Cultural Observations on Antigua
For an outsider at least, it is hard to see "the Antiguan cultural
identity". People in many places have their very own way of living,
easily visible elements of which are then tacked onto a group or
nation and easily remembered by everybody: The French and their
Baguettes, the Scots and their Bagpipes, the Bavarians and their
Lederhosen. I would be hard pressed to find a similar
property of Antiguan culture. Their language is imported from
Britain, most of their wares come from the US - it is extremely
difficult to find anything you could bring home as a souvenir
because nothing is really "typical"! (Well, except perhaps the
old stone windmills left from the day when sugar cane was
planted and processed on the island.)
But then, that would perhaps be expecting too much. London is
a good deal larger than the whole of Antigua and has about 50 times
the number of inhabitants, and Londoners don't have a "cultural
identity" either :-) (And what you bring home as a souvenir is usually
made in China as well.)
Nevertheless, I'm going to tell you about some aspects of Antiguan
public life that I found interesting.
The Antiguans seem to subscribe mostly to branches of Christian religion;
I saw a lot of different churches, some of them quite old actually. I
was surprised to see that most spent the "millenium" (the first minutes
of the year 2000) in church! Where I come from, the new year is usually
greeted with fireworks rather than prayers. But then again, Christmas
in St. John's was one big street market (and party), whereas I
am used to closed shops and people in church on Christmas. From the
first days of November on, most radio stations wasted over 50% of their
air time on horrendous Christmas songs (you know, with lots of synthesizer
bells and stories of mistletoe and snow - as if they ever saw snow on
It also seemed to me that the traditional idea of marriage and children,
with the wife looking after the home and the husband working to earn
the bread, is still widely accepted on Antigua. Most women I met couldn't
believe that a guy of my age (28, at that time) wasn't at least married
or even a father. I don't have official statistics on that but I guess the
average age for marriage on Antigua must be something like 22.
In spite of the many different brands of Christianity, I had the impression
that few people had a "holier than thou" attitude (towards other
Christians, that is) - the ecumenical spirit surely had a better reception
there than, say, in Northern Ireland. (A travel guide I bought on Antigua
said that there is now a trend "away from the ecumenical leanings of
the churches which originated in Europe and are deeply rooted in the
life and history of Antigua, towards the intolerance and occasional bigotry
of churches origination in the southern USA and quite unfamiliar with the
West Indian life", but it sounds a bit as if its author, Brian Dyde, has
an axe to grind.)
What is it with those Rasta Men? Some say it's a religion, some say it's just
an excuse for doing nothing & smoking joints the whole day. I couldn't really
find out the truth. I don't even know if being "Rasta" is inheritable or if it's
a decision people take at some point in their lives. Anyway - there are a lot
of people around who have a lot of hair on their heads, usually in heavy curls,
and often hidden under large hats or caps. There's more of them in the south
than in St. John's. Despite rumours to the contrary, they do take part
in public life, and they do work like everybody else. (But I've never seen one
in a suit.)
The few Rasta folks I spoke to were rather laid back and quite friendly. They
often expressed regret at the turn their world was taking, with the kids watching
MTV and wanting to go the the USA where brand clothing was cheap and everybody
was "kewl". They would often adhere to a lifestyle that valued the land, the
plants, the simple things - and who could blame them in a climate like that!
Roadside billboards say: Tourism is everybody's business!
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Tourism is everybody's business
A number of roadside signs seem to make an effort to convince the locals that
everybody benefits from tourism. This is undoubtedly true because it provides
a lot of jobs and income for the government. But why the billboards? I didn't
get the impression that the Antiguan is "by nature" hostile towards tourism.
The signs are probably put there to keep the status quo and prevent a situation
like on Jamaica, where increasing criminal activity drastically reduced the
influx of tourists.
Speaking of which - someone broke into my car once and stole a few US dollars and
a camera while I was on the beach, but they left the ID and credit cards, so
it wasn't too bad. I guess the usual precautions apply! People tried to sell
me grass a number of times but left me alone when I said I wasn't interested.
I never felt threatened. Even walking the streets in St. John's at night,
or when I got lost and ended up in a very run-down neighbourhood.
I never saw this first-hand but my report would be most incomplete without it.
Carnival usually happens during the last week in July, culminating in national
holidays on the first Monday and Tuesday in August. In the first half of the 20th
century, the carnival was held around Christmas, but later they took to organizing
Carnival during the summer, and the Christmas celebrations became what they are
now (see above). What happens, basically, is that everybody dresses funny, and
they roam the streets with huge (and I mean huge) "Sound System" trucks, playing
Caribbean music at full (and I mean full) volume. Many businesses barricade their
windows during carnival, using the hurricane protection equipment - it is entirely
possible that a passing "Sound System" will smash your windwos by sound waves
Of course, everybody also gets drunk, and apart from Carnival, nothing much happens
on Antigua during these 10 days.
If you have done the least bit of research then you'll know that Antigua is renowned
for the Antigua Sailing Week, a regatta that attracts thousands of
skippers and hundreds of boats each year - amateurs mostly, it is said. I am not
into sailing, so you won't hear more about that from my - there's a huge number of
web sites out there who can inform you more competently
about this aspect of the Antiguan industry. There's also a yearly boat show and
other sailing-related events.
The reason I'm mentioning this on the "culture" page is that the "sailing community"
does its part to shape society - or at least, ex-pat society - on Antigua. Virtually
every inhabitant of English Harbour and Falmouth is in some way connected to the
sailing business. The area is pretty dead during hurricane season, but if you venture
there any other time, you are bound to meet interesting people: People who live on
boats, people for whom sailing their boat across the Atlantic on their own is, well,
"what you do when you want to get somewhere". You'll meet young folks from all over
the world - most, though, from Britain, New Zealand, and Australia - who are taking
some time out between school and "real" job, working on a boat; young crews sailing
expensive yachts across from southern France while the owners take the plane, etc.
Not many of them live there all year round (and those who do form a tight-knit
community), but many come back year after year - some for work, some for pleasure.
I am an absolute and total sports illiterate. I'm from Germany and I don't even know
the football rules (or soccer, as the game is known in US English). Now, imagine
someone like me trying to grasp a game like Cricket. I mean, it's hard for those
interested in sports. It's even hard for those who play it! But I can tell you
that much: Cricket is big in Antigua; to my knowledge, it is the only sport in
which Antigua can boast some international significance. They are proud of their
players, and there seem to be many spectators even for the low-profile games.
Mount Prospect Press,
a highly recommended exhibit named "From Slavery To Independence: The
Black Presence In Our Islands", which can also be seen "live" at the
Government House in St. John's.
Frederik Ramm, 2001-05-19