I first picked up this book from the pile under the TV in Tamarack, the beautiful apartment we have rented for our last three months in Barbados during The Time of Covid. It looked interesting and I made a mental note to read it when I had finished the three books I had on the go at the time (Alias Grace by Margaret Attwood, Cell by Stephen King, and Life after Life by Kate Atkinson).
I picked it up again and put the other three to one side for a few days, when I found out that it was written by the husband of the sister of our lovely landlady, Jane, who lives in the apartment downstairs with her equally lovely husband, Elton.
I absolutely devoured this book. What a wonderful read! Entertaining, informative and utterly engaging, it tells the story of – I quote – ‘one man’s mission to discover the heart and soul of [the] Caribbean Paradise’ that is Barbados. Believe me, he does!
Written in an upbeat and humorous anecdotal style, it provides the reader with an insight into the history, customs and culture of Barbados and it’s people, from the perspective of a middle-aged (sorry Julian) Englishman who made the island his home a few decades ago, when he met and married Jane’s sister, Sue.
I loved reading his colourful perspective and thoughtful insights on places and experiences that we were already familiar with, just as much as finding out about other things to do and places to go that were new to us. I learned things I didn’t know, I nodded in agreement with things I did, and laughed out loud, at least once every couple of pages, at the laser sharp accuracy of his observations, constantly interrupting M from his own reading to read him a paragraph or two that had us both in stitches.
As well as a hilarious succession of amusingly instructive anecdotes, the book provides facts and figures about the history of Barbados, the do’s and don’ts of living (or visiting) the island, some tips on how to ‘talk like a Bajan’, and the author’s ‘Magnificent 7’ beaches, wonders, views, attractions and recipes.
In addition to being crammed with funny stories and observations from Julian’s experiences in Barbados, the book is also peppered with ‘flashbacks’ and anecdotes from Julian’s travels around the world during his lengthy career as a BBC racing correspondent for the World Service, and his fond memories of his former life in a sleepy Berkshire village.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is planning to come to Barbados, has been before, or is already here. It literally has something for everyone!
I was only halfway through Absolutely Barbados, when, just last week we were honoured to be invited to join in the author’s birthday celebrations at Chicken Rita’s, with Sue and Jane and a few of their friends. It was strange to meet the author of a book I was reading, especially as it was a biography! Even though we had never met, I felt as if I already knew him. It was such a relief to discover that he was as funny, sweet and charming in real life as he was on the written page! It was also lovely to see how, even after all his years here, he is still completely infatuated with his Caribbean Paradise.
If it wasn’t for the volcano, it might almost be safe to say that things are looking better than they have for a long time on both sides of the Atlantic, and even the growling, ash-spewing monster across the water seems to have lost some of its fury for the time being at least.
Covid restrictions are being lifted here in Barbados and in the UK. Our social media feeds are crammed with beaming faces and images of enticing alcoholic beverages sitting on pub tables ready to be imbibed, as people back home meet up with friends and family for the first time in months (and in some cases years), and enjoy an outdoor drink or two. It’s a happy time!
Here, we now have no curfew on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and an 11pm one on Thursdays and over the weekends. Bars are allowed to open, albeit at 50% of capacity (although I’ve not seen anyone counting), and indoor dining is permitted (not that you’d want to eat indoors here if outdoors is an option!) But, most important of all, the beaches are open all day again!
As far as we are concerned, it doesn’t feel as if we have any restrictions being placed on us at all anymore. We can pretty much do everything we were doing before Christmas, apart from go to the Drive-In Cinema and stay out after 11pm at the weekend – but I can’t recall many days when we weren’t long tucked up in bed by then!
But we don’t want to get carried away! We’re not out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination. The steady decline in the UK has slowed, and it has just added India to it’s “red list” of countries due to concerns about highly transmissible and virulent new variant. Barbados has seen a recent new cluster based around a church in the north of the island, and this has been linked to an outbreak in the island’s main hospital. The US, one of the remaining sources of visitors to the island, has now banned travel to Barbados, deeming it a high risk destination (a tad ironic if you ask me).
Further afield the virus is still raging across the world with a total of almost 150 million cases and over 3 million deaths. India is experiencing a horrific surge of infections at the moment, with hundreds of thousands of new cases every day – and those are just the ones that are being tested!
As far as La Soufriere is concerned, she finally slowed down about six days after the first eruption. It’s not over though, as we are repeatedly being told. It’s just that she’s lost some of her energy and her eruptions are not reaching the high-level air streams that carry the ash east over to Barbados. Instead, it is being blown west into the Caribbean Sea by the surface winds that travel from east to west.
The long dark weekend is now well behind us, but it is one I will never forget! Life now is gradually getting back to normal apart from the endless sweeping, washing, and mopping required to sustain a modicum of comfort in our living space. The problem with the ash is that it doesn’t actually go away, it just blows around from one place to another. You can sweep your balcony one day and the next day it’s back again.
People are hoping for rain that might wash it away and into the soil, but rain will potentially bring its own issues. When ash is wet it clumps together in a thick black sludge that blocks gutters and drains. If it’s still hanging around when the rainy season starts in a few weeks’ time, there is a serious risk that this could lead to significant flooding. For this reason, we have been asked to gather the ash up in sacks and not to wash it down the drains.
Last Sunday (the last Easter stay-at-home Sunday) was declared a national clean-up day and everyone in the country was asked to clear the roads around their properties of ash. M worked with another local man to clear our area, and together, after several hours of hard labour, gathered well over 100 kg. of the stuff.
I’ve been working inside the house. Ash gets everywhere. It blows off roofs and trees, and plumes up in clouds as vehicles drive through it. It settles on all surfaces; the floor, the kitchen counter, the dishes drying on the drainer, food and drink left uncovered, toilet seats, computers, books, and bedding. It’s even in the fridge! It sticks to your feet when you walk from the car to the house leaving black footprints on your freshly mopped floor. We keep a basin of water at the top of the stairs and a path of damp towels leading to the front door of the apartment. More towels strategically placed inside help prevent it being transported into the bedroom and bathroom.
It’s tough stuff to shift. The best way is to sweep and gather the worst of it then hose or jet wash the rest. But this is a problem in itself as water is a scarce and precious resource in Barbados. With every resident in the country hosing down their properties and cars, and businesses jet washing building and car parks, water supplies soon became depleted. Residents in St Lucy were without water for the entire week following the eruption weekend. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been for them. We’ve been having two or three showers day just to feel human! We’ve filled a number of containers with clean water for washing and the fridge is stacked with bottles of filtered water for drinking, just in case we too are affected.
Until a couple of days ago opening the windows was still impossible due to the amount of ash blowing around. Believe me, the nights in Barbados are very hot and sticky with all the windows closed and no air con. The fan gives some respite, but M finds that the noise disturbs his sleep. But, even as the amount of ash in the air lessened, it became apparent that we still couldn’t open the windows due the piles of ash on the windowsills, and caught in every nook and cranny of the shutters. As soon as we opened them it would all blow inside.
So, I spent an entire morning painstakingly cleaning the shutters so that we could once again enjoy the heavenly feel of the Atlantic breeze blowing through the house. It’s still bringing in a little ash and everything is covered in a film of it, but it’s worth it just to feel cool again. Besides, we’re kind of getting used to feeling a bit “dusty” all the time.
We’ve started to get out and about again too. My first excursion was to the supermarket on the Tuesday after the eruption. As we had no warning or time to prepare, we hadn’t stocked up with food etc. and were badly in need of supplies. We were completely out of fresh vegetables and the contents of the freezer were rapidly depleting.
Driving is another new challenge. The car always is like a furnace in the Barbados heat but now you can’t use the aircon or open the windows due to the ash billowing around. So, you just have to sweat it out under your protective mask, hat and glasses. It’s a mind over matter thing! The supermarket was incredibly busy with long lines and crowded aisles, but it was gloriously cool and clean. I would happily have waited in line there all day, browsing on my phone and humming along to the latest tunes being played over the tannoy system, rather than face the sweat and grime outside!
On the Saturday – a week after the eruption – we took a break from cleaning and went out for drinks with some friends to a somewhat dusty beach bar. It was crowded with people “letting off steam” and discussing their various ash cleaning experiences. Every few minutes a gust of ash from the beach would blow over us, causing us to cover our faces and don our masks until it passed and we resumed our conversations. We went home filthy but happier and more relaxed than we had been all week.
The beautiful beaches have been a sorry sight. The once golden sand, dark and dirty with a mixture of ash and the rotting remnants of the sargassum that hit in the week or two before the eruption. The normally crystal clear, turquoise blue water, grey and murky. But, once it became clear that the ash had stopped falling and the high priority locations like the airport and the highway had been cleared, the government soon focused on clearing the beaches.
And now things are getting better every day. Every day there is less ash to sweep up on the balcony and stairs. Every day we feel confident enough to open more windows wider and for longer. The roads are better, and we can now drive with the car windows open. The beaches are looking better. The sea and sky are blue again. Yesterday we went for our first swim since the eruption.
Through it all the people of Barbados have been amazing! Smiling, cheerful and unfailingly resilient, they just “get on with it”. Farmer’s crops have been wiped out, animals have died, business have lost yet more trading days and revenue, people are exhausted and aching all over. But people get back to work and their daily business as soon as they can. They don’t moan or complain. They help each other. They continue to be thankful for what they have and enjoy life on their beautiful island whatever she throws at them!
Last night we were kindly invited to the birthday celebration of Julian Armfield, a local author (The Aintree Legend, You Win Some You Lose Some and Absolutely Barbados) and retired BBC racing correspondent. It took place at a little local place on the far south-east tip of the island called Chicken Rita’s. It’s basically a rum shack where “Rita” serves arguably the best fried chicken on the island, with chips with salad which you eat outside on plastic tables and chairs alongside scrap-hopeful cats and chickens. There was no salad due to the ash, but nobody gave a damn, and a great time was had by all, including the cats who managed to get into the box containing the leftover coffee and walnut birthday cake for a moment before they were spotted, and the cake was rescued!
This weekend, to celebrate M’s birthday, we were due to spend the weekend in a little luxury at The Beach Houses on a mini staycation. Sadly, it was cancelled due to the ash but we have re-booked for a couple of weeks’ time – fingers crossed. Instead, we have booked a late lunch at Tapas, a highly recommended south coast Mediterranean restaurant with beautiful views of the sea and hopefully a spectacular sunset! Again, fingers crossed and third time lucky and all that! We have booked this twice before. The first was cancelled due to the infamous “bus crawl” outbreak and the second due to the eruption! Let’s hope it’s not us that’s jinxing it!
I’m not getting much writing done what with all the cleaning, and resting and recovering after cleaning, and comfort drinking in between cleaning and resting and recovering! But I am cracking on with the sequel to Wait for Me. I’ve had such great feedback and reviews that it feels really easy and actually quite exciting to write the sequel. I can barely contain myself when I think about where I am going to take Lisa and Anita this time and what I have in store for them! When I do manage to take the time out to write, I can’t get it down quick enough. It’s only when my neck and shoulders are aching from sitting at my laptop for too long, that I am forced to stop or pay for it later! I’ve already written over 20,000 words and five chapters.
Sales for Wait for Me have been good but do seem to be tailing off, particularly for the paperback. By the end of March, I had sold 78 copies and 44,000 Kindle pages had been read under the Kindle Unlimited scheme. My first month’s royalties came in from January’s sales at £128.21. They will be considerably less for February and March. I need to think about doing some more promotion. I did a Face Book ad in March which might or might not have paid for itself in sales, or “washed its own face” as our son the aspiring property mogul would say about one of his well-performing rentals. I’ve experimented with an Amazon ad campaign for April but have yet to see any real results from that. I’m going to wait until that is over before I try anything else.
It’s lunchtime, a cold beer is calling me from the fridge and my neck is starting to ache. Fingers crossed, between now and my next post, things continue to improve for everyone both here and at home.
As if the past few months haven’t brought enough challenges to the people of Barbados, mother nature has now well and truly iced the cake with a liberal sprinkling of volcanic ash!
La Soufriere is an active volcano in the north of St Vincent that has been showing signs of increased activity for the past few months.
On Friday the 9th of April, she finally blew, in an explosive eruption at 08.41 in the morning, sending clouds of ash miles into the sky and all the way to Barbados, 100 miles or so across the sea to the east.
Before I go on to describe our experience here in Barbados, I have to say that, first and foremost, my thoughts go out to the people of St Vincent. Anything we are experiencing here can be nothing compared to what they are going through. There have been images circulating on social media of people walking down streets covered in ash, homes and cars engulfed by ash, people fleeing in tiny boats with smoke and ash pouring into the skies behind them. So far, we have not heard of any casualties, but I understand that thousands of people are still huddled together in emergency shelters, all over the island, as I write.
On Friday, we first heard about the eruption, on social media in the middle of the morning. At the time, it appeared that most of the ash cloud was going to pass us by to the north. By midday this seemed to have been the case, so we cheerfully headed down to the beach thinking that we’d dodged a bullet! Little did we know …
As we enjoyed a beer at our favourite little beach bar, the skies to the west began to darken.
I logged on to social media to discover a stream of posts about subsequent eruptions, bigger than the first, and more ash clouds heading our way. We headed home to get under cover. But, again, it veered north at the last moment, provoking jovial claims that Barbados has her own field force!
So, Friday night we went to bed wondering what all the fuss was about. A tiny part of me was a little bit disappointed. I’m going to be completely honest here, so please don’t judge. I think I’ve said before, I have a morbid fascination with the power of nature. I think it’s linked to my equally morbid fascination with all things apocalyptic. I feel guilty, because I know that these events have devastating consequences for people, that I would never wish on anyone, but I still can’t help being strangely excited by a really big storm or high winds and torrential rain. I have never experienced an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami and of course I hope I never will. But a part of me has always wondered what it would be like to see mother nature venting at her worst!
And now I know. Saturday we woke up to more darkening skies. The sun could barely peek through the ash-laden clouds that filled the sky. More massive explosions had occurred overnight and in the early morning. Neither of us heard or felt anything but we didn’t sleep well. Dogs were barking and howling on and off all night and M was calling out in his sleep, dreaming that ash was falling on him, every time the mosquito net brushed against his leg. As the morning progressed, a soft film of dust was settling over anything outside, and we decided to move indoors.
And that is where we have been ever since. Indoors with all windows and doors tightly closed and the fans on. We spent Saturday afternoon watching TV – a first in Barbados – and consoled ourselves with a tot or two of rum. It was a very strange day, as wave after wave of ash passed over the island and the deposits on the ground got thicker and thicker.
Each ash cloud reaches us about and hour and a half after the explosion on St Vincent. Skies get dark in the west as the cloud approaches, and the skies in the east take on an eerie yellow glow. At 3.30 yesterday afternoon, day turned to night. Birds stopped tweeting and all other sounds were muffled by the thick layers of cloud. Even the sea was quiet. You can smell the sulphur in the air. Your skin feels dirty and gritty. It irritates your eyes and throat causing sneezing, nose-blowing, and throat-clearing – no actual coughing yet. We went to bed on Saturday night, not knowing what the coming day would bring.
And, so far, it has just brought more of the same, actually a little worse. During the night, the wind picked up. It too, had been unusually quiet yesterday. It blew ash in at the bottom of the east facing shutters in our bedroom. I’ve blocked them up with towels now and the other rooms seem ok, but now we have a light film of ash over everything in the house. Not a lot, but you can feel it when you walk barefoot on the floor and, when you pick up your phone or kindle, you have to wipe it off. There is a film of ash on my keyboard as I type. Fingers crossed all our “devices” will survive this!
This morning at 06.30am, we went outside, during a gap in proceedings, to see what things were like, and were so shocked by what we saw, that we let the door slam behind us! Locked out, on our balcony at 06.30 on a Sunday morning with another ash plume rapidly approaching. We decided it did constitute an emergency, albeit of our own making, and sheepishly called the owner downstairs to see if she could let us back in! Of course, she did, and was very understanding.
It’s now just after 9am and another cloud has just hit from an explosion a couple of hours ago, with another to follow. I’m tracking them using a service called windy.com. doesn’t seem as if anything else has occurred since 7am. Fingers crossed! Nevertheless, it’ll be another day snuggled up in front of the TV in 30 degrees. We have thunderstorms forecast for tomorrow. Hopefully it’ll rain and wash some of it away.
In the meantime, spare a thought, and if you can maybe a donation, for the people of St Vincent.
Well, it might actually be starting to feel as if this is finally coming to some sort of end. Not “the end” – we’re a long way from that – but “an end”.
Here in Barbados, we have just had the Easter Weekend. Normally, we are told, a massive celebration of festivals, fish fries and parades. This year we were under a “Stay at Home” directive for the Sundays before and after Easter, and Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday.
However, under a slightly bizarre (but hugely welcome) anomaly we were permitted to travel back and forth to restaurants. To drive straight there, and straight back, and maintain social distancing, mask wearing and hand sanitising at all times (except when eating of course!) I suspect this was largely to minimise further disruption and anxiety for the struggling hospitality industry on the islands, who, as you can imagine have been very badly hit.
We took advantage of this and enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a restaurant on the spectacular northern most tip of the island called the Animal Flower Cave (it’s attached to some caves that are normally a popular tourist attraction, but which have been closed due to the pandemic). The food was fantastic, the views magnificent and we were even lucky enough to see a few whales passing by!
Barbados has a vastly different feel to it, so far as we are, into the Time of Covid. Other than the Welcome Stampers (a one-year visa for people who can “work from home” from here), and the usual retired long term visitors, virtually no-one is coming into the island for a vacation, in the traditional sense of the words. Canada and the UK, two of the main tourist markets, are not permitting vacation travel at the moment. The US still does (surprise, surprise) and we have had a recent spate of Americans on the beaches, some of whom are openly flaunting the social distancing rules in a way that is more than disrespectful to local people, who have had their traditional Easter family beach parties, exercise classes and “limes” all forbidden.
The beaches remain closed, apart from the two slots for exercise between 6am and 9am and 3pm and 6pm. The 9pm to 6am curfew has been expanded by one hour to end at 5am. I’ll be honest, that’s not really affecting us much! I’m not feeling any desire to leave the house at 5am, at the moment anyway. Bars are still closed, unless they serve food which most do, and most places will serve you a rum punch or a cold beer, as long as you have a snack at the same time. Tourist attractions are still closed, team sports are forbidden, and pleasure craft trips are not permitted. However, the numbers look good with new cases in single figures for over a week now. Schools are due to reopen on the 20th of April. We are hopeful that the beaches might be opened again soon, as we have seen a few cricket pitches being made ready for play, which could indicate that team sports might be about to resume.
Back in the UK, restrictions are starting to be lifted again. People have been allowed to meet up in small groups outside. Businesses are reopening and people are going back into the office. I’m not totally up with the details as I’ve been focusing on what’s going on here. But fingers crossed for everyone back home that all goes to plan. The high vaccination rates should help prevent a third wave, as is currently happening across Europe, where many countries, like France and Germany, are all going back into lockdown for the third time.
Sometimes, it just hits you how utterly dystopian and futuristic it all seems. At the Mall closest to us, on entry you have to present your face to a small screen that takes your picture and temperature at the same time. A robotic female voice then tells you that your temperature in normal and you are permitted to enter. It feels as if we are living in a sci-fi movie.
So, on the basis of all this, we have booked our flights home for Tuesday the 29th of June. We will have been here for nine months! There will be test on departure, and more tests and quarantine on arrival and only time will tell we will see if the flights are still running by then. It’s beautiful here. Hot and sunny all the time, relaxing and safe, but I am looking forward to getting home.
I’m not really sure about this one. I’m a big Stephen King fan and, for me, The Stand is one of the best post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read, and, in my opinion, one of King’s best novels. I read it first in my 20’s, and again in my 60’s. I never wanted it to end.
I was, therefore, excited to read Cell and, with my penchant for Zombie fiction, full of mouth-watering expectation.
I was a little disappointed.
The whole first half of the book.
The fast-paced and utterly believable first few chapters.
The characters. My favourites were the adorable Tom, and the wonderfully smart, brave and resilient little Alice.
The premise that mobile phones will fry your brains and that said brains are basically very sophisticated computers.
The suspense, the fear, the horror – all up to King’s usual standards.
The marvellous metaphors – “His cock swung from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock on speed.”
The disturbing (but probably accurate) view of human nature – “What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule the earth not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle.”
I didn’t’ like:
The whole (unbelievable and nonsensical) second half of the book – pretty much from the appearance of the Raggedy Man onwards.
I just didn’t believe in what they were all doing and why. I didn’t understand the motives and actions of Clay and his friends and I didn’t understand the motives and actions of the “phone-people”.
It just wasn’t believable. You suddenly see your zombified ex-wife in the middle of 8,000 other zombies. You suddenly come across your zombified son, just sitting there, in the middle of nowhere, after he has miraculously survived the massacre of thousands of his kind. Really?
Compared to other King novels I have read and enjoyed; it all felt a bit thin. Unsatisfying.
I absolutely hated the ending. I thought it was lazy. I’d bloody well pushed through the unenjoyable second half to find out what had happened to Sharon and Johnny. I think he saw Sharon (but I wasn’t sure if he imagined it) and as for poor little Johnny – well! I felt cheated. I actually flicked back and forward on my Kindle in case I had missed a few pages – I couldn’t believe it! After all that? Stephen! How could you?