And so finally I returned. On a pilgrimage of sorts. To the small Caribbean island nation of Barbados. I wondered whether the sense of belonging that overwhelmed me sixteen years ago, the first time I visited, would again take hold. For years I had carried within my heart incredible memories of my first trip to Barbados, when I was twenty-six and alone in the world. Inexplicably back then it felt like I’d come home.
Midway through May, 2015, I found my way back. To the same little strip of beach on the south coast of the island, at a place called Worthing, in the parish of Christchurch. From my balcony I stood mesmerized by the sparkling Atlantic. Ever-changing shades of turquoise and blue like a colour swatch card made purely of water. Overtaken by a strong magnetic pull to be submerged beneath the warm tropical water; akin to the pull of an infant to the breast. An energy source crucial for survival.
If I listen closely to my heart’s desire, time and again it leads me to the water’s edge. In his landmark book, Blue Mind: the Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, the American marine biologist, Wallace J. Nichols, describes the human – water connection as, “A mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.”
There are many other things that bond me to Barbados. For a start we both share a deep love of cricket. And though the West Indies team is not the great cricketing force they once were, cricket is still a popular national pass-time. Historically cricket represents so more than just a sport. As the great Antiguan cricketer Sir Vivian Richards once told me, “…cricket is more like a religion than a sport.” When West Indies teams of the past were unbeatable, the spirits of the entire region lifted.
Barbados has a rich cricketing history herself as the birthplace of many legends of the game. The greatest all-rounder there ever was, Sir Garfield Sobers, was born in Bay Land, St. Michael parish on July 28th, 1931. The so called ‘3 W’s, Sir Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott and the fast bowler Wes Hall all proudly emanate from Barbados. One only has to drive the islands main roads to see numerous roundabouts named in honour of their famous cricketers. And modern day champions from the heyday of West Indian cricket three decades ago, who captured my imagination as a cricket obsessed youngster, like the opening pair of Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, and fearsome fast bowlers like Joel Garner and the late Malcolm Marshall were all born and bred in Barbados.
This beautiful little island also has a fascinating Jewish history. I was surprised to learn when I first came here years ago the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere stands in the centre of the capital Bridgetown. Built in 1651, the original synagogue was destroyed in the hurricane of 1831 and rebuilt on the same site adjacent to the ancient Jewish cemetery.
The first Jewish settlers to Barbados were Sephardic Jews from Recife, Brazil. They arrived in 1628, the year after the British colony was established, fleeing persecution during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. By the mid 1700’s the Jewish population of Barbados had grown to 800. Mostly the Jews worked as merchants and traders, though the Sephardim had run sugar plantations in Brazil, so brought to Barbados valuable knowledge of triple-roller sugar mills and copper cauldrons in which cane juice was boiled to extract sugar crystals. They passed on their knowledge to plantation owners and thus played a part in helping establish the cultivation of sugar, on the back of which the island’s economy thrived. Of course, the horrific slave trade transported thousands of people across the middle passage from Africa provided the huge labour force required to work the plantations.
In the 1930’s a small influx of Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to Barbados from Poland. They, like my Jewish grand-parents from Germany and Hungary who resettled in Sydney, Australia, fled their homelands to escape Nazi persecution during Hitler’s Third Reich. Perhaps, knowing centuries ago there was a Jewish presence on the island goes some way to explaining my affection for Barbados.
And then there’s the music. The wonderful uplifting soulful music of the Caribbean. The reggae, ska, calypso and soca that pulse throughout many Caribbean islands. Your body takes over and your mind stands aside while the music compels your body to move. Music that frees you with messages of peace, love and equality. One only has to jump aboard one of the minivans that operate as shared taxis around the island to hear reggae blaring day and night. Dj’s and bands all over the island pay homage to the strong musical tradition of the Caribbean.
For me Barbados is the place on earth my spirit feels as free as I suspect it ever will. Enveloped by the light of tropical sunshine, never far from the roar of the waves, visceral feelings of happiness replace sorrow. Where lingering memories of a past dotted with sadness soften amidst the tropical backdrop. Tears flow with ease as my mind drifts back to beloved long gone people of my childhood; my baby brother and both of my parents, all of whom died young. From my vantage point overlooking the turquoise water, a child-like lightness of being takes hold.