Saturday, August 20, 2011

Day Four: Castries

For background on this series of posts, see the intro to my St. Lucia travel journal.

July 11 — Today I headed to Castries. I mainly wanted to go to the central market, which I had read was a classic Caribbean experience not to be missed, but I also wanted to stop by the square and the cathedral, and just get a sense of the city's flavor.

Before leaving I made a dinner reservation at the Cliff at Cap. The "sample menu" on their web site doesn't show any vegetarian options, but I had e-mailed them a few weeks earlier, and the chef had written back, asked me what type of vegetarian I was, and expressed enthusiasm about cooking something non-meaty for me. All I had to do, he said, was call in the morning for a reservation. So that's what I did, mentioning when I called that I was a vegetarian who doesn't eat fish, and offering a brief recap of my e-mail correspondence with the chef. I wasn't sure if this was necessary but figured it might be safer this way.

I actually had gone back and forth on whether I really wanted to spend so much money on a meal (it would probably be over $100), but after re-reading the chef's e-mail, which said "I know you are going to enjoy my vegetarian creations," and "Looking forward to cooking for you," I decided to go ahead and splurge.

On my way out, I saw the dog, Pepsi, sleeping against the guesthouse near the open door to the office. Inside, Stephanie sat pecking at a laptop, and a cat leaned against the wall, sleeping in much the same posture as the dog. I asked Stephanie about getting a cab for that night. Previously she'd mentioned that they knew a driver, James, who did short trips for their guests at a cheaper rate than other drivers. She said she'd set it up for me. I thanked her, and she said, "enjoy Castries."

On my way to the bus stop, I asked someone where I could get cocoa tea and was directed to a lime green building near the bus stop. (Not the building pictured at the right, though it was a similar color.) The place where I got the tea did not have a sign, but if you are looking for it, it is next to the vegan restaurant, on the same block as the Galaxy Internet cafe. The woman who sold me the cocoa tea (for $2.50 EC) seemed pleased that I was so happy to have found it. I asked her what the name of her restaurant was and she said it was The Creole Kitchen.

I'd like to be able to say that this tea was better than the tea from Ti Bananne, but I can't! The Creole Kitchen tea was good, but a little sweet for my taste.

I wasn't sure if you're allowed to have beverages on the bus, but I did it. I sat behind the driver so he'd be less likely to notice the tea. As I recall, there weren't too many people on the bus that morning. I took it to the end of the 1A (Gros Islet-Castries) line, which is perhaps a 10- or 15-minute trip — a nice ride. As I disembarked, I asked the driver for directions to the market and he pointed out to me where to go; it was quite close.

While walking, I glanced at my watch. I'd read that you should get to the market early for the best selection. It was about 9:15, which I figured probably wasn't all that early, but oh well.

Upon arriving I saw that the market had an outdoor area and an indoor area. Outdoors was mostly produce, which I wasn't interested in. On entering the indoor area, I didn't see much at all. The space was cavernous, and there were tables, but most were empty. There was water on the concrete floor, as if the area had recently been hosed down. This reminded me of the cleanup work we did when I was a volunteer at the zoo in Boston. Not a great association. Was I actually too late?

I walked around and the few vendors who were there called to me and tried to interest me in their wares. I bought three bags of spices from one, and three from another — saffron, more saffron, curry, basil (spelled "bazil" on the label), nutmeg, and a small assortment of different spices. Some of this was for me, others for people back home. I love to cook, so I was happy with the purchases, but I was underwhelmed by the market. Disappointed, I decided to seek out the vendors' arcade, which I'd read was a good place to buy local crafts. The arcade was across the street, right on the water.

Upon entering the arcade, I noticed some necklaces and was almost immediately accosted by a woman who said her name was Charmagne. She kept saying of her necklaces, "I designed these myself." The coconut-shell necklaces weren't really my style, but I liked the black, volcanic-rock ones. I think that this was my first time seeing one of these necklaces, but I had read before coming that they were everywhere, that they all looked the same, and that the vendors all said "I made it myself." Still, I guess I was taken in by "I designed it myself," and I liked the light-blue and black colors in the necklace, so I caved to the intense sales pitch and bought it for $40 EC. I felt a bit stupid when I walked 10 feet and saw an identical necklace at another table, but oh well. I am basically happy with the purchase. The only downside is that it's long — I can really only wear it with a deep V neck or scoop neck. I also discovered, quite by chance, that it pairs well with my black, halter-style bathing suit, but outside of a J. Crew catalog, who does that?

As I walked around the arcade, I did not see any other shoppers, and many of the vendors said I was their first customer of the day. In general, I found these vendors unbearably pushy. It was impossible to look at any merchandise without the seller immediately coming and insisting that I buy whatever I was looking at. If I said that I was just looking, sometimes they kept pushing, other times they backed off looking utterly miserable and bitter. I might have stayed longer, but it just wasn't a pleasant place to be. I tried to say goodbye to Charmagne on my way out, but she seemed to studiously avoid my gaze. I wondered if she felt awkward about the fact that I probably now knew she did not design the necklace herself.

After leaving the vendors' arcade, I was feeling a bit disappointed with my morning so far, but I tried to stay confident that it was going to get better. I decided to go looking for postcards — I wanted to be sure to mail some today so they'd have a prayer of getting to their recipients in Boston before I got home.

I went into a stationery store. I noticed lots of school supplies and wondered, not for the first time, why so many people say that tourists should bring school supplies from their home countries to St. Lucia. It seems like the island has a decent supply of these things. Wouldn't giving money be a better idea than dragging stuff from Europe or North America? Perhaps there is something I don't know. In any event, I did not see any postcards, so I went to another store that comprised a few rooms stocked with housewares and various odds and ends. In one of the back rooms, where the attendant watched TV, I found a stand full of postcards. I bought about eight and figured I'd mail half today and half later.

During this period, I had wandered onto Bridge Street, which was somewhat close to the shipping docks, which I'd been told to avoid for safety reasons. However, apparently I had not ventured too close to the bad area. Everywhere I went, the streets were full of people and felt as safe as any busy downtown. Since leaving the market and the vendors' arcade, I also felt somewhat anonymous, which was nice — most people just ignored me, and for once men weren't trying to pick me up.

I went inside a mall called Blue Coral and found a Rituals coffeehouse, where I bought a latte (served in a real ceramic cup, not a paper one — nice!) and a "primavera" croissant. Unlike The Creole Kitchen, this business had U.S.-style pricing to match the Starbucks font and tall/grande sizing. I think I paid $25 EC for the drink and the snack. While I ate, I wrote in my travel journal and worked on my postcards.

After a bit, I decided to go walk through the square. It was easy to find. On the way, I noticed the public library building (the red and white building pictured above and to the right) — very pretty!

I noticed that most of the gates to the square were shut. There was also some activity going on inside the square, with people setting up speakers and tents. I wasn't in a huge hurry to get inside, so I decide to stroll around the square first and admire the surrounding buildings, which were blue and pink and green, some with dormers, balconies, and ornate lattice work.

As I walked, I wondered what was going on inside the square. I walked all around and finally saw an open gate. I asked if it was OK to come in and a guy said yes. He said that they were setting something up for later in the day, but then I thought he said it was for Carnival, which wasn't until next week, so I was confused. Anyway, the square was very pretty, with a teal-and-pink fountain, a large tree said to be 400 years old, a World War I monument, and busts of poet Derek Walcott and economist Arthur Lewis, the two Nobel prize winners from St. Lucia. The square was actually renamed Derek Walcott Square in 1993. Walcott has had some harsh things to say about tourism on St. Lucia, so it felt a little weird to be here as a tourist taking photos of stuff with his name on it, but oh well.

I wasn't in the square long when it started to rain. I ignored it until it started coming down hard, then I bolted for the cathedral, which was across the street.

The cathedral was larger than I expected, and it lived up to reviews — it was beautiful inside. The walls of the cathedral had a green and gold pattern, and the murals, all re-done in the '80s by St. Lucian artist Dunstan St. Omer, depicted characters from the Bible as dark-skinned people against boldly colored backgrounds. All were very striking, as were the stained glass windows.

I sat down in one of the pews so I could dry off a little. After a bit, I got my postcards out again and finished another of them. There were quite a few people inside the church. If I had to guess, I'd say that most were there to worship, not sightsee. After I'd been there perhaps 20 minutes or so, a local woman came up and started talking to me — but she had me confused with another tourist she'd met a few days ago. She mentioned that a mass would be starting at 12:30, and it was already noon. I figured I'd better walk around and get some photos before the mass. I took tons of pictures (unfortunately many came out fuzzy — I'm not sure why) and left about 10 minutes before the planned service.

I went outside — it was sunny and beautiful now — and walked a ways to another little square, which I did not see a name for. Its centerpiece seemed to be a branchless tree, and it was crowded. A guy started talking me, but I didn't understand what he was saying. He didn't seem like a vendor or a beggar, but I decided to leave anyway. As I was exiting the square, I noticed a dark-haired girl sitting on a bench; she smiled and waved. It was my neighbor from the Bay Guesthouse. I waved back before leaving.

At this point, I decided to return to the market because I felt I probably hadn't bought enough spices for myself. I kept thinking of how cheap the saffron was! Of course, it came ground up, which is not the best way to buy saffron (it's best to buy it in thread form). But saffron is so expensive at home, I wasn't about to be picky about these large pouches that were selling for $5 EC. I'm not sure exactly how big the pouches were, but certainly they were larger than what you would get with a standard bottle of ground spice, much less the 15 or so strands you get in a $12 bottle of saffron.

So I walked back in and was stunned. At first I thought I was in the wrong place. The market hall was jammed with vendors and stuff and people. I guess 9:15 had just been way too early!

I wandered through the market some more, looked at a lot of things, but I don't think I bought anything other than more spices — a bunch more saffron and a few others. After a bit, I found myself wishing I'd followed through with my original plan to bring the reusable Super Js shopping bag I'd bought on my first first visit to the grocery store. My spices were a bit cumbersome to carry — the vendors had all given me small plastic shopping bags, and there wasn't an easy way to consolidate them. I considered buying one of the many touristy cloth bags on sale at the market, but I didn't really want to spend money on one.

As I walked around, I kept an eye out for carvings. I had heard there would be a lot of these. My dad likes to carve, so I thought that I might find an interesting carving for him, but in general I was disappointed with the offerings.

Eventually I wandered into a long row of food stands, which was just outside the craft area of the market. There were two long rows of kitchens and food vendors, and in between were tables where you could sit to eat. It was like a courtyard, with the tables all being under awnings or the open sky.

I asked around and found a vendor who had cocoa tea. She asked me how hot I wanted it and I wondered what the choices were — scalding versus hot? I gave a vague answer. While I waited, a took a photo of the table across from me, where a boy was napping, and I finished up my last postcard that I wanted to mail that afternoon.

The tea came and it was very good, though I wondered if it was insanely fattening to drink two of these things in one day.

At this point I realized I needed to think about getting home. I wanted to have plenty of time to clean up before dinner. I'd asked for a 5:45 pickup, which is much earlier than I usually eat, but I thought it would be nice to have a cocktail while watching the sunset.

I walked back through the market looking at this and that, being careful to avoid a few vendors who every time they saw me thought I was coming back to buy the thing I'd been looking at previously in their stall. When I got to the market's exit, I saw that it was raining hard again. I waited a bit and then it let up significantly, and I set off in the direction of the post office. Again, I thought about carvings. Had I really checked the vendors' arcade well for these? I decided to stop back in and look, but again the vendors were as welcoming as hungry vampire bats, and I ducked back out almost immediately.

While walking to the post office, I noticed a woman with a reusable Super Js grocery bag like the one I had at home. I asked her where the Super Js was, and she pointed it out to me. I figured buying another of these bags would be better than buying a touristy bag at the market, because I would actually use it once I got home for grocery shopping, and it would be kind of a cool thing to have because the logo says "For a cleaner St. Lucia." I also have an "I love Cayman" grocery bag that I shop with all the time, and I think it's awesome.

Suddenly the rain started coming down quite hard again, and I ran for the store. Unfortunately, they were out of reusable bags, but I was at least able to get a plastic bag that all of the spices fit into, so it wasn't a complete waste.

From Super Js, I went to the post office, bought some stamps, and mailed the postcards. Then it was back to the bus. Passing through the market one last time, I was again tempted by the spices, and realized I should get a few selections for my dog walker and her partner, who are great cooks and often have me over for dinner. While I was at it, I picked up some star anise and cocoa sticks, so I could try making cocoa tea when I got home. Then I trundled into a bus. I'm not 100% sure that it was on this bus trip, but I think this may have been the bus ride where the radio played Kenny Rogers' "Through the Years" — a bit surreal, but I would hear a lot of more of Kenny before the trip's end.

Back at the guesthouse, I borrowed an iron from Will and pressed a blousey short-sleeved grey shirt with a wide rectangular neckline, one of my favorites, and my flared white linen trousers. The island seemed incredibly casual — even more so than Grand Cayman and Martha's Vineyard, two other mostly casual islands I've been to. Still, I figured I should take it up a notch.

I also took the opportunity to quiz Will about the best way to get to Vigie Marina by bus. The next day I was planning to go on a whale watch with Hackshaw's Boat Charters, and I figured if I could get there cheaply by bus, that would be the best way to do it. Will got out a street map of the area and showed me where I should ask to disembark from the bus and showed me which route to walk to get the rest of the way there. He also gave me estimates of how long he thought it would take, and told me to feel free to take the map with me, which I thought was nice.

Before long, it was time for dinner. My taxi arrived; I got in and we headed north toward the restaurant. The driver, James, told me a little about the Cap Estate area as we drove through it. The area is full of rolling hills and is very exclusive, or so I gather.

After a few minutes, we arrived at the gate to Cap Maison, which is the resort that houses the restaurant. I walked inside and thought, "Ah, this is how the other half lives." Everything looked luxurious!

You have to walk through the resort to get to the restaurant, which is on the water's edge. It is an open-air affair — under a roof, but without walls, like Ti Bananne. The floors of the restaurant, the railings, and most everything else were wooden, and there were lanterns placed strategically throughout. (As it got dark later, these looked very pretty.) It was also completely deserted, perhaps not surprising given the early hour. I was greeted by a bartender who wore a wedding ring but still checked me out unapologetically — ugh.

The bartender asked if I had a reservation and I said yes, giving my name. He checked a book and seemed quite certain that the reservation was for two, though I know I had said one. I mentioned that I was the vegetarian, and he immediately looked stressed and said "but you eat fish, right?" I said no, and he hurried off to go check with someone. Given the effort I'd put in to making sure this wouldn't be a problem, I was a little irritated, but he came back and said it would be fine.

I went to sit at the bar, taking the opportunity to look around a bit more. To the west was Pigeon Island, to the south were some other hills, and to the north, open water. All around below were rocks in the water, which, as advertised, were very beautiful and dramatic. The bartender asked if I would like him to surprise me with a special cocktail. I said sure. He grinned deliriously and was very showy about making the drink, then did a little trick where he flipped the glass over without spilling anything. Since the drink was red and I was wearing white, I can't say I enjoyed the display, but nothing bad happened. After all that, the cocktail was just OK. It tasted sort of like Kool-Aid, and I wished I'd picked out something on my own.

As I sipped the drink, the bartender chatted with me. It was OK, but there were a few too many questions about whether I had a boyfriend, why was I alone, and so forth. One of his first questions was, where are you staying? I found myself wondering, why is that always the first question these men ask — so they can come find you after you blow them off? A little icky, but what are you going to do, lie about it? Maybe that would have been the best strategy, but in general, I'm not good at concocting stories. Thus far in the trip, wearing the fake engagement ring was the extent of my lying and, perhaps unwisely, I hadn't been telling stories about a fiancé, because I didn't think an elaborate deception would hold up under questioning, and I also didn't really want to bother.

Eventually, the bartender went to join a staff meeting that was taking place a little ways away. They sky grew darker and it seemed that quite a while passed. I took some pictures. A couple came in and sat at a table in the bar area — he wore a suit, she wore a bright red dress with spaghetti straps. I read my book, but I was distracted by the fact that I was getting hungry. Finally someone who looked like a staff member came back to the bar, and I asked if I could be seated. He gestured toward the ongoing staff meeting and said that I could be seated when they were finished. Actually, I believe he said that I could be seated when they were done with their prayer, but I'm not positive.

Finally the flirtatious bartender came back over and began trying to pick up where he left off. I asked if I could be seated. For some reason, he seemed completely surprised by this. Still, he led me to a table, in the covered area of the restaurant. It wasn't a bad table, but I noticed there were other tables one level down that were closer to the water, though these were not under a canopy, so this would be risky if it rained.

As I was being seated, so were a few other parties, including the red-spaghetti-strap woman — she and her boyfriend were being led to a solitary platform way down below, right over the water, with a single table set up dramatically at its center. I'm not positive, but I think it was probably the platform you see pictured on the sample menu page of the restaurant's web site. I wondered if they were having a special dinner of some sort. I considered this and decided it would be a nice gesture if your boyfriend arranged something like that, but I would have felt on display sitting in such a prominent place, especially later in the evening when the platform glowed with artificial lighting, which seemed extremely bright and unappealing as night fell all around it, creating a spotlight effect.

For my own seating, I decided I did want to be closer to the water, so when the bartender came back over, I asked if he thought it looked like rain. He said no, so I asked if I could move to the next balcony down. He looked uncomfortable and said he had to check on something. Since the restaurant seemed to be at about 5 percent capacity, I wondered what he was checking on, but he came back and did let me move.

As I got settled at the new table, some other people were seated at the one I'd just vacated. I heard the man at that table ask a server about the chef, Craig, and be told that the chef was out sick. Since Craig was the person who'd e-mailed me about his "vegetarian creations," I realized that I hadn't picked the best night to come.

As I glanced at the menu, I did find some vegetarian options in the prix fixe menu, which allowed for two courses or three. The vegetarian appetizer (green pea risotto) sounded good, the entrée less so (an assiette — an assortment — of vegetables in a creole sauce). Still, when a waiter came to ask if the selections were OK, or if he should speak with the chef about making me something else, I wasn't sure what to say. I guess I could have asked for a different option, but I had no idea what would be a reasonable request, so I said I'd stick with the menu. The prix fixe menu listed fairly boring desserts, so I asked to see a dessert menu. It took a while for that to show up, but when it did, I decided that its desserts looked much better (it included a chocolate fondue and a tiramisu, which, if memory serves, had some sort of mango angle). I decided to just do the two-course dinner and order dessert separately. I also ordered a glass of prosecco, which was delivered by the flirty bartender with cringe-inducing flourish.

So, on to the meal: I was brought a complimentary gazpacho, which isn't my favorite, but it was pretty good. The risotto arrived shortly after. It was good — a generous portion and very filling. Then there was a long wait after the risotto during which I noticed other tables were getting a palate-cleaning sorbet. Mine never came, which wasn't a big deal, but as I watched the other tables receive their entrées, drink refills, and lots of attention, I wondered if I was being ignored because I was a solo party. As I waited, I overheard a conversation between two couples seated at two different tables. From their convo, it sounded like they were both staying at Cap Maison. The dining room seemed sparsely populated, and I wondered how many of the dinner guests were also resort guests, and what it would be like to stay here. The resort seemed so pretty, yet also very much removed from regular St. Lucia life.

After what seemed like a long time, my entrée showed up, and sadly it was pretty boring. I'm not 100% sure I remember what all the vegetables were, but I'm pretty sure that broccoli and carrots dominated the plate. These are among my least favorite vegetables. They just seem like they belong on a cold vegetable platter, the kind they sometimes set out in my office and which everyone ignores. The sauce had a decent flavor but it also had an odd aftertaste and was thin to the point of being runny, like a broth. On the upside, the meal was probably really healthy, but for these prices, I wouldn't have minded a little fat.

Still, the setting was very nice, with the beautiful view of Pigeon Island, the sounds of the water washing against the rocks, and what I was told was the singing of tree frogs.

Unfortunately, while I was eating, the annoying bartender began stopping by to pepper me with more inappropriate questions. Also, another suitor reared his head: one of my servers, a somewhat beefy guy. Between the two of them, it seemed someone was always at my table bugging me. After a bit, I realized I wanted to get away from these people. It would have been nice to sit and enjoy the atmosphere and dessert, but I was weary of the attention, and over the course of the evening, the service had been slow enough that if I stayed much longer I'd be getting home later than I wanted to. I asked the bartender if he could have the uneaten portion of my entree wrapped, and he looked utterly horrified. No dessert? No, I said. He then asked what we would be doing the next day -- not joking at all, so far as I could tell -- as if I'd already agree to see him and we just needed to firm things up. Oh god! This was going to be a $100 meal easily. It seemed the price should have implied a no-harassment provision, but maybe that's just me. I demurred politely and he looked unhappy but seemed to accept it.

The bill came and it was way too high — there was a mysterious $80 EC charge that just said "open food" and clearly didn't belong there, as everything I'd ordered was already clearly listed on the bill. I said something to one of my admirers and he went away for a long time, then came back with a smaller bill and said that the person who'd prepped the first one thought I'd had dessert. Since the desserts each cost $40 EC, that didn't sound like the real explanation, but whatever. As I was getting ready to leave, the beefy waiter was full of questions about what I would be doing the next day. Apparently this guy had not gotten the memo that the first question to ask is, "where are you staying," because he seemed shocked when I said I had to get a cab. He declared, "Oh! You're not a guest here!?", in a tone that suggested this was just the worst news he had heard in some time. I couldn't help but wonder whether this rather chubby, average-looking person was in the habit of shacking up with the wealthy women who stayed here, as his dismay suggested. Not likely, I thought, but later in the trip I would re-think this.

After leaving the restaurant, I sat on a lawn chair in a common area while I called James to tell him I was ready.

I strolled back through the resort grounds and had just reached the front gate when I heard my name being called frantically. I turned and saw the beefy waiter literally running toward me, waving the folder that contained my charge slip. He said that I had signed the wrong copy. I apologized and he led me into an office so I could sign the right one. "Don't feel bad about it," he said, and went to fetch a pen. He went searching for a ballpoint, and as the minutes passed, I started to get annoyed, because I didn't want James to pull up outside and wonder where I was. Though I felt bad about signing the wrong slip, I thought back about the many thousands of restaurants I've eaten at in my life. I'm sure that over the years I've occasionally signed the wrong copy of the charge slip, and no one has ever raised a dramatic red flag about it. Still, I thought, maybe this guy is just quite thorough.

As I signed the bill, he reminded me that I could add a tip, which I already had been planning to do. (I pretty much always tipped 20% everywhere I went, even though most restaurants on St. Lucia already add a 10% service fee. I figure I don't know how the tip is distributed, so I should make sure to tip the people who served me. Even so, I was annoyed at being asked to do it.)

Afterward I went back outside to wait for James. I was fully expecting the beefy server to go back to the restaurant, but no, he stayed, focused beady eyes on me and laid into a razor-sharp interrogation on topics such as how much longer I'd be on St. Lucia, what I was doing the rest of the week, and so forth. This is a fucking nightmare, I thought. "What is your phone number," he asked. "I don't have one," I lied. Pause. "How did you call for your cab?" he asked. Holy fuck, is this a guy a cop? He added, "Did you call from the front desk?" Why yes! I said.

I was getting the hang of lying, but unfortunately I had not overcome my inability to be blatantly rude to someone's face, which probably would have been a good tactic in this conversation. I blame my Midwestern upbringing. So while I was sticking with polite responses such as "I'm going to be busy, but thanks for the offer" — which would have instantly repelled a Boston guy — these had no effect on the beefy waiter except to spur him to say in a low gravelly voice, "You shouldn't be so shy," which made my stomach threaten to expel that boring, heart-healthy assiette all over him. Instead out came a lie ("You know, I have a boyfriend") which, amazingly, sent him scurrying back to the restaurant like a lizard, just as James pulled up. Yup, I need to start lying a lot more, I decided.

I got into the minivan, and James presented me with something I'd lost on the trip there — a little tin of Altoids, they must have fallen out of my pocket. As we headed back, I found that chatting with normal, laid-back James was a pleasure after the intense scrutiny of the libidinous Cliff at Cap staff. (At least, I think they were libidinous — or perhaps they think American women are rich and looking for a kept man? No idea, and perhaps best not to speculate.) James dropped me at the guesthouse and I headed straight to bed so I could be up early for the whale watch.

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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.