Friday, October 02, 2009

Martinique

Guadeloupe had had a vaguely urban area surrounding the airport. Cruising into the small bay that housed Martinique’s capital of Fort de France, though, was somewhat like approaching Marseilles. Well, maybe not that urban, but it was still somewhat shocking to see so much of a city buildup, even including high rise apartments. Not anyone’s idea of a Caribbean vacation.
As I may have already mentioned, Couchsurfing is a new phenomenon whereby people sign up to host and/or be hosted by people all over the world who might have a couch you can stay on for a night or two. I had been curious to try it, though obviously not with some 23 year old. But I had found older ladies on both Guadeloupe and Martinique. We saw how Guadeloupe had worked out.
Annie, however, was waiting for me when I made it off the ferry. She was really pissed that the ferry had been late. As she helped me put my stuff in her white van she somehow was also blaming me for its tardiness.
We drove about fifteen miles to the semi-lowbrow apartment she lived in a semi-lowbrow suburb. By now it was three in the afternoon on a Sunday, so not much to do except squoosh myself into the tiny shower, and then lay down on the unventilated bed in the guestroom.
After a little rest I got up to hang with Annie. Her back was to me as she stared at her computer screen. She would basically not move from there my whole stay. Sitting near her was Albert, a small African man from the Ivory Coast who apparently lived with her. He was friendly, but basically spent every minute staring at his computer. I went out for a short walk to their town, but it was closed up tight for Sunday. When I came back it turned out that they had wifi. So at least I could go into my room and stare at my computer, too
The next morning I was ready to roll. Annie made her living from renting out cars, but since I needed one, the quid pro quo worked out for both of us. Soon I was on the freeway heading back to and through Fort de France so as to get up north. Yes, this was just like France. If you left out the cathedrals, quaint villages, and Monet countryside. Also, the weather was crappy, with low hanging grey clouds. Just like France, too.
I guess that this is as good a time as any to point out that there are 51 Folzes in France. And that until about a year ago one of them, J.M. Folz, born in the same year as I, was CEO of Peugeot-Citroen. Now you would think that when apprised of this situation he would have generously offered me a new car. Or at least invited me over to his villa for a couple of weeks. But No-o-o-o. Not that I was that offended. But, just for the record, the cars he made are total crap. The Citroen in Guadeloupe wouldn’t go into reverse. This Peugeot from Annie kept chugging and choking.
I took the ‘rainforest’ route through the mountains. But in typical French fashion, the road was so narrow and twisting that it was hard to enjoy anything. Maybe it would be better to do it like the Americans. just bulldoze a road through, and then build scenic pullouts. Actually, that probably wouldn’t have helped, either. There wasn’t much there.
But I finally made it to St. Pierre, a town I had been wanting to see ever since I was 10. Because that was when I first read about how, on May 8, 1902, an eruption from nearby Mt. Pelee instantly wiped out all 30,000 citizens of this former capital of Martinique, the Paris of the Caribbean.
Present day St Pierre is just a town of 5,000, and only a few of the stone ruins of the original buildings remain. But that, along with a small museum, is enough to give a sense of the disaster. And it was pretty neat to walk around, look out at the small bay, then back up towards the hills, and imagine.
When done with reliving the past, and also eating a bad pizza, I drove up to the northern end of the road. Hung out a bit. Then came back and went over towards the Atlantic side. What with all the built up areas, I wasn’t enjoying this island all that much. The grey weather didn’t help with that, either. On the other hand, for all the rain that the Caribbean gets, this was only the first day on my trip that wasn’t blue and sunny.
By late afternoon I was out at the end of a small peninsula looking for the ruins of an old chateau. Closed for September. I wended my way back to urban Annie’s, past the corner with all the young toughs hanging out (the first of my trip), and parked the car.
I had noticed that Annie didn’t believe in using the a/c in her car. She also didn’t believe in using it, or fans, in her apartment. So although a breeze came up in the evening, it was still pretty stuffy. And nothing to do except use the wifi. Which would go on and off.
Next morning was back to being blue sky and cheery, and I turned south to get the other half of the island. This was only hilly, not mountainous. Plus it was where there were a few beach resorts. So I wasn’t expecting to be overwhelmed.
The resorts were predictably depressing. Why does anyone think that being crammed into overpriced, fake, hyper-commercial junk districts is fun? And another thing. All the ‘beaches’ in the Caribbean are skinny and tiny and usually have drab, brown sand. I mean, I’m no fan of Floriday, but the worst beach there is ten times better than the best beach I’d seen so far in the Caribbean.
Besides having 30,000 of its citizens asphyxiated and burned within two minutes, Martinique’s other claim to fame is as the birthplace of Napoleon’s Josephine. So I went to the site to see a museum and some of the old buildings. Closed for September. As had happened a couple of other times here on the island, I had less than a fleeting glimpse of a colonial life that must have been fascinating, and then it was back to the golf courses and apartments.
But once I made it to the extreme south of the island, I did find a few genuinely rural areas, and that was calming. I also stopped at Martinique’s ‘best’ beach and hung out in the water for an hour or so. Then a teeny tiny road twisting over some back hills, and a return to Annie’s.
Wednesday morning Annie was in a bad mood. Why hadn’t I parked the car where she had suggested? Because that space was occupied. No, it wasn’t. Well, I did park a few spaces over, next to your white van. How did you know that was my van??? You picked me up at the ferry with it. No, I didn’t. I picked you up in a small car. Oh-kay….
As she drove me to the airport I tried to diplomatically thank her for having hosted me. But you didn’t spend any time with me! You just went out and visited the island! I kept quiet and tried to mentally put a positive spin on my couch surfing experience. At least I had gotten to know another culture: That of the unhappy, neurotic older French woman.

In the end I can’t say whether or not I like Guadeloupe and Martinique. They are not just France in the Caribbean, but workaday France in the Caribbean. The people aren’t terrible. Once you get used to the prices (Try pretending that there are 30 Euros to the dollar. As in, Wow, I just rented a car for $1.05!), the rest of it isn’t that hard to maneuver around. And some of the few natural areas that are left really are beautiful.
I guess it all just seemed a little weird.

2 Comments:

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Past blast: Before you met 'm' (your better half), you went through a stage of meditation when you were convinced that your soulmate was a one-legged girl named Annie. Could this be? Did your host conceal her special needs? Did her car have more wear on one of the pedals?

 
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