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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Archives of Foodventure: St. Lucia 1996

St. Lucia Archives: Small Island Cuisine and Tropical Treats and Eats

Part One: Getting Settled

My time spent as a Health Volunteer in St. Lucia is a topic I have meant to write about for over a decade, and yet that experience seems like it just happened yesterday. My ultimate travel companion, Joanne was the main impetus for this trip. In fact, SHE is the member of Health Volunteers Overseas and she was the one who heard about the tiny West Indies island of St. Lucia, and their dire need for physical therapists. Joanne is a wonderful friend and a huge hearted person. She works with disabled children in New York, which already qualifies her for Sainthood in my very thin book of truly good Catholics. I myself am not worthy to even be in the same room with that little book, but not only am I digressing early on, I am no longer Catholic and not up for the vote.

Joanne called me up the spring of 1996 to say, “I just booked a month for myself volunteering at a hospital on a little tropical island in the West Indies! They need physical therapists to work in the clinic and to go out into the jungle and do outreach programs with kids who can’t get to the hospital!”

“Oh man, that sounds really cool, “ said I. “ I’ll bet they really need an Occupational Therapist to teach their therapists how to make Kleinert Tendon repair splints. I think I am totally going to attach myself to your trip and come along!”

I called Roy D. White, the hospital director of St. Jude Hospital, an expat from Iowa by way of Texas who spoke with a drawl longer then the drool from a cud-chewing Longhorn. I extolled my virtues, mentioned the saintly Joanne and offered my expert hand therapy services and teaching skills in exchange for a hard cot, pillow and some chow.

“Wa-a-a-a-lll, you’ll have to come here and work if I’ma gonna put you up and give you three squares a day,” Roy said. “Lotta folks just think life’s a beach round here, but plenty work to be done. Them folks cut they hands with they machetes all the time and we have our share of tendon problems. ”

(The View of the hospital grounds from my room - after a hard rain)

And that was all it took to seal the deal. A telephone handshake as it were, and I was on the ticket. The experiences from this are so rich and prescient, I have decided to publish it in installments to spare my readers from blog-fatigue.

Because I flew from California by way of Miami and Puerto Rico, I flew on a redeye and it took forever to arrive. I got in about 10 pm the next day, just in time to get on the meal ticket with a group of hospital volunteers headed out to an open air restaurant to celebrate someone’s birthday. I was cross-eyed with fatigue, but got swept up by the ebullient Joanne who had already been there a week ahead of me and was firmly accepted as a golden girl by the hospital staff and other volunteers. We jumped into one of the rickety mini vans, called “transports” by the locals, and found ourselves crushed together cheek by jowl on hard benches. The van seats had been ripped out and replaced in order to pack in more paying customers and there was not a seatbelt in sight. I think perhaps 15 of us crammed in one van? My jetlagged memory is fuzzy, I just remember being more amazed than scared. Later I was to learn that those transports supplied about 60-80 percent of our injury cases in physical therapy and some of our patients actually died from transport accidents while we were there, but I was blissfully ignorant of that fact and on my way to dinner.

It was late July to August, the start of the rainy season in St. Lucia and the black clouds roiled in the night sky and heat lightening flashed ominously as we filed into an open air restaurant called the Chak-Chak. It was made of cinder blocks and open on three sides like a porch. We were seated at a long skinny table, which made conversation and meeting new people impossible and the cinder blocks threw our words back at us with reverb. The night’s rain crept closer and fierce wind kept whipping the paper plates and napkins off of the table. We waited and waited and waited and waited for our orders. An hour passed, then a half. Finally Joanne pitched a NY fit. She pulled the hospital volunteer card, which was a great card to have on this island.

“You know, we really ARE hungry and we ALL have to be up EARLY to work at your hospital tomorrow. Could you at least bring us some bread before dinner?” Joanne said, emphasis on the bread, early and hospital.

“No problem,” the smiling waitress said. Another 15 minutes passed, and she returned with little plastic baskets filled with slices of slightly toasted wonder bread for us, about ½ slice per person. We ate our two bites in silence and waited. After another 40 minutes or so, our plates of rice and fresh brothy steaming fish came out and we fell upon our dinners like hawks after famine. A final huge gust of wind blew through, extinguishing candles and whisking napkins from the table and the rain hammered down on the tin roof in a cacophonous fury. We screamed in delight as the humid air cooled around us, washing away our annoyance. Someone ordered wine. Soon we found ourselves whirling and slapping like itchy dervishes. Every mosquito on the island apparently decided to seek refuge from the rain in the restaurant. Unhindered by screens or nets, they fell upon us much like we had attacked our fish moments before. We slapped and cursed much to the extreme delight of a neighboring table of locals, their white teeth flashing in the candlelight. Three waitresses zoomed around our table furiously lighting mosquito coils until we each had two personal coils and were enveloped in a yellow noxious cloud. Our heavenly dinner took on the sulphurous taste of a struck match.

The hilarity at the next table was reaching a fever pitch so I had to walk over and be social.

“Hey man, how come the mosquitoes aren’t biting you guys anyway?” I asked.

“Fresh meat! That’s why! Fresh meat!” they chortled, eyes sparkling. “That’s why we sit next to you. We can have a quiet dinner just now!” We had a nice conversation about how caucasians swell up and turn red, blotchy and unattractive with mosquito bites, and locals shake them off as a minor annoyance, unscathed, no swelling no marks. I thought about the Dengue fever vaccination I had passed up in travel medicine as I ambled back to our table, slapping my arms and neck.

After an uneventful transport ride back to the hospital, I finally got to see my room. A narrow room, 8 by 12 feet long with a chipped wooden two-door dresser with water-rotted feet, and a hard plastic army cot. A crucifix was nailed firmly to the wall and the room smelled strongly of bug spray. Baygon: outlawed in the US as a relative of DDT but apparently still manufactured and sold to small poor islands.

There was at least an inch of water on the floor and water was pouring steadily onto my pillow from the ceiling from the heavy rain. The sound of piping tree frogs was as shrill and deafening as a chorus of piccolos, and there was a Speakeasy just across the fence and outside of my window. Reggae music was blasting out and the angry raised voices of some conflict sure to bring us new patients the next day. I wondered how I was ever going to get enough rest to work here as I swept water out of my room and moved my bed away from the drip. The next thing I knew, bright daylight was streaming into my window and it was at least 85 degrees. It was 8 am and time to hie myself to my first day of work in the physical therapy department.

Breakfast Cafeteria Style

St. Lucia has a rich history of being fought over by the British and the French. Apparently the island exchanged hands no less then 28 times. The result is a culture as well-mixed as pulled taffy. The locals speak a Patois French along with a fractured English, but alas, their cooking tends to be English. There is a strong Indian influence too which brings about roti wraps and curries, but the food at the hospital was mostly English: Starchy, bland and rib-sticking.

Porridge was always available in a big sticky pot, the sides sporting layers resembling the terminal moraine of a glacier as we ate our way to the bottom of the same pot every morning until end of week. White bread could be stuck into an ancient wire clip vertical toaster, and powdered scrambled eggs could be had most days. Dinners included macaroni and cheese in heaping sticky quantities and great pans of dusheen roots, a purple potato-like vegetable cut into chunks. Fridays brought about fist-sized hunks of fried fish in keeping with the Catholic tradition of meatless Fridays. In spite of St. Lucia providing an abundant banana crop, and having an excellent fruit market in Castries our side of the island was devoid of fresh fruit. Vieux Fort was a starchy English stronghold; the poor flat no-nonsense side of the island, and the food reflected that. In spite of all the starch, I actually lost weight on this trip. We made some funny midnight road trips out to a local “fast food” eatery, risking wild transport rides to score rotis, wraps filled with fragrant curried potatoes and other vegetables.

Pius is one of the regular hospital employees and is known as quite a cook. He is also very black, very handsome and has a famous roving eye and a taste for seducing young female hospital volunteers after luring them to his room for a few toots of strong Jamaican rum. He says he will cook us salt fish with green figs one night. We salivate for that, but don’t hold out hope. Pius is a slippery fellow, filled with many promises. I did come to his room and have some rum but I escaped un-pawed. He did lend me his Casio keyboard for the week though, so I was not without a piano. I luckily tend to write quotes from people I meet when traveling, so I can remember them in detail later. The quote I have by Pius is, “I really think you need to have the WHOLE entire St Lucian experience, Hmmmmm?”. Meaning basically, all female visitors should sleep with a St. Lucian, namely Pius. Which isn’t very pious of him at all now is it?

We scored some spiny Soursop fruits from a local lady and Pious had the recipe for the ultimate drink. One takes the bready pulp and squeezes it by hand in cold milk. This is then strained through cotton or cheesecloth, mixed with nutmeg and sugar and 120 proof Jamaican rum! Methinks the rum is the main ticket in this drink as the fruit is like a very bland guava. We gave a little of the milk and fruit mixture to a white puppy we nicknamed “Pinky” because of his pink visible skin, and we truly thought we’d killed him. He reeled around and staggered, and collapsed. Soursop must be a bit poisonous to dogs. He lived to bark about it and the next day was back to his frisky self.

Seamoss punch is another local libation, made viscous from some sort of seaweed gathered and boiled into a gray-green sludge. It can be bought on the roadside from private houses, but we got it from a tiny bar on the local beach nearest the hospital. It looks gray and sludgy, but is actually full of cream, milk, nutmeg and cinnamon. It can be spiked with 150 proof rum that burns out your nasal membranes at first sniff. It is fantastic. One glass, and gravity conspires against you.

(Paul,Rebecca Joanne on the beach - the bar is out of site on the left)

Physical Therapy

It was never less then 85 or 90 degrees in our physical therapy department. The Hospital of St. Lucia was built of cinder blocks, and was open air in most rooms. Our waiting room was an open chapel complete with pews and a huge crucifix nailed to the wall. Next to Jesus, a 20” TV was mounted blasting the Olympics at the time. The waiting room was always full, as few people had TVs in their houses. They sat on the pews heads bowed in prayer fingering rosaries, but looking surreptitiously at the TV all the while. Green Anole lizards ran around the walls. They lived behind Jesus and mated sacrilegiously on his vestments and basked on his head. The waiting room was supposed to be only for patients or families. We went out to call for patients and were always met with at least 25 blank stares. Occasionally a patient would be waiting and would pull himself up slowly from the pews eyes straying reluctantly back to the TV.

(Rebecca, a patient, joanne in red pants, my poor amputated finger person, me, elbow patient in front)

We actually had an appointment schedule book, but noone ever showed up at the appointed time. Transportation was unreliable, the rains were heavy, and things came up. We spent a fair bit of time doing wound care in the one whirlpool bath, and cleaning it with some of the most caustic bleach I have ever encountered. Physical therapy cost about 4 East Caribbean dollars a treatment, about $1.50 American at the time, but people didn’t even have that. Sometimes they would pay with eggs, fruit or even a live chicken. We accepted everything and nothing too.

Home Cooking, St. Lucia Style

Joanne treated a nice, statuesque lady named Helen who had plantar fasciitis, which is a sore sole of the foot. She healed extremely well, and she and her husband, Roy invited Joanne home for a traditional St. Lucian home cooked meal. Of course I got myself invited along, and I brought a bottle of red wine (a merlot I think) to avoid being a mooch.

We booked a transport and found ourselves carried into the equivalent of a St. Lucian suburb. Her patient owned a nice two-story house on a little swatch of land, and her husband wasted no time in showing us everything possible. We looked at sapling fruit trees, and a small vegetable garden, an eager puppy tied to a stake in the yard. Roy relayed a sad story about the dog he had before that left him only to live a few houses down the street with another family. Roy still saw the dog but the dog spurned him. Dogs run in wild packs here in between houses with very loose alliances with their human masters, so we were not surprised. We examined the house’s construction, appreciated the basement and the stairs and duly admired the view across the valley looking at an active volcano shrouded in a doughnut of clouds at its peak. We discussed the possibilities of lava flow into his living room and Roy shrugged. Life was short and the view was spectacular, so he took his chances, he said.

(Looking out from Roy and Helen's porch)

Roy offered us all sorts of tidbits, like Heinlanmalt, a rootbeer-like drink, Ameline champaigne, nuts, cake and various other snacks. We began to feel really stuffed. His wife reminded him that we had dinner planned and told him not to feed us to death.

After we worked out the dinner mix-up, we settled in to helping Helen cook the fish and we three ladies crammed into a tiny kitchen around a gas-powered stove as Helen taught us how to make a Creole pan broth of onions, peppers and tomatoes and spices, then to slowly braise the fish. The fish smelled heavenly, and there was a fresh green salad too. I am sure the fish was snapper. We brought the food to the table and noticed only two place settings. Helen and her husband refused to sit down and eat at 6 pm as it was “too early for them to eat”. They were accustomed to eating at 8 or 9 pm so they chose to sit out on their porch drinking a little brandy and watching the sunset as we uncomfortably ate our solitary but heavenly dinner. That was really strange to us, so we ate and cleaned the entire kitchen up after ourselves, feeling acutely embarrassed. We were quite open with Roy and Helen that we really wanted to share dinner with THEM but they were just as adamant in their refusal. This was a thank you dinner to us, they said. To Joanne, I thought silently, and I am the unworthy benefactor! I made sure they kept the wine for themselves rather than opening it for us.

After dinner, we drank some of their very strong brandy. We were stuffed to the gills, full from dinner, getting liquored up and feeling most tipsy. It was about this time that Roy said, “Hey, I know you Americans appreciate country music! You have to listen to my fine new stereo system!” With that, he cranked up the “CottonEye Joe” to full volume so we could engage in some country western line dancing in the living room. He moved furniture with gusto and kicked the rugs aside and we all started swinging around and around, the music pounding in our heads along with the brandy. We tried a little swaying Caribbean beat music too and jiggled our thighs and bellies dangerously. We really thought our heads or our bellies were going to explode but we lived to laugh about it many times over.

(The grand and petit Petons, the iconic mountains of St Lucia as seen across Rodney Bay)

PART 2: Balenbouche: A Tale of a haunted Bed and Breakfast and other St. Lucian delights


  1. Lori -

    Among your other undeniable talents as a therapist, gastronome and Liver of Life, you are also a pretty damn good writer. I was trapped in your tale.

    Keep it up, you may have a book...

    Bob Hubbard

  2. You are a story teller extraordinaire, Lori. The pictures you included are a delightful bonus. I'm waiting for part two: Balenbouche.

    Carole Ann Kaplan

  3. The St Lucia is an island of beautiful and eye catching valley and delicious food restaurants. Always eat hygienic food in order to be prevented from gastronomy and drinking water should be clean and hygienic.