When you hear “small town” most people think of a little community, almost like a village, with quaint houses, friendly people, mom and pop shops, good home cookin, whimsical habits that only that town understands, an “everybody-knows-everybody” atmosphere (or rather, everybody’s related to everybody), and the always-juicy bits of gossip that might as well be national news.
Well picture that but in the context of a country. It’s funny, but I often find myself drawing parallels between St. Lucia and the good ole small towns of the south. Let me try to give you a verbal panorama of St. Lucia. As I walk out my door in the morning I step on to a little gravel road that I sometimes share with the neighbor’s goats as they trim the grassy edges. My landlord’s dogs bark after me as I pass the clothesline and begin my journey. Often I meet my neighbors as they also head to work.
I flag down a bus just as if I were hitching a ride and I always remember to say, “good morning” as I board. This is a very important social rule. It is considered weird or rude not to greet people here, no matter whether they are friend or stranger. Anyway, the bus driver speeds off down the road, beeping and shouting at everyone he knows and slamming on the brakes to pick up other patrons. The minivan-sized bus fills with students in school uniforms, adults in business attire, mothers with infants and toddlers, the rich and the poor… up to 14 passengers… and sometimes even more as small school children squeeze between the adults.
On the drive down the mountain I see all sorts of things: mountains that disappear into misty clouds, the distance sea, farmers carrying bundles of bananas or plantains on their heads, people wandering with no shoes and no shirt, rickety houses built into steep hillsides, backyard gardens, and road-side vegetable vendors. The bus driver slows down to swerve around the many potholes that litter the road even in the presence of oncoming traffic. Sometimes they stop to let mothers drop their babies at daycare. This morning my bus slowed to avoid hitting a man on a galloping horse right in the middle of the road! And of course, the seating situation is a constant puzzle. Those in the back seats upset half the bus when they need to unload, but this is all taken in stride, it is a normal part of life.
Approaching town, the road widens and intersections become roundabouts. It is not uncommon to see horses or cows grazing in the middle of these roundabouts. Traffic thickens as everyone heads to work. Approaching my stop, I yell at the bus driver, and he slows down to let me off and waits for me to pay him an amount that I have now committed to memory.
At work, it is normal to have friendly visitors and office conversation is expected. Calling schools and leaving a message does not mean that the message will be passed on. Meetings start 30 to 45 minutes late and absences are expected even if it is important.
At school, students come wearing matching uniforms of the school colors. Teachers keep their belts close by and students scurry into place if they see that belt in hand. Sometimes the slap of the belt and the whimpers of the children can be heard in the principal’s office. At lunchtime the students run around on the field outside making up their own entertainment and playing by the small river.
An average walk through town should include at least 2 sightings of familiar persons. If I don’t recognize anyone in town, they will later tell me they saw me walking here or there. My bus terminal in town is right behind the market, so I see the vendors everyday on my way home. They set out wooden pallets with vegetables, herbs, and spices shading themselves from the sun with umbrellas and waiting for interested buyers. I usually walk right by the guys who sell coconuts out of the backs of their trucks and they sometimes try to sell me coconut water with rehearsed sweet talk.
The streets of town are busy. Every street is lined with shops and in front of the shops are street vendors. Vagrants and beggars linger in front of the supermarket in hopes of collecting sympathy. The smells of bakeries, fish, spices, and fried local food mix with diesel and gas fumes. In the background is the jumbled music of shops and passing cars playing Reggae or remixed American tunes with the bass turned up. Tourists wander here and there doing what they do best with their moneys. Busses line various streets at their respective stops that are spread throughout the entire city. And thick Caribbean accents and Creole remind me that this isn’t Kansas anymore.
Getting a bus for the trip home is a bit different. Where my bus stops in town, behind the market, there are several lanes full of busses that go to my community. There is a system to these lanes that I don’t know if I will ever understand… and from recent conversations, I’m not even sure some Lucians understand it. Anyway, some busses only go to the main area of my community and some go to the extremities. The only real way of knowing whether a bus is going to my area is to ask or to know the driver. So I always ask. My experience has always been successful with the second lane though… so maybe that is part of the system.
So these busses wait in the “terminal” (of sorts) until they are full and then they go speeding off toward their destinations. After a long hot day, and sitting in a still, hot bus for several minutes, the breeze from the windows is refreshing. I usually close my eyes and soak in the cool air as it forms my hair into a windblown knot. It’s all fine and dandy until a few raindrops start to fall and the Lucians snap the windows shut like meltdown is imminent. And then it’s a stuffy sticky ride to the top of the mountain where I welcome the peace and quiet comfort of home.