The night had been a series of catnaps, it always is when I know I need to get up early. I had rested my head at the BLOC hotel at Gatwick, I wonder if it was short for blockhouse. The hotel was arranged as a compact grid of narrow corridors, between which tiny box rooms were cramped hosting all forms of humanity. I presumed rooms on the outside walls of the building had windows. Mine, like most, lurked in the dark interior.
My "box" was entirely functional. A bed lay along one wall, and in the corner adjacent to the door was a very compact toilet/shower facility. Wall mirrors from floor to ceiling generated the illusion of depth. What I found astonishing was that these mirrors had no blemishes on them at all, even the full length mirror in the bathroom. How did they clean them so spotlessly?
The carpet in the bedroom was a patterned, textured, polypropylene material, easily cleaned and well able to cope with my wet feet after a refreshing shower. All controls for the room were administered from a touch sensitive screen mounted by the bed. The only misgiving I had about the room was that the sheets were so tightly folded under the mattress that I had a heck of a job to wrestle them free. Why? I always prefer to be able to dangle my feet out of the bottom in the cool air. Still, the room served its purpose.
I savoured the bright fresh day, the ground still moist from overnight rain, as I made my way to the North Terminal.
On exchanging pleasantries with the young man at the check-in, I chirpily asked, "Would it be possible to get a window seat, please?"
"I'll just check sir," he replied. After a quick scan of his terminal, he asked, "Have you ever considered a seat upstairs?" This was an option on the large Boeing 747-400 plane.
Having never dreamed of this option before, and it was being offered for free, it did not take me long to eagerly respond, "I would love to travel upstairs."
"OK sir, you now have a window seat upstairs. Have an enjoyable trip," he replied, grinning from ear to ear. Well, I had certainly fallen on my feet so far.
The flight VS029 climbed gracefully into the air on time, and soon we were speeding over the Isle of Wight. All rivers and inlets were crisply defined in a silvery grey. Our bird continued along the south coast. A veritable forest of fluffy white clouds hovered above the sea, tethered to their darker shadows by invisible threads.
The rest of the flight passed in a blur. Cotton wool clouds merged into huge cloud masses, and then back into cloud flurries over an azure ocean. I caught glimpses of waves crashing onto the shores of the Azores far below. At times the ocean seemed so still that clouds could be seen reflected in it, and then there were long swathes of cloudless skies when the sea and sky melted into each other on some invisible horizon.
After a gentle glide down over the 21 mile x 14 mile island, giving me a panoramic view of Bridgetown and the south coast, we touched down without a hair on my head being stirred - what hair?
I was desperate to use the restroom as soon as I was in the arrivals hall. This was a bad move, I slid from 100th to 500th position in the slow, snaking queue leading to immigration control. Another plane must have landed shortly afterwards, as the queue suddenly stretched all the way to seemingly tarmac. Immigration was a painless affair thanks to Rex having primed me with all the questions and answers that would transpire, and soon I was outside looking for a head towering above the rest.
And there he was, Rex, donning a straw boater, frantically waving. It was grand to see him again, as if we had just parted a day or two ago. He was his usual self, full of good cheer and banter. I gave him a huge bear hug. He heaved my suitcase across to the car park, introduced me to his Suzuki Jimny, and almost pulled his back out trying to get my 23Kg suitcase into the back of it, cursing fluently in Bajan in the process. I have always been impressed with Rex's linguistic skills.
As we headed to base, he gave me a guided tour of the Oistins Main Road, pointing out the Oistins Fish Fry on the way. Drivers moved along at a leisurely pace, just as well considering the state of some of the roads, some of which were families of potholes loosely connected by cracking asphalt. Here, drivers did not flash headlights at other vehicle, they hooted instead.
Soon we bumped down Maxwell Coast Road, past a huge Sandals hotel expansion surrounded by a moat of lake like potholes, and into a nameless street containing a mixture of bungalows and two-storey residential buildings. We pulled into the drive of a bungalow, Appleton, that belonged to Mike Atkins. Mike grew up here, and at the age of 17 he went to Sheffield to play cricket for Yorkshire. There he met Sue, they got married, and he has lived there ever since. Over time, the bungalow fell into his hands, and rather than sell it, he kept it on. Now it was a holiday retreat for him and his family, and available for hire to extended family and friends.
The link here is Mike's wife Sue, who is the aunt of Richard, one of Rex's pals in Tollesbury. Richard and his wife Angela, plus Rex and Meryl came over to hire the bungalow a couple of years earlier. Rex and Meryl loved the island so much that they decided to return again for a month's stay. They invited me over to stay a while with them, and I opted for the last two weeks of their stay.
Big hugs for Meryl too, it was a joy to see them both again, and soon we were catching up on news and gossip. A couple of teas and a beer later, we were all showered, and heading to the bus-stop to catch a bus to St. Lawrence Gap. The buses of the government's Barbados Transport Board are easily recognized by their blue colour with yellow stripe. These buses traverse most of the island and have three terminals: two in the capital city of Bridgetown and one in the northern town of Speightstown. Around Bridgetown and the south coast, privately owned 15-seater mini-buses operate too on the same routes. These generally played music, LOUD music, and tooted at any potential passengers, often stopping in the middle of the road to pick people up. A young lad in the back of the mini-bus would operate the door, squeeze passengers into impossible spaces, and collect the fares. Buses and mini-buses operate on a flat fare of BDS2$ (Bajan Dollar) to anywhere on the island. Our mini-bus bus bounced along the highway, accompanied by much tooting. In the failing light many other drives had still not bothered to switch on their headlights, including buses and trucks. The stark blue light blazing away in our vehicle accompanied by loud reggae gave the short journey an ethereal feel.
Alighting at our stop, we turned a corner and there in front of me was the Caribbean, with gentle waves washing and caressing a pristine sandy shore. I could not help strolling down the shore and dipping my hands into the crystal clear, warm water. I stood for a while in the murky light watching a small group of boats at anchor, rolling about on the gentle swell.
Having soaked in that initial feel of the Caribbean, I returned to my pals and we strolled off to one of the many open front bars to sample Banks and Deputy beers. A large video screen above our heads showed a Swansea Triathlon taking place; bizarre. Meryl pointed out a short guy behind the bar, "He's the coach for the Barbados cricket team".
Meryl had managed to book us a table at the Harlequin, a notoriously difficult place to make a booking, a good sign that it is popular. The young woman who served us had a ready smile and pleasant, friendly disposition and always had a giggle. The food was fresh and exquisite. I had a chowder to start with, followed by barracuda accompanied by vegetables and a rice/potato mix roasted in sesame seeds. We ate like kings, watched over by sketches of jazz singers on the walls smiling down on us.
We walked back to our abode, stopping off at Dover Beach where I could stand by the surf and marvel at the star-speckled sky above me, Orion's Belt stretching directly overhead. I was whacked, but it was 28 deg. C and wonderful.