Return to Paradise

In early fall of 2021, my daughter invited me to join her on a trip to Antigua, one of the Leeward Islands. I had never been to the Caribbean before, nor had I ever had the desire, to be frank. Too many memories of bad 1970s TV dramas about luxury cruises, obnoxious tourists, or criminals making arrangements through an offshore bank account. But I told her I was game, and I’m so glad I did.

Our trip last year ended up being so magical and rejuvenating, I suggested we go back someday … soon. This past summer my daughter obliged her dear mom and made arrangements for our second trip to the island. This time we stayed on the western part of Antigua, where the water seemed even clearer and more sublime than what we remembered from our first visit.

Early inhabitants of Antigua, and its neighboring island, Barbuda, were the Arawak and Carib, indigenous peoples who had migrated from the northern parts of South America (modern-day Colombia and Venezuela) several thousand years BC. The Arawak introduced agriculture to Antigua.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus made his second voyage to the New World and sailed close to Antigua. While he didn’t set foot on the island, he had the chutzpah to name it. He chose Antigua, after Santa Maria de la Antigua in Spain. (The Spanish pronunciation of the last syllable is “gwa,” but native Antiguans pronounce it as “ga.”) Actually, I should say he renamed the island, since it was already known as either Waladli or Wadadli among the natives. (I learned that Wadadli is also the brand name of Antigua’s national beer.)

Roughly two centuries after the Spanish “discovered” the island, the British colonized it. In 1684, Christopher Codrington introduced sugar cane production to Antigua. The island soon became part of the lucrative Caribbean sugar industry, and the barbaric slave trade became an important mechanism for sustaining the new economic driver. Today, Antigua’s population is more than 90 percent Black, and these Antiguans are mostly descended from enslaved human beings from West Africa.

Slavery was ostensibly abolished in 1834, but a strict racial hierarchy prevailed as a result of colonialism. Antigua (and Barbuda) gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1981. English is the official language, although it’s common to hear a creole dialect spoken. A staff member at the hotel where we stayed tried to teach me a few words, after I asked about the patois. Although various sources cite percentages as high as 90, according to the US Department of State, more than 60 percent of Antiguans identify as Christian. During the half-hour taxi ride from V.C. Bird International Airport to our hotel, our 70-something cabbie had serenaded us with Christian hymns while driving over rough roads and navigating busy roundabouts. He sang with such gusto, it was like witnessing a one-man revival meeting. “Oh, how I love Jeee-sus!” I couldn’t decide if I should feel comforted or terrified, since he seemed more focused on heavenly salvation than driving.

Our hotel was located in St. Mary’s Parish between two beaches: Valley Church and Jolly. The first staff member to greet us upon our arrival was Louise, a motherly woman with a lilting voice. Anya, a petite young woman with a beautiful smile, checked us in and managed all the logistics throughout our stay. Sankieto, a small, wiry young man, took us up to our cottage in his golf cart. With my daughter in the back next to our luggage and me in front next to Sankieto, the cart whizzed up and around the winding narrow stone path until we reached cottage 24. Sankieto is originally from Jamaica, where his mother still lives. He told us there’s too much crime in his country, and he feels happier to be in Antigua, though he misses his mom.

Each morning I woke up a few minutes before sunrise so I could stand on our porch and gaze out onto the shimmering cobalt and teal water and witness the sky’s metamorphosis. Each sunrise was literally a work-in-progress; the colors moved gracefully across the sky as the sun made its grand entrance. The only time I looked away was when I noticed a tree lizard on the nearby railing. On my last morning, two lizards watched the sunrise with me.

No photo will ever do justice to the daily light show, but that didn’t stop me from taking an excessive amount of pictures with my phone. The sunsets, as you can imagine, were equally hypnotic.

Of the two beaches, we ended up favoring Jolly. At one point, as I was lying back on my beach chair, a buxom woman carrying a big basket came by. With a droll smile, she introduced herself as Angie Baby the Hustler and said she had many fine things that might interest me. She was right: I bought three necklaces. Manny, an enterprising young man with his own jet ski business, took my daughter for a spin around the bay one morning. Seventy US dollars (about 189 East Caribbean dollars) for a half-hour was worth the excitement — not just hers, but mine as I watched them speed away, often flying across the water.

Walking downhill to the outdoor dining room or the beach was so much easier than making our way back to the cottage. I’m sure my quads and calves will remember this trip for a long time to come.

Our hosts at Cocos were kind, generous, and attentive. And with that description, my mind immediately shifts to Jamaica Kincaid’s book, A Small Place. Her deceptively thin work is a harsh critique of colonialism and the tourism industry in her native country, Antigua. For both of my visits, I was keenly aware of my status as an American tourist, though I would like to think — at least I hope — that I tried to reciprocate the graciousness of the people I met. Although I didn’t go this time, during my first visit in 2021, I took a taxi to the capital, St. John’s, so I could walk around and check out the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda. Filled with artifacts and historical insights that put so many things into perspective, the museum is housed in a former courthouse that was built sometime between 1747 and 1750.

At Cocos, whenever someone realized I was traveling with my daughter, they often referred to me as Mama. One of our servers for lunch, a tall young woman named Azika (I believe that was her name), often began by asking, “What are we having today, my loves?”

The food was sumptuous: all kinds of fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit. I even learned a new way to prepare tofu: pan-sear it in olive oil and then pour a light tomato sauce on top. Another frequent server, Loreen, who was older than Azika, asked the chef for the recipe after I raved about the taste. “Just don’t put too much oil in the pan,” she smiled.

One afternoon my daughter and I left the hotel grounds to have lunch at a nearby outdoor restaurant, where a green gecko made its way across the railing next to our table, and later, an adorable mongoose scurried across the wooden floor. The cabbie who took us that day, Cosmo, was calm and drove with a steady hand. (Such a stark contrast to our singing cabbie from the airport.) I asked him what people do when there’s a hurricane — the last big hurricane to hit Antigua was in 1999 — and he explained that you try to find someone who has a cement house farther inland. Otherwise, you hunker down in your boarded-up home and hope for the best.

Throughout our stay, usually after checking the latest news about Hurricane Ian on my phone, I found myself looking up at the small wooden buildings of our hotel, all stacked atop a steep hill right on the coast. I simply couldn’t fathom what it would be like to have it all destroyed.

Now that another trip to Antigua has come to an end, I am profoundly aware of the many privileges I have. I am grateful for the gift of family and travel. Learning a bit about the culture and history of where I am, even for a short while, is the least I can do.