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Terre de Bas, Les Saintes:
May 31, 2011
The salako, a nifty Santois hat trick

This wasn’t our first visit to the Islands of the Saints, eight tiny volcanic dots south of Guadeloupe (and a dependency of that island). But it was our first visit to Terre de Bas, one of the only two Saints that are inhabited. We took the short ferry trip (about 15 minutes) from the other of the inhabited Saints, Terre de Haut, where Receta bobbed gently at anchor off the biggest town, cleverly named Grand Bourg. (Note: I’m behind here: We left the Saints about a week ago and are already in St. Lucia. But I was so excited about catching that mahi-mahi the day we sailed from the Saints that this post got back-burnered.

The Saints are home to an unusual piece of headgear, a brilliant invention called the salako. A cylinder woven of split-bamboo slats sits on the head, a cloth-covered bamboo-framed basket perches upside-down on top of the cylinder, and an under-the-chin tie completes the whole affair. The elevated basket (its circumference is a good 18 inches) provides sun protection, while the head remains cool, thanks to the ventilation allowed by the open weave of the supporting cylinder.

Top view: The bamboo framework for a salako, which Steve purchased. The finished hat would be covered with cloth
They do look a teensy bit silly, a bit Carmen Miranda-ish, minus the fruit – like “the tops of toadstools,” Patrick Fermor said in his 1940s Caribbean travel book The Traveller’s Tree – which perhaps explains why the Santois wear ballcaps these days.

But the hats are still made by hand on Terre de Bas and, until quite recently, were all the rage, worn by both fishermen and their wives. A Santois sailor is said to have brought back the style from Indochina in the 19th century, perhaps from Vietnam, where a similar hat was worn not only by workers and officials, but was also turned into an extravagant accessory of stylish women. (The name is thought to come from “salacot,” a type of helmet worn by colonial officials.) Its functionality obvious, the salako was promptly adapted in the Saints.

Side view: The supporting cylinder, which provides ventilation for the wearer, varies in height. This is a small one.

On our first visit to Terre de Haut in 2008, we saw salakos only in the museum, on the head of the concrete fisherman in a statue in Bourg des Saintes’ town square – and in the tourist shops. Since the outlandish chapeau has fallen out of style with the Santois – the last regular wearer, a fisherman, died a couple of years ago – sales now are almost entirely to visitors. (Ferries from mainland Guadeloupe arrive several times daily, disgorging hordes of daytrippers who spend the day on Terre de Haut’s gorgeous beaches.)

Steve, never a slave to fashion, always a devotee of function over form, and the owner of many sweat-stained ballcaps, was taken with the salako’s cool practicality for someone living on a boat in the tropics. On that first visit, he tried on one whose basket was covered in bright madras cloth. “What do you think?” he asked. I shook my head no. The woman who was selling them from the porch of her house on Bourg des Saintes’ main street brought out another, this one covered in plain white cloth on the outside and banded in blue underneath. “The traditional colors,” she said, “for the sea and for the Virgin.” Unfortunately, I had to break it to Steve: He looked like he was wearing an exotic mushroom, and he just couldn’t carry it off.

But, now, three years later, walking around charming, much-less-touristed Terre de Bas, we go into a shop promising traditional crafts. Yes, there are salakos. And, yes, Steve is still determined to have one. But this time he makes a sensible choice: He buys an unfinished salako – just the bamboo framework, before it has been covered by cloth. And he buys it not to wear, but as a piece of fabulous design, to hang on a wall in our Toronto condo.

He also buys it as a piece of history. The shopkeeper tells him (in French) that the salakos are now made by only two elderly Santois. They live on the other side of Terre de Bas. Given their age, he explains, they no longer welcome visitors.

The implication is clear: This traditional craft is on the verge of dying out.

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5 comments on “Terre de Bas, Les Saintes:
May 31, 2011
The salako, a nifty Santois hat trick

  1. jomamma on said:

    You could always turn it upside down, put a bowl of Shrimp dip in the center and add chips to the outer ring!

  2. Natalie on said:

    I love (and take as inspiration) your attention to the details that make travel wonderful and life worth living. Steve owes you one, possibly two for not letting him wear one of those hats, by the way. Also for not posting the photo you must have taken of him trying one out. One can only imagine..

  3. Susan on said:

    I just started reading “The Spice Necklace.” I loved “An Embarrassment of Mangos.” I read last night where you and Steve traveled in search of the Oregano-eating goats. And today, at the Farmer’s Market in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, I saw a plant labeled “Mexican Oregano.” I told the vendor your story about the goats and she told me that this plant will grow into a bush. She has one at home, where she gets the starts of the plants she sells. I’m so excited!

    My husband and I are dreaming of sailing in the Caribbean some day, when we get our boys through school (one just started college). Some friends tell us we’re too old, but when we watch cruising videos on YouTube, it seems that at least 50% are our age or older. We think with a catamaran, that we will love it. You have inspired us.

    I love your recipes and search for Caribbean food. I will have to do things a little differently. Because of health concerns, although I too want to shop in the local markets, I will not be able to eat traditional Caribbean fried foods and food made of sugar and white flour, but I plan to use the exotic plants and spices to learn to cook some wonderful, healthy dishes. I want a nutmeg tree!!!

    Thank you so much for your books. (My husband bought me, “The Spice Necklace” in hardback, because he knows it will go sailing with us)

  4. Linda and Steve/Seaman's Elixir on said:

    Ann and Steve,

    The website looks GREAT! You and Steve have done such a fabulous job one might think you had backgrounds in publishing :)

    Yesterday, we met a woman who read and enjoyed both of your books. Not a new experience, this has happened several times. We wanted you to know how she, and others, desired to hang out with us, specifically because we know you. What fun we have had basking in the glow of an accomplished author…a sort of reverse guilt-by-association.

    Hope you are doing well. Miss you both.

  5. MollyM on said:


    I’ve written a review of your two books for Signals from TARSUS — The newsletter of The Arthur Ransome Society U. S. — if you would like to see it, is there a way I can get it to you?


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