Thursday, December 04, 2008

St John's - Antiguan Capital

[Maryanne]I took the WHOLE DAY off today, and took an early morning bus into the Capital, about a 50 minute drive for less than $2US. I'd researched my day. The local Antigua Tourist office does a great job and recommends just four things: The produce market, the fish market, the Cathedral and the Museum. A bit of research had me adding a few more "to do"'s to that list, but I wasn't sure how much I'd be able to view. One of the main things I really wanted to get done was unlock a phone and purchase a SIM card so I can receive/make calls while here in Antigua.

Superman - Fixes phones now...

The phone was one of my Sister's old ones, very kindly donated to me (she upgrades whenever her plan allows) and we had had no luck unlocking it with the UK provider's instructions and special key. Rather than toss it, I was encouraged to go into one of the many offices that offer the service. With nothing to lose, I was directed to Superman (I'm not kidding), and with a little back and forth throughout the day we actually managed to unlock the phone - Yippie! Superman was full of info, and told me I couldn't use the SIM card / service provider I was planning as the phone used different frequencies - I needed to use Digicel. (Glad I hadn't already wasted my $ on a C&W SIM card). Next time I purchase (or acquire) a phone I need to make sure its tri-band (or whatever it needs to be) for full world wide usage, and with any provider. Anyway - Superman saved the day.

Produce Market

But anyway - back to being a tourist. The bus stop is right by the Produce and Fish markets - so I did get to see them. Next time I'll arrange to do a full produce shop as there was plenty of good fresh options (unlike the local stores); but for today I didn't fancy lugging around groceries while sightseeing.

Next I wandered around town without the aid of a map to get a feel for the place (it is not that big, and on a simple grid system). It is the main stopover point for all the cruise boats to Antigua. Things change on cruise ship day - even some of the one way streets change direction. Today was not a cruise ship day, and I think that was a good thing.

Antigua and Barbuda Museum

I found the Museum, and it opened at 8:30am; pretty impressive. It's in a fantastic building (the old courthouse) and has some interesting stuff from the early Arawak and Carib settlers, through to the end of the Colonial era, but really not terribly well done (think school project). None of the artifacts are in any kind of climate controlled environment, and those few that have labels, many are falling (or have fallen) off. But concentrating on the SPIRIT of the thing, it did teach me a bit about the islands, and especially about the slave era; there was even a slave uprising, pretty well planned, but not successful.

Just wandering the Streets of St Johns quickly confuses ones sense of the place. Some buildings are huge, modern, clean, and shiny; some are small, but well cared for and brightly painted; but many (most) are older, ramshackled and apparently uncared for (even some in regular use). The streets are interesting and the sidewalks, where they exist, are really uneven. This is NOT a town for anyone in a wheelchair or even who had difficultly walking. Curbs sometimes rise (or fall) 2' or more. Holes opening into the gutter (possibly sewage(?)) are frequent, in some areas the wide gutter is covered with nice wooden planking (making it easy to walk along), in others it is sometimes almost impossible to step and stay dry. Despite all that, there was NO litter that I could see (although there was the odd dead (drowned?) rat.

The island has lost many of its original buildings due to fire, hurricane and earthquake; very few streets have a set feel, each building often being of a totally different era, building material and quality to the next. Oh - and did I mention Christmas? It's strange to find oneself in a Caribbean Island and be bombarded with Christmas music, trees and decorations... very strange.

St John's Cathedral with impressive wooden interior

Next - St John's Cathedral. It stands high in the town so its towers are clearly visible from the sea. Although stone on the outside, it is fully encased in wood on the inside and I bet that makes for some wonderful acoustics. Like many cathedrals, the grounds are a cemetery, but to the locals it is like any other park - someplace to hang out in the shade, read, eat or catch up with friends (especially the local school kids). Nobody was giving the building, nor its grounds, any of the usual reverence (despite being a very Christian society). One quirk I found in the church was a florescent light hanging from the ceiling - strapped to a wooden prop from an airplane - very peculiar; I could find no way of learning the history of the building nor the prop from within the Cathedral.

I rushed through Heritage Quay, which is a very upscale outdoors shopping center selling posh named goods to the cruise ship passengers - Eeeek! Not my scene.

Scenes from the tranquil Redcliffe Quay

Finally I came across, what for me was the gem of the city - Redcliffe Quay; full of old stone buildings and established tree-shaded courtyards from the colonial days. Now filled with shops (many still intended for the yuppie end of the market) and restaurants, but so picturesque and peaceful. I could have pulled out a book and hung out there all day long - just beautiful.

Botanical Gardens

After all this, my phone still wasn't ready - so I decided to find the Botanical Gardens. The first 3 groups of people i asked (locals) had never heard of it; I fared better with the old 'uns and it really wasn't far away. En route, I found a mystery lighthouse which I could not decide if it had been moved to this odd (inland and partially hidden behind a gas station) location or if things had just been added around it... It was surrounded with mini-golf carts long overgrown with vines and flowers.. As for the Botanical Gardens - Again (as I'd quickly come to expect) no information about the native planting, but another tranquil spot, it was smaller and simpler than I'd expected. They had an impressive looking children's climbing / play area until I got up close and witnessed rotting wood and missing ladder rungs, a few of the paths were badly flooded and I had to detour to get to the other side (you always want to see what's on the other side right?). The only others in the park were solitary guys apparently sleeping on some of the benches provided. I didn't think they were homeless, just Siesta-ing? Not 100% sure. Anyway I didn't linger.

My phone was still not ready so I decided to venture to Fort James.. I figured if I just followed the coast around St John's town I would find it. From a distance I could see the old stone structures high on a hill and I just headed for it... about 2 miles maybe. I finally made it and could not find an entrance. I felt there must be a road so I just rounded the hill a little further, and a Little further - past the container shipping compound until I eventually got to the secure Coast Guard compound and the end of the road. I could SEE the building but I could not work out how to get there... Hmmm.. I braved the secure coast guard compound and asked how I could get up to the fort?.. Oh - that's not Fort James - you are not in the right place.

Not Fort James - What is that up there? and How DO I get there?

I never did find out what was atop that hill, but another 3 mile walk and I found myself in the right place. To get there (being on a peninsula of sorts) you first have to pass Fort James's beach, which is wonderful. Lots of trees for shade, public open air showers for rinsing off the salt water after a swim, and beautiful sandy beaches; how I wished I had my swim stuff with me, I was hot and dusty after the walk - it would have been great to jump in that water.

Fort James's Beach and views of the bay

Fort James

Eventually, I made it to the Fort; it was in reasonable condition, if just a little overgrown in places. I was the only visitor, nothing was labeled, no signage anywhere - a completely abandoned site. The inner fort was filled with more modern buildings long abandoned (earthquake?) that looked like they had once housed a gift shop and snack store. Some of the trails were blocked by huge spiderwebs with nasty looking spiders sat in them; I diverted as necessary. The powder house is standing and in good condition, and lots of old cannons are still up there (some very overgrown, but most clear). There WAS a wonderful looking restaurant there with stunning views of the fort, the beach and the bay which was very enticing (but I had to get back to my phone before the stores closed). So after viewing the ruins and cannons and appreciating the knock-out views as best you can alone - off I set back on the road to "town". If I find myself back there, I will definitely plan to have at least a drink in that restaurant (Russell's).

I was especially grateful on the walk back for a lift from Stacey who was off to work in town and gave me a ride the 3 miles. Whew.

Antigua is a place of some stunning natural beauty. Much of it's history is associated with colonialism, and I'm sure there must be mixed feelings about that in the community. However, everything (even one small park I found dedicated to the slave uprising and its ringleader) seems to be poorly looked after and decaying, clearly little valued by the community; I saw nothing newly built to be impressed by that may even hint as a tourist attraction or even an asset for the locals. It's a shame but it may be a case of see what's left while you can, since no money is being spent on protecting or maintaining what is there, let alone improving on it. OK, so they WERE installing new windows in the museum, I'm not 100% accurate in my statement, but close enough to be as much saddened by my tour as impressed.

I did finally pick up my phone and purchased a SIM card for the area; by then I was so tired (walking and the sun!) that I meandered back to the bus station and hopped a ride home. The buses here have set routes, but no set timetable. Each is owned individually, and they leave the bus station when they are full (or otherwise good and ready). The buses tend to be mini-buses (several rows of 3 fixed seats - one seat, the isle and a double seat the width of the van). But the aisle can be blocked by an extra fold out seat to carry extra passengers - I was the last on the bus and had one of the folding seats. At each stop, all of us in the aisle row had to pile out of, and fold away our seats, let the passenger(s) at the back off, and reverse the process. We repeated this until we were thinned out enough to no longer need the spare seats. I made it home just in time to row to the boat in the last of the daylight - whew, I'll sleep well tonight. I can hardly believe I've written so much but its is as much for Kyle as anyone else, so sorry he can't be here to enjoy, I know he would have LOVED exploring the Fort. If he'd have been around, I'd have been way more likely to stop in some of the enticing restaurants I struggled to walk by. Next time..... Oh and maybe watch a cricket game too...?


Mommy Dearest said...

You have had a very interesting couple of days and I send my kudos for being willing to just start out alone and meander where you will. I have always been too...too...not sure what it is that makes it hard for me to venture out and explore something or some place on my own. Nothing seems like much fun to do alone, but you have proved that wrong.
Your description of the general unkempt and unattended condition of everything is indeed sad and makes me think what this country will (could) look like if there is perceived no money to keep things up or do regular maintenance or improve. To think of our magnificent botannical gardens gone without signage or attendance, our museums no longer kept climate-controlled to protect treasures, our streets no longer kept safe from rats and sewer holes. When did they stop taking care of things? Was it a financial hardship come upon the island or just a lack of pride or time or was George Bush in charge of it for a while?
I look forward to another couple of days with Kyle starting tomorrow night. The pantry needs a bit of winnowing. Enjoy, Maryanne!

Jennifer said...

I love to read your stories. I wish we could be there too but reading the stories allows me to see the place. Maybe you should take up writing the history for them...Big hugs to you both.

kate said...

Another day in paradise, eh? Sounds absolutely fabulous. Kudos on packing so much in and for your determination to research all the options. I remember those buses from being in the Bahamas! Sorry Kyle couldn't be there for all the sights and to explore the fort, but next time...