Antiguan 'Attitude'

Tue 4 Apr 2006 17:07
We've been looking forward to Antigua for a while. For various reasons many of our sailing friends had been here before us - often because friends or relations flying out to join for a week or two had chosen to come here. And (almost) all reports were good, so we had high expectations.
Antigua was British for all but three months of the colonial period and it shows. As does the fact that we're getting closer to the US. The infrastucture is poor - the roads are nothing like those on the French islands and the electricity is a mysterious cobble-up of two lots of 110 volts at 60 hertz that causes all sorts of problems on boats with older charging systems. The supermarkets sell fresh milk in quarts and that American cheese that tastes like an oil refinery by-product. There are no longer any restaurants offering entrecote et frites or poisson grille. There is the restaurant that won a vote for the Caribbean's best cheese-burger. (Anna has had one and said it was pretty good.) Cable and Wireless had, until this week, a monopoly on mobile phone services.        
According to the guidebook, the land here was not turned over at emancipation to former slaves as happened on a quite a lot of other islands but sold to a small number of landowners. As a result, perhaps, the countryside is not populated anything like as densely as, say, St Lucia. And there doesn't seem to be much agriculture going on. The low rainfall can't help. There is a bit of shanty town round St John's, the capital. Walking the backstreets looking for the engineering shop that might supply the bearing to fix the windlass, I passed some pretty tumble-down shacks and a lot of what looked like squashed rats in the roads. The schoolchildren, as in most of the places we've been, are always dressed in immaculate uniforms. 
Yachting is an important industry here. Many of the old buildings in Nelson's Dockyard now supply modern sailing needs. Within a short walk, there are companies specialising in onboard refridgeration, water-makers and yacht provisioning. The big boats have professional crew onboard. Next to us on the dockyard wall was a small (42ft) American boat with two crew onboard. The skipper was an Englishwoman who used to be mate on a 95 footer. They spent their days polishing, mending and fitting and their nights out having a good time with other crews. Few owners spend more than a handful of weeks a year on their boats. 
The bus to St John's, which is about 10 miles away, almost at the other end of the island, costs about 80p. The bus driver is constantly on the look out for fares and will break sharply and reverse if he spots a potential passenger wandering up a side-street. The first driver I had was capable of talking on his mobile, sorting change and driving all at the same time. Another bus (they all appear to be owned by their drivers) had a small video screen hanging from the ceiling showing a Bruce Willis film. The driver had his own screen on the dashboard. When you want the bus to stop you shout "Bus Stop!" I couldn't quite manage this and had to shout "Bus Stop, Please!" 
Another day, we all went. Eddie fell asleep but Anna enjoyed the sights along the way. St Johns (like St Georges on Grenada) has a depressing mall attached to the cruise ship dock. The goods in these places are all tax free (to non-residents). I can't believe they do much to help the local economy. In fact, they must stop the cruise ship people ever moving more than a few hundred yards from their ships. The only other place they go is Shirley Heights, the old fort overlooking English Harbour. Fortunately, the night we went there were only a couple of bus-loads. 
The one negative note that had been sounded before we got here came from an English couple with long Caribbean sailing experience. The people have a 'bit of a chip on their shoulders', they said. Not unreasonable, you might think, given the nature of the trade that brought their ancestors here. And it appears to be something the islanders accept.You can buy a tee shirt that says 'This is not an ATTITUDE, it's the way I AM - ANTIGUA'. And the best known of local writers, Jamaica Kincaid, is a lot angrier than, say, St Lucia's Derek Walcott. In A Small Place she attacks the tourist trade, saying Antiguans have 'absorbed it so completely they have made the degradation and humiliation of their daily lives into their own tourist attraction'.
From my very brief experience, this seems over the top. The people I've met have been confident, not difficult. Nowhere in the Caribbean have I felt as threatened as I do in the average British city at night.