A couple days ago, our Airbnb host stopped by to check in and was surprised to learn that Colin and his crew were sleeping on Redonda (“In tents?!”) and not just commuting back and forth each day. Once she had gotten over the shock, she realized that meant that I had been here, in her beautiful country with its 365 beaches, all alone for several days. She was horrified. She offered (insisted?) that she would drive me around one day, showing me the sights. We would get lunch, she said. We settled on Wednesday.
Last night I couldn’t sleep, fretting about the logistics of this trip. I had no idea what to expect. Would our host – I’ll call her Anna – take me to an expensive resort where I’d have to pay gobs of money to use their beach for the day, just because she thought that was what tourists liked to do? Would she drop me off at a beach and leave me for a few hours—so I should bring a swimsuit and towel? Would she just give me a driving tour? What had she meant by “We’ll get lunch”? Would we go to a restaurant and, if so, should I offer to pay? On the one hand, it was very nice of her to show me around, and normally I would treat anyone who played tour guide. On the other hand, we were already paying for the Airbnb—was this part of her usual routine with guests? I finally decided on a plan that was, I hoped, both adaptable and not obvious. I would wear my swimsuit bottoms under my skirt, bring my swimsuit top in my tote bag, and slather myself in sunscreen before leaving the house; I would eat a hearty breakfast and make sure I was well hydrated, but not too hydrated, since I didn’t know when I’d have access to a bathroom. I’d bring some cash and a credit card.
In case you’re not familiar with the terminology, cultures can be described as either high-context or low-context. In low-context cultures, like the U.S., communication is explicit and detailed. It is normal for people to give you all the information you need in the course of a conversation. In high-context cultures, much communication happens implicitly, with details left unspoken and meaning absorbed through the context of the situation. I was first introduced to the concept during my study abroad orientation in Botswana, which is a relatively high-context culture.
I find high-context cultures very stressful because I am a very low-context person who likes to have everything planned, explicitly, to a T. However, I’ve learned over the years to just go with the flow when I am in a high-context culture or any culture I don’t understand. I say “okay” and wait to see what happens. (This reminds me of David Sedaris’s ROTFL-hilarious essay “In the Waiting Room” about what happened when he adopted that approach in France.) Antigua, obviously, is a high-context culture so I anxiously tried to figure out what Anna might have had in mind.
She picked me up at 10:00 this morning, and I was relieved to see that her outfit looked similarly casual to mine, plus she had snacks in her tote bag and mentioned stopping by the grocery store to get some dried fruit. Maybe lunch was going to be a picnic, which was fine by me. Then Anna mentioned that she needed to do some errands in town before we started the drive to the “country.” (Antigua is only a dozen miles across.) I said okay. Over the course of the next two hours, we drove to her lawyer’s office, a postal service to pick up some documents, a gas station, a medical office to pick up a package somehow related to her recently deceased friend-who-was-so-close-she-called-him-brother, and another medical office to drop off the package with someone else. At the first medical office, the clerk who was helping Anna insisted that we go upstairs to say hello to the wife of the recently deceased brother, since she was in the building judging a kids’ cooking contest. The three of us – me, Anna, and the office clerk – squeezed into a small elevator and peeked into the room where the cooking contest was being held. A tiny woman wearing a white dress came out. Anna gave her a hug, introduced me as her visitor, and introduced the woman as the grieving widow. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said gently as I clasped the hand of this woman whom I had never seen before and would never see again. She thanked me, and I thought how very interesting cultural differences were. Somehow, strangely, I was not intruding here.
Anyway, at that point Anna and I moved on to the rest of the errands, including a stop at the grocery store where Anna asked if we should just see what they had for lunch at the deli counter. I said yes, grateful that I wouldn’t have to figure out whether to treat her to an expensive lunch. Then we hopped in her truck and spent the next few hours driving along the coast to the opposite corner of the island and back again. We stopped at one beach, which Anna declared too rough although it looked placid to me. She didn’t take her flip-flops off to walk across the sand, nor did she care to stick her toes in the water. She mentioned later that she doesn’t know how to swim.
After our stop at that beach, I began to think I was probably on a driving beach tour, which sounded great. Anna kept calling out beaches as we approached them, and I would exclaim, “Oh yes, I read about that! It’s supposed to be beautiful!” but we didn’t stop to see. Anna pointed out roadside fruit stands (“But you can’t buy the fruit there. It’s too expensive and the pineapples don’t taste right.”), the renovated Clarence House (“That’s where Princess Margaret stayed [my note: in 1962].”), several churches and harbors, and a girls’ school that was painted Pepto Bismol pink. She apologized for not knowing the names of every village we drove through, and I assured her it was quite alright. She also pointed out a roadside stand selling the innocently-named rice pudding, which it turns out is tripe stuffed with rice mixed with blood. We both agreed that sounded like the worst thing ever.
Anna also kept insisting that I eat (though luckily not rice pudding): the sliced cantaloupe and honeydew she had brought, the nuts and dried fruit from the store, chocolates she had grabbed from her lawyer’s office, the fried fish I had bought from the deli. I wasn’t very hungry on account of the extra large breakfast I’d just eaten, but rather than offend, I kept forking in handfuls of food as she drove. High-context doesn’t come naturally to me, but darn it if I wasn’t trying my best to fit in!
Eventually, after more than four hours, we arrived back at the house. I thanked Anna profusely for the tour, shoved the rest of my uneaten lunch into my tote bag so she wouldn’t see it, and came inside, where everything was blessedly quiet and calm, no more guesswork required. I can only pretend to be high-context for so long.