Chasing the light in St. Lucia


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Category: Travel 08 Dec 13

“To set out for rehearsals in that quivering quarter-hour is to engage conclusions, not beginnings, for one walks past the gilded hallucinations of poverty with a corrupt resignation touched by details, as if the destitute, in their orange tinted back yards, under their dusty trees, or climbing to their favelas, were all natural scene designers and poverty were not a condition but an art. Deprivation is made lyrical, and twilight, with the patience of alchemy, almost transmutes despair into virtue. In the tropics nothing is lovelier than the allotments of the poor, no theatre is as vivid, voluble, and cheap.”

—Derek Walcott, What the Twilight Says: Essays

I’ve been in St Lucia, the loveliest island in the Caribbean, this past week, feeling suspended in time. It would be so easy to think like a tourist here, I thought, in those five days watching an artist at his easel at the shore. The artist was chasing skylight, from morning to dusk. I could see that even as he captured a peacock blue sea on his canvas, it could treacherously turn a mangy grey. He was chasing rainbows. He was chasing the arc of the wave, its eternal rhythm, its froth, its foam, and its relentless collision with rocks. So all his watercolours were hung with a sadness, something dark.  It was so easy to be a tourist here, to say “wow” to the long shadows dappled through heavy trees in the morning. To feel disbelief upon climbing up its Pitons, to find yourself in a cool churning mist that for an instant banished the tropics and transported you to the Himalayas. To feel about in your cluttered, bright bag for the camera, eyes peeled at the surprise of the Atlantic Ocean, its lurid sunset palette (even the most vulgar of women wouldn’t mix colours like these in a dress) burnt orange, shocking pink.

I spent my days with people who chase light, with the passion of a doomed affair chasing light. I was taken meandering through bush and brightly painted houses to look for a beach. We weren’t sure if it was called “One dollar” or “Five dollar” beach. As the rain lashed at the tarpaulin at a beach restaurant, I was told to imagine a full moon rising out of the sea every month. I ate freshly fried fish on the beach washed down with soursop juice. I walked along a shore of soft sands, my hair as matted with water, salt and chlorine as the seaweed spread like a ragged carpet protecting sandy feet. I saw young boys race down a whirling track on horses, across the beach and plunge into the ocean. It’s enough to make a poet out of anyone. Good thing our Greater and Lesser Antilles Islands, through a Nobel laureate born here, have been seen beyond the tourist brochures that make its inhabitants invisible. Good thing Walcott made us visible again with his noble Omeros, the Caribbean answer to Homer’s Odyssey.  Our islands, too, are light-filled.  And we, too, can be reduced to a tourist’s forgotten, weathered postcard.

In St Lucia, I saw the disaffection in the faces of the people who cleaned homes, and fish, the hassled single mothers working as waitresses, the wasted glances of a people who haven’t been allowed to fulfill their potential, a bitterness that succumbs to lethargy.  Not unlike us.  The artist and I got talking about Trinidad, about “why we are the way we are.” We have to talk about it, and we all do. Why we are drug induced bullet-riddled islands in the sun with among the highest murder rates worldwide.  Everyone has his or her own version of disappointment. Tourists might find us breezing off, surly, and unwilling to serve, but we are either cowering or recovering from wounds.  The dust in your face pappy show of politics: Who cares who Rowley fired? Who cares if Kamla wears designer shoes? Fire who you want, wear what you want, change dresses and ministers five times a day, but get the people’s job done. I want to know if we have a health plan that reduces our runaway rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and hypertension; an education policy where hundreds of thousands of us are not functionally illiterate; and job prospects to wipe out the blankness from the eyes of our young people.  I don’t think I have ever heard a single minister speak with passion, a sense of duty, responsibility, and empathy for the condition of our people. It’s disgustingly Machiavellian, manipulative and self-serving.  This neglect is criminal. It’s manifested in the glint of the boy who drives to kill.  I want to know why we are the top producers of carbon emissions in the world; why the waters around Point Lisas are so polluted by effluence from the largely unregulated oil and gas plants, that the marine life is either dead or horribly disfigured. A tourist won’t see that.  But the artist who chases light ended our conversation with something that blew me away. He said: “I’m tired of the talking. I want to talk about those who DO something.”

He’s so right. I remembered at least a dozen people out there in our forests with forgotten children, in homes for battered women, in orphanages, in fields, in art studios, in adult literacy schools— people who are trotted out around Christmas and given hampers. It’s the doers among us carrying this country, letting in the light. 


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur