Perceptions of race in Antigua

•May 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Just a short post on my thoughts triggered by a couple of incidents which involved references to my perceived race…

I am an Asian-Indian-American, and though have lived in the US for over forty years have a give away accent, and of course, look very sub-continental too. So it is hard for me to imagine someone mistaking me for a “white”. Since Antigua does not have any history with people of Indian origin unlike Guyana or Trinidad, I cannot think people here would think of me as belonging to the group which is seen as exploiting, grasping and generally non-integrating throughout the rest of the Indian Diaspora world.

The episodes I describe below make me think I was wrong about what I thought was the get-on-with-life attitude of the Antiguan people. From the day I arrived, I was impressed by the energy and initiative of the Antiguans I saw around me and met at the workplace. I had thought they are a well adjusted people considering their historical oppression under the British in the Caribbean, as opposed say, to the African Americans in the US. But now I am revising my naive and superficial reading: The wounds are deep and though they have indeed gotten on and prospered by their own efforts, it only requires a comment mistaken for an insult to bring the true sentiments regarding race to the surface.

The first “incident” happened as I was getting off the bus/bush taxi. As usual I had a lot of “luggage” to unload. An elderly man sitting behind me—he was wearing dark sunglasses as though he were a blind person—asked me to hurry up. I made some humorous remark about how it is easy for him to say that, only I was a mule carrying a heavy load. That is when he started “reminding me”: “You think we black people cannot say anything. The days when blacks had to sit in the back of the bus and couldn’t say anything to a white person are over.” I was startled and made haste to get off, and was happy that it was at the end of my bus ride that this happened. I could not see the reaction of the other passengers as I was very embarrassed for the man, and I assumed they would be too. I saw the driver turn his head slightly to look over his shoulder, but could not read his expression at this unwarranted outburst.

Well, it never rains, but it pours; it would seem.

The very next day, my landlady came down to collect the rent. She is very difficult in many ways and I had attributed her blunt and schizophrenic behavior to her age and to the fact that she used to be a career teacher. But as she was writing out the receipt she commented that I should have brought her the money the day before (30th) as that was the official end of April and that I am supposed to remit the amount for the month gone by at the end of that month. I pointed out to her that I have been paying her in advance and this remittance would be for May. She got agitated—her usual state whenever money matters come up—and said that I was trying to tell her something new and muttered “just because we are black folks does not mean we do not understand things.” And she repeated this couple of times. She knows that I am originally from India, and only a naturalized American; and whatever atrocities were perpetrated against the black people in the Caribbean, specifically in Antigua, Indians from India were not guilty of that. Because from my rudimentary reading of Caribbean peoples’ history, I get the picture Indians who came as indentured laborers to the region were equally subjugated by the British. At any rate, she knows I am not white. May be she just lumps everyone else who is not black with the colonial oppressors? But this just belied the impression she and others had made on me as a group; as I said above, as a well adjusted people, from accepting responsibility for making their own destiny in this world, to the wholesale and unresentful adoption of very many cultural items and artifacts from their former colonial masters, the British (or from the white world, if you prefer): cooking, baking, the genteel sounding expressions—my landlady often uses the phrase “a lovely person”, which I thought was no longer current anywhere—, and of course the inevitable Christian religion that missionaries and social surroundings inflicted on many colonial enslaved populations.

I realize my sample space is very small to form any meaningful conclusions on the perceptions of race in Antigua. So add your impressions and comments; I would be interested in educating myself.

Bush taxis in Antigua

•April 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment
Surreal Caribbean overlook

Willoughby Bay, Antigua

It will be two months on the 20th since I came to Antigua. I live in Sea View Farm “Village”, almost at the center of the island, so, far from all of its famous 366(?) beaches. My workplace is in St. John’s, the capital, two minutes walk from the tourist boats docking area and I can see the boats parked at the dock through my office window. In fact, I can catch sight of the behemoths as my bus rounds a bend down the gentle hills heading in to the city. But why do people who shop at supermarkets, consume packaged foods and drive SUVs like to call their town “village” or “parish”. It sounds quaintly British, Hardyish. It definitely should not have to do with people living away from the city—the only city on the island—and having their own septic tank waste disposal system. Because believe me, there is nothing village like about Sea View Farm; at least not apparently. I could swear I was living in any small town in any industrialized western country. One might see more people out and about on foot in the US than here. Cars, most of them big size sedans zoom by winging the few pedestrians walking along the shoulders on the narrow, curving streets.  People do sit on their porches in my neighborhood but that is only because it seems to be somewhat of a prime retirement real estate.

Looking out away from the English Harbor from Shirely Heights

Shirley Heights, Antigua

There are a few but important idiosyncratic differences though from the Western model development of the arriviste countries, one of which is the “Bush Taxi”, the topic of this post. I got to know them and used them regularly when I was in Uganda/Africa, but in a country in North America where upscale regattas take place these minivan taxis plying countryside routes seem anomalous. Of course, they are not entirely like the African model either. The taxis are clean and the system is orderly in its kind of way: They do not board more than the number of seats in them! They have set routes same as in the African counterpart, though they do go on short detours looking for or dropping off passengers during non rush hours, which the African bush taxis didn’t do. Passengers need not stand at the marked bus stops but can flag them down along the route just like a “special hire” taxi. The flaggers do not run to board the vehicle, as they would do say, in India, but amble their way to it as there is a little more supply than demand. In a nice twist, may be left over from British colonial days of showing proper courtesy, a passenger getting on says, “Good morning”, “Good afternoon”, etc to those already on board. (My mind draws an odd parallel between young men with Bob Marley/Rasta dreadlocks following such old world institutionalized customs and teenagers who go for Goth lifestyle/makeup eating wholesome foods like apples. I mean, aren’t you supposed to be rejecting all the age old “wisdoms” of previous generations anyway?) When the passengers want to get off, they bark out “bus stop”. I can never tell if it is meant to be “bus, stop” or “bus-stop”. And “overdue”—pronounced “overdo”—is used to indicate not just temporal belatedness but spatial misses as well, as when the bus stops past a passenger’s intended/shouted out bus-stop. And from the bus depot it works the usual African way: There are no fixed departure times. One gets on and waits for the taxi to fill up. The women tend to be overweight and big, their hips, stuffed in tight clothing, spilling over into adjacent seats. I do not know how the svelte, tall school girls, attractive in their uniforms, get that huge Of course, every passenger brings aboard a couple of plastic bags volume of groceries. The passengers are not sweaty or have BO as you would expect them to in tropical countries, although my landlady looks down on those having to use the public transport because of “all those people, smelling”…

Some of the drivers tend to chat with the passengers. There is one who is a regular on the morning No.12 route who never tires of discussing politics. He is very articulate and injects humor into whatever he says. Once when he was taking several successive governments down for not keeping their promise to deliver water to his area, he joked: “That is why they called this country Antigua, Anti-agua, get it?” May be this is a tired old one for the islanders, but I had to laugh.

Further descriptions on the country in my next post…