When I first arrived at Soup Bowl, Barbados, it was love at first sight.
It was the world as I might’ve drawn it in the back of my Maths book in primary school when I was a surf-crazed kid with skinny legs and sun-bleached blond hair. This amazing wave is one of many on this tiny island but it is Soup Bowl that attracts surfers from all over the world. Framing the break are Bathsheba’s colossal Lord of the Rings rock formations, green-topped and mushroom-shaped, more extravagant than anything I ever sketched.
Barbados is often described in brochures and tourist guides as “Little England”. The first Brits arrived here in 1625, liberally scattering the place with home-away-from-home Anglican churches and place names like Scarborough and Yorkshire. Bajans, as those from the 30-kilometre by 20-kilometre island are known, drive on the left, prefer cricket to soccer and still have a reverence for the Queen that’s increasingly rare in the rest of the Commonwealth.
But apart from that when was the last time it hit 28C in Birmingham in February? And I’m trying to recall the last time in Cornwall or Norfolk that I saw fields of sugar cane rippling in the breeze, or surfed in shorts for seven hours straight and didn’t get cold!
Thanks to sugar and tourism, it is also one of the richest islands in the Caribbean, with a prosperous and well-educated population of about 300,000 who are evidently proud of their home. One man who is very proud of his home is Zed, one of the island’s top surfers. Zed is fifth-generation Bajan and, as his son will tell you, they are “100% Bajan, mon”. Zed works as the Errant surf guide on the south of the island and most of his lessons take place at Freights, which used to be a long, Indonesia style wave. However the local government built Miami beach, half a mile awa,y which resulted in too much sand being built up at freights and the wave lost its bite.
It is now the most perfect learn-to-surf beach I have ever taught at, with amazingly clear water, waves that break from 1′ to 3′ everyday on sand bottom and a backdrop that looks like something out of my old school book!
Working for Zed is always a pleasure. Leaving my home and surf school in Newquay at the end of November, I jetted over to help Zed through the busy winter. I say ‘busy’ but Zed won’t teach big groups. Instead he offers a true insight not only into the world of surfing but also the lifestyle of a Bajan on a personal level: if you’re not tired after surfing all day, he will get you painting his new café or fixing boards!
In the knowledge that I would be teaching in the afternoon I sat down to devise a recreational plan for the morning that would involve surfing, snorkelling, reading, and at least one nap.
It’s a brutal, gruelling schedule that would kill a lesser man. Always, too, over my tea and toast, I listen to the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation’s drive time DJ, who delivers important news about cricket matches and impending calypso concerts.
This DJ is something of a comedian. Yesterday he put through a surprise phone call to a farmer outside Bridgetown, the island’s capital. The phone rang about 20 times before the farmer finally picked it up.
“You sleepin’ in your yard of your house?” the DJ asked him, in a comprehensible semipidgin. “Or you in that yard feedin’ some pigs?”
“No pigs,” the farmer replied, utterly unfazed to be talking to a stranger. “Just some sheep in a pasture. What I can do for you, mon?”
“Harry, we learn it’s your birthday! You’re plainly over 40! We hear you gonna marry that woman over in Christ Church Parish!”
“You never know, mon,” Harry said flatly.
“Harry!” cried the DJ. “I go play a special song for you by Lesley Gore.”
“Say by who?”
“ Lesley Gore, mon!” Then came the tinny, nasal bleat of “It’s My Party,” a song that, like Dracula, apparently will never die.
Loading up the car, we set off up the West Coast to check out the swell If a big enough swell hits the island, waves can funnel down this usually calm coast and the trade wind will blow offshore – all day! First stop: Batts Rock; a funny looking wave; with the tide too high, it wasn’t really surfable, but it did show that even on this point of the island, almost completely opposite to the Atlantic Ocean, I would still score swell.
Arriving at my next stop, my vision opened up to what lay out to sea.Tropicana, a shallow left-hand reef that breaks top to bottom all the way down the fire coral. Perfect. Before anyone could say anything, I was sprint-paddling to the line up.
For two hours, I had completely forgotten where I was. The waves were as good as anywhere in the world. Perfect headhigh lefts funnelled down the reef, each breaking identical to the one before it. Every now and then, I would drag myself out of the routine of surfing a wave and paddling back to glance around and enjoy a backdrop that can only be described as paradise.
I had arranged to meet Zed for something to eat at Oistens, the local fish market on the south side of Barbados. Sat at Oistens, I ate a flying fish sandwich for lunch. The fish was delicate and delicious, dipped in batter, deep-fried, and popped into a soft roll. Another customer watched me with pleasure. He identified himself as Dexter from Bridgetown. Dexter was drinking a Banks, and it did not seem to be his first of the afternoon.
He chuckled to himself, pointed at my sandwich, and said, “You know that fish you eatin’, mon? You ever see ’em fly?”
“Not yet,” I said.
“Any fish like that fly in your country?” he asked.
“Not that I know of.”
Dexter gave me a friendly clap on the shoulder and shared a cultural equation he formulated on the spot: “Barbados, we got flying fishes and the best in cricket. You people over there, you got roast dinners and football. Is so?”
“It’s so,” I agreed.
“All right, then,” said Dexter, laughing and shaking my hand.
After lunch Zed, and I went to pick up our new recruits Sarah and Jane. They were beginners from the UK, who like many, are now splashing out on surf holidays, where the water is warmer and the climate kinder than home.
Zed and I took them through a theory lesson on the beach, where we over-loaded the girls with every bit of information they could possibly need. In the full knowledge that they would forget everything as soon as their heads went underwater, Zed and I stayed by their sides pulling them into waves. Sarah and Jane took to the bath-like water with ease, and before long they were catching waves and surfing towards the beach.
Shouting and encouraging each other on they caught the same wave and rode side by side. Paddling back out to their teachers, smiles beaming ear to ear, it’s hard to imagine that this time next week Sarah will be in the office doing accounts and Jane will be teaching high school kids geography. But that’s next week.
Surfing in Barbados is one of life’s luxuries and anyone that ventures over will no doubt fall in love with Little England. And probably at first sight!