Home/Antigua Chronicle

Back in 1993, I went off to live in the country of Antigua & Barbuda for what turned out to be about four months. We had so many adventures there that I started writing the following chronicle during my stay so I wouldn't forget everything that happened. As it turned out, I did forget a few things, such as Johnny's late night tour of the town in his taxi (hoo boy), the incident at the night club, and the incident outside the casino involving a street person and a large crowd of people, but I'm pretty sure I put everything else in here. :)

"The Benefit of a Tropical Environment"

A True Chronicle by Darren Schebek
This work is copyright (c)1993 by Darren Schebek

Seemed like a dream come true. My boss comes up to me and tells me, "Hey, Darren, I know you've only been with the company for a month, but our new division is relocating to the Caribbean and we'd like you to be a part of the project. How about it?"

Hmm, I think. Let me get this straight. You're going to pay me to live in the Caribbean and do computer programming. Hmm.

"Is there any particular reason why the pay seems a little on the... low side?", I ask.

"Well, you're getting the benefit of working in a tropical environment. You'll really love Antigua, Darren. It's a paradise. Everything is really inexpensive there. The staple food down there is lobster. Even booze is really cheap. Plus we'll be living close to the capital city, St. Johns, so there'll be easy access to shopping, food, fun and amusement, etc."

Hmm, I think. I never really joined this company for the money in the first place. I joined it because the work was fun, my fellow employees were really cool guys, and it allowed me to do what I like to do - namely, to program computers. Now I'm being offered the chance to do just that, only in the Caribbean.

"Don't they get lots of hurricanes and stuff down there?" I ask.

"The last hurricane that hit Antigua was back in the 1950's", he replied. "In fact, Antigua gets the least rainfall of all the islands in the Caribbean."

Hmm, I think. It seems a bit odd that I'm rather new here and I'm being given such a wonderful opportunity. Strange, but compelling.

"Well, I'm a little curious as to why you're giving this opportunity to me when, in fact, I've only been working here for a month, on contract, writing this graphics demo for you. I mean, you hardly know me, really."

"I think you're a good programmer, and I think you'll fit in with the team quite well. So what do you think?"

Hmmm, I think. What the hell. Probably be a good experience for me, considering I've only ever been to Manitoba, British Columbia, and also Disneyland back in 1972 when I was eight.

"OK, sure, I'll go."

Four months later I am sitting in our house in Antigua. I had recently commented to one of my fellow employees that it seemed rather surprising that, after living together for four months (the six of us), we still seemed to get along quite well. He replied with "That's because we've all been through Hell together".

I was in complete agreement with him, and I'll tell you why.

De Plane! De Plane!

When I stepped off the plane in Antigua, my hands and clothes became damp before I'd gotten halfway down the stairs. My lungs suddenly seemed to be giving me the silent treatment, and I had to activate manual lung override. "Well, here I am, and I'm damp with sweat...Cool!" I think to myself.

Ten minutes later, it started raining. I would go so far as to say it began "extremely raining".

My boss had arrived here two weeks earlier to set up phone and living arrangements for us. He showed up at the airport in a rental car to pick us up. While driving us to our living quarters, he excitedly explained to us that there was a tremendous rainfall the day before that actually washed away one of the roads here. I looked outside at what I considered to be tremendous rainfall and raised an eyebrow at it.

We arrived at our living quarters. This was a place called "Coral Sands", a two and a half acre spread that was ten feet away from one of the nicest beaches in Antigua: Runaway Bay. On this apparently private property were three resort-style houses. There was a "main" house, and two "lesser" houses. The "main" house was dubbed as such for three reasons: it had three bedrooms instead of two, the boss and his wife were staying in it, and it's where all the food was kept.

I wound up in the third house with a fellow employee who was subsequently hospitalized a week later after one of the sidewalks in town had attacked him. Once he was out of the hospital (he was in there for over a week and had ants in his hospital bed every time I visited him) he decided to move into the extra bedroom in the "main" house because it was much closer to the food. So, I wound up with a resort house all to myself. What luck.

Our Home Away From Home

After two or three days, it's still raining. Conveniently enough, there's a nice little restaurant right beside Coral Sands called Frank's Strand Cafe ("strand" being German for "beach"). The coffee there was exceptionally strong, but I got used to it eventually. If you ever go to Antigua, you simply must go to Frank's Cafe. It's a wonderfully quiet and relaxing little beachside restaurant. The schnitzel and pasta dishes are very tasty (Frank prepares the schnitzel himself). And if you check out Frank's, make sure you have dinner there on a Monday night. If you do, you'll get to see Frankie & Charlie, who play calypso music and are very entertaining (especially when they start singing their "naughty" tunes, many of which involve involuntary audience participation). I've seen Frankie & Charlie perform several times and it's always great fun, not because I get to hear their songs all over again but to see the reactions to their antics on the faces of the diners. I particularly enjoy their song called "Big Bamboo" which you really have to see in order to enjoy (all the males sitting at the bar are hilariously ridiculed). And if you leave the restaurant in the middle of their performance, they know exactly where you're going. In fact, they will sing it to everyone present to the tune of For He's a Jolly Good Fellow:

We know where you are going.
We know where you are going.
We know where you are go-o-ingggg,
And what you're going to do.

You're going for a screeewwwwww!
You're going for a screeewwwwww!
We know where you are go-o-ingggg,
And who you'll be doing it to.

Of course, if you just get up to go to the bathroom, they may still sing the above ditty, although the word "screw" is replaced with the word "poo", and some of the lyrics after that are changed somewhat as well. In both cases, "screw" and "poo" are both sung in a high-pitched voice and sustained. The original lyrics as reprinted above are particularly embarrassing if you are a guy leaving with another guy. No mercy. Frightfully entertaining. Especially if they stop a "normal" calypso song right in the middle just to sing out your plans for the evening to everyone. They did it to me, personally. Twice. We spent more time at Frank's (all of us) than at any other establishment on the island (including our own home, almost). Wonderful place.

I spent much time at Frank's Cafe taking notes and wondering when the rain would let up so I could go for a nice swim in the sun.

The next day, the rain let up and I went for a nice swim in the sun. The beach was incredible. Runaway Beach was never very crowded, and there was always a topless bather or two (grin) tanning nearby on the white sand. The water was crystal clear and quite calm. In fact, I could stand in the water up to my neck and still see my feet perfectly clearly (albeit a little distorted by the surface of the water). This is so amazing, I think to myself! I can hardly believe it! Here I am in the bloody Caribbean doing programming work, and I'm getting paid for it! Cool!

After one week, our equipment still hadn't arrived, and so we were relegated to merely enjoying ourselves and having the odd design meeting. It was quite wonderful. Take some notes, then design a bit. Tired? Go jump in the sea out back. With the weather becoming more favorable every day, this was turning out to be a sweet deal, indeed.

I only had one teeny little complaint at that time. The water in the house I was staying in smelled so strongly of either sulphur or a dead animal (I couldn't tell which but I leaned towards the sulphur) that I couldn't bear to take a shower. Not just because the smell was totally nauseous, but also for fear of smelling even worse afterwards. Neither of the other two houses seemed to suffer from this problem. My only solution was to run the water like crazy (i.e., turn on the taps, flush the toilet repeatedly and have the shower going full blast). This is something you should never do in Antigua because fresh water is very scarce (fresh water in Antigua comes from only two sources: rainfall and the island's single desalination plant). Anyway, after several guilt-ridden minutes of this the smell would go away. I then had about two or three minutes to take my shower before the smell would mysteriously return in full force. Still, small price to pay to be living in Paradise, right?

Eau de Toilette

It was during this time that we all decided to familiarize ourselves with various other parts of Antigua. We ventured into St. Johns.

For those of you who have read Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, particularly Mr. Adams' descriptions of Madagascar and Zaire, then I need say no more. You pretty much know what St. Johns is like, and can skip the next few paragraphs. For those who have not read this excellent book (or those who just want another perspective on the subject from a person who does not even remotely comprehend the nuances of a foreign culture), read on.

The first thing that strikes you as you walk about the streets of the city is the smell, or rather, the smells. In the aforementioned book, Douglas Adams remarked that perhaps the Chinese get around on their bicycles unscathed by using some form of echolocation with their bicycle bells. I would hypothesize that one could eventually learn to find their way around St. Johns blindfolded using only one's sense of smell.

Many areas of the city seem to have their own distinctive aroma. Some of these areas are quite small. You take a few more steps and the strange odour is gone (much to your relief, in some cases). Other areas are much larger. For example, if you become lost in the streets of St. Johns, you can always tell (well in advance) when you are approaching the Fish Market.

Although usually quite repugnant and thick, these odours can actually be good for you, but only as an early warning device. For instance, the smell of the Fish Market will probably force you to think, "I should not buy this fish" before you buy one without thinking about it, even if it's just for a souvenir. Realistically, though, your lungs tend to simply refuse to function once you are hit with a whiff of some of these odours and for that you should owe your lungs a debt of gratitude.

Some of these city smells are ones I have never encountered before in my life and as such it is difficult to determine, or even imagine, their source. Some of them make me fear for my own life expectancy. I use the words "aroma", "odour", and "smell" interchangeably in this work, but be advised that I'm only trying to stay interesting by doing so: the only word that best describes things here is "smell".

The origin of some smells is pretty obvious. There is no exhaust emissions control in Antigua. Every other car that drives by is belching out black or blue smoke in thick clouds. Many trucks are even worse, in that they also have assorted garbage falling off their flatbeds as they drive along. I, myself, have come to the conclusion that these vile trucks are actually pollution control vehicles (or perhaps PCV's for short) and are part of some government-funded program for maintaining a controlled amount of pollution all over the island. Of course, the locals help out all the time by leaving bags of garbage and refuse all over the sides of all the roads all over the island. Why, they're even so conscientious as to throw their empty beer bottles out of their cars into the bushes as they drive merrily along (I've seen this happen on more than one occasion). In the city, though, there are no bushes so the sewers are used instead. This is a rather strange frame of mind for the locals to have, especially when you consider that they all wear exceptionally nice clothes and have have fantastic hairstyles.

As a brief aside to the smells of St. Johns, I'd like to point out an observation. Whenever you see a truck driving around with a towering load of goods on the back of it, you notice that the load is not tied down. It's just all stacked up on the back of the truck (stacked quite high in some cases). So how, you may wonder, do they prevent the goods from toppling off the back of the truck? Answer: they get four or five people to sit up on top of everything, and that way, nothing can fall off the truck, right?

Wrongo. Twice I had seen a truck stopped at the side of the road with a large chunk of its once uniformly stacked load missing. On one of these occasions, the people responsible were scrambling to pick up the hundreds of little square tins of chunk-lite tuna, many of which had already been flattened by passing cars. And thus, a new smell area is created, as the flattened tuna paste is converted by the hot sun into something that tuna was never meant to smell like.

A few smells can probably be attributed to the bright green slimy water-substance that flows down the open sewers on both sides of most streets. It seems that most of these sewers were once covered by slabs of concrete (indeed, some still are, mostly). However, most of these slabs have collapsed. Some are missing completely, which makes me wonder about the effects of this sewer slime on concrete. This in turn constantly reminds me to avoid stepping in the stuff. I'm not sure which would be more frightening: discovering the source of this green slime, or discovering its destination.

Other smells are one or two-day-only smells. They hang around for a while, and then vanish. I discovered the source of one of these smells while navigating my way down the ever-elusive "sidewalks" of the city. I suddenly noticed on the ground at my feet (where you're always looking anyway if you're on foot), a large, wet, mangy, and extremely dead rat. Not in a back alley or anything, but right out on the "sidewalk". I shuddered to think what might have caused the death of this rat. It looked like a quick death, so I naturally blamed the sewer-slime.

The Streets of Antigua

The second thing you notice in St. Johns is the "sidewalks", especially if you happen to be on foot. They are extremely dangerous, and obviously are meant to be that way as some sort of tourist population control measure. Most streets rely on the colvert system running down both sides of the street for their sidewalks (i.e., the concrete slabs that mostly cover the trails of sewer slime which probably moves about with some degree of self-awareness). As I've previously mentioned, though, many of these slabs of concrete have collapsed and vanished, leaving a square hole in the middle of the "sidewalk" about two and a half feet square and around two or more feet deep. And there's sewer slime at the bottom. So, you have to do a lot of hopping about if you're on foot, lest you suffer a particularly nasty surprise (like the surprise that my subsequently hospitalized fellow employee received when he looked away from the sidewalk for a split second and fell in one of these "tourist traps").

In many places all over the city, the "sidewalk" will suddenly just... end. One moment there's a "sidewalk" and you're warily hopping about on it. The next moment there's a building in your way. No more "sidewalk". So, you must then walk on the street. Most "sidewalks" in St. Johns are elevated about two feet higher than the street, so you have to jump down off the "sidewalk". When the "sidewalk" suddenly appears again, you must jump back up onto it (and be thankful for being able to get your butt off the street). It's rather amusing to stand on a corner and watch all the tourists jumping and hopping about. The locals on the "sidewalks" have grown wise to this, it seems, since most of them just stand in one place harassing the tourists.

It's very hot and humid in Antigua, so you have to drink liquids on a fairly regular basis to keep yourself from getting a headache and passing out. When you go into a little street-side shop to buy a bottle of Ting (for example) they always put a straw in the bottle for you, even if you tell them not to put a straw in it, which I always do. I don't like drinking out of a bottle with a straw - I'd prefer to just drink right out of the bottle. Ting, by the way, is a drink of Jamaican origin. It's billed as a grapefruit soft drink, but doesn't taste even remotely like grapefruit. For this reason, I find it quite tasty, because I hate grapefruit.

But now I understand why they always give you a straw. If you are drinking a bottle of pop without a straw, you must tilt your head back to take a swig out of the bottle, temporarily taking your eyes off the ground immediately in front of you. This, of course, means that you are placing yourself in mortal danger of falling into a hole and vanishing from the face of the Earth. By using a straw, you can sip your drink and still remain transfixed at the space just in front of your feet. It would appear that straws are a much cheaper alternative than simply repairing the sidewalks and obviously the local vendors realize that the onus is on them to protect their customers from an untimely demise.

The city streets themselves are just plain unnerving. Virtually all streets in St. Johns are one and a half lanes wide or less (yet somehow cars manage to pass each other unscathed all the time). The locals wander all over the street and most of the time don't seem to pay any attention to the cars honking all around them (people don't lean on their horns or anything - they just give a quick tap or two on their horn). I suspect that this apathy on the part of the locals towards honking automobiles is because Antiguan drivers seem to honk all the time and for no apparent reason. I asked a local taxi driver what all this honking actually means and he told me, "Sometimes it means 'Hello' and sometimes it means 'Get the Hell out of my way'". When I asked him how one might be able to tell the difference, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Who knows?"

Actually, the behaviour of Antiguan drivers is not limited to mere honking. They do many other things for no apparent reason such as:

This last observation is just plain crazy (more so than the others, which are merely unnerving). This happened to us twice. On one of those occasions, we started to make our right turn and the driver behind us started honking (he was in the oncoming lane by this time and approaching the side of our turning car). He stopped (thankfully) and then got out of his car and started yelling at us like we were far too dangerous in our driving habits to be allowed to have a driver's license. This guy was furious. He even started trying to incite some sort of confrontation. We just drove away and left him there, shouting at us.

You might be thinking that, if all the drivers seem to be so bad, then why aren't there accidents all the time. Well, there are accidents all the time, and I've seen several. I have witnessed a couple of almost-accidents from a victim's-eye view. You don't have to take my word for it, however, since there are many wrecks of cars everywhere at the sides of the roads. Nature has turned most of them into planters (or, if the windows are still intact, terrariums). It seems that when a car gets into an accident the driver simply abandons it at the side of the road on a permanent basis.

I have a theory as to why this goes on. In Antigua, if you want to import a car it will cost you shipping and handling, plus over 110% duty. So, if you wanted to import a car for which you originally paid US $8000, you will have to pay an additional US $8800 (at least) in duty alone just to bring it into the country. There is an exception to this. You don't have to pay any duty if the car is written off. I suppose such a car would be brought in for its parts (or maybe just to decorate the road-side). So, what people do is import cars that are written off and then somehow get them back in running condition (using parts from other wrecks, I presume). This way, they pay very little for the car in the first place, and they pay no duty to bring it into the country. They then drive the car until it completely dies on them or they trash it in an accident. At this point it is immediately donated to the government's pollution-control project (i.e., it is abandoned). Keep in mind that this is only a theory, although the import duties are, to the best of my knowledge, actual fact.

Not like you'd want to bring a nice car into the country in the first place. After arriving in Antigua, I learned that the country is well known for having "the worst roads in the Caribbean". This is extremely true. Make sure you have your spine insured before going out for a drive. Virtually all of the roads are either plagued with potholes (very large and very deep) or plagued with road patches (a sort of negative-mass pothole, or speed bump), or both.

I have heard there is a bonding agent usually mixed in with asphalt to prevent it from crumbling away as soon as it rains. In Antigua, the government apparently finds this bonding agent too expensive, and so they allegedly don't use it. So, a road is freshly paved and a week or two later it is an obstacle course of potholes.

Enter the road workers. Their job is to patch up the roads. But they don't have a steamroller, so how on earth do they pack the asphalt that they shovel into the potholes? Well, they don't. They let the cars drive over the patches and compress it for them. This is another reason why I would never want to bring a nice car into the country.

The patches, once they've settled, usually wind up being just as bad to drive on as the potholes they once were, since they wind up being bumps in the road. Then, of course, more potholes later form elsewhere in the road and you have to drive two miles an hour, swerving all over the road (even into the oncoming lane sometimes) to prevent your car from suffering any damage at the hands of the road (like your rear axle being ripped away, for example). Potholes seem to form so fast that I have begun to suspect that there are other road workers out there whose job is making potholes for the other road workers to fill. This would be some kind of make-work project initiated by the government, presumably in an attempt to keep the economy feisty. I'm sure the car-repair business is thriving there. In Antigua, you don't necessarily drive on the left or the right side of the road. You drive on the best side.

Despite the condition of the roads, I have, on occasion, seen some very expensive cars: BMWs, Porches, Mercedes, Limos, etc. Once I even saw a very expensive-looking Mercedes with a gold-plated grill. These people are crazy, I think to myself. Then I think, if they can afford to drive a car like that on these roads, then perhaps it's even more of a status symbol than I originally thought.

Business Concepts, Inc.

I must tell you about the many types of businesses in Antigua. There are many shops that specialize in two things instead of just one. On the face of it, this doesn't seem terribly bad. However, the two things that these shops specialize in always seem to have absolutely no relation to each other. I have actually seen signs for the following businesses:

Naturally, this prompted me to have a quick browse through the local yellow pages one day, where I found these little gems:

There are also little food stores all over the island called superettes. I don't particularly like that word. Think about it. Originally, we had a "food store", essentially a small store selling food and sundries. Then we had "supermarkets", which were larger versions of mere food stores. It then seems that "superette" would mean "a small supermarket". Shouldn't it just have come full circle right back to being a "food store"? I think so, since all of the superettes look like small food stores. Superette. What a stupid word. So is "sundries".

Anyway, I have digressed...

Antigua-Ville Horror

After about two weeks, we discovered that our equipment had been inadvertently shipped to Barbados instead of Antigua, but that we'd definitely have it in a day or two. By this time we had become sick of swimming in the sea and sunning on the beach and playing frisbee in the sun all day (if you can imagine that). We wanted computers. We wanted to program something. Anything. We started becoming rather antsy and it's at about this point where we all started getting under each other's skin a bit.

Three weeks after our arrival, our equipment finally showed up. We attacked the boxes like a pack of ravenous hounds. Packing foam was flying around us in clouds. When the dust had settled, we found that only some of our equipment had arrived. The rest, we were assured, would arrive very... very... soon.

Since we had more computer users than actual computers, we had to take shifts according to who had the most urgent work to complete. I was still kind of happy because I had low priority work and I relished any computer time that I got. I looked forward to working on my stuff.

After one month, things changed. We had since moved out of calm, peaceful Coral Sands and into what we had affectionately come to refer to as "Hell House".

Hell House was a large house up on top of a hill overlooking the island's only public golf course (there are two other golf courses but they're private). The view was quite breathtaking. Before the boss gave the house the O.K., he brought us up there for a quick walk-through to see what we thought of it. I told him afterwards that, as far as I could see, it seemed like an acceptable house.

"Are they going to be putting any furniture in it?", I asked him.

"Yeah, this place will be fully furnished."

"What about a stove? Will we be getting a stove as well?"

"Yeah, that's already on its way. Should be here in a few days."

"We had quite a lot of mosquitoes over at Coral Sands. Are we going to be getting screens on any of these windows?"

"Yeah, they just have to take window measurements so they can order the material and build the screen frames."

"Are they going to pave the forty-five degree ex-mine-field that we have to call a driveway?"


So, we moved in to Hell House. I met the construction guy in charge of providing us with all the furniture, the stove, screens, etc. He seemed like a nice guy and we talked for a while.

"So, are there a lot of mosquitoes up here on this hill?", I inquired.

"Not really. Too much wind. No stagnant water anywhere. What ya have to watch out for up here are the tarantulas."

"The tarantulas."

"Yeah. They usually come out after it rains. You see 'em wanderin' around on the driveway here and there at night after a rainfall."

"Are they poisonous?"

"Welllll... if you get bitten you're not really in much trouble. You'll swell up a bit and get a little sick, but that's about it. If ya get bitten four or five times, though, that can be lethal."

"Lethal. Well, I was wondering..."

"But it's not really the tarantulas you have to worry about. It's the centipedes."

"Centipedes? Are they poisonous?"

"Oh yeah. Friend of mine had one crawl into his bed and bite him on the arm. His whole arm swelled up like a balloon, and he was sick as hell for over a week. I asked him how the hell the thing got into his bed. He didn't know. Whenever I see one I kill it. Nasty things."

"I see. How big are these centipedes, by the way?"

"Around five to ten inches long. Just don't go pokin' around under rocks and boards lyin' on the ground and you'll probably never see one."

"Do you know when we'll be getting screens on our windows?"

The main problems at Hell House were inadvertently (and unintentionally) caused by my boss deciding to move into the house in the middle of the month (i.e., immediately). Originally, the deal was to have everything installed and done by the first of the next month, and then we'd move in. However, due to an overenthusiastic effort to save money (Coral Sands was a pretty expensive place to live) my boss decided to move in immediately on the Principle of Good Faith (i.e., that they'd still have everything completed by the end of the month). This, as it turned out, was a bad idea.

It seems that once we moved into the place, the pressure was off for our landlord, who immediately went on vacation, leaving us with no way to get in touch with her. At that point, it seemed also that any work being done on the house immediately stopped. It was as if everybody in connection with our new house suddenly had an uncontrollable urge to leave the country. We were told that in two days a landscaper would arrive to clear out an entire area of brambles on the "cliff" side of the house. I personally thought that perhaps the brambles were the only thing preventing the cliff side from eroding away, taking most of the house with it. But I assumed that the landscaper would know what he was doing.

Apparently, the landscaper did know what he was doing, because he simply never showed up. I've never seen the man to this day. Apparently the brambles were keeping the house from sliding down onto the fairway of the 16th hole below (or so I surmised).

At the same time, we were also trying to get a phone installed in the house. All attempts at this seemed to yield promising feedback from the phone company, but no progress was ever made. The phone company would tell us that some of their guys were coming out in a day or two to look at our situation but they'd never show up. This did have the side effect of keeping us off the phone company's back for a few days, and perhaps that was the whole idea.

Finally, one of my fellow employees met a Canadian guy who worked locally for one of the airlines. He told us that, in return for some favours, he would tell us how to get a phone installed really fast. We happily agreed. A day or two later he came up to our place to discuss it with us. He began by asking us some simple questions.

"So where do you have the phone line running to?", he asked.

"We don't have a phone line installed to the house yet."

"Oh, so how far up the hill does it go?"

"It doesn't. We don't have any phone lines running up the hill at all."

"WHAT? Oh, man, forget it."

"You're not going to tell us how to get a phone?"

"No, no. I mean forget it. Don't even bother trying to get a phone installed. If you kissed everybody's ass from here to the phone company you'd still be lucky to have a phone installed in this house a year from now."


It turns out that, even though the guy turned out to be a total dork, his words carried some truth in them. After four months, there was still no phone installed in Hell House, nor were any phone lines run up the hill, despite a concerted effort (particularly not on the part of the phone company) to have this done.

Now, when the construction guy told me that there were no mosquitoes on the hill because of the wind, I very quickly found out why the wind keeps them away. It's because the winds up on the hill are so intense that no mosquito in its right brain cell would want to live there, even if it had the strength and stamina to be able to cling to any surface. It made me wonder why the tarantulas and centipedes didn't seem to mind it.

This hill had the most incredible winds I have ever witnessed, at least as far as areas where people think to build houses is concerned. It seemed remarkable that the house had actually managed to remain standing after being battered by these winds for several years. And when it rained it came down almost horizontally, like the rain drops themselves were just passing through the area on some kind of high-speed tour of the island before moving on to Montserrat where they finally hit the ground.

Next came the leaks in the roof. We counted over twenty of them, usually clustered over beds and pillows (which led to the obvious comedic remarks to the owner of the bed). Also, the wind would blow the rain right up and through our (still screen-less) slatted windows and into the house. Close the windows and the place starts to heat up. Open them (even just a little) and get drenched.

When it wasn't raining, opening the windows let in other things, especially at night. Things like moths, flies, and strange-looking things that were either very streamlined wasps or very large flying ants.

As an aside, I did eventually see tarantulas, but only after we'd moved out of Hell House (into a much better place). We had one crawling across our living room carpet on three occasions. Each time, we would capture the tarantula in a glass jar, take it outside and set it free on the neighbor's property. The first time we caught one, it was late evening so we poked a few holes in the lid of the jar and left it on the kitchen counter until morning. When I woke up the next day, the girlfriend of one of my coworkers (herself a coworker, and a great cook) was already in the kitchen. I looked at the jar, and inside was a very miserable-looking tarantula scrunched up in a ball, sitting on a large, thick slice of cucumber. I asked about this, and she said, "Well, I thought he might be hungry." The sight of this poor tarantula combined with her comment still makes me laugh to this day.

Not For The Squeamish

Whenever any of us saw a cockroach, we wanted to kill it straight away. But the damn things are just so impossibly hard to kill. One time we found a particularly large cockroach (about six centimetres long) sitting on our kitchen counter eating a crumb of food with its mandibles. We managed to catch it by pinning it rather violently under a large spoon. We decided to try a little experiment. We grabbed a knife and cut off the cockroach's head. We then placed the head on the bowl of another spoon. Then we released the (now slightly crushed) body. The headless body of the cockroach immediately tried to either escape further injury or locate its head. So we smashed it quite forcefully with our large spoon again. Now the body was a mess. Most of its legs were missing along with most of its guts. The body then leapt into the sink and started making for the drain. After several more panicked thwacks in rapid succession with our large spoon, it finally decided to humour us and play dead. We scooped it up and threw it on the neighbor's property.

The head of the cockroach, now sitting in the bowl of the other spoon, continued eating the crumb of food rather diligently. We placed the spoon on a table and left it for later examination. The head of the cockroach continued to actively play with its food for half an hour, after which it probably just nodded off for a bit. Conclusion? Cockroaches are really hard to kill.

A few days later, one of us picked up a can of Raidtm while shopping. I'm looking at this can of Raidtm thinking, "No bloody way could a mere chemical do any harm to an Antiguan cockroach." I searched for and found a cockroach on the floor of our kitchen (wasn't hard) and gave it a quick spritz with Raidtm. The cockroach hopped up in the air a couple of times, flopped on its back, kicked its legs for a second or two, and then died. Just like that. If you think I just told you this as a free promotional plug for Raidtm, you are correct. All the other sprays we tried just seemed to make the cockroaches happy and playful.

Power to The People

After living in Hell House for one month, the stove still hadn't arrived, most of the windows were still without screens, and the rest of the furniture hadn't arrived yet. Absolutely no progress whatsoever had been made on the house. And it seemed that the house - the entire island - was plagued by power failures. At one point, the power went off for fourteen hours. One of my fellow employees finally got riled enough to phone the power company (the Antigua Public Utilities Authority, or APUA) to inquire as to when the power was coming back on. A lady answered the phone.


"Hi. I'm over here in Cedar Valley, and I was wondering if you could tell me why the power is out."

"I don't know. They're working on it right now."

"Well, do you know when the power is going to be back up?"

"It's up when it's up." *click*

We weren't sure if she hung up on us because she was rude, or if she just had many other phone calls to field, or both. Given past experiences with the various government offices here, we were more inclined to decide that she was just being rude.

The architecture of the house was very odd, and seemed peppered with these little... anomalies. They weren't anything you could notice if you were to be given a quick walk-through of the place. No, you had to live there a while before these anomalies would make themselves known.

First, it soon became apparent that the simple act of going to one of the two bathrooms always involved cutting through someone else's bedroom. One fellow employee's bedroom was so badly placed that, in order to get anywhere from his bedroom (like the kitchen, living room, or dining room), he had to either cut through the central (outside) courtyard or he had to cut through my bedroom. I didn't get much privacy when it rained. It seemed to rain an awful lot, especially at night.

One day, there was a revolt. Not in the capital city, but right smack in the middle of Hell House. The boss was out of the country (he left two days before we all had to move into Hell House, lucky for him) and we'd all decided that we'd had enough of high winds, leaks, and making coffee in an electric skillet. So we decided that we were moving out. When the boss returned, we informed him that he could keep the place, but that we were leaving. Eventually, he gave us his blessing and we left.

Long before the boss returned we'd already lined up another house to move to. This new place was in a nice neighborhood called Coolidge. The new house was just as big as Hell House but with much better architecture (there were three bedrooms, each one with its own bathroom). And the rent was cheaper than Hell House. It had an electric gate on the driveway (which was level and paved). This is the house where we ultimately settled, and it was from within this house that I wrote most of this chronicle.

The new house even included two guard dogs named "Trouble" and "Kadafi", who were both complete sucks (in fact, we often joked that if a burglar showed up, the dogs would viciously befriend him. The thief would not only have ransacked our house, but he'd have stolen our guard dogs as well). The dogs seemed totally content letting anybody into our yard, but they barked like hell whenever a car tried to leave. I often wondered what it was they thought they were supposed to be guarding. The road, probably.

We were informed that power failures in Coolidge only lasted for about thirty seconds because we were so close to the airport. However, this proved not to be the case. In one two-day period we had eight power failures. The shortest one lasted half an hour and the longest one was over two and a half hours. Combine this with our occupation of computer programming and the fact that our boss had still not supplied us with uninterruptible power supplies, or even a generator, and you can just IMAGINE the oodles of progress we were making.

When we first arrived in Antigua, we chose a motto with a comfortably Caribbean flair. The motto was "Do We Care?". After a couple of weeks, though, we realized that all the Antiguan employees had already claimed that one. A month or so later, we finally settled on a new motto, which was "Grin & Bear It". And so, every time the computer monitors went suddenly dark there was always at least one person who would hiss, "I love this country" through clenched teeth.

Even when we did have power, it was very weak and it fluctuated a lot (fortunately we DID at least have surge protectors). When the streetlights came on in the evening the extra power draw in the area required us to shut off every electric appliance in the entire house (including lights and computers) just so someone could have a shower (we had an electric water pump, and it wouldn't activate otherwise). We were informed that we needed an extra power line run to our house. Our landlord told us that he'd take care of it. Since we had all discovered at this point that our new landlord was perhaps the greatest landlord on the face of the planet, we knew that he WOULD take care of it.

One day, the power went out (actually, it was surprising if it didn't go out on any given day, but this day was "special"). As usual, the temperature in the house instantly began to climb. After fifteen minutes of shooting pool with our backs dripping sweat (did I mention that we had a pool table? It was covered with rips and tears and it wasn't very level and the pool cues were all broken, but it was still a pool table), we saw a truck pull up beside our house. It was an APUA truck. A guy started climbing up the pole beside our house. We thought, "GREAT!" because we assumed that the landlord had done the impossible and managed to get the APUA to actually do something useful for a change. Sure, they never told us that they were going to turn the power off, and sure, we all lost some work on our computers and maybe even an entire hard drive partition on the PC, but we were finally getting our extra power line!

As it turned out, the APUA did not shut our power off so they could install our new power line. Rather, they shut off our power so that they could change the bulb in the streetlight. This of course begs the question: How many APUA employees does it take to change a light bulb? We counted five: one to change the bulb and four others to stand around on the street and watch him do it. I'm not kidding. Total elapsed time: one and a half hours. None of us would hazard a guess as to how many APUA employees it took to actually shut off our power in the first place.

The next day, our landlord called to tell us that he'd talked to the APUA about our extra power line. The APUA told him that they would come out and install the new power line only if the landlord went out and bought the cable himself. Upon hearing this, all we could do was stand there with our mouths hanging open, blinking in disbelief. The next day, our landlord went out and bought the cable. He called the APUA, and they said they'd be out in about a week.

Two weeks later, the APUA showed up to install the cable. However, when they left, our power seemed no better than it was before. We called our landlord and he came over with a friend of his who was going to inspect our breaker box. He immediately noticed the APUA had, in fact, run the cable from the pole to the house, but they hadn't actually connected it to anything.

Several days later and at our many requests, the APUA showed up to connect the new power line to our breaker box. A man came up to our house calling, "Inside? Inside?" (people in Antigua don't knock on your door and there are no doorbells - they just shout "Inside?"). A fellow employee went out to see what the man wanted. This guy said that he was with the APUA and they were going to be connecting our new power line. He then warned us that they were going to be turning off the power to do this. The fellow employee thanked the man for the advance warning and turned around to go back into the house to tell us all to save our work and shut down. Unfortunately, the power went out before he could make it back into the house.

Professionalism Runs Rampant

Having never really traveled anywhere exotic in the past, I always wondered about the term culture shock. I know a man who had come from Nepal to Canada. He had lived his entire life in Nepal. Upon arriving in Canada, he suffered culture shock. All the traffic on the freeway made him very ill, for example. However, it didn't take long for his culture shock to turn into culture amazement. He seemed absolutely fascinated by EVERYTHING, from my computer right down to my little Rubik's Cube key chain (today, of course, he has his own computer and has adapted perfectly, although he still tends to put hot sauce on most of his food).

Moving to Antigua, I thought I would learn first-hand what this culture shock business was all about. However, I was never actually certain that I was experiencing any kind of culture shock. I never got sick. Hell, even my complexion improved. But I did eventually develop "culture numbness". You experience the surroundings and going's on for a while, and you get a lot of good laughs out of everything, but you eventually become numb to it. You reach a point where your mouth hangs open, and you blink in disbelief. After that, nothing surprises you. I suppose you have culturally acclimatized yourself at this point. The following anecdote, then, was no longer much of a surprise to any of us...

In the course of our work, we required an RS-232 breakout box because we had to design and build a custom cable. We didn't have an RS-232 breakout box but, we thought, how hard could it be to find one on this island?

A fellow employee got on the phone the following morning and started calling computer stores and electronics stores all over the island. In every case, the conversation went surprisingly similar to this actual conversation with a computer store:

"Hi, could I please speak to your technician?"

"This is the technician speaking."

"Hi, I was wondering if you have any breakout boxes."

"Breaker boxes?"

"No, breakout boxes, I'm looking for an RS-232 breakout box. Do you have them?"

"I don't know, mon. What is that?"

(slight pause)

"This is a computer store I'm talking to, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is, sir."

"And you're the technician and you work with computers all the time, right?"


"And you don't know what RS-232 is?"

"No, mon."

This kind of conversation was repeated over and over until we gave up, having finally resorted to places like the "Super Power Electronics and Beauty Supplies Plus" store, which casually informed us that they had nothing to do with electronics.

One of the businesses we contacted (the name escapes me) was listed in the phone book under "computer consultants". They informed us that they had nothing to do with computers. We didn't bother asking them why their yellow pages ad had pictures of computers on it.

Eventually, we did actually get a breakout box, but it was through unknown people calling us and involved a clandestine rendezvous near a bust of the prime minister just outside one of the casinos. The whole process was so creepy that I don't even think I should be talking about it for security reasons. I suspect the local U.S. naval base may have been involved, for how else could we possibly have gotten an RS-232 breakout box in Antigua without emergency American military intervention?

On another occasion a piece of equipment fritzed itself and we required some capacitors to repair it. So, naturally, we got on the phone and started phoning every computer and electronics store on the island. We decided to first try the only Radio Shack dealer in town, since they seemed most likely to have electronics parts.

"Hi, can I speak to your technician, please?"

"This is the technician speaking."

"Hi, I was wondering if you guys have any capacitors. I need a 160 microfarad, 16 volt capacitor."

"Just a minute."

{One or two minutes of silence}

"Hello? Sir?"


"We only have 50 watt capacitors."


"We only have 50 watt capacitors, sir."

"50 watt capacitors?"

"Yes, sir."

"{Sigh} OK, thanks. Bye." *click*

(Head bows down, index finger and thumb gently grasp bridge of nose between eyes. Head shakes slowly.)

A Final Anecdote

I'd like to leave you with a story told to me by our landlord down in Antigua. It is perhaps the most amazing tale I've ever heard. It also seems to pretty much sum up the essence and spirit of life in Antigua. The story is about the Great Fire of 1982. Our landlord told me this tale on my last day in Antigua. He told me I could include it in this chronicle if I liked. Here's the story...

Our landlord once had a factory (he has a new one now - this is called "foreshadowing"). This factory produced mattresses, beds and other products along those lines. Adjacent to his factory was an office building owned by the government.

One day, the government decided to expand the building next door by extending it all the way over to connect with our landlord's factory, and subsequently hired a contractor to do the work. This was a local contractor, employing local labour.

At one stage in the construction, there were a couple of men making small holes in the wall of the factory for suspending support beams for the new extension. They were using an oxy-acetylene torch to cut the holes.

When our landlord arrived at the factory he couldn't help but notice that, on the other side of the wall where these men were cutting (i.e., inside his factory), there were many metal drums of lacquer and other extremely flammable materials.

Rather concerned about this, he went back outside and next door to speak with the site foreman from the contracting firm. Our landlord informed him of the flammable chemicals on the other side of the wall where they were cutting and that, obviously, they cannot use an oxy-acetylene torch to cut holes in the wall. The foreman agreed, went over to the guys making the holes and told them that they can't use the torch to make the holes. They must use a drill instead. Our landlord, now much relieved, returned to the factory.

The workers, however, figured that they couldn't use an oxy-acetylene torch because this particular area of the wall was a bad place to use it. So what did they do? They went over to a completely different area of the wall - over and up on some scaffolding near the roof - and used the oxy-acetylene torch over there instead.

On the other side of this new area of the wall, there were no flammable chemicals to ignite. There was, however, a huge pile of extremely flammable cotton bales, stacked quite deep and piled almost to the ceiling. The workers were cutting, of course, right at the top of this pile of cotton, and right at the back of the pile (unbeknownst to them).

While cutting, the workers looked through the hole they had made and noticed flames and smoke. They realized that they had started a small fire on the other side of the wall. Being conscientious workers, they did the first thing they could think of, which was to run away. They left the work site entirely, never to be seen again. Before they left, however, they neglected to inform anyone that the factory was now on fire.

Meanwhile, inside the factory, our landlord suddenly smelled smoke but couldn't immediately locate its source. When he finally did locate the flames, they were beyond the point of simply throwing a bucket of water on them (plus they were up near the ceiling which was almost impossible to reach). Remaining calm but thinking quickly, he told his employees to start taking desks and equipment out of the building. He then phoned the fire brigade in town and got a busy signal.

Still undaunted, he realized that the airport, which was only a few minutes away, has their own fire brigade. So he phoned them. The airport people regretfully informed him that under no circumstances was their fire brigade allowed to leave the airport property, for safety reasons. However, they also told him that, since the phone line was busy at the fire brigade in town, they would help our landlord out by trying to contact the fire brigade by radio and telling them of the fire.

Our landlord then tried calling the fire brigade in town again. Still busy. Then one of his employees came up to him and told him that he had a pickup truck and that he'd drive into town and get the fire brigade himself. So the guy hopped in his truck and drove into town.

The airport, in the meantime, had successfully contacted the fire brigade by radio and told them of the fire. So the fire fighters all hopped into their fire truck and headed for the factory at breakneck speed... and collided head-on with the guy in the pickup truck that was racing to get them. The man in the pickup truck was killed. The fire truck was out of commission and never arrived. The entire factory burnt to the ground.

Several days later, our landlord called the phone company to see if they were interested in the phones that he managed to salvage before the building was destroyed (all those phones were not of much use to him anymore, so he thought the phone company might be interested in some free phones). The phone company asked him if the phones had accompanying wall outlet assemblies. Since our landlord did not really have time to find a screwdriver and remove each phone outlet from the wall while his factory was being destroyed by flames, he told them no, there were no outlets with the phones. The phone company told him they didn't want the phones. So our landlord wound up throwing them all away.

About a year later, our landlord finally discovered why the phone was busy at the fire brigade. They had taken their phone off the hook because it interrupted their dominoes game. The end. True story.


Well, the moral of the story above all, is this: "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone". Here are some things I now realize I took for granted while living in the First World (i.e., Vancouver, B.C., Canada):

I realize it seems I'm being pretty hard on the country and its people, albeit in a rather cynical way. The country (on the face of it) is a beautiful place with beautiful beaches and scenery. But as you more closely examine the place, you start to see things winding rapidly down into chaos. It's really saddening to see people throwing garbage all over the place, seeing abandoned car wrecks strewn all over the road sides, seeing (and smelling) cars and trucks spewing thick clouds of exhaust fumes all over the place. These are things you can't perceive from an airplane flying overhead - you have to get much closer than that to see it. Perhaps this, really, is what is meant by the term "culture shock".

But don't get me wrong. I'll always treasure the memories of my adventures in Antigua. Would I ever go back to Antigua for a vacation? You betcha. If I'm there on vacation, I won't have to deal with the APUA.