BY MADONNA HAMEL
My friend Avril took me to the Caribbean for Christmas. After the flight from Toronto and the two hours at customs and the bargaining over the car we turned to be relieved of our bags by Charles and Marco and we headed for our cottage on a hill on the opposite end of the island. Our little caravan consisted of Charles and Marco, a couple from Italy and another from Montreal and ourselves. Antigua was a British Colony until 1967 and a slave-run economy, based on sugar plantations, until 1834. Tourism is on the rise, but the roads still remain a mystery to foreigners, with maps serving more as a suggestions than directions. In that respect I am reminded of my own village of Val Marie, where tourism is still new, thanks to the park.
Another way Antigua reminds me of home is how hot it is by mid-day. Only this heat is all year round, and an ocean breeze makes it bearable. When I left home we were just recovering from a cold snap. Here, on the 17th parallel, where it’s dark at 5:30pm, its been 28 degrees C ever day. Odd too that Antigua is named by a man who never actually landed here, Columbus and back home our little triangle of land was dubbed uninhabitable by a man who also never actually passed through the place, Captain Palliser. Before Columbus named Antigua the locals called it Wadaddli. The term Caribbean ( the name of the string of islands) refers to a tribe of ‘Caribs’ who came to Antigua from South America, replacing the original Arawaks, in 600AD. They were apparently warlike and cannibals. Perhaps this fact is why the director of “Pirates of Caribbean” didn’t think the dignified and polite locals would mind playing cannibals in his movie. They did mind. So they didn’t. And a group of extras were brought in from the Philippines.
Arriving at the top of the hill on the end of the island after weaving through St. John’s, past wild dogs, abandoned donkeys and eventually herds of goats and big bulls laying in an open field, I felt in a dream. Twinkling lights led our way up stone steps to an exquiste yellow cottage sitting in the trees- flowering hibiscus and banana leaves the size of small cars. Tree frogs sang their sweet songs. We popped open a couple of Caribs, the local beer and sank immediately into the island’s embrace.
We woke to birds and tea on the tree-house terrace. Avril was already up, feeding the birds. Some of them looked familiar, and then I realized: These are our buddies from home- mallards, avocets, night jars, plovers, bitterns, curlews, godwits, snipes, phalaropes,- the gangs all here, avoiding the nasty weather. Angels on high boughs, singing and joining the local banana birds in their fight for the snacks Avril lines on the banister. Trundling down to the first of 365 beaches, one for every day of the year, we watched the pelicans dive bomb the water. Traipsing in with flippers and mask I bobbed just under the surface to watch the sharp pelican bills plunge in and snap up finger-sized blue fish. There are thousands of these fish all swimming in a shimmering school and I follow them around for a good half hour. That not one of them bumps into me or each other makes me wonder why we herd humans can’t move in the same elegant way.
Every day we venture to a new town or village. Every day I marvel at the generosity of these people, the foliage, my friend Avril. As a writer I would never be able to do the Caribean in such style, at least not at this point in my life, Antigua is Spanish for ancient, and I feel I’ve tapped into an eternal childhood based on a sense of wonder and inherent magic in all living things. Aided by the sense that we are always getting lost.
We get lost on the way home from every excursion, winding around deep sudden drain ditches, hills, pedestrians, cyclists, wild dogs and traffic. Once Avril forgot her glasses and depended solely on my navigating. I offer to drive but she wants me to learn to drive on the ‘wrong side’ in daylight, first. At one point we have done a complete loop up and over a hill in the middle of the island. We take a turn, always down a narrow road with bright painted green or pink or aqua blue little houses lining the way. Many are strung with Christmas lights, reminding us the time of year. After another wrong turn and Avril loses heart, we have to get past a stalled truck, a young man is walking down the middle of the road, a wild dog is limping on 3 legs, a gaping hole makes maneuvering impossible until all the oncoming cars have passed. Avril’s eyesight is less dependable the darker it gets, but we make it through, take a sharp right turn and there, smack dab in front of us, is a clutch of Antiguan men and women in red & green ‘Hawaiian’ shirts and green Santa hats standing in front of a house, spilling onto the road, echoing their joyous strains of ” Glor-oooor-ooor-ooria! In excelsis deo”, caroling Angels We Have Heard on High in 3-part harmony. Avril sings “Angels We Have Heard When High” , echoing their joyous strains, all the rest of the way home.
From there it is smooth sailing and we make it to our hilltop cottage, change from our sandy clothes and head back down the hill to a festooned house turned cafe-bar called “Pond View”.(The pond is a deep muddy slough with flowers that look like hyacinths floating on top.) Alvin the cook gives us a choice of lobster or fish from the boat. We each get a whole parrot fish- the adult versions of the fish I followed under the water. We wash our meal down with bottles of Wadaddli beers, then turn our chairs to the narrow street and the little strings of Christmas lights blinking off and on in giant waving banana fronds. Glor-oooor-ooor-oorious!