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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Caribbean Crafts by Way of China

It was my third Caribbean cruise before I wised up. We were in St. Kitts—a small, not very touristy island with only a few places to interest the shopper. In one of these, I spotted a cute little journal with a banana leaf cover. I bought it quickly, in case we wouldn’t be back and I’d never see it again.

Don’t you know I saw that same notebook again and again in nearly every port we visited since then?
Shopping for mementos in the Caribbean islands can bring on a serious case of déjà vu for which the only cure is keeping your money in your wallet.
I’m not talking here about artwork—it’s easy to find high-end paintings and sculptures by local artists. I’m referring to the kind of small locally made products that make great gifts for friends and family, or to remind you of your trip.

It’s sad that local crafts are nearly extinct. I’d like to think it was because the locals have found better ways to earn a living. But one look at the markets in St. Lucia or Nassau and one can easily see this is not so. It’s just that crafts have been replaced by cheap just-change-the-name-of-the-island souvenirs made by low-wage workers many miles away.
There are a few places you can still find a bit of authenticity or at least souvenirs unusual enough so you won’t see them in every port. Here are the ones I’ve found so far:
 ·       Barbados—Within a short walk from the cruise terminal (there’s a walkway along the water) in Bridgetown, the island’s capital, is the Pelican Village Craft Centre, a cluster of shops selling locally made crafts. I’ve bought purses and portfolios of bamboo, dolls with brightly colored outfits and figurines made from wood and wire

·       Dominica—Besides boasting of a beautiful compact harbor surrounded by lush green mountains, and a town punctuated with vibrant tropical flowers, Dominica also makes its own straw items from larouma reeds and balizier leaves, such as baskets, wall hangings, sun hats and the like

Making baskets in Dominica's harbor market
These are different than what you’ll see in Nassau, Bahamas, which are fine if you don’t mind the island name blazoned across the top in 72-point type. Dominica’s baskets are subdued and look great on everything from a cocktail table to a bureau
Straw baskets for sale in downtown Roseau


·       Aruba—Artisans take buds from the Mopa Mopa tree, turn them into resin, add color and use the substance to decorate wooded animals, boxes, masks and all sorts of other pieces. There are only three shops on the island that sell Mopa Mopa art, one of which is in downtown Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital and port for the cruise lines. More artwork than knickknacks, these pieces don’t come cheap but they make unique souvenirs and gifts. You can even get something as small as a bookmark, which is fairly inexpensive
If you’re on the hunt for local crafts on some of the other Caribbean islands, there are a few shops that still sell them, but sometimes you have to look pretty hard to find them. Charlotte Amalie in Bridgetown, St. Thomas has its Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative right downtown. But in St. Kitts’ Basseterre, we had to walk quite a ways down the main shopping street away from the center of town to find a small unassuming shop with products locally made. Warning: this was several years ago, so I don’t know if the place still exists.
Hope I gave you a few useful tips for the next time you’re treasuring hunting in the Caribbean. If you do come up empty, you can always fall back on the one product surely locally made, and everywhere, always welcome—rum!
Found something really special that I missed? Please fill me in!