Barbados: The History Is In The Root
Ninety minutes after the sun clocked in above New York City’s damp sky, passengers aboard a JetBlue flight were relieved to have escaped the forthcoming downpour. On its way to a country with an opposite forecast, the full plane descended from its 30,000+ altitude to land in Grantley Adams International Airport. A rippling wave of claps erupted from JFK commuters anxious to kick off their time away from home or return to their native residence.
Stationed 62 miles outside of the Caribbean Sea, Barbados is still climbing above the massive Atlantic Ocean, reaching 180 to 240 meters above sea level. Affectionately referred to as BIM by natives, the only island in the area not formed by a volcano is also known for utilizing its natural resources to build, sustain, or tell a story behind its infrastructure. Whether it’s the Molasses Bridge, formally known as Blackmans Bridge, which was constructed in the 1600s out of egg whites, egg shells, molasses and limestone (and still stands today in Saint Joseph Parish), or the preservation of mahogany trees which were once used to make furniture, the country not only takes pride in its generational culture, but also in the living organisms that tell their history better than a textbook.
Thanks to an ever-smiling tour guide named Marvin, we became privy to these gems during a trip around the island. Traveling through each of the 11 parishes can easily become a gateway back in time. Gigantic palm trees not only add to the vegetation of certain regions but also serve as markers for where plantations once were. Sugar cane fields are constantly being toiled in order to fulfill Europe’s demand for the sweet additive. Cotton is still in its early stages before being shipped off to Japan, while banana trees undergo their nine-month process of maturation. “The island is actually made up of 80 percent of limestone and coral, 20 percent sand and clay,” Marvin said.
While nature blooms up top, another natural resource sprawls below the island’s surface. Harrison’s Cave, which was discovered in the 19th century, is known as a “stream cave” since it carries water throughout its 2.3 kilometers stretch. Equipped with a hard hat and an eager mindset, ticket-holders were guided throughout the expanse’s curves to witness fountain-of-youth-like bodies of water. Surprise droplets from the cave’s ceiling also blessed the group as a reminder that it is still very active.
Nature’s slow pace and the careful manner in which it preserves its appeal can be translated to the residents’ outlook on their day-day. “Most of them are friendly,” Marvin noted. “As you go along, you’ll see they’re waving at you and you should feel free to wave back at them.”
A fish market by day, fete and filling eats by night, Oistins served as a much-appreciated introduction to Barbados’ version of a laid-back Friday evening. We were treated to hearty food at Pat’s Place with menu items like flying fish or mahi-mahi making it hard to choose the first nighttime meal of the four-day stay. The choices only became tougher as the days progressed—I was almost willing to risk an allergic reaction to try a breadfruit and lobster combination at Cocktail Kitchen (I settled on the country’s staple macaroni pie instead). Marrying flavors like the aforementioned is a technique our driver Shawn says is becoming popular in Bajan cuisine.
“What I’m realizing for here, they’re infusing a lot of different things now,” he says. “But really flavorful, to be honest with you. I think one of the days where you had rice and peas, fried chicken, fried fish, they’re more or less mixing things up now. Mix it up and see how it comes out.” That occasional muddle is always appreciated, but certain dishes still remain a distinct part of Barbados’ diet. From sting flyer fish, cornmeal coucou, or the aforementioned macaroni pie, everything that was cooked was destined for consumption. “Believe me, there are some places that can really blow your head,” Shawn says about macaroni pie. “Some people can really get it done just right,” even with a dash of sugar “to taste.”
While we took in the memorable sites during the greater part of the day, at night the festivities required a fresh batch of senses. Saturday (April 27) launched the country’s annual Reggae Festival. For the first evening, Bajan Buggy Nhakente, Jamaica’s Wayne Wonder, Spragga Benz, and the legendary Buju Banton performed their hits to a packed Kensington Oval. Looking out into the crowd felt like the majority of people in the country were within this space, eager to witness history.
With the lights toned to warm indigo, Banton sent the loud crowd into a trance backed by his angelic “Untold Stories” melody and the resounding “Champion.” Taking his time through the hits, he commanded each corner of the stage to reel fans into his timeless records. As Banton continues his “Long Walk To Freedom Tour” for his reggae fans, the genre also had its own spotlight earlier this year. UNESCO decided to add reggae to its World Cultural Heritage list, a feat Wonder says was “a long time coming.” Taking his time through hits like “Saddest Day” and the everlasting “No Letting Go,” Wonder dished on how he’s been able to preserve his longevity.
“I just live this music, you know? I don't think about the competition,” Wonder says. “I don't think about who is running the place. I just make music. And I don't think about that hate also. I just want to make music that soothes people. I don't think about the glamour and the glitter part of it, I just want to make good music. See, I can sing ‘Saddest Day’ 20 years after, 25 years after, so that's how I want to make music.”
That longevity remains a permanent feat for plenty of reggae artists. The following night, patrons filled Pirate’s Cove to witness headliners Busy Signal and Sizzla perform as if they were new artists. From start to finish, each musician ignited a contagious strain of energy, leaving you to want that continuous feeling of the live music heard at family gatherings growing up.
"I think the whole Caribbean has this musicality in its culture," says Jacqui McDermott, Sales & Marketing Manager at Ocean Hotels Group Barbados, during breakfast at Sea Breeze Beach House, our temporary yet otherworldly residence/oasis located on the country’s southern coastline. "There's such a good live band scene that's really nice." Wonder echoes this sentiment of live instrumentation within the genre. “Nothing beats live music, nothing beats live singing,” he says. “I've been doing it before auto-tune, so I like the original authentic vibe. Love live music.” That authenticity is one of the main ingredients to longevity, and can be said not only when it comes to the music, but living off the land.
One of Marvin’s parting statements summarizes the excursion, noting that whatever one may need, the country can provide. "This is Barbados," Marvin said. "We have everything."