Postcard from Barbados: I go south to escape the New Jersey winter for a week or so and come back marveling about the water — not just the warm surf of the south Atlantic Ocean, and not just the warm and brief rain showers that accent the otherwise unrelentingly brilliant sunshine, but also the drinking water, the plain old tap water that makes a shower at the hotel feel like a massage and the rum and the beer that we sample at various watering holes around the island taste like top shelf brands and craft brews.
Given the New Jersey winter this year, the truth is I probably could have gone anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line and come back raving about the place. But the facts seem to back up my view of Barbados. Most of the water on the island comes from coral aquifers, with layers of limestone serving as natural filters. As all the travel websites agree, one thing about Barbados is for sure: When you visit you don’t need to worry about the water.
In fact, there’s no need to do a lot of things in Barbados that you might feel compelled to do in some other foreign countries.
There’s no need to learn a foreign language — English is it in Barbados, which started as a British colony in 1625 and has a parliament building built in the 1870s. The island was granted independence in 1966. While it got hammered by the 2008 recession, the country ranks third in the Americas on the Human Development Index, behind the U.S. and Canada. The literacy rate is 97 percent. And while they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, they use the same electricity as we do and they have Internet access.
There’s no need to feel like a captive at your hotel, either. As inviting as that ocean and those glistening beaches may be on the west and south coasts of the island, there’s lots more to do in the nearby neighborhoods and towns, as well as in the rural inland areas and the craggy coastal areas to the north and east.
And there’s no reason to worry inordinately about crime — certainly no more than if you were walking around in, say, Princeton on a Saturday night. Barbados is not immune to crime. The local newspaper the week we there reported on a marijuana arrest, a bank robbery (with what might have been a toy gun), and the theft of some gardening equipment. But the place is so low-key that within a day or two I felt as if I were back in the 1960s in upstate New York.
One morning my significant other and I took a bus to a shopping district on the west side of the island (the glamour side where Simon Cowell has a place). Shortly into the 45-minute trip I gave my seat up to a woman. With a fare of just $1 (or 2 Barbados dollars), buses are a popular mode of transportation, and this one was jammed. People squeezed by, I got jostled and bumped. About 20 minutes into the ride, I suddenly wondered where my wallet was. Trying not to be too obvious, I reached and felt — it was in my back pocket totally unprotected.
Another day we drove a rented car up to the northern end of the island, where the St. Nicholas Abbey promised a peak into the 17th and 18th century plantation life on Barbados. We followed a map showing a labyrinth of roads leading to the site. But none of the actual roads had any signs indicating their name or number. Clearly lost, we came up to an isolated intersection: Which way to turn? A young man suddenly appeared and knocked on the window. If I had been on any road in Mercer County I would have hit the door locks and grabbed for the cell phone. In Barbados I opened the door, greeted the visitor, and accepted his offer to help with directions. “I am not a robber,” the young man assured me. “But I would appreciate a tip to help my family.” I tipped him, breathed a sigh of relief, and vowed to increase my guard.
We spend the next few hours touring the restored plantation, seeing sugar cane processing in action, and sampling some of the 10-year-old rum that is the ultimate end product. Driving along the east coast and heading back to the south, we stop after dark at Oistins, a town where fishing boats unload and outdoor restaurants serve up the catch of the day.
We park the car in a dark lot and head toward the dining area. A cheerful woman approaches and urges us to follow her to the best foodstand of all. Sure, I say, and we blindly follow her. Within a few seconds we are standing next to a glowing fire, eating tasty samples of grilled mahi-mahi (or dolphin, as they call it). We’re hooked (maybe there’s something in the water), and are led to a picnic table for another simple but wonderful dinner. It’s a warm (84 degrees, low humidity) welcome to Barbados.
The Bajans, as they are sometimes called, don’t take tourists for granted. During our visit the local newspaper reports on the reopening of the Sandals Barbados resort after a $65 million renovation. A reporter also follows the minister of tourism to an anniversary celebration at a smaller hotel where employees get awards for years of service and one guest is honored — a Canadian woman who has been returning to the island for 30 consecutive years. The tourism office minister brags that 47 percent of Barbados tourists make a return trip to the island. A government website puts the number at 39 percent.
On the first day at our hotel, the bartender at the outdoor cafe just a few feet from the beach greets us at a table, introduces himself, and gets our names. Antonio knows us by name the rest of the visit.
So from this warm and welcoming environment I ought to glean some glistening vignettes of Caribbean life and legends to bring back to my sun-starved neighbors. I could, but I won’t.
Instead I will share one slice of North American history that I have captured on my Barbados sojourn. Thanks to one of those repeat visitors to the island (an Englishwoman with a special appreciation for history), we have been treated to a dinner at the George Washington House.
Yes, as I do not recall from any American history class, the father of our country made one trip outside North America. In 1751 19-year-old George accompanied his older step-brother to Barbados in hopes of curing him of tuberculosis. The voyage took six weeks each way. They stayed for seven weeks in a house they rented just outside the port city of Bridgetown.
The dinner was hosted by an elder version of George himself, played by Karl Watson, a retired professor of history at the University of the West Indies and an expert in 18th century Caribbean history. Watson’s character is an older Washington revisiting the scene of his youthful adventure, but his reminiscences are based on the meticulous diaries and letters written by Washington at the time.
From those primary sources we can conclude that Washington came of age on this great adventure (with his diary noting on several occasions the presence of a young lady named Julia Roberts). He suffered one illness in Barbados, a case of smallpox that give him a lifelong immunity that may have saved his life during the Revolutionary War.
Washington left for Barbados training to be a land surveyor in Virginia. He returned with a different view of himself and soon embarked on a military career.
As one of the staff at the Washington House remarked, “people in the states like to claim that Washington slept in this place or that. But we like to say he woke up in Barbados.”
I glance at the calendar for 2016. Wake up, I say to myself, it’s time to start planning.