Coming to Anguilla tasted like the sea. You could see it before you felt it on your tongue. An endless expanse of thick blue stretching out in all directions from the plane window. I remember pressing my face against the cold glass straining to see the other islands dotting the ombre blanket. That’s how I knew we were getting close. Flying to Anguilla from California meant four different planes. One from LAX to Dallas/Fort Worth that crossed land, then Dallas/Fort Worth to Miami, which was more land, then Miami to San Juan which was dark water. In the 90s, there was the American Eagle flight straight across the blue ocean from Puerto Rico to Wallblake Airport. This was the plane my mother and I would come on every year.
There was an ease that accompanied landing in Anguilla. The first thing I noted was the fact that no one assumed the worst of you. Even as a young child, I was aware of the underlying assumptions people had in the USA. Don’t talk to strangers, hold your mother’s hand at all times, don’t stray too far. In the airport they periodically played a recording cautioning you against leaving your luggage unattended. When you got off the plane in Anguilla, your luggage sat alone on the tarmac waiting for you to collect it. You walked, pulling it behind you like a dutiful pet, toward the airport door with the plane looming next to you so close you could touch it. They didn’t trust you like that in America. You certainly weren’t allowed to put your palm against the great underbelly of the plane. You might have a bomb.
The flavor of the ocean was right there at the airport to greet you like an obedient concierge. It tasted pleasant, natural, and more inviting than the sooty smoggy flavour of Los Angeles. I remember feeling like it was summer when I got off the plane in Anguilla, even if we were landing in October. Being in Anguilla felt surreal. It was as if my actual life had been suspended and I walked through a wardrobe into my own tropical Narnia.
The first bizarre thing about being in Anguilla was that I had a father. When we were in LA, I was the child of a single mother, produced like an amoeba through binary fission (or perhaps procured from an adoption agency). When I was in Anguilla it was different. I was Zambezi Child For The White Woman. It made me feel special, like a souvenir. When we came to Anguilla, I would wake up under the mosquito net in my father’s house to the sound of roosters crowing and the scent of Ovaltine. I would brush my teeth in the yard with water housed in an enamel cup that had a blue rim and a red flower on it. My father would make ital for lunch and I would eat it from a calabash. These things did not exist in Los Angeles.
It was easy to slip into the genuineness of island life. Men walked on the side of the road with machetes that were not considered weapons. My father would take me to roadside stalls to buy roast corn. It tasted like smoke and freedom and made my mouth black, but I didn’t care. He would sometimes buy me a Ting and the bubbly flavour of it would explode around my teeth, another taste that did not exist in LA. What I was experiencing was the same novel Anguilla that a tourist may snuggle into with the false sense of existence. It was not real, this balmy island that tasted like coconuts and mangoes and felt like the slice of the ocean on a hot day. Coming to Anguilla meant that I could pet goats, chase chickens and walk a whole mile on a beach alone. No one would kidnap me because people simply did not do that here. It was one part old-time moral code and one part lack of anonymity.
Doors were left unlocked. I fathomed at the fact that no one would take my father’s old car while we went into a shop. Surely, we would return to meet it gone, or up on four blocks naked without its tires. The house was not locked either. Sometimes the door would not even be closed. There was just a wooden beaded curtain blocking an intruder from entering. But there was no such thing as an intruder in Anguilla. Someone merely needed to shout “inside” from the concrete step to be granted access.
Sometimes I would cut through the patch of guinea corn and through the bushes to a neighbouring house. A woman lived there called Miss Fred. She would sell you a long loaf of hot bread wrapped in a piece of paper flour sack for ten cents. She would sell you a long loaf of hot bread wrapped in a piece of flour sack even if you did not have ten cents. There was a swing in her yard fashioned from a piece of board worn so smooth that it was not even capable of producing a splinter. I would sit on the swing and eat hot bread with pads of butter tucked into the peff and Miss Fred’s grandson would push me. The dirt in her yard was compact from years of being swept. Before Anguilla, I did not know it was possible to sweep dirt in a yard. I did not know that yards could be beautiful without grass, and I also did not know that one could make their own broom from palm thatch.
In Anguilla, I had a brother. I did not have a brother in LA. He would sleep next to me under the mosquito net on the pink and white checkered sheets. None of my friends in LA slept in the same bed as their sibling, but my father told me that when he was young, he and his brothers and sisters all slept end-to-end on one mattress. So, I slept next to this brother whose existence I did not question. We would both brush our teeth in the yard with enamel cups and then we would chase chickens. We had a broken concrete block that we tied a rope to and every morning we would drag it out to the bushes to pretend it was a goat. One day my father showed up with a real goat in the trunk of his car for us. In LA, you would not be allowed to transport a goat in the trunk of your car.
My father would take us to the beach in the morning while the sun was still yawning at the horizon. He would give us apples and we would eat them in the water letting the salt mingle with the flesh of the fruit. It only took us five minutes to get to the beach. It didn’t take five minutes to get anywhere in LA ever. It felt like teleporting this being able to arrive at your destination swiftly. We would practice underwater handstands and somersaults. My father would sit on the sand under the shade of a palm tree and roll a spliff, the smoke of it becoming a leathery plume above him while he watched us.
It always ended, my time in Anguilla, until one year it didn’t. My mother and I arrived at the end of the 90s on the pot-bellied plane from Puerto Rico for the last time. All of our belongings were sitting on the tarmac waiting for us. I was older, less imaginative, less excited. A teenager who was sullenly accepting that her mother had brought her to this simulated place to live. I forged the smoky atmosphere of LA on my eyelids with cheap eyeshadow and stood awkwardly next to my mother in the immigration line. It still tasted like the ocean, but the novelty was gone. I was no longer the curious child who would pretend a concrete block was a goat or be entertained by wooden swings. The dreamlike façade of Anguilla began to peel away when there was no return ticket.
Now, my own children alight airplanes and listen to recorded announcements in airports. They experience their own Narnia when we step onto the fast-paced pavement of American soil. It feels unreal to them, the flashing lights and billboards. The strangers and the accessibility of everything. It’s begun to feel unreal to me, too. Now, what is real is the one-mile beach with no one else on it. The traffic jam created by a herd of goats crossing the highway. What is real is no longer the pungency of pollution. I look for realness now in the taste of the ocean rolling across my tongue when I am home in Anguilla.
This essay came 1st Place in the Anguilla Literary Foundation’s 2021 non-fiction writing competition.