Readings from the 40 + 1

    Remembering the West Indies

    by Rahiel Elaine Housey (St Vincent and St Lucia 1998–99)

GOAT COOKS . . . perilous mini-bus (maxi in T & T) rides . . . booby, ibis, land crab, tritri or mannicou sightings . . . torrential rainstorms extending the lunch hour late into the afternoon . . . volcano hikes . . . river baths . . . the sound of rain on a tin roof . . . so many things come to mind when I think of the West Indies.
     I made St Vincent and St Lucia my home during my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I have been so lucky to visit Trinidad, Jamaica and Dominica twice, Martinique, Canouan and Mustique once. I visited Bequia 25 times, an hour-long ferry ride from Kingstown, that proved that I do not have the stomach for open seas. As if I didn’t learn my lesson, I took the boat to Dominica. I was so ill that the boat company helped me get a flight back to St Lucia when it was time to go!
     After an eleven-month application and acceptance process, I was off to Miami to meet up with 67 other Americans from all walks of life, ranging from scrubbed-faced 22-year-olds to a seventy-something couple embarking on their fourth “tour of duty.” Due to the program I attended at CAST (now UTech in Jamaica) in 1993, my involvement in the T & T Association of Michigan, Caribbean Pans of Joy, Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions, vacations to Trinidad and Jamaica and most importantly, countless West Indian friends, I was one of the only people in the group who knew where we were going and was really excited about it.
     We were really shown a posh time in Miami and when we arrived in the dark of night at Hewanorra, we found ourselves in lovely, air-conditioned hotel rooms. My home stay family was in Fond-Assau, down “de” hill from Babonneau. “Just go down so from de Catholic church . . .” My momma is a spinach and popchow farmer (that’s bok choi here). It was about 200 degrees Celsius down there in that banana-farming valley. My momma would wake up at about 4 am and work in her gardens, singing joyful SDA hymns. She picked mint to make my own pot of mint tea every morning. She would give me this hot pot of tea and if I didn’t drink it all, I would have it all wrapped up in foil and kitchen towels to take to training sessions. That family was so wonderful. Thank God for Adventists and Rastas in the West Indies because they were the only groups sensitive to vegetarianism. My friend Lanier from Alabama and I would pay the blasted $1EC to ride the minibus up the mountain of a hill, but Kiyomi always wanted to walk. Those California girls are strong! We had sessions most days for a few weeks, and then our countries divided us up.
     My home stay family in Barrouallie, SVG greeted me by telling me that I have a man’s name. I lived in St Vincent in 1998 and 1999. Barrouallie and Clare Valley are my hometowns. I am delighted to say that I visited part of Barrouallie’s most noted family, the Da Silvas, in New York recently. Although we weren’t choppin’ Hairouns or Very Strong Rum, we were “talkin fart” about all things Vincy.
     Soon after we arrived in Bagga (B’allie), there was a huge blackfish harvest. They caught about 15, the largest catch in a century, or so the story goes. I could never describe the smell. If you ever smelled it, you would NEVER forget it. I had an allergic reaction to the odor and/or the effects of the oil in the air. If you hadn’t heard, blackfish oil is prized for its “medicinal and aphrodisiac properties.” After suffering that and the related injections the Vincentian doctors love to give, the best cure was moving to Clare Valley! A neighbor had a baby and named her for me, first and middle name. A friend came to visit and got married. I traveled the island and nearby islands. I snorkeled, went to cooks, went hiking and got to know a lot of great people. I really had a surprise when I met the local Lebanese and Syrian community, who accepted me like a cousin. It was fantastic to sit on a grand porch in Cane Garden overlooking the airport while sipping Arabic coffee.
     When I transferred to St Lucia, I was posed the question of whose parrot and prime minister is better looking? I had only seen a Vincy parrot and PM James Mitchell in person. Having seen Kenny Anthony only on TV, I could say that both have attractive PMs and parrots. The Sisserou is a great parrot, too, and Trinidad has the amazing Scarlet Ibis. I lived in the Barnard Hill area of Castries. It was hard seeing all the tourists spending money we didn’t have and behaving inappropriately, but we knew we were having a more authentic experience of Lucian life and that these people who wore their swimsuits and towels downtown looked pretty ridiculous to people going to work, school and church. With our sensible shoes, wizened tans and backpacks we were seldom taken for tourists. In Dominica, Grenada and St Vincent a PCV has to be mistaken for a medical student now and then. The medical students’ presence ensured that no PCV would have a good deal on rent within a wide radius of the school. St Lucia has an amazing blend of French Creole and British West Indian culture. Of course there is a “rude boy” element making itself known these days quite strongly in the Caribbean.
     I survived tropical storms, an allergic reaction, a mini-bus crash and many other situations. The best memories of the West Indies involve friendships formed, Carnivals celebrated, coves snorkeled, students inspired, and most of all, a deepened feeling within my soul that the West Indies will always be a major part of my thoughts, words and actions. I really learned a lot and look forward to visiting people who are like family and places that are like home.

Rahiel Elaine Housey was a teacher trainer in the Peace Corps. She now is teaching English as a Second Language in an inner-city school and is director of the school garden while studying for her masters degree in TESL