Hardly the island dream she had hoped for, British expat Clara explains why parenting on the idyllic island nation of St Lucia was her toughest posting yet
It’s with great pleasure I welcome back to the parenting hot seat “serial expat” Clara Wiggins, author of the book Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, which was inspired by her time living in St Lucia with her husband, two young girls and not a lot else. You may remember Clara from our interview last year on Islamabad, Pakistan – surely life had to be better in this dreamy Caribbean island nation, No?
BG: Clara, thanks for joining us again. So let’s wind the clock back, tell us your background, how you ended up in St Lucia and where are you now?
As I have already featured on Our Globetrotters I won’t go into huge detail but briefly I was born to British diplomat parents in Cuba and then spent my childhood travelling between different countries and the UK. I ended up at boarding school in England where I stayed until I was 18 and after that I lived and worked in Venezuela, Gibraltar and Spain as well as attending university in the UK.
After graduating I started working as a journalist and tried to settle down in the east of England but invariably my itchy feet got the best of me and I took off for a round-the-world trip that took me to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia and an extended stay in New Zealand. On returning to the UK I decided I couldn’t live in the same country for the rest of my life so joined the Foreign Office. This took me to my first (and, as it turned out, only) posting – Kingston in Jamaica. Here I met my husband and became pregnant with my first daughter. She was born back home in England, followed by her sister a couple of years later.
With the two children in tow, now aged 2 and 7 months, we moved to Islamabad in Pakistan with my husband’s job as a National Crime Agency international liaison officer. However, we only lasted a few months before we were evacuated following the Mariott bombing of 2008. After a stretch of time back home we replaced Pakistan with the sunny Caribbean beaches of St Lucia. We were there for around 16 months before returning to the UK. We managed nearly 6 years at home this time but last year we moved here to Pretoria in South Africa where we are currently very happy.
This interview will focus on our time in St Lucia – a country we arrived in with a nearly two year old and a nearly four year old.
BG: What were your first impressions of your island home?
We were lucky enough to visit St Lucia before moving there and so were able to look at houses and schools. Unfortunately finding a house wasn’t as easy as it is in other locations as homes on the island tend to be either shacks of massive villas with not much in-between! Many of the villas were also very over-the-top ornate and not appropriate at all. Plus, because of my husband’s job, we had safety and security considerations which weren’t fulfilled by many of the houses we looked at.
Eventually we did find a home but when we moved there full time it wasn’t long before we realised we were on the wrong part of the island! Most of the expat community, as well as the children’s pre-school, were up in the north of the island in a place called Rodney Bay. We were living in a beautiful area with gorgeous views, which was close to the capital Castries (and my husband’s job) but a long way from the people I needed to be around. It was very, very hot and also isolating and with all the difficulties of moving somewhere new as well as a few extra problems thanks to living on a tiny island this was not a good start for me!
On the up side St Lucia is a beautiful destination and at weekends we were able to visit some gorgeous beaches and have lunch at some nice beachside restaurants. Although it didn’t help that my eldest daughter didn’t like the beach or the sea….
BG: What was the local community like for families – expat and locals?
I really struggled to meet other expats in St Lucia – the community was small and dispersed. There was also a drinking culture that didn’t really appeal to us – with two very young children at home the last thing we needed was hangovers in the morning (plus my husband’s job was very stressful and all-consuming of his time: the only time we managed to pry him away from his ever-ringing phone was by getting him in a swimming pool or the sea!).
In the end I did meet a group of other expat women, almost all through the school, but this took time and I would say my first few months on the island were pretty miserable. It helped that after a year we moved house to the area where other expats lived, making it easier to meet up for coffees and play-dates etc.
I wasn’t the only miserable expat in St Lucia and meeting other women in a similar position to me, many of whom were even less prepared than I was for the life, inspired me to write my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. (BG: If you are looking to make a move into expat life as a trailing spouse, seriously buy her book, its awesome!) I realised there was a need for much better support for those accompanying their partners overseas and whilst some of those moving with established employers like the Foreign Office or large corporations often got that support, St Lucia was full of the sort of women who were basically abandoned to their own devices.
As for the locals I did end up making a friends with a couple of local women – one through the school and the other I met at swimming classes. But generally it was a very closed community – being such a small population they had all grown up together and known each other from birth so it was hard to get into the cliques.
BG: What facilities and activities exist for young children?
This was the biggest problem with living in St Lucia – there just wasn’t anything to do with the kids! There was one play park and it wasn’t massively safe, plus it wasn’t shaded which was pretty hellish most of the year – although we still visited quite often. Other than that the only easy-to-reach amusement was the beach and, as already mentioned, my oldest daughter was not a fan!
Luckily though we did have a pool in both of the houses we lived in and were also able to visit resorts at weekends so my children both became very proficient swimmers from an early age. As we got to know people better at the school and after we moved to the expat area we did set up a few playdates and got invited to a few parties. Due to the fact that we were mixing with so many different nationalities, (Israelis, Syrians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Chinese, Serbian, American, Irish….it was a real melting-pot of expat life) these could be quite different from what either we or the children were used to – but it certainly taught us all to go with the flow a bit… Life did start to get a lot easier after a year or so, mostly due to meeting more people, but it was never the swinging social scene I have known in other expat destinations!
Our biggest savior was a resort at the other end of the island that we used to visit for weekend breaks. Because it was a couple of hours drive away (as far as you could go), it did feel like we were getting away from the “goldfish bowl” scene in the North. We would mingle amongst the tourists and pretend we were on holiday and no one would know who we were. Apart from getting off St Lucia altogether it was the greatest way to relieve the stress of island living.
BG: What schooling was available in St Lucia?
We sent our children to a local private Montessori school that was the one used most by the expat community. It was certainly an interesting experience as they melded local culture with the Montessori system. We were very happy with the school, despite its quirks, but they never got beyond reception (pre K) age before we left. I heard that standards dropped as they got higher up the school. I think bringing children to the island beyond primary age would have been hard as the choices were very limited (this may have changed).
Inevitably as the most popular school among expats places were limited and you often had to have your children on a waiting list to get them in. In the meantime some people used some of the other private schools on the island with mixed results. Generally they were a lot more old-fashioned and strict than we are used to. Another problem was that corporal punishment was still used in many schools. I heard some horror stories from the public schools.
BG: And what were health facilities like?
We had a very good GP but there was the usual problem of over-prescription which I think is more common in countries where health facilities are making money by prescribing drugs. We had a few health scares which generally were well dealt with.
Probably the worst thing that happened was my not-quite-two year old being admitted to hospital for croup. They wanted to put her on a drip but I refused as she would never have stayed still for long enough! She ended up staying in overnight but the care we got from the nurses was a long way below what I was used to. We were in a nice, private room but we were treated very poorly. It was a real culture shock moment and one of my lowest times on the island.
The other thing we always had to be aware of was that there wasn’t really a reliable ambulance service in St Lucia so we always knew that if there was an emergency we needed to rely on ourselves or friends to get us to hospital. Which is always worrisome at the start of a new posting when you don’t know anyone….
The only other thing worth noting about the health facilities was that we always knew that if we got shot we would be in good hands. Doctors from around the world came to St Lucia to train in trauma surgery because they got the chance to experience these injuries first hand….
BG: What did the typical family look like -expat and local?
Inevitably for such a small place everyone knew everyone and had family all over the place. Weekends tended to be family time for the locals as they would hang out at the beaches together or at other gatherings. I had one St Lucian friend, whose daughter was my oldest daughter’s best friend, who was the sixth partner to the man she lived with. They had a child together but funnily enough she was the only one he hadn’t married!
We were also aware that there were a lot of criminals on the island and quite possibly some of the parents at the school were walking on the wrong side of living a legal life! There were also the children of corrupt politicians but we just tried to stay out of it and not spend too much time with the wrong types!!
BG: And what was your life like on a typical week day and weekend?
For such a small island we spent a lot of time on the road. Unfortunately there was only one road linking the main living area to the capital so this was usually just one long traffic jam. I needed to drive the children to school every morning so our day would start with this drive. This got easier once we moved to the north of the island but then my husband had further to drive so would have to leave earlier in the morning.
Once I had dropped the children I would sometimes go to a class at the gym or meet a friend for coffee. I would also spend a lot of time writing a novel that I set in the Caribbean. I had almost finished it when we returned home to the UK but haven’t picked it up since! We had a very fierce housekeeper in the first house we lived in who I did not get on with at all. I found it really hard to be at home when she was there so sat in coffee shops or even in the car by the sea with the window open for the breeze, writing.
In order to shop I usually visited more than one supermarket to find all the ingredients I needed. This invariably took up a lot of my time – and I would then top up with fruit and veg from the market in Castries or from road-side sellers.
The children would be finished for the day by lunchtime so I picked them up and we would go home for a swim to cool off. The rest of the day was spent trying to occupy them – very hard with so little to do so I had to get very imaginative (I remember one game with sticks and flags….). We also relied heavily on dvd’s as the internet was too slow to download.
At the weekend we would rotate through about four different spots that we liked – resorts or beaches with attached restaurants and pools. Some were nicer than others but it was important to get out and do something. We also went down to the cruise ship terminal – it was somewhere the children could at least run around safely, we would ogle the tourists and there was an ice-cream shop at the end of the terminal.
There wasn’t anywhere really for the children to ride bikes or freely run around – in the end, we taught our elder daughter to ride on the shaded pathway next to a cinema (the only cinema on the island) in the early morning when there was no-one else around. Aaagh the hours we spent just trying to pass the time….
BG: What are the biggest challenges as an expat parent in St Lucia?
Boredom! There really was so little to do, I nearly went mad! I have read blogs by other people who live on small islands and many of them love it – but I found it really hard. Maybe because we had lived elsewhere with babies and children so had something to compare it to, but the beaches just did not make up for the lack of baby groups and soft-play centres, museums and decent TV, children’s movies and petting zoos. I was also lonely in St Lucia – it took a long time to meet my “tribe” and when I did it was quite a fluid community with people appearing and disappearing all the time. In the end though I did make some good friends, some of whom I am still in touch with today.
BG: And surely there are some positives too?
The best thing for me about living in St Lucia was the proximity to Florida! My brother-in-law lives there so we took the opportunity to visit him, as well as making the inevitable trip to Orlando. In the end we visited three times and I fell in love with the State! We still go as often as we can and thanks to the relief it gave me from small island life it will always have a place in my heart!
BG: What would be your top recommendations for any parents looking at a Caribbean posting?
I do think this sort of life suits some people more than others but I do advise you to go in to it with your eyes wide open (and a big wallet – travelling around the islands was not cheap!). Bring as much as you can – toys, presents, nappies, children’s clothes. Almost everything was hard to buy and expensive. Even fruit wasn’t as easy to get as it should have been as the best of it was sold to the hotels or exported. However one thing we were able to source was huge blocks of the best chocolate in the world thanks to the Hotel Chocolat plantation on the island (and my husband’s links with the owners who sold us the chocolate at a very low price!).
Thanks to Clara and her family for being part of Global Parenting again- and always being a great supporter of Our Globetrotters, spreading our family travel advice with her extensive expat network over at Expat Partner Survival. You can also follow her on twitter @strandedatsea