BY MADONNA HAMEL
It’s hard to remember its Christmas when there are no snowflakes, only sea breezes, and rain as warm as a shower. We swim, snorkel, hike and cook Caribbean-style from a fundraiser cookbook from the Donkey Sanctuary, a refuge for abandoned donkeys.
The donkeys were the beasts of burden during the days of the sugar plantations. A hundred and seventy stone cone-shaped sugar mills still stand, most of them crumbling reminders of the days of slavery. What has grown up around them are gated resorts where black locals work as security guards, grounds cleaners, maids and cooks. In Antigua all beaches are accessible to the public, resort or not.
It’s not enough there are gates to these posh establishments; the grounds are protected by high walls covered in barbed wire. Protected from what? Never have I felt frightened in Antigua- even lost late at night turning down a wrong road, only to have a young man sings out “wrong road, darlin”. Ten minutes later as we passed him going the other way I laugh, “you were right, wrong road” and he laughs again, a warm and gentle laugh and points us home. “Jus go right, den all da way. Strieght, streight, streight. And den you ax someone, awright?”
Getting lost has become a past-time, an art, a goal. It is how we sink into the place and feel the extent of human kindness and generosity of spirit, again and again and again. Another night we were on our way to the Road House. We took another wrong turn and found ourselves climbing one of most steep and rocky paths yet. I began to back up when a young man, holding clippers, comes out of hedges where he is working to say: “You are goin the right way!”
“Yes, yes. You goin to English Bay?”
“Then you are goin the right way.”
“Wow. We were were sure we made a wrong turn back there.”
“ I always say: When you make a wrong turn you are almost there. Jes keep going. You goin to see everything up there: Montserrat and the lights on the water! It’s going to be so beautiful!”
“Thank you, you’re an angel!”
“ Oh no, I am just being a human. Like we all should be – human.”
“ Then you are a good human.”
And he touches his heart with one hand a gives a peace sign with the other.
Once at the Road House we take our seats under the corrugated roof. Night falls early in Antigua, all year round. Here on the 17th parallel it is always dark by 6:30pm and light again at 6:30 am. The lights begin to twinkle and I turn on my Christmas light bulb earrings for the occasion. The reggae band plays all night with no stops, just segues into the next song. The singer gives each song his personal stamp, weaving through the bass and drums like a true jazz man. When his set is over a man is invited up by the host to give us a special Christmas treat. Mr. Donley Brown, in button up shirt and bald head and big smiling eyes, with a voice full of praise and glory, eases, full-bodied, into a sweet reggae version of “Oh Holy Night”. By the time he reaches ‘fall on your knees’ it’s all I can do not to. I weep, carried away by the passion and the warm breeze, the twinkling lights and smiles on everyone’s faces. It was a night divine.
The next day we drove into St. John’s town for our jerk chicken, prepared by Bev at the “Jerk on Wheels”. Everyone was rushing around in the early darkness, getting last minute treats. A young man “I feel for you,” I said to a young man waiting patiently in his car in the thick cars, taxis, buses, dogs, bikes, and humanity.
“Don’t feel sorry for me. There is no need to rush.”
“Tell that to my friend.”
“ Darlin’, “ he says, addressing Avril, “there is no reason to rush on the island.”
“Really?” she replies.
“Yes, I was told to tell you this, but it is true.”
“Who told you?”
“ It was Santa.”
On the eve of 2019 we spent the day circling the island on a boat. We sat in the back of the boat with Tara and her extended family. “We saw you dancing last night,” exclaimed the little girl. We were all at a sunset steel drum dance at the top of a cliff on the Northeast end of the island the night before. We danced for two hours straight, transported by the thrum of a couple dozen drums whose musicians could make them sound at times like a choir, a trumpet section, booming bass drums and other times like gently falling rain and a Hammond B-3 organ.
The little girl on the boat was still carrying the stuffed rabbit she had with her the night before at the steel drum party. As the seas get rougher Avril, who hates motor boats and clings to the rail behind captains seat as we head into Atlantic swells rising to alarming heights, asked the girl “How’s Jelly doing? Has she gotten seasick yet?”
“How do you know her name?” The little girl is amazed.
“ Everybody knows Jelly!”
The teens have their backs to the historical highlights. All attention is glued to their cell phones while the guide points out spots like where the American military set up a base during the second world war, bombing reefs to make landing sights, mining bays, and then “picking up and leaving and never really explaining what they were doing there in the first place!” says our guide Charles. (The bases, I learned later, introduced an American brand of racism. Jim Crow brought “whites only” forms of transportation and restaurants where there were none before. And introduced cruel and prejudiced language to describing the non-aggressiveness and easy-going humanity of Antigans as ‘laziness’.)
Then Charles tells us about the hundreds of white dollar-coin-sized butterflies we’ve been seeing for the last week, thick around the flowering bushes, catching the sunlight on their backs along the side of the roads. “They arrive in December and form cocoons that open at Christmas time. So, I like to say, these butterflies are Caribbean snowflakes.”