Barbados By Bus
As the greyhound-sized blue bus with a yellow stripe traveled along the coastal highway, I disembarked at Folkestone Marine Park. I quickly changed into my bathing suit, putting my clothing into a locker. Wading into the water, I adjusted my facemask and snorkel, slipped my fins on and began to “swim” in the general direction of the reef. It was not far, and I was in luck, someone was feeding the fish. Hundreds of fish surrounded me. Maybe I was in an aquarium, and the fish were observing me, as if they were on vacation. Many shapes and colors swam by, too many to count or even remember. Of course, I forgot my camera. When the fish food dwindled, so did the fish, looking for richer pastures, I presume.
Exiting the water, I headed for one of the many park picnic tables to relax, since there was not a beach here, just a bulkhead and steps down into the water. It was still early morning, and I thought over my plans for the day. I would change buses in Speighstown, on the Caribbean sea, have some lunch, cross the island on a major road, and arrive in Bathsheba with plenty of daylight left.
Dried off and packed, I boarded a passing bus and grabbed a window seat to study local topography. Alleynes, Reads, Gibbs, and Mullins bay came into view and quickly disappeared as the bus threaded it way into the downtowns and back roads of many villages. I think there were bus stops every two miles. Still, with an island 20 miles long and 14 miles wide, no trip would last long. I marveled at tiny two-room wood painted cottages, with faded colors of a rainbow. Many had rusted metal tin roofs, and cinder block, loose stone, and, in some instances, before environmentalism became popular, coral rock foundations. Houses were separated by two or three feet at the most between them, with no front yard, only a “stoop” or small patio. God help them if fire ever roars through, or a contagious disease ever spreads unabated. Thousands would die.
A local elderly gentleman sat next to me and we begin talking. He talks about housing. “Many homes are on loose rock foundations. Homes are owned, but all the land is owned by landowners. When the tenant is told to move, the house is raised and moved to its next location, even the loose rocks underneath are gathered up, and placed in the new location, with the housed put on top.” As we travel along beachfront property he says, “See all these houses on the water? Back in the 1930s and 40s, people would buy land along this coast… and build small shacks. The land was considered worthless. Plantation owners who grew sugar cane laughed at these people…you can’t grow cane or crops, who would want to live on the beach, except fishermen? Times changed, Castro came in and nobody could go to Cuba. We have a stable government and an English-speaking democracy, and people started looking further south for vacations and property investment. More land was bought in the late 50s and early 60s. See, most of these houses are two and three bedroom shacks…sure they need repair. But the land they sit on is worth one to three million for a small lot.”
As the bus enters Speightstown, he points to a house. “That house is being surrounded by cinder block, one room at a time.” I look closely and observe outside wooden walls being surrounded by block. “After putting a block wall up and surrounding a room, they will gut the inside walls and have friends over for a bbq. Wood rots in this heat, lots of termite damage, hurricanes will destroy a wood framed house in minutes. Block won’t rot, is termite and hurricane proof, and is fire resistant.” The bus enters the terminal, and I head for the local Chefette, their version of McDonald’s, where I have a tasty chicken roti, puff pastry with chicken and potatoes inside, coated with a light sauce, with a hint of curry, to kill an hour before the next bus leaves.
For another $1.75, I am on my next segment to Bathsheba. I am quickly in the fields of sugar cane, with small villages and the occasional rum shop. Rum shops are part of Barbados history and are still part of their culture. Five or six dollars buys you a very small bottle of rum and a bottle of coke. You mix your own drinks and meet with your neighbors and friends to converse and maybe play cards and chess. Sandwiches and snacks are available at some places.
Cherry Tree Hill comes into view, with panoramic views in all directions, this being the highest spot on the island. All Saints Church and the wildlife preserve is quickly past us as we descend toward the east coast road. The road is level here and we are next to the mighty Atlantic. Few houses and even less people. Bathsheba comes into view and the coastline becomes unruly. Cliffs and bluffs back up to the beach, and I am let off at the “soupbowl”, a stretch of beach famous among surfers. Huge boulders sit alone, in the water, just off the beach, and I hike down to a fine specimen of sand. Looking up and down the beach, high cliffs meet the water and hiking trails beckon me onward. I turn around and see mountains behind me, flowing downward to Bathsheba, and finally the ocean.
I begin to walk along the beach, and when that ends, I head uphill, along the cliff trail, with the beach twenty or thirty feet below me. Passing a few houses, and exchanging pleasantries with the locals, I am suddenly all alone, till a local dog joins me. I walk maybe a mile, passing a few goats, climbing bluffs and dropping down to the beach. I turn around and notice someone heading in my direction. I vaguely wonder if I am trespassing. No, this stranger assures me, the path is owned by the town and open to all. In fact, it was once the rail line, bankrupted decades ago, and now washing into the sea. “Be careful,” he advises, “the next town over, locals have been known to rob people who hike alone. You have a ways to go yet, but when you get to three houses together, turn back.” We chat for a while, and I decide to turn back.
Back in town, I am asked if the dog is going with me. I assure everyone the dog will not get on the bus. An hour and half later, after a helpful pedestrian walks me to the bus depot in Bridgeport, I arrive at my hotel in Hastings.
Later that night, I waited at the bus stop for a “mini van” to the town of Oistins. It was Saturday night, and the locals were rocking. As the mini van pulled up, the horn would blare, announcing its arrival. I guess the vans could hold nine or ten people in relative comfort, but it was my guess they would pack on as many as possible. One driver would navigate the crowded and narrow road, and one helper would open the sliding door and collect the fare. Before I climbed on, six or seven people stepped out of the van to let one person out, then they all climbed back on, and then I was allowed to board. Tonight, I had the “jump seat” which would fold sideways to allow access to the aisle. As I unfolded my “seat” and leaned back, back and back, I found myself sitting on someone’s lap, and he asked me to lean forward to take my weight off him. SORRY. The horn would blare and we all would pile in and out of the van to allow people to enter and exit. This was repeated four or five times before I got off. As we sped down the road, reggae music would be booming at full volume. The best parts were the “turnarounds” as the road would converge on a full circle and access other roads to get to your destination. In New Jersey, we call them circles, in Massachusetts they are known as “rotaries”. Common practice is to slow up and merge with traffic, but if they did this in Barbados, I don’t think the tires would squeal. Try this with a few drinks of your favorite libation and you’ll enjoy it much more.
At Oistin’s Fish Fry in the center of town, next to the beach, a vendor talks me into having blue marlin with french fries and salad. Blue marlin is a firm, white fleshed fish, a little too dense for me. The fries were lukewarm and the tossed salad below average. I walked around this area, with picnic tables in front and recorded music playing from a pavilion. Many stalls sold fresh fish, and others BBQ pork, chicken and other dishes. If you go, don’t repeat my mistake. Take your time, walk around, and you will find a good meal.
The next day a mini-van drove me from Hastings to Bridgeport. At Carlisle Bay, there are several wrecks to explore that are close to the surface (you can stand on one wreck and your upper body will be out of the water). They are little too far to swim out to (unless you are a good swimmer). I caught a ride out with a local dive boat for 15 bucks. As the divers descended to the ocean floor, I busily snapped their pictures. I was content swimming from wreck to wreck, taking my time and observing all five sunken ships, all within close proximity. With my yellow inflatable snorkel vest, the dive master mistook me for a sea turtle. Fortunately, he did not harpoon me.
My highlight of the trip was snorkeling aboard the catamaran Stilletto. I was picked up by bus from the hotel and taken to Carlisle Bay. As soon as the “cat” left the dock, shipmates would take your drink orders. With their service, no one had an empty glass all day. On our first stop, we swam with giant sea turtles. It is o.k. to swim with them, but it is against the law to chase, touch or harass turtles.
Our next stop was Folkestone marine park. Our captain fed the fish and there are a lot. The water is a little choppy and has a slight sediment, reducing visibility. It could be the time of year, or run off from the streets. One person suggested water conditions were caused by global warming.
Under sail, we were served a wonderful lunch of tossed salad, with pickled beets, onions and beans, your choice of dressing, potato and macaroni salad, fried chicken, and breaded “flying fish”, an island specialty. After lunch and more drinks, still-warm banana bread was passed around. The “cat” was then turned into the wind and waves, and several people relaxed on the trampoline in front, until waves breaking over the bow chased them away.
Later that night, I dined at Fred’s Bar, a short walk from my hotel. With a good selection of English pot pies covered with puff pastry, fish and chip dinners, and burgers, it’s a nice place to relax and down a few cold ones.
If you are looking for an English speaking Caribbean island within five hours of the northeast, with nice hotels and a full roster of activities, Barbados should be considered. It’s not the most beautiful island I have been too, but the people are very hospitable, and I did not even miss not having a car.
Ted’s guided tour of the island was about $50.00 dollars and about the same for snorkeling aboard the Stilletto. Your hotel should be able to make reservations.
Coconut Court Hotel in Hastings is a fine property with pool and restaurant. The snorkeling is not the best with a dying reef in front.
www.bestofbarbados.com has very good deals.
Buses and min vans will take you almost anywhere on the island, $1.75 per segment.
Hint: Between Bridgeport, Hastings and Oistins, the roads are congested and very narrow and the sidewalks are non-existent in many places. Take the bus.