Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Day One: Gros Islet

I wrote this entry on Friday, July 8, my first night on St. Lucia, but I didn't publish it until today so I could clean it up and add photos. For background on this series of posts, see the intro to my St. Lucia travel journal.

After more than a year of planning, I arrived in St. Lucia today, and it was amazing!

I'm pretty tired from getting up in the middle of the night for my 6 a.m. flight, but I want to go ahead and jot down some notes.

My flight (via JetBlue) was uneventful — easy even. My second flight was a few minutes late leaving JFK but still landed on time.

From the air approaching Vieux Fort, I could see the Pitons from my window seat — what a thrill! As we sank lower in the sky over Hewanorra Airport, one of my first impressions was of how colorful the houses were, an impression that would be strengthened everywhere I went for the rest of the day. This was a surprise to me — I had expected natural beauty, but not pretty towns and buildings.

I got through customs easily and then found Elias, a driver/guide arranged by the Bay Guesthouse, my first accommodation (out of two, one for each week of the trip). I settled in for the 90-minute trip to Gros Islet in Elias's minivan. Elias seemed like a man of few words, but he laughed when I joked about his severely cracked windshield having seen better days.

Also in the car with us was Elias's friend and colleague Henry. Between them, they gave me a great overview of the island while we listened to cool local music on the radio. The scenery was spectacular — deep valleys bordered by tall peaks and dotted with towering slender palm trees. Henry pointed out the banana trees and explained how the blue bags on the trees are meant to protect the fruit from insects and the elements. He mentioned that the banana industry used to be the biggest on St. Lucia, but now tourism has replaced it. Because of the importance of tourism, he said, people would be nice to me wherever I went, and that would be how my time on St. Lucia was different from my time at home. I replied, "Well, that's one way!"

We saw other sites as well. Elias and Henry pointed out an athletic stadium that is currently being used as a hospital (apparently, there was a fire at the hospital it is replacing). We went through Micoud and saw the village fire station. My guides also pointed out a prison at the top of a hill.

When we passed a vendor by the side of the road, Elias pulled over and bought us some fresh watermelon slices. The slices were messy but refreshing, which was welcome given that I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, plus shoes and socks — good attire for an airplane, but way off for the tropical St. Lucian climate.

We pulled over at a scenic viewpoint, and my companions laughed when I said, "Is this Dennery?" Henry said that I must have read a lot about St. Lucia to be able to recognize Dennery at a glance. I took some photos and then Henry offered to take my picture in front of the Atlantic backdrop.

We drove on and chatted more about the island. I really liked talking to Henry, but it was hard to hear him with the windows down, and whenever I looked back at him in hope of hearing him better, I worried that I was missing some spectacular view!

After a bit, Elias changed the radio to a sporting event. I had no idea what sport it was; Elias had to tell me that it was cricket. Apparently a big game was going on in Dominica. I asked Elias if he had ever been to Dominica, and he said that he has gone there for a Creole music festival.

I was surprised to see a sign for the Eudovic art studio, which told me we were near Castries — I hadn't realized we would go through the city on this drive. Elias pulled over at the Morne Fortune lookout point, and I was really struck by how beautiful Castries was. We took some more photos, and this time I got one of Elias.

We continued driving through Castries. The buildings were painted brilliant colors, and people were everywhere. School must have just gotten out, because there lots of kids in school uniforms. We passed a bookstore, and the city square, which was very pretty. I had come to not expect much of Castries based on comments I've seen here and there online, but from the car it looked like a cool city with lots of character and life — much busier than Cayman's George Town, the only other Caribbean capital I've been to.

On leaving the center of the city, we dropped Henry off and he wished me a good trip. If you ever read this, thank you, Henry, for the introduction to St. Lucia!

Finally we got to Gros Islet (meaning Gros Islet interior, not Rodney Bay, which technically is part of Gros Islet but is newer and more tourist-oriented than Gros Islet interior, which is a traditional fishing village). There are a few guesthouses in Gros Islet, but I get the impression that the only time tourists flock here is for the jump-up, a big street party that starts every Friday night (tonight) and typically goes on through early Saturday morning. But even that is an event for locals, and tourists just happen to come to it.

On riding through Gros Islet for the first time, I had a similar reaction as I had to Castries. I could tell that Gros Islet is poor, but the buildings are brightly colored, there are people everywhere, and it immediately appealed to me. It was more vibrant than I'd been expecting.

After a short time, we arrived at the Bay Guesthouse, an orange-colored building right on the sea. As we pulled up, I was greeted by Stephanie and Will, the owners. Will checked me in and showed me a binder full of tips and information about the island. It looked very useful and I was glad to see a list of Gros Islet restaurants inside of it — that was something I had been wondering about it. Inside my room was a copy of the binder, very convenient.

I immediately had a positive reaction to the guesthouse. Will and Stephanie seem like really nice people, and they have the sweetest dog. I had read previously that they had two dogs. I asked about this and was sad to learn that one of the dogs died only about a month ago.

As I got unpacked and cleaned up, I realized I could hear the sounds of the sea quite clearly in my room, which I love. My room is basic, perhaps a bit more rustic than I'd been expecting, but I like it. I have a round window that looks out onto a communal patio, with the sea just beyond it. As is typical in this area, the windows have no screens or glass, just blinds that you can open and close. The bed has a mosquito net that you can sleep under, and there is a kitchen with a fridge, gas range, and sink, plus plates, cutlery, and bowls.

The guesthouse also has a beautiful view of Pigeon Island (which is what you see pictured at the top of this post).

At this point, I was tired, but I wanted to get some local cash from Scotiabank (which is affiliated with my bank and doesn't charge me a transaction fee) and also to get a phone that will work on St. Lucia (I had read online that this is a good idea). I took a quick shower and put on a T-shirt and skirt that I wore often when I was on Grand Cayman last year. I was surprised to find that both pieces seemed way too heavy and hot, even though technically they're summer clothes. I changed into a lighter skirt and then left to do my errands.

On my way out, I gave Will a gift I had brought for the dogs — treats from the Polka Dog Bakery in Boston. I buy these treats for my own dog all the time. They come in several flavors, but for Will and Stephanie, I chose the peanut butter variety, because I think they smell good, and because they come in an orange canister that matches the color of the guesthouse.

Next I walked to the bus stop for my first ever St. Lucia mass transit experience! On my walk through town, I was struck by how close together the houses were, and how there was little to distinguish the private residences from the businesses. There were lots of people about and, with my fair skin (most people in St. Lucia are of African descent; I am of European and Mexican descent), I'm sure I stood out as a visitor. I got lots of male attention, but none that seemed too troublesome.

The bus stop was easy to locate, and I found that the bus operated very much like a Cayman bus, so I wasn't too surprised by anything. (Just as a sidenote, these buses are minivans, not large city buses like you would see in the States.)

Once we were en route, I realized I wasn't totally sure of the right stop. In fact, we passed the Rodney Bay marina, so I thought I'd gone too far when I asked to get out near the Rodney Heights Super J grocery store. Luckily, I had not gone too far, and a store employee helpfully pointed me toward the Baywalk mall, which was just a short walk away, and which looked nothing like an American mall. (That's a compliment, I just mean that it seemed normal sized instead of gigantic.) At the mall's Lime store, which fronts the street, I bought a phone for about $30 US. Included in the price was about $10 Eastern Caribbean dollars' worth of minutes, probably about 20 minutes.

Then I went looking for Scotiabank, which I knew was near the Coco Palm hotel. I walked around a little and wondered if I was in the right place — the Rodney Bay restaurant strip looked nothing like I'd pictured. To be honest, this wasn't something I had really researched carefully, but I had the impression there would be lots more people and lots more views of the water, or at least some indication that the water was nearby. I'm sure the area is more interesting in the high season, but today it struck me a bit lifeless and bland. Eventually, with the help of a friendly local, I ascertained that I was close to Scotiabank, and I got my cash. Unlike the Scotiabank ATM in Cayman, there was no option to get U.S. dollars, but I didn't that want that today anyway.

I'd been thinking about eating at Ti Bananne, which I'd heard has good West Indian food, but the whole Rodney Bay area seemed so empty, and I hadn't brought a book or my travel journal or anything. I decided it might be better to go back to Gros Islet. On the way, I stopped for some provisions at the Rodney Heights Super J. I bought bagels, soymilk and, after a bit of hesitation, coffee. (Hesitation because I had not seen a coffee pot in my room, though I did see cone filters, which was promising.) I started walking in the direction of Gros Islet, but was able to flag down a bus before I'd walked far. Then I rode the bus to the end of the line, which was just a few minutes' ride, then walked the few short blocks from there to the guesthouse.

During that walk, a lot of guys insisted that I stop and chat with them. I'd known that Caribbean men would be aggressive, but as I tried to exit each situation in a friendly way, it occurred to me that I was going to need to find a faster way of rejecting men or I'd be losing a fair bit of vacation time in the name of politeness. Once back in my room, I put on a fake engagement ring I'd brought for this purpose and hoped it would help. Then it was time for a little more cleanup and back out in search of a badly needed dinner.

I followed the guidance in Will and Stephanie's binder and went to Flavours of the Grill, which was just a block or so from home. The menu there was all very meaty, but when I said I was a vegetarian, the chef offered to make me something veg. While waiting, I sat at the bar and chatted with a couple from Toronto, Jack and Amy (well, he's British, but they live in Toronto). They said that they were staying at the Landings and had been there for about five days already, and had two days left in their trip. When I said it was my first night, they asked how I already knew about Gros Islet, which made me feel very in the know.

While we talked, I ordered the local beer (Piton), which is a fairly light brew, but still good, and well suited for downing quickly in hot weather. The interior of the restaurant is hot pink and blue, with lots of windows, so that the outdoors seems quite near. The restaurant also has a huge front porch and, when my food was ready, Amy said we should all go sit out there and eat together.

My meal was really good — it was a soy-potato-rice mix, with vegetables and salad on the side. The soy was that crumbly mix made to look like meat, which generally is not my favorite, but the vegetables and flavorings were good, and it was relaxing sitting outside listening to the music of the burgeoning street party. I knew I would be way too tired to stay up and see the party in full swing, so this was a nice alternative. Also good was the conversation. I especially enjoyed hearing about Amy's travels in Southeast Asia.

After we'd all had a few drinks and cleared our plates, Jack and Amy were ready to go walk around, and I was ready to call it a night. We said goodbye and I went inside to settle my bill. First of all, so cheap! ($33 EC — $25 for my meal, I believe $5 for a beer, and the rest tax.) Second, I realized Jack must have paid for a few of my Pitons. If you guys ever read this, next time the drinks are on me!

As I left, I thanked the chef again for my meal, and I thought he seemed incredibly nice.

While I walked back to the guesthouse, the street party played a tune that sampled "Billie Jean," which seemed perfect for me, and I figured things couldn't get much better! I'm under the mosquito netting now, about ready to crash. Tomorrow, Pigeon Island!

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Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.