The Scent of Trinidad

The first time we went to Trini we discovered doubles. Spoonfuls of channa in fluffy flatbreads; doubles may not sound like much until you eat them. Sweet and tangy and like all things in Trinidad; spicy on request. Next time we came we found shark’n’bake on the north coast. Beachside sandwich that the whole nation adores. You don’t have to have shark either if you don’t want to. The third time it was ice cream. Creamy but not too sweet, J’n’J ice cream is made in Tobago. Flavours include cherry coconut and pumpkin. What did we find this time? This time it was chow. Worried you’re not getting your 5-a-day? Worry not longer. Chow is mango or pineapple sliced and marinated with salt and pepper, garlic and a chopped, green herb called chadon beni. Sweet and salty and of course hot if you want it sprinkled with pepper sauce.

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Chow is our latest experience of Trinidad. It’s another thing unique among the rest of the Eastern Caribbean. We discovered that Bajans called Trinidadians ‘Tricky-dadians’. Ha! Is it a simple play on words? We couldn’t comment of course, but it does seem that Trinidad plays with geography. This is a country that is almost South America with jungle forests, towering peaks, savannahs and deep cuts of river. Then at the last minute, it snatches itself back into island status. From this stance, while serving food that reflects its sense of special isolation, Trinidad is also a culture that pats itself on the back. I’ve absolutely never met a country that enjoys itself so much. Sure, Americans are proud of their constitutional values. The British covet their own traditions, different for each of its social spheres as if they’re a cake with different flavoured layers. The French hate change (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it Monsieur), the Poles worship their willingness to suffer for a worthy cause. Australians both tame and respect nature, an impressive thing to do both together while the Spanish go all historically proper with long, complicated names but love to giggle. Can the defining nature of cultures be the way they can be summed up into handy synopses? Probably not. And so much fun.

This time, we smelled Trinidad before we saw her towering silhouette. This was mostly because it was dark by the time we arrived. We didn’t plan to arrive at night though. We forgot about the equatorial current. It had pushed us to Barbados and now it was fighting us going home.

‘I think we’ll have an extra 60-80 miles to make up for it,’ Jack said after carefully examining the Navionics app on his phone.

Aha. If we’d had our plotter on, we would have realised this much sooner. Unfortunately, as well as George’s unpredictability, we had another mechanical victim this season; our navigation plotter. Harry Plotter. Harry normally would have sorted things out for us navigation-wise. Now the condensation inside of him was sparkling merrily at us in the sunshine. He’s been on Quest for her whole lifespan; ten years up in the cockpit, a computer brain permanently outside in the elements. Perhaps not so surprising that he’s given up the ghost. So, another thing to fix on Quest? Here’s the thing; things have changed. Not many people are re-investing in plotters when similar navigation apps exist on phones and iPads. Hmm. We’re not so sure. A plotter is another crew member and particularly handy in coastal environments. When you’re about to anchor, the plotter is much more accessible to look at than a phone in your hand.

Overall, Trini is busy. Oil tankers, gas platforms; this constant fossil fuel industry gives us a strong clue why Trini are so pleased with themselves. Fuel is cheap and fossil fuel supplies are abundant. Fishing around Trinidad is also blessed. The pesky equatorial current we’d fought with meets the Caribbean Sea out here. This mixing and the nutrients flowing from the nearby Orinoco River in Venezuela combine to make critter capture a productive life. On the way to Trini’s NW trip, Jack and I pushed Quest through a fleet of blinking fishing vessels.

During the day, we’d seen many types of boats. White-coloured Venezuelan boats remind us of New Orleans steam boats without the paddles. They are a strange sight in the lumpy, electric-blue open sea. Earlier, fifty miles off the coast of Tobago, another boat had changed course and come our way. We’d watched it steam or rather bob towards our stern and gulped. This is always a little disconcerting. Three years ago, on the outer edge of the Bay of Biscay, a sailboat came right up to us. It was the middle of the night and the hair had stood up on my arms. Anything could happen out here. In fact, it turned out to be a retired Dutch lady who wanted to say hello without the usual sense of personal space. Now, the fishing boat too made its way right to our stern as I began to throw looks at the locker holding our emergency flare gun, a man came out of the cockpit. He waved at us. Huge and happy.

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In order to get to the yachting centre of Trinidad, Chaguaramas (try saying that after downing a few and staying up all night), we’d have to sail through a narrow channel called the Dragon’s Mouth. It’s narrow but busy. You’d think that there’d be some lights in it. At least one. Anyone? Jack held up his phone – and according to Navionics, that little rocky outcrop in the middle of the channel should be lit. I had a look. The dragon’s tooth. I frowned at the phone. It should be lit. But as we sailed into where we were sure the channel was, it was dark. Well, except for the phone.

The north coast of Trini is jungle. It’s a world away from the capital Port of Spain behind it. We had a glimpse halfway through the inky channel. We saw the first light; an anchored ship, then another, then a whole gas platform. Ten minutes later, we slipped into the mooring field like burglars. A year ago, I’d picked up a mooring buoy in Chaguaramas on a windy, difficult day. Quest’s mooring gaff went into the water. Disaster! Without the mooring gaff, we’d never be able to hook onto the buoy. I quickly stripped down to my knickers and jumped in before the gaff sank to the bottom. Chaguaramas is a watery dead end and all sorts of rubbish end up floating in the water. Fridges, dead fish, the odd turd. And me it turned out on my birthday. I ‘d spent the rest of my special day de-contaminating myself. This time, I didn’t need to remove a single piece of clothing. We attached Quest without a hiccup. 1 am. The girls long asleep. We were here.

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Passage to Trini

I’m interested in how this world works. What the creatures on this planet including us, make of it. Because of this, I tend to ask myself ridiculous questions. The day we left Barbados, I went snorkelling. I never get over how the underwater realm is a parallel world, a completely different existence. As the sun went in and out of the clouds, I began to wonder what underwater creatures think of the sun? When it shines through the water and then goes cloudy, what do they make of it? Oh, that’s the light going off? Oh yeah, it’s come back on again. Crazy lightbulb. After all, they don’t spend time looking the sky. With thoughts like this taking up space in my head, my brain tends to plague me. I think a lot about our own lives too, especially as we are setting off back to Trinidad to store Quest again in the boatyard and fly back home to Wales for the Caribbean’s hurricane season. Nothing like a mix of transience to cook you a bowl full of questions.

People tell us we are living the dream. No life is a dream though. It doesn’t feel like it when we’re living it. You can be in the most stunning location, but on a boat you’re always thinking logistics. Dinner. Schoolwork. Boat stuff. Finding fuel for Evil Edna, our dinghy. Making enough water in the water-maker for showers. And when my brain especially likes to harass me, I wonder if we’re doing the right thing being here. Not many people live on boats with their kids. Sure, some people do but it’s not exactly the norm in the cruising world and especially not when the kids hit their teenage years. Kids on boats tend to be younger, from the ages of very small to about 12-years old. After that, they seem to fade away back to a ‘normal’ life. I’m always hearing that teenagers need stability. But when it comes to this issue, I can’t help feeling like a deer caught in headlights. What’s better, small-town life in Wales or seeing the world and meeting new cultures?

I don’t know. Hence the writing. I paid 30 squid for this WordPress blog last year. This means I can offload all my worries in one handy location. Some live-aboard people crave advertising and ‘buy-us-a-beer’ type sponsorship. I just want to have a good moan. Could you be sponsored for moaning? Surely this is dream come true stuff. My blog, my moan suckers! Oops. There goes my last reader.

Oh well. Back to Questie. She’s a floating, white attention seeker after all. After the fish left us with all our 1km of line and an exploded reel (thank goodness we didn’t have to land this fishy goliath in the cockpit) the sea became a rolling bed of three metres. Quest went quiet then. The wind powered her like silent fuel. We got the harnesses out and clipped the girls to the A-frame. They didn’t even moan too much about it. All the while, the waves were coming at our beam side and Quest was happily spitting them out. For lunch, I filled pot noodles with boiling water and placed them in the sink for protection while they cooked. For me, this is the measure of how rough conditions are. When we started sailing, we were helped to get the hang of Quest by a guy called Ian. Super guy. He gave me advice about cooking while underway, including using the sink for hot liquids. He told me once, when he was on a rough passage on another sailing boat, he’d asked an inexperienced crew member to make tea in the sink. Ian checked up on him a little while later and saw that, rather than cups in the sink filled with tea, there was a sink full of light brown liquid. Oh yeah! It was a sink full of tea!

This anecdote always makes me giggle. It would be so tempting to re-create. For the first hours, I thought about Ian and his lovely laugh while I braced myself, made food, did stuff down below and then came up to breathe. All the while, the Captain was sitting at the helm, watching the conditions and how George was handling them. Unfortunately, George has become something of an unpredictable auto-pilot. He becomes overwhelmed in this kind of sea. How? Well, if a big burst of wind hits us or we veer off too far to the side down a wave, George holds up his robotic ghost hands and gives up. God dammit George! We have to run to the helm and stop Quest gybing into the wind. She comes up on her ear when this happens. This extreme angle is not good for breakages but excellent for constipation problems. Thanks, George. Who would have thought your job would be to keep us so regular?

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In anticipation before we left Barbados, we tied our preventer to our boom to prevent damage if we did gybe. Now we stay vigilant, always sitting near George’s controls when we sail. Plotting his demise. Sorry George but your robot days are numbered (mua-ha-ha!). Don’t you get arsey with me! Hold on.. am I talking to the auto-pilot again? After personifying him? Uh-oh. I might need to buy the premium version of WordPress. Confusing your machinery for human traits? For 48 quid, this will stop yourself from going bananas.

As George steered us from side to side, the girls took up their usual positions. I watched them. We haven’t been in a sea this big for a long time.

‘Can we listen to Percy Jackson?’ Delphine asked. On cue, she pulled out our old iPod and a portable speaker. Aha. It wasn’t really a question. Percy Jackson is the story of Greek myths re-imagined in modern times. Some humans are half-bloods – children whose one parent is a Greek God. We listened away. Despite the potentially complicated narrative, Rick Riordan writes in a deliberately slow and friendly way. While white, foamy wave crests licked the side of the cockpit, understood one of the defining characteristics of half-blood children is that they usually have attention-deficit-disorder. This is because their bodies are hard-wired for the quick reflexes needed for life as a demi-god. Percy Jackson himself is very dyslexic too. This tickles Delphine no end. When he read a prophecy out loud and said ‘dogs’ instead of ‘gods’, Delphine’s face lit up. Not just Delphine struggling to read? A dyslexic demi-god also? Genius, Rick Riordan, genius.

So, with the audiobook as supreme distraction, Quest rode the ocean waves. I found myself thinking again. There’s something about staying in a place for a while. In Barbados for two months exactly, we’d heard the ex-colonial Big Ben chimes from Bridgetown’s Parliament building ring out across the anchorage every 15 minutes. That thing didn’t stop chiming. We felt the limestone bricks with the palm of our hands, the dead coral polyp skeletons warm in the sun.

Then there were people we’d never have dreamed of meeting. One such person was Jason. A number of men line narrow Swan Street in central Bridgetown hustling different items. Perfumes, music, movies are the noticeable things for sale. DVDs like Black Panther, Coco, The Greatest Showman. Good movies, bad movies, it was no matter when we discovered these movies are the cheapest thing you can buy in Barbados at the bargain equivalent of 80p each.

We were in fact, not buying them from Jason at first. Until one day we didn’t see our regular guy and Jason approached us.

‘Did his movies have Chinese subtitles?’ he asked.

We nodded enthusiastically.

‘That’s not good enough quality,’ he said disdainfully. We shook our head in surprise. We’d thought it was ok.

‘Have you got Game Night?’ Lulu asked him, flicking through the titles on his phone.

Jason shook his head firmly. ‘It’s not good enough quality yet either.’ He seemed to take the quality issue seriously. He began giving us run-downs on the movies. ‘Looting and shooting in this one,’ he said, glancing at the title. ‘That one’s plenty teary,’ he said of another. After this, Jason was our man and Lulu in particular enjoyed his mini-synopses. Every time, she came away with a pile of movies in her hand, grinning. ‘I can’t wait to check this one out. Jason said it had weight and a certain respect.’

Saying good-bye to him was more emotional than we expected. He hugged us all tight. ‘I’m going to miss you guys.’ We hugged him back. It was the same with Ellen, the lady outside the supermarket who sold fish cake rolls. Delicious. I’ll explain. Fish cake rolls are deep-fried balls of batter and salt fish. The fish cake part is one carb in its own right. Then you put it in a bread roll and they become two carbs. Add pepper sauce, ketchup, mayo. A quid each. Not exactly diet food but perfect elevenses on the way from the beach to the library.

My only bug-bear was that Ellen always gave extra fish cakes to Lulu and Jack. Never to me and Delph. ‘How’s your husband?’ she’d say to me, winking. ‘The kids too?’ Good thing you’re hiding behind that religious apron, Ellen I thought. And that you have a fantastically cheeky smile. She hugged us like bears as we said good-bye.

This is the simple act of hanging out somewhere for a while. You meet people. Of everyone, Henry had the strongest effect on me. Wait. We didn’t know his name was Henry. The truth is that I called him Henry after I gave him an Oh Henry chocolate bar. He always sat on the bench near our dinghy dock in Bridgetown’s inner basin. He had swollen feet. Sometimes listened to a wireless radio, but always stared forwards as if he were somewhere else. When I gave him the Oh Henry bar, he moved his head and stared down at it. The next time, I saw him, I waved. To my surprise, he waved back. From then on, it was always, ‘What do we have?’ on the way back from the supermarket. Gum, fruit, once half of Delphine’s snow cone.

‘Can we give him this?’ I asked, holding up a cup half-filled with pink-coloured ice. ‘Well, I suppose he can always refuse.’ Poor Henry. He was probably chucking stuff straight in the bin as soon as we left.

Then we saw Henry one day somewhere different. He was on the other side of the bridge in the Independence Square park. It was 5pm and the park was buzzing with people. Henry stood on his own planted there like one of the trees, watching everyone. When he saw us, his face changed. For the first time ever, he gave us a beaming smile and raised up his hand, palm forward. We passed him in a line, high-fiving him as we went past. That night, we dinghied down the Careenage feeling part of the place.

I thought about this during the long night sailing to Trinidad. Barbados was getting further away. At three in the morning we were becoming aligned with Grenada instead. Trini lay still over a hundred miles to our south, past its sister island, Tobago. The moon rose up from the horizon, a waning gibbous. This was our only light. The girls had gone downstairs to sleep. Their dreams must have been centred around washing machines, I thought, sucking in the salty air. As usual, Jack and I took two-hour shifts and when it was time to sleep, both of us opted to fall face-down on the cockpit bench that leaned closer to the sea. It was our rocking cradle. A few times, the sky became dark and sprinkled with rain. I pulled the blanket over my head, feeling lucky to be sleeping al fresco in the tropics.

Before the night finished, I had some more thoughts though. The most surprising part of this season hadn’t been the beauty of Barbados. Though beauty had been everywhere. It wasn’t the amazing fact that Quest made us so much water, we didn’t need to dock once to fill our water tanks. It wasn’t the excellent 3G coverage that made life so much easier to do work and school. It wasn’t even the proliferation of hawksbill sea turtles or the presence of antique bottles just waiting to be discovered underneath us.

It was, I thought, as I hugged myself to stay awake, the natural happiness of our girls. They’ve glowed this season. Jack and I have watched them quietly but haven’t wanted to chew it over too much. In case their happiness mysteriously fell overboard. Like Goldie Hawn without the happy ending. The thing is, I thought, I don’t know the answer to the question of teenagers and stability. I don’t know how much longer we’re going to sail for or where we’ll end up. Compared to the advantages of being on land, I don’t even know if Quest is enough. Then life comes along. As the moon reflected off the huge waves, I gulped and remembered the girls kayaking to the beach on their own every day after school. Lulu’s grin when she came up from each of her dives. Delphine’s almost enthusiastic reading before delighting in Barbados’ warm waves, well. I’m hoping my brain will consider a vacation. Just for a little while.

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The Catch of our Lives

Just after leaving Barbados, Quest was sailing under a lovely broad reach. The wind was on our port side, slightly behind us. With a little bit of main and a full genoa out, we were flying along. Fishing-wise while we sail, Jack always puts his rod out to trawl behind Quest. We’ve had mixed results from this. In our three sailing seasons in the Caribbean, most of the time there’s no interest. None. Sometimes we catch barracuda which look like culinary-depressants and sometimes small tunas. We let both go. Go live your life, we like to say. Plus, Delphine doesn’t like the fish dying in Quest’s cockpit and we respect that. But if it’s a mahi-mahi/dorado/dolphinfish, then the decision is made. These fish are unbelievably delicious. Oh Mahi-Mahi, magnificent mohican-blunt-head; why do you have to taste so good?

Every once in a while a big fish hits, and always while we’re offshore. When it happens, either the fishing line breaks or the lure is taken. Or both. This time with Barbados behind us like it was still waving good-bye, the line began to whir. Before we could even scratch our heads, the fish ran off with 700m of our 1000m line. All the while, Jack was holding onto the rod, trying to tighten the gears on the reel. He bought this reel about two years ago. Solid, mid-range expensive. Eventually he found a knob that he hadn’t known existed before and turned it as far as it would go. And then some. Finally, the line went tight. Really, really tight.

Hmm. ‘What are we going to do?’ Even as I asked it, I winced. This obvious question was like admitting defeat already. This was because normally the show would be over by now. The rod would have gone slack with a fish this size. The fish would have been powerful enough to snap the line or saw through the lure. Not this fish though. For some unknown underwater reason, this fish was holding on.

‘Well, we can’t let it go trailing 700m of line,’ Jack said hoarsely, re-adjusting the butt of the rod so it didn’t cause gangrene in his ghoulies. ‘It wouldn’t be right.’ I gulped and nodded. After all, we’d been stupid enough to let out a fishing line into the Atlantic Ocean without a rod holder, a harness or those ridiculous chairs you strapped yourself into. I watched the rod flex now like it was trying to make out an alphabet letter. Those chairs didn’t seem so ridiculous now.

Inch by inch, we reeled the line in. The slowest thing on Earth would have looked at us and thought, man, you’re slow. We all sat and held onto the fishing rod while Jack reeled it in. Then, when he looked like he’d landed on the other side of knackered, I offered to have a go. I never thought you could feel a fish through a long piece of plastic string. Holding onto the reel, it was like playing the telephone string game without the plastic cups. I managed to get a few full turns on the reel as if the fish was taken aback. Then it got over any apparent surprise. The rod began to twitch unbearably. Even secured by the tightest gear on the reel, the fish weighed in on the line and the line began to slip backwards again. Buoyed by the oldest game in the world, tug-of-war, instinctively I pulled the rod back.

‘No,’ Jack said to me, ‘when it fights, you have to let it fight. You have to let it run.’

Great. No wonder the game of fishing rewards the patient. For the next two hours, we did just that. Back and forth. The fish dived, then got tired and then spent periods of time where it just seemed magnificently pissed off. All the while we held. Another inch. And then another. Hemingway wrote a whole book about this, I thought grudgingly. Indeed, as if on cue Jack said, ‘It would be handy if a shark took a bite out of it now. Half for us, half for the shark. Fair’s fair.’ I shrugged. Not quite fair for the fish though.

This brought the whole subject of fish identification to the surface. The whole time the fish had fought us, we hadn’t seen it. There had been no aerial battle. Still over twenty meters away, we were now catching glimpses of a wash, like a rolling wave coming towards us but there was no sign of fishy flesh.

‘Do you think it could be a shark?’ I asked, gritting my teeth. Holding onto the rod, my right arm was cramping up badly. I looked at it accusingly.

‘I don’t think so,’ Jack muttered. ‘I don’t have any steel trace on the line. A shark probably would have sawed through it by now.’

‘Right.’ I carried on frowning at my arm.

Lulu, the ever-enthusiastic fish catcher, turned to Jack. ‘It’s coming closer!’ she exclaimed. ‘Shall I open the gates?’

Jack shook his head. At that moment, we were using the back gates to plant our feet against. Without the gates, the fish would have happily pulled the rod, line and us out. ‘Not just yet sweetheart.’

At the same time, we were starting to become aware that Quest was dancing. George, our auto-pilot, was holding nicely but the conditions were becoming larger. Without the protection of Barbados, the bright blue waves rolled towards our side. Waves are funny things; they can look huge and scary. Quest seems to love them. It’s as if she was sitting on anchor, waiting. Like she’d been a leashed dog staring at squirrels. Out here, she was sucking the waves up and under her and spitting them out on the other side. We were rolling along. Quest’s leash was off.

By now, she was pulling another passenger too. We had slowed down by a good knot in speed. We’d gone from 6 knots to five, while our passenger was connected by a single spider web line. It’s wave was looking more like a small tsunami. And getting closer.

‘It’s two waves behind us,’ I said.

Jack nodded at my words but his eyes stayed on the water. We’d held this creature, felt its mood, stopped it from the instinctive dive. This creature was in charge of its destiny. No one told it what to do.

‘It’s going to make one more run when it sees us,’ Jack said. The fish was five metres away now. The butt of the fishing rod was now pressing into our very high-tech, bespoke fishing arrangement; a saloon pillow. ‘When it sees us, it’s going to try to run.’

I picked up the binoculars. It might see us but I still couldn’t see it. Despite the closeness, despite the sargassum piling up in touching distance on the line. The fish never showed itself. The rod gave an extra twist, an extra shriek from the line. I was still looking for the fish when the explosion came. First thought; the autopilot? I put the binoculars down. No, it was clear that George was still steering with his ghostly hands. Quest’s wheels were moving as normal.

‘The reel exploded.’ Jack said. There was no longer tension on the rod. He pulled in the last 5 of the 700 metres of line. It was all there. The white jelly lure was there too. Only the reel wasn’t turning anymore. The gears had popped and broken.

For a little while, we were silent. I flexed my arms. The muscles burned. All of this and we’d only just started our sail. And we had another potentially gruelling 250nm to get to Trini. The trade winds definitely weren’t giving us any sympathetic looks. Finally, I asked, ‘What kind of fish holds on for 695 metres and then lets go?’

The answer was written on Jack’s face. It had never been ours. We’d just dipped into its power for a little while. Jack held up his broken, albeit still solid-looking reel. His smile stretched from ear to ear.

‘A fabulous fish.’

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Posh Questie

Tomorrow we go back to Trinidad. We’ll be sailing for two days and a night. The wind is supposed to be on our largely on our tail. Hmm. It’s hard to believe this. Quest hasn’t had the wind on her tail since we left the Cape Verdes over two years ago. Ever since, we’ve been close-hauled, fighting with the wind. So now we’re full of anticipation, waiting to go, to leave Barbados at first light. We’ve packed everything up. Jack’s even got our self-steering hydrovane out. We haven’t had that underpowered piece of metal out of the coat closet for a long time. Whatever happens, the sea will be big. This is because it’s been windy here for almost a week now. It’s been whistling through the anchorage. Once we leave the lee of Barbados which is hardly a protective place, we’ll be back in the Atlantic. I can’t wait to see those trade winds that have travelled for over two thousand miles . Libraries may be nice to hang around but Jack’s right on this. Sailing-wise, we’re rusty. Don’t tell him though. That big-headed son of Apollo. I’ll explain; Percy Jackson’s been rocking our audiobooks recently. Brilliant books, all those Greek Gods representing the different facets of our personalities. Perfect for Lu’s love of Buzzfeed quizzes. And she’s not the only one. I’m guilty too.. daughter of Athena you say? Awesome!

Meanwhile, we pulled in very Quest’s dug-in anchor and came back to the north yesterday to check out at Customs and Immigration. We’d started up here at the Port St. Charles Yacht Club, arriving just over two months ago. Boy, this is a posh place. I’d forgotten how quiet it is. Civilised-feeling. Even the beaches are soft and silky. This place is just about the opposite of where we’d been staying in Carlisle Bay. You can swim right off your boat into coral reef. I’d made breakfast as usual this morning, but then unusually right after I went for a swim. Just under Quest, a school of Caribbean reef squid hung in the water, ruffling their skirts. I exhaled through my mask. This was nice. A little further on, a school of blue chromis fish came through the small, brown coral heads like kids heading down the school hallway. Trumpet fish swam with them. Different species swimming together, I noted. Was it strange that they all hung out together? With all this space on the reef?

Near by, a moving brown plate caught my eye. A turtle was following the fish. I watched it for a while. Turtles live surprisingly boring lives it seems. On a day to day basis, I mean. When they migrate thousands of miles to get back to the beach they were born on, that’s amazing of course. Even when they do that though, it’s a slow but steady journey for them. Right now, this turtle was pootling round the coral heads, carefully inspecting each crack and crevice. Watching it, my mind began to wander. Even though I should have been soaking up every second on our last morning in Barbados. I couldn’t help it. I better get back, I thought. Lucky too, because when I reached the ladder, the Ormerods sighed with relief and hit the toilet. They were gracious enough not to flush on me.

 

 

 

 

 

Carving Happiness Out

It’s five years this year that we’ve had Quest. Always we wonder what we’re going to do with her. Big bulky girl that she is. Sucker of money and resources, floater of dreams. Now that Lu is getting closer to starting her two-year GCSE programme in September next year, we are thinking ahead. To be honest, the Captain is always thinking ahead. Perhaps this is his response to being tied to the bottom of the bay.

Portugal. Long term it’s always been Portugal. Bla, bla, bla. Sorry, that last part is me. The truth is I don’t mind if we go to Portugal, I just don’t want to talk about it while watching the sunset in Barbados. If we do decide to sail across the Atlantic again, this means we will leave in just over a year. We have one more sailing season in the Caribbean. One more season.

Carving out happiness is a mixed bag of surprising sweets. For us, we’ve spent about two years so far travelling the Lesser Antilles. This means our kids don’t have the normal routines and certainties that most other kids have. When we’re here, they don’t have swim club on Tuesday, hanging out with friends in our home town, Aberystwyth on Wednesday. What is it about children and routines? Sorry kids.

Still, some things have come unexpected. Our kids have become Caribbeanised. Not a word, Word tells me. ‘Whatever,’ I say to its red line. I know what I mean. This is because I’ve been noticing it. When music comes on, everyone is happiest when there’s Soca in the room. Who would have thought? ‘Why do they blast it out on the buses?’ Lulu had bemoaned for a hurricane season in Grenada, ‘It just hurts your ears.’ Now, everyone’s shoulders drop when the bass kicks in. It’s a fantastically familiar sound. It goes with this sunshine. Then there’s the swimming. Delph didn’t swim when we first got here. Not in the sea or in any water where our toes didn’t find the bottom. ‘Delph,’ we said, ‘you’re in the Caribbean. If you can’t swim in 27°C water, then we’re going home.’ Twice a day, we had to force Delphine to swim from Quest. Now, you can’t get her out of it. She’s even starting to believe she’s the daughter of Poseidon. Because of course she is.

This season, we came out with three objectives. Dance, surf, dive. Barbados offered all three of these activities on paper back home. The reality is the dancing has been the least successful. In Wales it’s much easier. You drive to the Arts Centre and they dance. Bish, bosh, boom. Here we joined one dance school, then found another much more convenient using public transport. As soon as we joined, the dance school took over a month-long break. They were very nice about it. They explained they were taking a dance trip to Cuba over Easter and then had dance exams. We agreed to wait. We got it. Dancing is for the long-term. We know it at home but now that we’re here in Barbados for only a little while longer, this time the long-term hasn’t been our friend.

This brings us to activity two: surfing. Potentially the most hotly-anticipated of the three. After learning to surf in the BVIs last year, this time Jack bought two surfboards on his way through Florida and had them shipped to Trinidad. They arrived in Port of Spain’s shipping port three weeks later and in perfect condition. We strapped the boards to Quest’s stantions and headed off to the Caribbean surfing mecca; Barbados. Hmm. We’ve discovered that surfing here requires dedication. Often transportation. While constant trade winds do blow through this, most easterly Caribbean island, the sea swell tends to vary. This means that some beaches around the island go flat while others decide to rip. The general rule here is that the west is best in the winter, southern-facing beaches are good when the west side calms down and the hallowed, hard core east side of Barbados finally opens up when conditions go hurricane season flat. At least for beginners.

At first, we were sorted. Our friends from S/Y Sago, Geoff and Silke who had also just arrived, had their own car through Geoff’s work. We struck a sweet deal. Their daughter Annika came to Quest under my supervision to hang with Delphine while Lulu and Jack took two available spaces in their car. For a few, wonderful expeditions, they drove down to one of the best surfing beaches, Freight’s Bay at the tip of the south coast. They came back to Quest in the evenings for dinner and told us about the long rides. The surfing turtles. We even celebrated the fish festival together in Oistins in a shady bus-stop style. It was awesome, friends together in Barbados.

But then just after Easter, Sago found they needed to go back to Grenada. We were sad to see them go, but we decided that no, surfing-wise we wouldn’t be deterred by this. The following Saturday, we headed into the Fairfield Street Bus Terminal with two surfboards. I asked the lady at the counter which bus we needed. ‘Number 12 bus to Freight’s Bay,’ she told me. ‘Surfboards?’ I asked. She nodded sagely. Result! We got in the bus’s long queue.

‘I don’t think you will fit that board on,’ a lady said behind us. Another carrying bags from the market agreed. We smiled back sheepishly. Everyone began to laugh. We shuffled forward and got on. The bus driver shook his head but he got up and helped us position our boards. It was working! The bus may have been getting busier and busier with people returning home from Saturday shopping but I couldn’t stop smiling. We were going surfing on the bus! And then, about two kilometres away from the beach, the bus came to a halt.

‘You need to get off now,’ the same lady from the queue said.

We looked at her in surprise. ‘But the beach isn’t here.’

Everyone shook their heads at us now. There was some Bajan bemusement going on. ‘This is as far as the bus goes.’

I winced. Uh-oh. Would the Ormerods see the funny side of having to walk two kilometres up a hill with our surf equipment? You guessed right. Happily, before anyone got seriously hurt by complaining too much or having a banana stuck down their throat, we made it up to Freight’s Bay. We looked longingly for a moment at the spot under the tree where Geoff and Silke had parked their car. Then we cleared our minds of the memory. After all, it was relatively quiet for a Saturday afternoon and the waves below looked stunning.

Jack dug into Lulu’s surf bag. ‘Where’s your leash?’

She looked blank. ‘I don’t know.’ They had taken it to a paddle-board shop earlier in the week to fix a ding on its side. ‘Did you put the leash in your bag?’

I found myself approaching a group of men at the entrance to the surf beach. They were all hanging around a four-wheel drive stacked full of surfboards. I asked if there was a spare leash about.

‘I don’t rent leashes,’ one guy said. His aviator Ray Bans flashed in the sun. ‘But you can buy one.’

‘How much?’

‘80 US.’

I dug my heels in. ‘We came on the bus from Bridgetown and walked up the hill.’

He shrugged. I shrugged back. The crowd of surfers went quiet.

‘All right,’ he relented. ‘I can rent a leash to you. Twenty.’

‘Barbados?’

He shook his head. ‘US.’

My eyes narrowed. ‘I’ll let you know.’

Back under our makeshift camp of a tree, Jack lay on top of his board bag. ‘I’m not paying 20.’

I nodded. ‘I know.’

My mind flashed back to Josiah’s Bay in Tortola in the BVIs. Here, on this amazing beach you could help yourself to surfer Steve’s rashies, boards, leashes and on one occasion even his spare shorts. ‘She always forgets my stuff,’ Jack’s voice whined the background while he put Steve’s striped shorts on. You could borrow any of Steve’s stuff as long as you smiled and made a joke that started a running repartee. That was Steve’s favourite currency. You know you look a little like Jesus, right? Or is it Grizzly Adams? Where are you now Steve? Instead we were getting Ray Bans with his 20 US dollar rentals.

We stared out to sea. Instead of the usual tropical turquoise, the surf was breaking in a reddish-brown line onto the sand. This was the continuation of the sargassum weed invasion in this part of the Caribbean. We’d been watching it all so season so far. Some mornings, we’d been waking up to blankets of brown weed floating past. This meant no diving or swimming or putting the water maker on in case we got a blockage in the inlet pipe. A sargassum blockage wouldn’t be for the first time. This morning, our bus ride along the south coast had revealed a whole coastline breaking onto the brown seaweed.

‘It isn’t so bad,’ a voice said from behind us. We turned around. A man with long dreadlocks stood behind our make-shift camp also looking out. He smiled at us. ‘Last year the sargassum was so bad, it went out as far as you could see. You couldn’t swim. Neither could the turtles. They were forever getting stuck in it.’ He shook his head. Surfing turtles were suddenly stuck turtles. ‘I work for Zed’s, the oldest surfing school on the island. I heard you need a leash.’

We nodded and he called to a man also with dreadlocks standing a little way down the path ‘My friend will have one. Andre, you got a spare leash?’

At the sound of his name, the man looked over. ‘I’ve got a bunch in the car,’ he called back. ‘I’ll grab one.’ Two minutes later, he came over holding a leash. He had a good-natured face.

Jack stood up and took it from him. ‘I’m happy to rent it from you.’

Andre smiled bashfully. ‘Don’t worry about it.’

Jack and Lulu promptly got ready and went off down the narrow path. Soon they were out paddling to the waves. I watched them join a small crowd of surfers. Lu went for a wave. She missed it. Jack went for the next. With his much longer board he caught it easily enough. Even from up on this bluff, I swore I could see Lu’s eyes narrow. She paddled visibly harder for the next wave and caught it too.

I sat down next to Delphine and examined her right knee. It was scraped and raw-looking. She’d tripped on the curb earlier while helping Lulu to carry her board. Luckily for me, I’d anticipated adventure and packed a few first aid supplies. I got them out and began cleaning Delph’s knee with iodine. Delph winced she didn’t say a word. With all her falls, the kid is good at being brave.

‘So, you guys came on the bus?’ Andre asked. He was still standing quietly and staring out to sea. For sure, the view was mesmerising. We could see for miles, all the way down the south coast to the Hilton at the tip of our bay. Beyond the strip of sargassum brown, the blue water was as bright as the sky.

I nodded and he smiled. It was a nice, unassuming smile. ‘I started surfing when I was 16,’ he told us. ‘It used to keep me out of trouble. My mum used to say you couldn’t find me, I was always gone. I spent a lot of time getting to the beach. Walking and walking. When I realised I wasn’t getting there fast enough, I got a skateboard to take me. Then I could get there faster.’

‘Did you ever take the bus?’

Andre nodded. ‘When I got good enough to surf the East coast. The Soup Bowl.’ He chuckled. ‘People here can get funny but they don’t mind really.’

I smiled too and remembered how our bus had stopped abruptly. Everyone telling us to get off. ‘Yeah. Tell me about it.’

By then, the Zed’s surf instructor with long dreads had joined Andre. He pointed out to the waves. ‘Here it’s sand and then reef further out. On the east side, it’s the other way around. Sand and reef at the shore. You have to be careful there. It can get tricky.’ He turned to Andre. ‘How are your boys doing?’

Andre chuckled again and nodded towards the group of surfers. ‘I can’t get them out.’

I followed their gaze. Two children had positioned themselves on the outer edge of the set. They were catching waves seemingly effortlessly. From up here, they looked like tiny, nimble surfing leprechauns.

‘They’re 9 and 7,’ Andre said to me and Delph. ‘We come most Saturdays.’

What a life for those kids, I thought. Delph and I shook our heads. ‘They’re amazing.’

Andre smiled his gentle smile again. ‘It keeps them out of trouble.’

After Lu and Jack had gotten out, there was no one left in the water except Andre’s boys. Jack returned the lead and thanked him, Andre picked up his boogie board. He said good-bye to us and made his way down the path to join his boys. We looked at our watches. 4pm. The sun was just starting to go soft. It set every evening in Barbados just after 6. No variation. We gathered our stuff and headed down the hill. This time though, we ambled, passing the beach at the bottom, Enterprise Beach. True to its word, it had a van on the beach selling food and drinks. It looked so good, we put our boards down, grabbed ice lollies from the van and sucked on them under the casuarina trees. A group of well-dressed, cool-looking Bajans took up the next bench. They were fawning over a tiny puppy. Delph and Lu looked on at the group interestedly.

‘We’d better go,’ Jack said, standing. I glimpsed the boards and the big bag I’d been carrying and tried not to sigh. We made our way through a beachside complex and emerged out at the bus stop in Oistins. At least a dozen people were waiting in the bus stop. My heart began to sink. Before we could put our boards down, a big blue bus came around the corner with the word Bridgetown written on the front. I looked back at the crowd. They hadn’t moved from their shady bus stop.

One of them caught my eye. ‘We’re going to Speightstown,’ she said in explanation. I nodded back quickly and she smiled. From here, I followed Jack on the bus with Lu’s board. The bus was almost full except for two seats at the back Jack had found with Lu. He propped his long board easily down in the aisle. I noticed the last two remaining seats at the front. I sat down with Delphine, our board fitting perfectly in the aisle. Everyone looked pleasantly at us. It was almost like the seats had been saved for us. With this, we went home.

Back to Bridgetown, a man with a homemade bamboo raft was gliding around in the inner basin. We’d seen him that morning, a crane lifting his raft high up in the air. What was going on, we’d wondered? Was there a race, a flotilla maybe?

‘I’m getting engaged,’ he explained. We congratulated him and he smiled as if his clothes were slightly too tight. Now, just before sunset, he and his fiancée bobbed around the inner basin. Both had orange lifejackets on. A crowd of smartly-dressed people, including a priest, stood at the edge of the water. The newly engaged couple came back to the ladder and everyone got on a larger tourist boat. We passed them on Edna on the way out of the Careenage and waved. Just after sunset, they approached the beach. A large wave passed through the boat. The party both shrieked and laughed.

So, for the next days we mused. We could take a taxi next time we went surfing. At least one way and then we’d catch a bus back. If this was our only hobby, our only activity, we definitely would have. But for one thing. We’d discovered the underwater view.

Again, like the surfing, our third planned activity in Barbados – diving, is something of a segregated sport at the moment. It’s really Jack and Lulu’s thing. Delphine is still a little young and despite her enthusiastic swimming, not quite ready. While I do dive, until last season I was mostly doing it to clean Quest’s blue bottom. Now this season she is freshly copper-coated and sports a dark red derriere. She doesn’t need the underwater maintenance. Like me and my cloth.

Nope, in the diving department, I’m happy to take a step back. I have a hunch that maybe next season we’ll all be diving together. Until then it’s the Lulu and Jack show and it’s awesome. I should explain that Jack once worked as a diving instructor and still keeps his PADI teaching status. Before we crossed the Atlantic on Quest, we also made a last-minute purchase of a dive compressor in Las Palmas. It’s like the little yellow engine that can and sits neatly under one of our cockpit seats. With Jack’s teaching status and our compressor, we pretty much function as a floating dive company. It is very much working right now.

Lulu has just completed her PADI Junior Open Water Advanced Diver – a mouthful to write, I’ve discovered. Using the manual and completing her knowledge reviews, together she and Jack did boat dive, wreck dive, navigation dive, deep dive and the last  – night dive. Over the last four weeks in Carlisle Bay, they’ve touched turtles, found old bottles under Quest, including an example of a 19th century glass bottle from the Royal German Spa bottling company once based in Brighton, Sussex. They swam down staircases, found large, spotted morays writhing in and out of sunken Carlisle Bay Marine Park boats in the darkness and discovered another shipwreck on the starboard side of Quest full of cunning crayfish. They navigated with dive compasses both underwater and around Bridgetown’s Independence Square.

‘That was embarrassing,’ was Lulu’s conclusion on that matter. Thank you, Barbados.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biblio-ties

I am just about to hear the rest of Quest give a collective moan. Wait for it. ‘My favourite thing about Barbados is the library.’

Boom. Predictably, the girls’ eyes roll skywards. The sky by the way is a gorgeous, cornflower blue. The girls are sitting in my inflatable kayak. I bought the kayak before we left Wales, almost three years ago, after seeing two other kids paddling through the bay. It’s taken this long for my kids to do the same thing. Still, better late than never. After early morning school and breakfast, they get in and paddle it to Carlisle’s Bay bright, white beach. They play in the surf for a mid-morning break before heading back. It’s a head-shaker for me. This is everything-coming-together-properly awesome.

And yet, not everyone on Quest is properly enamoured. I’ll get to that in a minute. Firstly, let me tell you about Bridgetown’s library. It’s the best library I’ve seen in the Caribbean. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I hear the National Library in Trinidad’s Port of Spain is magnificent. We caught a glimpse of the one too in the British Virgin Islands but it was closed as they were moving it near the big RiteWay supermarket and I’m not sure of its condition after Hurricane Irma. But I can vouch that the National Library of Barbados in Bridgetown is pretty wonderful.

It has large print books, a young adult section and a sprawling number of children’s’ books with surprising gems like Oliver Cromwell’s Warts and All. Perfect for Lulu’s Stuart Age history homework. It has enthusiastic readers dotted around the place, immaculately-dressed, serious-faced librarians and a combination of heavy wooden furniture and comfortable plastic seating. There is air-conditioning inside and a library bus outside which is often loading up so it can deliver books to the more remote areas of this tiny, completely non-remote island. It is also right by the beach. Like paddle in on the kayak, turn left, walk a hundred paces and you’re there. You see where I’m going with this?

Come midday when you need a change of scenery from bobbing around on Quest, you can brush the sand off your feet and walk into a cool space where books are worshipped and quiet is golden. Where has it been all my life? I go could go on about the twenty-dollar refundable deposit, the library’s card classification system and the three books we’re allowed to take out at a time, plus real ink stamps for the book’s due date, a thing of the past in our library back home but I will do my best not to bore you. At least if Quest’s crew’s reaction is anything to go by. The truth is that a library is, well, maybe it’s not so much what it is but what it isn’t. A person can live without ever entering a library. You can go about your life without missing one.

Life has become a little like that for our Captain. Recently, he’s been missing what he doesn’t have. It’s harder for him on Quest. Unlike the rest of us who get on with school, his work’s been calling him from home. This is his third baby, the one he can’t travel with. Not completely anyhow. For a few weeks now, this baby has been getting more and more maudy. It wants him back. It’s ok for Jack to leave it for a few months at a time, maybe six at a push but then he needs to return to Wales. And the rest of us crew are cool with that. After living on Quest for a solid two years, we were ready to going home last summer. Home is good too. People travel differently. For me, I like to get to know a place. With our slow schedule, doing school and then homework, boat chores and after moments of simple relaxation, it takes a bit of time and determination to see a place. For Jack, it’s different. He wants to sail. He wants to wake up, unfurl Quest’s sails and go. He likes the idea of following winds, slicing waves and then turning up somewhere new. No accident that I’ve become known as the queen of the anchor. The lover of the library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tourist Soup

Yesterday we went to the Andromeda Botanical Gardens. It’s just near the village of Bathsheba, famous for its surf break; the Soup Bowl. Soup? It’s my favourite dish. Being half-Polish means I grew up on soup. I make it now, even in the Caribbean, though not with the same frequency that my grandmother did. This was because my grandfather insisted on soup before every meal. I remember it well. Despotic-sounding but tempered by his softness. After all, he didn’t care what it tasted like, nor the meal that followed, just that we had soup first. Having lived through two world wars, it seemed soup was his steady. For me, it was clear as broth. A place called Soup Bowl? I was there.

On the way, the Andromeda Gardens were beautiful, full of scent and colour. A rebellious-looking heron skulked around the goldfish pond. Ginger and frangipani bloomed alongside a lofty selection of palms, including a mature specimen of the tropical equivalent of the redwood – the Royal Palm. We passed under an enormous bearded fig tree; the tree that gave Barbados its name before strolling under flowering jade vine. The tropical lushness started to make us feel heady. Did someone add something the soil to make its lunate flowers that crazy green colour? Like they do with the blue hydrangea at home, adding acid to the soil? No, apparently not. It just is that colour. We passed through huge hanging heliconias but failed to spot any attending hummingbirds, even though we waited patiently in the hummingbird garden. A green monkey did make an appearance, this non-native, old-world monkey with a tail so long and lustrously mobile, it would make a tree branch green with envy. Perhaps this explains the green in green monkey I thought. It looked at us disdainfully as if sizing up our cheese and tomato sandwiches before sidling off into the distance. This was wildlife Barbados.

It was surprising, taking the blue National Transport Bus there. It was firstly surprising that the bus even came in the end. We almost gave up waiting but rallied hope when we saw that the locals brought their own fold-up chairs. Every one of these National Transport buses is supposed to leave Bridgetown on the hour. I’ve realised that means that if you get ready to go on the hour, the bus will be ready sometime during that hour. Clever really. This way you’ll never miss it. For someone who hates being late, this schedule suits me well. The locals made no fuss of the uncertain schedule at all. The bus station was a place to catch up on news and well, when you got tired, you can pull out your camping chair and take a load off.

The woman in front of us was getting on in age. She had some heavy bags, so when the big blue bus finally jolted and sighed into our gate, Jack offered to help her carry them.

‘Bring it,’ she barked as she began to move forward. ‘Bring it!’

Jack moved fast in surprise. Watching this was an unexpected treat. Jack wasn’t going to comment, not in the way he might have at home if a strange old woman started bossing him. Here, dressed in flowery patterns and often sporting elaborate straw hats, these women come across as pretty formidable. I even got caught in an elderly lady’s fart cloud the other day in the supermarket check-out. I was pretty sure it was her because until then, I hadn’t seen one whiff of a smile out of her. Until I was hit, good and proper without the ability to move and the woman’s mouth began to twitch and dance around. She shuffled forwards. Ok, I thought. I can live with it.

Our position as yachties around Bridgetown does give us a sort of ambassadorial edge. There’s not many of us here. The supermarket we go to – Jordans by the bus station, isn’t in the suburbs. It doesn’t have marmite for sale, coffee that isn’t instant, and if you want to pay by card, you have to leave the check-out and go to one of two centrally-located card machines. I’ve noticed not many people pay for their shopping by card. They get wads of Barbadian cash out (that’s how expensive the food is here) and start counting. There’s a line of men too at the front door – taxi drivers, men who seem to be waiting for their wives, some plain-clothed employees in there. All eyes are clocking us as we go in.

We’re clocked on the inside too. Lulu and Delphine; both well known for their ability to over show emotions both good and bad in a supermarket were approached by a well-meaning rasta and told to relax. Not to get so worked up, he told them. Nothing like having the only tween age brats in the store. Jack shook his hand. Actually, the rasta ended up telling Lulu only because Delphine had performed one of her miraculously innocent smiles and disappeared from the conversation. In her sudden isolation, poor Lulu had agreed whole-heartedly with him and then seethed afterwards.

‘He’s on my list of people to die,’ she announced on the way back to Edna.

I sighed in the midday heat. ‘It’s an unfortunate fact Lu that you’re the oldest one with the biggest mouth. This may not bode well for you.’

Jack nodded in agreement. ‘I’ve been telling you two to stop having public disagreements for years,’ He shifted the heavy shopping bags in his hands. ‘But if insist on doing it here, it’s not going to be tolerated.’

‘Well, no one would notice in Morrisons at home,’ Lulu spat. She was approaching furious.

‘Here is different.’

‘Well, I hate being different.’

‘Me too,’ Delphine chipped in. I passed her a look. She was coming out of hiding? I couldn’t fault her for instinct.

There was another surprising thing about our bus ride to Bathsheba. It was how much the island is still worked for sugar cane. Waves of it grew like bushy wheat. There was more sugar cane than we’ve seen on any of our other island travels, through Antigua, St. Lucia or Grenada for example. It was a peculiar twist. Barbados has come across to us as the most modern of the English-speaking Caribbean islands. Certainly it’s the most populous and probably the most advanced for infrastructure. This meant driving past the sugar cane gave me the time-warp shiver. Kind of like finding the culprit.

For centuries, Barbados fed the UK with sugar both through the insatiable appetites of the British people and by providing economic strength. Imagine that until Caribbean sugar cane was available, honey was the only comparable sweetener. The British sweet tooth for sugar seemed to know no bounds. Sugar; the cause of all evil? I’m a sugar addict myself. Coffee, cakes, brownies, chocolate. If I don’t have sugar by four pm, I know about it.

When sugar production began in Barbados in the mid-1600s, it was the most technologically advanced agricultural method of its time. It required intimate knowledge at all stages of its growth, cutting and processing. Add to the story of shipping the heavy equipment to Barbados across the Atlantic Ocean and working in a hot climate where tropical diseases like yellow fever were rife. Nothing was a success until barrels were managed to be sent to the UK on a large scale. Sugar was the dirty secret of its time. No surprise that human slavery was justified on the basis of supply and demand. Everyone wanted it and yet turned to a blind eye to how it was produced. Boy, does history repeat itself.

Sorry, I could go on for days! After we visited Andromeda Gardens, we walked down to the Atlantic village of Bathsheba. Site of this famous Soup Bowl; the favourite surfing spot for surfing legends like Kelly Slater.

‘Where is it?’ Lulu asked, squinting over the water. Atlantic rollers came in steadily as far as we could see, past large boulders that looked as if they’d been dropped by careless giants. The village was as sleepy as you’d imagine on a late Tuesday afternoon. We looked around, unsure and sat on a neat expanse of grass, smelling the air. Brown sargassum weed, which since 2011 has become an increasing problem for Caribbean waters, butted against the shore. The girls went to try their hands at climbing bendy palms before the bus back to Bridgetown at 5pm.

Now, the Ormerod family like a day trip in theory. Take it to a certainty though and things change. Before we even leave, difficulties real or imagined are enthusiastically turned over. This includes the struggle of getting there not to mention the challenge of getting back – until it feels that dragging three metal pipes out of Quest’s hatches might be easier. So, imagine the look on these three Ormerod faces when we discovered we’d missed the last bus to Bridgetown.

‘There’s no more buses after 5pm?’

The helpful community officer shook her head. Of course, it would be Barbados where a community officer was standing in the bus stop. This island just loves a sense of order. We weren’t complaining either. Her VHF radio attached to her belt reported back in a thick Bajan accent, ‘Bus to Speightstown approaching.’ Our ears pricked. Speightstown is Barbados’ second town. From here we’d easily catch a connection to Bridgetown. The blue bus pulled up and after thanking her, we jumped on.

The Speightstown bus didn’t return through the sugar cane fields. Instead it followed the Atlantic coast. A brushy expanse of sand dunes stretched north where we passed large pastel-coloured houses with windswept verandas before turning inland. Then the bus passed through comfortable hamlets with horse paddocks and a number of large, immaculate-looking schools. The sun was becoming golden. Even in the early evening, students were still milling outside under the shade of tall trees. Finally, we alighted at Speightstown and crossed the road, getting straight on a smaller, yellow bus. We smiled slightly at each other. Not bad so far.

The next part of our journey followed the west coast road. Calm waters and luxurious resorts line this part of the island. Sandy Lane. Simon Cowell-land. We passed Cartier and Gucci and shook our heads at the sight. It was hitting six pm, rush hour. Passengers were now standing in the aisles. Reggae music pulsed from the bus’s speakers. We stopped at the posh shopping complex. A fellow British family with three blond girls about our girls’ age got on the bus. Brushed in sand and tainted with sun burn, these girls stood and giggled. We carried on and after three stops they got off again.

Half-an-hour later and we finally arrived into a historic part of Bridgetown. The buildings looked like old cookies about to crumble. We got off and headed toward the more familiar centre of town.

‘Did you see those tourists?’ Lulu said.

Since getting off the bus I’d been distracted, looking for bread to buy. Otherwise no breakfast tomorrow. I crossed my fingers. Hopefully that lady who parked herself in a tent near Edna in the inner basin in the afternoons would be there.

‘You could really tell they weren’t from here,’ Lulu continued. I started paying attention and passed her a glance. It’s been a while since we’ve seen kids that looked like our girls.

Lulu rolled her eyes. ‘I mean they were way too happy.  Did you see how they were giggling? Typical tourists.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following on with Luck

Can you combine two lives? Could I mould my old life as an embryologist with being a boat-based mum? It would be so tempting to try it. And then I remember the other thing. Where you do one thing properly at a time. Ha! At the mention of it, Lulu would be falling asleep right now. Delph making a low and strangled moan and Jack would be singing his favourite ‘boring and stupid’ ditty. Why do I always have to be the straight one? Still, I got it. Doing things this way is a luxury I’ve been afforded. And I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. This means that while Lulu does her school work with increasing independence, I have more time to teach Delphine. Ahh, Delphine. All sea roads leading back to Rome. If you don’t mind, swim with me for a moment.

During our time on Quest, Delphine’s education is a collective task. We are all involved. It’s another aspect of disability that I couldn’t anticipate in advance. How the whole family lives it. Example one: Lulu putting up with endless repetitive questions as Delphine really tries to understand something. Lulu does it with ninety percent grace and ten percent angry bulldog. Not bad. Example two: times tables practice. The five-times table being one of the easiest to master, right? We have discovered this is not necessarily true.. Example three: Delph won’t flush Quest’s toilet. It’s a sea toilet but not a manual one. The toilet just requires the prolonged use of electronic button pressing. Instead for Delphine, it’s, ‘Dad!’ every time. Dad being the resident nice person/sucker on board.

Then there is the matter of Delphine’s reading. My holy grail. Questions around this matter include; will Delphine ever do it willingly? Will it ever not be accompanied by an, ‘I don’t want to,’ or ‘Do we have to?’ or ‘How long do we have to do it for?’ Or should I just send this kid to school and put my feet up? But if I send this child to school, what will happen to her? The schools in our area don’t exactly specialise for kids who are brilliant in their own way. Of course, they do their best but it’s a big ask, especially with nationwide, decade-long, credit-crunch cuts. And although this is a real question, it’s one for when we go home. Right now, in beautiful Barbados, Quest is our school setting. This means we have a big pile of books and we get on with it.

Sometimes things can work themselves out. Through writing this, I’ve realised that ever since the whole experience of disability has entered our lives, everything is also a little more exciting. Like literally. Getting on and off Quest in a roll, watching Delphine climb boat ladders and kayaking into shore are current examples. But it can also light a fire that smoulders preciousness. For us, Delphine’s diagnosis set off a chain of events which led to us being here on Quest almost a decade later. Disability can be unpredictable and terrifying. You wonder what on Earth is going to happen to this potentially vulnerable child when you’re not here anymore. Even though I shouldn’t, I end up wondering this a lot. Late at night being the perfect time to suck on this brand of darkness. But it also makes me wonder. How much you create your own luck in life? Do we carve it out like some kind of honorary statue? Or is luck a gift, given through the things we can’t change? The problems that can’t be solved? These are our twinkling stars.

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I Used to Make Babies

I used to make babies. In an IVF lab. Of course, four-cell embryos couldn’t gurgle in the incubators but it was always nice to think of the potential. In my twenties and early thirties, I was part of the embryology team, collecting eggs, preparing sperm, mixing, injecting, checking and ultimately transferring the embryo back into the patient’s womb. I think it’s fair to say that this was the sort of environment where you strove for perfection. We wanted normal babies please. Healthy babies. We kept a register of births. We looked other things too; including success rates, the age range of mothers and types of infertility. Most important though was the baby’s health. But here’s the thing. My own baby wouldn’t have been included in the normal category. She had a number of oxygen starvation-related issues before she was born. She’s ten-years-old now and of course we know her as curly-haired, funny, and full of attitude Delphine. But having this less than perfectly healthy child was never part of my plan. I was knee-deep in work mode. Healthy baby please.

And the truth is that after it happened, I felt kind of abandoned. I felt a sort of unreachable distance from my old life. For me, it was no longer about living a boundless, everything-is-possible kind of life. It was more about things going wrong. Suddenly, I had a problem I couldn’t solve. Not readily or by sheer force of willpower anyway. It left me, as it leaves many parents of disabled children with this one unanswerable question: why us? After all, being a parent of a disabled child is statistically low enough a number in the general population to feel different. Sure, we parents can provide our own answers. Some of us might feel chosen for the role. Certainly, the temptation is to feel this way with Delphine. We can tell ourselves that because we are good parents, she is lucky to have us! But the truth is, I am lucky to have Delphine. She has taught me a million things about kindness and humour. Who needs normal anyway? Perfect?

We were at the beach at the end of last week. A Bajan lady asked Delphine to fill up her empty water bottle with sea water. She wasn’t dressed in beach clothes and had been sitting at the top of the beach with a friend. I stood back and watched Delphine fill the bottle and then walk up the beach to hand the bottle back.

When Delph came back, she told me that they’d asked her if she’d had an accident.

I raised my eyebrows. ‘What did you say?’

‘I said yes, that I did have an accident when I was a baby ‘

This was a first. Delphine had never told a stranger this before. And she didn’t seem that upset about it. I took a deep breath. ‘What did they say to you when you told them that?’

‘They said I was blessed.’

Just recently, I’ve been thinking about returning to my old job. This is largely because I noticed the Barbados Fertility Centre on our travels on the bus. Just outside Bridgetown, it’s the closest IVF unit I’ve got to since I worked in one. It looks nice too. Really clean and welcoming from the outside. Not just welcoming to its patients… it’s sort of been welcoming me too. It got me thinking. About re-training. Whether I could do it again. It seems that the things a person did can become like the clothes they wore. Before they are placed on hangars and filed away in brain wardrobes. Could I fish this one out and wear it again? Would I even want to?

 

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Quest, the Reality Show!

Easter in Barbados. It’s had a sense of determination about it. You’d catch people with this look on their face: we will have fun whilst gritting our teeth and staring into the distance. It seems like Barbados may even more like the UK than we’d thought. Like the fun here doesn’t quite come naturally. It even rained for half of the Easter weekend, a driving sort of drizzle I haven’t seen since Wales in February. We all went back to bed and felt homesick.

On Easter Monday, we hung out on the surf beach near the southern tip of Barbados, Freights Bay. What a place to surf. The clear water was full of fellow surfing sea turtles popping up like helmet-wearing sergeant majors. It was quiet too considering it was a bank holiday. Not all of us surfed though; Delphine and I aren’t much of surfers yet. I feel a sense of solidarity with her that may well be misplaced, but if she can’t do it, I won’t either. Unfortunately for her, this doesn’t extend into the times tables. I’m hot on her tail with these. Just writing about it makes me want to get out our game I brought from home where you pack socks for multi-legged monsters. You may be tempted to feel sorry for her. Don’t fall into this trap..  she usually beats me at it.

The other day when we were walking around Bridgetown, Lulu stopped in mid-traffic. She gave me a funny look. ‘I think we should have our own TV reality show,’ she said.

I looked at her in the midday heat. Family living in coastal Welsh village with severe lack of upright trees sails to the Caribbean? It could work. Two kids on board, the younger one with cerebral palsy? My eyes narrowed. Instant cute factor increase. What can I say? It’s the upsides.

‘The only thing is Lu, I’m not sure our lives are exciting enough.’

She nodded back. ‘It’s true. We need more drama.’

Yeah, drama. Even on Quest, most of the time we live around a school schedule. For the last couple of years, Lulu has attended an online secondary school, InterHigh, which is based in a small town called Crickhowell in Wales. At home, we drive through Crickhowell on the way to London via Cardiff. Once I was told off there at midnight when I let three-year old Delphine have a wee at the edge of the forecourt of the garage she was busting for while we were taking on fuel. The garage staff had just informed me smugly that they didn’t have a toilet. A garage without a toilet? Man, did they shout at me. Since then, I hear they’ve installed one. Case closed I’d say. Though I would.

Small digression aside, attending school means that Lu wakes up in the Caribbean for class. Her online school keeps a proper timetable for lessons and it’s based on Greenwich Mean Time. In their virtual classrooms, kids can write, they can talk, they can even put their video on. The teacher, of course can do the same. All these functions are controlled by the teacher. The result is that classes are just like attending real school except you’re usually lying in bed and no one is allowed to be disruptive. Well, sometimes someone can try, but it’s hard without the teacher turning your communication tools off. Not exactly a platform for the rebellious. You may as well drink tea in your jammies and listen.

School starts early. In fact, since the time change for British summer time, 9:30am in the UK means 4:30am here in Barbados. I feel bad just writing it. Every time I wake up to make coffee and get things going, I’m not sure Lulu will. But she does, bless her. I’ve discovered that it really helps too if you put some kind of food stuff in her mouth. So, most of the time this is our drama. We’re up before the roosters. Definitely reality show fodder.

I love the way that as we’ve been travelling, these teachers have come with us. By Lulu attending this school for two years, we’ve all got to know their different ways, their quirks and their many kindnesses. Kindness is never a small thing when you’re travelling. It can feel like the most important thing. Yeah, yeah, I know teachers are paid to be nice! Still, I love that Lu’s teachers want her to do well. That she has received as widespread an education as possible. As much as I can blow my own trumpet, and believe me, it is known to strike a loud and painful tone, I can’t be seven teachers in one. InterHigh allows Lulu to have the same choices as any other kid. Which, ok, is a little strange since she doesn’t live the life of any other kid. Look, I never said I get all of it right. Gut instinct is another traveller’s gizmo.