24.5.03

Barbados 03 p2

Diving the Caribbean

At 8:15 we were downstairs with our gear, waiting for the promised ride. A few minutes later, when we started wondering if he had found the place, a van broke the silence and pulled crashingly up into the driveway. Kim, who was about to call the Shack, asked with the phone receiver still in his hand: "Are you from Roger's Scuba Shack?" The answer came: "Yeh mahn." I looked at Kim with helpless glee -- that was it, we were definitely in the Caribbean. We were grinning from ear to ear as the van sped back up towards Bridgetown.

Bridgetown suburb
There is no limit to the creativity in hairdo displayed by both men and women
A few words about the inhabitants of Barbados, aka Bajans. 95% of the people are of African and/or West Indian descent (that is, native Caribbean). Another 5% is white, and 5% mixed. The official language is English, but that's pretty much reserved for talking with tourists. Among themselves they speak the Bajan dialect, which as far as I can tell, is a creole that, although filled with English elements, is extremely challenging to grasp for the untrained ear.  It's very much like Lebanese in that sounds that take more effort to articulate have been "eroded out", but in this case there are nearly no consonants left. "Carry" has become "kaa" and "never", "naa".
One other feature I caught is that they don't bother with pronouns like "her", "him" etc. I was listening to a phone conversation (I knew the story, so I nearly understood) and where it should have been "I told her" it went "I told she". It's also noticeable in a folksong where a verse goes "God bless de Queen fuh set we free". If this verse is representative at all, it would seem that progressive tenses are also left aside. Here are a few proverbs from the book De Mortar Pestle, compiled by G. Addinton Forde, for more samples of the language:

Duh is more in de mortar dan de pestle.
There is more to the issue than appears on the surface.

De tongue dat buy you does sell you.
The same person that flatters you, may betray you later.

The sea en' got nuh back door.
The sea is not a safe place.
Water does run, but blood does clod.
Relatives should see after each other's welfare.
He look like 'e drink wha' 'e shoul 'noint wid.
He looks malnourished, or unhealthy, as if he'd drank something that should have been left for external use!.

All the Bajans we encountered were incredibly laid back. They take it easy, are super friendly and helpful - not necessarily smiling, but always nice. Strangers greet when they pass each other on the street, and the enquiry "Hello, how are you?" is not just a polite convention. You can say this to the guy opening the beach umbrella for you and he'll be like: "Yeh I'm a'ight, mahn! How's you?"

I noticed something else that's very interesting: they always address you directly, without warning. We, like everybody else I have ever met anywhere on this planet, would first catch the person's attention, make sure they are listening, and then speak. The Bajans don't. They just speak, even if you're not looking at them, and I lost count of the number of times Kim or myself only realized we were being addressed when the speaker, after repeating 3 times, went "Hey!" Being so good-humored (and used to silly tourists), I don't think they take it personally.


Our driver, Mark, was a particularly hyper specimen. By the time he dropped us off at the Boatyard tears of laughter were rolling down our cheeks. He was immediately and sincerely friendly, and we were really happy when he returned to say we'd be taking the class with him. He's a Barbados version of Robin Williams. "You'll hear him before you see him", says Donna, none other than his sister. She's extremely quiet in comparison, but so deadpan. If Mark is standing giving an impression she'll be sitting behind him shaking her head or otherwise silently commenting. The pair of them was a riot.
The Shack's owner, Roger, is actually their older brother, and probably the sanest of the three. Another dive instructor we got to know was Errol (hope I spelled it right). In the beginning we identified Errol mostly thanks to his shades, which never leave the top of his head. I mean never. We were lying on the beach once watching a group of students return with their gear, and out of the water comes Errol carrying a couple of tanks. I told Kim: "This guy always has something on his head. Look: when it's not his shades, it's his mask." Then he came closer and we SAW: those were his shades on his head!
Yep, Roger's Scuba Shack was the nicest spot in Bridgetown and we enjoyed just hanging around between dives while the crew teased us tirelessly.



Boatyard Answer Deck Rate Schedule
   Answers: $1
   Answers Which Require Thought: $2
   Correct Answers: $4
   Dumb Looks: FREE

The Boatyard

From left to right: Donna, Kim, Mark, me and David outside the Shack
That first day we had two dives scheduled. The first was a Naturalist Dive, where we were supposed to identify underwater creatures. So we packed plastified guides to fish and invertebrates and Mark took us to a wreck site after some review exercises. He nearly grounded us when he heard we hadn't dived in 5 years at that point...

Even the boat ride was exciting, gazing the coast as we went. Kim spotted a sea turtle while I was pointing at flying fish, who gave the island its title of "Land of the Flying Fish".

The Boatyard's beach... The sand is pure white mixed with pink grains
Seen from the boat as we head for Carlisle Bay
Lucky kids!
I was very anxious out at first; I can't stand being in the water away from the shore unless I'm at the bottom of the sea, so I felt trepidant until we came into sight of the wrecks. Then I relaxed instantly and completely...

Wow.

The very first thing we caught sight of, snuggled under the hull, was a large Moray eel. It crept around shying away from Mark's light then lifted its head and we could clearly see the legendary jaw and teeth. It was a beautiful sight - moray eels are actually quite placid unless you are rude enough to thrust an arm into their home, and their habit of open and closing their jaw all the time is something they do to breathe, not out of aggression. We were thrilled to see it, as well as the rich fish population and various sea creatures. In particular this funny little thing called featherduster, that looks just like the household object, but if you tease it, it instantly retreats into a tiny cylinder. Muwahaha, we thought as we realized the entertaining potential of this (Kim would regret this bitterly later on, as we will see...). But teasing the featherdusters was as far as we went, being too respectful of our environment. Some divers (usually amateurs) don't hesitate to grab animals or ride sea turtles. How would you feel if some large creature suddenly dropped on your back and hung on for a ride? Sheesh.

Among the beauties we sighted was the weirdest crab, that can best be described as an underwater spider with a periscope. There was also a peacock flounder, extremely flat fish that would be completely invisible against the white sand weren't it for its absurd eyes that bulge on top and rotate spasmodically. A giant anemone was a mesmerizing sight, with its transparent yet patterned tentacles ending in neon-purple blotches. Oh, and the urchins? They move. Not only that, they move very fast, with all their needles agitating, and with a clicking noise, as if they were frantically knitting with a thousand pins.

Before our second dive we went to have lunch and ordered fish and chips. The menu said "dolphin or flying fish", and we were horrified. To eat dolphin? But we finally understood (thanks to a very amused waitress) that anytime the word "dolphin" is used in a gastronomical context, it refers to a remarkably ugly fish that tastes quite good. That explains the comment in Mike's Bar's menu: "Monday: Dolphin (not Flipper)".
Strangely enough, both our diving watches failed us right after our first dive. Kim's was brand new but its leather bracelet suddenly broke. Mine was my dad's old diving watch, and the o-ring was apparently too dry, so the watch flooded spectacularly. We buried it and got a replacement bracelet for Kim's.

Map of our first two dives on the wrecks
Our second dive that day was a Wreck Dive. At the time I was a little freaked by the idea of swimming around ghostly ships lying at the bottom of the ocean. I had images of the Titanic at its spookiest in mind. All that changed when I realized that the whole point of wrecks is that they are teeming with wildlife because on a sandy bottom, a ship is all that corals and algae can grow on, and consequently, that's where all the swimming creatures converge. I used to think that wrecks were a form of pollution that should ideally be removed, but governments worldwide deliberately sink outdated ships to create underwater havens where sea life can thrive. Diving on a wreck is as exciting as diving on a natural reef, and there were 6 wrecks of various age on our program. The oldest one, the Berwyn, was sunk in 1919 by a French crew that didn't want to leave the island, and due to its age it is completely overgrown with coral.

 There was a small concrete fishing barge (how dumb is that?) surmounted by a tight school of red fish. There were scorpion fish lying perfectly still amidst the growth, clearly repeating to themselves "I am invisible. I am invisible". A porcupine fish casually showed off its robe and we even saw a baby eel. I fell in love with the lovely shape of the trumpetfish, a long graceful creature that feeds vertically so that it is camouflaged amidst long algae. As we were leaving one wreck to swim to another I saw one of the most bizarre sights of my life: a garden of snakes growing out of the sand, their heads turning this way and that on top of their stem-like bodies. It was very surreal and I glided closer, but they immediately slid back into their holes until only their mouth protruded. I found out later that these were eels, very difficult to see due to their shyness, and aptly called Garden Eels.

We were wide-eyed and delighted when we returned to the surface and Mark hollered his usual "All right, beautiful people!" That's going to resonate in my mind anytime I dive from now on.

Two very happy future advanced divers!
Enjoying the fresh seafood at Oistins
 Boat names in Barbados are famous. We took note of some of them as we returned to shore: "Who Cares?" "We Care", "Other Business", and the crown of them all, "Wasn't Me".

That evening, thanks to Mark who brought it to our attention, we went to the fishing village of Oistins to hang around and have dinner. There is a big fish market there, the products of which are directly taken to stalls next to it and cooked. Friday is a particularly big day for it, and there was music, craft stalls, and more seafood you can dream of. We had a delicious dinner and went home happy.

As I stepped into the bathroom I noticed some straw on the floor. I didn't think much of it, but I stopped when I saw some more straw in the sink. I looked up: a nest was under construction on top of the bathroom closet...