Antiguan Dreams

Everyone from Lord Horatio Nelson to Bob Marley and his Wailers have found essential elements within these shores. One hundred-plus square miles of calm fields, twisting roads and personable denizens — of “irie” (in the local dialect, it means well-being) and of reggae; even indebted to the British crown, Antigua [Ahn-tee-ga] still thrives in its own West Indian spirit, its own “Rastaman Vibrations.”

The countless tourist destinations are symbols of this national pride. At the Jolly Beach Resort and Casino complex, three-year-olds and septuagenarians alike are treated to the same checkerboards, volleyball courts and expansive, pristine stretches of virgin sand. However, said three- and seventy-year-old are also bound to notice many changes around the island of Antigua, which has made strides toward modernization.

After disembarking at V.C. Bird International Airport and being regaled by the local Red Cap baggage porters (remember, one dollar per bag, plus tip), it becomes apparent that the entrance has been recently separated from the parking lot in the first step of what will be an ongoing construction project. A local franchise of the British eatery The Sticky Wicket, a business class hotel, cinema and shopping area, are soon to be the airport’s neighbors.

Just as the British passed on their belief in local cuisine, they also passed on their affinity for heavy industry. The Antiguan work ethic manifests itself in varied projects involving infrastructure improvement, many of which are needed due to the island’s frequent hurricanes.

Not that weather in Antigua need concern anyone. The daytimes are consistently balmy and breezy while afternoons bob and weave between room temperature and sauna-like conditions that pull one toward the beach. Hopefully, such a shift to the warmer side of things finds one in the vicinity of Sandals, a distinctively pink resort that rests a hop, limbo and cocktail from the beach, a probable stop for any vacationer.

A substance abuse clinic opened by singer Eric Clapton in 1998 serves as a testament to Antigua’s peaceful atmosphere. The Crossroads Centre, complete with 36 beds, rests comfortably in the verdant hills, which, while neither rolling nor widespread, contain their share of deserted sugar mills that were of great use when pressing and processing sugarcane to sweeten the tea of the British who counted the island (along with its sister island, Barbuda) as part of their Empire. These remnants of a colonial presence, however dissipated, symbolize and explain (to a certain extent) how many Antiguans will always love to “do for themselves.”

Deeds arising from that “doing” include a newly completed Hall of Justice, a vibrant downtown and port-market area that plays host to the annual Carnival festival and the Antigua Recreation Grounds, which houses the West Indies’ premier cricket sides and their competitions on a regular basis. Antiguans have much to be proud of.

Following habitation by indigenous people (the stone-tooling Siboney and the agricultural Arawak), Antigua and Barbuda were chiefly populated by the more aggressive Carib Indians, who made Antigua’s first European contact with Christopher Columbus in 1493. Whichever way you fall in the debate over whether or not Columbus was a trailblazer, he did christen the island of Antigua after the patron saint of Seville, Santa Maria la Antigua.

Antigua’s fierce Carib Indian populace and inhospitable agricultural climate did not allow Antigua to become a so-called “gateway to the Caribbean” until formal European settlement in 1684 (which also signaled the colony’s transformation into a cane-processing economy). This industrial bent bears a causal relationship to the bulk of Antiguans being of African descent, as manpower was needed to wring profit from sugarcane.

Profits aside, there is still that “essential element” that visitors tend to find herein at this splendor of the Leeward Islands (a smaller subset of islands within the Caribbean of which Antigua and Barbuda are part).

Horatio Nelson, commanding the British Navy’s Leeward Squadron, arrived at port in Antigua in 1784 under orders to develop the facilities at English Harbor and to shore up the strict commercial shipping laws. As hated Nelson as was in relation to his somewhat merciless trade regulations, his tenure at the Harbor resulted in the man-made marvel that is Nelson’s Dockyard. Unfortunately, Antiguans paid no mind to architecture and instead stewed in hostility directed at Nelson over his rule enforcement, forcing him to bide his time in ship’s quarters and proclaim Antigua to be a “vile … and dreadful hole.”

There is as much irony in Nelson’s despite of this former colony as there is guileless tranquility in the mango trees and cassis bushes that dot the Antiguan landscape. As a young West Indian-American, I priggishly dwelled on the mango as one of the dearest charms of the island. Just beyond my short eyes was the true significance of the Carnival festival, which celebrates Antigua being the first of Britain’s Caribbean colonies to free its slaves. Among those carousing and making do with steel drums and plied wares at Carnival time rests the not-so-slight historical weight of an island paradise.

Antigua is important enough to be “vile,” yes, but not insofar as any profit margin gleaned from itself. Within the lapse between emancipation and national independence (a contemporary event, as that independence was made official a scant 22 years ago), the residents of Antigua and Barbuda have found no economic foothold or respite except for the recent onrush of tourism — a godsend to a place devoid of any significant fresh water source.

Indeed, tourism, through varied means, contributes to more than 80 percent of Antiguan foreign exchange earnings. Though that would connote a dependence on travelers, it really does not bear out the sun-swept island’s heart-felt interest in all its visitors, each leaving with “irie” intact.

Portions of this article were compiled using information from the CIA World Factbook, Geographia, and the Antigua-Caribbean Vacation Guide.