Barbados, a lifetime in a capsule


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Category: Reflections Date: 03 Apr 97

The rules of life.

1.   Nothing ever turns out the way you expect it to.

2.   When it doesn't turn out the way you expect it is because something else was supposed to happen to you ( a great comfort when things go wrong).


If it weren't for this smooth pebble in the palm of my hand painted with the colours of the Bagan sea, a deep pale green splashed with amber and crimson and mauve, pastels brightened by a curved serpent like black wave, I would find it difficult to believe those three in Barbados.


In those three days we lived a tightly compressed lifetime. There was monotony and heated excitement, and hopelessness, battle and shock, history, and the resurfacing of adolescent frenzy.  Everything toppled and tossed and overlapped and what washed ashore was exactly what was supposed to happen. The whole Caribbean was going around. To Barbados went the Trinis.


I went because I looked forward to hearing Luciano Pavarotti for the past three months. Don't ask me why. I'm not mad about Opera. But I do remember a night some seven years ago in Sweetlove anchored out at Chaguaramas. That night Pavarotti’s voice swallowed all the dark and dappling water and sky around us.


So I booked the tickets, wiped my dusty high heels, brought out my crimson, (OK, OK, red) Claudia Pegus silk dress to fit “a sense of occasion” as Meiling called it in the immigration queue in Barbados. The red dress looked garish in the glare at 5.30 pm and I felt odd tottering out while comfortably sea/sun-tousled tourists eyed me like I was in drag. The receptionist said incredulously (you must really love Opera to come all the way from Trinidad for that) - well no, I don't really, but...

The posh ticket made it clear that all those not seated by 6.30 would have to wait till the intermission to take their seats. Our taxi-driver; very amenable, would not cross the speed limit, so we were going to be late; laughed at my biting my lips while saying “in Barbados you can get there four hours later, no problem.”


The concert was running late; so we picked our way through the polo-field at Holders (heels digging in mud) where $30 ticket people lounged in the sunset with picnic hampers and shorts, to our row separated by a rope from the picnickers. ($200 US to sit behind a rope!) found our chairs, and nearly sat in a puddle of water.


In our area of the grass people milled, checking out each other’s dresses and jewels, drinking stuff in fluted glasses and being shocked that the bartenders “didn't know about drinks” and kept saying, “we don't have white wine - only Chardonnay.”


People with the $1,000 tickets wore branded arm bands with numbers. They were to dine with Pavarotti. It’s in bad taste to say what that reminds me of. (I heard Pavarotti dealt up his dainty and exquisite feast and gulped the vintage in 10 minutes flat, leaving his fans to their adulation sans  him. At least they breathed the same air for a while.)


I longed for the grass. The dress felt tight. The show started around 7.00 or later. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra clanged about, then began...  it was Strauss's Overture. Fireflies flickered over the US$1000 seats. It was exquisite, the sound system fabulous, 30 feet up in the air the lighting yes, Operatic, but we couldn't see Desperadoes.


Ponchielli was being performed. My husband nudged me and said, “that's the pan.” There were the notes. The pans slid into place. They were there, and once you separated them from the rest, that tingle went up my spine. The fireflies became frenzied... Pan. Desperadoes playing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and there, surely the pans have to stay for good now. The pans faded.


Desperadoes came back on with the Can Can finally on their own and the crowd went wild. “Despers! Despers!!” But where was Despers? They were not lit. They were on a platform below the stage, (the conductor had his back to them) finally lit, but only as they walked off stage. Ruefully my husband said, “perhaps they are only lit so they could see their way out.” Everyone said it was a shame. All in all they must have played for 10 minutes.


Some said that if Pat Bishop were there she would have taken them off there and then. Later, Roses Hezekiah who took  Desperadoes there confirmed it all. Desperadoes was never meant to accompany Pavarotti but was knocked about by his whims. “The Kidds,” said Roses, “really wanted to showcase Desperadoes at this classical forum. But they were told Parvarotti was rehearsing, now he was not rehearsing.”


Finally Despers rehearsed at 5.30 the evening of the show, with the RP Concert Orchestra, (after Pavarotti). The pans were still unpacked, the stage was too small and had to be widened, Despers was not lit. Roses said they were tempted to take them off but the players of Despers said, “No, they came this far and they were doing it. And they did.” They were the sidekick, but they stole the show. “After the show,” said Roses, “the people with the $1,000 and $2,000 dinner tickets, millionaires from around the world, went backstage and raved over Despers.”


The next day at Sandy Lane, the most prestigious hotel in Barbados, Despers played to ovation after ovation for these same people. Pavarotti was thrilling. His weight keeps him from looking as tall as he is (6ft four) and his height hides the four foot width. Only he kept popping on and off the stage, never completing an aria, (while the RP Orchestra filled in beautifully), giving rise to comments of what he was doing behind stage at the end of every number. “He's grinning like a Cheshire Cat ,” said a neighbour, “over all the money he's making tonight.”


The standing ovations came finally. Pavarotti became visibly expansive, performed longer with some of the pop operettas (“but we only heard him rehearsing his standing ovations,” said an early-comer). Yes, the music was exquisite, we said, yes, the single flute and the violins and the Overtures and Mascagni and Offenbach took you out of yourself. But the lines at the portable toilets (felt like a Veni fete) brought us back to earth, as did the realisation that we didn't have a taxi home. So we were walking and wondering how to get back when we met - our friend from Sweetlove - shots of delight and hugs and exuberance, and so our holiday began.


We changed out of the formal and ate clams as the waves lapped and the smells of the seaweed and salt and fish and sea came up to us, and drank and talked about things we rarely talk about ; honestly; life and the nature of love and living for the moment. To prove it, there was the stripping down to drawers on the beach (the boys) and the race to the boat, in St Lawrence Bay, the sweet unadulterated laughter of adolescence, an absence of pain or anxiety, pure fun.


The next day was discovery time. It was not just the houses painted in contrasting pinks and blues and greens and lemon of the Caribbean, (why can’t we do that?) nor the Bougainvilleas hanging everywhere, (we have them, not like that) nor the shapes of clear light green in the absurd blue of the sea, “sediment.” someone said, “white sand,” another, or the lacy whipped cream waves, (our beaches aren’t so bad either) or the kites of all shapes and colours in the air, (we do it, but not enthusiastically), nor areas like St Lawrence Bay which really catered so much to the tourist you could be in the Riviera. Really (that we’ll do in 100 years). It was also not the astonishing genuine warmth of everyone we saw and met which smashed every law of probabilities. (We can never do that here.)


Our discovery and joyride was the route taxis. Don't take offence if a male passenger squashes and nestles to you the way you’ve never been squashed. Forget the words sexual harassment. It’s a plain old squeeze, no hard feelings. The conductor has his rear outside one window and his head out the other soliciting more people, and the drivers driving like a madman and the dub puts you in a trance. They are built for 14, but pack in 20 going on 25. They never refuse a ride for $1.50. So what if the driver bounced the man in front - and then cursed him for being slow, and drove madly again. Its the joy ride and we will never rent a car in Barbados again.


That was the night of tickets. Our waitress gave away her cricket tickets. “West Indies had lost,” she said, (afterwards she said she was sure her sacrifice saved the day) and we got free dinner tickets for the following night if we promised to have a breakfast at this five star hotel. The morning the Holiday Nation cried COLLAPSE (cricket ) we got picked up at the hotel, taken for breakfast at this five-star place (talk to you about time sharing!) and were given two T-shirts, a bottle of rum, dinner for two and the softest hard-sell ever.


At the end of the time with the rep your only answer can be whether you have it or not. “Yes, I’ll give you 30,000 US.” Of course its silly not to. But, only thing, we didn’t have the money. The rep said the only drawback of his job was talking to dumb tourists. We hope he didn’t mean us but the man could sell.


Then came the first incredulous rumbles of cricket. Relative newcomer Rose had taken three wickets, and the Indians were toppling. First we thought it was all over for the West Indies, and before lunch all over for India  Then, I who don’t watch cricket, having had a surfeit in India, where thousands, millions even, walk about with a radio pressed to their ears during test matches  and get on very bad at matches, decided I wanted to see the cricket.


When we arrived, at the end of lunch, everybody, the Indians and West Indians were open-mouthed. Thanks to Reggie Armour I got a useful lesson in cricket. “See that arm on that batsmen? They wear it to prevent injury. Real men don't wear that.” The Indians needed about 50 runs to win (meaning lose). And we were in the midst of West Indian Babel Tower. A Guyanese says to Dominican says to Trinidadian says to Jamaican says to an Antiguan. “Everybody has a PHD,” said Reggie. They talked over Lara's first captaincy, and Bishop’s bowling, gesticulated wildly over Chanderpaul’s batting, and about the pitch. They just couldn't believe their luck. I phoned my ex-pat Indian Dad collect: Don't worry Dad, we'll do it inch by inch. He couldn't speak.


And each time a ball went down (inevitably, it seemed) we looked out for, Ent? performed by the West Indian players.  Pointed out by commentator Reginald Armour who also said, “This is about the way we feel about one another, about our people.”


Manley and CLR James knew it. Police kept sending back the spectators who ran onto the pitch, the ones who just couldn't contain it. The last ball went down. There was no stopping the crowd now. Everybody ran out. I phoned my Dad collect. He did not speak, only made sounds, so overcome was he with grief. I quoted the Gita to him, reminded him to remain calm, to no avail. Then, finding myself alone, I ran onto the field too.


A man holding an Indian flag high had tears running down his cheeks, and next to him a woman with short shorts wined with a Triniidadian flag next to his. The flags brushed together. A Guyanese Indian passed a Trini and slapped his hand for victory! (I will never see that man again, but we in this together).


My elated, shocked commentator continued, “This is history. The Indians should have been chilling their champagne last night, but look at this team effort.” Lara's hands-on captaincy, his calculated risks to send newcomer Rose out to bowl, and how Chanderpaul was walked through his century by veteran cricketer Ambrose, the tall player bending over the short offering support.

My commentator stopped. An Indian-Guyanese stopped. He said “victory.” Palms met. Reginald continued, “I met him briefly last night and will never see him again. But this is how we feel.” Finally, “A lawyer lost for words,” ribbed someone.


I bought my father a small Indian flag for comfort and chipped down the road with my Trinidadian friends and husband, confused over loyalties, yet somehow feeling both India and Trinidad are mine now. Bold. Ent?


It ended with the fish festival in Oistins. Hot sun, raw and cooked fish, dub and American country music, rambling and dawdling, Trini Jokes. “When I was young my mother fed me Sada roti, a little later she gave me Parata roti and here we have Pavarotti.” A greasy pole spectacle. People, Bajans, Trinis and foreigners, a goodbye on a rock near the jetty to a friend. Back in Trinidad a headline reads: “MIRACLE.”


I went dressed to the nines for Pavarotti and the Caribbean stole the show. And that's what I mean about things never being the way you expect them to be.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur