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Wanderthirst: bringing my whole self back home to Barbados

A photograph of an ocean shoreline against rocks.

In turquoise Caribbean seas, I found myself shifting and evolving – like the Barbados of my childhood.

I’m a big fan of swimming outdoors. I love lidos, lakes, rivers, the ponds at Hampstead Heath and Beckenham, the tidal pool at Margate’s Walpole Bay. But the sea in Barbados is my original swim. I learned there as a child, living in Prospect, St. James when I was aged four to six. If you have swum in tranquil Caribbean seas, then you’ll know it’s like swimming in liquid azure and turquoise silk. The water welcomes you, ushers you in. The sand is cushiony, its colour the soft, washed-out pink of finely crushed coral. It’s not perfect; like any sea, there are things in there that will scrape and sting you. But, if I had to be stung or scraped in any sea, make it Caribbean. 

I also love swimming in Barbados’ less welcoming beaches and sitting in the rockpools at Bathsheba, getting rolled in the surf at the Crane. What my many swims on a recent trip reminded me is that I know exactly how to be in the sea. I know how to float on the surface (clenching your bum cheeks is key) and listen to the shimmering sound of seawater stirring up sand. I know to stand sideways in the face of a daunting wave or, if it’s really big, go under it to emerge through it. I know how to catch the tide with no board, just my body, and let it sweep me into shore. I have muscle memory for the sea. 

“The sand is cushiony, its colour the soft, washed-out pink of finely crushed coral”

Before I set off on this trip, my first since 2017, I worried I’d feel a sense of cultural dislocation while there; a hyperawareness of my Britishness after several years away. Instead, where I expected severance, I felt connected. The trip reminded my sister and I of our Bajanness, leading to moments of joy in self-recognition. For her, it was the sun-soaked chattel house colours that crop up in her design work. For me, it was my taste for intense flavours and sweetness in foods like Bajan curry or sugar cakes. And, for both of us, its rhythms – the sound of tree frogs after 6pm, the insect-like buzz of wind-winnowed kite strings, the cu-coo-cu-coo of Bajan wood doves.

Barbados is often presented as a place of two halves. There’s its Platinum coast, the foundation on which the country’s tourism industry rests, home to the kind of beaches that you might mistake for screensavers. But there’s much more to the west coast than its beauty. Resorts and private villas rub shoulders along much of it, yet you can still see the modest homes of local Bajans every now and then. And, no matter how exclusive a resort may seem, the beaches they’re built on are public – in theory. In practice, thanks to overdevelopment of the coastline, this freedom is under threat. During the trip, I saw how stretches of shoreline had become segmented and impassable in places, as coastal erosion brings the water right up to the walls of private beachfront properties. It’s a reminder of how colonialism not only echoes down centuries, but evolves.  

Then there’s the east coast. Here waves don’t lap but smack, pounding shores and rock faces with a rage intensified across thousands of miles of open ocean. There are rockpools, towering remnants of ancient coral reefs, wind-battered palm trees. As you might expect, it’s home to far fewer resorts. Both east and west coastlines are natural wonders with hidden depths, but they’re so often reduced to their user-friendliness – the one where it’s easy to swim and the one where it isn’t. Sometimes, when hearing or reading about Barbados, you could be forgiven for thinking it is nothing but a giant sandbar made of two coastlines zipped up back to back, despite the fact there’s a whole south coast too. 

As I explored the island in a tiny hire car with my boyfriend, rumbling over potholes and braking for troops of monkeys, I was reminded of how overly simplistic this idea of Barbados is. There is so much that exists in between the island’s coasts. There are gullies full of the bearded fig trees that inspired the island’s name. There are the rum shops in which gassin’ is elevated to a fine art and where I came to understand my grandfather’s love of talking a lot about not very much. Then there’s the plantation houses and sugar mills – the scars that bear witness to the history of colonialism and enslavement on the island. 

A ruined sugar mill near Cove Bay — Aimée Grant Cumberbatch

There was something in the oversimplification of Barbados, in the way it’s put into neat packages for a certain audience, that really resonated with me. I’m mixed race, so being carved up into chunks comes with the territory. Parcelling myself up neatly is something I’ve consciously been trying to do less of lately. But in Barbados I realised I also place binaries on myself in so many other ways. I’m always sorting myself into good – when I’m productive, tidy, organised, energetic – and bad – when I’m tired for no reason, can’t be bothered, running late, eating three Terry’s Chocolate Oranges in a week.

I’ve also done this on a grander level, with the self I felt I left in Barbados when I moved back to the UK aged six. As a frequently sad, socially awkward, shy, self-conscious adult, I looked back on my Barbados self with wonder and envy. I wished I had her confidence, her ability to make instant friends, her carefree nature and, yes, her multi-coloured foam sandals. The fact that my parents split up when we lived in Barbados only emphasised the gap between the two me’s in my mind. Shortly after their split, my sister and I returned to the UK with our mum, and my dad stayed in Barbados. Needless to say, under-six me hadn’t known sadness like it. 

“There was something in the oversimplification of Barbados, in the way it’s put into neat packages for a certain audience, that really resonated with me”

Leaving Barbados represented the loss of so many things – one of them that sunny younger self. But feeling that muscle memory in the water, remembering those sea skills I’d learned in Barbados as a small child, reminded me that she’s still in there. Even though life’s brutal lessons – grief, sadness, mental health struggles – have humbled me, I still have that strength. Only now, I channel it differently. I saw this reflected in Barbados too. Coastlines are shifting and hotels are built, knocked down and rebuilt endlessly. Barbados now has fields full of solar panels and there’s a new Chefette mega playground, but it is still Barbados. In the same way, in the wake of both gentle and devastating waves, I too shift and evolve. But I’m still me.

Barbados is not two coastlines put back to back. It’s not half beautiful beaches, half rugged shoreline. It’s a patchwork, rich and wonderful precisely because of its contrasts. And it’s the same for me. I’m not good or bad, half this or half that. I’m not rupture, I’m not disjointed scraps, I have sewn myself back together many times. I’m Bajan, I’m British, I’m mixed, I’m a whole me.


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