(Cross posted at petermarina.com)
A dazzling aqua-blue sea surrounds the oddly shaped two-island country of Antigua and Barbuda, which sits in the middle of the Leeward Islands. Aside from the August Carnival, every five years in June, political elections disrupt the otherwise normally tranquil nation.
At present, the United Progressive Party (UPP) holds power. They receive support from the more leftist governments in the Americas including the supporters of Chavez, Morales, and Castro. The newly named Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) threatens the UPP in the upcoming election. Propaganda fills the city—huge billboards with mudslinging, ideological advertisements, trucks with speakers mounted on their tops, blasting propaganda, and so on. It is a political carnival that some disinterested and unimpressed, perhaps some would say cynical, locals are calling it a circus event composed of clowns. I would not call their seemingly political disinterest cynical since cynicism is based on unreasoned doubt. Their doubt seems very reasonable and therefore doesn’t fit within the definition of cynicism. American liberals put their hands in fire, get burned, change the name of fire to something that makes them more comfortable (red gas), and get burned again. American conservatives put their hands in fire, get burned, scream “Go America,” and jump into the fire for a more thorough singeing. Both groups suffer from complete normalcy, an unpleasant condition that inflicts millions of Americans. Normalcy results in a near complete detachment from reality to the point where one denies the facts observed with ones own eyes. Normals—those afflicted with the normalcy disease—suffer from a world without imagination, color, critical thought, and spontaneity; they sleepwalk through a waking life.
I arrived to Antigua’s small airport where a major Caribbean airline is based called LIAT airlines. The taxi to downtown St. Johns, the capital costs 30-35 EC$s or $11-12 USD (right now, one U.S. dollar equals 2.7 Eastern Caribbeans). Other prices vary depending on the distance from the airport. No one is allowed to share taxis with strangers; each person or group must foot their own bill.
Antigua is expensive for most travelers. Booking online is a sure way to overspend. All resorts crackerjack* travelers as do most restaurants, especially in the quays which provide restaurant and boutique shopping to tourists in privately secure areas. Cheap travel in Antigua requires some savvy, or what I call charismatic travel sense. The charismatic traveler needs to be able to search for accommodations and eating establishments far removed (not necessarily geographically) from the tourist world. I found a little place in the heart of St. John’s for $20 USD a night. It is a room with a private bathroom, bed, and fan. It has no internet, hot water, air conditioning or spa. If you really need the internet, an Antiguan SIM card grants one gig of internet access for $20 EC’s. Also, various spots in the city offer free wi-fi access, including certain businesses with outdoor seating. Another place for affordable options during the off-season offers a nightly rate of $62 USD that includes air conditioning and wi-fi.
As an aside, Antiguans do not drink coffee; hence, there are no coffee shops – a veritable tragedy for this New Orleans boy.
For long-term stays, cheap accommodations exist for charismatic travelers with the help of local connections. Walking around looking for housing rentals is possible but not easy. I managed to find three different apartments from between 800 and 950 EC’s a month with two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, living room, fully furnished, and easy parking. Although apartments like these vary, many of them do not have air conditioning, hot water, or internet access. One can get full internet access for all equipment for 300 EC’s and a monthly plan.
Traveling between the various Caribbean islands is not easy or cheap. The islands have a horrible, nay nonexistant, infrastructure between them. With some exceptions, the only way to travel between the islands is through cruise ships or air travel, both crazy expensive. This means that most people in Antigua cannot travel, even locally, within the Caribbean. For example, I recently purchased tickets to Trinidad & Tobago. Although I bought one-way tickets, round-trip tickets cost $611 US dollars or $1,650 EC’s. This is a massive expense for the average Antiguan. I spoke with some locals about this problem. They readily admitted that travel out of the country is very expensive and unaffordable. And the $1,650 EC’s covers cost of the flight only. It doesn’t include taxis, hotels, food, and various other essential travel spending that adds to the price.
I asked another local about external travel and asked specifically about the median individual income for Antiguans. As it turns out, the everyday Antiguan is much more academically aware, perhaps even smarter, than the average American social scientist. She replied that the government conducted a survey very much like the US census. The results of the survey were met with great skepticism as the people realized that most people fabricated their incomes, rendering the data completely unreliable as a measure of income. I must point out that the survey did in fact tell us something. Perhaps it was what people wish they earned, or perhaps shame in reporting real earnings, or perhaps a subversive act against a government trying to obtain data on its people. The average Antiguan understands survey data beyond that of the average social scientist. The American social scientist must be taught lessons from the very people they study on how to be social scientists. I believe social scientists need to start taking classes from regular everyday people. Perhaps we can make a new university course for such arrangements.
Returning to the horrible infrastructure that fails to connect the Caribbean islands, perhaps it is one way to prevent the countries from uniting against Western and American economic and political control. A bunch of black people with freedom, political and economic awareness, and a capability to unite against a common oppressor may not sit well with the established elite. Haiti is the best example of the result of white elite fear against true black liberation. The United States is currently losing their “little backyard” in South America, perhaps they play a hand in preventing losing their, what I call “little pond” where tourists enjoy black people serving them rum out of a coconut and the economic elite enjoy billions of tourist dollars, as a result of land taken from the local inhabitants. It is what sociologists refer to as post-colonialism, or a new, largely economic but also political control of militarily weaker nation-states.
I recently shared a past story in a conversation with Mathew, a friend and local pastor of a small church here in Antigua. It was about tourism. The story is about a woman talking about her dream vacation with her husband for the typical honeymoon. This honeymoon to St. Kitts was planned for months based on a long-held idea of a dream vacation; to lay on a beach in the Caribbean. I of course pointed out, imagining this dream vacation requires knowing that they will sit in a beach resort getting served by black people. It is true, those that plan trips to St. Kitts, especially if it is their dream vacation of a lifetime, must imagine sitting on the beach, and knowing it is an almost entirely black island, know that black people will serve them. This is racist I argued with Pastor Mathew. He doubted that such actions were malicious, with the intent of having black people serve them. I explained that this is not what makes their actions racist, especially since it does not seem to be intentionally racist. I argued that it is racist because black people serving white people on a beach seems normal to the tourist, the way things are supposed to be, natural, as if this is just the way the world works. That is racist.
The reader can be the judge, just be honest with yourself.
In the Caribbean, religion and culture is nearly completely intertwined. In fact, I made my first faux pas when asking a local friend about the religious practices of Obeah, a sort of voodoo practice, on the island. I specifically asked where it is possible to observe public acts of Obeah. She said that question would be offensive to a common Antiguan. Obeah, for many on the island, especially those affiliated with Christianity, is an embarrassment. Many born-again Christians believe that Obeah is used for evil. Apparently, Obeah is not performed in public setting but only in private places, mostly heavily in the city of Parham, a place I will visit in search of some practitioners. It might seem contradictory, but it is also important to note that born-again Christians (I will from here on out use the word Christian to refer only to born-again Christians to express their meaning of the term since born-again Christian leaders are central to my research) believe in Obeah and its power. Obeah taps into supernatural evil powers while Christians believe Christianity utilizes Godly powers. As a result the entire physical world is the direct manifestation of a spiritual battle taking place between good and evil. In Antigua, Christianity and Obeah blend together and simultaneously contradict each other. It is a mixing and blurring that any true ethnographic researcher relishes. More on all this in later updates of course.
Drinking provides another salient example, another topic where religion and culture combine. In the United States, drinking among the middle class is a matter of cultural capital; cocktails with political and philosophical conversation, wine in crackerjacked posh restaurants with a finely dressed date, beers in a bar watching a game, catching up with friends, girls night out grousing about their husbands or bragging about their latest trips/clothes/accomplishments. Drinking consists of class, sophistication, culture, style, and taste. It grants status; it is as normal and acceptable as apple pie, god, and country. In Antigua, no such thing exists outside of the tourist resorts and quays. Public drinking takes on a different, peculiar form. It feels like being naughty or sinning, or what the Christians call “backsliding” even if you are religiously unmusical. People drink in public to go against god, to have sex, to get high. The cultural capital of it is nearly taken out of the occasion. It is a religious country and to drink is to go against god, even the denial of god is considered backsliding, even to the one verbally denying god.
In fact, a hustler approached me moments ago during this writing in this Indian restaurant that serves a mean vegetable curry. I was drinking instant coffee in a glass of milk and ice when the hustler approached. A huge man who seemed to be friends with the Indian owner yelled at the hustler for approaching me, kicked the stool underneath his feet, and prepared for battle. The near fight ended when the hustler peacefully exited the scene as the big man explained this is like a church, stay out. In Antigua, there are those that adhere to Christianity and those that backslide, and all know the score. All recognize the legitimacy of Christianity, some just reject it and knowingly live in sin while others accept it and follow the path with various degrees of success. As I write this very sentence, a Christian music video plays in the background, the same worship song that frequently played in the Holy Ghost Church I attended for my first book. The chorus is “Here I am to worship, You are altogether worthy” and so on.
Locals tell me that selling alcohol past twelve midnight the moment lent begins is illegal and punishable with jail time. Homosexuality is also illegal in the books but that statute is not enforced. The law is still on the books because Christians want to keep homosexuality illegal as an important part of their culture. (I have extensive insight into their views on homosexuality based on many hours of conversations with Antiguans both in Antigua and the United States. I will discuss this in another post.)
Even smoking marijuana is understood through a Christian lens. For some reason, on a side note, typical Antiguans associate smoking marijuana with addiction, weight loss, and individual self-destruction, and most importantly perhaps, ungodly.
I also had an interesting conversation about free will with a local pastor and a Brooklyn pastor with Antiguan roots. This is another future discussion.
Suffice it to say for now, religion and culture intertwine in this country, understanding one requires understanding the other. This culture exists in the United States, but far removed from the dominant middle class and upper middle class culture that most readers know. And, also of interest, it is not simply intolerance to homosexuality, drinking, etcetera, deeper insight reveals something much more at work beyond what meets the eye. As our famous sociological dictum asserts, nothing is what it seems. My book will cover an entire chapter on religion and culture in the Caribbean.
My current research compares the large institutionally affiliated Christian church with the small institutionally unaffiliated and independent churches in the island. I work closely with a religious leader of the largest church in Antigua. In fact, I leave with him to his home country in Trinidad today. Using go-along ethnography, I will shadow religious leaders in the Caribbean as they spread their local religious practices to other areas in the Caribbean, influencing local politics, economics, and cultures. Concurrently, I work closely with one of the smallest churches in Antigua, one that has an unusually and unstereotypically charismatic leader whose church might always be small but with a big impact on the entire Caribbean region. I must admit that this small church pastor, the previously mentioned Mathew, has become my friend, a term I do not use lightly. How this impacts my research will be readily discussed in the book and throughout the research leading to its publication.
I’m spending a great deal of time with Pastor Mathew, eating lunch at Nash’s place, working in his office while he does embroidery, running errands, and so on. Our conversations move fluidly from relaxed to intense, philosophical and serious to joking and friendship. We challenge each other while maintaining respect. He is my friend, and we built a trust that seems natural.
The owner of the restaurant, Nash, is a Jamaican-born cook and owner of a small kitchen that serves red beans and rice, yucca, potato, okra, and collard greens with your choice of beef, fish, pork or goat on a large outdoor table. There is only one table and no menu. Nash spent his life working on ships, I like to think and even suspect he was a pirate. He is a “wanted” man in the United States and fondly remembers (voluntary) sex with what he calls “beautiful Mexican woman and their voluptuous vaginas.” Like Cheech in the movie From Dusk till Dawn he names all the different shapes, sizes, and smells. It is like he was a wine connoisseur elegantly displaying cultural capital with in-depth discussion on which regions produce the best grapes for wine production and consumption. “In France the wine balances oak with a hint of spice aged in oak barrels, in Cozumel the vagina retains an ocean taste with a tad of rainforest to temper the palette.” Nash will definitely be a character in my book; he is an interesting person with a strange history.
Mathew wants to discuss my book further. He takes a genuine interest in its production, especially since he is a major and important character in it. It is best practice to have his voice emerge out of this research. Research should empower those researched and give them a voice. People should have input into how they are represented and I ain’t no post-colonial sociologist.
I’m off to Trinidad with Apostle Stephen Andrews, a religious leader of the numerically largest Church in Antigua. There, I will also interview with Bishop Andrew John, leader of a large Christian Church called Covenant House of Praise in the Diego Martin neighborhood in Port of Spain. My next writing will discuss this experience. These writings serve as partial field notes for my research, among other things.
*The term crackerjacked refers to the inflated prices middle-to high-end restaurants charge for food served from their menus. The idea is that middle and upper class people seem to believe that there exists a correlation between food price and quality, the higher the cost for an entrée the better the quality of food. In one restaurant on Decatur Street a plate of chicken was cleverly dubbed “yard bird” with a corresponding price of twenty-five dollars. Crackerjacking may also serve as a multicultural neoliberal tactic to frequent multicultural restaurants to consume authentic cultural cuisines without dealing with an uncomfortable minority and low-income social atmosphere.
Thank you for this description of life in the Caribbean. Looking forward to future posts. I am writing from Bern, Switzerland where it costs even more to live and the people are not even CLOSE to being as interesting as the ones you describe!