29.5.03

Barbados 03 p5

Last adventures

Tuesday May 27

On the way to the Museum, a really funky tree
We had the morning free and that was reserved for a visit to the Barbados Museum, right behind the hippodrome (strangely enough, this tiny place has a full-fledged horse race track). The museum used to be a barracks for the British military, and it gives a very interesting overview of Barbadian history from its geological beginnings, to its Amerindian occupants, to the British influence.

The island's first inhabitants are not known; they may have come from Guyana, and are referred to as Amerindians. Their culture is close to those of the Arawak and the Carib. As I said earlier, they relied on seashells, especially the conch, to carve their tools, weapons, and the representations of their deities. Religious artifacts, called Zemi objects, were housed with the chiefs and shamans. Here are some of their gods:

Atabeyra: "Mother of the Sea", the supreme female spirit of human fertility and childbirth. She was represented by pregnant women or childbirth, maybe also by the frog.

Yocahu: "Giver of Cassava", the supreme male deity. His symbol is a triangular form representing volcanic mountains.

Opiel-Guaobiran: "He who Cares for the Souls of the Immediately Deceased, Son of the Spirit of Darkness", the dog-spirit. You can see it carved in a conch among the artifacts above, where it combines the symbol of death in the form of a human skull with the canine teeth of a dog. Wooden stools representing dogs were often used to bury chiefs in a seated position.


By 1500 AD however, all the Amerindian settlements of Barbados had disappeared. What happened is still a mystery, but when the British landed, there was not a soul living there. Groups of Amerindians from other islands were persuaded to come live with the Europeans to teach them to live off this strange land, and they were gradually absorbed into the population of black slaves that the colonists brought with them. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833 and a Bajan folk song of the time celebrates the event: "Hurrah fuh Jin-Jin!" (their nickname for Queen Victoria).

Lick and lock-up done wid,
Hurrah for Jin-Jin!
Lick and lock-up done wid,
Hurrah for Jin-Jin! 




God bless de Queen fuh set we free
Hurrah for Jin-Jin!
Now lick and lock-up done wid,
Hurrah for Jin-Jin!


We finally know what the "dolphin" looks lik.
Today, as a couple of centuries ago, people often own their house but not the land it is built on. These landless plantation labourers could be evicted at a moment's notice, and a special kind of house developed from this situation: the chattel house, from chattel "moveable possession". These dwellings can be taken apart, transported to a new location and reassembled. The pine in which they are built was cheaply imported from America and came in pre-cut length, which dictated the houses' dimensions; the chattel houses therefore have a specific look: they are perfectly symmetrical, a single unit with pitched roof. It is constructed over loosely packed limestone blocks (quite scary to behold) for easy removal. Also, the pitch-pine siding is nailed to studs so that panels are rigid when assembled but can be easily separated. A prosperous owner can add units at the back.

A chattelhouse with the limestone blocks clearly visible in all their flimsiness
A hummingbird in the garden added a charming note to the visit before we went home for lunch and to wait for Mark. Someone else came to pick us up though, whose name I didn't catch. We were highly amused when after asking us where we were from and what we did, he said "So you came for the engagement?" There was a puzzled silence from us before he helpfully added: "I mean, did you propose yet?" The truth dawned on me and I exclaimed: "He's my little brother!!" The man did a facepalm...

The conversation moved on. "We're desperate to see sea turtles", Kim said. "No worries", said our driver, "You're gonna see some turtles today. I had a little meeting with the president of the turtle community and told him, look'ere... So he promised he'd have someone show up for you".
We got off at the Boatyard and went to have some passport pictures taken, for our future diving licenses.

Around 4 we were off for our second core dive: the Deep Dive. We were required to dive between 30 and 40m. At such a depth the pressure is very great, the air is consumed very quickly, it's relatively dark and cold, and a lot of people experience nitrogen narcosis (in other words the nitrogen makes them drunk). Mark checked on the boat that we could tap our heads and rub our stomachs at the same time, to see how well we'd perform at the critical depth. The boat dropped us off at the very edge of the reef, where the ground would then fall away from the island into the depths of the Caribbean Sea. Mark kept a hold on a float that would allow the boat to find us in approximately 18 mn - 10 mn bottom time, 3 mn of safety stop at 5m, and the rest for ascending and descending.

We hit the sand at the bottom, adjusted our buoyancy, and started swimming downwards along the slope against a very strong current. I was on the right, Mark in the middle, Kim on his left. We encountered a few fish that looked very surprised at seeing humans there. I pointed out a kind of sea cucumber ahead of me but he overrode me by pointing at something to my right. I instinctively knew what I would see: on my right, a few meters away, the reef continued in a parallel line to our trajectory, and in front of it a sea turtle was sitting on the bottom, raised on its front legs, looking at us curiously.

I was so excited, I tried to get Kim's attention but Mark was already pointing it out to him. Kim had been teasing a group of featherdusters, giggling to himself in his regulator, and when Mark pulled his attention away he just looked at him politely, made the "OK" sign, and went back to his amusement. We carried on but I was sure he hadn't seen it. 

When we reached our maximum depth and paused facing each other I signaled to him "You see turtle?" I thought I heard a gurgling cry of horror as he realized what Mark had been pointing at. Anyway, we had our exercise, which revealed no sign of narcosis: we both felt perfectly fine. The time was up already so we made our way back up the slope. The turtle was gone, but we saw a stingray gracefully flying up onto the reef. We swam right into a sight so mindblowing it etched itself in my head: There was a huge, endless, perfectly synchronized school of large fish ahead of us, silhouetted against the bright background of the still-distant surface. Where the float's line cut through the school the fish moved away from it with a graceful movement that turned the scene into a piece of op-art. It was a highway of fish extending on either side of, above, and below us: I had never been so aware of being suspended in tridimensional space.


The current was with us now, so we were moving fast. Mark suddenly felt the float being dragged. He gave it some slack, but it started dragging again (and him him with it) as soon as it pulled taut. So he gestured to Kim to hold onto his arm, and I to Kim's - and we went for a ride! We found out later how ridiculous the situation was. Kim and I honestly thought this was due to the current, and just went along without question or worry. In the meanwhile Mark was seeing his life flash before his eyes, thinking "If this isn't a boat, it's a bloody big thing. SHIT." Being dragged this way we soon reached the 5m limit where we had to stop for decompression, so he let go of the float, which shot right out of its hand. While we were watching our depth gauges and watches he was (unbeknownst to us) looking around carefully, thinking something was going to happen very soon. But nothing did, and the boat was waiting for us when we emerged.
"Did you see my float?" he asked the driver.
"Yeah, I uh, ran straight into it and got it tangled in my engine."
"WHY YOU..."
So we found out what had just happened, with a good laugh. Then I brought the turtle up again, and Kim confessed to Mark he hadn't seen it. Mark responded with a milk-curdling stare. "There's a turtle sitting there not moving and Kim is going cootchy-coo with the featherdusters!!" It was pointless: Kim was already banging his head against the railing in frustration.

Sea biscuit on the prowl
We deserved a break before our final, Night dive. For the deep dive I had worn a long suit, which is a full-body wet suit. A wet suit has to be tight, because it keeps you warm by maintaining a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. I can't stand being covered with something both thick and tight, but being very sensitive to the cold, I had no option but to wear the full suit for deep and night dive. Getting into the bloody thing is a test of endurance and fitness, and there was no way I was going to go through taking it off, then wearing it again for the next dive, and then take it off one more time. So I kept it on in-between, which both shocked and amused the Shack's crew immensely.
Diving by night is intimidating at first, but quickly turns out to be the very best time. Many sea creatures only come out after sunset, and the fact we use torches means that colours are fully saturated instead of bluish. It can be scary as hell: Mark warned us not to look away from our torches because we wouldn't be able to see our hands in front of our faces and that's more than most people can handle. The first thing that hit us when we came into sight of the sand was the number of "sea biscuits" prowling around. During the day these short-spined urchins (looking more like fuzzy pebbles) are buried and can be merely guessed at. Now they were everywhere littering the bottom, with carved trails behind them proving that they were actually crawling along the bottom.

There were plenty of regular urchins as well, and they looked EVIL - their needles knitting wildly as they glowed an angry red under the torchlight, tiny black tentacles groping the water around them. There were pale starfish dragging themselves across the sand, and plenty of paired crabs scuttling around threatening us with their derisive claws. We were disturbing them during mating: the female would run while the male on top of her threatened us. Transparent hydra had appeared out of nowhere. The fish were different: big-eyed squirrelfish (thus named because their dorsal fin sticks up like a squirrel's tail) abounded, and there were also plenty of blenny-type, often half-buried, and weird lizardfish. We found two eels on the hunt, and some horseshoe lobsters looking like some war machine out of Star Wars (actually I think some of the Star Wars machines were inspired from them).

We enjoyed special effects as well, the sea lighting up every now and then, because a group of divers were exploring a wreck nearby and taking pictures. From the boat we had been able to see the flash and the light of their torches under the water, a spectacular sight. We were hoping to find an octopus that lived on one of the ships, but they probably scared it away. We were however amply rewarded...

We were skimming one of the ships' flank when Mark started ascending to swim over the bridge. When he reached the railing he stopped and started banging on his tank to call us. I was close by and I stopped next to him to find myself staring at a large, dozing turtle, yellow under the light between the metal walls where it had sought refuge from the photographers' annoying flash. It looked grumpy at being disturbed again by our flashlights. I turned to make sure that Kim was seeing it this time, but he was already as petrified as if he'd seen Medusa. I thought "Good" and turned back - only to find the turtle within inches of my face, making a slow, splendidly graceful u-turn in mid-air to swim away to a more peaceful place. He passed right in front of Kim's face before disappearing into the darkness, out of reach of our lights. I had to reluctantly shake Kim so we could catch up with the others, who were moving out of sight. It was one of the most amazing things we'd ever seen. It was a gift to us that night.


The turtle was the highlight of the evening and of the whole trip, but the dive was actually quite action-packed, due to a woman who dived with us. I didn't mention it earlier, but the moment we got off the boat and started descending, she went into passive panic and couldn't move a muscle. Later on she showed more signs of panic and Mark had to calm her down, but she assured him she was ok and we went on. At some point as Mark was attracting our attention, I looked up and something hit me, knocking the regulator clean out of my mouth. It didn't occur to me just then how dangerous that was: I just rolled my eyes and put it back in, ready to scowl at Kim, but I found out it was the woman so I didn't say anything. Within minutes though she had a severe cramp that was unnatural; it was clear she was panicking and super-tense. So Mark did what a good instructor would do, short of interrupting the dive for everyone: he took her hand and kept her at his side for the rest of the dive.

The moment we came out of the water she complained that she didn't enjoy the dive because he was holding her hand the whole time! And when he told her she was panicking and knocked the regulator out of my mouth, she said that that was because Kim hit her on the head with her tank first! Naturally, for this to be physically possible, he would have had to be swimming upside-down above her head. Kim and I sat at the front of the boat during the ride back wishing we had popcorn as we listened to a splendid argument in the back, which Mark won all hands down.

Right before the dive we had filled all the necessary paperwork, so with the night dive completed we were now, if not officially yet, advanced divers.


Wednesday May 28

One of those "holding the camera at arm's length
and hoping the frame is ok" pictures, with the additional
element of "hurry I need air!"
Halfway between Silver Sands and Bridgetown we would always see, from the bus, a beautiful-looking beach with much activity and shopping concentrated around it. We thought we'd spend a day snorkeling and enjoying it there. It was called Rockley Park, although the locals used another name for it that I forgot. We arrived early, almost the first on the scene, hence the paradise-like photos. Unfortunately visibility was too poor for snorkeling, so we just swam, picked up seashells on the beach, shopped and basked in the sun until we were so well done we decided to run away home. In the evening we had a drink at Mike's before returning to Oistins for dinner. We experienced the season's first rain, a 5-seconds shower just when Kim left the verandah to get some water. He went back outside to a balcony that was suddenly soaked, and was rather nonplussed.

Thursday May 29

Our last day in the island had arrived, so with some sadness we did our last shopping, visiting a cigar-making place in the process, and then went to the beach at the Boatyard. The place is equipped with great water games, notably a few trampolines in the water and something called the Iceberg -- a large inflated white thing with climbing holds. You're supposed to climb to the top and then slide down the side back into the water. We were complete kids for the morning before getting our snorkeling gear out. Snorkeling was amazingly good for a sandy beach; from the surface we located dark patches in the water, which correspond to small reefs, and aimed for them with much reward. I chased a boxfish over the sand with our camera until the fish just stopped fleeing and hovered there lifting puppy eyes at me, which allowed me to immortalize it. We then discovered that in the hollow of the rock behind it, a small, adorable pufferfish was hiding.

Boxfish and friends
I used to think fish were uninteresting and dumb creatures, but that trip completely changed my outlook, and I fell in love with the whole family.

I watched a purple spotted eel hunting, behaving exactly like a snake crawling and lunging on the sandy bottom, before taking a break and lending my mask to a little kid who came to ask if he could borrow it. This is a bad shot, but you can just see the eel's colourful body.

We hung around with the Scuba Shack crew one last time and had a drink with Mark before heading home. All the buses were full however, so we were still waiting on the side of the road when Mark drove by on his way to drop off a vanful of British, so he picked us up as well. We had decided to invest into another dinner at Mike's Bar for our last evening; we had tried it on Monday and it was memorable. To our excitement, Mark showed up as well and so we enjoyed a great evening full of laughter and the sound of the sea at night.

A few days later, back in Canada...

Guess who's graduating from McGill?
Yes, it's Superman!