There are big things that define a country but perhaps it’s the little, quirky aspects of a nation that tell you more about the people. In St Lucia one of those quirks is the love of Country and Western music.
Perhaps it’s just me but I would have thought that a musical style with its roots in the ‘red neck’ heartland of what was once Confederate America would have no resonance with a nation whose roots go back to Africa and slavery.
But you don’t have to get too far off the beaten tourist track to find that this is an island wide addiction.
Walk along the streets of any town and you will hear Tammy Wynette belting out D.I.V.O.R.C.E or even some more contemporary C+W music that makes reference to the World Wide Web, no idea by who.
It’s the same on the buses (more minibuses holding about 15 people) which ply the routes between the island’s towns and villages and CDs of C+W music are available on the street side stalls.
I can’t remember where it was but when I first came across this the music had been chosen in my honour, in my self-centred arrogance being the only one in the bar. When I asked about the choice I was told that there was a big following throughout the island and there had been for some time.
Why it’s so popular I haven’t been able to find out, and now there’s no time to discover the reason. Perhaps the desire to be miserable from time to tie is universal?
It wasn’t a place of choice (my flight arrangements meant that I arrived here in St Lucia from Trinidad) but it has worked out well. That’s not taking into account the problem with accommodation in the Caribbean tourist islands. One person staying for one day is almost certainly the worst of all possible combination. Even if available it is expensive for what you get. Nothing wrong just very overpriced. And the place I ended up being told about was about as far from the centre of Castries town as is possible.
But there are very regular and relatively cheap (EC$2 into town centre) minibuses running from all directions and at reasonable frequency (at least during the day time, things get quiet after dark and few and far between after seven).
The minibuses take you into the central market area and you are immediately in a Caribbean town. Although Castries does have the occasional cruise ship tying up (there was a smallish one there the day I arrived) it’s obvious that it’s not for the tourist attractions of the town. Castries is bustling, chaotic and seems to have been designed with no planning at all as no two adjacent buildings share the same architectural style. And with traffic that is generally respectful of the usual road user regulations and very quiet – I was expecting driving on the horn and a life and death struggle for pedestrians in getting around, but perhaps that is a result of my own anti-car prejudice.
Because it was getting later in the day when I arrived in town and because the place is not devoted to tourism the first problem was getting some money to buy a beer (or something else alcoholic). This is going to be a possible major issue during this trip as I will be landing on many different islands. I don’t know how many different currencies I might need during the trip but at least now, being on one of the islands that’s part of the Eastern Caribbean currency union I shouldn’t have too many problems. This covers the Grenadines, St Lucia and quite a few of the islands as it goes north-west in an arc from here. I was moneyless in Trinidad, not bothering to get money as I was only there for a matter of hours.
Anyway,back to Castries.
When I arrived it was after 16.00 and the place was full of schoolchildren of all ages, the different covered uniforms signifying school and level, as well as people starting to leave from work. Know nothing of the economic situation of St Lucia, apart from the dominance of tourism (at least in certain parts of the island), or of the levels of unemployment but there was definitely a feel of people doing their shopping on their way home.
Hadn’t eaten since on the plane the day before so a search for food was necessary. There was little street food as I assume that gets more of an affair later on in the evening so the fare was provided by a Chinese run fast food/bakery. St Lucia isn’t a cheap place to eat, I don’t think, the most basic and cheapest of dishes (which was more than enough for me at the time) costing EC$9 (about £2.10) so cheaper than the UK but not like Latin America.
But it had also been almost 24 hours since a drink and had identified a suitable bar earlier on my walk around the grandly named Castries City (the grid area of streets that form one of the oldest parts of the town). On the corner of Jeremie Street and Peynier Street there is a collection of three, one room bars – all open on to the street – right next to each other. All looked busy with people drinking both inside and out.
I choose one at random and asked for what I thought was one of the local beers. One of the local brands is called Piton (named after a couple of prominent volcanic peaks further south from Castries) and they produce what is called Piton Malta. I thought that this was a darker beer but imagine my horror when I discovered it was non-alcoholic. I nearly died of shame and hoped not too many people had noticed. However, by the time this had been disposed of I had realised what most people were drinking.
And that was the white rum. Now this was in a unlabled bottle and was being drunk by the gallon. I assume that it was a local, home-made variety. This is true fire water. It burns when it goes down and is way above the alcoholic level of the likes of Havana Club, which is a suave drink in comparison. You could also tell the strength of this shot as if iced water, available to hand on the customer side of the counter, was either added to the measure to make it a long drink, or a cup of that water was taken immediately after the shot was taken down in one go. As that was the way most of them were drunk. In, ask, pay, drink, go. And at EC$2 (£0.47p) a go, as opposed to EC$4 (almost a pound) for the soft drink, what would you choose.
I took my time as part of the exercise was to watch what was going on. Some like me were there for a longer time, taking more than one drink. At the same time there was a lot of movement. At times the place was almost full and then all of a sudden all but a few stalwarts remained.
But it was a friendly bar. I was the only white in there and as I was sitting on an extremely uncomfortable bench (too high and with no padding) close to the slot through which the money was taken and the spirit dispensed all had to come close to me. Many with a nod some offering their clenched fist to which I had to place mine. I’m sure there’s a name for this greeting but I’ve never heard it.
Either a hard physical life or too much of the rum but whatever the cause the ravages of time were shown on some of the faces. Mainly men, but a few women. Of all shapes and sizes, especially the women, some of them are big. And also with a huge variation in skin colour, showing the mixed racial history of the Caribbean islands.
I was quite happy to have stayed there longer than I did. As well as the white rum a popular drink was what was called paf (at least assume that is how it is spelt). This was a mixture of the white rum and another liquor which made if much smoother but personally I preferred the kick of the white rum, which lost its shock value after a few shots. This paf was recommended by Silvester, one of the more-than-one-drink patrons. And as he drank more and the movement in and out of the bar diminished as the town itself got quieter he came and sat next to me.
Now I’ll drink with anyone but for some unknown reason (to me) I always seem to meet the ones that want to preach. Silvester almost literally. I got a diatribe about god, the one and only true father, and love. He even ended up reading my palm and going so far off the mark it should have been statistically impossible. I thought we were having one last drink and he would go, but no. So I got him one last drink and went.
But I plan to go to that, or one of the other bars, tomorrow. I should have some time free before the voyage officially gets to start. Definitely my type of drinking hole.
So my first post from the warm and sun-drenched Caribbean, the sound of the waves lapping against the shore just below the balcony of my over-priced (but OK) accommodation for the night, a handful of yachts sailing off-shore and a slight breeze moving the leaves of trees and bushes I don’t recognise.
The ship has arrived in port and now off to find my home for the next 7 weeks or so.