Photo: Chrystall Kanyuck-Abel
Photo: Chrystall Kanyuck-Abel

Sultan of Swing

A Rockin’ History and the Health Benefits of Hammocks

From a tire swing at Ivan’s Campground (White Bay, Jost Van Dyke), to bench swings at Peg Leg’s at Nanny Cay, to a traditional wood swing at Cow Wreck Bar on Anegada, and dozens, if not hundreds of hammocks strung out on the most beautiful of the BVI beaches, there is ample opportunity for you to relax and literally swing away your worries during a BVI vacation.

Paired with playgrounds or associated with acrobatics, “swings” (no matter whether you are talking porch, rope, or hammocks) are the ultimate symbol of child-like play, fun, simple living and relaxation. Images of people on swaying seats have been depicted on Greek pottery and figurines dating back as far as about 1400 B.C. While the origin of swings is a bit murky, one of the most iconic of all swinging devices –the hammock – has a past that is literally knotted up in the Caribbean region’s historical development.

Spanish explorers first recorded the use of hammocks during early voyages to the West Indies, when they spied their use among the native Taino people (the Virgin Islands’ early inhabitants) and then introduced the lattice-weaved swings (which would have originally been crafted from the fibrous bark of the hamack tree) to Europeans. The word “hammock” is an Arawak word meaning “fish net,” and while the swinging sleeping apparatus was a part of daily life for pre-Colombian people of the Caribbean, it was first associated with native fishermen who would use fishing nets to work and then string them between trees to dry and take a rest wrapped up inside them.

It is thought that the Taino people who spread throughout the Caribbean region were related to South American inhabitants. This coincides with anthropologists’ beliefs that it was the Mayans and other Central American people who first used hammocks as beds over 1,000 years ago. Sleeping elevated off the ground had several advantages including keeping disease carrying insects at bay. Like any good invention, the idea seemed to catch fire quickly, and spread as both native Amerindians and European colonists spread throughout the Caribbean. By the mid 16th century, the hammock was adapted by English and Spanish navies for on-deck sleeping accommodations. The Naval adaptation, made use of a heavy canvas and was standard military issue up until the Vietnam War.

In an effort to control malaria and yellow fever outbreaks during the building of the Panama Canal, Army physician William Gorgas began wrapping this swinging contrivance in mesh netting, and elevating disease-prone workers off of the wet, insect-infested ground. The hammock has also figured prominently in American culture, and was used everywhere from frontier farms to prisons to shantytowns during the Depression. While the device was initially an invention of necessity and frugality, somewhere along the way the gadget earned itself a place of prominence in leisure, and is mostly associated with lazy summer afternoons in the backyard. A symbol of the ultimate in Caribbean relaxation, vacationers to the Virgin Islands often dream of being strung in a tropical setting between two palm trees.

The long-standing tradition of rocking children to sleep has recently been given scientific merit, with studies helping to demonstrate that rocking rhythms help babies (and adults) fall asleep faster, synchronizing brain activity and speeding those slumbering in sway toward a deeper state of sleep. No matter how well you invest in fancy mattresses, when we sleep on a hard surface, there are pressure points that send pain signals to our brains, resulting in tossing and turning. As if you needed yet another excuse to nap in a hammock, you guessed it, the hammock’s design means no pressure points, adding to sleep comfort.

Armed with artillery of phones, pads and pods, we are architects of order in modern life. Perfect planners and master multi-taskers, e-mails, bills, yard work, grocery lists, social schedules, job duties, children’s after-school activities, vehicle maintenance and workout schedules are tossed into the air and organized with finesse reminiscent of a Cirque-de-Soleil performance. Even activities designed to transport us to a Zen-like state such as yoga, therapeutic massages and green-tea are lost in a rut of routine. Many of us return from holiday, rattling off a litany of sites and tangible markers, as if exuberant to check off “successful vacation” in our day-planners and move on to the next item on the list. We scour the Internet and guidebooks in an effort to maximize scheduled relaxation time, zipping off in search of “best of’s” to satisfy our love for numbers and quantifying life. No matter we find it hard doing nothing.

With our need for efficiency, we often feel guilty about relaxing. And that is the very beauty of hammocks and a little rest and relaxation. We hope this article provides a little beach reading. In our frenzied, high-paced world, if you needed an excuse for an extra-long nap in hammock, whether it be at Trellis Bay or White Bay, we hope you’ll take the time to grab a book, a cold drink and an opportunity to swing the afternoon away.

About bviwelcome

Official webpage of The BVI Welcome Guide. Source of information for everything in the British Virgin Islands since 1971.

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