Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cruising the Eastern Caribbean Islands

Earlier this month, my wife and I got on the Celebrity Summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico and headed south along the strand of islands that form a crescent between Puerto Rico and Venezuela on the South American continent.

We weren't much into sun, sand or shopping, the three major themes for most of our fellow passengers (in addition to unrestricted alcohol consumption) but we were interested in learning more about these islands and took in a bit of sightseeing at each port of call.

We were told that the Arawak Indians were the first to inhabit these islands as they migrated by boat from the South American continent. These hunter gatherers were peaceful. They were followed by the warlike Carib Indians, who believed in eating their fallen male adversaries and assimilating the women and children. By the time Columbus "discovered" these islands, only the Carib Indians remained to greet him.

The Spaniards that followed Columbus to the new world were only interested in finding gold to plunder. These islands didn't have any and therefore the Spaniards did not stick around. It took another 100 to 150 years or so before other western powers led by the Brits concluded that the conditions on the islands were excellent for growing sugar cane.

This was before the age of mechanization, and growing and harvesting sugar canes and squeezing the canes for the juice and refining the juice into sugar were labor intensive. The few surviving Indians weren't enough to go around and thus the cheapest form of labor was to bring in slaves from Africa.

The booming sugar industry from the Caribbean islands grew on the backs of massive import of African slaves. More slaves were brought to the Caribbean than were imported to work on the cotton farms of the United States.

The economic importance of sugar has faded and in any case there are other places in the world that can produce sugar more cheaply than on the these islands. Sugar from sugar beets in the U.S. thanks to heavy government subsidy is one of these.

Most of the islands are now economically dependent on tourism. Unemployment is as high as 20%. One indicator of how well an island is doing is the female to male ratio. High ratio, say 5 or more to 1, means that the island has plenty of service jobs and women come from other islands to find work. We were told this by our guide but would require further verification.

While there are certainly a lot of poor folks living on these islands, the climate attracts the wealthy from around the world to buy a vacation home or even retirement home there. One of the more interesting and somewhat unique investment we visited was Stony Hill on St. Lucia.

This villa on a ridge overlooking one of the scenic harbors of St. Lucia is owned by the Soni's. Dr. Soni is no longer a practicing neurosurgeon, having retired from a successful practice on the Caribbean islands. He invested in the property which he developed into Stony Hill. To go with the spectacular view, he cleared the native vegetation and put in a lovely three acre garden around the villa. He and his wife live on the property and they also host weddings and catered to special events to offset some of the cost of living in their private paradise.
View from the terrace of Stony Hill in St. Lucia.