THE WHEELS ON THE BUS GO ROUND AND ROUND

No body said living in paradise was easy but for the past two and a half years of living on this small rock I have felt privileged and incredibly lucky. Then a week like this one happens and I pause with a heavy heart hoping we made the right decision.
It’s the kids you see.
They were on a daylong school bus trip and a few parents were asked to follow the bus in cars to help with general law and order. More kids turned up for the trip than anticipated and instead of saying they could not be accommodated the school just shoved them all on. In each row of two bucket seats one child per row sat in the middle on the partition.
‘Are you sure it is safe to have the children sit like this?’ I asked the Transport Board bus driver.
‘Yeah. Dat is how we does always carry de children.’
‘How many people can you take?’
‘Ninety-six.’
‘But that must be a certain number sitting and the rest standing.’
‘No. Once is ninety-six in all we good.’

It was only in 2007 that a bus crashed killing six and injuring thirty-seven people on their way to the Party Monarch Finals on the East coast. As Crop-Over draws near again our little society mourns this tragedy at Joe’s River. Somewhere, buried deep beneath a pile of papers on someone’s desk, are a series of proposals for improving safety on buses patiently awaiting implementation.

A few more children clambered on the already overflowing bus.
‘Hurry up! We running late.’
‘Are you sure you want to take on the risk of children seated like this?’ I again asked the two teachers who taught First and Second Born.
They sighed in resignation.
‘Fine. We’ll ask the principal.’

A few months ago the artist Corrie Scott and I embarked on a situationist dérive – the practice of abandoning one’s normal activities to experience a particular geography anew. Okay, so we only managed to ditch our cars and take a bus from Speightstown to Oistins and back. But cheese-on-bread the geography from that bus seat was totally new. I have never made it from one end of the island to the next so fast. Holetown was a blur. Bridgetown whizzed past our eyes. When we staggered off at Oistins it was only to fall into the nearest rum shop demanding soda water to settle our large and small intestines, liver and spleen back into their customary positions.

But it was all worth it for one reason. We shared the bus with a full bridal party. They too got on at Speightstown and off at Oistins. From our seats in the rum shop we saw the bride, in flowing white gown, and her beautifully turned out entourage, get off the bus and hail a ZR taxi. She and her party pushed in with the other passengers and sped off - presumably to the church where her groom was waiting. At least our bus had been on time or even ahead of schedule and we know ZRs will use whatever means necessary to get you to the church on time.

“The principal says if you have a problem take your children off the bus.’

So I did.

A couple other parents followed. But from the stinky looks all around it was clear that I was scornfully regarded as bringing my uppity foreign ways to bear on this Garden of Eden. Thirty-odd years ago my own parents would have shared their view. Our happiest summers were spent with another family squashed into their tiny car making our way from San Fernando to Mayaro beach in Trinidad. Five-year-old Mandy was perched on her mother’s knees in the front seat (no seat belt of course) and her slightly older brother Anton and I squashed ourselves between my parents. Instead of Nintendo we all sang songs, played “I Spy”, and waved or made faces at people in other cars. Life was simpler back then and we never considered the possibility of becoming road fatality statistics.

The first death I can recall was the loss of my much-loved Aunty Ruby when I was seven. She was always giving me presents of pretty dresses. The last one she gave me was white on top with a black skirt and a black velvet band around the waist. Her car crashed on the road between San Fernando and Mayaro. She died instantly.

AN ASSESSMENT OF THE CONTRIBUTION OF CAKE TO DEMOCRATIC REFORMS FROM 1789 TO 2009

Maybe it was Marie-Antoinette, more likely it was Marie-Thérèse, but one of these bad-ass chicks said something like “let them eat cake”. Since then we have been faced with the vexed question of what was meant by that inflammatory remark made in the face of soaring bread prices. If Marie-Antoinette, a much-misunderstood woman, had indeed uttered these famous words, it would not have been the cynical statement it first appears. Hers would have been a plea that if her people can’t have baguette then they deserve something better. So historians have neglected to consider another vexed question: which cake exactly was Her Royal Sweetness referring to? Answers have been sought in the patisseries of Paris, with theories verging from a simple sponge like a Madeleine to some elaborate, cream-laden concoction. But it is on this small rock, where the population has no appetite for revolution, and salt bread prices are relatively stable, that the answer has at last been revealed.

Actually “revealed” is not quite correct. Not all 280,000 inhabitants of this small rock have tasted The Cake and there are no signs of it coming into commercial production. A man who makes his living by selling a Caribbean cake in a distinctive box at tourist outlets, (the locals know better than to eat the stuff themselves), tasted The Cake and was smitten. It was moist and overflowing with perfectly blended ingredients. A slightly tart frosting, the texture of pure cashmere, offset its sweetness. And every time the tip of the tongue touched this sensual paradise it quivered involuntarily. Apparently.

But I digress. The Box Cake man made the baker a proposition: I will buy the Holetown coffee house you are selling for the full asking price. But in return you must agree to give me The Cake recipe so that I may bake it, put it in a box, and sell it to the tourists and locals alike. She declined. He had already ruined one cake and she was not about to let him ruin another. Ten years have passed since that rejection. Still he asks. Still it seems she refuses.

Others have been less bold, preferring an occasional taste on The Cake, rather than coveting the recipe for private use. Emily was content that the baker agreed to make it for her wedding and Sharon asked for and received nothing more - or less - than The Cake for her big Five O. Two elderly ladies were known to make the journey by bus from St. Philip, on the other side of the island, every Thursday that God spare life, to eat The Cake and drink freshly brewed tea while the baker was in residence.

One day the coffee house did change hands and the baker departed taking the recipe with her. Years have passed but stories persist of a party in St. Lucy, or a wedding in Christ Church, when guests were treated to The Cake. By the time I came to live on this small rock The Cake was pure urban myth. Versions of the recipe have apparently been found around the island. Someone claimed it was among the many scribbles that covered the walls of Groots roti shop. A woman sent a letter to Dear Christine, our national agony aunt, with a version of the recipe she said was left on the seat of a ZR taxi. Still another said it was inside a bottle that washed up on Pebbles Beach. But these glimmers of hope have been short-lived. No one could reproduce anything like The Cake.

Such pessimism neglected to value one factor: chance. As a statistical probability I should have known I would sooner, rather than later, come face to face with the baker. Yet even as I was stumbling onto The Cake I was only half aware. It was Sunday morning and we were collecting First and Second Born from a sleepover.
'Come in! Come in!' said the gracious host.
'Thank you but we mustn’t impose. We’ll just get the boys and head off.'
'Please I insist.'
'Okay,' said The Husband as he pushed past me to join our host. He was dying for a boys chat – you know the sort of thing - modeling exchange rate risk or, for a real laugh, reforming the Bretton Woods system.

Tea and cake were offered. It looked like any other nice carrot cake. But from the first bite we were delirious.
'This is amazing cake!' said The Husband only to add in the same breath, 'Ingrid never bakes me a cake.'
I took a deep, deep, breath.
'It is not my comparative advantage. Perhaps you might like to take a baking course at the Community College?'
Our host coughed.
'Ahem. Have another slice,' and quickly pushed the cake stand towards me.

My homicidal mood melted with the next bite.
'Do you know about this cake?' asked the hostess to no one in particular.
And then I understood.
It was hard to keep from trembling.
'Is this The Cake?' I asked nervously.
'Yes. I’ve been making it for years. Used to sell it at my coffee shop in Holetown when I had the place. Got the recipe from a sculptor who was living on the island.'
I hesitated but this chance might never come again. There was nothing to lose and only girth to gain.
'Do you think I could maybe, please, possibly have the recipe?' I mumbled.
'Sure,' she replied. 'I’ll email it to you.'

My inbox is still empty.

FEEL THE FEAR AND HIDE

You should be afraid. Very afraid.

I know I am.

It started when I signed up for a writing course with the celebrated novelist, George Lamming. I will admit to being slightly in awe. And maybe I had a teensy-weensy crush on the professor (bright men have always been my Achilles’ heel). But, instead of producing reams of prose that would have provided further opportunities to enjoy Lamming’s company, I developed Writer’s Block. This aliment manifests itself whenever you attempt to marry fingers to keyboard in a tapping movement that generates words and potentially whole sentences. Any attempt at this movement causes stabbing pains right through to the carpals and metacarpals of the hand.

The pain is so acute that it is advisable to stop immediately and wrap your hands around a hot cuppa. If the pain does not subside then a second cuppa is required. Often this process of pain relief can take you right through to lunchtime as you sip cup after cup of tea and stare into space. Now everyone knows that skipping meals is a sure way of compromising one’s health. Writing is never good after a Caesar Salad and a Diet Coke so I usually wait awhile before attempting to touch the keyboard a second time. Be warned: the pain-cuppa-stare-into-space routine may be repeated several times. Often before I can say Felicitous Phrasing it is the end of the school day and First and Second Born are stumbling through the door demanding to be fed and watered.

Once they have been fed, watered and talked at (you will eat what I give you / pick your clothes off the floor / stop tormenting your brother / no I don't love him more than you) I usually once again attempt to overcome Writer’s Block. But Lamming’s voice is in my head repeating the Rules Of Writing. Also there are words I have been liberally sprinkling over prose like the contents of a pepper shaker that he has forever banned. The offenders include:
Paradoxically. (This is often used when really the unthinking typist/writer meant ironically).
Ironically. (Never in a month of Sundays - unless you have fully understood the lessons of King Lear and Othello).
Showcase. (What was wunna thinking?)
Hopefully. (Why don’t you just say three Hail Marys and get it over and done with?)
Far East. (And that would be far from where exactly, Mr. Europe-is-the-centre-of-the-universe-mapper?)

At this point I usually call an end to the workday, have a drink, and watch the news. But this has brought new worries. For one thing I have been kissing. It’s usually twice except when the Swiss are involved - then we are up to three smooches on arrival and three more on departure. Now fear and regret are my constant companions. According to the chair of the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados, Sir Roy Trotman, in an age of swine flu we should be vigilant in matters of hygiene. He strenuously urges “against kissing and shaking hands”. But before you weep at the thought of a world devoid of casual human contact, Sir Roy has an alternative:
“I would advise…colleagues to…bump your elbows or bump your shoulders.”

Okay… that’s a different approach to the H1N1 pandemic. But we should keep an open mind. It could be the start of a whole new craze. First there was Michelle and Barack bumping fists. We have simply extended this to elbows and shoulders. Remember it started right here on this small rock. But practice in front the mirror before engaging in elbow-to-elbow contact. An elbow bump should not cause injury to those you greet. Likewise a wimpy brush of the shoulder is the equivalent of contact with a damp squid. Bump body parts firmly and confidently. And don’t forget to moisturize.

Once you have accepted that an innocent expression of physical contact can be the instrument of disease and death, and modified your behaviour accordingly, fear should be contained. But as I was about to assume the lotus position to suppress my overwhelming fight-or-flight instincts, the morning newspapers confirmed the worst. A 19-year-old man who has never left these shores - ever - has a mild case of the H1N1 virus. I knew we were not doing enough. Telling people not to kiss or shake hands was never going to keep us safe. We should have taken direct action against the Mexicans in Barbados.

While the PM has been loudly proclaiming that undocumented immigrants have until 1 December to regularize their status or get “kicked out” (translation: Guyanese Go Home) we ignored the Mexicans in our midst. You did not know we had a significant Mexican population? I have barely scratched the surface and already unearthed whole clans on this rock with names like “Castillo” and “Fernandez”. Rock up to St. Lawrence Gap, party-central on the south coast, and one of the first establishments you encounter is none other than Café Sol Mexican Grill and Margarita Bar. Move a bit further down the coast to Enterprise Beach and there is Café Luna. Even at our Bridgetown port you can have a tortilla-like snack at Del Sol. Two establishments in the phone book are listed as “Mi Casa”, four as “Casa Blanca”, one as “Casa Pequena” and of course there is Casa Grande Airport Hotel and Resort, fronted by Mrs. Ram, but probably concealing a significant Mexican interest. The Mexicans are here. I'm going into hiding.