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Friday, 1 February 2008

Ups and downs in St Lucia

By the time I finally get ashore at St Lucia I'm not in the best of moods.The route to get from the dockside to the town is designed to you absolutely have to go through a small, twisty-turny shopping mall of tourist crap, a common and dirt-cheap tactic I've seen before. So having pushed my way patiently through hordes of tourists who simultaneously whine about the slow-moving queue while contributing to it by slowing to gawp at shop windows (and there's your parable for western civilisation right there), I finally make it out to the main street. And what a street it is. Horrible. Literally every step I take a different tour guide (i.e. taxi driver with a self-esteem issues and an old map) asks me if I want to go on a tour - "Four hours, all the beaches, special places". I run out of ways to say no and cross the noisy road just in time to find myself knee deep in people selling authentic Island souvenirs, which seems to mean Tupac T-Shirts, Marijuana leaf bandanas and baseballs caps bearing the slogan "It's always 4'o clock somewhere", accompanied by a picture of a cocktail. There's nothing like experiencing the culture first hand.

I am, of course, well used to this rubbish. There's a little busy wasps nest of it surrounding every stop on a cruise ships itinerary and, frankly, you can't blame people for wanting to make a living out of the influx of pasty tourists that the motherships bring, but when you're in a crappy mood, it can't help but depress you. I find the first road into town and away from the main street, "Always get away from the beaten path" I remind myself. And I do. Just a couple of blocks away I emerge from a little side street into what is obviously the real main street. A wide road with a park at one end and a church in the middle, full of people, but none of them selling anything, with the exception of the little smiling girl selling candy from a blanket on the corner. Best of all, it's quiet. There's just as many people but they all seem to be just hanging out, or having gentle friendly conversations. I walk on and find myself in a large town square lined with beautifully wonky wooden shops and houses, each one in a different pastel colour. Gentle pinks, light greens and candy blues contrast with the deep lush greens of the park that the square wraps around. A taxi driver stops his car and winds down his window just to tell the woman walking next to me how much he likes her hairdo. It makes her day, and very nearly makes mine too. And my bad mood has gone, just like that. I take a deep breath of the warm air heavy with the scent of freshly mown grass and keep walking.

I walk out of the town a little, up a steep winding road at the end of which, I surmise, might well be a nice view out over the harbour when someone that I can only accurately describe as a mad-eyes rasta, clambers out of a big bush that forms part of the undergrowth runs along one side of the street. Shirtless, wearing only a ragged pair of jean shorts he glares at me as I pass him. I avoid eye contact, thinking it's just the often-seen look that a tourist not in the tourist part of town gets. Then something hits me, or more specifically, hits my shoulder bag, hard. I turn around and see a brick by my feet. Looking up, I quickly deduce that it's not only the rasta's eyes that are mad, it would seem all of him is - he just threw a brick at me as hard as he could. And now those mad eyes are staring at me. I am, it would seem, for whatever reason, not his friend. Then I see the big stick in his hand and he starts to walk towards me. How wonderful.

I throw out a low, not particularly pretty crescent kick and knock the stick from his hand. If I'm being honest, I'd admit that I only planned to knock his arm out of the way so I could close the distance and twist the stick out of his grip, but it seems he wasn't holding onto it as tightly as he should have been, so I'm happy to let him believe I'm Jackie Chan. He is momentarily suprised by my fairly audacious counter-attack and looks at me angrily confused. I take a controlled step back, adopt a loose fighting stance and give him The Eyes (tm). What seems like 3 minutes but is probably more like 5 seconds passes and neither of us do anything. Then, suddenly, as if obeying a cue only he could hear, he dives back into the undergrowth from whence he came. I straighten up, feeling pretty good about myself, safe in the knowledge that I scared him off.Breathing out slowly, I glance around and see a few passers-by looking concerned and waving me away furiously, and it dawns on me. I didn't scare him off at all, he's just gone to get more sticks and bricks. Shit. Time to go. I leave, not running, but walking a little faster than usual, hearing myself say, over and over, "What the fuck?", while checking over my shoulder at regular intervals.

I get myself back to the town square and walk around a bit to let my heart rate slow back to normal. My first thought is to go back to the ship and never go ashore again because the Caribbean is clearly full of crazy people, but after a while I relax and am able to think more clearly. Then I'm at the far end of the tourist-hell street and from where I stand I can see both parts of town, and that's when I start to wonder. Is it one or the other? Either you just do the tourist stuff and have a mostly predictable time with the tiny chance that you might meet someone interesting or do something unplanned and cool, or you get as far from the tourists stuff as possible and just go for a walk and have a mostly adventurous and unpredictable time with the tiny chance you might meet someone crazy or do something unplanned and not cool? There might be some truth to that, I think, and anyway, now I can add St.Lucia to the growing list of countries in which I've nearly had the crap kicked out of me. Yay.

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