Hop On The Bus, Gus

January 2005

This was our first visit to Antigua (an-TEE-gah), known mostly for the perhaps apocryphal claim of having a different beach for every day of the year. Relatively circular in shape, but with quite a few scallops in its edges (the scallops being bays that provide the many beaches), it's approximately ten miles across. The port and capital is St. John's, and fortunately here we didn't have to compete with a flotilla of cruise ships – we were able to berth at the pier that led directly into town.

Exiting the dock area, past the welcoming steel band, I noticed an Internet shop. I asked if they offered wireless service, since I had left a laptop with that capability on the ship, where the satellite service was rather expensive. They said that they used to, but so many people who hooked up had viruses and worms on their systems that they had dropped that service. So much for the progress of technology.

We made our way through the hawkers of hair-braiding and taxi tours. Not that we hadn't taken taxi tours before – they're usually less expensive than the shore excursions, as well as being less crowded and more personalized. But we thought we'd look around town first and then decide how we'd get to the other end of the island to see a highlight of the Eastern Caribbean, English Harbour, the site of Nelson's Dockyard.

We strolled up the hill to the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, where we had read we could get a walking tour map of the town. The curator was talking to someone who we learned was an American who had a small house on the island, which he visited several times a year. We asked them about taking a bus to English Harbour, since most guidebooks only recommended taxis to get around. Frommer's guide did mention that the adventurous might take the bus, but that their schedules were erratic. They looked us over and, perhaps sensing our adventurous nature, said we'd have no problem.

We wandered through streets made narrow by vehicles diagonally parked on the sidewalks, meaning we usually had to walk in the street. We visited the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with twin stone towers, whose interior was of ornate carved wood, with impressive stained glass windows and pipe organ, and which still included a crèche illuminated by a lamp – attached to an aircraft propeller! We found that many Caribbeans, having put in the effort to decorate for Christmas, kept the decorations up through February.

We walked to the other side of town, and found that the bus station consisted of several platforms, each with a queue of minivans alongside.

At the end of each platform was a sign indicating the destination and stops along each line – however, neither English Harbour nor Nelson's Dockyard was anywhere to be seen. We walked to the other end to see if there might be other signs there. An attendant who had been checking the buses in and out came up to assist us, evidently having noticed our bewilderment – or it could have been because we were the only Caucasians within sight.

She told us that bus #16 was the one we wanted, and guided us to where the next one would depart. The fare was 4 Eastern Caribbean dollars each, or $1.50 in U.S. dollars, but the driver had no U.S. change for a 5 – I imagine they'd had few American passengers. We did have enough ones to get us there.

The buses' configurations were similar to some small aircraft we've been on, with two seats on the right, one on the left, and an aisle between. There was a difference – even when all seats were filled, passengers continued to board, flipping down a fold-down seat at the end of each row. When the bus was actually full, we departed. All levels of people were represented, including professionals and college students, although we were the only tourists.

The experience reminded me of our abra trips in Dubai.

Although there were bus shelters along the way – the weather is always balmy, but there are occasional showers – most stops were more casual. When anyone wanted to get off, they just chimed out "bus stop!" and the driver would stop as soon as he could. When the departer was in the back, those on fold-down seats ahead would raise them, move forward, and descend from the bus, until the one in the back could leave. Then they'd reboard, reversing the process, until the next stop.

Of course, it would have been a problem if someone wanted to board when the bus was full, but since we began at the capital, most people were heading out to destinations in the island. Later, occasionally someone along the road would wave a hand and we'd stop for them to board. The driver knew everybody along the route and they waved at each other. We passed similar buses along the way, which were picking up children in uniforms to take to school.

Passing through the village of All Saints, we descended from the elevated interior, being rewarded with sweeping views of the coastline and the hills surrounding the harbor, which was chosen because it provided natural protection during the hurricane season. We were the only remaining passengers when we arrived at Nelson's Dockyard. At the entrance, we had no problem getting enough change in dollars to return – the Caucasian ratio there was the opposite of the bus station.

The Dockyard now serves as a marina for private sailing yachts, and many of the original buildings have been converted to uses servicing them. The brochure said that the capstans were each manned by 26 sailors to "careen ships to work on the bottom of their hulls."

Perhaps the British, or maybe it's just sailors, are familiar with this meaning of careen, but I had to go to the fifth definition in The American Heritage Dictionary to find that it meant "to turn a ship on its side for cleaning, caulking, and repairing," by attaching ropes to the top of their masts and pulling them down.

The work done on the bottom of ships began with the removal of barnacles and the shells left by teredo worms, mollusks that infest tropical waters and like to, temporarily at least, make their home in the wood of a ship's hull. The buildup reduced a ship's speed and had to be removed periodically – as often as two or three times a year! A coating of tar, tallow, and sulfur was then applied to discourage their immediate reappearance.

The so-called Admiral's House – it actually was constructed as a residence for "the Naval Officer In Charge and the Store Keeper," and has never accommodated an Admiral – now houses a museum documenting the history of the boatyard, and Horatio Nelson, as well as "other diversions."

Having seen the extensive exhibit of Nelson's life and career at the Naval Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England we were not surprised to find, in addition to a life-size portrait of Nelson (Betty Lou was pleased to find that she could look him in the eye), a portrait of his lover, Lady Hamilton, the beautiful wife of his friend.

Fortunately, the "Pitch and Tar Store" has now been converted to the Admiral's Inn, a hotel with a terrace restaurant overlooking the harbor and with a bar topped by an old workbench carved with the names of ships that once docked there.

After a relaxing lunch, we emerged from the Dockyard to find a bus waiting – so much for erratic schedules. We could have visited the Dockyard via a $34 each shore excursion, but we wouldn't have been able to also enjoy lunch there.

Since we now had our pick of seats, I chose the front with the driver, the better to take pictures. The return was the reverse of the trip out, with the bus gradually filling up on our way into town. There was another difference; a bus going in the opposite direction flagged ours down and told our driver something – I should mention that although English is nominally the language of the island, I couldn't understand a word that was said for most of the trip either way. It turned out that a bus ahead of us had broken down and we and the following bus picked up the stranded passengers. I guess it was payback for our bus trip into town in Cancun. I was now crowded into the middle seat next to the driver, and although I didn't notice, Betty Lou said that my new seatmate was fascinated by my picture-taking.

As we arrived back in St. John's, it began to rain, lightly, reminding us of Frankfurt. Soon after our arrival there, a colleague told us that it could take five minutes after going outside before one could determine if it was raining. Having lived in Germany for two years, we've since been prepared on our trips with compact umbrellas, and anyway it was time to reboard the Maasdam to head towards our next adventure.

© Copyright 2005 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved