Arvolyn takes in Antigua’s Carnival

Antiguan woman wears traditional carnival costume referred to as playing mas during a parade in St. John, Antigua. All Photos by Arvolyn Hill 

August 13, 2015

One of my best friends is Antiguan.  She would tell me about Antigua’s beauty and I would hope one day I would get to go with her.

In the beginning of August my dream came true. Nedjra invited four of our friends including myself to accompany her. We were visiting the island during Carnival season when the island celebrates its Caribbean folklore, culture, religion and tradition. Nedjra’s family reunion had its own schedule that kept us busy. 

On arriving at the airport we were greeted by a man playing a steel band and a pink drink that was called Rum Punch. We would come to drink a lot of Rum Punch.  We  made our way through customs. Nedjra was already on island for a wedding and she picked us up, getting out of the right side of the car one of the many signs that we were staying in a once British colony.

1121 A breathtaking view of the English Harbor from Shirley Heights.

Antigua is 108 square miles with a population of about 100,000. The island’s is known for its 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. Although Antigua’s coast is filled with high priced resorts and some celebrity home’s like Eric Clapton and Oprah Winfrey, it is against the law to privatize a beach. So all beaches on the island are open to the public and resorts must provide public access to the beach for the public. There is a saying in Antigua you can own the land but no one can own the beach! 

1122 Antigua's beaches are as perfect as a beach could get crystal clear water, white sand with barely any waves or rocks.

Antigua reminded me of Cape Town’s breathtaking landscape, Ghana’s culture and Bahamas beaches all places that I had been before.  Its predominately Black population, aqua sea, banana trees, fresh mangos, stray dogs and pastel colored houses are images that remain in my head. 

We stayed in Tranquility Bay Resort in Jolly Harbor,  a five-minute walk from the beach. The landscape of Antigua is tropical but all the plants looked a little burnt. Antigua has been suffering through a drought for over a year.  We learned at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, that during Colonization the British used to complain that the island was too hot. They would continue to wear their traditional British clothing in the extreme heat. Nedjra joked that they should have taken a hint that it was a sign they shouldn’t try to colonize an island that wasn’t ever theirs. Their white skin literally burns when exposed to the Caribbean sun. 

1123 Nedjra stands outside the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda next to a fact sheet on Antigua's most important historical dates.

Due to the hot weather during the day many activities for Carnival occurred late at night or early in the morning. We went to the recreation center, also known as Carnival City in St. John, the capital of Antigua, for our first carnival event, the Soca Monarch Competition. 

Calypso originated in Trinidad and Tobago during the early 20th century from influences that trace back to West Africa. Soca,  known as the soul of Calypso, originated from a subculture in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1970s.  Calypso is seen as more traditional, while Soca connects to younger generations.  At the Soca Monarch Competition thousands come to see the Soca stars perform and decide  who will be Soca King and Queen for the year. Soca music competitions divide into three categories - Groovy, Jumpy and Party. I quickly learned that Antiguans are brutally honest.  If they don’t like a performer they don’t clap at all while others get  cheers.  Some of the popular songs of the year included Pump, Professional Drinker and Shake D Place. 

The last three carnival events included Jouvert morning. From 3 am until daylight the streets of St. John are shut down and tractor trailers carrying massive speakers drive slowly down the street blasting Soca music. People follow the trucks dancing and throwing paint and water in celebration. Jouvert is a national holiday so everyone is able to partake in the massive dance party in the streets.

1125 Happily playing mas during the last day of Carnival

One of the last carnival events we went to was the parade where Antiguans play mas. Playing mas is when people dress in lavish flamboyant masquerade-esque costumes. I loved seeing the streets filled with people wearing bright colors, masks, feathers, sequins and sparkles. Playing mas has no age or size requirement. We saw people of all ages, shapes and sizes wearing the mas outfits, which can be very minimal. August 1st marked the anniversary of Antigua’s emancipation from slavery from the British. Carnival is not an excuse to party but represents a celebration Caribbean freedom and culture. 

1126 More than a swimming hole, Pigeon Point offers swimmers an ocean.