Thursday, April 12, 2012

St. Lucia: Some observations

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
For an island just 27 miles long and only 14 miles wide (238 sq. miles), it hosts a number of extremes.  The first and most obvious (easily observable) is the geography.  The terrain is described as volcanic and mountainous with some broad  fertile valleys.  It is more mountainous than many other Caribbean islands (except, perhaps, St. Vincent) with its highest point being Mount Gimie (pronounced “Jimmy”) at 3,120 feet above sea level.  There are 90-inches of rain each year with temperatures averaging 70-90-degrees Fahrenheit, and the island hosts 2 separate rain forests that, together, cover 19,000 acres.
Another extreme is the road system.  We visited in March (March 20-27, 2011), just 5 months after hurricane Tomas (October 30, 2010) wreaked havoc.  There remains a great deal of highway damage to be repaired.  There are just about 500 miles of road on the island, and only half of it is paved.  If the road to Cap Point (the northern-most point on St. Lucia) is any indication, once we passed the only golf course (far north and almost at the end of the road), the dirt road was heavily rutted, rough, extremely rural, and traversed slowly.  (Many of the paved roads — especially those through neighborhoods — are full of deep pot holes.)  There is one single road across the island (from Dennery to just 3-5 miles south of Castries), and much of it is good pavement.
A third extreme is the climate.  For one island you can get 90+-inches of rain per year in the rain-forest areas, but in the north you have near-arid conditions with a wide variety of cacti growing wild.  Some of the modern, luxury homes overlooking the Caribbean Sea are landscaped using cacti as their main plants: beautiful to see.  Just driving down from the Tet Paul lookout (we did not go all the way up nor did we walk the Tet Paul nature trail), we drove from a heavily moist climate with lush crops to a much drier area and fields where horses and some cows grazed in pasture lands where water was available but not as plentiful as higher up.
There is a fourth contrast, and that is the extremes seen in the housing or, really, the difference between the rich (or middle class) and poor.  You have, of course, those venues that cater specifically to the filthy rich — gated communities or resorts where it can easily cost $1,000.00 U.S. per night to stay.  Also, the homes of the wealthy are striking with their views overlooking the towns and out onto the sea or ocean.  Even the place we are staying (Sunwest Villas) has a swimming pool and a similar view.
We traveled (as we drove from Castries to Soufriere) through several small fishing villages and the extremes in housing are immediately noticeable and stark.  Those who inhabit these little fishing villages live in weathered, run-down, ramshackle huts, with a single, old, wood door, windows of solid wood that are propped open for ventilation, but with no screens.  People in these fishing villages scurry around (as worker bees in an active bee hive), with children sometimes in tow, and just a cursory view from the main highway reveals numerous bars, little restaurants where people congregate, mothers twisting their daughter’s hair into corn rows on their small porches, and even naked children.  It is a grim, poor, dirty existence — and each town often has a Catholic cathedral at its center or nearby.  “Roman Catholics form roughly a two-thirds majority (67.5%) of the island's population,” says Wikipedia.
Most of the homes we see from our porch (veranda) are pastel colored (cream, green, yellow — some white) most with red asphalt or tile roofs.  It reminds me a bit of Bermuda, but there the houses are more brightly colored.
Let’s shift our focus now from extremes to the local cuisine.  There are 2 local foods to which Greg introduced us on our tour of the island.  The first is deep-fried plantains (like bananas) that are thinly sliced, covered lightly with flour, deep-fried then lightly salted.  They were $1.00 U.S. per small bag, and like potato chips, it is hard to eat just one!
Where we bought the plantains, Greg identified a number of local fruits that were for sale: breadfruit, soursop, guava, papaya, tamarin, calabash, passion fruit, and a number of others.  I saw no sea grapes, kenips, nor carembola (star fruit) there.
Along the highway there was a small wooden building that sold cassava cakes.  Cassava is a staple of St. Lucian tradition.  The cakes are made with raw grated cassava, sugar, egg, vanilla extract, flour, milk, baking powder, grated coconut, butter, and a few grains of salt.  They are flavored with ginger, tamarind, coconut, or other fruits and are baked at 400 degrees for 40 minutes.  For $3.00 U.S. each, we bought one with cinnamon, and one with apples and raisins.  Not only were they delicious, they were filling.
Perhaps our best introduction to local cuisine was in the evening.  Ali Breen, our designated taxi driver, took us to the Triangle in downtown Rodney Bay.  We had barbecued chicken (curried chicken, and barbecued pork were our choices) a spaghetti-vegetable stir fry, baked potato with cheese, and a tossed salad for about $8.00 U.S.  We had a low picnic table outside (where only two of about a dozen other tables were occupied), and we were entertained throughout our meal by two mating cats.
There is another aspect of local culture that is interesting but not surprising.  This was our 7th visit to the Caribbean, so, for us, it was “business as usual.”  The Caribbean artifacts for sale are all similar.  Whether it is at roadside stands, at the scenic vistas where you stop to take pictures, in the local vendor’s markets and arcades, or at the small souvenir stores at the airport, the jewelry, carvings, scarves, dolls, and toys are similar wherever you go — and wherever you go in the Caribbean as well!
I looked for an embroidered tee-shirt and could not find one anywhere on St. Lucia.  Why?  One vendor told me they are too expensive, and if vendors don’t sell them, they are stuck with the expensive shirts.
We have enjoyed St. Lucia because of its history, geography, climate, local food, culture, and overall ambiance.  It is one of the most outstanding of the Caribbean islands because everyone speaks English (the locals chat with each other in Patois, which is a blend of African-Caribbean language, heavily laden with French), they cater to tourists, it has irrefutable beauty, and it is easy to get around.  It has been a fun, relaxing, pleasant week — despite the heat and humidity.  That said, it is unlikely we would ever need or want to come back.  We have seen in St. Lucia all we need or want to see; we prefer going to places we have never been before, and that is why we came to St. Lucia in the first place.  There are so many elements that harmonize to make St. Lucia a true destination in the Caribbean especially for those who have never been to a Caribbean island.
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At Visit St. Lucia, the essay, “About St. Lucia: A look at our past - From Settlement and Colonization to Independence,” offers some great information about the history and background of the island.

At Caribbean Breeze there are several great photographs from St. Lucia.
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Copyright April, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.


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