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Sweet Fuh Days: Barbados Annual Crop Over Festival
"Unlike Jamaica or the Bahamas, Barbados is a boutique destination, says a tourism official during a press conference during the Crop Over Festival, an annual celebration in late July and early August that is the biggest event of the year. After five days on the island, I tend to agree.
Bajans, also known as Barbadians, are fiercely proud of Crop Over, which they say is “sweet fuh days,” in local parlance, and of their island that they liken to a "little England," because of its well-oiled infrastructure (and, yes, the island is quite civilized, even a bit prim and proper). A celebration of music, masquerade, art and food, Crop Over is known across the world to revelers who hopscotch from Trinidad's Carnival, New Orleans' Mardi Gras or Rio de Janiero's Carnival. Bajans insist this festival means more than the others.
Crop Over (literally "crop over") is a phrase that marks the end of the sugar cane harvest. The festival's roots date to the 1780s, when Barbados was the foremost producer of sugar and plantation slaves cut loose to celebrate a successful crop. Colonized by the English, who prospered with the crop, the slave trade was abolished in 1807; emancipation followed in 1834.
The modern festival was resurrected in 1974; today the merriment includes song and costume contests attended by locals, Caribbean citizens from nearby islands and returning Bajans, who often host family reunions during Crop Over.
Verdant, Prosperous BarbadosBarbados as an island has no high-rises or private beaches, and few large branded hotel chains, but instead a number of small, unique proprieties. Proud and prosperous, the year-round population of 270,000 is quiet affluent and includes a great many refugees from the U.K. The easternmost Caribbean island, part of the Lesser Antilles, Barbados is 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, a pear-shaped coral island with a tropical climate. The west and south coast beaches are palm-fringed with gentle waves; the Atlantic east coast possesses a rugged beauty with its limestone cliffs and wilder seas.
The democratic parliamentary government is stable and both tourists and residents enjoy golf, tennis, cricket, horse racing, diving, yachting, nightlife and the best windsurfing in the Caribbean.
The national dish is cou-cou and flying fish. Cou-cou is made of cornmeal and okra; the silvery blue flying fish are plentiful in the waters around Barbados, so named because they leap from the water and glide through the air. They are delectable when simply grilled with lemon, pepper and butter. The tap water is pure enough to drink when you aren’t indulging in a “dark and stormy,” ginger beer and Mount Gay dark rum, the rum made on the isle.
Riding in from the airport, I note that unlike many scrubby islands, Barbados is verdant, lush and blindingly green; sugar cane lines either side of the road (sometimes Crop Over is either a bit early or late for the festival). Passing a field, I see gorgeous dark skinned people clad in white playing cricket.
LodgingA group of us is staying at Almond Beach Club, an all-inclusive resort with middling rooms, surprisingly good food, a kind staff and a small, disappointing patch of beach. If money is no object, Sandy Lane is the top address in town with a spectacular Sunday brunch. Cobblers Cove, an English country house hotel with tropical character and member of prestigious Relais & Chateaux, has a secluded setting on the Northwest coast, 40 suites and a French-trained chef. There are hundreds of lodging options in all price ranges.
Although I’d like to explore Bridgetown, the city center, I opt for an island tour on an open-back bus, which hurtles us pass the major sights, notably, Morgan Lewis windmill, the hamlet of Bathsheba and St. John’s Parish Church. I’m really here for the festival, so the only other free time I have, I swim with sea turtles. Half submerged, peering through my mask, I count up to six beneath me at one time, threading under the flipper-clad feet of our group of ten. They are bigger than I expect in length, perhaps five feet long and width; back on the boat, someone says they look "Jurassic." It’s a good description.
Crop Over is Party TimeOne of the main ingredients in Crop Over is calypso. The Pic-0-de Crop finals are the culmination of several weeks of competition, showcasing singing artistry. Contestants are judged on lyrics, content, performance, melody and diction and it’s a great honor to be crowned. There's a full moon tonight. As we enter the stadium, both the stands and field are packed with people of all ages dancing, waving their country flags and hoisting signs for their favorite calypso singer. There are ten contestants, two of whom are women; each will sing two songs. Many have messages.
The crowd, mostly black, might intimidate an outsider, but the throngs are so sweet and joyous—there’s no pushing or shoving—it sets me at ease. I realize how different this scene would be in the U.S. I turn to a middle-aged, dreadlocked woman from Jamaica and we discuss the crowd. She says, "This island is very well-ordered." Later that night, when we leave, that will be proven true, as the traffic out flows calmly and speedily. After a couple of hours, the monarch is named.
The next night we attend the Cohobblopot, a local expression that means "stew of variety of ingredients." It’s a potpourri of local cultural events, from stilt walking to dance to music, including soca, gospel, folk singing and spouge, the rich and infectious music that is Barbados’ equivalent to Trinidad’s calypso. Again, there’s a great vibe in the stadium. A parade of kings and queens appears onstage in fantastical, elaborate costumes with a meaning, like the devastation of marine life or the piracy of music. There’s a certain homespun appeal to the festivities even though corporate sponsors have drap3ed the stage in their logos.
When a group called Krosfyah takes the stage, they give a blazing performance, the highlight of which is asking the audience to brandish their cell phones. The entire place glows in the dark and we’re all up on our feet, dancing and singing.
The following morning, the Grand Kadooment caps off this year’s Crop Over, which is broadcast on local television. A procession of costumed revelers parade from the National Stadium to Spring Garden Highway dressed in distinctive—often eye-popping—dress, sashaying with a mixture of spunk and weariness (many of the participants are sleep-deprived during the festivities).
On my flight home, I ponder the tourism spokeswoman’s comments, turning them over in my head, trying to decide if I agree with her assessment. Yes, the island is mature and less bombarded with tourism than some of its larger, easier to reach neighbors. What I found delightful was the collision of the starched British affectation with the sheer effusiveness of the festival—an almost irresistible combination. Boutique or not, Crop Over, like Mardi Gras or Carnival, is certainly an event to add to your vacation calendar.
Photo courtesy of Barbados.org
A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She is a member of NATJA, and has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.