Caribbean Eyes

One of the Caribbean's enduring symbols – the ever-open window

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They gaze from mountainsides, peek shyly from the shadows, observe you sleepily from steamy side-streets. The eyes of the Caribbean are a million open windows.

In a region where the temperature demands that every breath of breeze is captured to cool the interiors of the houses, doors and windows are constantly open. In every Caribbean island — in village and city alike — sashes are flung upwards, casements and shutters thrown back, and the passing world is observed from under the coy fluttering of white lace curtains.

From the shadowy depths of the buildings, sounds of life spill out into the sun. Mothers scolding; children playing; soca and reggae in counterpoint with an orchestra of chickens and goats; voices raised in hymns; the clatter of pots and pans. Out too, wafts the aroma of cooking, laced with spice.

Only the air-conditioned buildings stare blankly, their plate- glass windows defying access to the curious eye, and their inhabitants, imprisoned in a refrigerated world, denied the companionship of the lazy warmth outside.

Wherever you travel in the Caribbean, you’ll find as much enchantment in the open windows as Alice did through the looking glass. It’s a brand of leisurely magic that, once discovered, will have you ambling slowly along, deep in your own special brand of window-shopping.

Architectural design, moulded by centuries of different influences, has produced in the Caribbean some of the most beautiful windows to be seen anywhere in the world. Each island, blending its own distinctive style with the building materials to hand, presents a wealth of shapes, a rainbow of colours. Glazed, perhaps, with tiny crooked panes or radiant stained glass, or completely open with graceful louvred shutters on either side or with canopies above, propped precariously open with wooden poles. In grander buildings, elegant and lofty windows pour huge shafts of sunlight into calm interiors, illuminating expensive furnishings, parliamentary benches or church congregations.

Caribbean windows are embellished in many different ways: with bougainvillea and hibiscus, morning glory and jasmine; with punched fretwork painted in joyful abandon; with coloured blinds and tinkling bead curtains; with flashing lizards, resting butterflies and inquisitive birds.

Each window is a picture frame, capturing the life of the people within. The gallery is endless: these works of art line streets in higgledy-piggledy rows or hang in solitary splendour on a backdrop of white coral stone or red brick.

Many of the pictures are still-life studies, cameos of people’s homes — the back of a cane chair here, a vase of flowers there. Others are portraits. Watch the open window in any Caribbean house for long enough and it will turn into a portrait. The favourite pastime of all West Indians is watching the world go by. For every empty window you pass, there will be another inhabited by a face – elbows leaning on the sill, chin cupped in hands. Offer the portrait a greeting, and a smile, a friendly wave or a couple of hours’ idle conversation will reward you.

If, on the other hand, the window you choose frames a portrait of a child, your attention may provoke a hasty disappearance and a great deal of infectious giggling from within. Be patient: curiosity will soon bring the face back, even if it only reveals two huge eyes.

No Rembrandt or Michelangelo ever offered so much pleasure. No old master decorated his works with such lavish care.

If you’re a photographer, you could fill a hundred albums on this theme alone. And for every picture, there’d be a story. Go window-shopping. It won’t cost you a penny, but the rewards are rich.