hand, to keep the nose of the board up with the other.” He was around when Soup Bowls was still called “Cleavers” and was considered too dangerous to swim near, let alone surf. He was also around when the first hippies came with boards under their arms. And when more and more came after them. Like many locals on islands and far-flung coastlines, Sea Cat had seen a transition from zero surfers to surf resorts, from an abundance of fish to a scarcity of them, from living off the land to living with iPhones. “We used to always be doin’ somethin’. If it wasn’t surfin’, fishin’. Climbin’ the trees for coconuts. Whatever it was.” He cut into the coconut with a small knife and exacting violence. We drank out of bamboo straws.
Change is inevitable. The discovery and development of a place is like desire itself. But at what point does our desire – as a sugarcane merchant, as a surfer, as a luxury tourist – destroy its object? Before the land and sea are parched, and beauty is paved over, we have to draw the line. I guess the real question is, what are we willing to give up?
The next morning was harder onshore and considerably smaller, but no one was out at dawn and the sets were still solid. At one point I was on the outside by myself. A set came. The first one, out of trepidation, I let pass. The next one had a cleaner face. Out of pride I took it. A suspended drop, the clutch of my instincts as a wall of water spun into a vortex and finally, there I was. Nowhere left to turn, nothing left to want. I had travelled to the centre of the world.
The room we rented in Bathsheba didn’t have A.C after all. Our bodies were salty, sunburnt and spent. Soon after the sun set – first over the green mountains of the east, then over the platinum horizon of the west – we slept like babies.
Opposite page: Barbados beckons. All you have to do is take off and pull in. Photo: Tom Carey Top right: Pastel paint-jobs and swaying palms deliver an ocular distraction between the mind-altering tubes. Bottom Right: In Barbados even the school...
Josh Kerr enjoying a liquid diet at Soup Bowls. Photo: Tom Carey