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Thumbs Up in the Caribbean

`IT will be the persistence of a cat seeking a lap,'' is the way I wrote it in a notebook one early morning two weeks ago in my bunk aboard the 72-foot yawl Zorra. My guess was that once I left the Caribbean, an uninhibited memory of the watery green-and-blue glory of it would keep coming back to me like a warm cat prowling for the nearest lap.

I was right. Here in Boston, the Caribbean is a cat.

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But there in little Marigot Bay, on the leeward side of St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles, the long dawn on my first morning there was preposterous. It was too perfect, a wraparound consonance of sunlight, pure blue waters, skies of royal blue, sand from Impressionist paintings, palms impossibly lean and graceful, air like cotton, and rain squalls that build and fall and fade and come again. And across the eight nights of my vacation, a porcelain moon growing to fullness and leaving time, heart, and place washed in silver.

So there is this lovely Caribbean, the elemental dictionary of the tropical perfect. Eight days of sailing in and out of harbors and forays inland with my family is restorative and memorable.

But there is another Caribbean where little towns and villages share a common water spigot and exist without electricity. Most families in this Caribbean dwell in handmade shacks under corrugated tin roofs along with chickens and goats. Poverty throughout the islands is as common as mangoes.

Despite the astonishing beauty and abundant fishing, the islands of the eastern Caribbean are really third-world countries with marginal economies and all the attendant problems of limited opportunities.

At one time most of them were ruled by the fortunes of sugar cane and by the British. Now most islands are fragmented, independent states within the Commonwealth or associated with Britain.

Sugar is no longer king. The islands depend mainly on other agriculture such as bananas, coconuts, and cocoa for subsistence and export. Tourism is increasingly an important part of each island's economy and is changing the cultures.

Listen to a local radio station: The lead story, from the island of Dominica, is a series of comments from villagers excited because their town is finally being wired for electricity. ``Now we can have light and VCRs,'' one person says.

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Talk to a taxi driver, driving a Mitsubishi van along narrow roads on St. Lucia: His father earns less than $200 a month as a worker on a banana plantation. As a taxi driver, the son can earn as much as $40 for a ride from the airport to the other side of the island.

In the marketplace at Castries, the largest city on St. Lucia, an older woman who was a midwife on government salary for many years has to work with her daughter selling fruits and vegetables:

``There wasn't enough to eat where I lived,'' she says, ``so I now live with my daughter, who has three children but no sense.''

Four days later, in Bequia (Island of the Cloud) at a sunny marketplace, I buy a small, lumpy cement sculpture of a black woman holding a baby. It was made and painted by Miss Vinnie Johns, a woman with a dazzling smile and two children playing nearby. We chat for several minutes somewhat facetiously about the importance of thumbs in sculpture. Hers are enormous.

She asks me how I like the Caribbean. I effuse and effuse and tell her I will regret leaving.

``Oh mon,'' she says, laughing, ``you will leave and be back. Don't worry.''

We talk a few minutes more, laughing and sharing the Caribbean. ``Don't worry,'' she says again, and gives me a huge ``thumbs up'' sign to span the continents.

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