The Plu­ral Is­land

A sin­gle Bar­da­dos, a cou­ple of coasts

Tracks - - Barbados -

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.

Photo: Tom Carey

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

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