THE LAND OF THE DOLPHIN KING

Barbados is famous as the playground of the rich and super rich. But away from the glamour, in Oistins, more serious business is afoot. The village has to decide who is this year's Fish-Boning Queen
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A Sun-Bleached bar stands opposite the beach in the fishing village of Oistins, Barbados. Its white wooden shutter doors are hooked open to let a salty breeze waft through. The bar stools are warm from the heat of the afternoon sun. The scent from a late lunch of flying fish and hot pepper sauce comes from the kitchen, tempting a dog on the street to sniff the air and look in expectantly. Behind the counter, Sylvia the barmaid slips a calypso cassette into the stereo and turns up the volume.

Along the beach in the fish market the catch is in and sold, so the fishermen drift down the shore for a drink. Some stop to play dominoes under the shade of a casuarina tree, slapping the black and white pieces down on to the base of an upturned crate, while others head straight for the bar.

Here, almost every afternoon, three friends meet and swap stories. They line up a bottle of rum, another of Coca Cola and a wooden bowl piled high with ice. Today is no different. Noel Prescod, a maintenance man at a local hotel, is first, jumping up on his stool and moving his head to the music. Then Henderson Drayton arrives, a fisherman dubbed the Dolphin King for his ability to skin a dolphin fish faster than anyone else on the island. He pushes his Rastafarian hat up on to the top of his head and wipes the sweat from his brow. Tyrone Prescod, also a fisherman and Noel's older brother, joins them and they touch fists in friendship.

Tyrone and Henderson were both born in wooden houses built on stilts over the waves, near where the fish market jetty now stands; fishing is in their blood. Barbadian (or "Bajan") fishermen go to sea for weeks in boats that look as if they would have difficulty cruising the Norfolk Broads. They all have numerous stories to tell of heroic man-versus-fish struggles and boats being battered to pieces by tropical squalls and their owners being lost overboard to the sharks. Tyrone begins a frustrated tale of his boat that has been in dry- dock for weeks waiting for parts. He misses the sea, the thrill of the chase when he has a marlin fighting on the end of his line, or following shoals of flying fish as they launch themselves out of the waves and "fly" for 30ft before plunging back into the water.

But, like most Bajans, Tyrone isn't too concerned about his problems. "Life's cool," he says. "We no worry 'bout much." He prefers to recount the tale of two fellow Bajan fishermen whose boat lost power and drifted clear across the Caribbean. "When they landed they thought they were somewhere north of Bridgetown, but it was Honduras," he says.

The three friends collapse in laughter. Henderson hands me a glass of rum, Sylvia cranks up the stereo so loud the bottles jump and jive on their shelf, and the party begins.

It is Independence Eve in Barbados, 30 years since Prime Minister Errol Barrow travelled to London to ask the Queen for freedom for his people and their 166 square-mile "rock" in the Eastern Caribbean. Across the street, the stalls around the market are opening up for the Fish Fry, a popular weekly barbecue which promises to be particularly busy tonight. Bathed in orange light from a setting sun, the pavements fill with people as Oistins comes out to party. My three new friends tell me they have much to celebrate. The island is the most advanced in the West Indies. A 98 per cent literacy rate and enviable health care and schooling have contributed to its ranking as the leading developing county in a recent United Nations Human Development Index. Tourism, its main income earner, has mushroomed.

Traditionally Barbados, or Little England, was the exclusive winter playground for Britain's elegant set. They still come and if you have got a few thousand pounds to spare you can share a pristine crescent of white beach with the stars and the Lottery winners at the Sandy Lane hotel, the jewel in Barbados's tourism crown. But the island is now also open to those with less gilded pockets and is fast becoming an exotic alternative to the Mediterranean.

Charters fly from Manchester and Gatwick. It is a favourite haunt of honeymooners who head for the privacy of the west-coast resorts, tempted by exotic names like Tamarind Cove, The Colony Club and Escape Hotel. Those on a lower budget plump for the cheaper B&Bs and apartment hotels along the south coast, where occasional power cuts and dry showers are reminders that, regardless of Barbados's "advanced" status, this is still the Caribbean. Its success as a destination has much to do with its size - just 21 miles long and 14 wide. Everywhere is drivable if not cyclable for those with fit legs and eyesight good enough to spot a pothole or dead dog in time to swerve. The island's roads fan out from the capital, Bridgetown, and mini-taxis provide a rapid transport service, as well as a near-death experience. These rocket-fuelled mini-buses spend most of their time on two wheels taking corners perilously fast, their wing mirrors stripping leaves from the sugar cane that grows by the road as they whiz past. Only one thing can catch them - tour operator Adrian Clarke, the "Fastest Bajan on the Block", and his silver BMW. His car is the talk of Bridgetown and, with a deep reggae beat pumping from its stereo, it is no wonder that in Barbados BMW stands for Bob Marley and the Wailers.

But speed is out of place here. The pace is slow, people amble, dogs sleep in the shade. Given enough time, you could walk around Barbados from beach to beach - they have all remained public despite political lobbying by some hoteliers to privatise them. Maybe they were worried the beach vendors would scare off the tourists, but the Bajan beach vendor is nothing compared to his persistent counterparts in Africa or South East Asia. On a beach in the parish of St James on the west coast, Handyman Joe sells pretty chunks of coral or a shark's-tooth on a necklace for B$35 (pounds l2). Behind a bush at the north end of the beach where the sand meets the rocks he has two clear bags stuffed with "sweet sensimilia", grass to you and me. But trade in "sensi" has waned lately. Apparently holidaymakers are bringing their own.

By 9pm the streets of Oistins are packed. My three friends and I have been squeezed out of the bar and on to the pavement by the crowds and by the unnerving presence of a tall man who, Henderson whispers, is Barbados's major cocaine dealer. "He just got out of jail from a 44-year murder sentence. You know what he did? Killed his own mother." No-one laughs. Across the road the fish are frying, flames are leaping from the grills that have been set up around the market. The stall women sit and joke about their husbands, the laps of their skirts full of fish scales.

The Oistins Fish Fry happens each Friday and on special occasions. At Easter it makes up part of a bigger Fish Festival where the women compete for the title of Fish-Boning Queen and the men for the honour of being crowned Dolphin King. Henderson twiddles his fingers in the air and assures me this Easter he will retain his crown. We sink our teeth into flying fish sandwiches, the pepper sauce hitting our throats like hot coals. A conga of young girls brushes past, their arms held high and their hips twitching from side to side. The air is thick with the rich pungent smells of the Caribbean marijuana, spiced food and the salty sea.

During the day, tours come from the hotels to gawp at the fish market. After the catches are landed, it is a blur of activity. Porters lurch from the jetty and slap mythical-looking sea creatures on to the stone slabs: dolphin fish with grotesque bulging foreheads; barracudas with rows of tiny teeth; red snappers; giant tuna; and voracious 8ft, blue sharks, their junkshop stomachs full of fishing tackle, chunks of boat propeller and sometimes a human limb. The market women, most of whom seem to be Tyrone's aunts, chat loudly with each other between bouts of fish decapitation. Almost all of them have a relative in Brixton, Manchester, or Birmingham. Their hands are rough and raw from years of scaling, skinning and boning. Their fingernails are stained a deep red with fish blood.

Surprisingly, Oistins is off the main tourist trail. Henderson the Dolphin King likes it that way. "Oistins needs tourist money but not their pressure," he says. "Not their bad ways. If you come to Oistins, come with respect or don't come at at all." And with that he shouts after a girlfriend in the crowd and disappears into the smoke of the Fish Fry with his hands on his head and performing comical pelvic thrusts behind her. Tonight Barbados is going to party until dawn.

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