It’s my Cugina’s special birthday today. Wendy is closer than a cousin to me. We have spent our whole lives together. As little girls we played dolls and sand castles and swam at the cottage and pretended to be motorcyclists (ala Marlon Brando in The Wild One). Later we plastered our walls with posters of teen idols, played our favourite 50’s and 60’s music, and mooned over the cute boys. She and I got married far too young; hers stuck, while mine did not.
Now she is sixty-five, has been with Dennis for forty-five years, and I am awestruck. I can’t believe all that time has passed. To me, she looks young; I can still see my childhood friend in those beautiful eyes. She is a gorgeous woman, with exquisite taste in clothing, design, food, and places to visit. She’s funny, has an infectious laugh, is generous and thoughtful and kind. I don’t know if she has any idea how wonderful she is, though I try to tell her now and then. We can pretty much confide totally in one another, no subject is too sensitive, and we know it’s going to remain between the two of us forever. Best friends, sisters, might be better descriptions than cousins. Ever since we went to Italy and tried to learn some Italian, we have been calling each other “Cugina”.
Unfortunately, during the night of November 27, 2003, my younger sister died in her sleep of massive heart failure. Of course any date on which this tragedy befell would have been awful, but it’s such a shame it’s on Wendy’s birthday. Cugina doesn’t forget, though – this morning, as we pass this day in Barbados, she lifts her juice to toast Candace. I tell her about my nephew’s Facebook posting: a picture of Candy, his mom, and my Dad, who also died too young, held in Nick’s arms, along with this new baby son, Owen. I cried, naturally, and Cugina gets tears in her eyes, too. On November 28, 2003, as soon as I called and told Wendy about our loss, she came right over to hug us and cry with us. Just one example of her kindheartedness.
Today, though, we are in Barbados, and after a nighttime shower, it’s bright and sunny and hot. This morning I watched birds playing on the grass below the balcony, looked to my left through green palm leaves to the aqua sea. Now we jump into the car again, determined to find St. Nicholas Abbey.
On the way, we traverse a myriad of roundabouts once more, but this time, we know we’re on the right track. Although the signage and the maps don’t seem to align, we’re getting used to reading the highway posts very quickly. We pass fancy malls, tiny homes, large mansions, broken down and closed shops, and obstacle course construction. The roundabouts shout Give Way! And I imagine it’s in an English accent. We think we feel so at home here because the area is similar to southern Ontario – built upon British sensibilities yet independent and proud too. We drive through a shower, marveling at the lovely tropical raindrops that nourish the lush vegetation. Soon enough, it’s sunny again and the cloud is an astonishing blue. Suddenly, we start seeing signs for St. Nicholas Abbey. We made it!
Despite its name, the site is not really an abbey and never was. It’s an old sugar plantation that has been well preserved throughout its 350+ years. Recently it was purchased by a Bajan family, the Warrens, who have restored it and encouraged tours. We reach a very narrow road swarmed on all sides by over-our-car-roof stalks of sugar cane and have a moment of misgiving. Then the Abbey laneway appears, framed on both sides by huge mahogany trees and other bushy, entwined vegetation. At the end, we find the large, pleasant white house that fronts the plantation. Stone posts stand guard on each side of the walk. We enter a beautiful garden, fragrant and filled with orchids, bougainvillea, hyacinths, and many others that I cannot name.
A lovely Bajan woman takes us on a tour through the house. I wish I’d asked her name, for she is a delight. She’s proud, funny, talks a blue streak in fast Barbadian English, and knows her stuff. The house was built in the 1650’s of rubble, stone, shells and mud. The walls are three feet thick, but because of the mud and stone, they soon began to sprout mould. When a hurricane felled many of the mahogany trees in the past, they used the wood to place a façade over the walls and blocked out the mould. Our guide laughs and says, it works, though we “don’t want to know what’s going on underneath that wood”. The furniture and contents are mainly from the 1800’s, including china, and were all included in the purchase price. Mr. Warrens bought it in 2006 and our guide (I’ll call her Keisha, she looks like a Keisha), well, Keisha is delighted. She talks about the history of the house in relation to Barbadian history: through the many conquests and the advent of slavery. She’s descended from African slaves and so is Mr. Warrens: in fact, his ancestors worked as indentured servants on this very plantation. How fitting that he now owns it! Keisha tells us she’s not bitter about slavery; in fact, she says, look where she lives. She considers Barbados to be the best country in the world and is glad her ancestors were brought here. She tells some of our group (whose English accents tell of their roots) that it’s “ours now and we ain’t givin’ it back”. All the while, she laughs and winks and practically dances as she tells the history of the land and the home.
Keisha relates the fact that all people brought to Barbados used to go through Pelican Island. During an outbreak of cholera, sick people were banished to that island until they recuperated (or not, presumably). Now the water separating the small island from the big one has been filled in and forms the harbour from which cruise ships – and our Jolly Roger – come and go. There’s an herb garden just outside the living-room window, where a soft breeze flutters the curtain. Two birds, which we can’t name, strut through the bushes. We are fascinated by the gentleman’s chair, the judge’s chair, the 1950’s radio that still works and is playing Bajan music. The oldest piece of furniture, built in 1696, is called a “settle” and is made of dark oak, with exquisite carvings. Keisha shows us the indoor washroom – it’s an original Thomas Crapper! Outside, we find lovely bricked pathways, which Keisha informs us were made from the bricks of a fallen sugar cane tower. Now I discover what those brick towers that dot the landscape are! They were the chimneys that let off the steam from the sugar process, which looks pretty complicated to me. Keisha says the plantation stopped making sugar years ago when a huge company took over most of the business on the island, but they’ve started again, producing a small amount for tourists and personal use.
Also out here, Keisha points out the original outhouse – it has four buckets inside, which she says were used for “potty parties”. I think of Leslie and I in Tanya’s outhouse and Wendy and I as little girls (more on that later). The Warrens have transformed the stables into a lovely area for tourists, a gift shop, and a small theatre. They’ve also begun making rum once again, which we sample in a delicious punch. After that we watch a movie that was shot in 1934 and edited by the younger Mr. Cave, who were the previous English (and mostly absentee) owners. It’s very informative and I wish I could remember enough to tell you how that sugar process works.
Next we get a shot of their new white rum, but I’m not a fan of it without punch. Wendy and I do some damage in the gift shop, then head toward the front door. We both have to use the washroom. Keisha says to use the pathway to our right and we follow her directions. The toilet looks like a brick outhouse. And here’s where Wendy and I have our laugh. As little girls up at the cottage, we’d go on a hike with a picnic lunch. More often than not, we’d end up at the outhouse, which we thought was miles away from the house. It was a two-seater, so it was a perfect place to sit and eat lunch, door open, gazing into the trees. We both use this outhouse, too, though not to have lunch, as it’s only a one-seater. We marvel over the interior. Once again, it’s an original Thomas Crapper toilet, with chain flush, and sink too. Wish we’d had the camera!
From the abbey, we travel toward Cherry Tree Hill. Whenever we get lost (which isn’t often this trip), we are assisted by cheerful, friendly people who can’t do enough to set us on our way. We reach the hill and the view of the ocean is spectacular. It’s more navy than turquoise, tossed with large white waves, surrounded by wild trees and hillocks. We stop and take pictures of a little monkey, who dangles in the trees and palms. Her owner is incensed by the response of a tourist, who argues that he shouldn’t be asking them for money to take pictures. We give a good tip and privately call the other tourist an asshole.
On the way back, we see more brick chimneys and storage towers. One of the fat squat ones looks much older that any of the others. It’s been reclaimed by weeds and flowers. We watch as slender white, orange-beeked egrets follow a tractor through the field. We pass the Alleyne School, which Keisha told us about. It was the first school to educate the slaves’ children, something begun by a St. Nicholas Abbey plantation owner. It’s still providing great education; Keisha herself went there.
Back at the Butterfly, we lounge by the pool, bob in the ocean, get massaged in the whirlpools. Sensational.
Tonight is a perfect, round, white moon. Oneal picks us up for dinner once again and we traverse the island once more, it seems, to reach Daphne’s. The place is beautiful. Constructed of light brown wood, the balcony reaches out over the shore. Our table is exquisite, sectioned off from the others, private and lovely. Our meals are excellent, but we have to admit: not as creative or lively as Pisces. However, they do present Cugina with a firecracker candle and a chocolate-engraved Happy Birthday dessert.
When we get back “home”, we drink champagne by the pool, toast Wendy, and howl for a while at the full moon in the warm dark night.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
We have to leave today! Though there’s a bit of rain in the morning, once more it’s that lovely translucent water that refreshes. The breeze from the ocean is warm and gentle. The ocean waves rock us in a way we want to recollect for meditation times; up and then down again, just a swell, almost tender. We stay in as long as possible, then go upstairs to shower, complete the packing, and then check out. We’re cheered by our housekeeper, Wilma, Jefferson at the desk, and any other staff who passes us: I hope you come back some day! So do we, we answer sincerely. Wendy and Dennis drive us to the airport and we kiss and hug good-bye. They’re so lucky to be staying three more luscious days.
As always, though, we’re happy to be going home. We love our family, our house, our cats. I love my second career.
We check in at the airport and are lucky enough to get the same emergency seats we had on the way down – two alone in an aisle made for three seats. But once on board, the stewardess approaches us to see if we want to move back one row. Here we will have an empty seat between us, empty seats in front of us, and an aisle for Vince to get out if he needs to. Talk about your upgrade! Wait ‘til we tell Wendy and Dennis…