Monday, February 19, 2007
This is Bathsheba, a small community nestled about a thin road that stretches for a few miles on the edge of the rugged east coast of the tiny island of Barbados. It lies at the foot of a hill and three roads, like fingers, point up the steep incline to the main connector routes the East Coast road and Horse Hill road. Horse Hill climbs over the center of the island to the West Coast. It is so steep that the older buses pipe blue smoke and cannot go faster than a few miles an hour on the climb. I know this because I tried to pass one in my mother's 16 year old Susuki, the one with the sewing machine for an engine. My top speed was 12 mph, only slightly faster than the slowly moving bus.
The village has many characters, the local surfers and their buddies like Horse, Snake, Smoky, Ace, Hoggy and Oz live and surf here. World famous surfer Mark Holder (The Boss) is my neighbour, living in a yellow chattel house with his family.
I came home tonight before sunset and had to edge the car around a bull eating the hedge at the end of the drive. Villagers bring their cows, black bellied sheep and goats to graze wherever they see green. The soil is dry and barren, grass is scarce. I walked down the lane a little later and carefully passed the bull. It was still there, big, calm, happy, eating and looking very much like a bull. I met Snake, we exchanged acknowledgements: "Hi, hi man, howdy". "How is it?". "Good, man, and you?". "Great". "See you". A car passed and blew its horn at some lights on the corner. A busy night.
I was on my way to Round House, an inn and restaurant catering to tourist and upper class Bajans. The boys, Snake, Smoky and the Boss come here on reggae nights when their girls "from away" are in town. The walk to Round House is about 1/2 mile from where I am staying. It ambles along the tiny road which used to be a railway track. It's twilight, I pass Smoky's shack where a young couple, tourists, sit watching the sea. They sit at a lone table in a room with no front wall. Smoky has knocked out the front walls to allow a better view of the sea. Some people say he knocked down the walls because he likes knocking down walls, but it looks like a creative and not destructive act. Smoky plans to make the shack into a bar and restaurant, but the health authorities denied his licence three times. He is still trying to get it approved; in the meantime you can join him and his herd of mongrel dogs for refreshments, TV and a chat, almost anytime.
Past Smoky's is the Bajan Surf Bungalow, run by Melanie, a world class surfer, who cooks flying fish lunches for her guests and runs the place in between a busy surfing schedule. Surfing is tough she says, "I get hit by boards, cut by coral and flung to the bottom by powerful waves that will knock the stuffing out of the fittest of us. Then I have to deal with all the guys trying to take possession of my waves and sometimes me. Some are just not cool". She is off to Brazil to represent Barbados in a couple of weeks. She is a pretty girl, in excellent shape from surfing and walking fast up and down the hills. Anna from England is staying with her, recovering from a broken heart. Bathsheba is a great place to recover, I think, from everything.
Round House is at the bottom of the North finger road which winds down a very steep hill. The buses don't pass this way and my Susuki, can only make it with a running start. Round House food is wholesome fried fish fare with friendly service. People come for the ambience, the view and the raw feeling of the place. Patsy the waitress, sometimes bar tender, cook and manager is a great hostess. She has a lovely smile and a gentle, sincere way with her guests. She loves Bathsheba, grew up here and never wants to leave. Got herself involved with a couple of guys who played around. Now she wonders what the hell commitments mean. She and her 6 year old daughter live just up the hill. She wants a rottweiler to keep her company now instead of a man. "I'll not trust a man again" she tells me. "I could not get close to you, if you were interested, I just would never trust you, a dog I can trust, a man, who can?". Hard words from such a slight and gentle person. But hurt will turn a warm heart cold and rob it of all feeling. Betrayal is a wretched kind of hurt. Playing around is part of the nature of many of these fun-loving Barbadian men. It's a game, a sport that becomes an addiction, almost a definition of who they are.
The surfers and friends make a living by their wits. They can aspire to be stars like Boss and Melanie, but there is room for only a few at the top. Even International surfing stars make little from the sport. Bathsheba surfing boys take pride in attracting women tourists who will entertain them and pay the expenses. Tourist girls often fall in love with them, they are fit and muscular, handsome and full of fun. But they are fickle, macho men. Some marry. Smoky married a tourist but it did not last. Snake is going to Sweden to live with the Swedish beauty who fell for him. Mostly the boys have many steadies, who are often away, which suits them fine.
There is a church by the sea just down the road from a baker and rum shop. It is right beside Rest Haven, a rustic and overpriced apartment guesthouse. It is a community of traditional chattel houses, about four in all, close to some of the best surfing on the island. The chattel houses are old, and mostly held together by paint. Termites have half eaten them. Each house has a central room that acts as dining room, sitting room and an extra bedroom. Painted plywood tables and hard upright school chairs suggest fast food and heavy drinking rather than gourmet dining. It's a surfers den. The bedrooms are tiny and sparse; each has a Bible on the bedside table. They are furnished with hair mattresses on makeshift wooden beds.
Sea-U Guest house, just up the hill on the South finger, is the most upscale accommodation in the neighbourhood. It is really quiet lovely sitting on cliff that overlooks the raging Atlantic Oceon, blown by a constant strong breese that has tilted the trees back into the land. Sea-U is really is in Trents, a fishing outpost just to the south of Bathsheba. Beside Sea-U is Atlantis, a rather ugly concrete structure with a wonderfully authentic old-world feeling.
The food is good local fare: pudding and souse, peas and rice, plantain, stews and fresh catch of the day. The dining room hangs above the water where fishermen land their catch. You will see them leaving at sunset to spend the nighgt on the high seas, returning at dawn. The boats run a gauntlet of waves and reef. Some are caught by a breaking wave that catches them by surprise. The run has to be carefully timed, so that the boats surf the swells and don’t get tossed off a breaker. The wind blows through the open veranda so strong that you must hold your hat on. Artist like it here. George Lamming (Author of "In the castle of my skin"), is writer in resident.
On the North border of the village, above Round House, is Edgewater Inn. It has endured a multitude of owners and neglect. Wind and salt have taken a toll. Nothing survives the constant salt-abrasive wind. Rust seeps through cement walls and drips down painted wood. Cement structures decay from the inside out. Their reinforced iron rods rust, expand and crumble. Rust, wood, cement and strips of metal hold structures together by accident, it seems. Yet it is utterly charming and real. You sense a history and a past, rich with experience. The old buildings have a raw charm and fit perfectly into place. It's a raw place this Bathsheba, but Bajans and tourists come here to escape and to recuperate: to breath the invigorating air, clean and fresh from its passage over thousands of miles of open sea; to feel the wild, moist wind on their faces, blowing all cares away. Many affluent Bajans own holiday homes here. They come for weekends and for vacations. They rent them out to friends. Many live close by at Cattlewash
Bathsheba is where the Cattlewash community buys bread, rum and other necessities. It has several rum shop-stores, a baker, an art studio and fruit and vegetable stalls. On the hilltop there is a surprisingly good mini supermarket that sells a variety of wine, food and provisions. The service is friendly and warm, with great attention to detail. I nearly bought vegetarian bacon, but the owner came over to show me the finest local bacon. If you want a local breadfruit, just ask and she get someone to pick a fresh, ripe one for you.
Stores are not just places to buy things, they are social clubs. People meet and chat even in the supermarket. Every corner store is a rum shop where talk and rum, good company and sharing are dispensed with candy bars, soap and cooking oil.
I first wanted to rent a house from Mrs. Carter the owner of Carters convenience store. I was warned: "She is well into her 80's and firmly set in her ways. She will rent only to those she likes". Mrs. Carter was in her herb garden when I arrived. I introduced myself over the wall. She ignored me, she turned her back and dug her pots. Her helper was embarrassed, he smiled apologetically and said something that had no effect. In her own time Mrs. Carter went into the house without ever acknowledging I was there. As if to say "Mister, when you come visiting, be sure you are invited first".
I knocked on the door and waited. She had some things to do it seemed so I waited more. "Yes?" she said impatiently, peering at me through the half open window some minutes later. "I am looking for a place to stay and Cliff recommended you might help me". "Who is Cliff?". A bad start was getting worse. "I don't know his surname. He sings." I said. "Never heard of him, don't know no singer, don't care for singers and your nightclub types", said Mrs. Carter. I told her I did not sing, was quiet, an excellent tenant who did not like nightclubs either. "I think if you give me a chance you will like me", I said. "Where you from?". I told her Trinidad. . "Trinidad. Then you must like to party. You married?". No, and I don't chase girls either. "You chase boys then?". "No." "Well I thought you was with a lady, that's what the man said. You was supposed to be two people together, not one - I don't like renting to single men or women". So she does know Cliff and he did talk to her, I thought.
We had a good chat and she smiled a lot before inviting me back to look at the place. It was not what I wanted but Mrs. Carter was a treat to meet.
Cattlewash now and then
Catllewash, is half a mile north of Bathsheba village, you can walk there along the costs, stepping over hard coral, and winding down the cliffs throught sand paths set in think sea-grape woods. Over Joes river you reach the long sandy shore and the miles of beaches that fring the community of holiday homes. Cattlewash Holiday-Home owners are mostly white Bajans. They are not necessarily racially divided, just miles apart in culture, interests and lifestyles. On weekends and holidays they entertain at Catlewash with fish and chicken BBQ's, gourmet dinners with fine wine, and rum punch parties in the day. Cattlewash homeowners don't know Snake or Oz and have no interest in these lives.
It is rumored that a major housing development is planned for Cattlewash. The boys, who don't expect to benefit from the expansion, do not generally approve of this, except maybe for Ace and others who know a thing or two about cars and mechanics and can make a buck at it. Ace is pretty good for a self-taught man. He knows how to remove your distributor cap and sell it to you when he is called in for the fixit job. But he only works for people he does not like, which is fine by his friends.
It was different in the old days when the trains ran along the coast to Bridgetown.
In those days the Gibbsons came with picnic baskets, suitcases, the children and the cow. There was no store selling fresh milk and Mrs. Gibbson knew that fresh milk was important for the family, especially the growing boys, so they always tried to bring Nelly the cow. Each year, when Mr. Gibbson took his month's holiday from the sugar factory, they came by truck, packing cases, Nelly and the boys piled into the back. Sometimes Mrs. Gibbson and the boys came by train for just a week, sometimes they came just for the weekend. There were always friends and families in the nearby homes; the children played in the Gully, caught crayfish in Joe's river and picked sea moss from the rocks. Mrs. Gibbson boiled the sea moss and made it into a jelly which they ate. It did not taste so great but it was good for you.
It was before Surfboards, but young Bathsheba boys still played in the waves, without a thought of being surfing stars like Mark Holder. They stared at the families getting off the train, piling into donkey carts for the ride to Cattlewash; white ladies in white lace, elegant and upright under straw hats and parasols. They were in different worlds, much more so then than now. Beach boys in the early 1900 could not be stars, they could not hope to mix with the ladies or their children. But the worlds have changed. White boys today ride the waves with Boss and the gang. The mothers and the boys dance reggae in the same crowd on Fridays at the Round House, while Mrs. Gibbson turns in her grave.