Back-to-school in my suburban South Jersey town always reminded me I was a bit different. While my mostly white classmates kicked off classes reminiscing on summer camps, weekends at the lake and fighting off hot days with trips to the local swim club, my seasonal recap included a trip to a place they had never even heard about— Antigua.
It’s the island my mother and father immigrated from prior to my birth. The place my grandfather called home prior to his passing, and the sanctuary where my sister and I spent long days at some point between June and August, basking in the skin-altering sun and sucking down guineps and chubbys. Yet, with all my years of visiting the country of 365 beaches at or around the time of Carnival, I had never watched the fanciful feathers parade through the island’s capital of Saint John’s, nor don the festive attire myself.
This summer, that changed.
A family reunion called me back to the place I once considered my second home. After the death of my grandfather, I had created space between the picturesque oasis and myself to allow time to grieve, but a chance to revel with the Jarvis-James clan was reason enough to find my way back. I knew even before I booked my ticket that I’d want to write about my time on island, but after a gentle nudge from a co-worker, my intended article quickly morphed from a story about a summer escape to a recap of my most epic summer excursion ever.
See, what was supposed to be just a trip to catch up with family, and of course fit in some beach time, turned into the perfect chance to experience Antigua Carnival for the very first time. In my tiny North Jersey apartment, I often turn the 4-square-inches of my living room into my own little festival stage, so when ESSENCE’s lifestyle director suggested I play mas, it didn’t take much convincing.
On the Tuesday before Carnival Monday, I said goodbye to the city, boarded my flight from JFK and mentally prepared for ten days away from the hustle and bustle that I’ve grown to both love and hate. Much like any flight during Carnival season, I stepped onto a plane full of familiar accents, boisterous laughs, and passengers ready to relax in the place more affectionately known as Wadadli. At some point between disappearing into the clouds and landing at VC Bird International Airport, it dawned on me — I’m really going home again.
JUST TOUCH DOWN INNA DI AIRPORT
I put words together for a living and yet I’ll never be able to quite accurately describe the feeling that greets me when I land in Antigua. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, the water looks like it comes from bottles of Evian, and yes —yes, yes — the heat on your skin feels like God came down from heaven himself to welcome you with a hug. Despite the fairly new state-of-the-art airport, it didn’t take long before the flood of old memories came rushing in.
In the days leading up to Carnival, I fit in my fair share of family time — creating new memories, bonding, liming and doing plenty of waist wining. But by Sunday I was ready to transition from reunion activities to the main celebration.
That night I convinced my sister and cousin to join me at Recreation Grounds to watch some of Antigua’s most-talented musical acts compete for the soca monarch crowns. And, as I expected, the artistry in Antigua did not disappoint. I was also pretty excited that Menace XL won the crown by singing a song named (well kinda) after me. To this day I’ll occasionally still hear “Ouuu Tanya, Yes Tanya, Ouuuuu… Ayyyye” playing in my thoughts.
JUMPING UP PON DI ROAD, DI ROAD, DI ROAD
For the experienced Carnival goers, there’s no time to rest between the soca monarch competition and J’ouvert morning. But since it was my first time doing J’ouvert I told myself it was okay to fit in a quick nap. An hour after my head hit the pillow I was up and at it again. And while my 30-plus-year-old body was none too pleased, I knew the Brew Masters crew was not going to wait for me to get myself together.
I forged ahead (cousin and sister in tow) and don’t regret a thing. Not only did I get to catch up with Team Antigua Island Girls AND see Claudette Peters and Tian Winter perform, but I also got to physically prepare for the next 36 hours.
By the time I hit the road with Myst Carnival for Monday Mas I knew I was running purely off of adrenaline. And —it was quite okay. Even though the last time I had gotten any real rest was days earlier, this was an experience I had dreamed of as a child, and I didn’t want any time go to waste. As the music took a hold of me, I relished in the actuality of the moment. I was in the place I love, with people I love, experiencing my very first Carnival.
That night I dragged myself back to my room at Hodges Bay Resort and I took a few moments to simply relax. While my body told me it was time to sleep, the butterflies in my tummy told me that Tuesday Mas aka Costume Mas aka the main event was mere hours away.
START TO WINE UP NOW BECAUSE IT’S CARNIVAL
The next day I woke up and headed straight to the makeup chair. If I was going to participate in what some call “Pretty Mas” I knew I had to —well— look pretty. And trust me, I went all out. I got glitter, lashes, and face gems, plus a pretty red lip to complete the look. I dashed to Hodges Bay for a quick change, and I was back at the Myst Carnival pull-off location to join them and special guest Machel Montano on the road.
Seeing everybody dressed up in their costumes was both exciting and exhilarating. Because even though the idea of playing mas always seemed like fun, I never thought I’d actually do it. Yet there I was, half-naked in my Carnival costume, and excited to parade down the streets of Saint John’s.
On that hot, 95-degree day I jumped up for hours on end, taking it all in, and relishing the experience. And as tired as I knew I was, I honestly did not want the day to end. There’s something to be said about the spirit of Carnival. How it moves you. How it excites you. How its memory stays with you long after it’s done.
Although my days at my suburban South Jersey school are long gone, my eagerness to share stories of Antigua clearly has not left. Carnival reminded me that my love for the island runs deep. That being there makes me happy. And that, at the very end of the day, there really is no place like home.
Tanya Christian is a News & Politics editor at ESSENCE. Follow along with her travels on Instagram @tanyachristian.