They’re screaming like they’re on fire. I’ve heard these creatures before but never in such incredible pain. I want to help, but I’m trapped in the same hell.
The tree frogs do not want to be at Butlins any more than I do.
OK OK, there’s no Butlins in Barbados. There were two out-of-practice travellers who’d been through the same pandemic as everyone, just with the odd carcinogenic complication piled on top. At last allowed and able to travel after various cancelled trips, Barbados in March glowed on the horizon for months. When we finally made it in, after weeks of worrying about Covid or my atrocious health fouling it up, when we were in Barbados for real, when I officially hadn’t broken everything all over again, I can’t deny I briefly shed a tear of joy in the taxi queue.
Strictly speaking we’d come for the cricket, but that would be at most five days of a 15-day trip. So, first, a bit of Butlins.
OK OK so not Butlins, but my God, the frogs and me, we were not having the ‘Caribbean night’ at the northern Barbados resort we first perched at. In what quickly became a theme, Caribbean night meant Caribbean people doing everything they could to pander to the nearly 100% English clientele in front of them. A pair of singers gamely pushed out three or four reggae covers over a tired Bontempi before, yep, ‘I Will Survive’, ‘Lady in Red’ and ‘YMCA’. It was a wedding at the Chelmsford Conservative Club, the dancing was appalling, and of course the wined-up individual next to me loved it.
Not so the following day’s excursion around the island, which turned out to be a day you didn’t want a hangover. We visited one of Barbados’s main attractions: Harrison’s Cave, where a car-cum-tram carts you beneath stalagmites and stalactites in a poor man’s Wookey Hole. The tram broke down, and it’s surprisingly hot down there. She claims she was fine until that point, but hey, she had her handbag if for any reason she needed a receptacle…
The next stop was a highlight of the trip, though. The Barbados Wildlife Reserve feels a bit thrown together – the centre of the island is bountifully green but has nothing like the rainforest of Antigua – and it’s small, just four acres. But what it crams in seems happy to be there. A lot of tortoises, performing their comedy chasing/shagging routine. Peacocks, not bovvered. A battalion of chickens, before I hated chickens (I will explain). Some rabbits, the odd caiman, deer. Oh, and monkeys!
That’s probably why the reserve works – green monkeys, common to Barbados, who can come and go as they please (you try and keep a monkey in a wildlife reserve). They scamper about, not giving a monk-, er, toss about people or even tortoises, and it makes for a lovely setting all round. We spotted green monkeys all over the island, just popping up at random, even clambering over buildings in the capital, oblivious to the stresses of apes like us.
Bridgetown was our third Caribbean capital so far, and our largest. Our second hotel was next to the city’s racecourse; it felt like an incongruous colonial throwback, but we were told Barbadians (Bajans for short) do love their horses and we already know they retained cricket from the bad old days. Elsewhere the city is a mix of old and new, though the new looks old and the old looks firebombed. One cab driver explained that the government owns the many wrecked, skeletal buildings on what seems prime real estate, but seems unwilling or unable to develop them. In somewhere like Montevideo you’d fill your pants walking round doomed parts of town like these, but in Bridgetown it just seems sad, or even lazy.
I mentioned a newfound hatred of chickens. Oh sweet Christ what bastard decided to let a rooster freely roam the grounds of the Savannah Hotel? If you’ve never lived with a rooster, perhaps you think their ear-splitting call at first light is a myth. No: crack of dawn, every day, as close to your eardrum as my boot will be to the next chicken I see. The accommodation in Bridgetown divided the crowd, but we weren’t in town for the shit burgers and daft towel policy, we were there for the cricket.
That’s what you’re here for too, right? Right? Let me summarise the five day match for you:
Day 1: get some kind of mad local bus halfway, walk a never-decreasing spiral of a route to the stadium then stand in the most hapless and haphazard (read: Barbadian) queueing/entry system to any sports stadium I’ve ever been to. Thousands of England cricket fans burning to death in their football shirts, almost all Leeds. The cricket itself is tedious, this game will unquestionably be a five-day draw, but at least it’s livened up by thousands of morons yelling along to ‘Sweet Caroline’ five times in one single day.
Day 2: go on a food tour and miss Ben Stokes hitting many boundaries. Arrive in the afternoon, to find the entertaining part of the cricket is over for the week. Apparently they’ve shut the swimming pool that overlooks the ground because someone left something floating in it yesterday.
Day 3: I’m allowed a lazy morning, but cricket in the afternoon is apparently mandatory. Boredom reaches new heights in the mercifully shaded front row of the upper Greenidge & Haynes. The day’s highlight is an old man behind the bar forgetting every single “Four beers please” he hears, wandering off then stumbling back, and asking “Er…what you want?” of cricket fans in the sun.
Day 4: a day off! Listening on the radio while gleefully relaxing, we’ve thankfully missed definitely the most boring day of the match.
Day 5: definitely the most boring day of the match. The tannoy man tells us Lewis Wilkins has lost his wallet and someone’s found Nigel Elliott’s wallet and oh look it’s a five-day draw.
Don’t get me wrong, I love five-day cricket and being there for it in Barbados was wonderful. It’s a nice stadium and trust me I know how lucky I am to see places like this. I just don’t need to be there for three quarters of what the cricket world agreed was one of the worst matches in years.
That day 2 food tour was excellent, though, despite the lack of an obvious Bajan cuisine. I’m keen to experience local food as much as possible, probably because I’ve never had the shits in India. But Barbados is so keen to cater to tourists, even the tour guide hammered us with the virtues of their homegrown takeaway chain, Chefette, which we didn’t try. On the tour we ate superb pork and macaroni pie, a nationally renowned fish cake that tasted like a fish cake, a crap sausage roll and some alleged fruit called ‘fat pork’ that had six tourists gagging. You’d think this island might focus on fish, but in most places it’s an afterthought. Barbados imports a lot of their food, presumably for the tourists. There’s probably a shop selling Marmite somewhere.
Our guide took us through the history of Barbados, of which, sorry to say, there’s not much. And I mean that sorry personally; the Portuguese left some pigs on the island but until the British turned up and murdered the indigenous people, originally from the south American continent, there wasn’t a lot going on. And then the British brought indentureship, then forced labour and slavery, so that’s all good. But then slow, slow emancipation, then eventually independence. And then, last year, Barbados became a republic.
Barbados ditching Queen Elizabeth barely made an international ripple, which I thought was odd for such a popular destination. But while on the island I looked up the opinion polls. Bajans were nearly unanimous about their government’s decision to go it alone, and the verdict was: fine, if you like, I’m not arsed to be honest.
And there we have the people of Barbados summarised. Maybe this is harsh but, even for the Caribbean, Bajans are stunningly relaxed, to the point of absence. Things are on time if you need them to be – taxis for example – but wow, for an island that lives for tourism they need a bloody college course giving the basics of how to serve a pint.
I’m struggling to work out how to write this without it sounding like a tourist moaning; much worse, a white tourist. But listen, when I was a pre-teen kid I lived in pubs, and spent a lot of time seeing how bar staff dealt with punters from placid to plastered. I learnt more about the hospitality industry by my 11th birthday than any Bajan we encountered has apparently been taught in all their minutes of training at the Bridgetown school of apathy. I lost count of the number of times we asked for something complicated like one single beer and watched with increasing bemusement as they got distracted and totally forgot one single beer. The old man at the cricket, confusedly serving cricket fans in the sun, oh God, words fail me.
And for a country built on tourism, they have a weird aversion to signs of any kind. Want to know where something is? Just know it already, we’re not here to help. How hard are signs? There’s even a sign about it.
When we managed to get a beer it was invariably a Banks, a decent local lager. It has a sister beer from the same brewery, called Deputy. It’s available everywhere too. It’s the better beer. I established this the day before we left. Bollocks. Of course there’s plenty of rum about too, and as ever with this part of the world I went home adamant I need more rum in my life.
We moved to the island’s less-visited east coast. On our way we did a couple of hours’ snorkeling. I generally shit myself at that, DROWNING being unpopular with me, but there were some very large turtles nearby and something ludicrous called a ‘sea robin’ and I didn’t die so fine, I like it.
We’d been taxied across the island and seen crops, run-down buildings, broken roads (blame C.O.Williams). Little stood out. But after the snorkeling we had a drive across part of the island we’d not seen, with a usefully chatty driver explaining all sorts (Rhianna’s house! She’s not home!). We even went through places where, whisper it, there seemed to be more Bajans than tourists as Barbados finally began to reveal itself.
Facing the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Caribbean Sea, the east coast’s beaches and waters are treacherous to sun worshippers and surfers alike. Instead you hear the constant thrashing of water against rock, wind in coconut trees, weather changing in minutes. I loved it.
And what we saw here seemed like a real country, not a place set up to satisfy people like us. The rocks on which the Atlantic smashed bore the name ‘Amalee’; Amalee Mayers was a teenager who died a couple of years before, doing what he loved, free fishing.
We saw a man free fishing, swimming with a spear gun in shallow but dangerous waters, and eventually he emerged with something ludicrously spiky-looking but presumably edible. Bajan life, oblivious to tourism. Then again the ‘catch of the day’ was a bit sharp that lunchtime.
Until we went east I’d been unsure about this country, ready to poke at it for indulging Brits above all else. It does, shamelessly. Of course I know we went places there are bound to be tourists, but this was basically pandering. And patronising as it sounds there can be more to this place than beaches, Banks and Butlins.
It’s strange that much of the island makes little attempt to shed its British roots, as other nations in the region have. Yes, a huge majority of Caribbean-bound flights from the UK land here (we had to bounce off Barbados to get to Antigua years ago). But would it really hurt their industry to be a little more Mighty Gabby and a little less Phoenix Nights? I heard one English woman at the cricket bleating that she hadn’t seen anything ‘authentic’ on the island – a bit bloody rich given desperation to retain events like England Test matches are the very reason Barbados seems stuck as Barbados-shire. But again, authenticity hasn’t hurt Antigua, the obvious comparison, nor Grenada (which both had a match in this series). I think the flights would still come even if they took fish and chips off the menu.
As we left, it was inescapable that we’d both enjoyed the trip a lot but would almost certainly never go back. Travelling, rather than just holidaying, is as much about seeing a new and strange place as lazing about with a piña colada. Barbados tries, a bit, but it’s absolutely for holidays, not for exploration.
And if you try to explore you’ll get lost anyway. No signs, innit.