Helen of the Caribbean

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Marigot BayA few years ago I tested the idea of tropical Thanksgiving – and loved it. After a wonderful week in Puerto Rico the idea of escaping the cold during the holidays and doing something different has stuck with me. That is how my husband and I ended up in the tropics again during Christmas.

Saint Lucia is a tiny island in the Southern Caribbean. Volcanic in origin, the island is more mountainous than most and framed by two magnificent peaks, Gros and Petit Piton, that steeply raise out of the ocean near the town of Sourfiere. They are the island’s hallmark and a truly magnetic sight – you first see them on the approach from the plane and you just can’t avert your eyes! The Pitons anchor St. Lucia like two giant sails, as if the island were a boat sailing through the Caribbean.

Over several centuries since the first European settlers arrived, the island has changed hands many times between the French and the British. Their feud and competition for St. Lucia made it known as the “Helen of the Caribbean” or “Helen of the West Indies.” The British took definitive control in 1814 and today English is the island’s official language – and traffic moves on the left. But the French have left their mark, too. The majority of the population is Catholic and speaks French Creole (Kwéyòl) known as patois.

The book I took with me for this trip was Omeros by Derek Walcott, St. Lucian-born Nobel Prize winner in literature. The book, published in 1990, is an epic poem set in St. Lucia (but also traveling to other parts of the world through the narrator’s commentary and recollections) that echoes Homer’s Iliad. Its major characters include fishermen Achille and Hector as well as Helen, a woman for whose love they compete. There is also a blind Homer-like man named Seven Seas. Other characters are a retired English officer Major Plunkett and his Irish wife Maud, and the author himself clearly shines through the words of the narrator.

In St. Lucia we stayed at one of the ridge-top villas of Chateu Mygo, high above the beautiful Marigot Bay. It was an absolutely lovely place, with unforgettable views of the bay from the porch or the poolside – like this one below. Brief but intense morning showers made unbelievably vibrant rainbows a nearly guaranteed daily occurrence as we savored papaya, grapefruit, and soursop-rich breakfasts with a view.

Marigot Bay I spent delightful hours in this hammock enjoying complex verses of Omeros in the company of a curious little bullfinch.

Chateau Mygo We also went on a day-long sailing charter organized by our host and enjoyed an unforgettable sailing excursion from Marigot Bay to the Pitons. The trip included snorkeling at the base of Petit Piton and at the reef off Anse Cochon further north, and delicious grilled mahi-mahi served for lunch onboard. Did I mention unlimited drinks? I took Omeros with me on the boat for leisurely reading. Its words now help me bring a new life to my photos and tell the story of our time on the island in a different way…

St Lucia

Seven Seas rose in the half-dark to make coffee. Sunrise was heating the ring of the horizon and clouds were rising like loaves.
(…) Then, soaked like paper, the hills were a Chinese scroll and she saw a subtlety where none was before. Bamboo strokes. Wet cloud. Peasant with straw hat and pole. Fern spray. White mist. Heron crossing fresh waterfall (…) then he heard the crash of thousands of iron nails poured in a basin of rain on his tin roof.

It was a place of light with luminous valleys under thunderous clouds. A Genoan wanderer saying the beads of the Antilles named the place for a blinded saint. Later, others would name her for a wild wife. Her mountains tinkle with springs among moss-bearded forests, and the screeching of birds stitches its tapestry. The white egret makes rings stalking its pools. African fishermen make boards from trees as tall as their gods with their echoing axes, and a volcano, stinking with sulphur, has made it a healing place.

St LuciaSt Lucia

I saw a sail going out and a sail coming in, and a breeze so fresh it lifted the lace curtains like a petticoat, like a sail towards Ithaca. (…) I heard a moan from the village of a blowing conch, and I saw the first canoe on the horizon’s glittering scales. The old age of the wrinkled sea was in that moan.

St LuciaSt Lucia

In the mist of the sea there is a horned island with deep green harbours where the Greek ships anchor. (…) The horns of the island were peaks split asunder by a volcanic massif. Through ferns, Soufrière waited under springs whose smoke signalled the thunder of the dead.

PitonsPitonsSt Lucia

Now off to the capital city, Castries, where Derek Walcott grew up… Its harbor is a busy cruise ship terminal, with the famous Castries Market and brilliantly colorful Church of Immaculate Conception within a short walk. Don’t miss the Saturday market for delicious fresh fruits and local cooking, especially curry goat and cow heel soup.

It was a rusted port with serrated ridges over which clouds carried grey crocus-bags of rain; past its heyday as a coaling-station. Dredges deepened its draft and volcanic silt would remain on its bed, but liners, higher than the iron lance of the market, whitened the harbour and rose above the Customs. Every noon, a carillon sprinkled its yellow petals above a morose banyan. The Church of Immaculate Conception was numbering the Angelus. With lace frills on, balconies stood upright, as did the false pillars of the Georgian library; each citizen stood paralyzed as the bell counted the hours. A dozen halos of sound down through the ages confirmed the apostles.

CastriesCastries MarketCastriesCastriesChurch of Immaculate ConceptionChurch of Immaculate Conception

Alone, down Bridge Street, he caught the smell of the sea as the sunlight suddenly heightened the mutter of Mass from the cathedral, and the balcony uprights under which he passed rippling like water or the dead fountain once. (…) And I felt the wrong love leaving me where I stood on the café balcony facing the small square and the tower with its banyan. I heard my blood echoing the lifted leaves of the hills, and fear leaving them like the rain

Church of Immaculate ConceptionCastries

Back to the picture-perfect Marigot Bay

The oarsman veered the prow, braking an oar, and sculling it, until the canoe was entering a hill-locked lagoon — Marigot shot with fires of the immortelle, with a crescent beach as thin as the quarter-moon, virginal, inviolate (…) The harbour flecked by the wind that comes with Christmas, edged with the Arctic, that was christened Vent Noël; it stayed until March and, with luck, until Easter. It freshened the cedars, waxed the laurier-cannelle, and hid the African swift.

Marigot BayMarigot BayMarigot Bay

Finally, our last day on the island came, and with it the unavoidable questions about living in and leaving a paradise-like place. Do we have to leave already? But if we could somehow stay here forever… would we?

After a while the happiness grew oppressive. Only the dead can endure it in paradise, and it felt selfish for so long.

As we were saying farewell to the island, it gave us this final magnificent view of St. Lucia’s Atlantic coast on the drive back to Hewanorra airport. Coupled with Walcott’s words, it made me think of my time in Senegal visiting Gorée Island and the view of the Atlantic looking west from there…

One side of the coast plunges its precipices into the Atlantic. Turns require wide locks, since the shoulder is sharp and the curve just misses a long drop over the wind-bent trees and the rocks between the trees. There is a wide view of Dennery, with its stone church and raw ochre cliffs at whose base the African breakers end. Across the flecked sea whose combers veil and unveil the rocks with their lace the next port is Dakar.

DenneryDenneryDennery

Once you have seen everything and gone everywhere, cherish our island for its green simplicities

Omeros was a wonderful companion on my St. Lucia adventure, and it certainly made me a big fan of Derek Walcott. I even found a Polish connection in a passage where the narrator recalls a Polish waitress he met Toronto:

Her name melted in mine like flakes on a river or a black pond in which the wind shakes packets of milk. When she stood with the cheque, I tried reading the glow of brass letters on her blouse. Her skin, shaded in silk, smelt fresh as a country winter before the first snow. (…) Snow brightened the linen, the pepper, salt domes, the gables of the napkin, silencing Warsaw, feathering quiet Cracow; then the raven’s wing flew again between the white tables

We yank the iron-grey drapes, and the screeching pulleys reveal in the silence not fall in Toronto but a city whose language was seized by its police, that other servitude Nina Something was born into, where under gun-barrel chimneys the smoke holds its voice till it rises with hers. Zagajewski. Herbert. Milosz

Walcott also just gave me another reason to come back to London: he is working on adapting Omeros for performance in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse of Shakespeare’s Globe theater. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it but I will certainly try. Saint Lucia, I miss you already!

Read on:

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