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GREEN HILLS WITHOUT CHOCOLATE

BY ALAN BEHR

Prelude, New York City. She stares at me gravely in our unfinished living room. This will be a serious talk. "I changed my mind about Venice. I need a beach and turquoise water."

Forget the footsteps echoing on canal bridges, bypass Titian and the Bellinis for coconuts-is Julie serious? I'm a museum and café traveler. I function best at 68°F and specialize in travel to the Chocolate Belt-Germany, Switzerland, Austria, etc.

As I pack for St. Lucia, I carefully wrap my Lindt and Ghirardelli bars. Like Hemingway in Africa-Behr without chocolate shops.

Day One. Our driver navigates seemingly impassable mountain roads with the dexterity of a riverboat pilot. Huge, oblong vegetables sprout from green trees and bushes. You can grow up poor on St. Lucia, but you will never starve: dinner on the vine; chickens and goats cluttering potholed curves.

An hour and one-half later, I see my first white man since the airport, and he's carrying a tennis racket. We enter a guarded, isolated fairytale land: Windjammer Landing. White stucco villas under orange tiles. An unwalled, thatch-roofed restaurant facing the sea. A four-wheel-drive scooter to shuttle us to our private villa, one side of the living room naked to the foliage and to a sea purple in the fading light.

Day two. Julie spends the day in indolent bliss.

Who says I'm bored? Doesn't everyone stroll the beach wearing a photo vest and three cameras? Running for a shot, I stub my small toe on a chaise longue. That evening, I rescue three small tree frogs from our kitchen. "What do you think?" says Julie.

"There's none of that efficient reserve of European hotels-where the staff does everything you ask but keeps you at arm's length. You get the sense that people here would just as soon stop and have a conversation. I like that. It's just-I feel like I'm on a white game preserve. The locals come in, they feed us, study us, then go home and report what they've found."

"Are you bored, honey? Is there something special you want to do?"

"I want to hire a helicopter," I decide. "Like the National Geographic photographers."

"Oh."

Day three. We go off the reservation, driven by gentle, bearded Claudius Jn. Baptist in a white Mitsubishi with faux-leopard seats. Claudius plays drums and sings in Energy, a reggae band; he lets us hear him on tape, and his voice is sweet. People wave and shout "Hey, Claudi." We feel lucky.

Claudius takes us around Castries, a concrete colonial holdover in need of carpenters and green space. Julie buys baskets at the covered market, the stalls tended by wan, old women. Julie could negotiate her way through purgatory; out of respect, she pays the asking price.

In front of city hall, thin men stare into space and green signs implore good citizenship:

TAKE PRIDE IN OUR ENVIRONMENT MR PLANT SAYS DON'T DESTROY US

On a mountain over town stands the Eudovic Art Studio & Bar. Joseph Eudovic, the sculptor and bartender, shows us abstracts fashioned from roots of the extinct louier canelle tree. He poses stiffly until I engage him in a talk about his art. He brightens, gesticulating with great, tubular fingers. We visit the workshop, then he serves us a cold round.

We tour a batik factory, a perfumery. I inquire about my helicopter. Tomorrow, for sure.

Dinner at Jimmie's, where Jimmie James, a troubadour in prose, strolls among the tables, carrying wit and philosophy. He sits with us and we sample fine prototypes of his new sea-grape and golden-apple liqueurs.

Jimmie came back to the island after decades in the U.K., and he carries himself like an English gentleman. I ask if he feels like a returned St. Lucian or an immigrant. "Living on a small island, you are immediately identified and typed," he says. "And of course, you have got two divisions in St. Lucia, which are the rich and the poor. . . . If they cannot frame you in a type, you are a foreigner, no matter who you are, what you are." We share a drink and a laugh, I think for out-of-place people everywhere.

Day four. While Julie lounges, I climb onto a tour bus loaded mostly with Germans for a day at Marquis Plantation. Caucasians can still be oddities on the northern point of the island. The Germans wave merrily at everyone we pass, and they wave back, curious. On the outside: machete-wielding men in tattered clothes, women with bundles on their heads, children in crisp school uniforms; inside: blondes with unshaved armpits and Benetton sun bonnets. Two-way anthropology at thirty miles per hour.

  Jackie Atkinson's family runs the banana plantation, accessible by a concrete ford and axle-cracking dirt road. It is sprawling and completely without electric power since 1967, when a hurricane lowered the level of the stream that had propelled the waterwheel generator.

A rugged Canadian in safari shorts, Mrs. Atkinson tells how the island's crop, once assured a protected market in the U.K., now competes there with bananas from other nations. Recent prices are below cost.

We all dine on the veranda of the unlighted, partially abandoned house. Once the eating starts, my companions don't talk to me much. Beer bottles thump the table. A squall bursts, but a hefty blonde will not move. "It's just a little rain," she says in German, her back growing wet. An Italian woman and her husband cease daintily cutting fried bananas and shimmy away from the downpour.

When I return to Windjammer, Julie is waiting with Claudius. Trouble. A change in the time of the helicopter flight, and I've arrived ten minutes too late. Claudius drives us to town, and we have drinks at Rain, a local hangout. I'm disconsolate about the chopper. I don't know why; every time I ride one, I'm nauseous for hours.

"We'll keep trying," says Julie, finishing my drink for me.

"Is there anything you'd like to do?" Why do I even ask?

"Let's buy more baskets." She stuffs a suitcase full with them, ostensibly as presents for her family; she keeps them all.

Another sign in Castries sends us off:

CRICK'S FUNERAL SERVICES LTD 24 HOURS SERVICE

We drive to Rodney Bay and inspect the pristine lobby of The Royal St. Lucian resort. At the waterfront "A" Pub, Claudius surprises us by introducing his girlfriend, Francisca Maurille, who works there. She is colorful and friendly; Julie decides to marry them off.

Day five. We say goodbye to Claudius as we board a boat ferrying scuba divers to the Anse Chastanet Hotel. The brawny men and women duck their heads during yet another St. Lucia squall. To our left, the island throws out gray, craggy promontories; on our right, the bark Unicorn, under full sail, floats on a steel-blue sea. We disembark at Soufriere, an even more broken-down hamlet than Castries, but wooden, color-splashed and intriguing. Scruffy men try to negotiate portage and transport as our bags and legs wobble between boat and pier.

Squalls give way to true rain as we reach Ladera, a resort known for its three-walled villas, one side open to the elements. Ours has a small pool and a view of the mountains known as the Pitons, green breasts bordering an even greener valley. We have an open-walled bathroom, which we label "naughty," and an enclosed one, which we call "nice." It's like camping out in luxury.

I ram a chair, reinjuring my toe.

Over dinner, another guest informs Julie about palm rats and tarantulas. We get nervous warnings to tuck in our mosquito net.

That night: "Alan, wake up! Oh, God, what is it?"

Above the mosquito net, brilliant lights flash in white and green. "Fireflies."

"They're three inches long!"

"Harmless. They're really quite beautiful, don't you think?"

That calms her a bit. "They're six inches long. Aren't you scared?"

"No, but I wish the tree frog would shut up." It lives in the banana plant growing in our living room. It's horn-like croak, echoed by distant companions, fills the wooden house.

Day six. Our guide today, Samantha Denys, points to the bubbling and steaming seawater cauldrons at the center of the dormant volcano. Nearest is Gabriel's Crater, which, another guide explains to a group of schoolgirls, is named for the guide Gabriel, a "Rasta man who jumped up and down on the ground to show it was hollow," fell in, and has since recovered from his burns. "Oh, you're not listening," he groans to the girls as I snap their picture.

At the harbor, Jones ("Tico") D'Auvrgne powers up his multicolored skiff and delivers us to the Anse Chastanet beach. We've come south of the tropic of Cancer so Julie can get in her beach time; she is in bliss. I stare moodily at a passing helicopter.

That night, I awaken when Julie slips out of bed. I try to get back to sleep, but our tree frog is doing a horn solo. As I push aside the mosquito net, I hear from the darkness: "Don't come over! I'm in the naughty bathroom."

"Don't trouble yourself, dear. I'm off to slaughter the tree frog."

"Wait!"

Day Seven. Our guide, Harold Dalson, skilled and taciturn, is exceedingly content; it's supposed to rain in a rain forest, isn't it? I don't mind because the forest is lush and fragrant in a mist that shimmers wherever the sun can slip through. We do not see the jacquot, the rare St. Lucian parrot, but we are enjoying the hike.

Harold cuts a huge leaf shaped like a Zulu shield, and Julie and I crowd under it. I'm impressed until I recall a PBS documentary showing an orangutan in Borneo employing the same trick. The heavy rain forms ocher puddles in our path. I cradle a wet camera and make a mental note never to visit Borneo. "I was just thinking," said Julie. "We could be at the Gritti Palace right now, on the Grand Canal in Venice." But in a strange way, we both have a very good time.

At dinner, Christian Gonthier, the Swiss chef who makes Ladera a culinary oasis, serves me a chocolate mousse crepe. Things are looking up.

Final day. In the valley between the Pitons stands Jalousie Plantation, another resort hotel. The Petit Piton was green from a distance, but we see it now as a slate-gray, green-tufted monolith rising from the black-sand beach. The location is the most beautiful on the island, which is why international pressure had been exerted in a worthy, abortive attempt to spare it for a national park.

Jalousie has been done up as a Disneyesque take on a nineteenth-century sugar plantation; it performs to American standards of comfort, down to the first jets of Florida-strength air conditioning we get on the island. Julie settles into a deck chair at poolside. She declares Jalousie the ideal beach resort she has been seeking and begs me to try it out while we weather an airline strike causing minor chaos throughout the Caribbean.

"We can't," I explain. "We're lucky we got a flight. I've used up my chocolate, and I'm surviving on imported Sugar Babies. And I won't miss the next ride for anything."

Our suitcases arrive at a concrete slab beside the beach. The helicopter banks in from the north, clopping through still air over azure water, then settles to the slab in dream-like slow motion. Our cases slip into the hold and we buckle ourselves into the buggy-sized cabin.

The ground crewman signals, and we float upwards, rising beside the stone face of the Petit Piton. We climb the mountain with our eyes and then surmount its peak. We flip toward the midday sun, and the valley slips beneath us, the villas of Ladera open like brown eyes on the ridge.

Our machine belongs to the sky now. The rain forest is a mere carpet of curiosities, the volcano a small imperfection in the weave. St. Lucia recedes, noble and unregarding, a green wedge in a white-tufted sea rolling toward the eternal distance.


Versions of "Green Hills without Chocolate" first appeared in The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, St. Petersburg Times and San Juan Star.
Copyright © 1993, 2002 by Alan Behr