Sunday, May 10, 2015

Country #97: Antiguo en Antigua

Antigua: One half of the Caribbean island nation Antigua and Barbuda. Known as Waladii by the native population. Gained its independence from the British in 1981. Vacation home to Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and Eric Clapton (who has both a massive home and a rehab facility on site). Home to an alleged 365 beaches, a number that just happens to coincide with the marketing slogan "A beach for every day of the year". Pronounced An-tee-ga. But most importantly: my 97th country.

Antiguo:  (Spanish) Ancient.  Archaic. Antiquated. Prehistoric.  Elderly.  Old as dirt.

What's happens when you celebrate a good friend's 50th birthday there?  You have an Antiguo en Antigua.  This was the theme for our third port of call.

In  earlier communications with the very accommodating Lawrence of Antigua tour agency, he had made it a point to mention that their roads were nowhere near as curvy as St. Lucia's and our first glimpse of the port seemed to corroborate this.  The island was not nearly as hilly and the port area appeared to be much more commercial.

We were greeted by our gregarious guide, Christopher, who was as great a host as you could hope for.  He had not gotten the news that our party of six had dwindled down to three, so we found ourselves with a cooler generously stocked with water, beers and my favorite, Ting, a grapefruit soda that I had previously only seen in Jamaica. (On a related note:  If you ever find yourself in Montego Bay, raving to a bunch of Jamaicans about how much you like Ting and you can't get enough Ting and you wish you could get Ting at home, know that "ting" which means "thing" in the local dialect is also slang for penis.  Trust me on this.)

Christopher drove us past several abandoned sugar mills.  It was a story that would get repeated on many of the islands.  From the 18th to the early 20th century, each island was home to large sugar plantations and refinery mills, exporting sugar to most of Europe.  This continued until the economic conditions no longer favored the trade (read: until they weren't allowed to use slaves anymore).

Which brings us to our first stop on the tour.  It is a limestone ledge which has been eroded by the Atlantic ocean into a natural arch. Alliteration aside, "limestone ledge" is not a very catchy name, so it is better known as the Devil's Bridge.

It is so named because the location and  harsh ocean conditions made it an ideal place for slaves to go and take their lives.  Due to the high number of suicides, people said the devil must be in those waters. I would argue that he was more likely residing in the big room of those plantation estate but that does not make for as nice a photo op.

It is also said that if, while standing on the bridge, you throw two eggs into the water, the devil will throw one back.  This raises a lot of questions for me.  Who exactly is taking it upon themselves to egg the ocean? Why is the ruler of the underworld being so petty as to throw an egg back?  He is the big Luci, if he is hanging out in the ocean and feeling cranky, can't he throw like a hammerhead shark or something more dramatic?  What's he doing with that one egg he is keeping?  Does he only like very small omelets?

Next up, we stopped at a picture perfect beach.  While my friends walked along the shore, I recruited Christopher into some birthday party planning.  You can not have a theme party without some props, so I had brought a couple of things from home.  For our Antiguo in Antigua daylong celebration, I had brought, among other things, a shot glass that read "Look who's 50!" attached to a beaded necklace.  It was Christopher's job to find me some local rum with which to fill it.

He happily complied and even gifted me with some hot sauce from the local mini-mart, but you will have to take my word for it.  Inexplicably, even though I was in full travel mode, which means there is a camera dangling from my neck 24/ 7, I have zero pictures of the shot glass, the rum, the birthday shot...I've got none of it.  For context, on one of the other islands, a small crab came out of a hole, while we were laying on the beach.  He was an unremarkable crab, very ordinary in his crabbiness.  I have approximately 25 pictures of that crab.  I have every angle imaginable of some lame crustacean and none of Israel celebrating his 50th birthday on the beach in Antigua.

Pedicure on a white sand beach
We still had 364 beaches to go if we were going to hit them all but it was time for some history.  We were headed to Shirley Heights and Nelson's Dockyards, the former home of the British fleet during the Napoleonic War and the world's only still operational Georgian-era dockyard.

Shirley's Heights: a lookout point affording views of the English Harbour, Montserrat and Guadalupe.

While at Shirley Heights, we watched a bizarre but somewhat informative multimedia presentation explaining the history of the island via a conversation between an overly inquisitive kid and the sun. Yes, the sun.

Before dropping us off at the actual dockyard, Christopher warned us that they might just give us a pamphlet at the gate and try to send us on our way but that we were to insist on a guide.  I went in so charged up that I practically blurted out "I wanna guide!" before remembering to say hello first.  True to form, they did exactly what he predicted, we asked for a guide and soon a young man named Q was explaining to us the history of the dockyards and why its commander, Horatio Nelson was so heavily disliked.  At the time, there was a law against trading with the new kid in town, America. No one was really enforcing this law and the people were making a nice profit from it.  Then Nelson came to town and enforced the law, made the often Shanghai'd sailors work extra hard and to add insult to injury, he forbid women on the property.  Such was his popularity, that Nelson did not actually stay in the Officer's quarters but in a ship off shore, lest they off him in his sleep.

This area originally had a roof and was where the ships were kept during repairs.

The buildings within the compound have been repurposed into hotels, bars, restaurants and one small museum, making it the perfect touristic microcosm.

On an island with so many beaches, it was not possible to leave after seeing just one, so once we left the dockyards, we went to another one to relax and enjoy one last swim. The sand was soft, the water was warm.  I did not want to leave.

But once again, our home was about to leave without us, so we hurried back to the port.  We were early so I decided to walk around the markets.  It was mainly the same souvenir stuff we saw in every other port but I did manage to find a speciality food store.  Now not only was I returning to the ship with Christopher's hot sauce, I also was packing some nutmeg ginger bar-b-que sauce.

Another perfect sunset from the ship.

Earlier that morning, I had given the guest services desk another one of the party supplies I'd brought, a huge banner that read "Happy 50th Birthday" and asked them to hang it up in the birthday boy's cabin. This was to be a surprise when we returned from port.  They did as asked (which is not surprising, the customer service on that ship is AMAZING) and even left them a chilled bottle of champagne.  Once again, you will have to take my word for it because despite the fact that my friend (and Israel's wife), Lily is the undisputed selfie champion in all of North America (flyweight division), no photos were taken.  Not of the banner, not of the champagne bucket, nada.  This is a greater nautical mystery to me than that of the Bermuda Triangle.

Fortunately, we do have evidence of the third thing I'd brought, a packet of "Happy 50th Birthday" napkins, which I used to decorate our dining table.  It wasn't much, but that suitcase of mine could not have held as much as a 50th birthday pin more.

So far, our Antiguo in Antigua celebration had been disappointingly tame.  I was hoping that after dinner, I could find a way to embarrass him at the club, maybe tell the activities director to have the crowd sing to him.

This is not how it worked out.  Not even close.  That night, they were having a Dancing with the Officers competition, where 6 guests would be paired up with 6 Officers and would do a Dancing with the Stars type contest (minus the preparation and weight loss).  If you wanted to participate, you could put your name in the gender appropriate bucket and if the officer picked your name, you were in.  I saw Lily get up and drop a piece of paper in the bucket, which is a very un-Lilylike thing to do. I really couldn't see her joining this dance competition and even questioned her about it.  I knew something was off, but could not figure out what.

The Officers came onto the stage and started to draw names.  The 6th and final Officer, the cutie from the volleyball competition days earlier, drew a name and handed it to the host.  "From Miami, we have Berti"  What the what?!!  

Lily had entered me in the contest!!  On one hand, I wanted to kill her. I hate anything that has to do with being in front of the public.  But on the other hand, everything has its limits. After four days of moping sadly around the ship, I have to admit that being paired up with the hottest guy  on board was not a bad thing. Having the emcee say "look at these two, they look like they belong on top of a wedding cake" didn't hurt either.

The song Cotton-Eyed Joe came on.  Great.  A country song, the genre I loathe most and therefore dance least.  We do-si-do'ed, we spun each other around.  I ate it and fell on the floor, but convinced myself that I had played it off (I hadn't).  The song would not end.  At one point, Off. Hottie got down on all I did, too.  "No, get on my back" Oh, ok....

After the song finally ended, the judges, other officers all playing the Simon Cowell role, critiqued the couples (and remarked that with all the spinning I was doing, it was a good thing I was wearing underwear).  I whispered to my partner "As long as we are not the first couple eliminated, I will count this as a success"  First couple up for elimination, us.

With both of us playing to the crowd, who got to decide which couple continued via applause, we were able to stay in for all three rounds.

But we were up for elimination each and every round. Getting the crowd to continue rooting for us took some effort.  This was another time where being a single person on board had its advantages. Where others may have had to hold back a bit because of their partners (which they may or may not have done, I was too busy trying not to fall again to take note), we were free to do our thing. Along the way, there was this...

At another point, he picked me up, bride about to enter the honeymoon suite-style, and spun me around (more spinning!).  The final song was the theme from Titanic.  On a cruise ship.  Why would you do that??  We both grabbed pool floaties that happened to be behind the dj booth and dramatically clung to each other for dear life, culminating the number with the Dirty Dancing run and lift (dude was hella strong).  In the end, we came in second, a respectable showing for our tomfoolery and won passes to the following evening's burlesque themed party.

I never was able to embarrass Israel. Lily and I could not even get him onto the dance floor after the contest ended.  It was his Antiguo in Antigua celebration, yet somehow it was me that got the party ...and the 97th country.

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