The Ballards - Barbados







 

Over Christmas and New Year 1991 we visited Barbados and stayed in our friends' house Villa Nova in the East of the island.
This was infinitely preferable to staying in a hotel on the West Coast: it was cheaper and we didn't need air-conditioning as it was higher and thus cooler.

A long conversation with a Hammersmith Bucket shop (this was pre-Internet) resulted in a pretty good price for the flights, but they were a somewhat indirect route.
For ETOPS reasons we were routed via Bangor in Maine, so from a cool December day in England we soon found ouselves in snowbound Maine surrounded by US Navy P-3C Orions on EW and ASW missions droning in and out between the ETOPS 757s and the odd E-3 AWACS.
A strange mixture of the civilian and the military, common in the USA where often one side of the runway is civil and the other side is military; you can sit in the transit lounge and watch F-16s blasting down the runway on full reheat, armed to the teeth.
For some reason, this seems never to happen in the UK, except at Northolt in West London (although the Queens Flight 146s and BAe 1000s don't count as real military aircraft, and as a civilian aircraft you are not allowed to fly in there at all!!).

Then a long flight down the American Eastern seaboard until America disappeared and we banked out to avoid Cuba, then back in for the run in to Barbados. By the time we arrived, the light was fading and we were exhausted (it's surprising how tiring sitting down, watching movies and being fed every 4 hours can be...).

I love the moment when the aircraft doors open at these out-of-the-way airports, because the outside air rushes in and displaces the anodyne aircraft disinfectant-and-airconditioned recycled-farts smell. Suddenly, you get a flavour of the country you are about to visit.
Barbados smelt hot, musty, damp, sweet: the air felt heavy going in to your lungs: you could feel the moisture with the oxygen.
Smell and taste are much more effective memory jerkers than sight or sound; I wish I had a smell camera to capture that musty, humid smell endemic to tropical areas from Miami down to South America.

The flights out worked well: Simon's arrived a day before ours, so he had the Mini Moke rented and knew where to go from the airport, but the Moke was so cramped we had to have our suitcases on our laps.
The drive from the touristy West coast up to the quiet, unexplored East of the island was exhilarating; the hotels and bare ground of recent developments gave way to sugar cane fields and high-walled roads, chattel houses, earth tracks and old cars, quiet farmyards and villages with illegal-looking electricity taps from the overhead wires.

The house used to belong to Sir Anthony Eden and was furnished in simple 1950s style. The corridors and rooms were high-ceilinged and simply decorated. An air of faded grandeur permeated the whole.
Much of the external wood had disintegrated in the tropical heat and the most basic household maintenance was not being performed by the staff.
The staff consisted of Maureen and Carlotta, and Rose King, the Manageress who, it later transpired, was bleeding the owners dry by pocketing the takings from the tourist activities (admission fees and lunches provided for visiting horse safaris) and using them to run the only Company car in Barbados, amongst other misdemeanours...
She bombarded the owners with requests for funding to perform basic maintenance whilst treating the house as her own: throwing parties and having house guests.
She was very unhappy with us turning up as it meant she couldn't have her family to stay for Christmas!

The house needed attention: many of the basic amenities were damaged by inattention. A gutter on the roof that we unblocked in 5 minutes with a screwdriver could have been fixed by the gardener instead of being left to cause damp in one of the upstairs bedrooms and the downstairs loo. Rose King's estimate to fix this was £1,000. I nearly billed her for use of my screwdriver.....

The water was heated by a solar collection system which worked very wel,l once set in to operation. One half had been disabled but once a pipe had been unblocked this worked as well, giving plenty of steaming hot water for a leisurely evening bath with a Gin and Tonic...

The markets in Bridgetown were great: full of locally caught fish and produce. The shopping in Barbados is not as supermarket-centered as the UK, which makes for a lot more variety, and lower costs, due to the lower mark-up.

Being an ex-British colony, many traditions remain, especially cricket, which is taken very seriously...

So much of our traditional Christmas is based around it being cold and snowy; which says a lot about how authentic the current ritual is. It turns out that even the reindeer-and-sleigh thing was invented by the Coca Cola company in 1938 because they looked good next to a snowy Santa Claus.
Of course, it's not just Christmas that's a myth: Teddy bears were invented by Edward "Teddy" Roosevelt: up until then the Stifl bears were just sold as "toy" bears.
I can imagine fewer things less cuddly than a bear to meet when you are out hiking, and the least cuddly is the Koala, which is not even a bear(!), but there you are.

But there seems to be a basic Northern Hemisphere need to celebrate something at the bottom of winter, when the days are short and the weather miserable.
Much has been written on how "Christmas" has supplanted the more traditional Pagan midwinter festivals in the Northern Hemisphere, but of course Christmas anywhere outside Northern Europe and North America is totally unlike the Tradition.
Of course, it's one thing to say that and another thing entirely to experience Christmas in the Tropics....

We decided we had to go to church. Christmas is a big celebration in Barbados, and being an ex-British colony there is plenty of muscular Victorian CofE Christianity around, as well as several stunning Victorian red-brick churches, lifted straight out of some Northern English town circa 1875. We went to a service at the church on Hackleton's Cliff, overlooking the East coast with it's roaring Atlantic breakers far below us. Quite the most perfect location for a church I could ever imagine. It looked like one of the many East End churches falling in to rack and ruin or taken over by bizarre Eastern cults. There is one in Golders Green that was in very poor condition until taken over by the Shree Shwaminaryan sect (don't ask, they could worship alien beings for all I know......), but they have spent huge amounts of money on it and it is beautifully maintained by an army of staff.

The high Victorian windows were all open and starlings swooped and twittered through the church throughout the service. We were the only white people amongst 500 immaculately dressed blacks celebrating a Christian feast more appropriate to snow and hunting horns. The enthusiastic singing must have been heard for miles around, and during the service we were introduced and had to stand up and be welcomed. Never, before or since, have I seen so many smiling black faces and, Zadie Smith style, so many white teeth.

We drove home and had a celebratory traditional Christmas lunch in the main dining room. That was when it really hit home: no cold, wet, or even snowy conditions outside, instead warmth, humidity and deafening birdsong.

 

We were in Barbados over New Year, so celebrated in real style at the Sandy Lane Hotel.
They offered a Black Tie dinner and dance, so we squeezed in to our best clothes and drove down.
We had the best meal I have ever eaten: the buffet was absolutely magnificent and we ate far too much, before realising it was only the starter and having to polish off a huge steak and pudding before dancing the night away.
Black and brown mixed with white; it's great (and very rare) whenever you see all colours mixing on an equal footing.
Less so in Britain, but more so in the USA, race as a social issue is still prevalent; whatever are we going to do when we meet real, squishy aliens?

The Sandy Lane was a genuinely luxurious hotel: everything was extremely pleasantly laid out, and I would be happy to stay there any time! I know people who have stayed there: one in particular (Ros, you know who you are) never left the hotel for their entire fortnight, which I thought was a bit of a shame.

That was the one night we splashed out on a Taxi, as I refused to drive when I couldn't stand up. Following a dawn return to the house, we slept most of the next day before an evening swim and early night refreshed us.

We visited everywhere in Barbados: there is much that the tourists don't get the time to see. There is a lot of history, and a lot of remnants of colonial rule, not just in the infrastructure but in the social attitudes too. It's a lot less ethnic than, say, Trinidad, and a lot friendlier, at least outside the normal tourist areas.

Barbados has two sides: the West coast is developed, aimed at Americans, hot, cynical, full of hotels, expensive, swamped when cruise ships appear, not indicative of the true Barbados.

 

The East side, and the centre of the island, is unspoiled, quiet, agricultural, full of sugar cane fields rustling in the sea breezes, very friendly, not aimed at tourists at all.

Our days consisted of a late rise at about 10am, a leisurely breakfast then a drive down to our favourite beach on the West coast, where we would start the day with a rum punch from our favourite beach bar. Sunbathing occupied the majority of the day, interspersed with water-skiing, snorkelling and swimming. We even tried being towed behind a speedboat on rubber rings. Never again. They hurt....

Barbados countryside is littered with the remants of old sugar plantation machinery, without exception from old, long-disappeared English plants. Getting them out on old ships and bringing them in must have been hell.

We saw an American cruise ship arrive in the harbour, dwarfing all the buildings. A huge efflux of overweight Americans in immaculate trainers and white socks appeared in Bridgetown. Few of them puffed further than the main street unless they were booked on coach tours and whisked away.

 

Barbados politics is, like much of the West Indies, a mixture of self-assertive black independence, traditional reverence to the British ex-Governors and nods towards the power of the US Tourist dollar.
Very little US cultural influence has invaded Barbados: even the local McDonalds has closed down through lack if interest (well, there's a first!) in favour of the local rum and fish shacks.

The rented Mini Moke, an ancient open-platform buggy built on a Mini chassis, was a character. The steering geometry had been deranged by a previous driver and as a result the car cornered like a demon on right-hand bends but dragged around left hand bends, squealing its' tyres. It was good for 75mph downhill with 4 people up and no seatbelts, which, with hindsight, may count as the most stupid and dangerous thing I have ever done.

They all made me drive it, because being the tallest I looked the silliest. Like Andy Pandy my head was entirely above the windscreen. I realised how Americans feel in Europe: everything appears made for Lilliputians.
Because Barbados had no drink-drive laws (I have never managed to confirm this, we may have been in terrible danger...), they all made me drive drunk.



The helicopter ride was the worst example (of many) of this. In order to anaesthatise nervous passengers, the bar at the Heliport in Bridgetown served very powerful Rum Punches. We arrived early, so got in the bar, the helicopter was delayed, so by the time we finally departed focussing on the aircraft was hard. Following the flight further celebration was necessary and by the time we finally made it back to the Moke everything was very fuzzy indeed.
Starting the car and moving off was possible, we found, but we circled the car park four times, giggling, before finding the exit. We did make it home, but only after navigating a one-way street the wrong way and doing an unscheduled U-turn in the middle of an extremely fast, crowded, dual-carriageway in order to visit the loo in McDonalds.

 

But there were other dangers. Three weeks after we left the helicopter we flew in failed to pull up off the beach and flew straight in to the hillside, killing all aboard. Nasty.

The flights back were a complete nightmare. Our tickets were booked on Pan Am. Pan Am had gone bust between us booking the tickets and actually flying and, being a scheduled airline, were not ATOL-protected. The travel agents were very slopey-shouldered about it. We eventually became unsecured creditors to the Southern District of New York Bankruptcy court but, like most criminal procedings, the lawyers swallowed the majority of the funds and we never got a penny. Typical.

Since our visit, the house has been vastly extended and turned in to a luxury hotel. I'm sure all of the nice, homely features have been brushed away in favour of commercial extravagance. What a shame.