Barbadians, or Bajans, don’t just look young for their age; they stay young, for a long, long time. The tiny Caribbean island (only 21 x 14 miles) has the second largest population of centenarians in the world after Japan. Every week local newspapers announce a few more 100-year-old birthday celebrations. Women in their eighties get away with dressing like they’re in their twenties. How do Bajans do it? How does everyone sustain such a happy longevity way out here in the middle of the ocean? I still don’t know if there’s a scientifically quantifiable answer to that question, but Bajan living is definitely a very healthy thing.
Maybe Bajans owe their lengthy life spans to their vigorous hobbies. I visited the Whist & Hearts Club during my stay in Barbados, where I learned how to play the Bajan version of dominoes. It’s a high-speed game of strategy, in which players slap down bones like thunderclaps and wits flick with lightning speed, sharply anticipating the storm clouds that lie a few turns ahead. I sit by in silence for a few games; astounded by the mental dexterity of my teachers, both in their mid-sixties. They might as well have been performing a series of back flips right in front of me.
Other sports like cricket, surfing and polo keep Bajans looking fit no matter what their age. I really took to polo during my visit and was lucky enough to take a lesson from Jeffrey Evelyn of the Barbados Polo Club. While the sport is quite dangerous (only second to car racing in annual injuries), it’s exceptionally accessible. There is no gender gap or professional limitations (amateurs are allowed to compete in pro matches) and many Bajans learn how to ride before they can walk. Also, newer water sports like stand-up paddleboarding have gained popularity in recent years. There is a half-mile race every Sunday, which anyone can participate in, as well as a challenging annual race around the entire island.
It could be the rum punch, or, more appropriately, the happiness that goes along with the rum punch lifestyle, that keeps everyone in Barbados ticking along so nicely. There are more than 35,000 rum shops on the island and everyone indulges—even the church crowd. Every church, which closely rival in number, is located within walking distance of a rum shop. Also, Mount Gay, “the oldest rum in the world”, has been distilling the national spirit since 1703. But that’s not to say the island is running wild with drunks. Bajans have a high tolerance to the national cocktail and the drink owes most of its popularity to the relaxing past time of sipping a punch at the neighborhood shop, shooting the breeze with friends and family.
Or it could be the fresh air. Barbados is the easternmost island in the Lesser Antilles and the east coast faces a virtually empty expanse of Atlantic Ocean. The nearest land mass is West Africa, 3,000 miles away, so the sea breezes rolling into the east coast are untouched by human intervention and pollution. Bajans take pride in their salubrious weather and many make daily sojourns to eastern facing points on the island to enjoy a few deep breaths.
A short walk in Barbados, however, can be closer to a cardio workout than a leisurely stroll. Unlike most other Caribbean islands, Barbados is terraced, not volcanic, so sloping hills and mountains pervade the landscape. The Scotland District, a sparsely populated rural region in the northeast, is especially mountainous. Locals here boast some of the best property and views in Barbados, but they’ve got to work for it. A city block’s walk to get to church, the bus stop or even the neighbors is an invariably steep climb.
Or maybe the food keeps Bajans alive and well. There are limited natural resources on this tiny island, but there’s never a shortage of fresh fish. Bajans keep up an extremely healthy diet– and have fun doing it. Every Friday night there is a raucous fish fry/live music/street festival in Oistins, a small fishing village located in the Christ Church parish. Hundreds of locals and tourists alike dine alfresco on the freshest catches of the day and unwind after a long week of work in paradise. Music and dancing is another important feature of life in Barbados that visitors can observe during these weekly street festivals, especially “wukking up”, a Bajan tradition of sensual gyrations. While chicken is consumed heartily on the island, there is little red meat in a Bajan’s daily diet. Interestingly enough, Barbados is one of the few places in the world where McDonalds didn’t thrive—or even survive. The local chain went bankrupt and was forced to pack up and leave the island after a few years of bad business. Bajans are pleasantly content without the golden arches though, and as a visitor, I was too.
On my last day in Barbados, I took a tour of the island with famed local photographer, Ronnie Carrington to find a few last-minute photo-op locations of the island. Ronnie’s family has lived on the island for generations and he has spent most of his life here. At one point, I ask him what he thinks about this mysterious fountain of youth that so many of his countrymen have seemed to discover. He says he doesn’t really know exactly what to think, but says he wants to show me a picture of his mother, who is in her mid-nineties. He pulls out a portrait photograph of the mother and son taken two years ago and—I swear on my life—the woman looked no older than 50 years old.
“I can’t believe it,” I tell him. “I can’t either,” he says, “but she can.”
Ramona Flume is a freelance travel writer, who has spent the past two summers exploring her favorite country, Colombia, alone and armed only with her notebook and film cameras. Her work has recently been featured in Texas Highways, In the Know Traveler, Austin Monthly and Centro y Sur. She chronicles her travels weekly at her blog.