On Saturday, November, 22nd, we took advantage of the slightly overcast weather to explore Pidgeon Island, a 40-acre preserve located on the north-eastern part of St. Lucia. St. Omer, a longstanding Good News Lucian volunteer served as our tour guide for the day, sharing several stories with us about boating out to Pidgeon Isand with his grandfather to fish when he was a child. He described vividly how the original island looked nearly 60 years ago, yet it is no longer a true island. In the early 1970’s real estate developers created a man-made causeway between the mainland and the island, and despite the high-end resort located on the causeway, Pidgeon Island became a national park in 1979. It was later designated a national landmark in 1992 due to its historical significance. Composed of two peaks and the historic remains of Fort Rodney, the park is one of the most frequently visited attractions on St. Lucia.
Long considered a strategic strong-hold for European forces, the original inhabitants of the island were the Arawak people who were later driven out by the Caribs in approximately 1000 A.D. Although both the Arawak and Carib people are indigenous to South America, each developed their own distinctive language and cultural practices when settling the islands that make up the Lesser Antilles, St. Lucia being one of them. The native Caribs lived in caves along the rocky northern coastline and were considered hunters and gatherers. They first came into contact with Europeans in the 16th century when a French pirate ship landed on the island and forged an agreement with the native people not to attack the their ship, promising them future trade with Europeans.
Eventually in 1778, Admiral George Rodney took the island from the Caribs and established Fort Rodney. Under British occupation, the island was stripped bare of its trees in order to gain clear sight lines of Martinique to the north, which was historically controlled by the French. For nearly two centuries, St. Lucia was alternately occupied by British and French forces, and the island finally gained its independence from Britain in 1979. Today many British customs and cultural practices are still quite evident on the island — the most obvious are the parliamentary style of governance, the strict style of British schooling, and automobiles driving on the left side of the road.
On Monday, Reggie, another longtime Good News volunteer came to pick us up on what turned out to be an all day adventure. We had scheduled a visit to Diamond Falls Botanical Garden, located in the southern part of the island just outside of Soufriere’. On the drive there we encountered a Rasta snake-charmer on the side of the road who was holding a 4-foot boa constrictor. The students were amazed to see such a large snake coiled around the man’s arm.
We stopped the van, and the Rasta offered the students the chance to hold the tamed snake and have their photo taken. As we ventured further south along the road, another student saw a different snake charmer with a much larger boa constrictor. Once again, the van pulled off the road and the students were given the opportunity to have the photo taken with “Patrick” the tame boa constrictor. We later learned that this is one of the ways local folks make money off tourists — which speaks highly of their entrepreneurial nature and ability to make due with what they have.
Continuing our journey south, we finally arrived at Diamond Falls Botanical Garden. It is a beautifully maintained private estate that at one time was a functional plantation, raising sugarcane, tobacco and eventually bananas — still St. Lucia’s leading export crop. This sanctuary provided a peaceful retreat from the island’s otherwise intense heat and humidity. Stepping under the verdant, towering canopy we saw coconut palms containing fruit in varying stages of ripeness, bamboo towering hundreds of feet into the air, mahogany with an average trunk span of 36 inches in diameter, and tree ferns the size of elephant ears. Philodendron vines — a common houseplant in the U.S. — twined around trunks of teak trees reaching lengths of well over 200 feet. Many of the trees and plants in St. Lucia originated from Indonesia and other parts of Asia and were imported during the age of European colonization.
The entire estate is fed by the waters of the Diamond River that drains from a volcano approximately 2 miles upstream. The water contains sulpher, iron, copper, magnesium, along with several other trace compounds. The water changes color from day-to-day depending on which trace metal has the highest concentration.The estate was deeded by king Louis XIV of France to three Devaux brothers in 1713, in recognition of their service to their country. In 1784, mineral baths were constructed at the base of Diamond Falls, using the original spring water that originates in this volcanic region. It was intended as a resting place for French troops, where the soldiers could freshen up and revitalize, but it is also claimed that Napoleon and Josephine used the baths on their visit to this former French colony.
We also learned about various edible plants common to a traditional Lucian diet, some of which have medicinal properties, such as turmeric. Common eatables include breadfruit, green papaya, mango, wild yam, sweet potato, dasheen, banana, plantain, and coconut — which is commonly referred to as the “bread and water of life” by many local Lucians. The water of the coconut is supposed to help calm an upset stomach, reduce hypertension, and aid in balancing blood sugar for diabetics. The semi-ripe pulp is often ground into a mash and added to various baked goods. The typical St. Lucian kitchen had a two-piece clay ‘coal pot’ which was used for cooking most meals.
From Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens we headed further inland to Morne Coubaril Estate. Coubaril is a working plantation that provides visitors with a first hand view of plantation life, including live demonstrations showing how raw sugar cane was mashed by a horse drawn mill and made into cane juice. Additional demonstration areas show the various stages of harvesting, drying and preparing coca beans for the cocoa or chocolate industry. Today, World’s Finest Chocolate, based in Chicago, IL, obtains much of its raw coca from St. Lucia.
Walking around the once thriving and vibrant estate one cannot help but wonder about the social structure of slavery and the broader sociological implications of those who have been historically marginalized or oppressed. To be sure, plantation life was a means of economic gain for the plantation owners and their mother countries, but at what ultimate cost to those who labored long, hard hours, being forced to sublimate their own personal freedoms and identities — only to perpetuate the practice of colonial imperialism? Extrapolating further, one might question to what degree the social phenomenon of ‘the oppressed’ and ‘the oppressor’ are still occurring in modern day St. Lucia and all around the world?
The eastern edge of the Morne Coubaril Estate is home to Hot Wire Zip-lining. Of course the Gap crew couldn’t resist the chance to experience the adrenaline rush of zipping under the sheer Petit Piton, with elevated views of the Caribbean Sea in the background. After a thorough training and safety demonstration, the group climbed to the first platform — which resembled a giant tree house — and whizzed safely from the first platform to the next. There were a total of 8 zip lines taking students through a canopy of banyan, coconut, plum and mango trees, and even across a bamboo-shadowed gorge.
As the day was drawing to a close, Reggie took the group to the top of the reservoir near the area where he grew up. Reggie has been an integral part of the students experience since arriving in St. Lucia. He has taught the students many things — from how to pound in a nail with a hammer, to how to safely use a power saw, as well as how to frame in doors and windows. Yet, Reggie’s contributions go far beyond teaching them basic building skills. After the zip lining Reggie volunteered to take us deeper into the country side and see what his life was like when he was a young boy. We learned that Reggie grew up in the verdant hill country of Millet where farming was the family’s way of life, and that he and his siblings helped work the same land that his mother, and grandmother, had worked before him.
During our outing he told the Gap crew stories of when he was a kid and built rafts out of reed grass and floated down the river in heavy rains — despite the fact that it was very dangerous. He also spoke of how he raced out of school so he could get to the best spot to pick mangoes and other fruits on his way home from school, eating his fill and then sharing his bounty with the rest of his family once he arrived. Reggie’s stories spoke of growing up in a family who had deep ties to the land, where he and his family could sustain themselves on what they could grow and sell at market. Yet now, only a few decades later, it is not so easy to maintain an agrarian lifestyle, as property is difficult to come by, and the economies of scale don’t favor the small farmer, nor does the role globalization and cultural imperialism have on such a basic lifestyle. In some sense, the same dynamic has occurred in the U.S., where small scale sustainable farming has gone by the wayside, being taken over by large corporate farms, making it affordable to only a few.