Saturday, August 1, 2009

Our next trip to St. Lucia will be the bomb

Southern St. Lucia boasts many fantastic things to see and do. But we goofed up a few times and our trip wasn’t quite the smoothest Caribbean excursion yet. We flew into St. Lucia’s southern airport, not knowing there were two, even though we’d booked a week-long hotel stay in the north. So our first mistake led to a 100US$ drive late at night to our hotel. We’d chosen Rodney Bay because we wanted to see St. Lucia’s version of Carnival in the nearby northern capital town of Castries, but soon we learned that the diving and hiking (all we wanted to do) are in the south, while the crowded beaches and expensive restaurants are in the north. And, even though Caribbean islands are small, travel from one end to another is usually tricky, expensive, and full of potholes.
Our second mistake was thinking that a country of 166,000 would host a party comparable to what a country of 1.3 million did; seeing St. Lucia’s Carnival led to a mild redefining of the celebration. There were some similarities: rum, dancing, tiny bikinis. But there were more differences: size (St. Lucians revel in groups of about 50, while Trinis parade together in the thousands) and music (St. Lucia’s soca asked you to tap your foot, while Trinidad’s soca inspires full-bodied wining). The last truck that we saw got us up and dancing, and as it drove by, the announcer said, “Let’s hear it for our visiting DJ from Trinidad!” Ah ha. We realized all Carnivals are not equal, and what we loved about Trinidad’s had a lot more to do with our love of Trinidad than Carnival. Our third mistake was visiting S. Lucia during their hurricane season. Most days, it poured rain (including during Carnival, which helped to cool everyone off, but decimated the aesthetics of the costumes, floats, and make-up).

Our fourth, and perhaps, largest mistake was misunderstanding how deeply a tourist economy can affect interactions with locals. I understand why it happens, but it takes some time to get used to relationships informed more by caricatures and stereotypes than anything else. One guy chatted us up for awhile and then offered to take us to Martinique, a smaller island 20 miles away. I expected there to be a price tag, of course, but I instinctively started walking away when he named his price: 1000 US$. We tried to explain that we didn’t have that kind of money, but he didn’t seem to hear us and only repeated and repeated the virtues of travelling on a private boat. Well, sure! Aaron’s favorite was when the trainer in the workout room at our resort turned off the soca and turned on Sting when Aaron walked on to the treadmill. “I’m an alien, I’m an illegal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York,” just doesn’t have the same kick as “Super Blue” by Faye-Ann Lyons. This only slightly trumped the beach vendor who took one look at Aaron before calling him a “F***ing German” before stomping off in the opposite direction. It’s given us a lot to think about in terms of travelling. And being white.
The days we got to the south were great. We went on a dive to a ship wreck in Soufriere—the amount of plant life and fish life that had developed in just 20 years was impressive. Some guys we met diving invited us out to the Fish Fry in Gros Islet; I was worn out, but Aaron went and got his fix of hanging out in crowded streets and listening to music.

We hiked to Pigeon Island, an important fort in the 1800s when France and England battled for St. Lucia.

We climbed up Gros Piton, the volcanic spire nearly 3,000 ft. above the Caribbean Sea. The shorter one, Petit Piton, is about 40 m shorter. Together, they create a stunning view accessible from all over the southern portion of the island. It was a gorgeous and quite vertical climb with denser vegetation than Trinidad. The town below Gros Piton, Fond Gens Libre, (“Valley of the Free People” in the French-based patois spoken on St. Lucia) puts the tourist fees toward maintaining the town and the trails. Goats and pigs roam around the mango, calabash, and papaya trees throughout the small village.

The botanical garden in Soufriere was also beautiful—lots of new plants and some familiar ones with fun Lucian twists, and beautiful humming birds.

We snuck into the fanciest resort I’ve ever seen early one morning as we drove down to hike the pitons. We sat down in the restaurant to have coffee, just to spend more time there, and walked around the spectacular grounds. As we went to pay, they told us that it was on the house—guess a couple cups of coffee didn’t warrant the effort of charging us (but those water guns on the table came in handy when the hungry tanagers tried to grab some sugar from our table).

So, next time we go, we’ll stay in the tiny, charming southern town of Canaries. We won’t go during the rainy season. And we’ll have to try to compare places to Trinidad less…

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