By Neil Manthorp
‘Smokey’ the taxi driver has very quickly become our surrogate big brother. We lean on his every word, though most of them are unintelligible to us. He knows where everything is, naturally, and the likelihood is that will, too, after a week on this tiny but perfectly formed island community.
He mockingly berates one of us for referring to the capital as ‘Bass-e-terre’ instead of ‘Bass-terre’. The ‘e’ is silent. “Dis no Frech island, dat pleeass (‘Bass’e’terre’) be in Guadalope,” says Smokey.
Before arrival we had been led to believe that St.Kitts was little more than a large rock with two hotels, a couple of restaurants, a port and church or two. How wrong that impression was.
A population of 36,000 certainly makes it sound small, especially when the illegal hotel operating next door to my home in Cape Town has that many guests over for Sunday lunch, but that number discounts the tourists inhabiting the enormous ocean liners which cruise into the harbour on a regular basis.
As we flew into the larger and more established Antigua en-route to St.Kitts there were four enormous ships docked in the harbour although St.Kitts could never manage those logistics at this stage of it’s tourist economy life.
The sugar cane industry on which St.Kitts and the neighbouring Nevis islands depended for centuries was finally shut down after years of loss-making forcing the islanders to confront the stark reality that their visitors were now also their bread and butter.
Two things can happen in such a scenario: a pack-dog fight over the ‘meat’ (not likely in the Caribbean), or a collective realisation that friendly, genuinely helpful honesty will provide an income for the generations to come, not just this one. Needless to say, the people of St.Kitts don’t appear to have given the matter a second’s thought.
The Marriott Hotel, where all four teams and ‘everyone’ who is ‘anyone’ is staying, is very…nice. It’s also very, very large. And it has a casino.
A sort of, Sun City in the Caribbean but without quite as much kich. It has a golf course and beauty parlour, bars and restaurants.
Just a couple of kilometres away, however, where the majority of SA’s media crew are staying in simple but handsomely adequate rooms, there is a beach where the local watering hole and snack bar goes by the name of “Mr X’s Shiggedy Shag bar”. It’s repuation means it features in most guide books yet it appears to have been constructed of drift wood. And they do the best lobster in town.
There are signs ouitside like: “We’re open…until we close” – a fact that has been confirmed by some newsmen who went for a beach jog at 7.00am while the music from the ramshackle hut still blarred over the slumbering revellers’ heads. Another says: “Ear protection to be worn here” which is sound advice when the music is at its loudest. Another says: “Topless women will be…served first and free.”
The best way to see a new town or city is always on foot, and Basseterre (silent ‘e’) provided a stunning first viewing. “Independence Square” is three acres of bustling greenery and trading in the centre of the town with a sign at the entrance reading: “Formerly known as ‘Pall Mall’, this area was the centre for slave trading in the 19th century.
Slaves were kept in the basements of the houses around the square (most still standing) and brought out for the slave market. It was renamed ‘Independence Square’ in 1983.”
1983?!!? The slave trade was supposed to have been abolished over 200 years ago – and it was only renamed 24 years ago!? Things move slowly in the Caribbean.
Jogging past the hundreds of tiny bars and ‘snack outlets’, weaving between the slowly moving traffic and patient strollers on the conspicuously clean and narrow streets, there was the unmistakeable chime of an ice-crean van.
There is only one ice-cream chime, and it is universal. I always carry some cash on these long, exploratory jogs, some I fumbled for the Eastern Caribbean Dollars in my shorts. Then I turned the corner.
It was an enormous rubbish truck. That’s the way they do it on St.Kitts.
No compulsory rubbish day, bins out at 6.30am. No frenzied rubbish collectors, screaming around spilling stuff everywhere. Just a very, very leisurely squeeze down streets too narrow to accomodate the truck while residents gently lobbed their household waste into the rear.
It was good – but no ice-cream.