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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Lucia 1996: A Haunted Bed and Breakfast and Crazy Times in the Rainforest

My trip to St. Lucia to volunteer in the physical therapy department of St. Jude hospital in Vieux Fort is too rich and varied an experience to cover in just one blog. I last left my readers dancing in modestly appointed St. Lucian suburbia to the whiny blast of country western music. Joanne and I made it home and staggered off to bed. I found Pinky snoozing on my pillow as my door had been blown open by the wind and rain and I had to deal with fleas until the next sheet washing and bleaching.

We worked hard at the hospital, toiling in the 90 degree heat inside the PT department. We yearned to be outside and I rode out into the jungle with Joanne on occasion to see her work with kids with cerebral palsy, trying to teach them good balance and motor control. In spite of the very poor conditions, the Bismuth -pink one room concrete open air houses, some of the children had pretty decent leg braces or wheelchairs. Apparently there was some good medical stuff being provided by various mainland US sources, albeit supplies were sporadic and random.

Janice was another volunteer in our PT department. She had no medical skills to offer but she was a crackerjack organizer and office manager. Her superpower was to clean out the physical therapy supply closet which was a disaster of donated supplies: a hodge-podge of tipless crutches, dusty casting material, splint plastic, ace wraps and the like. She sweated like a French whore at Mardis Gras and the dust motes glittered in the sunbeams that poured through the glazed windows in the 90 degree heat. Our favorite find: a brittle cardboard box of breast prostheses, all sizes from A to D. However, the rubbery breasts with their eternally erect rubber nipples were all caucasian colored and we mused on who in their right mind would send such a thing to an island of mostly brown people. We wondered if there was a way to dye them brown, but we needn't have worried. Some of the nurses took to stuffing them into their dresses to plump up their existing decolletage, the pinkish flanged rubber edges clearly visible at the chest and sleeve lines. It became a hilarious short-lived fashion while we were there.

St Lucia is a small island, 239 square miles in all, a lot of it dense forest and rocky coast. Everyone knew we were volunteers immediately, no matter where we went. They also knew who we were treating and had opinions about how we were treating them. I was treating a young woman named Emile, and she had been knocked down by a transport. She was in bad shape when I was taking care of her broken hand and extensor tendon repairs, but she succumbed to her internal injuries in the night. We were all very sad about it, and took a mind clearing trip to Soufriere, which literally means "Sulphur air" . The fumes from the local active volcano permeate the entire town making it smell like hell and brimfire. As we wandered downtown, I stumbled into a very real hell. I was suddenly mobbed by cousins, friends and family of Emile, who KNEW I had seen her the night before and wondered what could have gone wrong and what did I DO, and what could I have done better. I told them as much as I knew and beat it out of town. That is how small that island is.

Balenbouche is another wonderfully unique place on the island, albeit with a dark history. 150 years ago, it was a sugar plantation house built by a Frenchman, who died when he took a musket ball in the mouth during one of the many conflicts on the island, hence the name - "Ball in Mouth". His ghost was said to haunt the place, and it was being run as a historic bed and breakfast by a fascinating woman named Uta. She cooked a fantastic gourmet meal of fresh island ingredients, and told gory ghost stories while we ate her sumptous food. She served Mustard sauced papaya, puree'd papaya and dasheen with a cheese sauce. There was palm hearts in a cream sauce and rolled beef tartar with mushrooms for the carnivores. The main libation was a heavenly fruit juice that tasted like tamarind but was more subtle. If one looks online these days, Balenbouche has blossomed into an entire estate of eco-lodges, artist's retreats and a true destination wedding location but then it was simple, tucked away and private.

(A view of Balenbouche across the lawn, before the land was developed)

A visiting doctor was enjoying dinner with us therapists and talking about how his fiance was due to arrive in a week or two. She called him around every hour or so to check on him. Between jealous phone calls, he gave all of us women a fantastic foot massage, confessing his deep desire to be a massage therapist. He stirred a lot of deep desires in all of us that had nothing to do with massage or therapy. He double- handedly converted our English gynocologist friend, Liz who yearned to be a nun. He plied her feet with his artful warm hands, while we sipped wine and listened to the lady of the house tell us her ghostly stories about haunted rooms and things that go bump. Liz went from chaste nunnishness to obsessing about men after the foot massage. That is what I call a miracle and a conversion rolled into one!

We picked up a lanky charming texan named Mark while lounging on the beach, and he spent some quality time trying to impress us ladies by quoting Byron: "She walks in beauty like the night....." and other so called "beer poets". Apparently he had had some success in bed with this strategy. We adopted him into the volunteer group, and upon having a cheesy, fatty egg, ham and bacon breakfast one morning - we picked up the oddest character yet: Morgan Octave, a Rastafarian with permanent dark glasses to hide his reddened ganja eyes, a grin filled with snaggle teeth, a huge pile of dreads and a body odor like a moldy beach towel from slumming on the beach. He charmed himself into our graces and Mark bought him breakfast. Apparently he had already discovered that Mark was an easy mark for free food.

He chattered nonstop, elected himself as our immediate expert St. Lucian tour guide and would not take no for an answer. His main phrase was, "LISTEN LISTEN! Is everybody having FUN??" and "You've NOT seen the last of ME!" when we would extricate ourselves from him to return to our modest hospital digs. He would faithfully show up at the reef, or wherever we happened to be, usually at mealtimes - where he would conveniently be short of cash. He incessantly cadged Beedies, little Indian cigarettes that were wrapped in a charming colorful cone of gold foil paper with a picture of a smiling turbaned fellow. This particularly annoyed Rebecca, who savored her Beedies like the true Brit she was.

We indulged Morgan a bit and he insisted on taking us to his parents massive plantation, deep in the jungle heart of the St. Lucian rainforest. We all decided that was a worthy adventure, and off we went, first by transport, then by taxi until the roads became far too rutted and we were dumped unceremoniously on the road within some distance of the farm. The transport driver warned us that we'd have trouble getting a ride for a few days, then he roared off. We (being myself, Joanne, Paul, Rebecca , and Mark) all looked at each other in consternation, then hiked up a very bad road, up a hill and into the Octave's farm. Morgan's mouth ran nonstop about the riches we'd see.

(The road into the Octaves farm)

It was a modest house, painted an electric blue with open air windows, a fantastic porch, and an oil drum with a pipe leading into it off the corner gutter of the roof to fill it with rainwater. There was no running water in anyone's house on the island in the jungle, the rain provided for all. This house actually had a flush toilet, but one had to dip a bucket of water from the barrel and lug it in to flush and who knows where the waste ended up. The Octaves had no furniture, just a small dresser with a doll collection in the living room, and mattresses on the floor in two bedrooms. Otherwise the concrete floor was bare, and the rooms were swept clean. A sallow freckled girl with glasses, faded reddish hair and a light tan cotton peasant dress sat on the porch sifting through rice grains, discarding rocks and dark grains.

Morgan's younger brother George, was a dark handsome Rastafarian that put Morgan to shame on the charisma scale. He was a Reggae musician back from touring in England, and in town to visit his parents and to take care of a little "farm" business. The pale girl, Dory, was his wife from England. She said not one word to us but kept her eyes on the bowl of rice, a smirk upon her lips.

Mary and Don "the Don" Octave were the parents of these two very different boys. We toured the farm, got thoroughly soaked in a sudden roaring rain shower, looked at bananas, marveled over pictures of George's bumper crop of HUGE Marijuana plants, hidden somewhere deep in the forest. We experienced "the Don", who was decked out like a Spanish Caballero ready for a rodeo in a black felt suit spangled with silver cord, rivets and conchas. He wore a Zorro hat, decorated to match and was utterly animated. His wife Mary said quietly, "He is a troublesome man, but it has been an interesting 46 years" and that was the extent of her conversation. They only got excited when we took photos of them and offered to mail them copies. They posed regally on their blue concrete porch, and that is how I will always remember them. They were quietly proud of their modest homestead and they seemed to like us well enough.

(Rebecca, Mary, The Don, Joanne and me on the Octave's porch)

We were always starving on this trip, and always ending up in places where it took forever to get chow. This was no exception. Dory picked through the rice for what seemed like hours, then Mary slowly cooked it, and she used a tiny little propane powered hibachi outside cooker to make a few rotis for us at some point. We devoured them hungrily. She made them of potato flour, so they were potato bread with Dahl - curried split peas in between. I was so hungry, I think that was the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. Then we got a tiny portion of heavenly sticky rice and vegetables. We felt guilty, because we worried we had eaten up all of their food. Their kitchen was literally bare, we felt like a group of locusts and still we starved. The Octaves were considered very rich as farmers and landowners so it was a reality check for us. We began to appreciate the abundance of bland food the hospital could afford to put out.

It began to get dark and we worried about getting back to the hospital in time to work the next day. Morgan became sullen and useless at this point as he didn't want to deal with us and our responsible work schedules. His father finally took charge and said he knew how to get us a ride. We all had to hike into town, which was about 6 miles away through the darkening rain forest. Off we went, getting soaked intermittently by rain showers and slipping along the muddy rutted road in the dusk with The Don behind us in full Zorro regalia waving his hands and shouting, "Drive! Drive! Drive!" It was truly surreal. We stumbled into the tiny town, only to see people unloading huge speakers and planning some sort of jungle Reggae music festival. Music was already blasting up and down the street. We wished we had more time to enjoy this, but we were nervous about being at work in time. Paul kept repeating his mantra, "We got here, we'll get home." and we took comfort in his conviction. Street food for the festival was cooking and smelling tantalizing. The aroma of rotis and plantains and meat filled the air, but it wasn't ready yet even though we waved dollars and sniffed hopefully around the booths.

Finally we found a truck willing to take us out of the jungle and to the major highway where a transport could pick us up and cart us back to the fenced in safety of St. Jude's. We dragged our muddy, bug-bitten selves back to our concrete barracks, exhausted and regretful that we didn't have the flexibility to stick out the adventure in the jungle. A few years on the island maybe, and perhaps we'd lose our adherence to the almighty clock.

(Lambert, a beautiful soul and one of our most trusted drivers)


  1. More pictures when I can find my album!

  2. The Balenbouche is a great place to visit. It has serene surroundings and excellent bed and breakfast lodges for visitors. The food is simply good and delicious. The place is so beautiful and lovely.

    For seeking peace and Tranquility the Shenandoah Valley of Luray Virginia has the finest and the romantic accommodations. The surroundings are much enchanting and refreshing.

  3. Lori, what an adventure!! The pictures add so much to your story. Hope you can post more.

    Thank you for writing about your volunteer time in St. Lucia. I hope there are more stories to come, pictures, too.

    Carole Ann ....I can't post my wordpress address for some reason so I am anonymous. :)

  4. I'm enjoying reading your blog. Your writing is so witty and full of humor. What an experience it must have been to volunteer in St. Lucia! I look forward to reading more soon.

    Marijane Buck-Nguyen (I had trouble posting my address, too).