BY MADONNA HAMEL
This afternoon Avril and I return to Canada. Yesterday was our last visit with the donkeys and the dogs at the Sanctuary…’for now’, echoes Carol, Darren and Louisa. We brought them the last of our supplies: rice, spices, half a plantain-loaf, baked from a recipe in the Sanctuary Cookbook, a collection of recipes contributed by island people and sold as a fundraiser.
The night before we walked our favourite beach all the way to the end, which meant crossing a resort grounds to get to the most remote spot. But security guards just smile and wave. These are their beaches, and were theirs long before the tourists and developers arrived, and nobody can kick anybody off any beach. It’s the law.
Along the shore we combed the deposits of shells, looking for the perfect gifts for our new friends from the Donkey Sanctuary and the Pond View Bar & Grill. I’ve been collecting pierced shells the whole time, to make necklaces for my family, but also because each one is so unique and intricate in it’s swirls and patterns and colours, the equivalent of snowflakes back home. Only these don’t melt in your hands. And some of them crawl away!
We watched the sun set as a boat sailed in front of it, neither of us reaching for our cell phones to snap a picture- and snap ourselves out of the moment. We allowed ourselves to sink into the magic of the Caribbean deeply and completely, the way one dives into its warm embracing sea. No wonder the word used to describe the experience of a complete moment, in all its sensuality, spirituality, and physicality, is ‘oceanic’.
Along the shore we found a donkey-shaped piece of fused shell for our Sanctuary friends and another heart-shaped one for Onlie and Alvin at the bar and grill. We designed amulets and strung them with jute so they could be hung like ornaments. In the morning we set out to deliver our gifts, but first we had a stop to make. Rona, the queen bee of hairdressers down in the harbour, on the edge of the market, would braid my hair.
For two hours Rona worked on my head, braiding tiny tight cornrows along my skull and down my back. For two hours I listened to her and two other hair-stylists ‘long-talking’ about jilted men, gold-digging women, crazy hairdos and crazy children. A small boy sat quietly while his mom got tube extensions. On the tv overhead droned a daytime movie about a woman who was sure her husband was cheating on her even as she was cheating on him. What with the chatter and the coming and goings of vendors selling fresh fruit and laminated psalms I assumed the movie was just background entertainment until the wife her man of cheating. All the women in the room, without looking up or breaking their braiding rhythm yelled: “Wha y’ sayin? You married!And cheatin same!” “She no cheat. She stop in time!” insists the younger one. “She cheatin same as him!” “ That’s right!” I pipe in.
By the time we got out of the hair salon and made our way across the island to the Sanctuary it was late in the day. We had just enough time to get all the dogs walked and share a meal of left over curry with Darren, Carol and Louisa before it was time to say goodbye. We decided to spend our last EC dollars on a latte at the marina in English Harbour, where sailors in schooners or on yachts weigh anchor and hire crews. It is also a place where Columbus, who never actually landed, noted a safe harbour for future ‘discoverers’.
Over coffee, flipping through Antigua Tourism full-colour free magazines geared to wealthy boat owners looking for fancy watches, designer bikinis and nautical gear, I consider the notions of safe havens and sanctuary. There are havens and sanctuaries designed for refugees or battered and abused beings- be they dogs, donkeys, women, children, immigrants, victims of extreme weather or fascism. But there are also those who fear the immigrant, that is, the impoverished, the lost, the displaced, the out-of-their-element and the here-first-locals, and do their best to avoid them by putting up fences and and gates to keep them out. Presuming they want in.
The resorts are the new economy of the island, replacing farming. It is an economy still in transition with big plans in the making. At another popular beach called Half-Moon Bay there is a sign promising another huge resort by the year 2021. The intended location is a wide open wild beach front with several royal palm trees waving in the wind. It is a rare and exotic view of what the island would have looked like when spied by the British, then the Dutch, the French and the Spanish, all vying for control.
Each resort offers the same manicured and antiseptic experience – promising no wild dogs, no reggae long into the night, no bursts of singing and laughter from the house on the corner, no scent of roti or curry or jerk chicken. There is a clear path that leads from your room to the bar to the dining hall to the beach chaise lounge and back to your room. When we walked the beaches of these resorts, on our late afternoon jaunts, I kept getting the uneasy feeling that the resort was the new sugar mill. Where once the slaves worked for sugar plantation masters, now they work for big resorts. Ever since the Codrington family were absurdly “granted” by British Royalty ownership of the land that is Antigua, white folk have inexplicably had say over what happens here and to whom.
When we visited the Antigua Museum I asked the curator if it was true that all of Codrington’s papers were returned to Antigua after it gained independence from England in 1981, and if so what was the process to get access to the papers. She responded with : “What are you doing now?” Yesterday I returned with the intention of reading the papers.
I learned from the Codrington papers, copying from giant ledgers into the humid late afternoon , at a table surrounded by old photos and next to a giant hippo skull, that the Codringtons persisted for ten generations, planting and profiting from first tobacco then sugar, which took more labour and required the procurement of slaves. A “well-slaved” estate meant good profits, so eventually the number of slaves outnumbered the white, as well as the original Arawak, and Caribs. The population in Antigua in 1646 was 750. One hundred and forty years later it was 39,600 and 37,000 were slaves.
The Codrington papers also included a few newspaper articles of the day. One was entitled “What a West India Slave is and what his Falsely Called Friends Wish to Make Him”. The gist is similar to the arguments against emancipation in the American South- how liberty is only “desirable for those who can enjoy it.” The article echoed the sentiments in the British Attorney General’s report in the early 1800s on “the condition of the Negro”: ” The Negroes,” he observed in “but a short time…were well-fed, happy people; their condition in every respect superior to that of the majority of the Peasantry of England”. I guess he didn’t get a chance to speak with the young women who were forced to do the heavy lifting when they ran out of young men ( the preferred ages of males was, in fact between twelve and fifteen, because they were not yet “obstinate men”. Many were pregnant and had miscarriages and other “violent conditions”.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around St. John’s. It’s noisy, pungent, determined and languid at the same time. It is not, as the brochures relentlessly insist: “quaint, charming, and sleepy.” It is not a cliché. The stalls are extremely makeshift, and the diesel and fish and wild dogs and the sea of humanity can be disturbing for tourists, who move in relentless waves, loading and unloading off the cruise ships.
I wanted to have a coffee, not, it turns out, an easy thing to find in Antigua and headed up the stairs of the Hemingway Cafe, only to retreat after encountering an enormous American contingent. A man at a stall asked why I didn’t go in. I want a place where locals go. Come, come, he said and left his stall and we walked down a couple streets, down an alley and into Paradise Cafe. And it was. This happened to me so many times- people taking me to the “best spot”, leaving stalls unattended, in no hurry at all.
Our last stop of the night is where we started, The Pond View Bar & Grill, where Onlie and Alvin were sitting at the picnic table with a couple of women, laughing and teasing. “Don’t rush to get everything done,” were Onlie’s parting words of advice. “Don’t expect it all to come at once. Take your time. ‘One, one, full basket’, is what we say here.”
One, One, Full Basket. It’s a universal principle – One Day at A time, The longest Journey Begins With A Single Step, Save Your Pennies and the Dollars Will Take Care of Themselves. A rule of thumb for living life while you have it. And Antigans have it – in full life-force.