Christmas in Barbados
We docked on Christmas morning, 2002, at Bridgetown Harbor in Barbados.
Our crew on the Olympia Voyager had warned and re-warned us of the perils of exploring the 166-square mile island-country on our own, emphasizing and reemphasizing that the only safe way to explore the home of the world’s oldest rum (Mount Gay — 300 years and still going strong) was under the guidance of a certified Olympia Voyager excursion expert.
Many of these certified Olympia Voyager experts have over three hours of intense training.
We were cautioned that unscrupulous taxi drivers would charge us double and triple the normal rates, spirit us off on long unrequested sightseeing trips and possibly rob and/or murder us.
My wife, Kate, said all she wanted to do was go for a quick swim and do a bit of walking near the harbor.
Despite my misgivings, we were one of the first couples off the gangplank and after making our way out of the port area where 125 kinds of rum are sold, we discovered that most of the shops (offering another 224 brands of rum) were closed for Christmas day. Rum cake (105 kinds) was available.
We walked into Bridgetown, the country’s capital, and looked at the wharf. The water was polluted.
Kate longed to go swimming but did not mention it more than 45 times in the twenty minutes it took us to trudge to the city center while our fellow passengers rode in cruise-certified air conditioned vans.
Barbados was the only country visited by George Washington outside of the United States, according to the local guidebooks. How he got there without going through other countries I do not know.
What also is not known is if his wife (who got to go swimming the day before in St. Barts while he suffered severe sunburn, nagged him incessantly about yet another swim when there was a perfectly good salt water pool back on their vessel.)
“Let’s grab a local taxi and take it to a beach,” said Kate.
“What if we miss returning to the Olympia Voyager before she sails?” I asked.
“You worry too much.”
“Our ship happens to be the fastest cruise liner in the world and if we miss the damn thing the Master will leave us at the dock and we’ll have to charter an airplane to attempt to catch up to it.”
“The Master?” asked Kate.
“The captain is referred to as the Master. During the lifeboat drill, shortly after sailing, the Master, Antonis Kritikos, inspected us all in our lifejackets.”
“Yes. The captain or master or whatever,” said Kate.
Antonis had not made much of an impression on my wife. He had on me. I recalled he seemed an amiable fellow past middle age and spoke in a rapid and exuberant foreign tongue to an elderly lady.
He had looked at me and said “I bet this is all Greek to you.” And with a chuckle, Antonis was off to complete the inspection of the rest of the 836 passengers and 360 crew.
Anyway, none of the above mattered because Kate wanted to go swimming and that would require taking a local taxi, despite the admonition of the Master’s staff.
A twenty year old rusty car skidded to a stop, and a smiling man who claimed to be a taxi driver reported he was ready to take us swimming. He was not psychic, he had simply heard my wife screaming across the square.
“How much?” I asked.
“Five dollars,” he said.
His name was Vincent Clarke, and he explained he had been in the English merchant navy for 30 years before retiring. He had four grown children. Vincent did not appear to have any guns or knives.
“Sounds fine,” said Kate. She started to get in the taxi.
“Just hold on,” I said. “I want to ask Vincent a question or two.”
“Ask me anything,” he said. “I have no secrets.”
“We have been told that you may take us into the hills and rob us and kill us and if that happens we will miss our boat when it sails in a few hours.”
“You are kidding, right?”
“No, I am not kidding. If you must kill us, I want you to promise you will do it quickly.”
Vincent asked my wife if I was crazy.
I said, “I am perfectly sane. I simply do not wish to be tortured and maimed. There are many elderly people on the ship who require oxygen and drool and both my wife and I have decided we want to die before that happens to us.”
“I will not harm you. My God, the people here rely on tourism. It is a serious crime to kill a tourist, especially one off a cruise ship.”
“Let’s go,” said Kate. She got in.
“Vincent,” I said, “remember, just take us swimming but if you must kill us, it must be fast.”
“I will not harm you. It will cost you five dollars and I promise you that I will get you back to the Olympia in plenty of time.”
I climbed in the front seat of the cab and we drove for about three minutes and parked at a beach, and while Kate swam in the crystal blue waters, Vincent and I talked as Christmas music played on his taxi radio.
He said that he had been married for almost three decades and that his wife had died a few years ago, and he missed her and would never marry again. “She could tell what I wanted to eat before I knew I was hungry,” he said. “I will never find another woman like that again.”
Vincent said his father lived to be 88 and was fine until the very end. (Barbados has a high incident of twins and a large population of centenarians.)
Vincent told me his mother died when she was just 33, after eleven children. “My parents had no TV but they found other ways to entertain themselves.”
His father was a bus driver, then an inspector, and never owned a car.
Vincent’s father married again and sired four more children. “I have seen the entire world but I am back to stay and this is where I will die.”
The beach was filled with families and kids. Everyone was having a good time.
“I do not understand why the people on your boat told you that Barbados taxi drivers would cheat you,” he said. “You should have been with me this morning. Everyone was dressed in nice clothing and went to church. Look at this map. See, all of what you call counties, but what we call parishes are places named after apostle saints — St. Peter, St. Philip, St. George — and so on. You can have the map.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But maybe the cruise people heard of other taxi drivers who were not as honest as you.”
“We should sue those Greeks,” said Vincent. “They frightened your wife and you. As a result you could not see all of our beautiful country.”
“Maybe we will sue them, but it’s hard to do that since all these cruise ships register their crafts under different flags. And different investors keep buying and selling the various cruise lines. It would take years just to find out who to sue. ”
“We should think about it. We could become rich. It is wrong to make the tourists think the Bajans are savages.”
Kate returned to the taxi and pronounced the water perfect. Then Vincent drove us to the power plant, and the university where you can get a master’s degree, and then we sped through a poverty-stricken area, past a Range Rover dealership and we were on our way back to our ship.
Vincent said many foreigners send their children to be educated in Barbados since English is the language they have spoken for centuries, ever since the English colonized it three centuries ago. Barbados was granted independence in 1966.
When we arrived safely at the world’s fastest cruise ship, Vincent charged us twenty dollars. Five dollars a person each way. The tour, he said, was free.
I thanked Vincent for not killing us and only charging us four times his original quote.
He said, “My God, we are not savages. We love the tourists. Merry Christmas.”
Kate thanked him for driving sensibly. (I thought about leaving her on Devil’s Island which we were scheduled to visit in several days. Once there I managed to trick her into getting into a jail cell while I took her picture. But the locks were rusted open.)
One of the Islands we passed a few days later was St. Maarten. I wrote a novel about it.
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