RED CHERRIES AND SOUR SOPS: Antigua's lesser known delights
By Chris McBeath
Like several Caribbean islands, cricket here is more of a religion than just a mere sport. It's a cultural passion that is played everywhere, at any time; from flamboyant Mardi Gras style international contests, to barefoot on beaches using a case of local Wadadli beer for the wicket. That's how I found myself being a "Windy Woof" - a batsman swinging greatly and completely missing the revered 'red cherry' (aka: the ball)!
But cricket isn't the only unexpected delight of this balmy, tropical island. Look beyond the well-advertised sun-kissed sands and star-laden night skies, and like us, you'll discover an easy-going welcome that is more genuine than some other Caribbean destinations.
Christopher Columbus named the island after a shrine representing the Virgin Santa Maria la Antigua found in the Cathedral in Seville, Spain. It was the Spanish who first stocked the lands with cattle, sheep, goats and pigs as supplies for their passing ships, although buccaneers and privateers (Captain Kidd's ship was named Antigua), took equal advantage of both ships and supplies, as well as the island's protected coves.
In the late 1600s, when the British arrived, the island was turned into fortune-yielding plantations of tobacco, cotton, indigo and most especially, sugar cane. Within fifty years, cane had outstripped much of the forest, and sugar by-products, rum and molasses, were in high production. Antigua quickly grew into the most populous English colony in the Leeward Islands, with the number of imported African slaves outnumbering whites almost ten to one.
Nelson's Dockyard (Photo: Bill Vanderford)
Today, remnants of some 80 sugar mills still scatter the countryside, and some of the original cash-crops such as ginger, remain. While well known historic sites like Nelson's Dockyard and Shirley Heights will always be big-card draws to Antigua, the island's lush agricultural landscape is just as rich in history and indigenous culture.
To date only one man, Vaughn Johnson, has turned this local knowledge into guided, countryside rambles for visitors. The connections of this local folk-hero form a labyrinthine network that seems to start at The Jolly Beach Resort where several of his cousins work, and spreads across the island. Put the word out and somehow, he arrives at the appointed time, on the appointed day, with a laid-back Rasta style that belies his education, as does his 'syllables-flow-together' lilt that characterizes Caribbean English.
As Vaughn led us up into the backcountry, Antigua took on a different dimension. Beaches surrendered to grassy foot hills; dirt tracks led to exotic orchards, and resort complexes gave way to dusty community villages where chickens, mules and bare-foot children shared the shade of tamarind trees. Our walk took us past rows of black pineapples, and groves of sweet green oranges and lemon-lime tasting mangorines. We picked small branches from the neem tree-a natural insect repellent, and with a twinkle in his eye and nod towards me, Vaughn handed my honey some Manbaman and Baba roots to take home. Both are potent aphrodisiacs! And so our hike continued, plucking at yellow balsam to soothe a mosquito bite; milkweed leaves for sprains, an avocado seed for toothache, and Jumbi which, when roasted, fires up a jolt more extreme than a double espresso!
Finding a ripened Sour Sop, however, was the envy of every Antiguan we met. Sour Sops have a short season, and when the pulpy white fruit is deseeded and juiced, its creamy, sweet flavour is among the most prized of all fruits. Back at The Jolly Beach, Vaughn's cousins swung into action with a zeal we had only seen on the cricket field when a batter nears a "Century" or exercises a "Full Monty". But with one taste, we understood why. If cricket is the language of Antiguan gods, then this was their ambrosia.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Visit www.antigua-barbuda.org or www.jollybeachresort.com
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