A travel article by Monica Drake for The New York Times.
“An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist … a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness …” Jamaica Kincaid in “A Small Place”
The air was heavy with mist when the lights were finally trained on the stage, illuminating a set that looked as if it had been transported from a low-frills scuba diving resort. Dancers wearing short shorts — known locally as batty-riders — ground their hips with mechanical precision. Typical Carnival fare. Until Dennis Roberts entered stage right in a wet suit, jutting out his rotund belly to emphasize his seal-like silhouette.
The book, released in 1988, a mere seven years after the nation’s independence, positioned Antigua’s tourism industry as a vestige of colonial rule. The 100-square-mile island has seen waves of settlers, from the Arawaks to the Caribs to the English, who brought kidnapped Africans to work the sugar cane fields. In Ms. Kincaid’s book, the Lebanese and Syrians were moving in. Now a new wave is sweeping through: developers and hospitality companies from China, the United States and Canada.
I explored Antigua last summer with my husband, whose family roots lie there, and my daughter, curious to get a sense of the humanity in Ms. Kincaid’s books that is largely absent in Antigua’s tourism marketing.
But anyone traveling from New York City to St. John’s, Antigua, knows that some of the rutted roads to Kennedy Airport these days are worse than those in even the most sparsely populated corners of Antigua.
The stadium stands like a great ruin on an island pock-marked with the detritus of abandoned dreams. There are crumbling sugar mills, rusted cars and buildings subsumed by growth that was lush even during a drought. I glimpsed one man who had transformed a piece of rolling luggage into a stroller that held a napping child, and motorcycle riders who had wrapped their heads in scarves, presumably as protection against the dust.
But there was also abundance. Mangoes too ripe for trees to hold rotted in the gutters near a village called John Hughes. (When my nephew Amir, an Antiguan expat, told a friend that we’d bought some from a market, she said it pained her that we’d actually paid for them and then presented him with two dozen.) And brightly painted homes of concrete — a material Ms. Kincaid associated with Lebanese and Syrian property owners — now outnumber the modest clapboard houses in many parts of the island.
To get there, skip the road and land your private jet near Beachcomber Dock, where you can board a ferry to a private island off Antigua’s northeast coast.
Jumby Bay, which started as a villa owners’ collective, takes up just over a quarter of the 300-acre Long Island. Though the capacity of the resort is about 400 guests and it was 98 percent full, according to Ms. Fletcher, all we felt was a stillness in the air. There are no cars, only bikes and golf carts, and villas with enough space between them that you could have a conversation without being overheard by your neighbors.
After lunch, we talked about family history and lost track of time and place. “What do you think about the history of this place?” Katherine asked, eyeing a beautiful tree whose limbs seemed sturdy enough to hold the weight borne by a noose. There is no record of lynchings on Long Island, and Jumby does not market itself as a plantation resort. Yet there was the inescapable fact that the staff was largely brown-skinned and the guests weren’t, a vestige of slavery throughout the Americas and a reminder of the system of apartheid that Ms. Kincaid derides in “A Small Place.” There, as elsewhere on the island, though, I saw something I hadn’t seen in “A Small Place”: upward mobility. Some of the 500 people who worked there had managed to trade up jobs. They seemed less interested in laughing at tourists than in simply having a stable means of supporting themselves and their families.
In the resort’s boutique we fingered pricey coverups. Somehow we managed to miss the ferry though we were a five-minute walk away. We settled in near the bar, staring at the water — “three shades of blue,” Ms. Kincaid writes in the novel “Lucy” — and nearly missed the next ferry. The tension that we’d accumulated in our daily lives seemed to float into the distance. We could have stayed forever.
Her characters often flee the idyll for places where seasons change and there is hope of transformation, following the path of Ms. Kincaid and countless other immigrants from the Caribbean.
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in 1949 in St. John’s. Her novels detail her biography: that her mother is an Afro-Indian from Dominica (“The Autobiography of My Mother”); that her father, an Antiguan cabdriver, abandoned the family (“Mr. Potter”); that Ms. Kincaid left Antigua in 1965 to work as a nanny (“Annie John,”“Lucy”).
Now, though, Ms. Kincaid is enough of an expat to long for her childhood home. She regularly took her two children, Annie and Harold, to Antigua — “I like them to see normal, boring black people going about their normal, boring lives,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1996 — and was there last summer for an academic conference that coincided with Carnival.
A family friend had been enlisted to park his truck alongside the road where the procession would walk. We sat in back. Before the floats and dance troupes and steel-band drummers went through, yet another friend, parked nearby, mentioned that she’d known my husband’s paternal grandmother, affectionately called Aunt Vic. I peppered her with questions, and she smiled. This sort of thing wasn’t surprising to her. Meanwhile, my daughter spotted cousins dancing on the road, others marching and greeting friends of cousins, cousins of friends. It was a family reunion, made up of Antiguans and Antiguan expats returning for a dose of that small place. February is for tourists. Off-season is the time for the real Antigua.
It seemed nonsensical. Until I realized that immigration to Antigua isn’t only for Antiguan retirees descended from the West Africans and Europeans who lived on the island for centuries. The country recently launched a program allowing people who buy properties of $400,000 or more to become citizens. It seems that Ms. Kincaid’s description of Antigua, of a nation run by foreign landed gentry, may not be so dated after all.
If you want to find her country, her vibrant characters, here is how you do it:
Book a trip for Carnival, in late July, hurricane season. Find a place that is not on a beach. Keep an eye out for holes in the yard where tarantulas burrow, and if you find them, close your windows when it rains. Rent a car, which you will quickly learn to drive on the wrong side of the road, and head to a little bakery for a bun-butter-and-cheese sandwich. Then drive to St. John’s during Carnival for a battle of the bands. Press to the front of the line. Don’t worry about anybody stealing your wallet; you left your credit cards and trappings of being a tourist back in that home that you (thank God) remembered to seal off from the spiders as rain begins to fall. You laugh when the emcee peppers her monologue with words like “stush” for “stuck-up” and when someone onstage apes a tourist, because that’s not you.