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Friday, April 2, 2010

Castries: The Dark Tourist Heart of St. Lucia

After surviving a harrowing transport ride back from the rain forest and the plantation of the Octaves, we buckled down and stayed a bit closer to the hospital. We ventured into Vieux Fort to the docks to pick up some fresh fish for a patio fish fry. Pius had promised us he'd make us his famous salt fish with green figs and we decided to hold him to it. Of course we had to supply the fish ourselves so we had to go get it, and pay for it too.

Vieux Fort is a very poor town with shallow open cement gutters that run on the left side of the road, creating a hazard for transports, bicyclists, unwary tourists and motor scooters alike. The dock was a bustling place where people thronged and shouted, haggling for any fish fresh off the boat. We were traveling by transport with Frances, one of the hospital drivers. His transport had leopard covered seats and pink fuzzy dice. When we arrived , there was a huge fish that looked like a dolphin, easily 12 feet long, hanging by its tail. It had dark deep red flesh that we could see through gaping slashes in it's gray skin, and its dark blood was pooling all over the dock. That put off our appetites quite a bit, but we managed to find another fish monger selling a nice, less-Flipper looking white fish and we bought enough to feed the hospital group. Frances haggled in Patois with the young man selling us the fish, and the man finally slapped the fish onto a rough board and straddling the open gutter, began to gut and bleed it into the gutter. Wielding his 15 -inch long cutlass expertly, he filleted the fish, cleaned it up, and wrapped it in rough newspaper. We paid and left him wiping fish blood onto his dirty pants and waiting for the next customer.

That night, Pius busted out his cooking ju-ju and fried that fish with some of his heavenly herbs and spices. He was very close mouthed about his recipe even though Joanne and I kept a very close eye on him. We ate, drank and danced until late. I had Pius's keyboard out for fun and he had it programmed to play some Reggae riffs that he could sing along to. Paul badgered me to play Stride boogie Woogie piano and scoffed at me when I couldn't do it. I told him I play Be-bop and to kiss my ass, and he just laughed condescendingly. Need I say, he himself can't play a note of piano, but everyone is a critic.

Frances took us on a wonderful excursion into the fruity byways of the island. He seemed to know everyone, and they knew him. He was rumored to have three "lady friends", each with several children. This was the way of St. Lucian men. They started one family, and moved on to start another, and kept very loose alliances with all involved. We liked Frances. He flirted with us and was open and friendly. For a price, he would drive us most places.

(Frances working it with his cutlass)

We tooled around windy back roads. Every so often, Frances would jump out, saunter into someone's front yard, pull some fruit from one of their trees, then cut it up for us with his cutlass. We ate fresh mangoes, guavas, and cashew fruits ,which are brilliantly red and very tart. The immature cashew hangs from the bottom in a hard little nutcase which, of course, is cashew shaped.

At one point Frances cut the ends off of fresh green coconuts and we drank the refreshing milk inside and ate the slippery gelatinous white flesh.

Me drinking the nectar of the Rainforest

Later that week, we planned a visit to the Castries market on Saturday. Castries is the main city on the island of St. Lucia, and the cruise ships stop there to let fat tourists off for a few hours so they can buy some wooden carvings and maybe a banana. We collected our motley volunteer crew of the usual suspects: myself, joanne, paul, Rebecca , and booked a transport off to the market. The transport stopped all along the way and picked up so many extra passengers, we felt like we were in a clown car. The driver kept telling us to scoot in closer until our thighs started to meld with the neighboring passenger's. Transports were in the habit of blasting Reggae music as loud as possible, and for burning several sticks of incense while driving to erase the smell of too many sweaty bodies crammed into a small space. It took about an hour to get to Castries and we were relieved to pry ourselves apart from each other, stretch our legs and escape the cumin-like stench of armpits.

As we arrived in the market, a cacophony of color met our eyes. This is the moment Anthony Bourdain forever lives for when he travels - to go to the local market. To smell, sample poke and fondle what is fresh and to give oneself over to a completely sensual experience. We were delighted. Stacks of mangoes, bananas, green pumpkins and other gourds, brightly wrapped sugar bombs, all were at our fingertips. The first thing I bought were hand-made rolls of cocoa paste wrapped in plastic and paper. They looked like giant chocolate cigars and smelled heavenly. I watched the powdery brown hands of the creator rolling more cocoa and was mesmerized. Then I bought a fresh mango and had it sliced open for me so I could eat it immediately, the juice running to my elbows. Joanne bought a huge purple plantain and ripped it open with her teeth, thinking it was a banana. Plantains need to be cooked, and they pucker the mouth like a starchy persimmon when raw. Joanne had a little fit.

"I can't believe this banana is so UNRIPE. They could have sold me a ripe one!" she complained.

When she tried to give the fruit back to the lady who sold it to her, the lady pitched a loud fit which quelled the music and easy-going atmosphereof the market immediately.

"No No No No No No! It's not right! I can't take that back! YOU bought it! And you bit into it! It's not right!" She insisted loudly. She was an ample women dressed in bright red scarves, a multi-colored skirt and a bright shoulder wrap. She swelled up like a large angry peacock to tell us white folk off about trying to get our money back.

"I don't want money back from you, I just can't eat this and dont' want it to go to waste!" Joanne exclaimed, thrusting the fruit at her.

The lady wasn't having it. The market roiled, muttering ensued, and the vendors looked at us and at one another. Were these hospital volunteers going to act badly? What was going on?

A homeless man seized the opportunity, and ran up to claim the offending fruit. "I can put that to good use! I'll take it!" he said. Joanne handed it over gratefully and we split.

I almost peed myself laughing. I knew the difference between bananas and plantains, and I knew Joanne biting into the fruit would be an interesting adventure. I am a bad friend and Joanne told me as much. We found we had to pay to pee in a public toilet guarded by a hard looking young woman, then pay MORE if we wanted toilet paper too!

We decided we did not like Castries too much.

Anchastenet is a beautiful harbor we visited, and we had to get there by boat. The gorgeous Piton mountains loomed along the far side of the cove. We had wanted to hike the Pitons, but the rain made all the trails much too treacherous so we settled for a boat ride. Because we were hospital volunteers, the boat captain let us ride for around $5 a piece. He quickly picked up some honeymooners from the beach, and promptly charged them a cool $50 for the same ride. We bit our tongues, and tried to speak quietly to him about how he was going to pull off charging us different prices in the same small boat, but he just gave us a steady look and we shut up. When we reached the beach, everything went smoothly, just like a James Bond Mission. The couple, fogged in by matrimonial bliss handed over 5 crisp tens, and sauntered off and the captain, having made his daily bread decided to lounge with us on the beach and drink away his largesse. We bought Aki, little green sour fruits much like a lychee with a large seed in the center that could be gnawed and sucked for hours. We lounged on little rented beach chairs, munched Aki, drank coke and ate more rotis. The boatman sank deeper under his hat, a Piton beer bottle lolling at his fingertips.

At some point we decided to wander the beach and we found some beach artisans selling charming little carvings of dancing people , turtles and dolphins. They cost the equivalent of $1 or $2 or so. Joanne got into a haggling New York mood, and started chiseling the prices down to 50 cents, 25 cents. I rained on her and said, "Dude, just pay the price and support the local economy wouldja?" But the beach vendors enjoyed the haggling and gave as good as they got. We bought all sorts of trinkets and everyone was satisfied.

The snorkeling was excellent. As we flippered our way lazily around the inner harbor I spied what looked like a ping pong ball gently wafting along the sand. I dove down an picked it up. It looked and felt like some sort of egg and I flopped up the beach on my duck feet to ask a dive instructor who was on the beach preparing for an excursion.

"Is this some sort of egg?" I asked him.

"Not only is THAT an egg, but it is a sea turtle egg, and there is a $10,000 fine for handling it!," he said in my face, eyes snapping.

The egg slipped from my nerveless fingers into the sand. I hastily scooped it up, hoping like hell it hadn't broken.

"I f-f-f-found it on the bottom of the ocean," I stuttered, dollar signs dancing in my head. I thought fast. I did not have $10, 000.

"I wasn't really sure if it was an egg, I've never seen one, it was in the water, are they usually in the water? I thought it was a ping pong ball and......ANYWAY, can't we just bury it and it'll hatch and we'll have a baby turtle and all that?" I was hyperventilating a little.

"No, no, " the guide said sadly. " Sometimes they wash out to sea when the tide comes in. Then they are done for."

"Well, anyway, I didn't know what it was and......Here you take it! I brought it for you!" I dumped the egg into his hand and took off down the beach. I found Joanne.

"Where is our boatman? Let's get the hell out of Dodge!" I said sotto voce, ditching my flips at the flipper shack, my head swiveling nervously.

"What? What's going on? I was going to have a drink....." Joanne said.

"I'm a fucking fugitive, man. I touched a contraband turtle egg and now I am wanted by the turtle police.....and we have to split, like Now!" I said urgently. There was no immediate sign of the turtle egg patrol assembling troops on the beach. Joanne laughed.

"See, that is what you get for making fun of me at the market! Karma!" Her eyes danced. "I'll bet that guy was bullshitting you!"

My heart was still pounding - ten THOUSAND, ten THOUSAND, ten THOUSAND. I wasn't so sure.

We rousted our now tipsy boat captain out of a smiling stupor and tried to persuade him to put a rush on our return trip. He did not rush one iota, but moved as slowly as a black trickle of molasses. We putted in a zig-zag path back across the bay. Still no signs of pursuit. I began to relax a little.

We made sure to tip him handsomely, both for the discount ride and for being good natured. When we reached the home dock he gave us his best four tooth minimum smile, tipped his hat and said, "Come sail with me anytime ladies!".


  1. I will never think of cumin in the same way ever again! I loved reading this story, especially the adventure with the sea turtle egg. That was a hoot! Your writing really transports the reader to the very places you describe, and the pictures inspire the imagination even more! What an adventure, and in such a beautiful place of the world! I look forward to reading more. Marijane

  2. I had some trouble posting a comment, so if you get this twice, sorry! I loved reading this story and will never think of cumin the same way ever again! The adventure with the sea turtle was a hoot. Your writing really transports the read to all the places you describe, and the pictures inspire the imagination even more! What an adventure, and in such a beautiful place of the world! I look forward to more adventures. Marijane