Natural Guadeloupe Comes Alive

Guadeloupe is one of the most beautiful but most oft-neglected of Caribbean islands. This piece by Carol Perehudoff for the Toronto Sun, though touristy, brings out some of the island’s cultural richness.

A rum aphrodisiac isn’t my usual breakfast but I can’t resist a shot infused with the bark of the Richeria Grandis, a tree unique to the Lesser Antilles and used for centuries by the Carib Indians.

The bark — if my spotty French serves me correctly as I translate the label at Guadeloupe’s oldest rum distillery, the Domaine du Marquisat de Sainte-Marie — isn’t just for men but also “produces a grand excitement in women.”

It must be working in mysterious ways because I’m plenty excited to be in lush Guadeloupe, an overseas French department in the Caribbean whose two main islands, mountainous Basse-Terre and flatter drier Grand-Terre form the shape of a butterfly — a butterfly laden with mist-shrouded mountains, sugar cane, soft sand beaches and a simmering volcano that still releases fumaroles into the sky.

In fact, maybe I’m too excited — between night-singing frogs, dawn-crowing roosters and an upbeat visit to Carnival in Guadeloupe’s largest city, Pointe-à-Pitre, sleep has been eluding me. So, as our small group tours the Botanical Gardens in the village of Deshaies I ask our dreadlocked guide, Alain, which plants cure insomnia.

Is that a pitying look he’s shooting me? “It’s not so much not sleeping as learning to relax,” he says. “My grandfather uses soursop. You crush up the leaves and bathe in it.”

“Can I buy some?” I ask, not yet realizing that in Guadeloupe your natural pharmaceuticals come straight off the tree. Bursting with hibiscus, ferns, orchids and coconut palms, much of the archipelago is an overgrown garden – and locals like Alain are making sure it stays that way.

Paris-educated Alain and his friends have been working to restore the 128 varieties of fruit trees that have been fast disappearing due to modern development. Once they raise the trees they give them away. “But you have to be a good parent,” he says as we stop to admire a horse-sized poinsettia. “If we give you a tree and it dies within a year, you don’t get another one.”

I’d like to adopt a soursop tree, but with custom regulations it could prove tricky. Perhaps I’ll find something more portable at our next destination, La Grivelière Coffee Plantation, a historic settlement founded in the 1700s by Jacobean monks who came to this enclosed mountain valley to escape civilization.

Spatters of warm rain flash through the sunshine as we tour the wooden colonial buildings then hike into the valley with Jean-Pierre, a nature interpreter whose broad features, fat dreads and huge smile loom out from the shadows of his worn straw hat.

He stops beside a slim bamboo tree and tells us that medicinal plants often resemble the very things they are able to cure. “What does this look like?” he asks.

I eye the spindly leaves fluttering in the wind. “My hair?”

“Look at the trunk.” He points to its vertebrae-like marks. “Good for the back. It has silica and helps to remineralize.”

“What’s good for sleeping?” I ask.

“Holy basil.” He frowns then, like Alain, tells me insomnia is a symbol of something deeper. He asks me some questions then delivers his diagnosis. “Your inner being and outer appearance are in conflict. When you bring the inner source out you will find tranquility.”

Let’s see. Appearance-wise, I’m an urban girl with too-blond hair and too-bright lipstick. Inside, however, I feel a constant craving for nature. I see the disconnect but unlike the monks, I don’t think moving to an isolated mountain valley is the answer.

The next day, on tiny Terre de Bas, an outlying island that few travellers visit, Alain and I trek into the hills, occasionally glimpsing the blue-as-a-peacock Caribbean below.

“A soursop tree!” Alain plunges into the bush and comes back clutching a fistful of leaves. As I tuck his natural relaxation cure into my pack, next to the sprig of basil he’s brought me, I tell him about Jean-Pierre’s advice.

He nods. “He told me it’s sad that you are looking for answers in plants when it has to come from inside.”

I grin — it’s not often you get two buff dreadlocked nature-lovers feeling sorry for you in the space of two days, and their compassion for both Guadeloupe and its visitors is heartwarming. Maybe one day I’ll reach deep inside myself and tap the ‘source’ Jean Pierre says is lurking there, but right now I’m content — excited even — with a soursop bath, some warm winter sunshine and a cup of basil tea.

Carol Perehudoff is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her trip was subsidized by Atout France. Visit her blog at–natural-guadeloupe-comes-alive

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