Tue 26 Feb 2008 11:44 PM
There was a time in my younger days when I fantasized about living in a shitty Chinatown SRO where I, completely alienated by my surroundings, would find solace and respite by pounding out brilliant fiction on either an aging Remington or my aging Mac Plus. Chez Daily seemed particularly well suited to this pursuit: One room with a bed, desk and kitchenette and unlike actual tenements in cities across America he even got his own bathroom. The fact that the shower was nothing more than a raised plastic dias with a drain and a hand-held shower-head wasn’t daunting; my travels in Japan had me well versed in this style of bathing. For someone who wants to be utterly focused on their studies, fiction or research of whatever, the apartment in Schoelcher seemed a blessing. The fact that Truman Capote and William Faulkner had decided to use the island for stories (the latter in his re-write of Hemingway’s”To Have and to Have Not“) was icing on the cake.
Chickens in the backyard to either side, crowing and scrabbling around in the dirt. It felt more authentic than residing in the lap of luxury, being catered to by a staff of robed servants pouring tea and cooing “Bonjour” whenever you passed. We had descended into the foreign now and it would be up to us to make it through to the other side. The apartment sat behind a mechanic’s shop: Two corrugated metal walls with enough room in between for two small cars. It was owned by Daily’s landlord who was a strong proponent of “creole economics”– the mechanic shop, Daily’s apartment and a building across the narrow street were all sources of income. My imagination ran wild, expanding the delusions of younger days to incorporate laboring as a skilled “jack-of-all-trades”. Reality reasserted itself when Daily began to regret not having told his landlord that I would be staying there for the next several days. While the mechanic shop was closed the fact that Chez Daily sat above the landlord’s son’s house and across a concrete corridor from the landlord’s sister suggested that my presence would be observed. I thumbed through my trusty phrasebook struggling to figure out how to explain to someone that I was visiting my friend who lives here, I swear. A more immediate concern was that Aaron had booked himself a room at Le Lafayette, a hotel in downtown Fort-de-France, and that he would have to check in. A couple hours were whiled away to allow the rain showers to pass and the sun to cool before we considered embarking on the half-hour hike down into the city. By the time we began descended the metal stairs of Chez Daily the air was filled with the distant pounding of drums. We were a couple miles away.
Daily had found as efficient a path as was possible but the layout of Shcoelcher required innumerable twists and turns. Many of his immediate neighbors kept guard dogs who barked, howled and growled as we would pass, running along the fence, lunging and feinting. I was quickly lost but the overwhelming foreignness was more distracting than the fear that I might have to find my way anywhere. Leaving the narrow alleys onto a main road lead to tripping over cracked and sunken sidewalks hugging the walls and fences of houses, some of which continued to be patrolled by angry dogs; to make matters worse the people of Martinique had long abandoned the concept of the pedestrian making each intersection a death-trap. “Don’t challenge cars here” Daily warned us, and the puzzled looks we received from drivers thundering past echoed his instructions. Fortunately traffic was light so we could progress along in the street, ducking in between cars or back onto the sidewalk whenever it became necessary. We juggled Aaron’s bag along the way, ducking down past the Radio Caraibe headquarters and onto an even broader avenue. Occasionally we would pass another defensive walker or someone waiting for the taxico and greet them, “Bonjour”. Everything I’d read about the happy island people of Martinique led me to believe that their old fashioned ways demanded this bygone courtesy. Their almost startled replies led me to believe that they had read the same books. Descending the hill into the heart of Fort-de-France revealed the impact of European investment. Towering multi-storied hotels had begun to loom over the city bringing with them the stench of recycled air-conditioning, chlorinated pools and fabric softener. The island is a major port-of-call for major Caribbean cruise-lines and the economy survives, second to direct assistance from the French government, from tourism, but visitors seem to require a homogeneous experience when it comes to their accommodations. Despite our recent stay at Cap Est there was little interest in supporting these abominations; Le Lafayette was integrated with the buildings around it, as much a part of Fort-de-France as the houses we passed. We could also see the impact of Carnaval, encountering a long row of cars which had taken residence on the narrow, crumbling sidewalk we were depending on more frequently to safely avoid the passing motorists. The drumming was joined by the indistinct murmur of a thousand conversations.
A hundred thousand conversations, choking the narrow streets of downtown Fort-de-France. People were lining up before police barricades to cross Canal Levassor, vying for entry amongst gangs of teenagers on dirt-bikes and motorcycles. Daily spied a second bridge closer to the bay and guided us through the quickly crowding street, but we found ourselves attempting to enter a staging ground for the parade. Some French was employed, our destination was made known and the barricade parted way to allow our entry. Merci! We were followed by a dozen motorcycles. There was respite from the speeding cars, but now faced the danger of being run over with the danger of being suffocated by the masses. Daily cut a path along the waterfront where, by virtue of an open expanse opening to the ferry docks, space was less of a premium. We skirted food stands, groups of people wandering aimlessly, motorcycles, hopped traffic barricades and low fences of
chain and somehow weaved our way three blocks. Smashed against the roller doors of Aaron’s hotel and a hundred people tried to shuffle through us we read the note: Use Night Entrance. We negotiated passage with security on the corner and hopped over the barricade. The metal gate to Le Lafayette buzzed us in and we stormed up the narrow stairs– this was definitely not Cap Est. While Aaron checked in with the harried clerk Daily and I were attracted to a small balcony colonized by blue-haired tourists gazing out over the crowd below. The clerk coughed and gagged and insisted we couldn’t. We weren’t allowed in the hotel after this, he said. Ah, okay. The greatest appeal (except for Aaron who mostly wanted a bed) of a room at La Lafayette was its prime location during the ensuing craziness; being surrounded by a drunken crowd can only be handled when you have an escape, some safe haven to catch your breath and use the toilet. The room was nothing more then a bed, wardrobe, TV and air-conditioner. The bathroom was clean but for some reason the toilet seat was propped up against the bowl, not actually attached. I suggested Aaron make mention of this at the desk but he made sure it sat correctly and shrugged his shoulders. There was a list of rules on the back of the door to the hall: Do Not Touch the TV; Do Not Touch the Air Conditioner; No Guests; No Food or Drinks… We ditched the bag and nodded to one another. It was time to face the music banging and roaring outside.
No need to be reckless, tho. As the crowd was restricted to major avenues by barricades the interior streets of downtown were almost empty so we decided to wander through the calm. We walked in the middle of the streets, closed store-fronts to either side– the entire city seemed to have shut-down except for the hotels and, ah, McDonald’s. No surprise there but the KFC a block away was certainly unexpected. Eventually we ran out of quiet streets so we found a less crowded outlet into the throngs and rejoined the meandering progression, but instead of going with the flow we battled back towards the Canal where Daily’s internet cafe, Cyberdeliss, sat. The keg of Lorraine had been drained and the bottled were all warm so we had a round of this horrible Brazilian swill, some sort of malted-whiskey beer. Plastic cups were required but we could at least sit outside hoping for a rare breeze drifting in off the canal. A couple other tables hosted quiet but lively conversations held by people more dressed for the occasion than us. We let time drift a little, choking down the beer as best we could and ordering a round of the superior which had been given time to cool. A kid came up and asked Daily for a sheet and Daily tried to hand him a zig-zag. No, no, no, hashish. Oh, non merci. My resolve had been dealt a severe blow when we were barred from La Lafayette but the prospect of whiling away Carnaval here was restoring what confidence I could muster. Plus the toilet seat was actually attached. A parade of sorts had broken out now that the sun had set, troops of people in ramshackle costumes marching and drumming segregated by the occasional truck with a massive sound-system or, better yet, a band. Along the route women sat selling beer and sodas out of coolers, paper funnels of peanuts and candy-bars, shaved ice cones topped with rum. We slowly made our way along the parade, catching the large government buildings, heading to the main thoroughfare of General-De-Gaulle Boulevard. The going was slow but without any sense of urgency or tension– people seemed quite content to mosey along at a slow gait. An ambulance lit up behind us and everyone very quickly made way, including the parade troupe dancing in the middle of the street. Somewhere in the chaos was a strong sense of order and I began to suspect it was made of up everyone’s personal sense of responsibility.
As overwhelming as the evening was you can only walk so many kilometers before you need to eat. Aaron was stricken with a temporary bi-polar disorder, dragging us to the waterfront with its bustling food stands but intimidated by the prospect of attempting to identify and order something with a stick shoved in it. His most confident moment resulted in our finding the one place on the island that seemed to be grilling hamburgers. There was an restaurant open across the street but my memory of reading the internet began to insist we see if the downtown Snack Elize was as well or if McDonald’s had cornered the market on late night fast-food. And by late night I mean ten. Fortunately they were lit up and ready for action, tho of a less intense variety that their contender. As soon Daily explained what tuna was I began babbling at the woman working the register who very patiently asked me a question I couldn’t understand. Daily prompted me and I ended up ordering a combined meal, bumbled through a side of frites instead of rice, and successfully procured a Biere Lorraine. Originally my intention was to buy everyone’s dinner but things quickly became complicated so it was everyone for themselves. However this left me standing in line with my order tag waiting for one of the girls working the serving counter to take it from me. One did and said something in French, then she came back and placed a tray on the counter. She said something else and I nodded, sagely. Another girl came up saying something and looking at my order, to which I smiled and nodded again. This repeated itself a couple of times before Daily was issued his own order form and he explained they were just keeping me aware of how things were going. I’ll be damned. When the meal was finally packaged, the beer
finally produced, I thanked them graciously but they all refused to fall in love with me. At least they allowed me to believe I had pulled off the exchange without them catching on I was oblivious to what they were saying.
When I had heard about Snack Elize I remember it being described as fast-food. When we walked up I was a little taken aback with the florescent lighting and plastic furniture and the menu dedicated to hamburgers. Popping the little carton open my mind was absolutely blown– grilled skewers of tuna and onion were dripping goodness on the frites. And it was fucking delicious, I shit you not. And they serve beer. And it was relatively cheap. And it was a place where normal, everyday Martinicans seemed to come and eat, hang out, live their lives and move along. I once tried to explain American culture to a French girl while we waited in line at In-and-Out, citing the ample evidence of worthlessness and filth and degeneration which surrounded us. She probably just wanted me to shut up, but relaxing in Snack Elize, eating surprisingly good tuna-kabobs, quietly enjoying conversation among kids out on the town gave me a pretty positive impression of the scene in Fort-de-France. It was a little irksome that you had to use a code printed on your receipt to access the bathroom but, well, at least they didn’t just hang a sign on the door saying it was broken. By local standards we were raging party animals and should head to bed. We left the restaurant and walked Aaron back to the night entrance of Le Lafayette. Plans for the morrow were made and as we parted ways the rain began to fall. There was an umbrella sticking out of a trashcan but, wouldn’t you know it, the spines were poking through the cap and we returned it just as quickly. Even so it was warm out and the rain was an almost welcome change. The streets had cleared out almost entirely, all activity now focused along the waterfront where the food stalls were still smoking away. Traffic had begun to flow again, the cars parked on the sidewalk were gone. You would never know that hours before hundreds of thousands of people had filled streets. It was strange, there wasn’t even that much trash strewn about in the gutters.
So we slept in a little and Aaron found himself sitting around while we toyed with the idea of consciousness. After some compromise was reached between me and the plastic shower we ambled along the narrow sidewalks towards the Caribbean where the local Supermarche was hopefully open for business. Even Daily had been surprised by the way downtown had been absolutely shut down by the events of last night and it seemed that if we would catch the grocery at all it would be earlier in the day. Good thinking, because they announced over and over again that they would be closing at noon. As you can imagine the entire inhabitants of Schoelcher were sharing our thoughts so simple navigation through the aisles was a challenge, let alone attempting to comprehend what exactly was inside the boxes lining the shelves. I also realized that, although I had won the battle of self and worn shorts, no one except me was doing that and wearing sneakers. We grabbed some obvious provisions and then wound up in an entire aisle dedicated to yogurt. The French seem to love yogurt and varieties I had never known existed were all available but the American-within rose up and added Yoplait to the basket. Paying was another adventure when the cashier was puzzled by my credit card which lacks the security chip every other country on Earth uses. A manager was called and eventually they decided that it would be okay and, thankfully, it turned out to be true.
Le Supermarche was situated in the back of a small strip-mall which enabled Aaron to venture inside one of the innumerable pharmacies (more of a French obsession than yogurt) for some replacement sunscreen: That’s right, our care package never arrived at Cap Est. I too decided to embark on an adventure, entering a Tabac to peruse their selection of postcards (horrible), note the world of French magazines (“Stripper Pole” looks to be the only questionable material allowed on the island) and pick Daily up some of his “sheets”. After waiting for the mob at the counter to dissipate I engaged the woman behind the counter who waited for my clumsy French and gestures, then slowly rang me up while she talked to a younger man also
behind the counter. The tone, along with my persistent paranoia, indicated that I was being discussed as a rude foreigner. This may or may not be true. After we wrestled the groceries back to Chez Daily Aaron attempted to replicate the ti-punch we had, thus far, experienced. Daily wasn’t feeling very well so we spent the afternoon watching French television, CNN World and making little sandwiches until it grew dark. Aaron and I took a stroll at dusk up the hill and found a small mall which had rows of shuttered shops as well as a McDonald’s and Snack Elize with drive-throughs. The temptation was strong but we resisted a reprise of the previous evening’s meal; we had also passed two pizza stands that tugged at our curiosity but between Daily’s editorials and the risk of embarrassment we let them lie. By the time we returned from our foray into the wild night of suburban Martinique Daily was showing signs of life and so we trooped back down the hill into town where, once again, you would never have guessed a hundred-thousand people had been dancing only hours before.
The food stalls were investigated again but still there was great trepidation at attempting to identify, order and eat. Hotel L’Imperatrice was known for its restaurant but it happened to be closed. We retraced our steps through the crowded wharf, back to the restaurant we had seen open the night previous with its balcony hanging out over the parade route. Voila! Le Croisiere! Obviously the majority of diners tended toward the lighter skinned but there was no pandering to our special needs with air-conditioning. A couple locals seemed content to keep the bartender company but otherwise everyone who knew anything was down along the water mixing it up, eating grilled food, dancing to zouk and drinking Heineken. The waitress was in no hurry to take our order but her languid service was infectious and we settled back for a drawn-out meal. The shutters to the balcony were all thrown open and we could see the bright lights of the festivities stretching out along the piers. The sounds drifted in and pulled us towards them– sitting outside would have been nice but the balcony was so narrow the couple of people drinking there seemed cramped. Eventually we collected some drinks and, later still, water. There was some general excitement when it eventually came because I had randomly ordered a fish dish which turned out to be the mysterious Loup de Mer: The Seawolf. Not sure if this refers to the type of fish or the way it’s prepared– an entire foot-long generic variety is placed on a grill and cooked until its eyes almost burst. They throw some sort of creole salsa on top (there may also be a dry rub but it’s hard to say) with a little garnish and bon appetite. It was a little intimidating at first but since the rest of my meal consisted of some really good plantains but some canned beans and instant rice I decided to fight the gag reflex and fork the mother. It was good, but a lot of work. Across the table Aaron battled his creole plate which featured boudin, a source of great excitement for him… Unfortunately this helping what a little different then the way they make it in Louisiana and Daily kept referring to it lustily as blood sausage which led to the abandonment of dinner.
When a group of white motorcyclists entered for a late meal we knew we had lingered too long. I checked out the bathroom and discovered that Aaron’s hotel toilet was only half an anomaly. According to Paul Egron, ex-patriot extraordinaire, the facilities in Tahiti are more third-world than French. Like the Japanese there is an expectation that you’re capable of landing whatever damage you wreak squarely in a glorified hole in the ground and that you’ve brought your own toilet paper; considering that the Japanese are pioneers in the world of uber-hygiene this makes little sense but, hey, just go there. Anyways, recalling the horror stories I had written Daily months in advance (probably before agreeing to go) to see just what the situation was and was placated by his report of western toilets and toilet paper. He was mostly right– the toilets were western and there was toilet paper but where are the fucking seats? What is the fucking purpose of a porcelain throne if you can’t sit down? Or are you supposed to actually
nestle down on the rim? They had wet-naps and a written suggestion that it would be aces of you to wipe after use. Thank Christ I was in no danger of grappling with this force of nature but the future was a gaping hole of uncertainty and this did little to assuage my fears. The bright lights of the wharf disappeared as we scaled the heights towards Schoelcher, Aaron in town. CNN World resumed and discussion of Super Tuesday filled Chez Daily. Aaron prepared more ti-punch and whatever bread that remained was used to sop it up. After midnight passed it was all yawns and Aaron picked his way back to town on his own.
Once again Aaron rose early and hiked up to Schoelcher to find me and Daily struggling to be prepared for his arrival. While we’d had the foresight to pick up coffee during yesterday’s shopping spree I have to admit that if it’s not espresso you won’t feel a thing. The bread had been reduced to a mess of crumbs the night before so while Daily tackled the plastic shower Aaron and I walked down the road to the nearest open Boulanger for a couple baguettes. It was another case of nod convincingly and while there continued to be a lack of sparks floating in the air between me and the girl behind the counter we did at least manage to walk away with two of the last baguettes on the shelf. The early afternoon was again combated by means of sealing ourselves off to the world and lounging around in the air-conditioned Chez Daily while CNN World paraded A-list personalities in front of the camera in preparation for the Tuesday elections. In the down time we ran a load of laundry, laying it out to dry underneath an overhang as the periodic showers threatened to become more persistent as the day wore on. The parade, we believed, was set to start at four.
Cyberdeliss was open and waiting for us and we snagged the best seat in the house, right against the plate-glass windows looking out at an intersection where the parade would turn. Aaron ran back to Le Lafayette for his laptop while Daily began to set his up. Water and beer were ordered and the streets were growing crowded. Red, was what we had been told. Everyone wears red on Mardi Gras. When Aaron returned he had changed into his red t-shirt. We weren’t the only people who staked a claim inside. The Radio Caraibe troupe were friends with the owners and were carb-loading in the open back area along the canal. There was an undeniable anticipation permeating the entire city and the squad seemed beside themselves with excited conversation and eventually some bottles of champagne. Four o’clock passed without anyone seeming concerned but as it grew later they began to spray body-glitter on one another, then assembled in the cafe. The truck fired up the soundsystem and they ran outside to climb aboard before it drove off to wherever things would be starting. Still we weren’t alone– an older couple (who turned out to be one of the owner’s parents) and a smattering of random honkies spread themselves out and most were on computers, skyping loved ones back in France or working on reports– they seemed utterly oblivious of what was going on outside. To tell the truth our little party had two laptops and a notebook taking up table-space and passing locals who chanced to look inside seemed confused as to why anyone would sit two inches from the biggest party of the year and work on a spreadsheet.
The next several hours were dedicated to a ceaseless parade. Downtown Fort-de-France is small and the route circles the hub, three or four blocks square. Regardless of the size and the repeat floats it never grew boring to watch. We alternated between sitting inside and standing among the crowd and for once I didn’t feel at all out of place or embarrassed to be snapping pictures like a maniac. It’s impossible to describe the sense of exuberance, the communal joy experienced by everyone participating, observing or both.
The mechanics functioned quite easily: They would run a troupe or float and hold the next for a distance to open up, then run the next. During the first couple of runs these distances were distinct, at least from where we were sitting on the back corner, but as the afternoon wore on hordes of on-lookers would insert themselves in between and a solid band of red-clad revelry emerged; the most popular move was to fall in line behind one of the trucks with a soundsystem. The rig would roll slowly through the street and a crowd would fall in line marching along until the truck stopped wherein dancing would erupt. After a downbeat was counted out everyone would throw their arms into the air and scream while the truck roared ahead and then the hundred or two hundred people dancing would run screaming after it until the march was resumed. Through all of this Carnaval cars were sputtering and stalling all over the place. Imagine taking a junked car, ripping the doors out and spray painting decorations all over, then filling it with as many transvestites and your friends as the wreck could hold. Honk the horn and drive around– this was insanely popular. Lurking on the sidelines filled you with kinetic energy and even I could see the appeal in rushing into the crowd to dance like an idiot with everyone else. It didn’t seem to matter if you had no business gettin’ your groove on, there were no cat-calls, malicious laughter or put-downs. When I was holed up alone minding our spot in Cyberdeliss a group of people nearish our age collected outside the window to take a break. One girl, obviously French, started dancing at me which I tried to ignore at first by concentrating on my notebook but eventually I looked up and there was a little more dancing and an exchange of smiles. After they trundled off to rejoin the fray I had a slight regret about not running after them.
Still there was a lot of competition for watching and you would have to move constantly to make way for people bringing wheel-barrels to the parade troupes, for a burnt-out Carnaval car clearing out, for people with kids. Cyberdeliss was the first building after crossing Canal Levassor and there was a large cement block anchoring the bridge to the main street. I had spied it the first
day in town but I didn’t wanna be that guy who ends up being publicly caned, especially because on the other side of the bridge the street was blocked off by police barricades. However once things got under way a couple older guys took up residence and I chose to join them periodically. The only problems was, of course, people thought I was biting. My fondness for the vantage point this afforded did bring me closest to an unpleasant moment. I had been mixed in on the street trying to take pictures of trombonists or something and wanted to regain the heights but a beautiful local girl was standing along the railing I would have to step on to climb up. Without thinking I walked up to her and, having to lean in to be heard over the noise, begged her pardon. So she’s looking at me and I realize my understanding of French is relegated to asking for shit and my vocabulary so far as been focused on consumer needs. I would like to step on the railing to climb on top of this piece of concrete had not
yet been covered in my off-the-cuff instruction. She watched me point and stop and think and hmmmm and smile an embarrassed smile and then she called across the street to, I swear to God, the biggest motherfucker in town. Gnfh! I see him, he sees me, he sees me standing rather close to her and she waves at him. But he can’t hear what she’s yelling and they begin to move towards each other, thus freeing the railing from her tyrannical grip and allowing me to scramble. I hoped that, given my immediate reaction to her vacancy, the matter would become obvious and life would carry on but a minute later the girl was back with another girl and they stood staring up at me until this new person began waving at me. It turns out she was a cousin in from Paris who spoke English and we said hi and had a brief chat which didn’t call into question my intentions, behavior or anything. I would live to see another day and I tried to wrap the conversation up as quickly as possible by looking extremely interested in the parade. It worked, they disappeared. Some time later I figured, “je voudrais parcours” with a helpful gesture might have worked. During one of the quiet moments inside the cafe we also got to meet Vincent, one of the people Daily had gotten to know during his stay. Vincent was employed by the French government to work on some economic development program in Martinique (this is probably one hundred percent wrong) and had previous experience in Tahiti (land of poor toilets) and Korea where he met his wife who is Japanese (people of poor toilets). When I met her it was known that I am of the poor toilet people to a degree but I mangled every attempt at speaking with her in an impressive three-language coup. There three month old baby didn’t try to introduce herself to me.
The whole afternoon I felt a little shitty about occupying an entire table and only buying a couple rounds of beer. The owner never said anything about it and it’s probably perfectly acceptable behavior in the local code but considering he was all dressed up and unable to shake it in the streets I felt bad all the same. Luckily the fact that the kitchen there had closed before we even showed up spurred us towards our next meal before it had grown too late. For two days Aaron had trembled at the sight of food carts, had walked through the selection and observed the grills and puzzled at the menus and for two days we had turned away and found the whitest place possible. I had declared a new rule: Tonight we will eat at a food stall. After slavery had been abolished for the second or third time the plantations begin to draw immigrants from Asia and India. The lasting impact of these very small populations has been shitty looking Chinese restaurants and a bastardized roti food stall along the wharf in Fort-de-France. Daily and Aaron discussed the merits of ordering a traditional Indian dish in the Caribbean while I worried about what exactly was being smeared on the bread. Either in deference to me or out of ethical concerns we turned away from the flatbread and walked along until I pointed to a familiar sight: Loup de mer. A whole stack of em’. Aaron saw chicken and was in, Daily saw steps leading down to the bay and was going to “be over here”. A moment of truth for those of us who had previously been annoying the girls without being able to explain himself.
There was an impatient looking woman in an apron calling the shots who didn’t look like she had time for any foolishness. I watched and waited the short queue out going over the simple phrases I knew in my head. She could tell (I knew, from her eyes) that I couldn’t speak French for shit but my order was so simple that I could have done it in English and been fine. My fish was stacked on frites and the woman and I had a very complicated session attempting to throw everything in a plastic bag. If I had walked away then it would have been fine, I would have gotten away scot-free. But Aaron was having problems, here, in the sanctity of his most lascivious fantasy. He ordered the grilled chicken from someone who nodded their head and wandered off. Someone else came up to help him and he ordered the chicken and they nodded and wandered off. No one had yet to get him any chicken. I stopped the apron woman who had run out of patience with me after I dropped the fork during our dual-bag tying exercise and asked how much it would be for both of us together. Unfortunately my question was lacking a key prepositional phrase or something because “combien moi, et mon ami?” was not cutting it. The apron-woman yelled across the piles of grilled meats and frites and useless co-workers at a young girl who came over and asked if we spoke English. I tried to explain that I wanted to pay for both of us and she scratched her head and pondered this request while Aaron asked her for some grilled chicken. The girl wondered what chicken he was talking about and I shifted gears and implored apron-woman for Aaron’s chicken. She is the only one who seems able to grasp the concept of ordering food here,commanding someone to fetch the drink. I handed Aaron my change while she dunked chicken in some sort of sauce, he paid, all was well, we found Daily. Only problem was that Aaron had not been fortunate enough to receive the bonus plastic bag, napkin, fork and knife prize that I was flaunting.
People who travel seriously probably balk at the idea of repeating a meal but I’m not world-weary regardless of the circumstances and, given the selections available, there was little else for me. At least this particular loup de mer had a more obvious rub and the garnish included a slice of lime and a dainty little pepper which, it turns out, packed more wallop then the creole salsa of the previous night. A random passer-by stopped to talk about my meal which I had begun to pick at with a cocktail fork and my fingers because Aaron’s chicken required my own utensils. There was little understanding besides his being either impressed or offended by my selection; he said something about black and made a motion over his face. I concluded that he was commending me on getting the blackest food available and he gave up attempting to talk with me. Daily decided he did actually want something from the roti cart and left Aaron and I to haunch over our dinners alone. A young school-girl walked up with a “bonsoir” and we returned the greeting. She excused herself with a “bon appetite” and we smiled goofy grins with shit stuck in our teeth and everything before she rattled off a slew of foreign. When we gawked at her she seemed so embarrassed not to have recognized us as feckless Americans and apologized profusely before joining a gaggle of friends who stood chatting and laughing nearby. Daily returned with a treat for Aaron and we whiled away a while along the water-front watching over-burdened ferries run three shifts trying to carry people back across the bay to Trois-Illets. The three of us walked back to Schoelcher that night and arrived just as Daily’s neighbor, son of the landlord, rode up on his motorcycle. He asked after our day and then invited us out to a party he was going to attend but we declined. While it would have been an experience the prospect of being stranded in a corner somewhere surrounded by people speaking foreign waiting on a ride home would have proven too much for our poor constitutions. Instead we sat inside and watched as the the returns from Super Tuesday began to trickle in while making more ti-punch and finishing off the Biere Lorraine. Still riding the crest of Mardi Gras I opted to walk Aaron a part of the way back to the city. There were dogs roaming around in the streets tonight and the air had a feeling of expectation, a slight electrical current that tingled as it hit your skin. I found a big stick on a corner and we watched a nearby mongrel wander down the road until it disappeared. Aaron felt it was safe to embark and took off, I hiked back up the hill with the stick until I was within sight of the mechanic’s shop. The chickens of the neighborhood were all awake, crowing to the baying of dogs.
Mercredi des Cendres
In observance of the last day of Carnaval Daily and I roused ourselves at as decent an hour possible and took the walk down the hill to meet Aaron. We scooped him up as he sat in front of the still closed Cyberdeliss and we walked through the almost empty streets looking for a place to kill a couple of hours. Stores remained shuttered so we ended up at Hotel Lâ€™Imperatrice which had its bar/cafe open. The early hour afforded us our pick of the tables and we sat sipping espresso and water while Daily’s laptop, burdened by his research, was copied onto a drive that we would take back to the states. This was also a staging ground for a Carnaval troupe and soon people clad in black and white (to mark the passing of Carnaval) began to shuffle in carrying drums or boxes of champagne. The streets seemed even more desolate than usual which was probably the result of last night’s festivities– it seemed impossible that anything that happened today could compete with hundreds of thousands of revelers dressed in red.
Eventually some Europeans showed up and ruined the ambiance so we decided to take a stroll under the oppressive sun and see how things were shaping up, then checking up on our friendly neighborhood cybercafe to see if it had opened. Small clusters of street vendors had begun to collect on the sidewalks, including the corner where I tried to use a pay toilet which made me a little gun-shy. I also realized something I had missed my first time inside one of these little piss-booths: No toilet seat. What the fuck is wrong with these people? We strolled along the same route as the parade but this was the first time we hadn’t been consumed in a mob and could actually appreciate the city for itself. The collision of old and new was more pronounced in the city as aging two or three story buildings sat slowly decaying next to modern edifices which chose to mimic spaceships more than their surroundings. I successfully bought a pack of Winstons from one of the few places we had seen open all week. Daily showed us the immigration building where people, mostly from poorer Caribbean islands, are forced to stand in a baking hot concrete courtyard behind razor-wire and wait in line for hours without any guarantee that they’ll actually meet with a bureaucrat; this humiliation might be why Daily is illegally in Martinique. Our brains began to roast (although Aaron had finally decided wearing his hat was better than having us check his head to see if he was getting sunburned) so we cut a path down along the canal towards Cyberdeliss. I stopped to take a couple shots from a walkway that cut above the water and an old man with milky eyes followed and barked at me in French. This may or may not have had to do with the small collection of children crossing from the other side– I took my pictures and split.
Since we were in the city before late afternoon we finally got to order food and sit like we deserved the table. Once again we vied with other honkies for primacy in seating and once again there was carb-loading and champagne in the back by people who knew how to have fun. The recently retired parents were in the house, the guy on constant skype with his girlfriend back home, Darth Vader made an appearance and used the toilet. People began to show up for the last parade while I examined the interpretation of a grilled cheese sandwich. Daily was gracious enough to afford me some roughage to spruce up the failed panini. Aaron tackled his order of lamb, ham, lamb, ham and something crispy on top, accompanied by the ubiquitous truffle oil. Vincent the government minister came later sans wife and child, the Radio Caraibe crew sprayed the body-glitter and bombarded the bathroom, then off to the truck. The parade was underway. Martinique was sad, not just because the party was drawing to a close but it was also the last full day Aaron and I would be there. The parade was a little more sparse then the day before, the crowd thinner, the mood a little more reserved. The rain showers which we had been spared through Mardi Gras returned to make up for it and there were several times when the crowd would run for whatever cover was available. The parade continued through it all, transvestites prancing around under umbrellas and directing traffic. I refrained from harassing young women and they refrained from standing where I needed to climb up for a better view.
There was one deviation– a breakaway troupe suddenly surged right instead of left and those of us standing in the way quickly scuttled out of it. The drum group, two hundred young revelers in tow, marched across the canal bridge while the police dismantled the barricades as quickly as they could. When last seen everyone was dancing up the hillside heading towards Schoelcher while the rest of the parade continued on the set course. An hour later I was standing on the bridge when it began to bounce up and down. The prodigal troupe returned and reinserted themselves seamlessly into the parade. The next time the ground shook it wasn’t hundreds of people in step– there was an earthquake and rattled the windows and sent the walls trembling. Martinique was beside itself with grief. After nightfall the various soundsytem trucks, floats, drumming participants and everyone who lined the streets began to make their way down to the water front. Vaval, the king of Carnaval, had been a prominent fixture over the course of the festival. He was a towering figure, clad in a blue suit and bore multiple face-piercings. The general assumption was that this was a thinly-veiled caricature of Sarkozy; the island had overwhelmingly supported socialist candidate Segolene Royale in the recent presidential elections. Hundreds of thousands people coalesced around a fenced off square of waterfront where Vaval stood, surrounded by officials and camera crews. The soundsystems, parked wherever there was room, competing to be heard over one another and the murmur of the crowds. People watched with great anticipation, looking for any sort of movement, any sign. Without any warning, no countdown, no speech, no last words, Vaval was set ablaze. People cheered and the truck behind us began to blast a remix of Auld Lang Syne in French, a group of teenage girls nearby singing along.
Before the crowd had a chance to clear we hurried through the streets to Le Lafayette so Aaron could drop off a couple things, grab a couple more. We wound our way through the still-crowded streets and up the hill towards Schoelcher but stopping at the Squash Hotel, a more modern place closely resembling any Holiday Inn. In the dark days before he discovered Cyberdeliss Daily had paid the fee and used the hotel’s wi-fi in the bar. The restaurant had been something he wanted to try since arriving and now there was an excuse. It was barren, the guests most likely enjoying the food stalls downtown or at least the white-friendly establishments we had already visited. We were seated on the patio as the rain began to fall again, this time showing little sign of abatement. Ti-punch, the last of our journey, was ordered. My idea that we share an order of smoked fish resulted in three fillets of smoked salmon, not the smoked bricks of three different fish the menu had insinuated. Other tables began to trickle in but this was an older crowd, a quieter collection of adults. This place, up in the hills a ways from downtown, was foreign in a different way than Martinique in general, different even from Cap Est’s luxury. The food was lackluster, except for my tuna and the chocolate cake Aaron and I split. Maybe we should have charged it to a room like our waitress suggested.
Au Revoir Martinique
While I was eating a fillet of smoked salmon, drinking ti-punch and beer, and again when I ate most of a slice of very rich chocolate cake, I presumed that my morning would be one to regret. My last day in tropical paradise was spent like my last day in the Disneyland Cap Est, but at least they make medicine for that sort of problem. I collected my possessions and packed my bags and Daily and I walked one last time past the guard dogs, through the winding narrow streets, along the cracked and sunken sidewalk, past Radio Caraibe, down the long sloping hill into downtown Fort-de-France. The city looked more open than it had the entire trip, although we were quickly gaining on the time of day when the streets would empty because of the heat. Cyberdeliss was cleaning out the patio along the canal and would soon open for business. It had been a good place for us and I will miss it.
Le Lafayette had decided, now that the tourists were all leaving, to replace the front stairs. You’d think this would mean they would continue having people come in through the side entrance but, no, we had to excuse ourselves and interrupt the poor bastard wailing away at the splintering wood. Aaron was downloading “Lost” in the small dining area and we sat for a spell to collect ourselves. A small work-crew was across the street in an open field which was being renovated to become a modern integrated park, another draw for the Europeans. The desk had said we could leave our bags and so we did, amidst a fairly large collection of people who had a flight that day. The frantic guy who had barred Daily and my entry all week was nowhere to be seen. There was a sandwich place just down the street, very urban and chic– there was even a sign up breaking down the price for US dollars. I ordered my last meal in French and failed to impress the last counter girl I would interact with and make her fall in love with me. Maybe next time I’ll have a more convincing grasp of the language. I’m pretty sure that’s all it takes. We found a table surrounded by a lot of obvious out-of-towners and ate, interrupted once by a couple from San Diego– the only Americans we had come across so far. They seemed completely lost, no one speaks English, and we suggested they check out Cyberdeliss because there was English to be found there. I felt a little bad for them– it seemed like this was their honeymoon– but then again at least I had brought a fucking phrasebook. One last walk through downtown and it was a completely different story. Stores were open, almost all of them, and people walked through the narrow streets to such a degree we often ended up passing them in the street. But there were also cars which had been barred during Carnaval, and it suddenly became a very different place. We stopped at the post office, the people who had done us wrong, and found a madhouse. It doubles as a bank and people hadn’t been able to go all week so everyone who needed money was lined up and chatting with their neighbors, crammed together in a room which hadn’t been blessed by air-conditioning. There was a machine in the corner for people to buy stamps and a slot outside to drop your postcards. Even Aaron didn’t want to linger. We stopped at two CD stores, the first of which was very relaxed but had a shitty selection with the sole exception of Haitian DVD-Rs. The second store was blaring jazz and when we craned our necks trying to figure out where it was coming from the owner had seen us and insisted we step inside. The selection was very slightly better but the hard sell was in full effect; I was shown every discounted title in the place. Daily swore we would return later and we escaped with some grace, tho I’m pretty sure Daily can never walk down that street again.
It’s strange how more foreign it seemed with people going about their business instead of marching ceaselessly through city. A parade of hundreds of thousands of people wearing red was welcoming but anyone checking out the latest fashions was an annoyance. The farmer’s market was less impressive than hundreds of people setting out coolers full of beer and sodas, hawking rum-cones, selling peanuts. It was still nice, don’t get me wrong, but had we just arrived instead of readying ourselves to leave I think we would have a very different tale to tell. The library where Daily works all day, the KFC that seems so out of place, the bizarre alien-spaceship building and the horrible colonial government structures would all be ready for business and we wouldn’t have had to lurk in the window of Cyberdeliss all day everyday. Still, we headed in that direction, because Daily was going to remain. He set down his things and we looked around. At least here it was all familiar– people on skype, people working– except for the carb-loading in the back. Where do all those people exist for the rest of the year? Are they as happy in their lives as when they’re spraying one another with body-glitter and sipping champagne? Most places the answer would be no but in Martinique it might just be yes. Daily had another eight weeks or so but I hope we put a slight dent into his routine. We bid au revoir on the narrow sidewalk out front and headed back to Le Lafayette. The food stands sat dormant and later today they would probably disappear entirely. There were no gangs of motorcycles to speed up and down the waterfront today. When we walked past the workers ripping the stairs apart the lobby was empty. Our bags were some of the last to remain and we dumped them in the lobby before walking into different rooms searching for the woman who had been at the desk a couple hours ago. She eventually found us and called a cab. It showed up in a couple of minutes and she yelled down off the balcony, then motioned us downstairs. He babbled some foreign at us which we gaped at, then said airport a couple of times; my phrasebook was in the trunk. There was another stream of foreign but it included the name of the airport which Aaron was quick enough to catch and we nodded and repeated Lamentin. Okay, we’re off. It took a while because everyone was back to normal and the freeway was surprisingly crowded. Then we were in the airport again and I was looking for my valium and we were checking in on the far end of the counters. Up a flight of stairs to the security gate where they insisted we not bring any liquids, but in that bored manner which indicated that they could give a shit about these useless and inane regulations. Aaron successfully smuggled a container of sunscreen through and we were waiting with the handful of other honkies heading back home. We tried to use a vending machine but it only took coins. I followed signs through the empty terminal all the way across the building until I found the lonely bar. I asked how much a JB would cost, just in case, and I was golden! My last transaction in French was completed without confusion beyond the tip I left her– I even stopped her from putting ice in the cup. By the time I was choking on warm whiskey they were calling us into line. We filed past random bag searches, down a flight of stairs to the tarmac. The skies began to empty and our usher looked at our small group and laughed, but in a kind enough way. We shuffled out into the damp blustery winds and I found myself almost enjoying it. It was still about 85 degrees. Aaron and I had a flight to San Juan, then another to New York; a couple days of vacation left but it was not going to be at all the same, we knew. It would be nice to see old friends and we could, without a doubt, end up in a car and have trouble communicating with the driver, but we couldn’t end up at Snack Elize eating tuna kabobs and trying to bonsoir the counter girls into matrimony. If we had any brains we just would have stayed and kept trying.