Our first views of Saint Lucia, the place L dreamed of living or at least visiting, are from the air. As we approach our destination we see the pyramidal rocks and hills of the island–so beautifully symmetrical, like bell curves or pictures of hills drawn in first grade. The silvery blue of the water gives way to browns and parched green on the coast–like the trees are waiting on a bartender to bring them something good. We know we are.
We are giddy with anticipation. Dreams of standing with smiles surrounded by locals greeting us and handing us fresh and fruity cocktails that exist only on vacations filled our heads. We look into each other’s’ eyes. Finally, we say.
Like any modern journey, it hadn’t been easy. We arrived late the evening before in Atlanta, where we were quickly driven to the wrong hotel by a guy who charged about twenty-five dollars a mile. After some confusion and a lot of calls, we finally got a second cab to our actual hotel and as settled in as one could be when worried about waking up early for an international flight at one of the largest, busiest, most confusing airports known to humankind. After a couple hours sleep, we awoke early to get into another cab to the international side of the airport, conveniently located by car 150 miles from the main terminal. Fears of being late, of forgetting something, of being late again, and on and on made for an exhausting morning. Traveling with worrisome me made it twice as exhausting for L. But there we finally were–just about to land in the island of L’s dreams.
The airport is a sad little place, the sort of building where small gun shows and craft fairs are held, the place that was once a state-of-the-art “event center” but now has more of an abandoned pole barn feel to it. If the building was a woman, she might be introduced on stage as the first Miss Bluegill at the thirtieth anniversary pageant.
We follow the crowds, hoping someone knows what they are doing in this foreign land, as we hold tightly onto the customs slip we filled out on the plane, waiting in a line–is this the right line?–to confirm to a blank faced official (and I really do think they referred to themselves as officials) that we weren’t smuggling cigarettes and oranges into the country, before waiting in another line to get our bags. I had thought people in the United States hated their jobs, but the people stuck with the job of asking foreigners what they were doing in the country all day would win a job hating and people hating contest with a Chicago toll booth collector any day of the week. Our agent spoke with a mix of indifference and suspicion that made me doubt I was there on vacation.
“Where are you staying?”
“Uh. . . honey, where is that?” I wouldn’t do well in an interrogation. I almost arrest myself before we are told to “enjoy our stay” in a way that felt like a threat.
No one at all smiles until a paid smiler from Sandals directs us into their “lounge,” a small waiting room fitting the general feel of the airport. Water and a few snacks sit on folding tables. People and luggage line the walls. We’re hungry and thirsty, so we look forward to the snacks. “Rum punch,” someone says. Woohoo. We head that direction. Things are looking up.
As soon as we pour ourselves a small, slightly warm punch, a smiling man grabs our bags and tells us it is time to board the van to the resort. I wonder if he is a real van driver or if he is just stealing our bags. Still, I give up without a fight. We take one unsatisfying slurp and discard our first perk of the island.
On the overly air-conditioned van, we sit across from a couple from Minnesota, who remind me of potatoes–not potato heads, but entire potatoes. I don’t know why, but I can’t stop thinking about them in that way. They make many comments about driving on the wrong side of the road. It was their first such experience. “I couldn’t get used to that,” one says. I look in the center of both of them to avoid saying something potato related: “yep,” I say.
Up and down the windy roads we pass little groupings of shanties. Like a grouping of toadstools, they crop up in any little space flat enough to support a structure. They appear to be made of discarded objects, pallets, corrugated metal, tarps, whatever makes a wall. Some look like they weren’t designed, but just accumulated like heaps of wood in a tornado or rocket parts fallen from space. Every so often one of the wobbly buildings sports an advertisement for Coke. A sign reading “Live Positively” adorns what appears to be an outhouse.
Girls in school uniforms walk in lines on narrow paths along the sides of the road, somehow avoiding the speeding cars. The country is a perpetual blind spot. Mysterious men with shovels and sweat walk, perhaps contemplating the next ditch and their hatred of the next ditch. But holes must be dug in this country. Along the stretches where both sides of the road are steep–an unclimbable hill to one side and a slide to death on the other–particularly determined looking shirtless men with machetes walk alone. Their eyes glow red.
Bananas for sale. Coca Cola! A table with fruit beneath blue plastic Three people sit behind a table that supports maybe four bananas, some plantain chips, and what appears to be gum. Small business is really small along the roads in St. Lucia.
As we approach the capital city, the number of shanties increases, but now their monopoly on the housing market is threatened by outcroppings, little islands on the island, of nicer homes, built with materials intended for home building–all surrounded by razor wire fences.
A group of serious locals sit on park benches with knives in hand, but with nothing to cut. Pre-teen boys stand behind them eating sandwiches.
The traffic is jammed in the city and reaching our destination–paradise–seems impossible. I begin counting the minutes it takes to go a block and calculating the time of arrival based on my vague recollection of the distance to the resort. We will arrive almost in time to return. I look over at L and bury that thought in my mind. I think she’s thinking the same thing. “We’ll get there soon,” I say. “Yes we will,” she says. We both lie to save the other. The sluggishness of traffic reminds me of walking through a blizzard (and it was very cold in the van): tilting forward against the wind, struggling with each step, making no progress, seriously considering giving up and laying in the snow to let the elements take me to oblivion.
We do make it eventually, but not without having our dream of moving to St. Lucia partially destroyed. It did seem lovely, scenic, and warm–once we got off the bus–but the disparity between the paid smilers and the knife-carriers, the razor-wire protected and the Coke sign shanty dwellers, witnessed on the roller-coaster ride across country made us think that it might not be the best place to live. We prefer places where everyone is partially poor.
“Put your bags here. They’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure? We can take them ourselves. “
“No problem. We take them to the room for you. Come this way. You must sign in.”
We just want to take off our shoes, sit, and be alone. Know your audience, I say. We can’t be the only people who don’t want to do paperwork or be “oriented” after a long day of airport sitting, airplane riding, customs maneuvering, and wild bus riding.
Adding to the fun, I discover that my wallet had fallen out of my pocket in the van, pushed loose, no doubt, by the twisting roadways or by fear of men with knives. The van hadn’t returned to the airport yet, thank god, so I was able to retrieve it–after some panicked pleas on my part to the resort staff . I may have also inquired about a thousand times about the status of our luggage, which I would have rather taken to the room myself. It will be delivered, they kept saying. Then one of the welcome crew in white shirt and black pants offers us lemon water or something just as unappealing, thinking that would take the edge off and make us want to hang out. Sit, shoes, luggage, alcohol–that’s all we want. We politely (well, we think so) decline the long orientation tour, saying that we would come back and do it in the morning. There was no way we were going to walk around with the potato people learning things like where the workout room was. We could find it. The black pants white shirt crew seems disappointed with our choice.
So I steal the luggage from the lobby and we make the way down the rocky paths to our room. We walk in, put our things down, grab two beers from the refrigerator, and sit on our little patio. Ah, we can relax. It was beautiful. Lush vegetation surrounds us. Vines cover the exterior wall and drape down from the roof above us. A gentle moist breeze delivers scents of flowers and surf. A small garden is all that stands between us and the ocean. Its sun-reflecting blue invites us to come to the beach. “In a minute, beach,” we say to the waves. And we sigh a good sigh and relax. Finally. Away from razor wire, from away from smiling herders of us, away from sweaty machete clutchers, away from the curves of the road, we sit.
“One more,” I say as I finish my beer. “Then we can walk a little.”
“I’m not in a hurry,” she says. “I could sit here forever. This is relaxing.”
I grab her empty beer and reach for the door to our room. It is locked. I check again. It is still locked. I probably check a third time, since everyone knows that a third wiggle of a door knob will change the reality of a locked door. I hesitate. “Do you have the card?”
“You have the card.”
Head hung, I walk back to the reception area, the place from which we had stolen our own luggage and denied everyone the courtesy of showing us around, the place that we had just refused all help, to ask if someone could help me get back in my room. “Someone will bring you a key shortly,” the person says without looking up.
I suppose the key bringer is the same person who was going to bring our luggage shortly, so I didn’t hold out too much hope. They don’t seem to understand the importance of having another fridge beer. Piton, the local brand, is delicious–melt away the anxieties of travel delicious. “Can’t you just make me one now?”
“Someone will bring you a key shortly.” And someone does. Eventually.
Reconnected to our beer supply, life gets better. We relax enough to want to explore. What is resort life like? We read through the pamphlets telling us what is available to eat. We dine on swordfish and bananas foster. The small fresh bananas that never make it to America are delightful–so sweet and flavorful. We walk around in the dark since the sun sets so early near the equator and discover hidden hammocks, the expanse of the beach, an outdoor hot tub, which seems inviting other than the dead snake floating near the skimmer who seems to want it for himself. Music is playing at the central bar, so we pause for a drink and watch people squeezed into shiny dresses attempt dancing. I feel sorry for the MC/DJ who must act enthusiastic, though his “crowd” consists of about twelve people scattered over a large area.
On our way back down the dark pathway to our room, we hear voices coming from the dark edge of the property where the gardens meet the beach. Two men calling themselves Rasta Charlie and Cletus would like to show us a coconut birdhouse Cletus has made by hand. Charlie offers a cigar, but the way he said it, something seemed to be implied by “cigar.” We excuse ourselves to bed and promise to visit them tomorrow. After all, it is nearly 9:30. The DJ closed shop, the bar emptied of all dozen of its patrons, the resort has gone quiet, except the distant calls of Cletus and the crashing of waves, and we have a big day ahead of us. Now we are ready to explore.