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Saturday, 11 August 2012

Rastaman in Barbados


Sometimes a holiday has to stand for more than just rest and relaxation. By the middle of the nineties, my marriage was floundering. Following a huge row, I left our home on a Sunday evening for a week-long training course, convinced that the whole thing was over. But during a telephone conversation a few days later, my wife suggested we take a holiday and try to see if we could put Humpty Dumpty together again. Her mother would take the children so that we could have the time for ourselves – time to see if we could take all that was good, all that was strong and deep between us, rediscover its value together and put our relationship, functioning, back on the road.

Late winter/early spring is not the best time to look for warm holiday destinations in Europe. But my wife had visited the Caribbean as a girl and had good memories of one particular holiday there and so in March 1995 we found ourselves crossing the Atlantic, our plane stopping to refuel in Newfoundland, on the way to Barbados.

Barbados is the most eastern island in the Caribbean, belonging geographically to the island group known as the Lesser Antilles. It is small (166 sq. miles) and quite densely populated (284.000 inhabitants). Historically a British possession, with an economy based on sugar cane, today it is independent and its major industry is tourism.

Coming from Europe and (I suspect) from the North American continent, the first thing you have to get used to when you arrive in the Caribbean is that time is simply different there. It moves somehow more slowly, languidly. It probably has a lot to do with the balmy temperatures which prevail nearly all the time but I think some of it also comes from the basic attitude to life which seems to be part of the general philosophy of the people who live there. I remember someone who knew Trinidad well once trying to explain it to me with hoary old racist stereotypes about black people being prepared to sit under coconut trees enjoying the sunshine instead of getting up off their asses to do something.

The sad thing about that particular cliché is that it does contain a grain of truth, wrapped up in a huge mantle of prejudice and misunderstanding. The history of the black people (the vast majority of the inhabitants) of the Caribbean is one of hundreds of years of slavery, followed by a further period of notional freedom but systematic continued exploitation by an elite white minority up to around fifty years ago. This kind of experience isn’t exactly conducive to identification with all the values of a system which that elite has used to keep you down, and from which the colour of your skin more or less automatically shuts you out. In fact, independent states of the Caribbean (like Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Barbados, etc.) have generally been doing pretty well since their colonial masters pulled out. (Exceptions like Haiti and Cuba can arguably place most of the blame for their major problems since independence on their former [colonial] masters.)

What the people of the Caribbean do seem to have learned from their history is a certain relaxed attitude to life, an attitude which sees time as the servant of people and not the other way around. You may have to wait a little longer for service in a shop here, but this isn’t because the salesperson doesn’t respect you; rather it’s because (s)he is taking lots of time for every customer, which may include a longer conversation with the person who is ahead of you. Things seem to move more slowly, because there is a feeling that life continuously offers spontaneous small pleasures, pleasures which are there to be savoured. It is, therefore, perhaps not coincidental that the most beloved relic of British colonial rule in the Caribbean is the game of cricket, in which the West Indies are a world power, and where the time for a game is measured in days, not hours. Yet, within the relaxed framework of a cricket game, there are occasions where speed is important, even vital, and anyone who claims that things in the Caribbean are just too slow should just take a look at Usain Bolt.

At any rate, I will admit that, while I found the laid-back, friendly atmosphere in Barbados very pleasant, I experienced some difficulties in adjusting my own attitude to it. I had started an extremely demanding job the year before and it wasn’t easy to just leave it behind me – in my head, I mean. But far more than that, the future of my marriage was also at stake in these two weeks, and this was overshadowing everything else.

One afternoon in the course of the first few days there, somewhere in the middle of the interminable negotiations involved in that summit meeting of hearts, I found myself on my own, walking down Dover Road towards St. Lawrence Gap. Maybe there’d been a row, maybe my wife was just taking a nap, I don’t remember any more. The sun was shining, it was warm, walking was like wading through warm treacle. I seem to remember that I was heading towards the nearest supermarket, probably to pick up a six-pack of Banks beer.

I’m sure I was instantly recognisable as a tourist from Europe or North America; white, slightly sunburnt, obviously preoccupied with my own important affairs. Suddenly I heard a voice calling out to me.

“Hey, mon! How are you, mon?”

I looked around. There was a Rasta-man, sitting on a low wall in the shade.

Fuck it, I thought to myself, I just don’t feel like this shit! All he wants is to hassle me, probably beg a few dollars, or maybe engage me in a discussion about how the white man and Babylon had oppressed the children of Jah. I really don’t need this …

“Hey mon! Doan you wanna talk to I? What’s your problem, mon?”

Damn it! If I just ignore him he might get nasty. I’ve heard that these brothers can get quite aggressive, although it’s supposed to much better in Barbados than in Jamaica.

“No problem, I’ve just got something to do, that’s all. Bit of a hurry …”

“What’s the hurry, mon? Come over here a minute. Need to talk to you, my friend.”

Reluctantly I went over to him. He patted the wall beside him. I sat down.

“So, you’re on holiday, hey? You enjoying yourself? You like Barbados?”

I admitted that I found Barbados very pleasant, very nice.

“So why you look so stressed, my friend? You wanna carry all the cares of the world on your shoulders? I thought you were on holiday. You need to lighten up a bit.”

He looked at me keenly and grinned, his strong white teeth shining warmly, and sang a snatch of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘Cause every little thing’s gonna be all right …”

Then he laughed, free and spontaneous, and clapped me on the shoulder.

Even now, I find it hard to describe the feeling that came over me then. It was a strange combination of shame, relief and insight. Caught up in my stereotypical, suspicious, white-bred, first-world superiority, I had misjudged this Rasta-man very badly and I felt ashamed for it. I felt relief, for my feeling of threat was gone and I realised that I was on holidays and didn’t have to carry all my worries around with me. This feeling moved into insight as it became clear to me that, despite all the problems I had to deal with, the world, the day, the moment here and now was beautiful and that, somehow, every little thing was gonna be all right.

We chatted easily after that for a couple of minutes. He asked me about my sunburn and gave me some aloe vera, showing me how to break the thick leaf and rub it on my leg, the cool gel-like sap soothing my irritated skin immediately.

“There’s an answer for everything in nature, mon,” he told me. “Aloe vera is good for sunburn. Even for I-and-I. ‘Cause, you know, the black man can get sunburn too, maybe not so easily, but it can happen.”

He asked me where I was from, how long I was going to stay and wished me all the best for my holiday.

“Now you go on, bro’, and do whatever it is you were going to do. And just remember … Don’t worry about a thing …”

I grinned back at him and we finished the line of the song together.

“…’Cause every little thing’s gonna be all right.”

And so I went my way.

* * *

The holiday, for me, really started after that encounter. My wife and I completed our summit of hearts with a treaty of forgiveness and new beginnings. It didn’t ultimately save the marriage which irrevocably broke down three years later, but, in retrospect, that breakdown was unavoidable. The burden of mutual hurt and the fundamental differences between us led to a situation where we both had to accept, as the German saying puts it, “better a horrible end than horror without end.”

But back then, in March 1995, that was in the future. For the present, we still had the best part of two weeks in Barbados and it turned out to be a wonderful holiday. Thanks in no small part, as far as I’m concerned, to that Rastafarian who helped me get my head straight.

A moment of overstanding where I-and-I learned to aprecilove irie!



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