Barbados Stories and Tips

On (and off) the reggae buses

Puffer fish trio Photo, Barbados, Caribbean

One of the pleasures of travelling (and I admit that "pleasure" is a purely subjective term) is figuring out the local roads and transportation. While I’ve done my share of exploring islands by rental car, the moment I laid eyes on the colorful "reggae buses" of Barbados, I knew exactly how I wanted to get around.

There are two types of buses on Barbados: the blue ones with a yellow stripe, or government buses, and smaller yellow ones with blue stripes, which are privately run. While both offer inexpensive, efficient transport to most major destinations on the island, the privately-run buses seem to run more frequently, plus they offer something the government buses don’t-a stereophonic ride.

Boarding a private bus headed toward Bridgetown, I’m lucky to find a seat, or a portion of a seat at any rate, perched next to an elderly man and his capacious shopping bags. The bus is filled with rambunctious kids who were just let out of school. Wearing prim school uniforms and starched white shirts, the kids are bouncing in their seats, singing along to a reggae tune blasting from the boom box positioned next to the driver. Noticing that I’m noticing them, they ham it up, waving arms in the air and mugging for the camera.

As we wind our way through the street of Bridgetown, it becomes clear that being a bus driver in Barbados is as much about socializing as earning money. Drivers fraternally toot and wave at each passing bus driver, not to mention numerous acquaintances on the street and in cars. There’s none of the boxed-in "this is my private space in my vehicle" feeling among motorists here; instead, they view passing through town as an opportunity to check out the local scene and catch up on the latest news.

After I get off the bus near the central market, I’m still feeling the pulsating beat of the bus. It’s late afternoon and not much is happening at the market. With no cruise ship yet in port, the vendors at the trinket stands are casually attending their wares. It seems to me (though I’m admittedly partial) that the Bajans display a particular flair, I’d even go so far as to say a sense of humor, in the way they market their wares. I’m on a quest to find a sew-on patch featuring the striking blue-and-yellow Bajan flag. For years I’ve decorated backpacks and carry-on bags with souvenir patches, and though at this point there’s scarcely a square inch that remains undecorated, finding these patches has become something of a ritual.

Alas, there’s not a single sew-on patch among all the souvenir trinkets, so after a half-hour’s search, I venture to the Bridge Hotel, where the second-floor veranda overlooks the Careenage. The beverage of choice on the island is Banks beer, a better-than-average Caribbean brew with a fierce marketing campaign. There’s even a Banks beer trail (collect stamps from participating pubs and restaurants on a beer trail card to earn prizes such as T-shirts; hats; and, naturally, beer mugs).

As I nurse my beer and watch the activity below, I ponder the mix of contradictions that is Barbados. Here’s an island where, or so I’m informed, there are no fewer than 365 churches-"One for every day of the week!"-and over 1,200 rum shops, those picturesque hangouts favored by the local men. (Bajan women, I take it, are more inclined to hang out at church.)

Finishing my beer, I take another desultory turn around the market. I’m one of those unfortunate souls who can’t drink alcohol in temperatures over 80°F without turning bright red and perspiring copiously. A large covered market nearby , nearly deserted in the late afternoon, provides welcome shade. Back outside, a woman at a fruit stand gestures hopefully toward her piles of grapefruit (the fruit is said to have originated on Barbados), while nearby a less-enterprising yam vendor catches 40 winks.

I make the mistake of boarding a private bus that is not blasting music. Instead, the driver is obviously a cricket fan, as are many of the passengers. They lean forward eagerly in their seats as they listen to a broadcast of a cricket match. Now, I just have to say that I managed to live right next to the Sidney Sussex college’s cricket field in Cambridge, England for over a year and never did manage to grasp the basic principles of the game. So it should come as no surprise to you to learn that I find the cricket bus, unlike the reggae bus, to be a soporific rather than an invigorating experience. When I get off the bus near the lovely fishing pier at Speightstown (pronounced "Spikestown"), I vow to never, ever get on a Bajan bus that doesn’t feature music.

A day or so later, I’m back in Speightstown to catch a bus south to Holetown. The buses ply the coast between Bridgetown in the south and Speightstown in the north, a stretch of road that passes posh resorts and gorgeous beaches. It’s an easy matter to hop off the bus whenever something catches my eye. Spotting a promising-looking beach, I disembark, toting my snorkeling gear, but it turns out that the water is uncharacteristically murky, so I opt instead to take a walk along the road to see what I can see.

Mostly what I see are the walls of sequestered resorts, but just when I’m beginning to despair, I spot a group of men just up ahead on the sidewalk. One hefts a massive machete, picks a green coconut up from a pile beside him, and neatly lops the top off the coconut with one practised swipe. As I approach, he holds out the coconut and offers it to me. Gratefully, I drink the clear, cool liquid as the man introduces himself. His name, he tells me, is Waynee, and he has a favor to ask: "Can you find me a sweet woman?"

This isn’t a come-on line I realize. My newfound friend is genuinely troubled, "These women here, they don’t give me a chance." I’ve seen the local woman (some, indeed, are formidable specimens), and I empathize with his plight. "I don’t know anyone here your age," I gently counsel, "but I tell you what: I’m going to write an article on Barbados, and maybe someone who reads it will be interested."

So, ladies, here’s your chance. If you happen to travel to Barbados and are in need of a little company, just ask for Waynee at any of the shops or local hangouts in Holetown. He assures me he's well known and has many friends. While I can’t vouch for his solvency, particularly since he’s apt to giving things away, I can at least vouch that he’s a congenial character, certainly good for a chat over a coconut or two.

Refreshed by my draught, I wave goodbye to Waynee & Co. and set out down the road. Within moments, I hear the strains of island music. Under an awning beside the beach, a band of steel-pan drummers entertain guests at a waterfront café. I perch on a pylon, enjoying the complimentary concert, the musical rhythms offset by the gentle sound of the surf.

Soon it’s time to flag down another bus and head back to the resort for dinner. Declining a ride in a cricket bus, I'm rewarded with the next bus–a day-glow fantasy of detail work, music blasting from the open windows. I find a seat to the strains of: "A’hm get-tin MAHR-ried in de MOR-nin . . .
Ding dong dem church bells a-gonna chime . . ."
It’s a reggae version of the tune from My Fair Lady done Caribbean style. I’m listening intently to the improvised lyrics, which rhapsodize over the prospective bride and her (ahem) physical attributes.

I lean forward and shout to the driver, "What’s the name of the guy doing this song?" He shoots me a quizzical look in the rearview mirror (crazy tourist lady asking crazy questions), but hands back a CD. The young boy next to me solicitously points to the track I’m asking about: The singer is Yellow Man. "Thank you!" I shout, passing the CD back to the driver, who flashes a grin in response.

Moments later, I begin laughing, for the next tune blasting from the boom-box is a hilarious reprisal of the first: "A’hm get-tin’ DEE-vorced in de EVE-nin’…" Only in the Caribbean, I tell myself, and only on a reggae bus.

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