Barbados: Girls on the Island


Rihanna is on the island.
"You might see her," says Mike, the cabdriver we hired to show us around the island.
Our tour begins with the small white bungalow on Parris Street in Bridgetown where Rihanna lived until Jay-Z discovered her and she became a global superstar. We sit in the taxi in front of her house while Mike explains that she now has a number of condos, hotel suites and houses to choose from. "But she's a normal girl," he says approvingly. "Doesn't stick her nose in the air. She goes to Sugar's at night to dance and drives around in a buggy. She knows she's home on the island."
A beautiful place to call home, this lush island where rum flows, white sand trickles between your fingers, and the Atlantic and Caribbean meet, and everything tourist-related is expensive. Many wealthy ex-pats own mansions in gorgeous gated communities, mostly in St. James Parish, north of Bridgetown. Thinking about relocating? You might be neighbors with Tony Blair, Tom Selleck, Cliff Richard, Cilla Black, and many others. Oh, and the omnipresent Oprah has a mansion here as well. I say "omnipresent" because nearly everywhere I've gone during this voyage, a local has informed me that Oprah has a house there... though she's never seen, just helicoptered in and out like a mythical goddess. I think it's safe to say that she is not a normal girl on the island.
"There is no middle class in Barbados," says Mike in the Barbadian accent, which merges Cockney with high British and island drawl. "Only rich and poor. But every beach is free. That's the law."
We take us on a whirlwind tour of the island, including stops at St. Nicholas Abbey-- a former sugar plantation where rum is made, bottled and sold-- and rugged, wild Bathsheba Beach on the east Atlantic coast where surfers come to ride the waves.
The following night, following Mike's advice, we head to Holetown, where there is a weekly karaoke street party, and a drag queen show at Ragamuffin's, a small restaurant-bar owned by Neil Patterson, a British ex-pat who has decorated his lovely restaurant with images of the Buddha and paintings from Nepal. Promptly at 9:00, Mannequins in Motion, three drag queens, begin an energetic 90-minute show. The stage is the small area between the bar and the tables, but the performers strut and weave around the waitress and diners. At least six and a half feet tall, the bone-thin leader of the group startles a couple by pushing their plates to the side, climbing on their table, lying back and waving her endless legs in 5-inch heels in the air.
After the show, she and I stand in the doorway of the restaurant and look out at the pouring rain. The karaoke street party has dispersed. With a sigh the Mannequin sets down her enormous pink feathered headdress.
We look from her glittering Dorothy high heels-- the kind a normal girl can make a wish on-- to my flat black sandals, still sand-dusted from an earlier walk on the beach. Our eyes meet, and she gives me a rueful grin.
"From London. Brand-new. Shoes make the girl, you know."
Oh, I know. My trusty sandals have taken me salt-harvesting, wading through seas in Europe and Latin America, up and down steep cobbled streets in North Africa, and dancing in nightclubs and on sand everywhere.
We lean against each other for just a moment-- two girls, with shoes, hanging out on a Sunday night in Holetown.
I pretend I'm walking on sand as I explore Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown-- the first synagogue in the Americas. When the temple was built in 1654, the new Jewish immigrants covered the floor with sand to symbolize the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years before they came to the Promised Land.
Armed with a valuable knowledge of sugar, this first wave of Jews came from Recife, Brazil, to the Land of Coconut Milk and Sugar Cane, which they hoped to turn into their Land of Milk and Honey. Their stay in Barbados began promisingly as they established and developed sugar plantations. However, this golden period lasted only five years, until 1659, when the Portuguese grew jealous of the Jews' success with sugar. They imposed a law restricting Jews to a single slave, thereby eliminating the possibility of a Jew maintaining a sugar plantation. Hence, the Jews lost the sugar trade. They struggled to survive, and many left for the Carolinas.
In 1750, about 800 Jews remained in Bridgetown. By 1850, the number had dwindled to 71. Today, of the 83 Jews who live in Barbados, a handful are descendants of the original settlers from Recife. Celso Brewster, the genial manager of the small museum adjoining the synagogue, is one of them, and like the other descendants, he is not a Jew.
Between the museum and the synagogue is the cemetery with its fascinating Sephardic carved tombstone designs, including skulls and crossbones, Tree of Life, palms, winged cherubs and doves. A few feet away from the cemetery, stands the stone mikveh (women's ritual bathhouse). It was excavated in 2008, and small Minute Books were found that offer a unique view of women's lives in early Barbados and a history of the Jewish community in Barbados.
The pink synagogue is airy and simple. My friend Ricki and I can't climb the outside steps to the Women's Gallery, but we sense the presence of the women who prayed upstairs and washed nearby in the mikveh. I shake off a sudden image of the Mannequins in Motion, kicking off their sequined heels and dancing across the sandy floor.
Ricki and I head back out to Synagogue Lane and turn down Swan Street, formerly known as Jew Street. The sun is bright, the sea calls, and maybe one last Passionfruit Daquiri to soften the pain of leaving this tropical island. "Jesus is the way!" shouts a man on a radio. The street is crammed with local-owned booths and shops that sell fruits and vegetables, nuts and snacks, and clothing and shoes (though none as high as the Mannequins') and offer services like "Eyebrows cutting and arching."
No eyebrows cutting today. Just two normal Jewish girls in our sandals, trudging across the sand to the next stop in our wanderings.