Woodrow W. Denham
Completed June 1991
Revised September 2001
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Fair Helen, Queen Of The Charibees
Island in the Rain
Ti-Jean and His Goat
St Lucia, Hildebrand 1988
This is a narrative of an experiment that failed in educational development and interpersonal relations in the Third World. I offer it as an antidote to the multitude of books written by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, other development workers and travelers whose experiences in the Third World have been rich, warm and satisfying. It's an attempt to voice some of the frustrations felt by well-intentioned workers who have encountered situations with which they couldn't cope, and have fled from them feeling defeated, guilty and inadequate.
Huge numbers of international development programs fail leaving little but bitterness in their wakes as they slip - or are shoved - into oblivion. Reasons for the "black hole treatment" are numerous and obvious. It's too awful to dig through the muck to find out what went wrong. It's easier to lay the blame on somebody else and be furious, or on yourself and be mortified. Universities are reluctant to award tenure for experiments that fail, and Congress sometimes questions government agencies whose programs fail.
More important is the problem of political correctness. It's hard enough for aid workers to admit that a project failed because of their own inept conceptualization or execution of it, but it's virtually impossible for them to even suggest in public that it failed because of the people to whom it was given. That position reeks of colonialism and white supremacy, and the collective guilt of the First World makes adopting it politically suicidal. Never mind that it’s opposite - laying the blame solely on the aid-givers - reeks of paternalism and "the white man's burden".
But by publishing the results of experiments that succeed and burying those of experiments that don't, writers needlessly exacerbate their unavoidable distortions of reality. Surely in a world where trial-and-error learning has a secure place, it's as important to learn from others' abysmal mistakes as from their glorious successes.
As a professional anthropologist and committed cultural relativist, I spent twenty-five years viewing the conquistadors as ultra-conservative right-wingers who deserved my disdain, at least in part because Hernan Cortez and his team of development workers had a hard time handling human sacrifice and cannibalism among the Aztecs. Then I lived for three months in 1988 on the West Indian island of St. Lucia where I discovered that human sacrifice and cannibalism, albeit figuratively speaking, present major problems even for cultural relativists. An important difference between Cortez and me is that Cortez, anticipating Vietnam's famed Mylai Massacre, destroyed the Aztecs to save them from themselves, whereas I got out of St. Lucia by the skin of my teeth.
This book isn't simply an autobiographical post mortem of a disaster. Had I done nothing but fail in St. Lucia, I probably would have hung my head in shame and never told another soul. Rather, my encounter with St. Lucia gave me a remarkable opportunity to learn about some fascinating aspects of ordinary life in the Caribbean that I had never experienced in the region when things went well. Glimpses of the "underside" of life in St. Lucia balance the travel poster images of the island as a charming little fleck of sand adrift in the tranquil blue sea.
Nor have I confined my story strictly to St. Lucia. The islands of the region are tightly connected with each other and the rest of the world by a complex web of political, economic, demographic and cultural relationships. I've attempted to portray fragments of that web, often by looking at St. Lucia from the perspective of the neighboring island of Barbados, for the web defines St. Lucia's place in the Caribbean and my place in St. Lucia.
I considered "changing the names of the characters to protect the innocent", but decided against it. First, the characters are neither guilty nor innocent, so there's nothing in particular to protect. All of us, my wife Nancy and I as well as the West Indians who appear in my tale, made mistakes in our own actions and in our interpretations of the actions of others. In my opinion, all of the mistakes are painfully embarrassing, but none of them constitute or imply guilt. Second, St. Lucia is so small and most of the people in my story are so well known in the islands that changing their names wouldn't protect anybody anyway; it would simply look silly. Finally, if I changed the story enough to disguise the characters, the story would be completely false and that's not acceptable. So the characters are real people with real names.
My St. Lucia debacle was confined to 1987 and 1988, but it occurred after Nancy, also an anthropologist, and I had been working and visiting in the Caribbean for a decade. The background is important. Without it, the experiment makes no sense.
In 1978, Nancy went to Barbados to conduct background research on Barbadians who migrated to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, during the early decades of the 20th century. I joined her there for three months and immediately became interested in the history of the green monkeys that were introduced to Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis from Africa in earlier centuries. In addition to working on her migration project, we did a lot of archival and observational research on the Barbadian monkeys and continued the project into the 1980's, publishing a book about the animals in 1986.
During those years, we knew that the Caribbean had been advertised for centuries as the best place to go for vacations featuring the so-called 3-S formula of Sun, Sand and Sea. After hostile Indians, foreign soldiers and voracious mosquitoes were suppressed, the fourth S, for Solitude, was added. Then in the Playboy years and beyond, when it became fashionable to talk about secret activities that everybody had known about since the beginning of time, the fifth S, for Sex, made its appearance.
The dependence of Caribbean economic development on the 3-, 4- or 5-S formula led Chalkdust, a calypsonian from Trinidad, to compose a song whose taunt to the region says: "All you've got is just seawater and sand". While we admire Chalkie as a man of words, we've never accepted that proposition. The Caribbean is a fine place to experience the S's, but it offers a great deal more - natural history from coral reefs to cloud forests, human history, art, architecture, music, literature, food, ethnic and religious diversity, and a couple of million people who are important in themselves.
In the mid-80's, we conducted a series of academic tours to Barbados for adult students of the university where we taught, and approached regional airlines and government tourism organizations with a proposal for helping them increase academic tourism in the Caribbean. As a result, we spent two weeks developing our ideas in Trinidad and Tobago as guests of British West Indian Airways and the Trinidad and Tobago Tourist Board. Just before beginning to work in St. Lucia, we presented a workshop on academic tourism at the annual conference of the Caribbean Tourism Association in Jamaica.
Our daughter Kristi worked for Eastern Airlines during this period, which entitled us to fly anywhere Eastern went almost for free. Since Eastern was the largest US air carrier in the Caribbean then, we used our "Eastern connection" for all it was worth, visiting St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Martin, Antigua, Barbados and Puerto Rico, many of them several times each. Our mode of travel was called pass-riding among Eastern employees and their families, and that's what I call it throughout the book. We thank our daughter and Eastern Airlines for our well-worn travel passes.
In conjunction with our teaching and research, we read widely in Caribbean natural history, human history, social sciences and economic development, and in the rich fictional literature created by Caribbean writers since the mid-20th century. We learned to understand various West Indian English dialects, and became thoroughly addicted to calypso, reggae, steel bands, and many of the less commercial music forms of the English-speaking Caribbean. We frequently attended Caribbean festivals and parties in Barbados and Montreal, and became enthusiastic fans of several Caribbean musicians. Our appreciation of Caribbean music has served repeatedly as a bridge between us and the people of the region to whom the music is so important.
In short, we did our homework before we began the experiment.
To paraphrase a reviewer who paraphrased Lewis Carrol, this book is an Agony in Eleven Fits; Fit the First is almost over. Next comes a summary of the journal I kept of our first visit to St. Lucia as anthropologists on holiday. That's followed by a sketch of the second trip I made to the island, looking for a job and finding aspects of St. Lucian life that most tourists miss. The preliminaries ended as Nancy and I interviewed for teaching positions in Castries and glimpsed a reality that is not accessible to visitors at all.
Both of us were offered jobs, but because of what we had learned during our interviews and other visits to the island, we hedged our bets. Nancy temporarily kept her old job in New Hampshire while I went to St. Lucia to begin my new one on the day that Hurricane Gilbert bounced off St. Lucia and flattened Jamaica. Despite Gilbert, my adventure got off to a tolerable start. But at the end of November, a hundred days and three hurricanes later while Nancy was visiting with me, everything fell apart. The Snark definitely was a Boojum. As Hurricane Joan and its grim aftermath faded from memory, we softly and suddenly vanished in hopes of avoiding further encounters with aspects of life in St. Lucia that severely clashed with the island's image of itself as "Fair Helen, Queen of the Caribees".
Unwilling to concede, we attempted to put the pieces together again at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados, but with no success. The agony finally ended as I spent months trying to understand what happened in St. Lucia in hopes that nothing like it would ever happen to me again. The book is a product of that final undertaking.
Fair Helen, Queen Of The Charibees
1. Anthropologists on Holiday
Eastern Airlines Flight 965 from Miami landed at Hewanorra International Airport just before midnight. As we stepped onto the steel ramp beside the gracefully aging blue-and-silver 727, the deluge that greets us every time we arrive in the Caribbean at night washed over us.
People sitting near us on the plane were headed for resorts at the other end of the island and still faced more than an hour's travel over difficult roads. Nancy and I would avoid the tourist areas in favor of a guest house near the airport. The taxi driver told us the Kimatrai Hotel in Vieux Fort still had empty rooms, and the guidebook said it was okay. We knew that warm praise for a small hotel in a Caribbean guidebook often meant only that the owner dispensed adequate baksheesh, but we had nothing else to go on.
We checked into the Kimatrai, turned on the fan and air conditioner, undressed, smeared on Deet, and collapsed. Sunday, 26 July 1987, ended smartly as we began our first visit to St. Lucia.
Vieux Fort. Long before sunrise on Monday, an outboard motor barked in my ear, and I spent a couple of hours watching fishermen of Vieux Fort load their boats and head out for the day's work. Most of them were line fishermen, three to a boat, armed with several twenty-foot poles, who returned later in the day with tuna. But one fellow in a tiny skiff headed straight out to sea carrying a fishtrap, locally called a fishpot, almost as big as his boat, going for reef fish somewhere out there. After the sun rose over the low hill behind the village, men appeared wading near shore collecting fish eggs (a.k.a. sea urchins) for restaurants in Martinique that served them as delicacies.
The Kimatrai's main building held owners' quarters, guest rooms, dining room and bar. A string of motel-like rooms sat on a bluff looking westward over the Caribbean. The great hill of Moule a Chique dominated the southern tip of the island a few hundred yards from the hotel, but the land near Vieux Fort was generally low, flat, nondescript. The airport occupied most of it.
Despite its aesthetic limitations, the hotel's setting was marginally better than its accommodations. Mr. Williams and his staff were nice folks, but my pillow reeked of perspiration and the ceiling fan threatened us with decapitation. We were in one of the motel units, but didn't know it until we left by the back door and found ourselves amongst a herd of defecating black-bellied sheep. We followed the potholed road down from the back of the hotel, descending the bluff in a long gentle spiral, emerging on the beach below. A row of brilliant red-black-green-yellow wooden motor canoes, much of Vieux Fort's fishing fleet, rested under shelters made of leaves from the bedraggled palms lining the beach. Where the village touched the sand, a large naked man stood in the door of the public bathhouse, slowly drying his glossy black skin with a ragged yellow tea towel, casually chatting with friends. He smiled at us broadly, waved, and paid us no further attention.
Although Vieux Fort covered less than an eighth of a square mile, its shops and houses were packed in tightly, separated mainly by decomposing corrugated iron fences. Many of the buildings were typical 19th century British West Indian colonial structures, wooden, two stories high, shutters covering the windows, broad balconies hanging out over the streets.
The town had no formal fish market. Rather, the boys who sold tuna for fishermen dressed the fish at a standpipe where the main street met the beach. A storefront revival hall up the street was filled with singing every night, and ice cream vendors gathered out front just before services ended. Across the street on a hillside overlooking the church, the Cloud's Nest Guest House kept colonialism alive with a huge, quirky collection of Queen Elizabeth II memorabilia.
The main road northbound from the Kimatrai passed a shantytown that had grown up recently between the old village and the east coast. The ghost of an ancient blue and gray truck carrying traces of an Eastern Airlines SPRINT air freight sign stood at the end of the shantytown, a monument to Eastern's contributions to life in the Caribbean for many a decade. The road then separated a substantial residential area to the west from the village common to the east, and ended at the roundabout where people caught busses or taxis to other parts of the island.
Vieux Fort common encompassed the school, several playing fields, awesome piles of refuse, isolated swamplets favored by a herd of hideous hogs, innumerable unfettered horses, cows, asses and chickens, and a community center where we briefly stopped at a dance one night. The center was so crowded that we couldn't get inside, so we stayed on the road with a couple of hundred others and danced in the dark to calypsos blaring from a popular hifi.
Diagonally across the village common and almost a mile from the Kimatrai lay the magnificent Atlantic beach at Anse de Sables. To get there and back we crossed the common at least twice a day, never having hostile encounters with any of the livestock. The tiny Maria Islands just off shore broke some of the surf crashing in from Africa but left most of it unrestrained, much too rough for swimming or snorkeling but excellent for wind- and body-surfing, and for being exhilarated by the raw power of the ocean.
The village of Vieux Fort received few tourists, but the gleaming white sand at Anse de Sables was popular with the few staying at Club Med, the only resort near the airport. Local boys took horses there for guests to ride in the surf every afternoon. Otherwise, the tourists remained insulated from the other world of St. Lucia by their organized activities and the London omnibus that carted them everywhere they went.
The aptly named Spartan University School of Medicine, one of several bare-bones medical schools in the West Indies, faced the common opposite the community center. The dilapidated concrete structure was surrounded by a fence and separated from the road by a drainage ditch or moat where a scruffy chicken was wading the first time we passed. Except for the chicken, we never saw any life at Spartan U.
Steve was a medical student: 37 years old, from New York or Montreal depending on when we talked, with a Masters degree in psychology. He lived in the room adjacent to ours at the Kimatrai and seemed honest if confused when describing himself and the school. For reasons never discussed, Steve left psychology for medicine at a late age. By his own admission he wasn't qualified to enter a medical school in the United States or Canada, but he had enough money to buy his way into Spartan U and live at the Kimatrai for two years to complete his basic medical training.
He was one of Spartan's half-dozen students and was concerned that the school would close if the owner couldn't recruit some more to help pay the bills. In particular, the school paid $50,000 per year to the St. Lucian government for a permit to operate in the island, and the impending loss of the permit was a major concern.
Steve described the curriculum as minimal, but repeated several times that the school had a cadaver. Although medical services were poor in Vieux Fort, the students did nothing to help out. They read books, sporadically attended lectures and worked with their cadaver, studying for exams that medical school graduates had to pass. If they passed, they were technically eligible for residencies, but in practice that was difficult because of the school's reputation. Exactly what Steve would do if he couldn't get one wasn't clear, and he refused to speculate.
Steve and a colleague who lived at the Kimatrai - he may have been the oft-referenced cadaver - regularly addressed each other as "Doctor" in a manner that was unambiguously facetious and sarcastic. Better to be sick ...
Anse de Sables excepted, Vieux Fort was the dirtiest place we had visited in the West Indies, with rotting garbage in the streets and on the beach near the boat landing, piles of litter in every open space, and raw sewage pouring into the sea at the western edge of town. Its location would never have made it as beautiful as many other places in the West Indies, but it had a truly grim aspect in the summer of '87.
Castries. The nine passenger van to Castries was in good condition and working hard, what with twenty-one people inside and a fair amount of produce on top. As we headed up the new east coast road overlooking bays, beaches, mangrove swamps and rugged headlands, it had a flat tire on a steep hill near the village of Patience. The flat was welcomed as it offered passengers an opportunity to get out for a few minutes shortly after a child sitting near the center of the crowd got carsick.
From the bus stand in Castries, we wandered a while, ate pastries at a street vendor's, and bought a locally produced batik of cane cutters to hang in Nancy's office. At the Tourist Board Office on Jermine Street, we bought a handsome 1:50,000 topographic map of St. Lucia in a series developed by Great Britain's Directorate of Overseas Surveys (DOS) for all former British colonies in the West Indies.
The French influence in St. Lucia, especially in religion and language, remained conspicuous after two centuries of British control. The Catholic Cathedral opposite Columbus Square, repainted inside by St. Lucian artist Dunstan St. Omer for the island's independence in 1979, had a fascinating decor suggestive of Disneyland. Most of the people we encountered spoke a French-based creole as their mother tongue. Although English became the official and written language almost two centuries ago, it remained for most a second language to use with tourists. Calypsos and reggaes in English, French and Creole blared from cassettes and radios throughout the island. Those not composed locally came from the formerly British islands of Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica, and the French islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique.
Castries Market on Saturday morning was a microcosm of traditional St. Lucian life. Almost everything there was made locally and intended for use locally. Indeed, the extent to which the market suggested self-sufficiency was unique in our experiences in the region.
The well maintained red market building constructed in 1892 was surrounded by outside shopping areas that spilled over into adjacent streets and gradually dwindled away over a distance of a couple of blocks. The crowd numbered in the thousands, competition among vendors selling bananas and breadfruit seemed keen but friendly, the noise level was high, and the quality and diversity of the merchandise were as good as any we had seen in the Caribbean.
Many of the vegetable and fruit stalls were in the plaza along the east side of the building so the building could shade the produce in the afternoon. Women sold charcoal braziers known locally as coalpots at the southwest corner of the market, while others sold fuel for them at the charcoal yard on the north side near the abattoir, where the odor was awful, the flies thick, and the piles of hides pretty impressive by the end of the day. The meat market was to the east, as far as possible from the abattoir. Since St. Lucian fish tended to be sold where they landed, the fish market behind the main building held only a handful of vendors.
At the center of the market building, well up in the air at the head of a long flight of stairs, sat the business office - the control tower - from which the market was managed. Indoor stalls surrounding it tended to be reserved for manufactured or packaged products such as clothes, brooms, baskets, and spices that could be damaged by rain. These were full time businesses, unlike ephemeral outdoor fruit and vegetable stands that appeared only on market day.
At a rum shop across the street from the market, the shriveled woman behind the counter dispensed rum by the glass and the bottle. She provided glasses, but customers provided their own bottles. Everything was on tap, and from the pace at which she worked, I suspect it was impossible to turn it off.
We left the market carrying a pottery cookpot and collapsible string bags filled with raw cocoa, mangoes, small yellow fig bananas, tomatoes, a cucumber, okra and other fruits and vegetables to eat during the rest of our visit to St. Lucia.
We planned to stay in St. Lucia only a few days before going to Barbados for the last three days of the Cropover festival. At the Castries customs house, we asked where we could find a boat headed for Barbados, and a policeman immediately pointed to the Stella II.
The rusty black schooner was commanded by a compact Afro-Indian who at first refused to look at us, then did so with the most insanely penetrating gaze I've ever seen. Speaking so softly we could hardly hear him, he limited each answer to one word. Could we sail to Barbados with him? "Yessss." He allowed us to walk about the ship unescorted and discover for ourselves the steel-plated cabins about the size of telephone booths, portholes like the bottoms of drinking glasses, the total absence of chairs and mattresses. He agreed that deck space was cool and wet and cabin space was hot and wet. He said "noooo" when we asked whether the ship carried food for passengers. He terminated his high-powered sales pitch with another insane stare and sent us packing with someone else to discuss financial matters with the ship's agent.
Surely he was putting on an act perfected over the years to keep tourists off his ship, perhaps because he simply didn't like tourists, perhaps because he used the ship for nefarious activities that tourists shouldn't see. It worked. The minimalist accommodations were acceptable and the fare was excellent, but we wouldn't spend a night and a day trapped aboard a ship with somebody who obviously didn't want us there, and implied that we mightn't make it to Barbados. We booked no passage on the Stella II.
Soufriere. A little rattled from our encounter with the evil eye, we caught a bus headed south along the west coast road toward Soufriere. Enroute from Vieux Fort to Castries, we could see the mountains off to the west but were never close to them. Between Castries and Soufriere, that changed dramatically.
As the crow flies the distance from Castries to Soufriere was about half that from Castries to Vieux Fort, but travel time was twice as great. The road climbed sharply out of Castries and crossed a ridge before dropping into the broad valley of the Cul De Sac River where a massive oil terminal sat. From there it crossed a corrugated surface formed by eons of volcanic eruptions combined with intense rainfall erosion - an infinite series of switchbacks at steep inclines, now ascending to elevations above a thousand feet, then falling back to sea level at the next village in the next bay, then rising again to the clouds.
The typically overloaded bus was on an express run to Soufriere. Despite the crowd, the twisting, fractured roads and the mad driver, we slept most of the way. Occasionally we caught fleeting glimpses of gorgeous orchids hanging from trees, but saw no villages or other features of the west coast until we descended into Soufriere late in the afternoon. Petit Piton and Gros Piton, nearly cylindrical volcanic structures rising more than 2400 feet above the harbor, stood starkly before us against the southern sky.
We expected to pause only a few minutes and catch the next bus to Vieux Fort since the person who sold us the map at the Tourist Office assured us that we could reach Vieux Fort that afternoon via Soufriere. She erred.
The clock was right in Soufriere, but the calendar was stuck in the eighteenth century. As our bus ground to a halt, we asked the driver where we could catch the next one to Vieux Fort. All left from the bus stand where we were parked but none left for any destination before nine the next morning. He pointed to the Home Hotel across the town square about a block from the bus stand. As we walked toward it making sure we had our toothbrushes, an ancient man tipped his hat and softly bade us "Bon apres-midi".
We rang the doorbell and an older woman admitted us to a broad, airy stairway that carried us above street level shops into a spacious, pleasant lobby with a linoleum floor and chairs with dustcovers. She was the manager and said there was a vacant room that we could have for the night. It was small and clean, overlooking the square with the Catholic Church at the other end. The bed was firm, the shower and toilet down the hall adequate. As we checked in, she gave us towels and two keys, one for the room, the other for the front door of the hotel. Immediately she disappeared, and we never saw her again. We were the only guests and had the Home Hotel entirely to ourselves.
Once Soufriere was the capital of the island, but when the volcano erupted in 1797, the government moved to Castries and Soufriere became a living fossil. Late afternoon was quiet. A few people sat before open windows staying as cool as possible in the summer's still heat. Shops were closed except for a bakery that sold us a baguette, and the streets were nearly empty. At the waterfront children dove silently off the pier, Rastas resting at a shop smoked ganja, houses faced across the road to fishing boats pulled up under trees draped with gillnets used to catch flying fish in season. An ancient, brightly painted truck with a wooden bus body, seats for twelve, and a huge roofrack, sat parked, perhaps abandoned, beside a watefront grocery store. A block inland houses and shops mutely contemplated the square and the cathedral, corrugated iron roofs rusting, shutters hanging askew.
We had dinner at an upstairs restaurant where the menu was long and tantalizing but fried chicken was the only dish available. Since tourists rarely visit Soufriere in August, we had the restaurant like the hotel entirely to ourselves. As we dawdled over the chicken, some brightly dressed women and girls stepped out of a car across the street and entered the cathedral as silently as church mice.
Early in the evening, we decided to call the Kimatrai Hotel to let someone there know where we were, and returned to the restaurant in search of a telephone for we couldn't find one at the hotel. The woman who made dinner for us said we should go to the police station on the waterfront where someone would help us. The policeman asked the telephone operator for a line to the Kimatrai and got one immediately. We explained our situation and were outside again in a moment.
It had been dark for a couple of hours but the room hadn't cooled, the transom was boarded up, and we couldn't find a fan. We took cold showers but couldn't cope with the heat with the door closed. While we didn't like the idea of spending the night with the door open even if we were the only people there, we seemed to have no choice. As the light went off and the door came open, the mosquitoes emerged one at a time paying no attention to the Deet. The night promised to be long.
We heard people talking softly beneath our window, not moving. Soon other conversations merged with the first, and a radio began to play. The town square awakened, children laughed and played, someone switched on a floodlight that illuminated most of the park and all of our room. The crowd swelled, conversations grew more animated, we grew drowsier. The room gradually cooled and I closed the door. With the park wide awake, the floodlight blazing fiercely at us and the mosquitoes having a blood feast, we drifted off to sleep.
For breakfast we visited a shop that sold groceries, rum and soft drinks, as well as short orders from the kitchen in the back. As we approached the shop, a young man stuck out his hand and demanded money. While we sat on rickety chairs beside the only table in the shop and had fresh-brewed coffee and baguettes, he milled about outside, not asking anybody else for money but clearly waiting for us to emerge. Eventually he wandered away.
Walking through town while awaiting the bus, we found Soufriere to be as clean as Vieux Fort was filthy. When the volcano last erupted, it destroyed the town's north end but missed its south end. The north end was new and unattractive, the south end was terribly old and terribly French. All of it was spotless.
Naked children played with homemade toy cars beside the streets, teenage boys in bright T-shirts carried sloshing plastic buckets home from streetcorner standpipes, old women swept older floors. A pleasant man husking coconuts smiled and said I could photograph him, a Rasta-man passing on a bicycle as I took the photograph made an unpleasant but mostly unintelligible remark about tourists with cameras, and another man walking by said the Rasta-man didn't represent the whole town.
As the bus ascended from Soufriere, we momentarily smelled sulfur from volcanic hot springs and agreed that the scent of Hell seemed utterly inappropriate there. But we missed a lot in such a short a visit, and knew that life in isolated towns and villages in the West Indies was not idyllic. Had we stayed longer, we might have discovered that the stench of sulfur was indeed fitting.
LaPointe. Coalpots, sometimes called firepots, are pottery braziers that burn wood or charcoal. They once served as cookstoves throughout the Caribbean before electricity and bottled gas became readily available, and in 1987 remained important in many homes, in cafes catering to local people, and at roadside stands selling street food such as fried chicken and kebabs at lunch and in the evenings.
We had seen coalpots in use for years, had seen parts of the production process in Nevis, had bought one made in St. Lucia during a visit to Barbados, and had seen coalpot and charcoal stalls in Castries Market. We weren't pottery freaks, but we had a fair amount of energy and interest invested in coalpots by the time we arrived at LaPointe, the isolated, dispersed farming community, not even a village, on the southwestern corner of St. Lucia where much of the island's pottery was made.
By bus and finally by hitchhiking, we reached a pottery workshop high on a hillside surrounded by open fields about half a mile from the coast. It was of traditional Amerindian design: rectangular plan, pole frame, one door, no windows, a thatched roof of khuskhus grass. The frail-looking middle-aged potter spoke only Creole, but her assistant or apprentice or daughter, a shy young woman in her teens, spoke enough English to answer some of our questions.
Outside the shop, a mound of sticky, wet, pounded gray clay covered with leaves lay soaking in water so it would be ready to use later. The potter had dug it from a deposit somewhere in the hills, hauled it to the shop herself, and pounded it to make it malleable.
A St. Lucian coalpot has a relatively narrow base, a large air intake and ash removal opening on one side, and a broad, shallow flared bowl at the top for holding fuel, a rack if necessary, and a utensil containing the food. The bottom of the bowl has about eighteen holes that admit air beneath the burning coals and permit ash to fall through. A pair of handles and a flared lip below the large air intake provide the only interruptions to the smooth lines.
A coalpot was taking shape on a square board sitting firmly on the potter's lap. She began with a large lump of clay that contained almost all of the material that went into the finished product, as well as a few pieces of trash that she removed as she encountered them. She pressed the clay into a rough circle on the plank and gradually extruded the thick vertical wall of the stem by forcing the material outward and upward from the center of the lump.
When the stem was tall enough, she stretched the wall outward nearly parallel with the plank, thinned it, and gradually molded it upward to form the walls of the bowl. She inserted another piece of clay into the opening at the top of the stem to form the bottom of the bowl, then smoothed the entire coalpot inside and out with her hand, using lots of water to lubricate it. With the basic architecture finished, she added the handles and the lip, used her index finger to make three holes through the bottom of the bowl beyond the outside of the stem wall, then used a broad flat shell and a lot more water to smooth the surface once again. She put the partially built pot aside to dry slightly over night.
The next day she would complete the construction, cutting the large air intake opening with a knife and making the fifteen holes in the center of the bowl with her index finger - jobs that would weaken the clay if she did them too early - then smoothing the coalpot one last time with the back of the polishing shell.
The potter stacked finished coalpots on their sides with others inside the hut to dry slowly in the shade. Perhaps twenty were drying, but since the wind was wrong, she wouldn't finish them that day. When conditions were right, she and her assistant would arrange the pots in a single layer on the ground or on a sheet of corrugated metal, cover them with a large heap of dry palm leaves and coconut husks, and torch the fuel. The leaves would start the fire quickly, while the husks would keep it going at the right temperature for the right amount of time. The finished firepots, deep red instead of gray, were durable enough to withstand a lot of wear and tear, as we knew from having successfully carried one from Barbados to Boston under an airplane seat.
The assistant said that the potter's mother had worked as a potter for fifty years, and the woman before us was carrying on the family tradition, still making eight to twelve coalpots daily. Ordinarily three or four dozen of them went to Castries market every Saturday where they sold for $US5 apiece. Others went to St. Vincent and Barbados on the Stella II when it visited those islands every two weeks, no doubt making the potter a wealthy woman by rural St. Lucian standards.
Choiseul. The small fishing village of Choiseul, between LaPointe and Vieux Fort, faced a short beach and backed against a steep hill. The main road from Vieux Fort to Soufriere passed behind the village and immediately turned inland. The only other road passed along the beach as the village's main street. The police station and bus stand were at the east end of town, the Catholic Church and a few shops nearby at the end of the beach. The jetty and fish market were in the middle of the beach, and houses elbowed each other opposite the beach. The village just faded away as the road climbed a low hill to the west and continued toward LaPointe.
When we returned from LaPointe, we asked the person who gave us a lift to let us out atop the hill at the west end of the beach so we could walk all the way through the village. The day was warm, the dogs were asleep, the village was silent. As we descended the hill and approached the fish market, a couple of women were using coalpots to fry chicken and cook deep-fried pastries called bakes. They had their pots in the shade beside a listing boat that was in for repairs, and were selling lunch to a few local people. We weren't hungry but had some bakes anyway, fresh, hot, greasy, good.
Stephen Alcee, a fisherman selling his catch at the market, asked me to take his picture even though I explained that I couldn't give him a copy then. Carefully positioning himself with his gillnet, he told me when he was ready, then wrote his name and address on a scrap of paper and asked me to mail the pictures to him later. I sent them, but don't know whether he ever received them.
The shops near the church were almost empty. An old woman crouched on the front steps of one of them roasting coffee beans. A still life, chair with fruits, sat on the walk beside her. A closed shop opposite the church advertised COFFINS in bold print. The church was dark and dreary inside, but some Rasta fishermen sat on the lawn behind it repairing their nets. A fine mural by Dunstan St. Omer depicting life in Choiseul covered a stone wall around the corner from the church.
The day was fiercely hot when we arrived at the police station and bus stand. After waiting for a while and getting hotter and hotter, Nancy made a deal with an astute policewoman. At that time of the year tomatoes were scarce, but Nancy had bought a few at a shop in the village and was carrying them in her string bag where they were clearly visible. The policewoman obviously wanted some - was lusting after them - so Nancy gave her three in exchange for the use of a chair while we continued to wait for a bus.
One finally arrived so full we couldn't get on. Another potential passenger, a slovenly, obnoxious man intent upon impressing us with his knowledge of everything, said we would never be able to hitch a ride from that location. I defiantly stuck out my thumb the next time a car came into sight and an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture gave us a lift as far as Laborie where we eventually caught a bus back to Vieux Fort.
Vieux Fort jetty. The jetty at Vieux Fort, a concrete structure thirty or forty feet wide, extended almost a quarter of a mile out from shore. From the Kimatrai, we could see it and the offshore anchorage, and were surprised at how busy they were around the clock. Ordinarily two or three ships were loading or unloading at the jetty all the time, with as many as three anchored offshore awaiting space. Although Castries was the main port on the island, Vieux Fort was a strong second.
A shed about 12 feet high, 15 feet wide and 200 feet long shaded the middle of the jetty near the offshore end. Dockworkers used it as a place to rest and to protect cargo from sun and rain. But the jetty really made sense only in the context of bananas, St. Lucia's most valuable export.
Bananas estates were ubiquitous throughout the island, and banana boxing plants were common along the highways. Since banana boats visited St. Lucia on Mondays and Thursdays, those were the days when bananas were picked, packed and delivered to the docks. On banana days, intermittent but endless parades of trucks carried boxed green fruit to the Vieux Fort jetty from estates all over the southern half of the island. At a high-roofed shed on shore, men sorted the boxes on the basis of the size of the bananas they contained and stacked them on pallets throughout the shed for immediate transfer to a ship when it docked, always at night to prevent unnecessary exposure of the bananas to sun and heat. A fleet of fork-lift trucks carried the pallets to the shed on the pier, then to the safety of the refrigerated cargo holds as quickly as possible. An earlier, unmechanized version of this process inspired Harry Belafonte's calypso Day-O:
Come Mister Tallyman, tally me banana;
Daylight come, and me wan' go home.
St. Lucian banana growers belonged to the Windward Island Banana Growers Association which sold all of its produce to Geest Industries in England. Outward bound Geest ships first visited Grenada and St. Vincent, then stopped at Vieux Fort to unload manufactured goods and gigantic rolls of cardboard which trucks later transferred, one roll at a time, to the nearby cardboard box factory. In exchange, ships loaded bananas to take back to England. From Vieux Fort, they sped to Castries to load fruit from northern St. Lucia on the same night, then continued northward to Dominica for more bananas before heading back to England. And the cycle continued indefinitely. Unfortunately we couldn't get in or near a Geest ship without making prior arrangements, and the person whose permission we needed was out of the island, one of the frustrations of unplanned travel.
Cropover. Cropover Festival, held in Barbados each summer, became an important part of our visit to St. Lucia even though visiting St. Lucia made it impossible for us to attend Cropover in person for the first time in several years.
Cropover began as a slave festival marking the end of the sugarcane harvest. It gradually faded away after slavery ended in 1834 only to re-emerge in the 1970's following Barbadian independence. By 1987 it served partly as a tourist attraction during the summer low season, but mainly as a festival for Barbadians and other West Indians after the cane harvest and the fishing season had ended, and before winter tourists started crawling all over everything. Once a local festival, it had become an important regional event, not only for those fortunate enough to attend but also for everyone else who heard the performances live on Radio Barbados.
In its mid-1980's form, Cropover was a major focal point of Barbadian artistic creativity. Having a great deal in common with Carnival in Trinidad, is consisted of events such as steel band performances, the Pic o' de Crop Calypso competition, and the Cadooment masquerade and dance competition, some of which went through preliminaries, semi-finals and finals stretching over a month. All of the finals and the grand parade occurred during the long weekend containing the first Monday in August. The parade, which began at National Stadium and ended at a gigantic street fair, featured infinite quantities of traditional Bajan food and more music than anybody could absorb. Bajans from all over the world "came home to shake their bodies" in endless dancing on Spring Garden Highway near the Deepwater Harbor.
Both the historical roots of slavery throughout the Caribbean and the exuberant spirit of modern Cropover in Barbados are perhaps best captured in Commander's 1985 Cropover hit entitled Slavery Done:
It was slavery that brought me ancestors to this country;
From Africa they came,
To work in the land of sugar cane.
But on the Atlantic,
Some of them get sick,
Some were beaten,
Some were threatened;
They were so frightened
That they jump overboard
To escape Massa's wicked hand.
So tell them I pay my duty
To live here peacefully;
Tell them slavery done!
I pay my duty
To practice my Culture;
Tell them slavery done!
I pay my duty
For my children future;
Tell them slavery done!
I pay my duty
To live here forever;
Tell them slavery done!
The remaining half-dozen verses recount the story of slavery and emancipation, while the chorus joyfully proclaims that all of that has ended: "I pay my duty ... Tell them slavery done!"
Having rejected Stella II, the only way to Cropover was to fly, either on BWIA from Hewanorra to Barbados once a week, or on LIAT (Leeward Islands Air Transport) from Vigie to Barbados several times a day. Neither worked. As the end of Cropover approached, it was impossible to find empty seats into Barbados from anywhere, including Boston, New York, Montreal, Miami, London and St. Lucia. So for several nights we listened to Cropover on Radio Barbados, cheering along with thousands of others throughout the Caribbean as Red Plastic Bag, Ras Iley, Black Pawn and other calypsonians competed in the Pic o' de Crop Semi-Finals and Finals.
Homeward. Nancy and I walked up the long, steep road to the lighthouse on Moule a Chique over seven hundred feet above the sea and reached the summit just as the sun splashed down beyond the Pitons, setting water and clouds ablaze. We stayed just long enough to visit the cats in the lighthouse and the sheep in the pasture, then silently descended with flashlights as the red sky faded into our last night in St. Lucia.
The next day we got stuck in St. Maarten. To appreciate what happened, you must understand that as pass-riders we were entitled to fly whenever there were empty seats that nobody else would buy at any price, but certain to be evicted if somebody showed up with tickets for seats even after we were belted into them. That precariousness was made worse by chronic warfare between passengers and airlines. Many passengers made reservations on two or more airlines whenever they planned to travel so they would have seats on their second or third choices even if their first choices failed, and airlines, knowing that a certain percentage of the booked passengers for each flight wouldn't show up, retaliated by deliberately over-booking by the percentage in question. For example, twenty-eight percent of the people who booked seats with Eastern Airlines from Boston to Miami were no-shows in 1987, so Eastern regularly reserved about 125% of the seats available on those flights. So long as the passengers conformed to the statistics, all was well, but if too many showed up for a flight, conditions were ripe for a riot.
When we left St. Lucia, the Eastern ticket agent warned us that the plane was overbooked from Guadaloupe to Miami and that we might be "bumped" there. We were and left peacefully, but one of the ticketed passengers who wasn't allowed to board at Guadaloupe got so furious that he ripped the door off the Eastern Airlines office. The friendly folks at Eastern, having recovered from the attack, put us on the next Air Guadaloupe flight to St. Maarten where we could catch an Eastern flight to Miami the next morning.
Arriving at Princess Julianna Airport at dusk, we stopped at the visitor center and were told that all of the inexpensive hotels on the island were full. Although we didn't believe that story for a moment, we were too tired to argue. In the taxi enroute to the pricey Cupecoy Hotel, we asked the elderly driver who spoke English with a strong Dutch accent to tell us something about the lives of local people who were not affiliated with resorts, and learned that there weren't any. He had lived on the island all his life and experienced the revolution as it occurred. The island was sold to resort operators following World War II, and the traditional culture was extinguished. Now the entire island was a resort.
The Cupecoy had a central set of buildings that housed its administrative offices, one of the island's five round-the-clock gambling casinos, a dining room, an outdoor cafe, and other facilities that we couldn't identify in the dark. Scattered over the nearby hills at distances great enough to justify using an over-grown golf cart to haul us around were multi-story hotel buildings, swimming pools with bars in them, tennis courts and coconut palms without number.
When we checked in, the desk clerk gave me a key to a room that was already occupied, a fact that I didn't appreciate until I unlocked the door and walked into a cocktail party, one of whose participants shoved a drink in my hand and welcomed me as an old friend whose name she couldn't remember. I hiked back to the desk, explained the situation probably less politely than I should have, and asked the clerk for a key to an empty room. She seemed not to understand why I was cranky.
The next room was unoccupied, so we moved in. It was totally white - white tile floors, white walls and furniture, white drapes and bedspread, brilliant white lights in a blindingly white bathroom. But it had a couple of redeeming features: everything worked except for the lock on the balcony door which had been smashed with a large blunt object, and a small green lizard was playing on the wall in vengeful defiance of the awesome sterility of the place.
The casino wasn't quite empty: a small crowd gathered at one table, and several obsessive players were bashing away at slot machines utterly oblivious to me and everything else. The room was huge and suggested wealth without being wealthy - cavernous, eerily quiet, decorated with all manner of plastic quasi-art, illuminated by reflections from the ornate ceiling, orange I think, or perhaps fool's gold. The players were all white, probably working class folks from the Midwest if their voices could be trusted. The staff were all black, wearing gaudy orange shirts with black pants and ties, local people who had been co-opted or aliens who had been imported. The casino was a fantasy world, a world of illusion, a set for a bad soap opera, with intensely serious players either bizarrely unaware or profoundly pleased that they had stepped out of reality for the nonce.
We went for a swim. The pool nearest our room was unoccupied and the bar was deserted, but the water was pleasant enough. For all its pretensions of class, the pool overlooked a parking lot full of filthy construction vehicles. No doubt they were building another set of accommodations nearby, but it's bad form to use dirty trucks as decor unless your clientele gets a kick out of dirty trucks. Perhaps that's true of the Cupecoy.
The next morning we fled to Miami. Rarely have I been so happy to leave a place, an outstanding example of what can happen to a delightful Caribbean island when proponents of the 5-S formula go utterly berserk. St. Maarten was far from unique, and in fact may be the wave of the future throughout the Caribbean. But that future mercifully hadn't reached St. Lucia yet.
In 1980, we left good university positions to make a change in our lifestyle and had survived it, but both of us were ready for another change. In Franconia we were confined to the fringes of the academic world, working in an off-campus adult university program that was challenging but not rewarding. So long as we stayed there, we couldn't get totally out of academia for we couldn't find other kinds of jobs there, and we couldn't get totally into it because there were no real academic positions anywhere in the North Country. I was going to St. Lucia to look for a job.
We couldn't avoid comparing St. Lucia with Barbados which we knew much better. St. Lucia was a teardrop shaped high volcanic island measuring 14 by 27 miles with an area of 238 square miles and a population of about 150,000. It was radically different from Barbados, a peculiar coral limestone island with only 70 percent of St. Lucia's land area but almost twice as many people. In the economic development jargon, Barbados was a More Developed Country, while St. Lucia remained a Lesser Developed Country, not as far down the list as Haiti or the Central African Republic, but a long way below Barbados.
Quite simply, most things in Barbados worked, while a great many things in St. Lucia didn't. Yet Barbados had become an intensely competitive tourist destination and the traditional life that we liked there had waned in recent years, while St. Lucia had relatively few tourists, retained many traditional economic and cultural activities, and displayed a relaxed friendliness rather than the self-assured cockiness of Barbados. St. Lucia wasn't the paradise the tourist brochures extolled, but it might offer opportunities for us to live in the Caribbean and work at satisfying jobs. This trip was a bit peculiar for I went to St. Lucia alone, while Nancy went to Barbados with our daughter Kristi for some well deserved R&R at the end of Nancy's academic year.
Southern Comfort. At Miami International Airport, I sporadically watched gorillas load baggage onto carts that ferried parcels between airplanes and terminals, only to have gravity unload them all over the tarmack while the carts whizzed along at high speed behind tractors with heedless drivers. Each time that happened I was thankful that I traveled only with a carry-on bag.
Having a short attention span, I moved on to watch passengers arrive at ticket and baggage counters of Eastern, BWIA, American, Air Jamaica and other airlines with Caribbean routes. They checked automobile tires, crates of disposable diapers, a kitchen sink, a huge barrel of clothes being sent home by a church group, and innumerable large items in plain brown wrappers that bulged suggestively - a host of things either unavailable or prohibitively expensive in the islands. Clearly the airlines were serving the needs of West Indians who frequently visited the US to improve their standard of living at home.
In Vieux Fort, Cass Elias and the Southern Comfort Guest House were invisible to most tourists, but local people could see them clearly. The Kimatrai Hotel, overlooking the bay, catered to mid-range Caribbean business travelers and a few old hippies who didn't like or couldn't afford posh resorts. This time, having decided to stay at a place that was even less classy and about half the cost of the Kimatrai, I asked the taxi driver to take me to the Southern Comfort. Being from Mississippi, I thought it sounded homey, and it was.
The Southern Comfort sat on a barren, windswept plain at the northern edge of Vieux Fort, far from the bay, overlooking the roundabout, the school yard, and the town common where the livestock roamed. The back of the inn overlooked the runway at Hewanorra. The Cable and Wireless office was next door, and Spartan U. with its cadaver was just down the street.
The guest house occupied the rear portion of the upper floor of a new, freestanding concrete-block two story building; a bar and lounge, a couple of overstuffed chairs and a television set and a cafe with four tables occupied the front portion overlooking a tiny lawn between building and street. The Modern Bakery made and sold baked goods and ice cream on the lower floor. A freshly whitewashed concrete block fence kept stray hogs and sheep off the grass.
The big yellow sign out front was aglow when I arrived. The bakery and ice cream parlor were closed. A stocky young Afro-Indian bartender-cook-roomclerk showed me down the hall to a little white room with a clean bed, a bare lightbulb, a washbasin, and a shower perched on a shelf to facilitate drainage. Minimal, but a lot nicer than the Kimatrai, so I took it. I had a goat roti and a couple of bottles of Heineken beer, then went to sleep with the television blaring down the hall.
As I ate my breakfast pawpaw at a table overlooking the common, Cassius Elias, cook, waiter, owner of the building and everything in it, introduced himself - somewhere in his 40's, sophisticated, smooth, polished; a mover and shaker; an operator; a Caribbean man of words. Born in the nearby village of Laborie but raised in England, he returned to Vieux Fort with some money in his pocket to make a mark on his homeland. At some time or other during the sixteen years since he returned, he had been elected or appointed to just about every position of responsibility in southern St. Lucia, except representative to the House of Assembly which was next on his list.
If Cass tried too hard, his speech became stilted, a bit too smooth and correct; if he consciously switched from RP (Received Pronunciation, "the Queen's English") to Creole to talk with someone who spoke only Creole, he did so perfectly; if he was tired or had had too many beers, his speech wandered aimlessly over the mid-range, less proper than RP but closer to it than to Creole. The same was true of his behavior in general: often cultured and refined, occasionally coarse, sometimes ambiguous - increasingly ambiguous as the week wore on and we became better acquainted.
Cass came smoothly to the point: Why was I in St. Lucia? I said I was looking for a job, and briefly sketched my background in anthropology, teaching, computing and tourism. His ears perked up. He said the Vieux Fort area desperately needed somebody to teach computing to young people, but the government insisted on conducting its training in Castries. As past president and chairman of the Rotary Club program committee, he asked me to talk to the Club on Wednesday. The meetings were held at the Kimatrai - did I know Danny Williams the East Indian who ran the Kimatrai? Yes, I knew him from our stay there last summer. Good. Before I finished the pawpaw, everything was set. Smooth and incredibly fast.
Cass adopted me, became my sponsor, helped me in all sorts of ways small and large. In return, he set out to use me to help both himself and his island. The relationship was not manipulative or exploitative; rather, there was an unspoken understanding of reciprocity: I'll help you, but I expect you to help me. Aussies say "Fair dinkum". But he didn't really believe me when I said I was looking for a job.
Castries and Gros Islet. The Vieux Fort bus stand in Castries was a frantic, noisy string of parking places on a one-way side-street near the center of the city. When busses arrived, they parked at the end of the line and in principle waited their turn for passengers. Unfortunately, the one-way street forced them to park headed away from their customers who ordinarily arrived on Bridge Street; so they regressed along the street, a snake in reverse, backing toward the head of the line, hangers-on screaming "Vieux Fort! Vieux Fort!" indiscriminantly until the first bus was overloaded, whereupon horns blasted and another tipsy Japanese van on threadbare tires lurched out of the line-up, swayed across the bridge and disappeared in the traffic.
On the other side of the city, a diffuse, cacophonous, congested set of bus stands clustered around the century-old market. Some of the busses from "marketside", broadly defined, headed south and east to Dennery via the same route the Vieux Fort busses used, but Vieux Fort busses ran nonstop as far as Micoud. From another unmarked location, busses left for Soufriere and villages on the west coast. From yet another, they left for points north of Castries, most to Gros Islet, others to La Clery, still others to tiny inland villages throughout the northern part of the island. La Clery busses were unique in having signs in their windows showing their destinations.
Having arrived at the bus stand in Castries from the Southern Comfort, I walked across the city under verbal assault by men on William Peter Boulevard screaming "Taxi! Taxi!", bought a greasy serving of fried chicken and bread from a vendor in the middle of the boulevard, ate it while sitting under a tree in a park with no grass, then caught another bus from marketside to the Modern Inn, a mile north of Castries on the Gros Islet Highway, where Cass had made a reservation for me with his friends who ran it. It was clean and new, the same price as the Southern Comfort, sitting on the side of a hill that would have formed an expert ski run in colder parts of the world.
In 1987, we got no further north than Castries, but since most visitors to St. Lucia spent their time on the northwest coast, I caught another bus northward to Gros Islet to go exploring.
Gros Islet was reputed to be alive on Friday night when the town had its street party, but it was dead on Monday afternoon. Its British colonial architecture resembling that in Vieux Fort was not remarkable. The streets were almost empty except for a tall muscular teen-age boy in red swim trunks carrying a huge breadfruit so green that it seemed to glow against his brown skin. At the beach a lone fisherman stood knee deep in the sea cleaning garfish that he hooked from his boat earlier in the day, casually watching a shapely young woman in cutoff jeans and a wet T-shirt relaxing in the light surf.
A hospitable old woman standing in the street and another hanging from her front window stopped me to chat about the Gros Islet street party. Did I know about it? Was I there last week? Did I like calypsos? I told them I missed the party, but recently went to a concert by Sparrow in Montreal. They were Sparrow fans, too, and were delighted that I knew something about their kind of music.
I saw none of St. Lucia's famous destination resorts, but saw signs pointing to a couple of them. Presumably they were discretely tucked away where tourists could experience various S's without bothering or being bothered by local people. At the channel that connected the sea with Rodney Bay Yacht Harbor, I found the yacht club separated from the village by a Brobdignaggian chain link fence that was profoundly anti-social.
Tourism. Pointe Seraphine Duty Free Shopping Complex was a new facility for handling cruiseship passengers who thought foreign countries were quaint shopping malls. The shops were arranged around an open, airy courtyard containing young trees too small to provide shade from the searing sun. Customs, immigration and Tourism Association facilities occupied one wing, tour operators the other.
No ships were in. Of twenty shops in the complex, two were open, two were unoccupied, the rest were closed. Goods in the windows were utterly generic. Nothing was distinctly St. Lucian excepting Caribelle batiks and St. Lucian T-shirts decorated with phallic bananas; nothing was from other Caribbean islands except a few exuberant paintings from Haiti. Most shops sold alcohol, glassware and electronics. None sold books, maps or music.
Mr. Joe Bergasse, Executive Vice President of the St. Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association, was a reminder - and remainder - of the white aristocracy who ruled St. Lucia before independence in 1979. He was born in Soufriere and educated in England where he was a businessman until he retired to St. Lucia a couple of years back. Sitting in his new office upstairs at Pointe Seraphine, he noted that his skills (and no doubt his connections) quickly landed him a position as head of the Tourism Association composed of whites who actually ran tourism in the island as opposed to blacks in the Ministry of Tourism who set government policy and distributed foreign aid earmarked for tourism development. Mr. Bergasse, comfortably resting under an impressive mop of white hair, long ago learned to tell it like it was.
Mr. Bergasse told me that Mike Bevan, President of the Tourism Association, was working on a computer reservation system for the island's small hotels. He called Mike and made an appointment for me to see him immediately. Since I didn't have a car, Mike picked me up near the entrance to Couples Resort. I was white in a sea of black, he was white in a van from the Banyan Lodge Guest House in Vigie. The meeting was easy.
Mike was a retired educator from Canada who moved to the island about fifteen years ago as an employee of the Canadian government to set up the public secondary school system for the St. Lucian government. He bought a little property on Vigie Point and spent a lot of time and effort creating an architectural wonder if it worked, a nightmare if it didn't. The verdict wouldn't be in for years.
Mike was a weather nut. Virtually every topic can be linked to the weather if you're determined to find a connection, and he was both determined and experienced. His site was on a hillside that overlooked Vigie Beach and faced squarely into the trade winds. He figured that should provide superb natural air conditioning year-round for his guest house if he could design and build it so the wind could reach all suites easily. But the spot of land was small, his dream was large, and his workmen were unskilled and unimaginative. The result was a kind of Chinese puzzle, a set of interlocking concrete boxes, sun decks at strange angles, air passages going under this room and around that one, interior stairwells that served as ovens when air passages were blocked and as wind tunnels when they weren't. It wasn't finished and Mike was infinitely optimistic, but to me it felt like a set for a James Bond movie.
We got acquainted over Heineken. He was intrigued by computers and had agreed to learn something about computerized reservation systems, but he knew nothing about either. And he wasn't ready to learn. It was better to talk about the construction crew that either didn't show up for work at all, or showed up late and botched the job. Since the good builders on the island worked on condominiums that were springing out of the hillsides north of Castries, the only available builders were those who couldn't get jobs on the condos. And when Mike tried to explain his spaceship to them, they got it all wrong. Then Mike had to take it apart and try again with another crew. And he'd been struggling for years to get some of that tourism development money from the Ministry so he could hire decent workers, but the Ministry didn't like his design and had been dragging its feet. It sounded funny, but it wasn't. Mike was too old to waste his years with that kind of nonsense.
After talking about everything except computers for almost two hours, Mike announced that he had to go to Gros Islet for a meeting, and said we should meet again. He deposited me at the end of the runway where he found me.
Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. At the Ministry of Education on Columbus Square, a woman led me into her office and talked for half an hour about people and organizations in St. Lucia that had academic leanings, including the Folk Research Centre, the Historical Society, the Naturalist Society, the Banana Producers Association, various ministries with research functions, and Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC), named for St. Lucia's Nobel Prize winning economist.
I took a bus up the Morne to find SALCC, look around, and decide whether I should spend more time there later in the week. Walking along a roadway through the campus, I spied a hand-painted map labeled "Morne Educational Complex" which made no sense at all until a passing student explained amidst suppressed giggles that it was rotated 180 degrees back-to-front AND top-to-bottom. The proper way to use it was to stand on your head and look at it in a mirror.
Deciding that the campus, with its old military architecture, spectacular views of Castries Harbor and helpful students, looked promising even if the map was a little funny, I found the administration building and got acquainted with the young woman at the switchboard who handled virtually all information entering and leaving the college, and also served as gate guard for the offices behind her desk. I told her I was looking for a job and asked whether the college had any openings. She said "Wait" and returned a moment later with Miss Martha Pierre, the Registrar, a tall, lank, frazzled grandmotherly woman with horn-rimmed glasses, a smattering of gray hairs, and a West Indian English dialect that approximated RP.
Again I introduced myself and asked my question, whereupon Miss Pierre took me down a narrow, high-ceiling hall to her cluttered office where we chatted for a while. Only the day before the college had posted announcements for positions in sociology and history. Miss Pierre was puzzled by my having learned of them so quickly, profoundly skeptical of my protestations of ignorance, unwilling to accept coincidence as a possibility even when it smacked her between the eyes. Everything was in good humor. But now really, how did you learn about the positions? Honestly, I didn't know about them.
Still puzzled, Miss Pierre passed me to Mr. Leton Thomas, the Principal, whose grander office was beyond hers along the same narrow hall. Mr. Thomas was willing to accept coincidence as a working hypothesis on the assumption that he could get the truth out of me later. A small fellow with owlish eyes peering from massive glasses, a highly mobile mouth and long fingers that roved uncontrollably, he wore a casual tan Carib sportsuit that contrasted properly with his dark skin. Later I came to recognize it as his uniform.
We chatted briefly about my background and objectives, and the positions he was advertising. He mentioned that he did graduate work at Columbia University in New York and once held a position with UNESCO in Paris. He didn't have time to discuss details with me, but there was enough there to justify another conversation. I agreed to return on Friday.
Vieux Fort Rotary Club. Walking north on Anse de Sables Beach, I found a multi-layer barbed wire fence straight out of a World War II movie separating the ordinary beach from the Club Med beach. I thought all beaches in the formerly British Caribbean were public, but that fence suggested otherwise. As I walked back to Vieux Fort, I came upon the big red bus that carried Club Med guests and asked the driver about the fence. He mumbled something about keeping horses and cows off the beach, but wouldn't reply when I pointed out that the multiple layers of barbed wire that I saw would easily stop army tanks - just how big were St. Lucian cows, anyway?
Later Cass too preferred not to discuss it, but admitted that it was a problem. In principal the beach was public, but in practice Club Med said it would either seal off the beach to keep local people from harassing its guests or it would close the hotel. The government couldn't stop the trespassing, so it approved the fence. A lot of people resented the Berlin Wall aspect of the thing and hustlers who used to peddle drugs and sex to the Club Med crowd were out of work, but Club Med hired a lot of law abiding folks from Vieux Fort who would have been unemployed if the hotel had vanished.
The first person I saw at the Rotary Club meeting was Mike Bevan who made the trip from Castries every week because he liked the country folks at Vieux Fort better than the city folks in Castries. After the rituals, greetings, introductions, reports and food, I talked for about fifteen minutes in vague generalities about computers and computer training. Everybody paid attention except for Cass who napped, and a few asked questions at the end. Mike was more interested in computers than he was the first time we talked.
I met Kenny Williams who remembered me from my stay at the Kimatrai a year earlier; Harley King, a Texan who recently opened an electronics plant in the industrial park near the airport; Omar Davis, an accountant at the packaging plant, the club's vice-president and the only black in attendance except for Cass; Bill somebody who retired as coach of a British sports team but continued to coach just for fun in the Soufriere schools; and two Korean gentlemen who managed a clothing factory in the industrial park. Cass thought the meeting went well, and several people invited me to visit their businesses later in the week.
Small Business Association. Whoever planted Soufriere on the west coast knew more about tourism than about geology. The village is framed by the gorgeous Pitons and is surrounded on the landward side by remnants of a fascinating volcanic caldera. When the volcano last erupted, it destroyed much of the village and left smoldering bits of itself here and there, steam vents, bubbling mud puddles, and a stench of sulfur being the most obvious.
As Cass stopped for me to see the volcano, we were mobbed by teen-age boys, some trained and licensed as guides by the government, most hustlers. We hired one to make the others go away.
Steam vents and elephant grass surrounded the site where a drilling and construction company from Trinidad was installing a geothermal power station. They had sunk shafts several thousand feet into the hot cone so they could force water down to be heated to provide rising steam to power electrical turbines that ultimately would sit atop the shafts. The shafts were capped and the turbines were "on their way" as they apparently had been for a good while. If the station ever worked, it would provide much of the island's electricity, and there was talk of sending power across the channel to St. Vincent as well.
We reached the Soufriere Town Hall at dusk for the organizational meeting of the Soufriere Chapter of the St. Lucia Small Business Association (SBA), the subdivision of the Chamber of Commerce that dealt with micro-businesses. Cass helped organize the meeting and served as chairman; Mr. Ed Leonard, president of SBA, served as its representative; Mrs. Pat Charles represented the National Research and Development Foundation; and a person whose name I missed represented the Manufacturers' Association.
Twenty-three local people squeezed into the small, dark, mercifully cool room with a high ceiling and a few tables and folding chairs. They represented rumshops, grocery stores, self-employed Rasta fishermen, a hardware store that had been in Cass's family for more than a century and was now run by an aunt, and several bakeries.
Their concerns were many. How could a person who ran several part time businesses (fishing, boat building, copra, etc.) rationalize the allocation of his resources? How could people in Soufriere get the government to provide business training in Soufriere where they lived and worked rather than in Castries which was too far away for them to commute and too expensive for them not to? How could local people get the government to abolish unfair trade practices that made it prohibitively expensive for them to run businesses profitably in Soufriere? How could the blacks of Soufriere function as a bulk buying cooperative that could compete effectively against East Indian and Syrian merchants throughout the island who already functioned that way? How much was membership in SBA likely to be worth, and how could somebody who earned almost nothing afford to join it?
SBA representatives answered questions and led discussions, ultimately asserting that membership would be good for everybody. The organization had a secretary who could answer ordinary questions and put people in contact with specialists to answer more difficult questions. SBA had an accountant to help members with their record keeping; it could help people prepare business plans and obtain loans; it could function as a catalyst for developing a co-op; it could serve as a middleman in securing training from foreign and international sources, thereby by-passing ministries that didn't work for the people; and so on.
It was a superb meeting: exceptional leadership by Cass and Ed, excellent participation, good questions and discussions. A committee was formed to establish the new chapter.
Almost three hours after it began, the meeting broke up and about fifteen of the participants re-convened for another hour in the back room of a rum shop owned by Cass's cousin. The blue light made everybody look ill, but the beer and conversation flowed freely, ranging from esoteric aspects of Marxist and capitalist economic theory to nitty-gritty problems like hauling flour over wretched roads - so wretched that Ed and Pat followed us back to Vieux Fort, then drove up the east coast road to get back to Castries, rather than endanger their lives by using the west coast road directly from Soufriere to Castries.
Plant Visits. The morning I lost my shirt to a Korean businessman began when Cass and I stopped at the Kocia Clothing plant in the free trade zone that St. Lucia had recently established just north of the airport. The plant's name consisted of the first two letters in "Korea" and the last three in "St. Lucia", reflecting St. Lucia's unlikely relationship with Korea which resulted from United Nations Development Program (UNDP) initiatives aimed at increasing trade and technology transfers between Third World nations. Kocia imported its materials duty free from Korea, St. Lucian women turned them into clothing, and the plant immediately exported the finished products.
The plant had a staff of about 250 people: a handful of managers from Korea, a few local male foremen, a large number of local female workers who had learned their skills at clothing plants elsewhere in the island, and a small crew of laborers who ran a vegetable garden beside the plant to compensate the management for the absence of Korean vegetables in the Vieux Fort market. Kocia paid the women, working in a vast heaving sea of brightly colored fabrics, a flat hourly rate with no incentive pay or piecework rates. According to the manager, attempts to increase productivity with incentive pay resulted in a total loss of quality with no increase in quantity. Much to Cass's obvious disappointment, Kocia had no interest whatsoever in computers.
If Kocia sold anything in St. Lucia, both the plant and the customer had to pay import duties, but the plant could give clothes to churches and other worthy groups as charity without incurring problems. Cass wanted new shirts for his cricket team and the manager felt charitable. But Cass was particular: he wanted his shirts to look just like the Levi pullover I was wearing. At first the manager agreed, then began to doubt that his pattern-maker could duplicate some of the complexities of the design without working from a model. I was invited to remove my shirt. As the pattern-maker shook his head sadly, I thought I was about to get my shirt back; instead, I lost it for the good of the cause. The replacement was a comfortable red-and-white striped pullover that looked like a pajama top. The manager promised to return my shirt before I left St. Lucia, but Caribbean Time being what it is, it failed to show up.
Both the Kocia plant and Harley King's electronics plant next door were corrugated metal "factory shells", a generic term for gaping empty spaces protected from the weather and usable for just about any activity that would fit inside. Kocia's shell contained several long assembly lines made of collapsible bingo tables placed end to end down the length of the building; Harley's had the same kind of tables running crosswise. While Kocia's workers ran sewing machines for folks in Korea, Harley's mutely assembled electronic components for firms on Boston's Route 128. Harley liked computers a lot, but had no use for one in his plant and suggested that Cass's enthusiasm for them was at best premature in the Vieux Fort area.
As we prepared to leave, Harley told a convoluted story about a fellow he used to know in Texas who looked and dressed like an old hippie but actually was extremely wealthy. One of the real joys of his friend's life was buying new Cadillacs for cash just so he could startle the salesmen. I smiled at appropriate places but saw no point to the story.
Potholes in the new road through the industrial park led us like breadcrumbs to the Dutch owned and operated Heineken Brewery. A couple of under-utilized IBM-XT's sat in the business office, one dedicated solely to accounting, the other solely to the payroll, not because that's what management wanted, but because nobody could make them do anything else. The secretaries still used a fleet of typewriters because they hadn't been taught how to run the word processor that came with the PC's. On the other hand, they were comfortable with the typewriters and literally didn't know what they were missing by not using the new contraptions, so why bother? Technologically ready for change, but not motivationally. The visit was brief.
Omar Davis's office at the Winera Packaging Plant, buried deep in the bowels of the administration area, was remarkably quiet considering the noise enveloping the plant itself. Winera made cardboard packing crates for use throughout the Windward Islands, and was a large operation, at least by St. Lucian standards. At one end, the warehouse-like structure ingested the huge rolls of prefabricated cardboard that come in on the Geest ships; at the other, it yielded assembled, flattened, labeled cardboard boxes and excreted great piles of debris.
Cass dropped me at Omar's office while he ran an errand. Omar had a computer from England that had never worked well, with software from Holland and documentation - what little there was - written in a language that only vaguely approximated English. The people who sold and installed it had long since disappeared. Omar shared some of Cass's enthusiasm for computer training in southern St. Lucia, but it became clear very quickly that he had no interest in discussing computing with me. He was finishing a project that needed to be done quickly.
Omar passed me to Marius Cotter, the quality control inspector who showed me bubbling vats of glue, horizontal and longitudinal cutters that turned 1000-meter sheets of cardboard into precise shapes that folded together to make everything from banana crates to diaper boxes, stencils used to label the finished products, and fork-lift trucks that hauled everything in the plant. I'd never been especially fond of cardboard boxes, but was glad to know more about them and their economic role in St. Lucia, especially in the banana industry. When the tour ended, Omar and I went to the Southern Comfort to meet Cass, who had gone to fetch the wine.
Wind Surfing Resort. They made me an offer I couldn't accept, but they did it in a delightful way. Cass's cook outdid herself. Chicken, fish, rice, breadfruit, sweet potato, plantain, peas, salad, ice-cream, cake and wine. A little heavy on the starches, but good St. Lucian fare. She used to work at Club Med, but for unspecified reasons left and refused to return. Cass hired her with the understanding that she would make the Southern Comfort's reputation as a fine place to have good traditional St. Lucian fare in pleasant traditional surroundings. He wasn't trying to compete with classy tourist restaurants that catered to the Club Med crowd, or even with the Kimatrai whose large formal dining room could handle Rotary Club meetings and wedding receptions. He just intended to have the best little St. Lucian restaurant in Vieux Fort.
Ever since I arrived, Cass had been complaining about power lines recently strung into the disreputable shantytown on the eastern edge of Vieux Fort, at the end of the village common opposite the Southern Comfort. I thought putting electrical power into that neighborhood would help it a lot, but he thought putting it in there would make it impossible for anybody to destroy the shantytown that sat on prime resort land. He was all for helping those poor people, but not there, for God's sake! I naively continued to think that he was talking in philosophical generalities until we sat down for lunch and he pointed to the place where he and Omar wanted to build a fifty-room hotel, squarely at the end of the electrified shantytown. And that was when I finally learned at least part of the reason for all of the attention Cass had paid me.
Quite specifically, they wanted $US30,000 with no strings attached and an understanding that it would take them a few years - probably five or so - to pay it back. If I wanted to get into this operation for immediate profits, I shouldn't pursue it. They needed somebody with some staying power. And suddenly I realized that Harley's story about the rich old hippie was about me - except that I'm not rich.
So we talked about windsurfing for a while. It had begun to draw lots of tourists to the Caribbean, and winds on the southeastern coast of St. Lucia no doubt were superb for that purpose. International competitions in Barbados were generating plenty of money, and there was no reason why the same couldn't happen in Vieux Fort.
Having long felt that the best defense was a good offense, I changed the subject ever so slightly and began to ride my own hobbyhorse: nontraditional academic tourism. I assured them that developing a facility that offered organized educational experiences including music, art, pottery making, boat building, tours of banana plantations, the packaging plant, and a host of other attractions available in southern St. Lucia could be lucrative and also would require the participation of people who could go into it for the long haul because we would need to develop not only the facility but also the market. If they needed immediate profits, they probably should avoid this one. Checkmate. Or gridlock.
We finished our superb lunch in relative silence, and I heard no more about kicking in thirty grand to support the Shantytown Windsurf Resort. I wish I had had thirty grand; someday I'll learn that they found a backer and made a fortune.
Rambling. After nearly a week of fried chicken and little else, I seriously needed a laxative. Matthew Hakimi, a student at Spartan U. and resident at the Southern Comfort, recommended prunes. I made three stops before I found a grocery store that had them, but when I found them, I hit the mother lode. The store bought prunes in restaurant-size cans, opened them in the back room, and sold them by the quarter-pound in little plastic bags. I bought a bagful and departed munching them desperately. A group of teenage boys liming out a block down the street shouted: "Don' eat too many dem tings! Dey fix you good! Ha, ha, ha!". I smiled wanly, told them I needed to eat too many, and kept right on walking and eating. They fixed me good.
A road in the northwestern corner of Vieux Fort passed an ancient cemetery surrounded by a crumbling whitewashed wall, its gate stuck open for decades, its graves decorated with faded conch shells and crepe paper flowers. Nearby a group of small children banged drums made of empty cans - not music to me, but I suspect I was listening incorrectly. Opposite the cemetery, an old man was building bamboo fishpots in the shade of a tree, and several others were building more on the beach.
Fishpots used in the Caribbean in the 1980's often were ugly contraptions made of small-mesh chicken wire on wooden pole frames. Such pots were ecological disasters that trapped small fish as well as large ones and lasted forever. Even when displaced by storms and lost, they just kept attracting fish that swam into them and couldn't escape, giant vacuum cleaners sucking the life out of reefs.
Old fashioned bamboo pots like those being built in Vieux Fort were beneath the dignity of people who could afford newer ones, but they were ecologically sound for they disintegrated during hurricane season, and stopped killing fish.
Furthermore, they were beautiful. Huge bamboo poles were collected up in the mountains and brought down to the ocean where they were soaked in water. Narrow strips were cut from them and woven into mats having patterns like cane-bottom chairs. The mats were attached to a wooden frame making an airy structure perhaps six feet wide, four feet deep and two feet high with an entrance for the fish. Finished pots were taken to sea, attached to a reef, marked with a buoy and emptied every couple of days until they fell apart or vanished.
Vieux Fort was a pleasant town since the streets had been cleaned, and Cass was part of that operation, too. Apparently Nancy and I weren't alone in being appalled at how filthy the place was in 1987. In addition to the blue garbage cans that sat on street corners throughout Castries, a good many of them had made it to Vieux Fort and Soufriere. Given the availability of the cans, Cass and some of the other town fathers sponsored an all-day "Clean Up Vieux Fort Campaign" that really worked. Most of the age-old piles of debris had vanished, and new piles haven't replaced them.
But once people developed the habit of depositing trash in cans, somebody had to figure out what to do with the stuff in the cans. Open dumps overrun by foraging livestock obviously weren't the answer. UWI and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sent teams to make recommendations. So far nothing had been done about the larger issue, and the open-faced dumps were running over. But the streets were clean.
Near the corner where fishermen sold their catch, just up the street from the boat landing, sat Macohen's Recording Studio run by Mac Iva, a young man who worked during the day at the auto parts store beside the Cable and Wireless Office. Mac Iva said his father, Eric Adley, and his friends who called themselves the Morne Galyne Group, had played traditional St. Lucian violin music for years, not only in St. Lucia but also on other nearby islands and even in England, and once made a cassette recording on their own recorder. Mac Iva didn't have a copy at the shop, but offered to make one for me and deliver it to the Southern Comfort on Friday. The recording quality was poor, but the content was fine. Subsequently I heard enough of the genre on St. Lucian radio and television to know that it was genuine traditional St. Lucian violin music, somewhere between Canadian Maritime fiddle music and calypso.
SALCC Again. The positions that Mr. Thomas and Miss Pierre were offering in sociology and history were part of a new first year program being established in Castries by the University of the West Indies (UWI), and were somehow related to courses in sociology and history in the A-level program that had long been the college's reason for existing. They were trying to piece together a new program while enhancing an old one.
We discussed a new computer training program in the offing, but they were not sure how far off. Taiwan had recently adopted Castries as a "sister city" and was sending gifts, another result of the UNDP initiative that brought the clothing factory from Korea. Taiwan was the source of the blue garbage cans that decorated so many street corners, and their next gift was expected to be computers for the college.
We talked about Nancy's background in the social sciences, music and history as well as her current job as a university administrator. They were interested in having her teach history within the new UWI program, but Mr. Thomas was affiliated with a local music school which led him to suggest that she might want to teach music outside of SALCC if I were hired by the college and she were not.
I received application forms with plenty of instructions. The request for photos could have raised questions of racism but they already knew we were white. Their apparently stronger interest in me than in Nancy suggested either sexism or statusism, for Nancy was just as qualified to teach in their program as I was.
Perhaps the largest problem raised during the meeting was that we would have to be interviewed by the Board of Directors before we could be hired, and that would have to happen in St. Lucia in July. We would have to return for the interviews and we couldn't receive a decision until sometime in August for positions that would begin on 1 September. But at least SALCC offered real employment possibilities in the Caribbean.
People. After wandering into the SALCC library and around the campus for a while, and discovering that the headquarters of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) was adjacent to the Administration Building, I hiked down to the main highway and caught a ride on down the Morne to Castries. Actually I flagged down a van that I thought was a bus, only to discover that it was an ex-government vehicle being driven by Patsy Evans. While rocketing down the mountain, screeching through hairpin turns, dodging drivers passing in blind curves, she spewed her autobiography all over me.
Ms. Evans was a very light-skinned Afro-American, a single parent whose child was fathered by a St. Lucian historian on the faculty at an American university. She was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducting research for her doctoral dissertation on architectural styles in St. Lucia, not because she was interested in the topic but because her dissertation supervisor came up with money earmarked for it. She lived at Morne Fortune Apartments which she couldn't afford, had a Radio Shack portable computer that she liked a lot, and had her son in a Montessori preschool somewhere between Castries Market and Vigie Airport. She offered to take me all the way to the Modern Inn; I accepted and learned more about her in less than ten minutes than I have learned about most people in a lifetime. Whew! Talk your ear off!
Having recovered from my conversation with Ms. Evans, I caught a bus back into Castries for an appointment with Boots Samuel at the Folk Research Centre. The FRC was in an elderly faceless two-story building occupying most of a city block and serving many functions of the Catholic Church in Castries. Part of it was a school, one section contained offices of various kinds, another area seemed to be a warehouse. The floors were creaky, each office had a paddle fan suspended from the ceiling far above, and school children without number, sparkling clean and cheerful, dashed through the corridors.
Mr. Samuel was a bright young man, determined to make St. Lucians proud of their culture. As secretive about his own life as Patsy Evans was public about hers, he told me nothing at all about himself during the hour I spent with him, but he told me a lot about FRC. The priest who founded FRC in the 1970's remained active in the program, had published several booklets about St. Lucian culture, and had done a great deal to foster cultural research by others on the island. FRC was engaged in a major effort to teach St. Lucians to speak and read the St. Lucian Creole. That project entailed preparing materials written in Creole, which presupposed a standardized written form of the language, then persuading the Ministry of Education to allow them to teach the language to school children. You might think that getting government approval to teach people to read and write their own first language would be easy, but of course it wasn't.
Mr. Samual said that Derek Walcott, the St. Lucian poet and playwright on the faculty of Boston University, worked with FRC whenever he was at home, recently staging a production of his own play entitled Ti-Jean and His Brothers. Furthermore, FRC had made many audio cassettes of folk music and oral literature in St. Lucia, amassed a sizable collection of photographs, and recently began to make a few videotapes. FRC used its collections in its own local radio programs, and made them available to local and visiting scholars. It recently concluded a five-year relationship with a university in Vienna, Austria, whose faculty had been conducting cultural research in St. Lucia.
During our conversation, Mr. Samuel never said anything that was aggressively anti-white, but he was clearly committed to a position of total cultural independence and self-sufficiency. After telling him of my background and saying that Nancy and I hoped to move to St. Lucia to live and work, perhaps as teachers, I asked whether there might be ways in which we could work with FRC. Without a moment's hesitation, he rejected my offer unequivocally. Not unpleasant, just not interested. They would do it their way, and they didn't need outsider. I respected his position, but it meant that St. Lucia might be less satisfying to us than it could have been had FRC been more open.
Tourism. The road to the Edgewater Beach Hotel cut through the remains of a mangrove swamp that was partially filled when the city began to expand northward. The land above the water line was pocked with crab holes, and hundreds of huge orange and blue land crabs were visible as I strolled along just after sunrise. Cars approached and the crabs ignored them; pedestrians approached and the crabs instantly disappeared until the danger passed.
The Edgewater was closed so I couldn't have breakfast there, and Couples, an all inclusive resort nearby, wouldn't serve me anything because its pay-before-you-arrive policy meant I had to be a guest to eat there. So I met Mike Bevan on an empty stomach to discuss some of the features the Hotel Association would require in a computerized reservation system. Mike was a hard man to keep on target - one of those people who free associates in such a way that every comment has a footnote, and every footnote in turn has its own footnote. Just when you think you're getting somewhere, your topic begins to recede like a quasar in heat, and you're left with nothing to speak of except a trail of cosmic debris. But Mike was bright and interesting and fun to talk with.
The association membership included eighteen hotels, seventeen guest-houses, and sixteen villas and apartments. Some of the large hotels like La Toc, Club Med, Couples, and the St. Lucian with 100 to 250 rooms each already had computers, while many of the really small guest houses and apartments with only three or four rooms each would never have any use for computers. The places that Mike had in mind were the twenty or so mid-sized facilities with an average of about fifteen rooms each.
Several hotels had representatives who handled their reservations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, but things still got messed up, as when people arrived with reservations from foreign offices that nobody knew about locally. Now that Cable and Wireless enabled the association to handle international communications better than ever before, they wanted to have their own computer at Pointe Seraphine that would process reservations automatically for all of the mid-range hotels.
In addition to a reservations system, they needed a system that would pay their bills and handle their payrolls. And it had to have a built-in alarm to alert management of theft by employees who went home every day with a roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, or any of the other things that were cheaper to steal from hotels than to buy from stores. And it had to be simple enough for anybody to use reliably for staff turnover rates were high. Finally, about sixty restaurants belonged to the association, again ranging from huge to microscopic, and some of their owners had expressed interest in using the computer to do their payrolls and inventories, too. If the association decided to go through with the project, there would be plenty of work to keep the machines busy.
Like most people new to computing, Mike wanted to begin with the most complete and sophisticated system ever conceived. I told him I'd see what I could find.
Homeward. In five days, I'd found a perfect opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the Shantytown Windsurf Resort for only thirty grand, a remote chance of making a fortune teaching computing in Vieux Fort, a sure way to make a little money as a computer consultant to the local Tourism Association, and two open teaching positions in a brand new university program. Not much, but maybe enough.
My return flight from St. Lucia to Miami provided the most spectacular views that I'd ever seen of the Caribbean as a whole. It began with a clear sky and a superb route directly north from St. Lucia over Martinique, Dominica, Guadaloupe and smaller islands to Antigua. After a brief passenger pick-up in Antigua, the scenery resumed as we flew near the volcanic cones of Nevis and St. Kitts, to Vieques and straight over San Juan with all of Puerto Rico clearly visible to the southwest, then over the shallow waters and spectacular underwater coral and sand formations of the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas, with the Dominican Republic sitting on the southern horizon, ultimately approaching Miami over the Florida Keys and the Everglades. The travel industry was right - the Caribbean was the place to be, regardless of which S you preferred.
3. On the Morne
Considering all sides of a question before acting is an exhausting way of life, but it's ours. I went to St. Lucia hoping to find a job, but with no idea of what to expect. It was a thoroughly improvisational experience that worked, not just in terms of finding a likely looking pair of positions for us at the college, but perhaps even more importantly in terms of simply navigating through the cultural waters without running aground. But did we really want to live in St. Lucia? We still weren't sure about dropping out of the First World and into the Third more or less permanently. I sensed some problems of "-isms" that I didn't like, including frequent assumptions by Cass that I shared his sexism as do most Caribbean men. And SALCC wasn't one of the world's premier educational institutions, though getting in at the beginning of a new UWI program sounded promising.
Yet the question was more complicated, for a decision to live or not to live in St. Lucia had to be based in part on the alternatives. St. Lucia wasn't the only one, but how much time and money could we invest in searching for a better one? Could St. Lucia serve as a steppingstone rather than an ultimate destination? Finally deciding that two in the hand were better than any number in the bush, we applied for the positions in St. Lucia.
As the dithering raged, we received our telephone bill and discovered that somebody had stolen our calling card number - not the card itself, just its number - when I called Nancy from St. Lucia. In attempting to figure out how the theft occurred, I decided I must have spoken too loudly at the outdoor pay telephone when I read the number to the operator, and somebody standing nearby had written it down. It's annoying to be robbed under any circumstances, but perhaps I had set myself up for it. St. Lucia, briefly suspect, was judged innocent; I took the rap, and swore never to make that mistake again.
After debating what to do with house, cars, cats, books, computers, and so on forever, we finally concluded that we simply couldn't make a decision until we spent more time in St. Lucia. With Nancy's natural conservatism almost exactly balancing my natural impulsiveness, we were sitting dead in the water on 12 July when we received invitations to interviews at the college on Monday, 25 July 1988.
Back in St. Lucia. The Southern Comfort was securely locked when we arrived shortly before midnight on the 23rd. When we finally saw Cass on the 27th, on our way out of the island, we learned that he hadn't received the letter I sent him on the 13th. Furthermore, I was unable to contact Mike during our stay, and received a note from him dated 5 August saying I should have saved my airmail stamp for he had just received my letter of the 13th. Fax machines have taken the Caribbean by storm, and whatever international postal services ever existed there are fading fast.
Being locked out of the Southern Comfort shortly before midnight left us at the mercy of the taxi driver and the Kimatrai Hotel, for nothing else was available south of Castries. Both were merciful. The bartender-roomclerk at the Kimitrai remembered me. The inn was full, but he knew of an unoccupied room that was out of service for renovation, and offered to let us use it if we wanted it. I appreciated his generosity, but it was perfectly obvious why the room was unused: hot, airless, with a chronically filthy shower and a toilet bowl stained almost beyond recognition. Emphatically not a good way to begin the week, but slightly better than sleeping on the streets or taking a taxi to the north end of the island at that time of the night.
Nancy disagreed. She was harboring stronger concerns about returning to St. Lucia than I, and the filthy bathroom set off flashbacks to the general squalor that we experienced on much of the island in 1987. Had I not insisted on staying, we could have caught the Eastern flight back to Miami the next morning and saved ourselves a great deal of trouble. But had we done that, I wouldn't have written this book. Almost everything has two sides, I suppose.
First thing Sunday morning, I telephoned the Modern Inn in Castries and made a reservation for us for the rest of the week, then located a car to rent at the Avis office at Vigie. We took a bus to Castries and paid the driver extra to take us to the airport after he let off all the other passengers. The little red Hyundai with its low center of gravity and good suspension was a joy to drive.
We suspected that we would be given housing in the northwestern section of the island in the vicinity of Gros Islet if we taught at the college, so we went to see what the neighborhood was like. The area was classic West Indian wetland before the dredges arrived and built the harbor and yacht facilities that came to dominate the scene. The material that was excavated to form the harbor turned the surrounding swamp into land firm enough to support suburban homes, condominiums, hotels and restaurants that made Rodney Bay the center of the tourist economy in St. Lucia. Hardly sustainable development: a classy expatriate compound if you liked it, a white ghetto if you didn't.
Shortly before sunset, we took a swim at the Edgewater Beach Hotel just a few hundred yards from our room. Although it was closed when I visited it for breakfast in June, it was open this time. We liked it so well that we stayed for dinner and got acquainted with Jane, an expatriate American who owned the place, and Claudette, an expatriate Antiguan who worked there. Jane was fond of Caribbean sea turtles all of which belong to endangered species, and was well acquainted with a sea turtle preservation program that Bellairs Research Institute ran from Barbados. Claudette, who married a St. Lucian and moved to Castries eight years earlier, taught math at the nearby secondary school by day and strummed her guitar and sang softly at the Edgewater by night. It was good to relax with pleasant people.
They Interviewed Me. On Monday morning, we arrived hot and sticky at the Administration Building ten minutes early for our ten o'clock appointment. The receptionist at the front desk deflected us into the waiting room where we sat under the ceiling fan, unnoticed and undisturbed, for exactly one hour and thirty-eight minutes. Caribbean Time is not a time zone in the ordinary sense, but an all encompassing way of life.
When the call came for us, we hiked to the opposite end of the porch that fully encircled the grand old military building, ascended a massive flight of exterior stairs to the second floor, surrounded by cloud swathed mountains and silver-gray sea, and entered the conference room where the interviewers sat. Mr. Thomas, the Principal, said rather sharply that this was to be my interview and that Nancy should wait downstairs until she was called. There had been no discussion of the format of today's interview(s), but during our previous telephone encounters with SALCC administrators, we had talked with them together. The change was understandable, but the way it was announced surprised us.
Mr. Thomas quickly seated me at one side of a cluster of long tables draped in white cloths and arranged to form a large square with an open "courtyard" in the middle. He perfunctorily introduced himself and Miss Pierre, the Registrar, both of whom I had met in June. Next came Miss Pearlette Louisy, Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and General Studies, a pleasant, round-faced, jet-black woman in her thirties or forties, and Mr. George Theophilis, tall, gaunt, with a crumpled brown face, in his sixties at least, the representative of the Board of Directors who would make the ultimate decision to hire or not to hire. Mr. Theophilis sat beside Mr. Thomas to my left; Miss Pierre sat beside Miss Louisy directly ahead of me; the right side of the square, beside the door, was unoccupied. Mr. Theophilis began the questioning, Miss Louisy continued it, Mr. Thomas concluded it. Miss Pierre sat silently and took notes.
Mr. Theophilis had had a great deal of experience in interviewing recent college graduates for their first jobs as teachers in the island's elementary and secondary schools but less in interviewing gray-beards who had been teaching forever. I had applied for a position in sociology, so he wanted to know in great detail precisely what materials I had studied in my introductory sociology course. I took the course in 1965 and hadn't given it a thought for twenty-three years; that was a hard one. Had he asked me about materials I had taught rather than studied in Introductory Sociology, I would have had no trouble, so I veered in that direction. The strategy worked.
His next question raised the possibility that my doctorate in anthropology had not equipped me to teach a first year course in sociology even though I had taught such courses ad nauseam. So I launched into a lengthy discussion of the similarities, differences and considerable overlaps between the two disciplines.
Both sprang from the same mid-19th century intellectual tradition, but in the late 1800's and early 1900's they diverged somewhat. Cultural anthropologists went off in search of exotic, relatively isolated societies where they could study human social behavior face-to-face at its simplest, while sociologists became increasingly fascinated with the complexities of the great industrial societies of Europe and North America that seemed to respond better to statistical treatment.
But in recent decades, the two began to converge again. What with the demise of small scale traditional societies on every continent, anthropologists had to learn to work in urban settings or find themselves unemployable; likewise, as industrial and post-industrial societies emerged around the world, sociologists moved into geographic and cultural territories that they once avoided. In terms of the topics they examined and the theories they employed, the two disciplines were virtually indistinguishable. I said all of that two or three times, rather elegantly I thought, but to no avail.
Then Peter Worsley's Introducing Sociology textbook flashed before me. Everybody in the room knew the book well, for it had been used for several years in their own A-level sociology course just as it was elsewhere in the Caribbean. But nobody knew that the "real" Peter Worsley was an anthropologist. I don't know whether they believed me, but at least it put an end to that line of questioning. If Worsley could teach sociology as an anthropologist, I could too. I'm certain that somebody looked up Worsley's credentials after I left.
Mr. Theophilis passed me to Miss Louisy. Miss Louisy had been dean of the A-level college for years, but the UWI first year program was a major addition to her workload. As the person directly responsible for the day to day operation of the program, she asked me whether I was flexible. I didn't know what she meant.
I began by discussing the broad range of university level courses that I'd taught in anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, biology, geology and computing. To me, that's what flexibility as a university teacher was all about - being able to work among and between several disciplines rather than confining oneself within a narrow specialty. She followed up with some questions about my background in history, but it was clear that she had a different kind of flexibility in mind.
So I discussed the fact that I'd spent years teaching in a remote rural corner of the State of New Hampshire where self-sufficiency was more than a Yankee philosophy; it was a survival skill. I did my own typing and photocopying, provided my own books without relying on libraries, improvised when snowstorms wiped out fieldtrips I'd planned for a year, and so on. Once again I missed her point. Miss Louisy was good at indicating that I was on the wrong track, but unable or unwilling to put me squarely on the right one. She passed me on to Mr. Thomas.
Mr. Thomas focused primarily on my background in computing. I reviewed my experiences as a computer user in the social sciences, as director of an academic computer center, as a programmer and systems analyst, and as a writer of computer manuals. All of that had no immediate payoff since the long promised computers from Taiwan still hadn't arrived, but it suggested the possibility of my branching into the computer program once the hardware landed.
Abruptly Mr. Thomas ended the session without offering me an opportunity to ask a single question. That was unacceptable and I said so, showing them my little notebook with twelve pages of questions that we needed to answer before we could decide whether to accept a job offer. Mr. Thomas said I should see Miss Pierre later in the afternoon to make an appointment to discuss my questions with appropriate people the next day.
They Interviewed Nancy. I returned to the waiting room and told Nancy she was on. Walking back up to the interview room with her, there was no time to discuss anything that had happened while I was in there, or to deal with her grumpiness about having been sent out of the interview room like a naughty child and kept on hold for almost two and a half hours. She was not happy when she got upstairs, and things got a lot worse almost immediately.
When she introduced herself as "Nancy Hubley", Mr. Theophilis immediately told her that in St. Lucia she was "Mrs. Denham", not "Ms. Hubley". Period. She had never even used "Mrs. Denham" as an alias.
We knew a lot about cultural differences and had heard about acting like Romans when in Rome. But that statement went much too far in a region like the Caribbean where names were negotiable instruments, and a musical social science teacher in Trinidad was known as "The Mighty Chalkdust". Mr. Theophilis's sexism wasn't the last straw, but the blow never cooled. When Nancy finally left St. Lucia the last time, she did so hurling deletable expletives at Mr. Theophilis and his ilk throughout the Caribbean.
Mr. Thomas began Nancy's interview without introducing himself or anyone else in the room. Not wanting to publicly reprimand the inquisitor for his oversight, Nancy spent about half an hour trying to figure out who the people were on the basis of the kinds of questions they were asking. She confronted Mr. Thomas with his omission the next day in the presence of Miss Pierre and Miss Louisy both of whom apologized for what they agreed was a serious oversight. Mr. Thomas laughed uproariously but didn't apologize.
Once again Mr. Theophilis began the questioning, this time with a real zinger: "Why do you think you can teach black students?" How do you respond? "What makes black students so special? Because I've taught black students for decades? Because I've worked in the Caribbean for years? Because I'm not racist." She might have added "like you" to the last one, but bit her tongue.
The interview lasted an hour, much attention being paid to her background as a professional musician, her years as a university administrator, her undergraduate degree in history (Mr. Theophilis asked her to recite her introductory history course; she has a photographic memory, so she did it), and her dissertation research concerning Barbadian migrants to Canada. Everyone nodded appreciatively when she revealed her acquaintance with Marxist social theory. As in my case, not a stone was left unturned.
We arrived thinking I was interviewing for a position in sociology and Nancy for one in history; we left in some confusion. Between us, we were grilled for about two hours on sociology, anthropology, history, computing, music, and academic administration. What were we being interviewed for? It's hard to take careful aim at a target that dances about so capriciously.
I left my interview dissatisfied with the way it began and ended, but more or less satisfied with the way I handled it - except for Dean Louisy's questions about flexibility. Nancy left her interview in turmoil. It began badly but she felt she handled it well. But she was certain she wouldn't be offered the position, and even more certain she would refuse it even if it were offered. She was pretty angry.
Regrouping. Clouds hung low over the mountains and descended to the coast with violent displays of thunder and lightening. Although we were soaked by the time we reached the Edgewater Beach for dinner, experiencing the oppressive heat and the dramatic storm from the safety of the verandah made up for the drenching. When bad novelists use the weather to create moods ("It was a dark and stormy night..."), I feel that I'm being manipulated; when Mother Nature does it spontaneously on a day like that one, I pay attention. Miss Pierre knew the Caribbean vastly better than I, and she rejected coincidence as an explanation for anything. Maybe I should too.
Again we considered alternatives. The interviews - especially Nancy's - were no fun, but then interviews aren't supposed to be fun. Should we regard Mr. Theophilis's sexism and racism as parts of a carefully developed interview technique, premeditated tests that we would either pass or fail depending upon how we handled them, but in any event tests that would not be repeated - as something akin to initiation rituals? Or were they warning shots across the bow, harbingers that we could ignore at our peril - if you can't cope with sexism and racism, go home? Or were they simply idiosyncratic obnoxiousness on the part of an elderly board member who hadn't heard that his attitudes had become offensive to lots of folks outside his own narrow world?
Claudette joined us again. When she moved to St. Lucia with her husband eight years earlier, she too was told by the Ministry of Education and others that she would have to use her husband's name, which she did with a hyphen: in St. Lucia, Claudette X was known as Claudette Y-X. She cried every day for her first three years in St. Lucia because of the sexism, but frankly acknowledged that racism hadn't been a problem for her. As a light-skinned and very attractive mulatto, she naturally sat at the top of the color scheme in a society that simultaneously and confusingly asserted that blacks were superior to whites, but that light-skinned blacks were superior to dark-skinned blacks.
Yet she had to cope with a problem that we missed: her husband. He was a dreadlocked Rasta in a society that simultaneously and confusingly praised Rastas for their political and religious independence and artistic creativity while criticising them for rejecting conventions that keep the middle class in check. The Ministry of Education had accused her of selling ganja to school children simply because of her Rastafarianism. But back to the problem of sexism: Rastafarianism is avowedly sexist and makes no apologies for it. So was she arguing that sexism was all right within the family, but all wrong in public?
She finally decided to ignore criticisms from outside and live her life her way, bending just enough to avoid breaking. Hence the hyphenated last name for the Ministry of Education, and the absence of Rasta colors on her clothing except for a discrete black-red-yellow-green leather bracelet that she proudly showed us as our conversation ended. She still thought of returning to Antigua, but not so often, and encouraged us to stay because St. Lucia needed more people like us. She spent the rest of the evening strumming her guitar and singing sad songs beautifully, her husband sitting quietly, pensively, at a corner table.
We Interviewed Them. The steamy rain persisted all Monday night and all day Tuesday as well, now heavier, now lighter, but continuously, one of the reasons why late summer in the Caribbean is unpopular with tourists and residents alike. We ascended the Morne with trepidation for our late afternoon appointment with Miss Pierre. Miss Louisy joined us for the duration, Mr. Thomas arrived late and left early.
Obviously sexism and racism were on the tips of our tongues, but we decided to delay talking about them until something occurred naturally in the session to provide an opening. We didn't want to put them in an embarrassing position because of Mr. Theophilis's behavior, but if they displayed the same attitudes, we were ready for them. Nobody uttered a single sexist or racist remark during the session.
We began with our carefully rehearsed first question: Are you seriously considering offering us appointments? In other words, is it worthwhile for us to discuss our twelve-page list of questions? In other words, we feel that the interviews were problematic. The question behind the questions was: "Should we cut our losses and get out of here now?" With great equivocation, Miss Pierre and Miss Louisy replied that the interviewers did nothing more than make recommendations, that the Board had to make the final decision, that other people had to be interviewed, that we couldn't have a decision until the second week of August, etc., etc., etc.
We already knew that, but we still wanted to know whether it was worthwhile for us to ask the rest of our questions. Finally they said "yes" and we said "thank you." We were there for two and a half hours, eventually slinking back down the steep wet hill long after dark.
Were we interviewing for positions in sociology and history? Well, yes and no. Those were the positions advertised, but they were trying to construct a faculty that could do lots of things. So they really were interested in our diverse backgrounds, not just wandering aimlessly through our pasts trying to find whatever might be lurking under a stone. Good. We liked that kind of flexibility.
We talked about the organization of an academic year (three terms), an academic week (about sixteen classroom hours per week, including tutorials), and an academic day (classes from 09:00 to 17:00). We learned a bit about the O-level program (Ordinary-level, like the earlier years in an American high school), the A-level program (Advanced-level, sort of like two years as a college preparatory senior in an American high school) and the new UWI program.
Most importantly we confirmed that course content, reading lists and exams were set externally, by Cambridge University for A-level students and by the University of the West Indies for UWI first-year students. That meant that we would be preparing students to pass exams that originated at locations remote from St. Lucia, and that the materials we would use to prepare them for their examinations would be provided - or at least specified - by Cambridge University and the University of the West Indies. We would not design our own courses, but rather would teach courses that had been designed in Cambridge, Trinidad or Barbados.
Mr. Thomas arrived just as we began to discuss the backgrounds of the students: basic skills, admission requirements, motivation, parental support, drop-out and failure rates all seemed good. What about English and Creole: were the students required to speak, read and write Standard English fluently in order to enter the UWI program (yes)? Would we be at a serious disadvantage since we didn't speak Creole (no)?
What were the students' aspirations? Did they see university education as a way to enhance their positions and serve their own society in St. Lucia, or as a way to escape from St. Lucia since there weren't many good jobs there? Lots of waffling on that one.
Did SALCC have good working relations with the Folk Research Center and other academically inclined organizations in the island (so-so)? Would the college support our applications for research grants from international organizations (probably, but nobody had ever asked that before)?
Having touched on a good many academic matters, we turned to the first page of questions concerning administrative details, whereupon Mr. Thomas excused himself, saying that "the ladies" could handle those matters. So we asked about immigration and work permits (SALCC would handle all of that), medical insurance (our responsibility, but cheap), other fringe benefits (none to speak of), taxes (present but minimal), relocation allowance (good: SALCC would pay everything for us and as many as four dependents, plus household goods, both ways), housing (SALCC didn't have any, but Miss Pierre would make arrangements for us), transportation (difficult without a car). No surprises there.
We saved questions about salaries to the end. Apparently Miss Pierre and Miss Louisy had expected us to begin there, and thought that we had forgotten about money. All of us had a big laugh when we finally got to the last page.
Although SALCC was not exactly a part of St. Lucia's public education system, the Ministry of Education paid at least some of the bills and set the salaries, so we had a close encounter with the St. Lucian bureaucracy. Salaries for people with our basic qualifications began at $EC18,086 per year; each of us would receive three additional increments of $EC420 for our teaching experience, two increments for our Master's Degrees, two more for completing our Ph.D. course work, and one final increment for me for actually having the Ph.D. in hand. The total was then adjusted for recent cost of living increases, and an additional allowance was tacked on for people who taught on the Morne, the reason for the Morne allowance being left unspecified. After doing all of the math, we found that our combined annual incomes would be a rather disappointing $US19,764.
We weren't planning to move to St. Lucia to get rich, but we had it clear in our own minds, and made it clear to them, that our living in the island had to at least pay for itself. We discussed costs of housing, food, transportation, and other basic expenses, and were assured that family incomes of that magnitude were excellent and entirely adequate by St. Lucian standards.
The conversation was good, the rapport easy. The stress and formality of the interview had passed, and everybody laughed a lot throughout the session. We left the college feeling enormously relieved, and optimistic about being offered teaching positions.
To celebrate our good fortune, we had dinner at a poshy restaurant at Rodney Bay. The price was out of sight, the food was nondescript, the service was almost nonexistent, and the water went off in the toilet just before somebody got really sick in there. An utterly appalling experience.
The problem with the toilet led us to take a brief inventory of other things that didn't work reliably in St. Lucia: showers, electrical power, telephones, street repair crews, and garbage collectors for starters. But St. Lucia was avowedly Third World even if it was spectacularly beautiful. If we couldn't cope with Third World conditions, we shouldn't aspire to living in the Third World. Back at the Modern Inn, standing in the shower under a faint trickle of cold water, we were consoled by hearing Prime Minister John Compton announce on radio, before a gathering of expatriate St. Lucians who had returned home for a conference, that he too had been unable to take a shower that morning because the water was off. Time to dither again.
Bananas. We meandered southward through the steam toward Vieux Fort, waiting for our Thursday morning flight to Miami. The windshield fogged over when I closed the window, my arm got rain soaked when I opened it. Nancy brought her underwater camera to photograph fish, but instead used it to photograph bananas, mostly in the rain, as we used our free day to learn about the crop that dominated the St. Lucian economy. There's a lot to know about bananas.
At a roadside shed containing about twenty boxes of fruit, we found an estate field manager who received his training in tropical agriculture at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad (UWI St. Augustine), and clearly enjoyed discussing his work. After explaining that the ubiquitous blue plastic bags protected bananas from insect damage and bruises, he opened some boxes that that reached the shed earlier in the morning and showed us stalks treated with chemicals to prevent crown rot, and bananas carefully arranged to prevent damage in transit.
The shade was dense as we walked through a grove among trees standing like soldiers on parade at five meter intervals, in flat rows stretching toward infinity. Lower leaves had been removed to enhance air circulation among the trees, and piled around the trunks to keep soil moisture up and weeds down.
According to the manager, St. Lucia produced about a dozen varieties of bananas and plantains that differed from each other in size, shape, color, texture, nutritive value, transportability and so on. Since my knowledge of this diversity remains sketchy, my comments are biased in the direction of the large Lacatan variety of Cavendish bananas that are grown for export to England, and probably applies only partially to small yellow "fig" bananas, delicious red bananas, robust plantains and other relatives of these fruits.
Ordinarily a banana tree lives for a year and produces a single bunch of bananas. After the bunch is harvested, the tree is chopped down, but the root system puts out suckers which give rise to one or several new trees for the next year. If a banana grove has been planted recently, each tree is a single, free-standing, entity; as a grove gets older, successive years of harvesting and re-growth may yield a roundish cluster of trees coming from each root system. The size of the harvest may be greater when trees form large clusters, but its quality is higher when only a few suckers per root system are allowed to develop into trees each year. We were in a grove designed for quality rather than quantity.
Although all the trees in the carefully laid out plantation grove were planted at about the same time, planting by smallholders could be distributed throughout the year. Since banana trees grow at slightly different rates, bananas are harvested as they reach the proper stage of maturity, trunks are cut down as soon as next year's suckers come up, and the growing season is endless, an established banana grove produces fruit year round and contains trees at all stages of development.
A banana sucker looks a lot like a stalk of sugarcane, corn, wheat or other grass, and a mature banana tree looks a lot like a coconut palm or date palm with leaves sprouting from the top of the stalk. Indeed all of these monocot plants, lacking branches and having stalks formed by the overlapping bases of leaves, are more closely related to each other than they are to woody dicot plants whose solid trunks and radiating branches differ fundamentally from banana leaves.
As a banana tree matures, an incipient fruit stalk emerges from the leaves, arches downward and begins to develop one huge blossom at its end. The closed blossom is a huge purple-gray egg; open, it's a gaping red mouth with a complex tongue inside. Bananas form on the stalk behind the blossom, and the blossom provides nutrients to the developing fruit much as an egg white provides nutrients to a developing chick.
Bananas grow on the stalk in clusters, called "hands", each of which contains ten to twenty bananas, called "fingers". A stalk with all of its hands in tact is called a "bunch". As a bunch develops, it becomes longer and longer. Harry Belafonte in Day-O sings about "six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch", but those are in Jamaica, not St. Lucia. Ultimately they weigh seventy-five pounds or more in St. Lucia, over one-hundred-fifty pounds in Central America and Ecuador. Such enormous loads arching asymmetrically away from the center lines of the trees are more than the trees can support by themselves: like so many domesticated plants and animals, they depend upon humans for their survival. Most of the trees in the grove were supported by massive bamboo poles to counteract their top-heaviness. It's no surprise that one strong gust of wind can devastate a banana crop.
A truck stopped, a horn honked, the conversation ended, the manager left.
Banana Boxing Plant. A few miles down the road, a banana boxing plant accepted fruit coming from sheds like the one we had just visited. A St. Lucian banana boxing plant looked much like a huge house on stilts: the ground floor an open paved surface with machinery here and there, encircled and punctuated by large posts that held the second story up in the air; the upper story an enclosed wooden structure that contained the office and served as a warehouse and assembly room for boxes manufactured at the Winera Packaging Plant in Vieux Fort.
About forty people were working quietly, taking breaks, waiting for their boxes of fruit to be inspected, or just visiting. The manager was taking a break, a large woman in midlife who offered us a tour as soon as she learned that we were interested. At the top of a flight of rickety stairs, a shirtless man glistening with sweat folded and stapled banana boxes at a blinding pace, but most of the action in the plant focused on the conveyers on the ground floor.
As bananas were harvested and boxed on estates or small-holdings, they were carried out of the groves to sit at roadside sheds until a truckload accumulated. A truck arrived with empty boxes, exchanged them for full ones, and took the fruit to a boxing plant. The boxes were removed from the truck and placed on roller racks along which they could be pushed easily. As they moved along the racks, young men and women in brightly colored T-shirts emblazoned with graffiti from London, Los Angeles and Caracas inspected them for quality, quantity, packaging and crown rot treatment. If all was well, the boxes were closed again and weighed near the end of the conveyer. Those that passed all inspections were purchased from the farmer by the St. Lucia Banana Growers Association which handled their export. At that point, they were loaded onto trucks again and taken to the dock at Castries or Vieux Fort where they ultimately boarded a Geest ship for the voyage to England.
"Banana boxing plant", then, was something of a misnomer due to changes in the banana industry that had resulted in improved quality when the bananas reached their final destinations. Prior to 1971, bananas were shipped on the stem, there were no boxing plants, and bananas often were bruised in transit. Between 1971 and 1986, bananas were harvested in the groves and carried on the stem to the boxing plants where the fruit was removed from the stems and packaged for shipment, resulting in fewer opportunities for them to be bruised; those were the days when boxing plants were boxing plants. Since 1986, bananas had been boxed right beside their trees, and the boxing plants had become quality control and weighing stations.
Banana Harvesting. At a cold drink shop in Grande Riviere, we asked the clerk where we could find somebody to show us how bananas were harvested and packed. She sent us to a boxing plant just down the highway; the first man we met there sent us across the plant to the manager; the manager sent us to the opposite corner to talk with two young agricultural extension officers, friendly enough but puzzled that a couple of tourists would ask to see the inner workings of a banana grove. We told them that we taught at a university in the United States and used our photographs to illustrate our lectures, and were in St. Lucia interviewing for teaching positions at SALCC. The younger of the two said he had completed his O-levels recently, and hoped to attend the A-level college at SALCC someday.
Contact thus established, they led the way in their four-wheel drive government truck, we followed as best we could in our Hyundai, along the highway, down a secondary road with sheer drop-offs on both sides, across a toy bridge and into a short, narrow, steeply eroded valley where we squished to a stop. The road and the narrow river rushing along the valley floor beside it were exactly the same shade of red and almost equally muddy, evidence of the erosion that is destroying agricultural lands and killing coral reefs and reef fish throughout the region.
The grove was on the far side of the river. The only way to get there was to slither down a muddy trail to the water's edge, cross the torrent on unstable steppingstones, and proceed up the other side. That was more than Nancy's shoes could handle, so she stayed near the collection shed. I set out to catch the men who by then were already at the river, each carrying several empty banana boxes.
It wasn't a dull walk, but it certainly didn't live up to its potential. I didn't slip on the trail, fall in the river, lose my camera or get stuck in the mud, all of which were distinct possibilities. I was especially concerned about falling in the river, partly because swimming isn't my sport, partly because the stones in the riverbed could have beat me to a pulp before anybody could have pulled me out, partly because I could have suffocated in the great mass of blue plastic bags swirling down stream, but mostly because the rivers of St. Lucia were infested with freshwater snails that transmit schistosomiasis, a tropical disease that could cause a lot more trouble than a few photographs of bananas were worth.
The rain had ended except for occasional sprinkles, but huge drops continued to fall from the broad banana leaves as we crossed the river and headed up hill, walking on the sloping wall of the valley among standing and fallen trunks, tripping over leaf mulch and bamboo poles supporting heavily loaded trees. Within a few hundred meters, we found the old farmer who owned the grove at work with his wife and four young men, sons, nephews, employees, or some combination. My guides accounted for my presence in Creole, everyone smiled shyly, and the demonstration and explanation began in English.
It was an old grove draped over a hillside, utterly different from the big plantation where we stopped previously, with trees distributed haphazardly and in every stage of development - suckers just coming up, young trees, mature trees that were beginning to produce the stalk structure on which fruit grows, trees in bloom, trees with bananas in various stages of development including a good many whose fruit was ready to be harvested that day, and decomposing stalks of trees that had been cut down.
The owner was selecting bunches to be harvested. The timing was critical. A banana that's harvested too early simply won't ripen regardless of how big it is or how long you wait for it; one that's harvested too late rots before it reaches its destination. Since they last longer and survive rough handling better if they are picked green, those to be exported are harvested as soon as they reach their full size and are capable of ripening on their own after they cross the Atlantic, but before they show any signs of ripening on the tree. Since they taste better if they ripen on the tree, those sold locally for immediate consumption are harvested later, but not so late that pests have a chance to eat them. The owner was selecting huge bunches of firm green export bananas, but he and his crew were munching tiny yellow tree-ripened fig bananas, a variety that ordinarily isn't exported.
The decision to harvest a bunch having been made, a man with a machete cut two or three leaves off the tree, turned them up-side down, and lay them on the ground with their large central ridges facing upwards. He then checked the bunch to make sure it contained no rats, snakes or spiders, found none, and put his machete down.
Next he cut through the stalk just above the lowest hand of bananas using a small curved knife. Holding the detached hand and stalk segment at eye level, the bananas curving upward and away from him, he removed any immature or imperfect bananas and trimmed material from the crown that connected the hand to the stalk, leaving the semi-circular crown exposed. Next he flipped the hand over so the exposed crown pointed downward and lay the hand on the up-turned banana leaf, the crown supported by the rib so that the latex contained in the crown could drain for two or three minutes - not too long, not to short. He returned to the tree to cut the next hand, continuing to cut, trim and drain until he finished the whole bunch.
As soon as the latex had drained properly from the first hand, the man responsible for preventing crown rot placed a small chemically treated pad on the cut and made sure it adhered properly before continuing to the next hand. If too much latex remained in the cut, not enough of the chemicals would be absorbed to prevent rot from developing in the crown and the tops of the bananas; if not enough remained, the pad wouldn't stick to the cut and would fall off, again leaving the bananas unprotected. Putting the pad on the crown wasn't hard work, but it required a lot of training and good judgment to get it right every time.
Next up was the packer who was the wife of the owner. She placed the bananas in a plastic-lined box so they were neither too loose nor too tight, adjusted the weight by removing a finger here and there even though she has no scale to guide her, then closed the plastic lining securely. When she finished, she said it weighed thirty pounds; not "about thirty", just plain "thirty".
Two bearers carried the loaded boxes through the grove, across the river, and up the slippery hillside to the place where I left Nancy and the car. I saw men walking along the highway carrying as many as three boxes atop their heads at one time, but because of the rugged terrain and treacherous footing in the narrow valley, each bearer on this crew carried only one at a time and had to make a lot more trips than he would have preferred. The strength, agility, grace and precision of the bearers suggested the freedom of modern dance.
The rest of the scene suggested Third World poverty. On the average, a St. Lucian farmer earns about ten percent of the price paid for bananas by the ultimate consumer. Out of that, he pays for fertilizer, tools, boxes and labor, which means that individual laborers received less than one percent of the selling price. So of each forty cents you pay for a pound for bananas, each member of the field crew receives less than half a cent. Middlemen suchas St. Lucia Banana Growers Association, WINBAN the regional banana growers association, Geest Line, warehouses and banana ripening facilities, distributors, and supermarkets make most of the money.
Since poverty is a real problem throughout the Caribbean, I always carry a few extra dollars to give to people who help me, but deciding how to do it isn't easy. Should I have given the same amount of money to every member of the group including the owner and his wife? By doing that, I could have insulted the owner who considered himself to be superior to his lowliest worker, and even set off an argument between him and his wife over who controlled the money; by not doing it, I could have offended the workers who did more for me than the owner did. Or should I have given some money to the owner alone and trusted him to share it fairly the others? If he shared, all was well; if he didn't, that probably wasn't any of my business anyway.
And what about the agricultural extension workers? They were relatively high status employees of the Banana Growers Association with good incomes by St. Lucian standards. Some people in their positions would be insulted if a "rich American tourist" tipped them, others might go so far as to see it as an illegal "payoff" to an official who was simply doing his duty, and many others would be delighted to have a little extra change in their pockets. I've encountered all of those responses on various Caribbean islands, and the first two can be quite nasty. I gave several dollars to the owner and asked him to share, but gave nothing to the extension workers. I'll never know whether I made the right choice.
Antigua Postlude. As the afternoon cooled, we drove to the lighthouse atop Moule a Chique for sunset: isolated, hushed except for sounds of the wind and a few sheep, the gray outline of St. Vincent vaguely visible on the horizon, an awesome view of southern St. Lucia and the eastern coastline below us. Dark low clouds swirled over Mount Gimmie as the sun fell brilliantly into the sea beside the Pitons, and a British Airways 747 from London, lights ablaze, glided silently out of the pink-gray sky to coast to a stop at the water's edge. It was an auspicious ending.
At sunrise the next day, we said goodbye to Cass at the Southern Comfort and headed home to do two jobs: await a decision from the Board of Directors, and decide how to respond if they invited us to move to St. Lucia. We had to pass through Antigua, about halfway between St. Lucia and Miami, an island that's reputed to have some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. Having stopped there often just for passenger pickups, we decided to stay long enough to see something besides V. C. Bird International Airport for a change.
Once out of customs and immigration, we asked a taxi driver to take us to the Skyline Guest House, the only inexpensive place on the island whose name we knew. Moments later we arrived and checked into a large room with a good bed and an excellent fan. When I flipped on the light switch a colossal roar engulfed the room. We were located squarely at the west end of the runway's center line, less than half a mile from the tarmac. The wheels of every airplane that landed in Antigua that night missed our heads by inches.
Around the corner from the Skyline Guest House sat a nightclub with a bandstand and dance floor under the stars, and very nearly under our window. Caribbean music has three essential characteristics: a driving beat, a powerful amplifier, and an enormous set of speakers. Just after dark, the band next door began to warm up for a long night's work.
The next morning, we took a taxi to one of the island's 365 white sand beaches where we spent a couple of hours lying in the sun. Eventually I flagged yet another taxi to take us to the airport for our flight home. The driver said he would be right back, and drove off in his creaky old Chevrolet station wagon sans shock absorbers to return a few minutes later in a rage. He had picked up a man at the next hotel and told him he planned to pick us up too since all of us were going to the airport. The other man became abusive and made the driver return him to his hotel so he could take another taxi by himself. Our driver ranted all the way to the airport: "He black just like me", over and over and over. When the offending passenger got out of the taxi ahead of ours at the airport, I was sure our driver was going to run over him.
If you'd like to visit a spot in the beautiful Caribbean that isn't entirely tranquil, you should consider Antigua.
Go to Part 2 -- Island in the Rain.
Return to the Caribbean Collection Index.