We took the bus to St Lucia’s capital, Castries yesterday. It isn’t far from Rodney Bay – about 25 minutes drive. Like other Eastern Caribbean islands, St Lucia has a good private bus service. You never wait long at the bus stop. Compared to Grenada though, this infrastructure is on steroids. The minivan buses are bigger and much more comfortable. As we drove, it became apparent why. The whole island seems to be on economic steroids. St Lucia has good, proper infrastructure – flourishing businesses, tidy buildings, good roads.
To be honest, I was surprised. It was tidier even than Barbados. Barbados of course, has areas which are so wealthy, it’s hard to believe, but much of the rest of the island was plain in comparison. St Lucia, wow. I wasn’t expecting this. We’d been before over three years ago, but it was another example of us being Caribbean newbies at the time. Just taking the bus then seemed daunting.
We approached Castries from the harbour side, where the cruise ships dock. Every night they pass Rodney Bay in the distance, lit up like chandeliers. Today however, was a no cruise ship day. Castries was quiet. We began to feel it as we walked around. No one was in the air-con cool, duty-free mall. The craft market was sleepy and calm.
A band played between the craft market and the fresh market. Steel pan and skanking reggae. Whether this free concert was a regular thing or not was unclear, but it was really good! Local people were gathered. The ladies in the fruit stalls were dancing their hearts out.
I was surprised again. Was Castries always like this? The happiness in the air was palpable. And it was hot – a really, really hot day. The tropical storm – now named Sebastien – is still sucking all the trade winds out of the region. On a side note, it’s a little close to Sailing La Vagabonde. The next twenty-four hours will be crucial. They’ve had their foot on the gas for the last day, so hopefully enough to power them out of the way.
We thought we’d have to journey for a while to get to Castries’ shopping centre. We turned up a street and it was right there. Aha. Again, not quite the centre we were expecting. I still find myself looking around for a department store, European-style, full of named-brands of clothes. It was hiding from me. Instead, we ate lunch on a shady balcony in the Blue Coral food court. It was good value, fresh Chinese food.
A couple of blocks away resides the largest church in the Caribbean (if Wikipedia is to be believed); Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. We went in and took a back pew. It’s painted in mural form. The paint casts a metallic sheen, making it look coppery. Two ladies were tying ribbons to the pews – seemingly for an upcoming wedding. A woman changed a baby’s nappy on a nearby pew while a homeless man took respite on another. This was real open-door policy.
Outside the cathedral, a crowd of people milled. This time though, no one sang or danced. People were staring quietly at a building opposite Derek Walcott square – where a four-hundred-year old Samaan tree towers over the park. The building opposite, called the Voyager Building, had burned down – just the previous day. Twenty-four hours ago. Details were still sketchy.
Tape surrounded the area and firefighters came and went. The building, burnt-out and destroyed, still smoked at its back. We could smell its acrid scent.
We carried on after a while, looking for a book store we’d heard of a few blocks away. Then, spontaneously, we stopped for ice cream in a little beach-style hut. Non-dairy, soursop-favoured soft serve. Soursop, a native Caribbean fruit, is akin to a mix of strawberry and apple with strong citrus notes. It was just the thing for cooling down.
As we ate, we chatted to the ice cream lady. She told us how she’d been developing her homemade ice creams for over fifteen years. Classy and practical at the same time, she was a pleasure to talk to. The Caribbean woman is a force to be reckoned with!
‘I had ginger and turmeric ice cream,’ she said, pushing back her glittering sunglasses, ‘but it ran out already. It’s quite popular.’
We asked her about yesterday’s fire. She paused. ‘The flames came over and we ran out, thinking it was coming towards us, but it didn’t. We were lucky. And it was only yesterday.’ She shook her head, but she smiled at the same time. It hit me then. Castries was understandably celebrating. They’d suffered a trauma – and made it through.