Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Short Trip to Paradise

by Conroy

Arriving
The famous Pitons
I gazed at the gibbous moon gleaming low in the afternoon sky. I was on a south-flying plane looking east over the cobalt Caribbean. From 38,000 feet the sea seems as static as a painting; the rippled surface, flecked by bright white wave crests, appears fixed like stone. The sporadic clouds cast a patchwork of dark size-less shadows onto the water. The daytime sky looks different from high altitude, the blue purer, the dome of the sky a darker azure than can ever be seen from the ground. When I travel by plane I always feel like my fellow passengers and I are nowhere, lost for a time between origin and destination. We’re not where we started or where we’re going. This perception is powerful during night flights, especially over water, where only blackness can be viewed from the windows. But it’s true during the day as well; flying high above the world, detached from the slow fade of the terrestrial reality far below. And it’s emphasized when the place left behind and the place traveled to are drastically different – as they were today.

Our 757 took off from Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport, on a sub-freezing January morning. We would soon be landing at a notably quiet runway, and into the endless tropical summer. My girlfriend and I were taking a vacation to the tiny island nation of St. Lucia. This would be my first time in the Caribbean, the first time staying at an “all-inclusive” resort, and I was eager for the experience. We had flown over Puerto Rico a half hour earlier and were already settled into our gradual descent. French Martinique was green and beautiful below. Then St. Lucia appeared. Our flight path was taking us right over the island – northwest to southeast. We were lower now and I had a good view of the island, so modest in size that I could almost take it all in: the semi-dense development in the northwest; a three-masted sailboat in the cove of Pigeon Island; a cruise ship nestled into Castries’ (the capital) small harbor; bright blue water and light sand along the Caribbean coast; the green, lush, empty, rugged interior; a fleeting glimpse of the strange, picturesque, and famous pyramids of the Pitons in the southeast; and finally our figure-eight descent into Hewanorra International Airport at the south end of the island.

St. Lucia
St. Lucia is a dot in the ocean. It is one of the many Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, and lies smack in the path of the easterly trade winds. If you’ve never experienced the trade winds, as I hadn’t until I stepped off the plane onto the Hewanorra tarmac, imagine a 15 mph breeze – that never stops; a giant planet fan stuck in the on position. It’s no wonder sailors of old used these winds to cross the Atlantic. The island is just 258 square miles, just a tad larger than Chicago, and is home to a little more than 170,000 people. There are only 17 countries smaller in size and only 18 with fewer people (in both cases many of those smaller, less populated countries are fellow Caribbean islands). The country has a colorful history after European settlement in the mid-seventeenth century, changing hands between the British and French fourteen times (seven each), until the British established firm control following Napoleon’s first abdication and exile. The island remained under the Union Jack until gaining late independence from the disintegrating British Empire in 1979. That makes the country just a little older than me, and it remains in the Commonwealth of Nations. Upon viewing the Queen’s face [1] on the East Caribbean dollar – the official currency of St. Lucia and surrounding countries – I said to a local: “I see the Queen is still on your currency,” in a casual effort to gauge the local attitude towards their former rulers. I received a matter-of-fact explanation that the country was part of the Commonwealth, which didn’t tell me much.

The aboriginal population was decimated after contact with Europeans, and African slaves were imported in large numbers to work the island’s numerous plantations. Today the population is almost entirely black. English is the official language, but a French-Creole is the local vernacular. From observation, the locals speak English to tourists and Creole amongst themselves (more on this later).

The island is also obviously poor. The per capita income is less than $6,000 a year, a meager sum. Contrast that to Barbados a hundred miles to the southeast, a nation of similar size but with personal income four times larger. The dearth of wealth was obvious from the bland, functional airport and the languishing buildings on the way to our resort, a drive which fortunately took all of about three minutes because our resort, Coconut Bay Beach Resort (hereafter known as Coconuts), has the terrific convenience of being literally within sight of the main runway.

All-Inclusive
Coconuts from above
Coconuts is situated on a large plot along the Atlantic Ocean, maybe 100 acres in total, at the southwest corner of the island. According to our inbound flight attendants, it was a former Club Med and also the preferred layover hotel for pilots and flight crew (no doubt because of its proximity to the airport). It’s both the only resort on the Atlantic – windward – side of the island, and the only resort situated in the far south. This means the surf is constantly choppy and the water has a distinctly teal color, no clear turquoise to be seen. We were greeted with a glass of champagne, settled in our room, and took a walk around. The resort is comprised of two wings, one for families and one for couples (which is where we were staying), all with ocean view rooms. It includes half a dozen bars spread out over the complex [2], a main dining area, three specialty restaurants, a night club, main stage for nightly entertainment [3], at four sprawling pools, a small waterpark, tennis courts, and a tiny paintball battlefield. There was also a reception building and seaside gazebo (where a wedding occurred during our stay). Of course you can’t overlook the mile or so of breezy beachfront and fields of palm trees. In general, the buildings are older but they were well maintained and the rooms and common areas were clean, so I was happy. The large high ceiling-ed lobby was the first floor of the main central building, and it was open on the entrance and pool/ocean side to the elements. No need for walls and windows in a perfect climate. There was an “adults only” section with a private pool, bar, and beach, which my girlfriend and I planned to take full advantage of. Is this similar to countless other Caribbean resorts? Perhaps, but it nicely met my expectations.




I was skeptical about the meaning of “all-inclusive.” I expected some things would be free as part of our already-paid-for package, but thought surely that some alcohol, restaurants, or activities would cost extra. I was wrong. Everything at the resort was indeed all included. So we ate Caribbean food at Calabash and Asian cuisine at Silk, indulged ourselves frequently at the pool-side grill, enjoyed made-to-order (and exquisitely prepared) omelets and breakfast foods of great variety, including chocolate-chip croissants. We drank many many cold alcohol-infused concoctions like the Island Vibration, Mango Tango, Lucian Love, and Tropical Rainbow; and sometimes I just had a cup of the locally brewed Piton lager. We were given complimentary massages – actually my first ever professional massage – and a romantic dinner under the stars. We floated along the lazy river and slipped down twisting water slides. And often we sat by the pool, viewed the ocean, and relaxed. The guests were like ourselves, vacationing Americans, Canadians, and English; there seemed to be an especially large cohort from Toronto.

A couple words about the staff. They were helpful and friendly. Many actually seemed to enjoy their work. Surely certain employees are chosen to interact with guests as bartenders, wait staff, and other “visible” positions because of their personalities, but even Trevor the exterminator came and spoke with us, gladly sharing pictures of his well-tended garden and two small children. Customer service is the name of the game, so perhaps I shouldn’t draw broader conclusions based on how the staff treated the guests, but I will emphasize that the demeanor and attitudes we encountered enhanced the enjoyment of our stay.

Tropical Colors
The tropical colors at Jalousie
Tropical islands lend themselves to the visual, in places so arrestingly beautiful that you stare in disbelieving amazement. For me this visual quality is largely captured in the colors, colors different, more vivid perhaps, than found in colder climates. There is the super-saturated cerulean sky, the many shades of sea blue: teal and shining turquoise near shore, bands of sapphire and indigo farther out, and the deep Mediterranean- (or should it be Caribbean-?) blue far off shore. St. Lucia is green, but not the emerald of say, Ireland or Britain, but baked with yellows by the strong sun, and contrasted with the dark gray volcanic rock. The foliage is summer-green but the grassy ground is tinged with a dryer-brown. The palm fronds are a familiar lime, but accented with an orange-golden hue in sunlight. There are electric pink and fuchsia flowers, ripe yellow bananas, variegated mangoes of green-honey-rose, the canary fruit of the cocoa tree, and the cream-violet cocoa seeds. Even the white of a freshly opened coconut seems cleaner, brighter in the tropical light.

Lying supine on a beachside lounge chair staring at the cloudless sky through a canopy a palm trees, or walking the beach with a scene of waves, sand, sky, and the blowing palm fronds was hypnotizing, always affecting; sights that remind you of just how spectacular sight really is.

Night is different too. I’m used to the nighttime urban glow that obscures all but the brightest celestial objects. Not here. Even with the resort’s lights glaring the sky was alive. For instance, the moon, waxing to nearly full by our last night, perched high in the northern sky as we enjoyed our romantic seaside dinner. It cast an intense and unfamiliar cone of silvery-purple light on the Atlantic swells below. The stars appeared to twinkle in the dewy air. I spotted the pale beige spec of Jupiter clearer than I had ever seen it before (un-miss-able actually). Late one night I sat alone on our room’s balcony overlooking the ocean, slowly smoking a Cuban cigar [4], pondering the quiet sky. I searched for words to describe the sight, and recalled Joyce as I looked up at: the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit [5].

St. Lucians
Soufriere town and harbor
We ventured out of the resort, taking a tour of the southwestern side of the island. We wanted to see more of St. Lucia than the beach and airport, we wanted to see the real life of the island. Our driver, Nev, drove us swiftly along narrow serpentine roads and through tiny hamlets, provided a running commentary on the sites we passed, St. Lucian history, current events, and impressions of past and future. I now know that St. Lucia is a major supplier of bananas to the United Kingdom, that St. Lucia supplies the cocoa beans for Hershey’s chocolate (a favorite of this blogger), and that a new chocolate factory is being constructed on the island. I learned that local building codes and the regulations and rules governing personal property are either non-existent or lackadaisically enforced. I discovered that St. Lucia is home to a dormant volcano – not extinct – and that a collapsed caldera shapes the geography of much of the western side of the island. I learned that the magnificent Pitons – Gros Piton and Petit Piton, the spectacular mountain pyramids that rise over two thousand feet from the Caribbean, world famous and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were in fact formed by volcanic action pushing up the landmass (volcanic plugs being the technical term). We heard that St. Lucia is a major trafficking point for marijuana between the nearby St. Vincent and the Grenadines [6] and Martinique.

I saw traditional methods of how coconuts are processed (see below), how cocoa beans go from plant to factory, how sugar is extracted from sugar cane. I smelled the rotten egg odor of sulphur so thick near the “dormant” volcano it made you feel sick, and saw streams run black from high sulphur concentrations. I saw passion fruit, sweet saw, calabash, and sour lemons for the first time [7]. We ate Creole food, and we ate it with delight. My suspicion was confirmed, Hewanorra International Airport developed from a World War II airstrip built by Americans [8]. We heard that sadly, one of the island’s two hospitals had recently burned down, that due to island’s southern location it is rarely affected by hurricanes, and saw that all school children wear uniforms.

We learned that a stay at the five-star resort Jalousie, nestled between the two Pitons and situated on a heavenly white-sand beach, costs $2,000 per night per room [9]. We were told several times that a recent season of the American television show The Bachelor was filmed in the exclusive Jade Mountain resort, balanced on a spit of rock above the town of Soufriere, and where each room has its own pool. We heard rumors that that same resort is one of Oprah’s favorite vacation spots.

We bought trinkets and crafts from local merchants. We bought souvenirs and we bought food. We bought from merchants at the resort, we bought in stores, and we bought from peddlers on the street. We bought because we wanted to, we bought because we thought we should support the locals, and we bought out of pity. We bought at face value, which is uncommon because you’re supposed to bargain, but I forgot this bit of expected etiquette, and I’m not much for dickering with local sellers anyway. Not when they’re likely pretty poor, and especially when it comes to a paltry few dollars.

Church in Choiseul
Observing the western portion of the island confirmed that St. Lucia is indeed a poor country. Buildings were slipshod and in a slow state of deterioration. Shops appeared drab and small, stock thinly covered the shelves. The people weren’t hungry or homeless, but they certainly looked poor. Indeed, as I was told more than once by peddlers, they are poor. However, the island did hum with life. We saw – and smelled – a busy fish market, fish brought straight from the nearby fishing boats, in the town of Choiseul. We viewed gorgeous island-themed murals in an old church, the paintings surrounding traditional Stations-of-the-Cross plaques, thematically complimenting the religious themes.

In all our dealings, within the resort and without, the people were decent. As I noted earlier, maybe this is unsurprising because tourism is the largest component of the economy and being nice to visitors is good for business. But, it’s hard to fake courtesy forever, and St. Lucians are either gifted actors or generally more friendly than your average Westerner. All the locals spoke English with my girlfriend and I (and all other foreigners from what I heard), but they all spoke Creole amongst themselves. No doubt this is intentional, a way for St. Lucians to keep their privacy and separateness from invasive tourists. I would love to know what they said to each other. Probably little to do with us, we were just one pair of foreign faces in thousands that they see each year, but I’m as curious and paranoid as anyone else who hears a foreign language being spoken – intentionally – around them. That aside, local behavior was very good.

An illustrative example. We went zip-lining above the town of Soufriere. My girlfriend and I were joined by four English sisters and led by three twenty-something St. Lucian guides. The youngest of the sisters, Amy, had Down’s Syndrome. My brother has Down’s Syndrome, so I’m acutely alert to how Down’s people are treated by others. In my experience, such treatment is a strong sign of character. Those that treat the mentally handicapped with respect, patience, and dignity demonstrate compassion, patience, and generosity. Those that don’t reveal significant character flaws. And in my years of observation, a sizable proportion of the population falls into the latter camp. Our three guides demonstrated fine character. They were helpful, supportive, and careful. They ensured that Amy was safe, they encouraged her when she doubted herself (and she did a few times), and they made sure that she was having fun (she was). Again, a cynical view would hold that they were working, and working for tips, and they were being observed by her sisters. However, their attitudes were either genuine, or they were superior performers. It’s possible to be professional without really caring, and many times that perfectly acceptable. But our guides seemed professional and caring.

Still, being an American, I had to ask the racial question. Almost all of the tourists are white North Americans and Europeans. Almost all St. Lucians are black. In the United States, race always seems to be a subtext in social relations between African Americans and whites (and other races). The American experience with slavery, segregation, and discrimination unfortunately seems to color the perception of whites and blacks. Do St. Lucian blacks, mostly poor, resent the presence of “rich” white foreigners? Or do they appreciate the tourist dollar? Or a bit of both? Alternatively, does having their independence, and control of their own nation provide a perspective wholly different than that of American blacks? I couldn’t ask these questions directly. I could only try and gather answers by delicate probing, listening, and observation. What did I discover? Nothing definitive. St. Lucians seem friendly. But they’re also like anyone else, some like our bar tenders Maclee, Akon, and Sean, seemed more social and outgoing than others. Some seemed to like their jobs more than others. Some were energetic and others were reserved. But four days of conversing with and observing a handful of locals wasn’t going to allow a foreigner like me to get anything more than the barest impressions of who St. Lucians are.

There were hints from staff that crime and violence is prevalent in Castries, but I gathered this was minor compared with big American cities, and as we traveled the (well-beaten) tourist path, I sensed no danger.

The Coconut
Coconuts ready to be de-husked
Perhaps nothing symbolizes tropical paradise more than the coconut – tree and fruit. I’d seen coconut palms in South Florida and Queensland, but they grew in abundance and within easy reach in St. Lucia, as they do in coastal areas throughout the tropics [10]. I was very determined, for some reason I won’t attempt to contemplate let alone explain, to grab a fallen coconut and get inside to the water and “meat.” On our first morning, my girlfriend and I were strolling along the beach, our feet lapped by the waves, and what did I see but a green coconut washed up on the beach. My lucky day! (Of course in the coming days I would learn that fallen coconuts were in fact thickly scattered over the resort grounds.) I hurriedly rushed to it, picked it up and saw that a small fissure was already cut into its side. I found a nearby rock – a breakwater for Coconuts’ seaside pool deck – and began feverishly, and no doubt amateurishly, hammering the crack against a sharp corner of the rock, Tom Hanksstyle. After several blows some of the husk began to break up and I was able to rip much more of it off. But then I discovered that the inside was broken and rotten. Failure.

The next day I was luckier. My girlfriend and I took a private tour of an old plantation estate above the gorgeous beryl bay of Soufriere (the same place we went zip-lining). The estate is still active and mid-tour we came upon a middle age man in the midst of de-husking a massive pile of mature brown coconuts. I was immediately excited and impressed – this guy was a pro. He stood above a sturdy, extremely sharp metal stake anchored in the ground. The tip was so sharp that if I had accidentally slipped and fallen on it, I wouldn’t have just been impaled, but the spike would have passed clean through my body. Coconut in hand, he took three or four vigorous assured downward thrusts to the business end of the spike, loosening the husk, and removing it swiftly with his hands. Once the softball-sized inner shell was exposed he produced the largest machete I had ever seen, as large as a small sword, and with two quick whacks beheaded the coconut revealing the desired fruit. We drank the water, slightly viscous and subtly sweet, but very delicious. We ate the white meat and as I suspected, fresh coconut is tasty with a pleasant crisp texture. It’s worlds better than the horrid, dry, flaky, cake-ruining copra of so many “coconut” desserts.

The wonderful center of the coconut
For a couple of dollars dropped into his tip jar (a dry half coconut shell of course), he gave us a de-husked coconut for the road. I got even happier, put it in my girlfriend’s backpack, and planned to crack it open back at the hotel. Flash forward a few hours and there I stood in our hotel room with the coconut in hand, no machete, no knife, no sharp rocks. How was I going to get into this thing? Did I approach the nearest hotel bar, where surely the staff would have been happy to open the coconut for me, like they customarily did for other guests? No, that would have been simple and logical. Instead seeing nothing useful in the room, I went out to the balcony searching for some other (much less efficient) method. I thought the sharp corner where the hotel fa├žade met our balcony might work. So under the bemused watch of my girlfriend, I hammered the side of the coconut on the balcony corner with hard attention-attracting bangs – to no effect. If I kept this up I risked getting yelled at by someone, so I decided to give myself one more blow, a particularly forceful strike accompanied by a loud bang. To my pleased amazement a small facture appeared two-thirds up the surface. I grabbed a spoon which was in the room for some reason, and wedged the handle into the crack, twisted and levered the coconut open. A small section broke off. Success! We drank the water, but the hard shell still kept the meat from us, but by now I wasn’t going to be deterred. My improvisation skills in full flight, I put the rest of the coconut in a plastic bag and jumped on it a few times. My weight crushed the hollow shell and I was able to easily separate the broken shell bits from the meat. We gobbled the entire coconut and we were sated.

On our last day at the suggestion of Dahlia, the bar tender, we picked a fresh green coconut from a tree next to the adult pool. She cut open the top and let us drink. The fresh coconut water was plentiful but the taste was sour and unpleasant, unripe. I’ll stick with the hard mature coconuts, no matter how difficult they are to get into [11].

Impressions
From our short stay I had a broader insight about the island and its people and about the tropics in general. It was January and we stood in summer heat and light; the same heat and light that, more or less, bathes the island everyday of the year, day after day, year after year, never changing.  In my temperate experience the seasons, the alternation between cold and heat, between long days and long nights provides an inescapable sense of time passing. The cold dark winters provide a reminder that the world is hard and humans have to fight to survive. A temperate reality forces us to work, to prepare for the coming winter and enjoy the warm summer. It provides an edge that pushes us forward. In the modern age, these may be mostly metaphysical ideas, but that doesn’t mean they don’t affect us.

In the tropics, unchanging heat and light still time. Change is slow; nature is a beautiful backdrop and not an adversary. In the tropics there’s no push to make life easier – it’s already easy. And so, as long as just enough tourist dollars come in, as long as just enough produce is sold, as long as the people are housed and clothed, St. Lucia will go on, poor and only slowly evolving.

Does this ignore social and economic realities: geographic limitations, the lingering effects of British imperialism, the slow process towards effective self-government, underdeveloped infrastructure, lack of foreign investment, and all the other forces that affect developing countries the world over? Of course, a theory based on tropical climate has its limitations, but it has a ring of truth. Ask yourself how you would react to perpetual 80-degree weather, constant cooling breezes, and sunshine? How bad could the world be? How much would you want to change it?

Leaving
When we left we had to fight the massed crowd at Hewanorra. Despite that fact that there are less than a dozen flights in and out each day, they all land and take off within a couple of hours, which seems unnecessarily inefficient. There are eight departure “gates,” but that’s misleading because they are just eight separate doors, immediately adjacent to one another, that provide access to the tarmac where you walk to your plane. So when two flights are boarding at once, hundreds of passengers with luggage herd into a space big enough for only dozens and slowly file out one at a time. It’s nerve-racking and just another part of the universally unpleasant experience of commercial flying.

We took off just about on time, east over the Atlantic. Our plane banked north towards America. I caught a quick view of our resort before it disappeared below. A few minutes later I took one final glance straining back to see the island over the plane’s port wing. I saw the Piton’s, backlit and gray in the late afternoon sun. I saw the island get small and then the plane banked to level and I saw only sky. I was back in the plane, back to nowhere, and St. Lucia was gone.

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NOTES:

[1] Queen Elizabeth II, who appears on the currency of all Commonwealth nations.

[2] There was a lobby bar, a swim-up pool bar, which doubled as the pool-side grill bar, a night club bar, the adults only bar by the adults only pool, and at least one bar that was closed but appeared to be functional by the main stage.

[3] For instance, the night of our arrival was Western Night, and a country band provided the entertainment. We were seated fairly far the stage for dinner and at first I only listened. The music sounded so authentic that I though a visiting American was performing. But no, this was a local St. Lucian singing classic country hits. It was at once disorienting and enjoyable.

[4] My first Cuban cigar, perfectly legal here in St. Lucia.

[5] I’ve quoted this line from Ulysses before, but in the moment I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this scene.

[6] Barely discernable far off the southwest coast through the afternoon haze.

[7] Not to be confused with what St. Lucians term sweet lemons, which are actually regular lemons, which of course are sour.

[8] The U.S. probably built the airstrip as part of the “destroyers for bases” deal worked out with Britain before America’s entrance into the war. I suspect it was used to by fighter planes to protect Allied merchant shipping and spot and attack German U-boats.

[9] And where I think the very last scene in the great movie Body Heat was filmed.

[10] But coconut palms are extremely sensitive to temperature and light, totally intolerant of cold and darkness. If you see a healthy coconut palm outside, you must be somewhere warm and sunny.

[11] An unopened coconut, purchased from my local grocery store, sits on my kitchen counter as I write. Ripe, de-husked coconuts can be shipped all over the world, so in Baltimore I can enjoy fresh coconut in the deep of winter.

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