Toes in the sand and nose to nose with the horizon line, today I tried to contemplate how I ended up here. When did I become Neo? I saw The Matrix; I was not enthralled with the nebuchadnezzar. I could have chosen the blue pill. Heavy-heartedly maybe, but I would have done it. That porridge three times a day would have driven me mad and I would have been no use to the revolution. So which part of my journey through life determined that I would step off the treadmill, out of the rat race, move a gazillion miles away from my beloved London and set up home in the French Caribbean? Clueless, I retraced my steps.
My Last Trip to St Lucia: Christmas 2012
Christmas week was a laid back affair involving lots of chillaxing and catching up with family in St Lucia. I spent a lot of time with a cousin with whom I pretty much grew up within in England, but who moved out here four years ago. As our St Lucian family doesn’t quite do Christmas like the English (after all, who does?), on Christmas eve my cuz pulled out a box of Fox’s variety biscuits that she’d found in a supermarket months earlier. We matched them with sorrel (it was too hot for mulled wine) and youtube played us the classics of an English Christmas; Wham, Mariah Carey, and Slade (sorry E17, I actually loved you guys, but not that track). We even pulled out a little Paul McCartney and some of the oldies ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ and the like and danced ourselves silly, giggling as if high on the English Christmas spirit. Without words, we reminisced together and dwelt on our childhood Christmases together.
Caribbean Encounter Numero Uno: Summer 1991
Like me (being family and all) my cousin Dee’s mum (my dad’s sis) was born in the Caribbean and had emigrated to England as a child. She’d also grown up in the same large loving family I did; where tales of the Caribbean abounded throughout our childhoods. When we ‘finally’ got to see the land our parents had painted as a mythical land of delicious fruits and communities that were more like extended families and where mythical creatures like the jagajé were as real as the sun that shone daily, we experienced that together too. Aged 5-9, we and our siblings spent most of the summer of ’91 in the Caribbean. We discovered new cousins, new games, and played and played to our hearts’ content.
We also stumbled upon pit toilets, outdoor bathrooms, cockroaches, mosquitoes and potholes joined together by patches of road, but such things were all part of the exciting new world of St Lucia (especially the potholes as my proudly Bajan mum would appreciate me noting), not real causes for concern. Except the cockroaches which terrfied me. And the pit toilet which I apparently nearly gave myself constipation by refusing to use. But the good things waaay outweighed the bad…
As I’ve been writing this the beautifullest hummingbird has been flirting with a flowery bush whose name I’m unfamiliar with. Its wings are fluttering at the speed of light, its song has drawn my attention to the sound of the other birds all singing as they go about their Wednesday morning, and the waves I can hear in the distance. Oh, and now the wind wants a mention…and is rustling its way through the leaves.
Sherman and the Cocotier
The number one cool thing I remember about that first trip to the Caribbean, the thing that me and my cousins who were there still reminisce about twenty years later, is when my dad called one of my St Lucian cousins, Sherman. Boy, go and get me one of those coconuts, my dad said in his uniquely authoritative but lazy enough tone for an order to not sting like an order. Okay, my cousin said, and he walked to the nearest coconut tree, and then proceeded to run up it. He tussled with a coconut or three, my dad stood underneath catching them, and then Sherman strolled back down. To my 8 year old eyes, it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. My cousin, with whom I had previously played it, dominoes, 40 40 home, and possibly mother may I (cos we loved that game), instantly became a hero.
He ran up a tree.
I was from London’s inner city. Trees were very present, if mainly decorative along wider roads, and sometimes dotting the pavements I walked along. In our garden we had an apple tree and a pear tree, but we rarely ate their fruit. Especially as the apple tree produced cooking apples. Our idea of fun was known locally as ‘playing out.’ Which involved your friends ‘knocking for you.’ So, for example, one Sunday afternoon I might have been at home, the front door would be rapped or the doorbell rung and my mother or father would open and be greeted with two or more people up to their waist in height asking ‘Can Keisha and Aaron play out please?’ If permitted, we would join our friends and go and knock for other kids, until a big enough gang was formed for the games to be fun. Games like football could be played in the streets among the cars, but for the most part, we’d head to an open space (which I now appreciate as a large and empty enough car park) from where roller blades or skates or balls would be rolled out and the fun would continue until dusk, which was our cue to be in our respective houses.
We did not run up trees.
I’d read books about kids who climbed trees for fun, they also played in woods among hedges and brooks and streams and played in fields. I still couldn’t identify a brook if you put a gun to my head. The woods we knew were at the back of Crystal Palace Park. And I discovered them when I was about 10 and growing out of play. The kids who climbed trees in books were usually white kids living in the countryside who were therefore loveable country bumpkins as characters in stories, but ultimately uncool and unenviable.
The girl in Malorie Blackman‘s Hacker, who is a computer genius and saves her dad? She was cool. Nick in The Falcon’s Malteser, the streetwise smart-alec kid who outwits a big time drug lord on behalf his dim big brother? He was cool. Tracey Beaker was cool. My cousins were cool. They lived in St Lucia and could go to the beach all the time. They weren’t scared of insects and beasts like us English kids. They even had beaches behind their houses that they could walk to after school if they were allowed. As a competitive swimmer, avid reader and general beach lover, this was as cool a thing as you could have in walking distance from your house. Still is.
Let me qualify ‘ran up a tree.’
If you recall the trunk of a coconut tree, or cocotier, it is long and thin like a telephone pole or lamp post. It’s wooden with ridges, and has no branches, leaves or fruit except at the very top. Unlike a telephone pole or lamppost however, it’s bendy. In hurricane-type winds, a cocotier can bend until the leaves and coconuts touch the floor without breaking. My cousin Sherman, the same age as me, had used his time on earth to perfect the ability to put two hands on the trunk, jump and throw his legs round it, then push himself up with his legs and then climb a coconut tree. He did it so quickly and fluidly, that to our English and unaccustomed eyes, it looked like he ran up, shook out some coconuts, and then ran down again before we’d had a chance to catch our breaths. Witnessing such a phenomenon stays with you.
I had somehow managed to forget that as well as my grannies and ancestors having moved before me, I had a cousin from Birmingham who shared that history, and had made a similar move just before me. One day in St Lucia, a bunch of my girl cousins and I went to the beach together. Turns out moving is really in our blood; of the five of us including me and D, four live in a country they were not born in: one slightly older cousin also from London is on her second jaunt here; she’s been in St Lucia 6 years, having moved for the first time in her mid-twenties, then back to London, and then came back. Another is a St Lucian-born cousin who moved to St Kitts about 6 years ago. With us was her much younger sister who is contemplating moving abroad for university next year.
As well as drinking and laughing together as is our way, we talked about settling into a new place, and making friends, and making comparisons with ‘home’ and how fluid a concept home can really be. It was reassuring for a newbie like me to not just to have the conversation on an academic level, but with women who I knew well, who also had moving in their blood, and had faced almost everything I’d faced. Of the four of us who had moved, three had made career moves. That is, a job that made the move worth it had come up and we’d leapt at it (or was that just me?). Only one had moved ‘for a guy’ and she hadn’t actually moved until she had a job. Random fact one: two of us had replaced a friend who was leaving/had left their old job. Random fact two: The same two had been committed soca ravers in England. Was it the music that made us move? Or did the soca raving reflect a (dancefloor) deep affinity with Caribbean culture?
None of us had any regrets. As we talked, we thoughtfully shared our experiences with the new and uninitiated. We all missed different things about home; the extended family to help with a newborn, the easy camaraderie of old friends, a close knit immediate family, the exhausting choice of theatre/cinema/exhibitions in London, not to mention administration made easy. But there was also something exhilarating about starting again away from home. A unique space for some personal reflection on values, needs, and wants. The opportunity to choose your destiny, rather than letting an accident of birth determine your fate. For me, there was a definite thrill in the challenge of rebuilding from scratch and in French.
Talking local like
Surprisingly, a language barrier was something we’d all experienced: Us English-born demi-Lucians hadn’t all grown up speaking Kreyol. Depending on where they were in St Lucia, their experiences differed considerably. For my cuz who lived and worked in the South, understanding creole was a must for fitting in, whereas my Castries-based cousin, encountered a fair few St Lucians who didn’t speak creole fluently. Getting along linguistically in the French Caribbean was a bit of a double whammy I realised; although a fluent French speaker, it wasn’t my native tongue and no amount of picking up the local accent was likely to hide that fact. My grasp of creole is okay and improving, but I’d never been confident enough to speak it. Arriving in St Lucia for Christmas had been like finding an oasis in the desert; suddenly I understood 100% of what was being said to me, and in group situations I was no longer losing 10-20% of the conversation, or worse, the joke.
But I digress. How did me and two of my cousins, whose parents had headed to England for a better life, end up retracing our parents’ steps for the same reason? My first trip to the Caribbean was a resounding success. I met ‘the rest’ of my already large family (inverted commas because scattered as we are across Europe, the US, Canada and the Caribbean, I’ll never meet all of them) and discovered ‘where I was from’ most recently; I’ve yet to make it to Elmina’s Castle or the bit of West Africa from which my ancestors were forcibly removed as the products in the transatlantic slave trade. Nevertheless, us kids had a holiday which has provided us with memories to last a lifetime, and like my siblings and cousins, I was more than happy to go back to the Caribbean on future holidays. Which I did. Repeatedly. Throughout my teens, and I continued to go back as an adult.
Was the summer of ’91 the holiday in which this part of my journey was determined? Did the awe which struck me dumb when Sherman ran up that cocotier begin a demanding tempestuous relationship with the Caribbean which holidays would not appease? A thirsty curiosity which only full-time exploration could subdue? Was it the epic teen holiday romances? You know, the ones that only a combination of Caribbean sunshine, Caribbean young men with Caribbean lilts to their accents and oh-so-inviting Caribbean smiles can produce? Was it my parents’ divorce? That traumatic event forced me to the Caribbean to spend time with my father, thereby triggering a series of fabulous holidays forging friendships and bonds which themselves would compel my return with increasing regularity after all.
I write this tired but happy. I started it while sitting on my dad’s veranda, sitting on the wall with my legs stretched in front of me and my laptop rested on them. I only needed to tilt my head slightly to the right to see the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. The St Lucian sun had been about to get a mention but it disappeared, enabling me to read what I’m typing. At one point the breeze obviously had clearly started reading over my shoulders as it suddenly picked up the pace and all the bushes, leaves, and flowers were singing for my attention.
Living La Vida…Caribe?
I’m not sure how I ended up living this – wonderful – life. On Saturday my cousins, my visiting-from-England brother and a couple friends went to the beach. My bro and I swam out with two cousins and we went fishing and free diving. When we got back to shore several hours and catches later, we tucked into the barbecued-on-the-beach chicken, hot dogs and corn, Pitons, and rum. We snacked and chillaxed til the sandflies precipitated a pre-sunset departure. Then we went back to my cousin’s and carried on drinking and chatting – or liming as it’s known round here. The day before we’d also been on the beach, where we’d broken up some serious rounds of Articulate! with dips in the water, rum and Pitons. The day before we’d been on yet another beach, this time liming on the white sands of Rodney Bay included a speedboat ride, jet skiing, and Marigot Bay rum on the beach…and two nights before that I’d danced on the streets of Soufriere after the gang came back from a sunset cruise on which they’d seen whales, dolphins, and the sun set on the water. Earlier that day my bro and I had gone jogging along the water’s edge at the beach in Vieux Fort. Admittedly this is holiday living, not all day every day living but it’s still been pretty sweet.
Back to reality…
I popped into the office today before going back to work properly next week. I cut through a ‘gap’ and walked along the beach on the way there. I sat and watched the waves stroke the shore on the way back. I smiled at the women in their bikinis making the most of their short time here on the way home. It’s snowing in England. London’s at a standstill. I have no idea how I got so lucky that this is my reality, but when I’m not puzzled, I am immensely grateful. Apologies that this isn’t as clear cut as part one of Granny P’s tale, but she’s had half a century to reflect on her experiences of moving; I’m still having mine.