It’s probably seemed like I disappeared, and frankly, I doubt too many people noticed… However, it’s just been a full plate keeping me from keeping up. For the past week, a full plate of perfection.
Note: There’s no gloating, here; no relishing. No rubbing of noses in one thing versus another… this is just my experience. It was really good, but don’t read it if you’ll read anything beyond that into it. However, if you want a peak into a perfect vacation, this is the ticket.
When our family (Smart Guy’s siblings, father and all the kids and partners) agreed to go away this summer, to celebrate Papa’s 80th birthday—which is this September—months of debate ensued. We’re a strongly opinionated group; so settling on one thing was no easy feat. In fact, there were some moments that were truly challenging. In the end, however, we all agreed on Barbados. I really don’t know where the idea came from, or how we all finally agreed— but it’s turned into the best vacation imaginable… and that’s saying something.
We rented a house that could sleep all 14 of us, and agreed to split the rental, food, cars, and extras, by the number of families: 4. Probably not the best deal for Papa, but knit picking the details might have led to no vacation at all. Again, there are a lot of opinions here. We soon learned that most homes here come with a cook, which sounded very good to those of us who might of ended up doing the cooking, and many offered some housekeeping. With a large group, that sounded pretty good too. However, when we arrived at our house, Sandlewood in Holetown, on the west coast, all of my notions of vacation shifted dramatically. After traveling nearly 20 hours, door to door— and feeling a wee bit like this might not be worth it when we crawled out of the cab, our wonderful “Butler,” Chester, greeted us at the door with his secret recipe rum punch drinks. I told him, that he didn’t have to do a single thing more, the entire vacation, he had me at rum punch. The pool, which sits right off the open air dining room (as in, finish dinner and walk right in) was waiting just beyond the the cold drink. A few sips of the rum punch, with nutmeg on top, and a dip in the perfect blue water, and I forgot how I got here.
I can’t lie: it was strange to have Chester there… everywhere, at first. When I came out of the water, there he was holding a fresh, dry towel, and asking if I needed another drink. Need? Curious how needs shift, in paradise. Each time I thought: I’m thirsty, I need a snack, hmm, it’s raining— Chester appeared with a fresh drink, cheese and crackers, an umbrella to walk me the 15 feet from my favorite spot in the cabana, back to the main veranda, lest I get wet or at all uncomfortable. It felt bourgeois; it felt uncomfortable… for a day or two. Chester does his job impeccably well, and takes pride in seeing things done right— as does Jackie-O, the chef; Cynthia, one of the housekeepers, and Lynden, the security guard at nights. It should be noted, I haven’t felt unsafe for a single moment, anywhere on this island, but each night Lynden arrived and announced, “Hello everyone, I’m here now.” Clothes that are put in the hamper, return washed and perfectly folded by afternoon. I walk down for breakfast, and as soon as I walk back up to my room, the bed is made: perfectly, clothes folded and neat, bathroom cleaned. But it still struck me (for a while) as strange and unbalanced.
The staff are all black and the guests are all white. Having been raised in a generation and a family that was keenly aware of civil rights and working toward “equality,” I can’t deny that this all rubbed me the wrong way at first. No matter how I try to say it, it’s bound to not hit the mark. I’m sure that anywhere we landed, I would have felt strange having a house full of people who are there to take care of all of my needs. But, it definitely felt skewed to have such a bold line between who was serving and who was being served. Adding to the sense of surrealism, has been the fact that my book group chose To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve been reading it since our arrival. One of the most beloved and widely read books in history it is, for the most part, wasted on youth.
Kids all over the world are assigned To Kill a Mockingbird, some time between grade 7 and 12. Time and again, I hear kids complaining about the book, and while I remembered it fondly, it’s been about 35+ years since I last read it. Reading it again, I am stunned by the elegance of so many sentences, the plain realism of the period Harper Lee portrays. And, it’s hard not to notice that I’m in a house where all of the staff are black and I am not. I had a very meaningful conversation with Jackie-O, the chef, (for the record, her name is not Jackie-O; it’s Jackie. But we both laugh when I call her that) about race, history and Barbados, and I shared my thoughts. I felt lucky that she respected me enough to share her thoughts equally honestly, in return. “Eyes, brain, heart, mouth,” Jackie-O— and then I saw it all differently.
Whatever my initial angst, it melted. It melted under the warm and consistent kindness and care of Chester (the Goat, Baaa), Chester and Cynthia. They care so much about making everything just right, and it shows. The house— surrounded by lush gardens, with singing frogs at night, monkeys, birds and butterflies in the day— is always just right. Meals appear just as we’re hungry, and cold drinks make waiting for meals an effortless blip of time.
As a group, we did some really fun things this week, and twice a few of us have gone off on adventures around the island. Fourteen people, of varying ages and opinions, are hard to wrangle under any circumstances: there are always some who want to sit on the beautiful beach with lounge chairs and shade, and others who want to drive around and explore. I like to explore. One of the days we set out, we went in search of a “secret” beach that my brother in law told me he’d heard about. He was determined to find it. With driving on the left side, he’s the Captain, I’m the Co-Captain… and our van full of teens make up “The Adventure Club.” Captain My Captain, I sing, as the beautiful island zips by. Our goal was to just head out and see what we find…no whining, no complaints, and no farting in the van. Farting sounds, and done collectively for extra fun.
The secret beach, not far from Bottom Bay (new rock group idea: The Sandy Bottom Girls) was everything we were looking for: tall, swaying palms and a breeze; a huge cave/ overhang that gave us just the right shade; an incredibly nice kid named Sam who showed us where the beach was, sold us fresh coconut and opened it when we were thirsty; huge, turquoise waves and tall fossil- filled cliffs… and no one else on the beach. The surf was too rough for swimming, Sam warned us, but we were able to go waste deep and play in the surf (translation: get tossed back and forth, laugh hysterically, and get sand in places sand should never be!) and then we laid on the beach and watched the palms above us. As we we all drifted in bliss, my nephew Nate noted that more people die from coconuts falling on them, than from shark attacks (note: there are no sharks in Barbados). If a coconut falls and kills me right now, you can all tell everyone I died doing what I love, I told the Adventure Club.
We asked Sam and he told us where to find a wonderful little place to eat, Cutters, and it was grilled burger day. There was a hibachi and a friendly cook to grill them and sing. We all got burgers, and Marc and I had a Banks beer— the local pick. Z-man signed our names on the wall, as so many others have: The Adventure Club: Nate, Zack, Marc, Little Man and me.
After lunch, we went back to Bottom Bay to find the (other) Secret Secret cove… which required walking along the cliffs, with the spectacular water all around; through a field and past the two cows standing guard; beyond the ruins of an old plantation home that was starkly beautiful on the cliffs; down some very steep and not to-code cement/stone steps and onto another hidden beach, that was equally empty and nearly as perfect. On the way home, we found a tiny orange building, set back from a busy rotary and we went in search of juice. Instead, we got the best smoothies ever! Fresh fruit, and flavor combinations that each of us created for ourselves. Clearly we over-whelmed the young girl who worked there, who was probably used to half our numbers for the day… and the two men who seemed to just be amused by our silliness. Others popped in to watch the “show,” and we all came away happy. Nate’s was probably the best, but Zack’s paw paw was the funniest to say. Little Man’s was the best color, and Ben still still insists that his was better than Nate’s. Who’s on first? Perfection.
We’ve been cave touring, got a kick out of the local grocery store— everyone knows Chester, and Chester knows everyone back! We drove to a little shack across from Bathsheba beach, because Chester told us we had to eat there… and we had some of the best “Macaroni Pie” on the island, with fried chicken on the side. We took surfing lessons at Zebs and had some of the best instructors I’ve ever seen… despite several trips to Hawaii. Tucked out on a little point, with carved dipping pool, guests lying about and surf boards everywhere, Zebs is the place to surf. It doesn’t hurt that all of the instructors are studmuffins, but it was their incredible patience and encouragement that got us all up on our boards. I was up the first time and road all 6 waves right to shore, before I got a wicked headache and a sick stomach. Patiently, Junior towed me to shore and watched my nieces and nephews all ride over and over… and Smart Guy shoot an entire line, on his final ride.
We spent a day on a catamaran with a crowd of other people, and we sang louder than anyone else… ok, perhaps we were the only group singing. We all danced… danced until our hips just did things they’d never done before, and our hand were pulled to the sky, shaking and jumping… with thirty or forty other people, on the front of the boat. We swam with sea turtles and had them come right alongside us as we snorkeled. My good friend and brother in law, Marky-Mark and I finally shared our 50th birthday drink, while sitting on the back ladder of the boat, dragging our feet in the deep Sea Carribbean, as the boat sailed briskly back to land, and the music played on… Perfection.
There are monkeys that show up when you don’t expect it and are prone to stealing treasures. There are black hummingbirds with vivid emerald crests and pointy heads, that flit beside me as I write, in the cabana. As the sun sets each night, the sound of frogs becomes a true symphony… it can be heard over the air-conditioning in our rooms, and over the home movies we’ve watched, and over 14 voices, all competing to get a word in. The night sounds are magic, and if it weren’t for a certain snorer, I would probably toss the ear plugs and be lulled into perfect slumber each night.
I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled to many beautiful places in my life. I started when I was young, and waitressed for every penny, and now I get to travel a little differently. I feel lucky and blessed. But I have to say that Barbados is something very special. We say Barbados, but they say Barbadas. I have met the friendliest, most generous people here. Everyone smiles and says hello. When you’re lost— and it happens a lot on the twisty turny roads that rarely go where the map implies they’ll go… where some of the most amazing beaches on earth, are tucked down in a neighborhood that you might not find your way out of— locals smile and take a minute to figure out the best way to get you somewhere. When you pull up and say: “Hi! We’re lost again, could you please tell us where … is?” They will smile back, and say: “Here in Barbadas darling, we start with Good morning!” Indeed.