AXA: Then & Today

On my first date with Chris, we met at a little restaurant in downtown Chicago. It was a sunny day and we took advantage of it by sitting outside on the crowded sidewalk, guaranteeing good people-watching should there be any uncomfortable lulls in our conversation. Like all first dates, our start was awkward. Two people trying to figure out just exactly who it is they’re having a drink with, sorting out clues based on clothing, posture, vocabulary, demeanor, manners, and attitude toward the waitstaff.

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It was apparent to me that I was sitting across from a man who excelled in all of these categories, but it wasn’t until he began telling me about an  island in the British West Indies that I knew I was talking to someone really special. With sirens screaming down Michigan Avenue and house sparrows stalking crumbs on my plate, Chris took me back nearly four decades to a tiny British protectorate known as Anguilla (airport code AXA), the northernmost of the Leeward Islands.

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“I was about thirteen when my dad came home one day and said we were moving to this little island in the Caribbean. He’d had it with his business in the States, and always hearing that the ‘check was in the mail,’ so we were all moving to Anguilla, the whole family,” Chris said.

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That was in 1976, and not only were nonnative families exceedingly rare, so were electricity and running water. “People used generators and cisterns,” Chris explained. “Right away we learned that ‘in the isles of sun and fun, we never flush for number one.'”

It was an exciting time to be a young boy. Chris and his brother explored the undeveloped island from pristine beach to pristine beach–Rendezvous, Cove, and Maundays–reaching the tip of the West End cliffs on a good day, provided they’d escaped their neighbor’s guard dogs, ubiquitous sand burs, and the exhausting combination of humidity and sun, usually without seeing another human being.  “I’m a beach snob,” Chris has told me repeatedly. Of all the beaches we’ve been to together in Cuba, Big Sur, Nicaragua, Florida, Puerto Rico, he says there’s not one that compares to what he grew up with.

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A few weeks ago I finally met the island I’ve heard so much about. Chris may exaggerate about a lot of things, being a consummate yarn-spinner like he is, but I have to admit he was spot-on about those beaches. Nothing compares to the finely ground coral that feels like talcum powder under your feet, and glistens in both the light of the sun and the glow of the moon. Over this whiter-than-white miracle sand is mirror-clear water that simultaneously reflects stunning shades of aquamarine and royal blue while revealing hints of the technicolor sea life that lies just beneath.

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Although Condé Nast and Frommer’s have both deemed these shores some of the best in the world, it’s the people that really make the island. Chris has all kinds of stories about how he learned to play dominoes at Smitty’s,  to walk on coral from I-jahdge, and to fish for moray eels from Robert. And then there’s Cap’n Floyd, the man who ferried Chris’s family across the choppy seas to St. Martin once a week for groceries and supplies. “The boat was filled with people and goats, and they all huddled near the mast because the chop was so bad,” Chris said. “Cap’n Floyd would race the other ferry and occasionally ram into him along the way. We all just hung on to the nearest rail, fellow passenger, 55-gallon drum …. or goat, hoping we wouldn’t get washed overboard. I don’t think my mother will ever forget those rides. It was pretty bad.”

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During our visit we ran into several people who remembered Chris and his clan fondly. Their eyes would light up and a smile take over their face when they made the connection. “Oh, yes, yes. I remember you. How are you, how are your parents, where are they?” Over and over again. It felt like going back to a small hometown, only one with palm trees, reggae music, and lizards.

On that sunny afternoon in Chicago when Chris talked about walking on prickly coral in bare feet, I was in awe. I never dreamed we would walk on it together someday. Of course, Chris nearly broke three of his toes and I shredded every inch of skin on the bottom of my feet, but still … it was pretty romantic.

With so much more to learn about this tiny nation’s history, ecology, food, marine life, and people, I can’t wait to return.  In fact, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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