The rain in Saint Lucia sounds like static. Like the moment you switch on a TV you aren’t familiar with, or swipe the “mode” button when you meant to hit volume. A silence and then the whooshing. Whirring. Static.
It’s dry season here, allegedly. But every day it rains. “Climate change.” My taxi driver says to me when he picks me up from the airport. “Now we never know what’s going to happen.” Thaddeus picks me at the southern tip of the island and drives me north. My home for the next two months is Castries, the capital.
I’ve been living in capital cities for over a year now: La Paz, Bolivia; Quito, Ecuador; Lilongwe, Malawi. Each one of them has a different story to tell about their country. Where it is, where it’s come from, where it’s hoping to go.
La Paz’s teleferico showed the promise that Evo Morales’ indigenous government had once given the isolated, land locked country. The economy surged when he became president. But now, the graffiti covered walls and peeling referendum posters show a country tired of his corruption. Evo hasn’t solved problems so much as covered them up: with inflated economic numbers and a shiny new skyline.
Quito, a new-age hipster metropolis, with craft beer and hand-roasted five-dollar coffee, underneath the inescapable gaze of the Andes. Quito is modernizing, rapidly, but wrestling with its indigenous identity. How can it move to the future while holding on to its roots? How does it come to terms with the failed Pink Tide of Latin America?
Lilongwe didn’t become the capital of Malawi until 1975. It lacks the deep cultural significance of the previous capital Zomba and the British care of Blantyre. It’s a planned city but there is no city center. No central square or place to gather. Sometimes driving around it feels like it isn’t so much a city as a series of roundabouts. Lilongwe is still trying to figure out its identity.
Castries is something else. It’s a port city, and every morning cruise ships glide soundlessly into the bay. After so many months in Africa, they are aliens to me. Giant gleaming white boats that part the water silently like a knife. I find them unsettling. From the hills looking down at the port, the cruise ships look bigger than the mall, than whole city blocks. I guess, I realize as I type this, because they are.
Castries itself is compact and vibrant, with a central cathedral surrounded by tiny blocks that burst with shops, vendors, and people. In the morning thousands of tourists disembark from the monster cruise ships and roll into the city, grabbing taxis to good beaches or buying t-shirts or getting their hair braided. In the afternoon they roll out like the tide and the city closes down. Very few restaurants are even open for dinner.
But the tourists don’t seem to distract from the heart of this place. In Castries everyone is always talking to each other. Shop keepers chat with elderly women moving slowly past, drivers hang out of their windows to whistle and yell in Creole. Anyone who makes eye contact with me smiles and asks how I’m doing. St. Lucians are proudly laid back and welcoming. I’ve been here two weeks and already invited to three dinners, two hikes, and rum tasting. My neighbors are always bringing me food and inviting me over for a chat. This city is a conversation.
I can’t end this without mentioning the beauty of the island. It is inescapable. Thaddeus, my taxi driver, told me that St. Lucia is called the “Helen” of the West Indies because the French and British fought fourteen wars over it. Fourteen wars for 238 square miles. But, it has a speechless type of beauty. Mesmerizing. The sand is white. The ocean is turquoise. There are wild purple orchids that grow along the side of the road. I’ve seen six rainbows in ten days. When I walk to work, I collect bananas, mangoes, limes and coconuts that have fallen into the street. My colleagues think I’m insane, and maybe it’s weird, but I feel drunk off the sheer beauty and generosity of this place.