Barbados and the Mongoose

We had a cold snap this week in San Diego, so my thoughts turned to one of the countries I lived in that was never cold: Barbados.

The temperature in Barbados was always warm, between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The average daily high temperature is 86 degrees. In fact, I suffered from a serious sunburn my first week in the country–in December of 1989.

The variation in the number of hours of daylight is very slight. Check out the chart below which shows in light blue the hours the sun shines over the course of a year–from approximately 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day.

And compare it to a chart showing the same data for San Diego, CA, my current home, where the sun comes up between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. (adjusted for daylight savings time) and goes down between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. (adjusted for daylight savings time):

Back to Barbados. The days are about the same length every day of the year, and the temperature also varies little from one day to the next. Time seems to move very slowly.

There is little difference between summer and winter, making it difficult for the season to help jog memories of when something happened. That further distorts the sense of time passing, blurring one year into another.

One of the most interesting explanations I heard of how past events both seemed recent and served as reference points came from a St. Lucian woman who applied for a visa to the United States in Barbados. She told me she had last traveled to Barbados “a few years ago,” which I interpreted as being two or three years. But when she mentioned it was just after her daughter was born, I asked how old her daughter was. Her response was along these lines: “She was born the year they stopped the mongoose from Barbados.” That was approximately 18 years earlier, a considerably larger number than my assumption of what “a few years ago” meant.

Barbados imported mongooses from India at the end of the nineteenth century in an attempt to eradicate rats, which were feeding on sugar cane, the country’s most important agricultural crop. Unfortunately, rats are nocturnal, and mongooses are not. Instead of feeding on the rats, since they were not out and about at the same time, the mongooses ate snakes, the natural enemy of the rats, leaving the island with no snakes and an ever-increasing rat population.

Some mongooses still survive in Barbados. Our intrepid cat, Sharifa, tangled with one and came out on the losing side. If we hadn’t seen her streak through the french doors to hide under the sofa where she probably would have stayed and gone into shock, we might have lost her, according to the vet next door. He patched her up and kept her overnight for observation. That vet saved her three times. First after the mongoose attack. Second when she tangled with a centipede when the bite swelled up her neck so much that she looked like a short-eared rabbit. And finally when he stopped one of his other customers from driving away while she sprawled out, sunning herself in the car’s back window.

It is understandable that the government decided to stop the importation of mongooses from other Caribbean islands.

To explain why “the year they stopped the mongoose from Barbados” was important to the St. Lucian woman, you must understand her profession: She was a solicitor.  This did not mean a lawyer. Solicitors in the islands brought goods from one island to a second one, where they sold what they brought, bought what was available on the second island, traveled to the next island and sold what they brought, continuing from island to island until they returned home, hopefully with more money than they left with.

The St. Lucian woman had stopped her itinerant solicitation business when she gave birth to her daughter, the same year Barbados outlawed the mongooses that she previously brought there to sell “for food,” she said.

Photo credits:

tortoise featured image: Cédric Frixon



B is for Barbados

Ever dreamed of living on a tropical paradise island? I did. Both the dreaming and the living.

From December 1989 to June 1991, I lived in Bridgetown, Barbados, where I worked first as one of six consular officers and then as the financial management officer of the US Embassy.

But Barbados wasn’t exactly what I expected. Sure, they speak English there. But a common language doesn’t ensure good communication. Even more important, the fact that English was the common language meant there was a good deal of assuming going on that we all should understand one another, so if we didn’t, it must be somebody’s fault.

It took a physical fight between a local employee, Kay, and the wife of one of the Americans to learn why we miscommunicated so often. Let’s look at three factors–Barbados’ British history, their language, and being in paradise.

Factor #1: It’s a former British colony, so they are just like us, right?

Wrong. Let me count the ways.

First, they drive on the left side of the road. And they stop to have a conversation in the middle of the road if they encounter someone they know coming in a car from the opposite direction. That stops traffic in both directions. Seemed impolite to outsiders, but not stopping would have been impolite to Bajans (the term people from Barbados use when referring to themselves).

Second, imagine this scenario: You see a woman walking down the street with a young boy whose shoe laces are loose. Do you a) ignore them, b) get the woman’s attention and point out that the child’s laces are loose, or c) get the woman’s attention and tell her to tie the boy’s shoes. The Bajan answer? C.

In Barbados, one gets directly to the point with people one doesn’t know, but one beats around the bush with those one knows well.  (I was supposed to understand my slip was showing when someone told me it was “snowing down south.”) So we were always behaving too familiarly with people when we first met them by speaking indirectly and then shutting them down once we got to know them by speaking with them directly. What was polite to us was rude to Bajans and vice versa.

Third, there’s the difference between respecting privacy versus being polite. When the consular section moved into a new building where all office spaces were cubicles, we Americans observed the privacy that the cubicle walls implied by walking past the private spaces contained within them. The Bajans on the other hand invaded our privacy by barging into our cubicles to say Good morning–even if we were holding a meeting or were on the phone at the time. Once again, polite behavior in one culture was rude in the other.

Factor #2: They speak English there. But I rarely understood them.

When answering the phone in the afternoon, Bajans say, “Hello. Good night.” I felt the caller was about to hang up on me, not engage in conversation.

My first day on the job, my new boss asked me to read a telegram reporting on the arrest of an American, written by one of the local employees. My boss could hardly hide her amusement as I read the American was arrested for uttering. Uttering what? An obscenity, a threat, a promise? Uttering, it seems, is the verb for passing counterfeit currency.

In addition to using a transitive verb as an intransitive verb, Bajans use nouns as verbs, as in, “Where did you get that bike? Did you thief (pronounced tief) it?” Or “What did you do last weekend?  Just lime around?”

And then there are the words that mean something slightly different, like wife. I answered the phone for a single colleague one day. The woman on the other end told me to leave a message that his wife had called. Wife just means a woman with a relationship to a man. Then there is the word deputy or the phrase outside woman both of which mean a woman in a relationship to a man who already has a wife.

Factor #3: The paradise factor.

Everyone thinks living on a tropical island is paradise. But working on a tropical island changes the viewpoint. Just think: 12 hours of daylight, 12 hours of night, every day of the year. Those daylight hours correspond roughly to the hours spent getting ready for work, going to work, being at work, and going home from work. The rest of the time, it’s dark out.

In addition, Bajans seemed to group people into one of two groups–people they know and tourists. Bajans are very friends with both groups. But there are those they don’t know who aren’t tourists, like we were. Anyone in that category gets ignored. A greeter in a grocery store walked up to me with a big smile and asked me how long I had been in Barbados. When I told her I lived there, she turned and walked away. She probably thought that was the polite thing to do–not to bother someone who didn’t need her help.

So there I was, with my husband and son, living on a tropical island, where everyone spoke a familiar language that led me to misunderstand about half of what I heard, and where the social conventions made me insult the people I considered my friends by treating them, they thought, as though I didn’t know them at all.

And I loved every minute of it–well, once I finally caught on to what was happening.

That fight between Kay and the American woman? It happened when the American woman put her cigarette out in an ashtray she then placed on Kay’s desk as she reached for Kay’s phone to place a phone call–all without asking Kay’s permission. The American woman was from New York, a place where people have a reputation for being direct with strangers.

It as ironic that the incident led to conversations within the embassy about our different cultural perspectives. I wouldn’t claim the air was cleared throughout, but the conversations did lead to some of us gaining understanding that then led to enjoying the differences instead of being baffled by them, something I believe I would never have come to understand without the prompt of the fight.