As I rode the charter bus heading towards Castries from the airport, I thought, I’m dreaming. Am I here, speeding past banana plantations, impenetrable green hills and roadside vendors selling mangoes and coconuts? At certain bends in the road, I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the sea, sparkling in the afternoon heat.
After over a decade, I returned to St. Lucia for my uncle’s funeral.
It was a bittersweet occasion reconnecting with my grandfather, uncles, aunts and old family friends I hadn’t seen since my early teens while also tending to my loss.
After the funeral, I visited childhood haunts and the beaches where I flew my kites, attended birthday parties, and went swimming on Saturday mornings with my family. I remembered how my siblings and I would bolt from my father’s parked car, run across the wide expanse of sand, hang our towels on the branches of twisted leafless trees dotting the shoreline, before plunging into the water.
But an explosion of hotels had eaten away the wide fields of sand. And boats and tourists crowded the sea.
Still, I felt I was home. Home meaning familiar. Meaning I had a tribe. Meaning my identity as a St. Lucian could be fully displayed, in whatever way I remembered that felt, sounded and looked like. I thought of an animal growing up in the wild, captured and placed in a zoo and then after some time, released back into its native environment. This re-entry triggered once-suppressed instincts, a knowing of the place and a way of being in it.
Confidently, I strolled along a street in a village where my grandfather grew up. Four houses on one street belonged to my relatives. And not too far from the village, my cousins owned a farm.
How do I describe this sense of belonging? This ‘St. Lucian self’ I had tucked away to build another more assimilated Canadian/American identity was now with a community who knew the slang and colloquial phrases I had grown up with, knew the dishes I had liked, shared similar genetics, a similar name.
When I returned to the States, I noticed the difference in my disposition. The return of my persistent anxiety–not being ‘American’ or ‘Canadian’ enough.
Why had it taken a death for me to return to St. Lucia? And why continue to stay away from a place that satisfied yearnings for belonging?
In the earlier years, I believed that assimilation into Canadian/American culture meant excision of the past. Refusing to travel to St. Lucia was an attempt to excise the past.
In an essay, Gary Younge writes , “Migrants, almost by definition, move with the future in mind. But their journeys inevitably involve excising part of their past. It’s not workers who emigrate but people. And whenever they move they leave part of themselves behind.”
But the past, one as foundational as initial identity formation, cannot be so easily excised. Poet Marina Tsvetaeva states, “One’s homeland is not a geographical convention but an insistence of memory and blood.” And this insistence shows up without conscious thought in my speech as my pronunciation seesaws between a Caribbean and an American accent; or my predilection for spicy foods working its way into American dishes...let me add some flavor.
Frequently I wax nostalgic about St. Lucia. I can almost taste the raisin buns I ate on Sundays after church, and the intoxicating smell of the sea tussling in my nostrils. And I miss the lullaby of the rain drumming on the galvanized roof at night.
Home is a recollection.
Throughout the trip, I had a heightened sense of surrealism. I was in a place that for years had vividly inhabited my memories. The visit was affirmation of these memories, the initial cultivation of my identity. So what I experienced then, the scenery, smells and sounds, was viewed in the context of my childhood. Yes, I did this. Saw this. Ate this. This was the place that this happened. How had things changed? How had things stayed the same?
I was present but I wasn’t present during my visit; nor would I be present for the ongoing day-to-day grind of building a life in St. Lucia. The irritations and upsets. The frustrations and joys of island life.
This home is a past I carry around in my memories. I am home but I am not home.