Many cheap and cheerful eateries in Japan have a system whereby you place your order at a vending machine outside the door, then present the wait staff with your meal ticket when you enter.
Also known in the west as “Japanese pizza”, this create-your-own-adventure snack is a staple in Osaka and Kansai province, but the people of Hiroshima claim to serve the best okonomiyaki (or “hiroshimayaki”) in the country.
I’m not a huge fan of Japanese food. My palate is much more attuned to the more robust flavours of their Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian neighbours. I recognise and appreciate the Japanese approach to food, their clean palate, their appreciation of texture, their focus on impeccable presentation, but it’s never my first choice when eating out.
Because of our family connections here in Barbados I’ve always stayed within strolling distance of the small fishing town of Oistins, about 12km east of the capital Bridgetown. By day it’s just a busy little town, with traffic crawling down the main street past the fish market, the supermarket, the post office and a few fast food joints. On Friday nights, however, the place explodes into the best night out in Barbados as the fish market closes down and makes way for the fish fry.
Oistins Gardens hosts dozens of family run stalls, selling the freshest fish cooked to perfection. Locals jostle with hundreds of tourists who come by the busload from far-away Speightstown and the other posh west coast resorts, queuing at their favourite spot to pick up a huge plate of marlin, mahi mahi (known locally as dolphin fish), tuna, flying fish and more, all served with your choice of rice and peas, macaroni pie (a local speciality which is essentially macaroni cheese but served in a much more solid state like lasagne), fried plantain or breadfruit chips, salads and more. A plate of food will cost you B$25-30 depending on the fish you choose – around US$12-15.
A strong rum punch will cost around B$5, but you will see most locals sticking with soft drinks and tourists will pick up a few Barbados beers to wash down the feast.
Many of the families who own fishing boats also run the fish fry stalls, and they all have their secret recipes. Pat’s Place right on the main road always has queues waiting for their amazingly well marinated fish and huge portions. You pay at the counter and get your takeaway container with your sides, then stand patiently beside the barbecues until the fish fryer dumps an enormous lump of freshly grilled fish on top. Always ask for a takeaway container – you’ll get much bigger portions than if you order a plate.
Angel’s, further into the market, also does great fish but their macaroni pie is one of the best in the market. In years gone by you used to be able to wander around buying your fish from one place, your macaroni pie from another and so on. You still can do this in theory, but the queues will mean a long wait for your dinner.
Entertainment, apart from people-watching, is laid on too. A huge stage hosts a procession of local talent, all dancing to their favourite tunes and maybe passing the hat around later for the crowd to show their appreciation. Every Friday night for years a local guy has donned a black fedora and red sequinned shirt to do a mean Michael Jackson impersonation, right down to a perfect moonwalk across the stage. He is followed by other amazing dancers – mostly men – and the occasional over-enthusiastic sunburnt tourist who can’t resist the urge to join in. Just remember if you are tempted: they are laughing at you, not with you.
Round the back at another bar, people are dancing to old-time music for proper dancers to enjoy. Local couples dress to impress and show off their salsa, waltzing, jive and other Strictly Come Dancing moves: the women in spangly dresses and silver shows, the men with smartly pressed trousers and old-fashioned manners. It’s a joy to watch and tempting to join in, the standard is high.
There are a few market stalls now, too. Jewellery, Barbados towels, hand-made dolls, summer dresses and polished conch shells line the edge of the fish fry, right down at the water’s edge. Groups of men sit at another stall playing a competitively fought game of dominoes whilst their mates watch on and shout encouragement.
Friday nights are not the only night to enjoy Oistins – in fact, Saturdays have a lot to offer without the hordes of tourists. The same fish fry stalls are open but tonight it’s karaoke night, with a small group always lined up along the huge stage to tell the DJ their song and belt it out for the crowd. One chap comes along every Saturday night and sings “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner. He has every nuance of the ballad, and more passion than you can shake a stick at. Thing is, he’s tone-deaf, but his heartfelt rendition gets a standing ovation every week. This week we had a couple of great Luther Vandrosses and even a pretty decent Bette Midler doing “Wind Beneath My Wings”.
Actually, if you head down to Oistins any night of the week, quite a few of the fish fry shops will be open to accommodate the local crowd, so even if weekend nights are out it’s worth a trip down. Round off your evening’s entertainment by getting a ZR there and back. It might just be the ride of your life.
Christmas Eve starts early in the tropics, with a dawn wake-up call from the birds and the ocean. I peer out from the curtains and see wild water and an overcast sky – or is it just that the sun is not properly up yet?
But there is no lounging about today. We have jobs to do. Expecting bad pre-Christmas traffic on the narrow roads we leave the car behind and stand out on the street to hail a ZR.
There are three ways to get around Barbados by public transport: a regular bus, a regular taxi and a ZR (so called for their ZR number plates). These privately owned route taxis ply their trade to and from Bridgetown on pre-determined routes, picking up more passengers than you could expect to fit in such a small mini-van. Technically there are eight seats in the back and two in the front (including driver) but it is not unusual to have fifteen or more paying passengers along with the driver and money man.
ZR drivers are known for their enthusiastic driving styles and loud music, so it’s an entertaining way of getting about. Passengers, on the other hand, sit quietly and politely, squeezing into more and more impossible spaces to let another person sit, all without comment, frown or smile. It’s the Bajan way.
We stand on the roadside beside a young man who greets us politely and formally, like all Bajans do: “Good morning and Merry Christmas”, he smiles. Soon he is picked up by a friend in a new 4×4, leaving us to our fate in the ZR hurtling towards us. I sit between an elderly lady dressed in an impeccable mint-green frock with matching bag, shoes and gloves and a friendly tourist bloke from the north of England who is off to Dover beach for the day. He tells me the most he has seen in a ZR is twenty. I forget to ask him if that includes the driver.
We crawl through unusually busy traffic as the sound system cranks out some excellent soca tunes, all of which are Christmas songs with hilarious storylines. Men complain about being made to clean the house before Christmas and the wife’s family eating him out of house and home. Women sing of a turkey and ham feast, presents under the tree and a home full of happiness. Two sides to every story I suppose.
The bus station is right by the market and we weave through the crowd. A man sells Christmas CDs out of the boot of his car. A woman around my own age sets up a jewellery stall for all those last-minute boyfriends. The busiest stall is the fresh bread.
Left alone for an hour I wander down into the city centre looking for a pharmacy. Most shops are blaring Christmas music of one type or another (although you won’t hear White Christmas or Winter Wonderland here) and there is plenty of last-minute shopping being done. The venerable Cave Shepherd department store has been doing business on Broad Street in Bridgetown since 1906 and is crowded with locals and tourists. The toys and books department is doing the most business, along with the beauty and perfumes department right inside the door. Down the street I am surprised to see Bridgetown’s new Tiffany’s store in the fancy Colonnades shopping mall, although it doesn’t look too busy.
I turn down the back streets and find my way to Swan Street, a narrow pedestrian thoroughfare crammed with shops, mini-malls, street vendors and shoppers. Think Dublin’s Henry Street or London’s Camden Town. Barbados is the only place I have seen outside Mexico whose stores display female mannequins with the rear end facing out, the better to see how well these trousers/that dress will show off your rear end. A few women sit at stalls shelling peas, selling bags for $8 (US$4) a pop to those too busy to prepare everything from scratch for tomorrow’s feast. The occasional shopper hurries past with a Santa hat at a jaunty angle and a Christmassy brooch on her top.
I take a quick look inside a $3 shop. These everything-at-one-cheap-price shops are fascinating to me, a handy cultural barometer of any town or country I visit. I am always interested in the range (or otherwise) of goods on sale, indicating both availability and demand. Today I find last-chance red Christmas bows for doors and windows, a decent choice of cheerful Christmas crockery, a mundane mix of dried goods from long-grain rice to cake mix, some quite lovely wrapping ribbon and the usual wall of kitchen items you never thought you wanted.
A few doors down in a mini-mall, Warren the roti man shares a shop with a Chinese buffet. It is about a dollar more and 30% bigger than the Chefette all-beef roti, which is my favourite snack here. But he’s a small local business and his food smells good. I get a beef and potato roti with a choice of plain or dhal puri roti. He adds a dollop of chilli sauce before the beef and potato mix goes on. It’s expertly wrapped and handed to me in moments. I peel away the paper and start nibbling carefully lest the bread gives way. The filling is bordering on the wet side for something being held together with a thin piece of pastry, but it’s just delicious. Warren looks over anxiously, gesturing a question: do you like it? Is it ok? I roll my eyes happily, smile and give him a shaky thumbs up. This is really good food.
The ZR trip back to our lodgings is more eventful than usual. One young lady breaks all protocols and attempts a loud and disgruntled conversation with the driver, with whom she appears to be unhappily acquainted. I can feel her fellow passengers stiffen. After a quick survey of the final destination of each passenger, we take a wild detour from the usual route, trying to avoid the Christmas Eve traffic. I enjoy house-watching from my window seat: there are some lovely big houses down these back streets that I hardly ever get to see. When we end up down a cul-de-sac courtesy of another passenger’s directions, our rowdy neighbour laughs raucously. “He tells us to go past his house, but he don’t know where he live!” The other passengers hide their smiles and try to maintain the decorum required of them.
Back on the balcony the sun stays mercifully behind the clouds as I sip a nice cup of tea and dunk a couple of ginger nuts. The waves are still wild but we venture in for a dip as a procession of airplanes descend overhead towards the airport: Virgin, Thomas Cook, American Airlines, Iberia. These people are leaving it a bit late to reach Paradise in time for Christmas.
My candle is lit on the balcony although it is not quite dusk yet. The Irish tradition of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve is one I treasure from my childhood, and one I have upheld in every home I have had. Mary and Joseph will know there is room for them in our two-bedroom apartment if they happen this way and are turned away from the inn.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
It might be the longest night for most in the northern hemisphere, but to us it is the shortest night. Determined to wring every last drop out of a brief New York City visit, we book late night tickets at the Blue Note to see Chris Botti, and get back to our hotel less than three hours before our wake-up call is scheduled.
Bleary-eyed at half past four in the morning, we lug our bags downstairs, say goodbye to the night staff and put ourselves in the hands of the limo driver.
An hour later I am sitting in the American Airlines club lounge, Virgin Mary in hand (it’s been an alcohol-laden few days) and a relatively healthy granola breakfast on the way. Orlando has opted for yet more eggs and bacon than you can shake a stick at. At this point it’s a case of whatever will get us on the plane still conscious.
We sit slumped in our exit row seats, ignoring Wolverine on the TV and the wonderful American Airlines in-flight service (a polystyrene cup of luke-warm tea is all we are offered in five hours) and fall into a coma. I wake about three hours into the flight and realise it’s almost time to ditch the fur-lined boots and woolly jumper for rather more tropical sandals and fresh linen.
The azure horizon changes and we can see the northern-most tip of Barbados taking shape. I peer out and try to identify each beach as it emerges from the haze. Is that Dover? Or Worthing? Orlando doesn’t care: all he sees is an island he calls home.
Stepping out onto the apron at Grantley Adams International, the feeling of warm tropical air on my bare legs and arms is just perfect after two weeks of freezing temperatures, wind chill and thermal underwear. The air is laden with the perfume of the tropics. We scribble our landing cards hurriedly and I follow Orlando to the “Citizens only” booth, avoiding the growing queues of tourists.
The immigration lady gives us a formal “good afternoon” but her eyes are friendly. Minutes later we are in the cleanest taxi cab I have ever been in, diverting off the Tom Adams highway and taking the back roads down to Oistins. Beautifully kept concrete homes make way now and again for older, smaller weatherboard homes and the occasional brightly painted chattel house, all equally well presented. Occasionally a verandah or a front door is festooned with Christmas decorations, the tinsel taking pride of place on this sunny island. An odd snowman or penguin ornament looks out of place but cheerful enough in the mid-afternoon sunshine.
Finally checked into our temporary home, we stand on our balcony overlooking a tiny beach, miles away from the main tourist centres, and finally start to relax. All we can hear is the sound of the Caribbean Sea pounding just yards from our door. The turquoise and blue of the water hurts my eyes after two weeks of weak winter daylight.
A quick visit to the supermarket for some provisions, and just before sunset we finally make it into the water. The day has cooled down somewhat as we dip our feet into what feels like a chilly sea. Orlando dives straight in, whilst I stand and wait for one of the big rumbling waves to envelop me.
We bob up and down chest-deep in water, breathing in the warm evening air and watching the colours change in the sky. As the sun sets, a handful of teenage boys play a rowdy game of football nearby on a postage stamp of white sand as we give ourselves over to the water.
Later on the balcony the rum punch is strong and the fried flying fish going down a treat: that healthy breakfast seems like a long time ago now. The sun sets quickly in the end, leaving us in darkness with only the pounding of the waves and the trilling of the crickets to keep us company.
It’s going to be an interesting two weeks.