As I bounced around in the back of a jam-packed ZR (pronounced Zed-R), which is more or less an industrial mini-bus, with loud Bajan music blasting through the air, the stark contrasts of Bajan versus American life were definitely in the forefront of my mind. Minutes earlier, 20 exchange students managed to cram into the mini-bus on our way to Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, with an older Bajan women and her son, unfazed by the apparent invasion of everyone’s personal space. When you’re forced to nearly sit on a relative stranger’s lap, becoming comfortable around the other exchange students has been comparatively easy. All things considered, however, the ZRs are a great way to travel, as they’ll take you anywhere on their respective routes for a mere US $1.00. I joked to the only other American male exchange student, Glen, that I should start one of these ZRs in America, but he shook his head, responding, “they would never let this many people in a vehicle this size in the states… too much of a safety hazard”.
Transportation, though, was just one of the many great unknowns I faced as I stepped out of the taxi and onto campus at the University of West Indies. It became clear to me that my first few days in Barbados would consist of a less severe state of survival mode. After I moved into my on-campus single room, my goals for the afternoon broke down to 1) find an ATM to get money 2) find food 3) find my way back to campus. Part of the studying abroad experience, I suppose, is not always figuring out things the easy way, as I ended up walking for two hours in the rain in my search for a local restaurant; I ended up getting bread, chips, and Sprite from a local mini-mart, which sufficed for my first night’s dinner on the island. Being the American that I am, I assumed there would be at least five different types of restaurants on every corner, especially near a University campus. Evidently, Bajans are much more self-sufficient and opt for the cooking at home option rather than spend their hard-earned money out on the town.
My fortune changed the next morning, however, as I discovered at our foreign exchange orientation that the typical exchange student here at UWI was Canadian, female, and very friendly. Facebook was able to quickly unify everybody in our coordination of daily plans, and after a day of touring campus and doing the mandatory meet-and-greet, we decided to head down to the famous Friday night Oistins Fish Fry for our first cultural experience. The fish fry is exactly what it sounds like: a ton of small food vendors and restaurants all lined up in between the beach and the road with local bands or DJs providing some background music. It was packed full of tourists fresh off the cruise ship, so we all settled down with some food and drinks and continued to figure out who’s who, where they live, and other basics. I hadn’t met so many new people at one time since freshmen year at Richmond, so it took all my brain power to keep names and faces together.
The first truly cultural event I went to, as the beach does not count (in my opinion), was the Caribbean Cricket Championship at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown. If you want to get a good perspective on how important cricket is to Bajans, just know that the entire UWI campus is literally centered around the “Oval”, which is baseball’s equivalent of a diamond. A US$10 ticket got us great seats for not only the 3rd place match between Barbados and the Windward Islands, but the championship match between Trinidad and Jamaica. The group who went consisted of 19 girls from Canada, the United States, and Finland — oh, and me. Being in a fraternity back at Richmond, and thus hanging out with a lot of guys most of the time, this was definitely a different scene. While I grappled with figuring out the rules of cricket as the game progressed, the girls were busy discussing future baby names and how they wanted their dream weddings to go. I cracked up laughing as the conversation turned to which cricket player they thought was the cutest. Unfortunately, Barbados had a terrible day and only scored 101 runs after 10 batters — a very poor showing, I eventually discerned — and they lost to the Windward Islands in the 3rd place game. I actually really enjoyed watching the game and the reactions of the crowd, who were a lot of fun — there was a ragtag band of percussionists who played from time to time, and we ended up doing the wave numerous times. After nearly five hours of cricket, however, I was pretty saturated and ready to head back to campus, where I fell asleep streaming the Giants vs. 49ers playoff game on my computer. I guess after a weekend of pure exploration and discovering new people and places, an NFL playoff game was too familiar an entertainment to keep me awake.
The rowdy Bajan crowd cheers on the national cricket team.
Swinging from the rope swing at the Boatyard Beach Club.
Batt’s Rock Bay Beach — just a five minute walk from campus.