During the pandemic my life shrank and faded. I ached for beauty, adventure, and connection, and so I longed for Anguilla.
When I felt dull and uninspired, I recalled my first glimpse of its turquoise coastline. I was certain such brilliant water only existed in the glossy pages of travel brochures. After dropping my bags in my hotel room, I hurried down to the beach.
A shimmering turquoise ocean unfolded before me like a magic carpet. Such unexpected beauty brought me to tears — as did discovering my lack of imagination, my inability to believe such splendor existed.
I can still feel my exhilaration that day: sand like flour sifting between my toes, salt water gently rocking me, a warm breeze tickling my skin. I felt reborn.
A lifelong lover of the ocean, I’d explored beaches on several continents.
But never before had I seen beauty like this, or tasted such delicious food — from the lobster salad I enjoyed at a table overlooking the water at Davida’s, to Le Bon Pain, where I savored buttery croissants and strong coffee after morning beach runs; to Ken’s Barbeque, the roadside joint where I waited with locals beneath a plastic tarp as our meals sizzled over an open flame.
And yet, during pandemic isolation, when friends hid their smiles behind masks, I did not dream of Anguilla’s food but its people: the former Black Panther, now in his seventies, who dominated the dance floor; the towering boat captain who rinsed my sandy feet with gentle hands; the iconic American author I was dumbstruck to run into at a local restaurant. (and far too tongue-tied to express how much her books mean to me.)
In lockdown, when people turned away and avoided me at the supermarket, I thought of the grocery store in the Valley that gave us all our purchases on credit because their machines were down; and did the same the next day when we returned to pay our debt and purchase more.
When the silence in my home felt suffocating, I recalled the tiny church we were invited to one Sunday in South Hill, overflowing with smiling strangers and joyful song that resounded in my chest.
When I missed hanging out with friends, I recalled the local women who waded into Rendezvous Bay one bright early morning, their dresses billowing around them as they circled close in waist-deep water to chat.
Or the fishermen with the deeply lined faces and sparkling eyes who gathered in the shade of the tamarind tree at Crocus Bay. And Calvin, who presided over those weathered picnic tables, always ready to wade out to his little boat to give tourists ten-dollar rides to Little Bay.
My husband Ismail, who had grown up in a fishing village in North Africa, felt at home among these men, swapping stories or staring silently out to sea. So on the day our family planned to catch a boat ride to Little Bay, Ismail decided to stay back. That hurt my feelings.
As Calvin helped my kids into his boat, I wiped tears from my eyes. He studied my face as he steered slowly out of the bay. “Where’s the boss?” He asked in a gently teasing voice. I said I was upset that Ismail hadn’t joined us. I probably said other things.
Calvin listened and nodded and stared out to sea. When he dropped me off at Little Bay’s secluded beach, he said: “I’ll be back with the boss.”
I don’t know how he did it, but twenty minutes later, as my son Khalil and I tried to summon the courage to leap off a rock into crystal-clear water, I heard the whine of a boat engine and saw him rounding the corner with my sheepish husband in tow.
Khalil made a friend at Sandy Ground — a boy his age with whom he wrestled in shallow water, and ran races across the sand, and who invited him to visit his fifth grade class.
Khalil was skeptical; school was not a part of his vacation plans. But we insisted he go, offering only to pick him up at midday so he could spend the afternoon at the beach. He pouted and slammed the car door when we dropped him off at West End Primary School.
When we returned at lunchtime, I found him on the playground in a crowd of animated boys. Looking mortified to see us, Khalil ran over. “Can you please leave and come back later?” he hissed before running back to his new friends. That night, before bed, he told me he’d never met such nice kids in his life, and that he wished kids in his own school were more like that.
In Anguilla we felt so alive: welcome, grateful, full of wonder. And now that I know how rich a travel experience can be — so much more than stunning beaches and delicious food — it’s hard to settle for less. People, too, are a landscape of beauty and discovery.
Anguilla is calling, and I am biding my time until I return.