"Why? What happened to him?"
"Obeah man turned fella into cow, sold him to some dude in Antigua."
"What do you mean? Has black magic been getting more common?"
"No," said the driver. "Now fella probably going down with that mad beef disease."
We were driving through a green tunnel of coconut palms on St Lucia's Caribbean coast. Lianas and tree ferns tangled above thickets of bougainvillea and night-flowering cereus: on either side rose great cathedrals of tamarind, buttressed by bushes of nutmeg and spandrels of soursop. Chickens looked down on us from their roost in the branches of a mango tree.
Occasionally we would pass a village, a cluster of wooden huts painted ice-cream colours with a bar signposted: COOL JOINT BAR - NICE PLACE FOR A BITE TO EAT or perhaps THE LOVE LIBERTY DISCO: IN GOD WE TRUST. Beyond them, above the corrugated iron roofs of the rum shacks, towered the great twin peaks of St Lucia's two tropical Matterhorns, the pitons.
Most Caribbean islands are now thoroughly resort-ravaged: Martinique these days feels like the more suburban parts of the Cote D'Azur with its quasi-Parisian flyovers and six-lane Euro-sprawl, while Barbados has become Surrey-in-the-Sun: a grown up never-never land of bars and golf courses, sun tans and saunas, a figment of Ian Fleming's imagination colonised by people from Dorking.
But St Lucia has so far managed to avoid this fate. The southern two- thirds of the island - mountainous, thickly forested and astonishingly beautiful - are still almost completely untouched by development. The soil is rich and the vegetation as thick as in a Kew hothouse. Moreover,thanks to an accident of history, the land is equitably distributed: in the course of the eighteenth century the island passed 14 times between the British and French, but happened to be in French hands in 1789 on the outbreak of the French Revolution; a guillotine was quickly set up in Soufriere and the entire plantation aristocracy was decapitated. As a result almost everyone in St Lucia owns a smallholding. This has in turn led to a quiet rural prosperity and an almost complete absence of crime.
Perhaps this also accounts for the islander's strange innocence: their curious lack of interest in money, the way people in buses wave happily at passers-by. Their tiny shacks and houses - usually smaller than a village cricket pavilion - are brightly painted and spotlessly clean. School children troop along the roads in neat uniforms. "Even at its most rank and jungly," wrote Martin Amis when he came to the island, "St. Lucia has a kiddy-book harmlessness. The leaves and palms seem greased with baby oil. You expect to encounter Babar the Elephant, smiling tigers, naughty monkeys. Even the real dangers are Disneyish: poison apples, falling coconuts."
Probably the most striking example of the way the island has survived oddly untouched by the 20th century is the degree to which St Lucia's rich folklore has survived undisturbed. The airport taxi driver talked about black magic as casually as he did BSE; later, planning a trip to the rainforest, the girl at the hotel reception warned me, in the same breath, to watch out for the fer de lance, (St Lucia's one poisonous snake) and Papa Bols (ghostly Father of the Forest, who leads hunters and woodcutters astray as a punishment for their attacks on his domain). The islanders think nothing odd in this; nor do they see any contradiction in their religious syncretism: it is the habit of many rural St Lucians piously to attend Sunday Mass after ridding themselves of evil spirits to the sound of drums the night before.
There is, moreover, a complexity and sophistication to the island's pantheon of vampires, demons and demi-Gods that can compete even with the contortions of Hindu mythology. At night, rural St Lucians keep an eye out for the soucouyant: a Caribbean cousin of the Transylvanian vampire, who sheds her skin and flies through the night scouring the island for her victims: you can see her as a ball of orange fire crossing the night sky. The soucouyant can be kept out of a house by hanging a special wreath of acacia, thorns and herbs from the door and windows, but the only way to destroy her is to find her desiccated skin and fill it with salt and pepper so that it becomes too itchy to put back on; a priest will then be able to finish her off with a sprinkling of Holy Water and a flash of his silver cross.
Equally fearsome is the St Lucian diablesse: a beautiful white demoness usually encountered on bridges or on rivers; she will talk quietly and politely to her victim, before using her magical beauty to lure him into the forest. Once enchanted, the victim will be fed on lizards, wood ants and snakes. Sometimes he is never seen again; or if he is lucky he will awake next morning in a crevice on some rockface or ravine. A diablesse can be recognised from the fact that her left foot is cloven, and that under her skirts can be glimpsed heavy steel fetters. If in doubt make the sign of the cross; a true diablesse will immediately disappear.
"Our society has always had two layers," explained Kennedy Boot Samuel, St Lucia's leading folklorist. "One is the official, obvious, colonial heritage: Christianity, democracy, the English language, and all the ideas and ways of behaving that go with that. But when you go deeper among the people you discover that there still survives the older subversive African traditions, which on this island have become thoroughly mixed up with St Lucia's indigenous Amerindian culture. That hybrid culture is unspoken, yet it is still pretty vibrant - even if few educated people will be immediately willing to admit it. But in crisis situations - when you are in love or in serious trouble or badly sick - when you really need to curse or to bless, then nearly everyone in St Lucia still turns to that other tradition."
One St Lucian politician - a rationalist with no religious faith or belief in obeah - described to me how no one would have taken him seriously as a candidate for election unless, at the launch of his campaign, he did not first spend a night in a graveyard invoking the support of his constituency's spirits. If I really wanted to comprehend St Lucia, said the politician, there was only one thing for it: I should talk to an obeah man. Or, better still, a gadee: a black magic woman.
Ma Dubois lives in the village of Micoud on the island's windswept Atlantic coast. Unemployed men in Homburg hats squat on their hams outside the village rum shacks, flossing their teeth with grass stalks. The houses here all look alike - rusty duckboard roofs, flapping shutters, peeling paint - but you know her shack immediately: it's the one with the queue of petitioners waiting outside on the verandah.
"You gotta understand," says Ma Dubois. "The obeah man is using his skills to do dirty work, to make dirty curses. This is why these people come to me every day."
Ma Dubois gestured at the waiting line: a young mother in tight leggings, an old man clutching a rum bottle, a pretty girl with dreadlocks. "I'm like a doctor," she says. "Only different."
Ma Dubois is in her late seventies: old and wrinkled with a blue frock, a brillo pad of wiry grey hair and a pair of thick horn-rimmed glasses. All around her shack are hung holy medals and images of the Sacred Heart: every table top is cluttered with great battalions of luminous Virgins. Over the mantlepiece the Pope shares pride of place with a clock decorated with a technicolour Ascension.
"So how do you cure someone who has been cursed?" I asked.
"Haha?" said Ma Dubois, smiling enigmatically. On the table, a radio was tuned to an American gospel channel, and the bible beating wafted through: "What are you learning from God's word? Friend: if you are growing spiritually we'd lurv to hear from you. Your communication is vurry precious ..."
"Please," I said. "Give an example."
"Well," said Ma Dubois. "If an obeah man been doin' bad spells and the person comes to me, I tell her this. Take nine baths in the water where a stream of spring water hits the sea. First thing in the morning before the sun rises; the sun must not see the water. Then take some of the water and put in a bottle. Bring it home then consecrate it."
"You must read the psalms over it: psalms 10,15, 29, 68 and 91. Add three drops of turpentine and three drops of Jeyes fluid. Add a little nutmeg, some powered reindeer horn, five vine leaves and a piece of Peruvian bark. Drink it three times a day, after meals. After that no obeah man will be able to do anything to you."
"What do the obeah men think of you?" I asked.
"Oftentime they try to kill me," said Ma Dubois, frowning. "But I'm safe. Because I wear the most powerful prayer on my body."
She touched a charm suspended on a chain around her neck. "Because of this they can't touch me..."
"So you're not afraid?"
"I'm not afraid of obeah," she said. "Let me tell you a story. In St Lucia we have a custom. When somebody dies we sit up with the body and sing hymns from 6pm until 6am the following morning. One night last month I was part of a group doing this. At two in morning I feeling a little tired so I went out for a walk. Suddenly in the middle of the road I saw a cow."
"A cow. Big one with two horns. Coming towards me. No one else was in the street. But I knew that this was no ordinary cow. I knew this was an obeah man who was just pretending to look like a cow. So I stand in the middle of the road and I shut my eyes and I shout out: 'Behold the cross of the Lord! Fly, Powers of Darkness! Lion of the tribe of Judah! The Root of David has conquered all! I deprive you of your manliness! Alleluliah! Alleluliah!', then I open my eyes. You know what I saw?"
"The cow had gone. But standing in the same place I saw my neighbour, Titus Montlouis. He shouted curses at me, but there was nothing he could do. Since then I've been very careful with Titus. Particularly when I was told in a dream that he was a fallen angel."
"A fallen angel?"
"It's true," said Ma Dubois. "When the Good Lord threw Lucifer outa' His Holy House, many of them bad angels they landed in St. Lucia. They lived in the bamboo, but recently us has bee cutting down the bamboos, so them fallen angels from heaven - they're lady angels mostly, in long dresses - been wanderin' round roamin' the roads like stray dogs ... other than Titus Montlouis, who lives next door."
Ma Dubois crossed herself: "You see, I know the secret names of them bad angels" she said. "Brufer, Kokbiel, Zigiel, Leviathan ... I have the secret of the psalms and the secrets of my African grandmothers. Two kinds of knowledge, two kinds of cure. Together they make me strong. They let me undo anything an obeah man or a fallen angel can do: anything."
"They do all bad things," said the old woman laughing a long, loud cackling laugh. "But with me: I can undo it ..."
! William Dalrymple flew to St. Lucia with BWIA (0181 577 1100) and stayed at the Ladera Resort (001 809 459 7323). For further information contact the St Lucia Tourist Board, 21a Finchley Road, London NW3 6HJ (0171 431 3675).