Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tuk Band Celebration

Happy New Year! It's a season of celebrations and in Barbados, that usually means the raucous sounds of a tuk band will be streaming through the streets. Tuk bands produce Bajan folk music that truly represents the offbeat mix of African and British culture. Since traditional African rhythms were outlawed during slavery, enslaved Africans learned the music of British military and maritime bands, along with classical waltzes. After emancipation, a sound that merged all of these rhythms surfaced. The band plays a kittle drum also known as a snare drum, which was originally made from animal skins, the bass drum, a penny whistle and a triangle.

The Tuk band rhythm moves progressively from a slow waltz, to a fassy or march beat and explodes into a frenetic African rhythm. Typically, the performers are a trio of roaming minstrels accompanied by a stilt walker, a moco jumbie or masquerade figure called Shaggy Bear and a man dressed as a woman with big bosoms and behind called Mother Sally. Both moco jumbies and stilt walkers can be traced directly to West African spiritual rituals where an egungun or masked figure representing ancestor spirits parade through festivals and initiations. Both figures appear throughout the Caribbean region but only Barbados joins them with such a distinctly British influence as military rhythms. Although Tuk Band music is a forerunner of Trinidad's calypso and Jamaica's reggae, combining similar elements of Western and African sensibilities, I can't say that I've ever heard anything like it on any other island.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Sweet Retreat

Sugar in all forms generally makes me happy. I refuse to patronize restaurants without dessert menus and have been known to start dinner with a decadent dessert and end with a small appetizer. Life's too short to always leave your favorite thing for last. So I was especially struck by the symbolism of this sugar mill converted into a house. Tucked onto a hill in St. Peter, this sugar mill house represents Barbados' history as a major sugar producer. It also reflects my sweets obsession in a major way. What would be cooler than living in a structure that used to create sugar? I'm sure just the sugary walls would provide creative inspiration and a jolt of psychic energy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chillin' In Little Bristol

A cricket obsession, a pub culture centered around rum shops and the people's reserved manner, have helped earn Barbados the nickname of "Little England." The island definitely exudes a singular quality that blends Caribbean spirit with a British sensibility. I found the best example of this in the quiet village of Speightstown, on the Eastern coast. Founded in 1653, Speightstown is the second biggest town in Barbados, after Bridgetown. It's a sleepy place filled with crumbling, historic buildings and serene beaches. I found the town charming, from my first stop at the iconic Fisherman's pub, which serves flying fish burgers and a spray of sea water if you sit too close to the beach side windows, to the outdoor market spilling over with papayas, plantains and pudding & souse. I have scary childhood memories about souse, which is a gory mix of pig parts, that my grandmother would make but it's a popular Bajan ritual to buy the stuff on Saturdays from a market stall. I discovered that the pudding is made from pigs intestines stuffed with sweet potatoes and seasonings. I did not sample it.

Speightstown is called "Little Bristol" because it was once a major port, shipping cotton and tobacco directly to Bristol. The harbor is mostly used by fishermen now but the beach offers tranquil, turquoise waters and gorgeous views.

Besides a laid back stroll down Queens Street, a visit to the Arlington Museum is a Speightstown must do. The museum is headquartered in a single 18th century house that's the architectural model for the houses that Bajan settlers built in Charleston, South Carolina. The entire museum uses high tech, interactive displays to tell the stories about Barbados' culture and history. For me, the most memorable display was about the pirate Stede Bonnet. He's apparently a famous swashbuckler, nicknamed the gentleman pirate but I had never heard of him. Bonnet was born on a Barbados plantation to a wealthy family, hence the gentleman moniker. He was a justice of the peace and married with three children when he up and decided to become a pirate. It's insinuated that marital squabbles drove him to it but women always get blamed for everything, even pirates. Anyway, he sailed a ship called Revenge, stocked with his beloved library. He's the only pirate who actually purchased his ship, instead of stealing it. He met up with Blackbeard and let him take over his ship since he was an incompetent sailor and joined him during the infamous siege on Charleston, where Bonnet was eventually jailed and hung. The exhibit feature's Bonnet's signature pirate flag and a talking model of the pirate that was quite creepy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bajan Street Signs

Wandering through Barbados, I was struck by the wit and color of the street signs. Humor and welcoming vibes seemed to ring out from these brightly colored placards, in ways that I never see in the U.S. Even the dollar store sign looked inviting with a wash of sunny hues. The City Woman sign caught my attention because it captures the basic Caribbean sensibility of living practically but with joy. Fish frys are a cultural constant on the island but I was partial to the red sign above because it's my name, minus a "d" at the end. My favorite of course, is the Barbados Jack sign, nothing beats booty!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

George Washington and Barbados

I certainly wasn't expecting to learn about American history or George Washington while I was in Barbados but that's exactly what I did. I was surprised to discover that the Eastern Caribbean island played an important role in the course of American history. Besides supplying the settlers who founded North and South Carolina and about seven of the first governors for these states, Barbados was the only country visited by George Washington and the experience left a major impact on his life. The 18th century, two story, Georgian style house where George Washington lived in Barbados for seven weeks, has been restored into the George Washington House and Museum in Bridgetown.

Enveloped by lush gardens and balmy sea breezes that blow through the house, the museum presents a huge amount of information in an unlikely place. The rooms where George Washington lived are bare and utilitarian but the second floor boasts a life-size Washington that reads from his diary at the push of a button. George Washington was 19 when he journeyed to Barbados with his older, half-brother Lawrence, who was sick with tuberculosis. Barbados was known as a health spa and Lawrence's doctors recommended a stay in 1751. Although Lawrence had been educated in Europe, George had never left their Virginia home. Their father had died and George never got the education or exposure that benefited Lawrence. In Barbados, George witnessed his first fort, first theatrical performance and visited his first big city in Bridgetown. From the late 17th century until the mid 18th century, the major cities of the English speaking world were Boston, London and Bridgetown.
George also contracted small pox while he was in Barbados, leaving him immune to the disease. Small pox decimated the American Revolutionary army but George was unaffected and was able to organize the first mass inoculation against small pox for his troops. Bajans like to say that they saved George Washington for the presidency and the American Revolution. The museum's director also likes to say that not only did George Washington sleep in Barbados, but he woke up there. His small, provincial world was expanded and he was able to make contact with influential people in Bridgetown that would later guide his career. He never would have traveled in their circles in Virginia. This reminds me of the elitism debate that surfaced during the 2008 election. No matter what the party or platform, it's a fact that every 20th century U.S. president either came from affluent families or were educated or trained at elite institutions.
The museum also explores the history of slavery on Barbados and how the system has influenced history. A sculpture of Olaudah Equiano, the famous African who had been enslaved on Barbados and bought his own freedom, holds a prominent space on the second floor. Equiano moved to London and published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Eqiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789. It became a bestseller and a touchstone in the slave narrative literary genre. It also kicked off the British abolition movement, of which Equiano was one of its most notable figures. Slavery was an issue that posed a moral dilemma throughout Washington's life. The exhibit examines Washington's position as the man who helped fight for America's freedom but who never gave freedom to the 300 enslaved Africans that he owned. According to the display, he considered it but decided that the undertaking would be too expensive. So "he left the question of slavery for another generation to solve."

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Taste of Harlem and Passports With A Purpose

Today marks the first day for the Passports With A Purpose fundraiser. Four Seattle travel bloggers decided to rally the travel blogging community to raise money and awareness for Heifer International, which is a charity that combats hunger by teaching sustainable farming methods and donating livestock. I couldn't pass up a chance to help so thanks to a generous donation from A Taste of Harlem founder Jacqueline Orange, my raffle prize is two tickets to the Taste of Harlem Food and Cultural Tour. This three hour tour features six restaurants, tours of an art gallery, a historic bed and breakfast, shops and landmarks that reflect Harlem's storied history.

I grabbed a chance to experience this whirlwind excursion last year and it opened my eyes and taste buds to parts of New York history that I never knew. Nestled in the Manhattan borough, Harlem holds some cultural tidbits that might fascinate you. The neighborhood hosts a huge Dominican population, for instance. I sampled savory arroz amarillo (yellow rice) and rabo (oxtail stew) dishes pictured above at El Tina Dominican restaurant, as well as chicken and waffles (which were first joined together in Harlem, not LA) at Amy Ruth's. I heard Apollo Theater history from Mr. Apollo himself and cruised the legendary Sugar Hill area that was home to notables like Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson. Jackie is a lively and gracious guide who will make sure you have a memorable Harlem experience.

The tickets are good for the entire 2009 year so if you plan on visiting New York or already live there, please consider buying a raffle ticket for the tour. Raffle tickets are $10. That's a $190 value for two tour tickets. You can purchase raffle tickets at First Giving as well as view the list of all the great travel-related raffle prizes. For each ticket you purchase, you'll be entered into a raffle for the prize you select. Don't forget to enter the prize code in the donation form! You'll get a receipt from First Giving as well as good karma. The raffle will be open until December 29 so please remember Passports With A Purpose during all of the holiday hoopla. Winning tickets will be drawn on December 30 and winners will be contacted through e-mail.