At the moment that I’m writing this, we have already spent two weeks in Dominica, and are just about ready to head over to Guadeloupe, so Martinique seems very far away. However, since we managed to spend 6 weeks there, I need to start writing something about our stay there!
Our time in Martinique can be divided up into Le Marine + St. Anne, Fort de France and St. Pierre.
The first two weeks were very quiet, since we didn’t even go swimming or anything. We mostly stayed on the boat, anchored in Le Marine, and schooled. (Well, my dad worked, but we schooled.)
There were a few interesting things that happened in that time, but since my dad’s one leg was swollen to twice the size, we didn’t GO anywhere much. There was one time that us four girls (minus Karin J) went on an excursion with the Yoshimas. The idea was to go and find the top of some mountain, or a walking trail or something, but we never did do that. We walked up the road for some time, and then stopped for a snack when we reached some shade at the top of a hill. It was a residential street, but it was extremely quiet.
Part of being at a French island, was that we ate lots and lots of baguette! Since my dad was semi-out of action, it was mostly us four girls who hoisted Shampoo in and out of the water. (Conditioner is a little big for us.) We drove ourselves to shore, and shook our heads at the expensive food. (Delicious, but expensive – especially considering the Rand against the Euro!)
There was one specific food that caught us by surprise. Each store in some form (be it in buckets of liquid or in vacuum packs) would sell pig snouts! We never could get ourselves to buy some and find out what they taste like . . .
As a family, we didn’t really go ashore. Mostly we did shopping, but that was about it. There was one extremely convenient “Leader Price” (we still don’t know why this store in French territory has an English name) right next to the shore. You could dingy up, tie to the conveniently big jetty, and walk right up to the store. They even had a trolley harbour halfway between the store and the jetty, so that yachties can leave the trolleys they use there instead of going all the way back to the entrance of the Leader Price.
Overall the prices there were cheaper than anywhere else, so we mostly bought from there.
Another particularity of Le Marine were all the derelict boats. We have no idea why no one cleans them up (to save the cost of putting up a buoy or some kind of marker for the sandbanks?) and they seem almost to gain status the longer they sit. For example, there are at least 5-8 strewn around on the various sandbanks of Le Marine (There are a surprising number of these sandbanks – when we just arrived we actually almost stranded on one). Two derelicts were sitting on the sandbank just behind where we were anchored. There were another 5 that weren’t actually sunk, but they were obviously not floating for anyone’s pleasure – burnt-out wrecks seldom are. Then there were those that seemed to have just given up and sprung a leak, slowly sagging into the water right in the mooring. There were two on our way from Shang Du to the Leader price – one hulk tied up to the jetty, almost hanging off it’s mooring ropes, and another just peeking from the murky waters, like a crocodile.
On two of the weekends we stayed there . . . actually, both weekends we were there, they had races with little sailing boats.
One of our biggest surprises in Le Marine, was to meet up with our French friends from Brazil! We had not expected to see them ever again, but there they were, riding anchor. Apparently they had wanted to be out of there long ago, but had been forced to stay because both parents contracted ciguatera, and then they had engine problems. Our time in Martinique didn’t overlap very long, however, because having sorted out the engine, they wanted to get to Panama, and we only had one visit with them before they left.
I am shocked by exactly how big my ignorance is of the French language! It’s Rio all over again! The shock of really not getting anything the other person is saying, and not being able to answer back, is really frustrating. The parents can speak English, but they visit with our parents, and we have to keep the children busy. Bazil, the oldest one, had learned a little English since we saw them last, but it was still slow going. Once when Lila asked if she could have a cup of water, I just drew up a blank. I had NO IDEA what she was asking! At last, through hand signals (cup) and me remembering that “water” in French is a really small word (something in the line of “au” ) I clicked, and rushed to get her the glass, making up for the time lost in communicating.
Uncle Mark (the father) cannot believe the French yachties – “They come here to Martinique, and say ‘A! France, but with sun!’ and stay here. Their dream ends here, and they don’t want to go see the rest of the world.” He can’t understand his fellow countrymen.
I also, can’t understand why they would all crowd into Le Marine – it really has me baffled. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it just wasn’t Caribbean!
When my dad had deemed his leg better (a few days sooner than the rest of us would have, I’m sure), we hoisted anchor and moved to St. Anne.
The anchorage was crowded – the ample ledge loaded with boats of various sizes and shapes, but overall with cruisers. On land, things weren’t so terribly exciting. St Anne is a tourist haven, with hosts of little shops begging you to spend your money on their interesting, sometimes pretty, and mostly useless knick-knacks and St. Anne/Martinique mementos. There was one specific shop we all liked, which over and above the normal paper-weights and jewellery also hosted a display of percussion instruments. (Little ones – suitable for ‘taking home via aeroplane’). Various shakers with patterns dotted and swirled on them with paint.
We did a dive while we were in St. Anne too. It was a nice dive, the four of us girls with dad. At the very end of the dive, while we were getting back onto Conditioner, Sophia lost her dive mask. She didn’t notice it then, however, so we went the next day to go snorkel it out – the water was only 6-7 metres deep there. On that same day there was absolutely NO WIND. We haven’t experienced that a lot, and it was strange to see the boats stand in different directions, with no wind to blow them one way or the other. Another thing that happens, is that the water surface is oily smooth. No wind to make waves on the surface, so you can see to the bottom with startling clarity. We could see our anchor chain doing crazy zig-zag patterns on the bottom. 😉
The Yoshimas joined us for a while at St. Anne, but when we moved on to Fort de France, they stayed – they had an opportunity for buying a used sail, but could only view it the next week.
So off we went to Fort de France to catch what Carnival festivities they might have.
Fort de France
We had strong wind on the way there, which meant that until we reached the bay, we were really rolling – not the super uncomfortable roll, which happens when the waves hit you from the side (and you’re not sailing). The wind was from behind, so that was where the waves were coming from too. When we reached the bay, it was surreal – strong wind with no waves? We flew! It was like sailing on a dam! (With wind, of course 😉
When we reached the anchorage, however, we were of a different mind. Being on the north side of the bay, the wind had had some chance to get up some nice big waves rolling in from across the bay, making the anchorage really uncomfortable. There were only a few boats in the anchorage, and we understood why. Right after anchoring, we all basically lay low. With the boat pitching about, it was almost as bad as crossing. Happily for us, it soon got better, so our stay at Fort de France wasn’t that bad. (Also, with the decline of wind and waves, the number of boats anchored shot right up.)
The Carnival at Fort de France reminded me a lot of the Carnival at Rio – just less professional, and (obviously) on the streets. Another oddity, was that the spectators wouldn’t get so exited. In Rio, I guess there might have been more alcohol in the mix, but still. It was nice to see children throughout the whole event though. It seems Carnival is a big family event.
The first day of Carnival was a Saturday. There was a little parade about 4 o’clock just at the waterfront. Titled the “Queen’s parade”, it hosted a number of girls and women dressed in interesting costumes with sashes.
My favourite part was at the very beginning, the tiny little girls heading the parade – especially the one with the matchstick dress!
The next day the waterfront was absolutely quiet, no abnormal activity whatsoever. Around three-four o’clock, people began to trickle in. The program told us the parade (the main one for the Carnival) would start at 4, so we headed to shore a little before then. We waited a good deal for something to happen, and in the end it did.
Headed by a huge paper-maché Vaval (the Carnival king) the Carnival parade began to dance past. The same little girls from the previous day, and some of the same costumes made a second appearance right behind Vaval, but after that we didn’t see them again.
From then on, the parade consisted of a series of bands, of dancers and wacky costumes. There were also cars . . . (said in ominous tone of voice. )
In fact, let me make a special paragraph for The Cars.
There are quite a number of cars that seem to have been set aside for the sole purpose of parading. Probably the population’s oldest cars, they are ‘’done up’’ for the parade. A theme is chosen, and the car decorated accordingly. Sometimes the overall effect is rather good, when the people sitting on the car are also dressed according to the theme, but this is not always the case. All the cars in the parade have parts missing (for example, most had the boot lid missing, so that people can sit in the back.) All the cars had waaaaaaaay too many people on them! They were crawling along at a snail’s pace, since the parade stops every few meters to do the dance and then shuffles on again, but it was still strange. However, the most decisive thing that I will remember about those cars, is all the backfiring. I don’t know if they did it as a competition to see who could backfire their vehicle with the most gusto, but it produced a terrible racket sounding exactly like gunfire. The whole Carnival through we could hear it. Mostly at night, but even during the day from the boat. We figure they use and abuse the cars over and over until they’re finally ab-used up. (A term my mom just coined.)
The rest of the parade was interesting, but started to merge after a while. Another percussion band, beating out their catchy rhythm on their enormous drums, slung across their shoulders. The costumes varied a great deal, and the overwhelming variety numbs the senses. Sophia wasn’t feeling too well that day, so after about two hours my dad took her and Karin back to Shang Du with Shampoo, and returned to watch the rest with us. It took three hours for the whole parade to pass by.
A snack that will now forever remind me of Fort de France Carnival, is brown-paper cones filled with peanuts. There were quite a few vendors with baskets of brown paper cones, and at first we bought one just to see what is inside. The unshelled peanuts for 1 euro a cone wasn’t too bad, so it became an occasional snack during the Carnival.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were all Carnival days – mostly quiet and unexciting during the day, towards evening the waterfront became ridiculously crowded with people. The air filled with the tooting of little hand-held horns, and the music blasted from the various trucks mounted with huge speakers.
The days after Sunday ran as follows:
Monday was the wedding parade, but we don’t think they ever had a proper parade for that one. There were a lot of people walking through the streets, doing nothing much, but dressed up with all sorts of weird things. There was a specific group that had a huge polystyrene cake in front, and the whole procession made up of men dressed as brides and women dressed as their grooms. The effect was rather strange – as if the whole train just had ugly people in it.
Tuesday everything had red in. The waterfront was a mass of red and black, so when we ventured ashore, we had to wear something red just so we wouldn’t stick out! There were a few isolated new things in the parade (like the villagers made of clay) but mostly it was just the same cars and bands doing another round of the town. Tuesday was also the first day they had a balloon stand – one of the sponsors were handing out helium balloons (with their logo on, of course) to any child willing to get into line. We were after the helium. 😉 When we got back to the boat, we carefully opened them up with a knitting needle (the best tool I’ve found so far to undo the knot) and took huge breaths of helium, letting them out again with random squeaky chatter. ^_^
Wednesday everyone wore black and white. There were exceptions of course, but that was the most general theme. By this time the whole “Carnaval” thing was getting old, so we decided to head ashore just a little before Vaval, the ‘Carnival King’ was to be burned (according to the schedule) at the waterfront. I think the time on the pamphlet was six or seven, I’m not sure, but we headed over to shore just as the sun was setting.
We sat around in the big field of grass maintained across from the dingy dock, and waited. At first we were optimistic – it seemed that there were quite a few people waiting around, just sitting on the grass watching the little kids run around and toot their horns.
We had a wonderful time just sitting on the ground, ‘people-watching’. There was a trio of kids that caught my attention specifically – a boy of about 7-8, then a girl of maybe 6-7, and then (the cutest) a little girl of 4, I think. They all wore something black and white, but the baby was adorable – her hair had been done up in pom-pom style, and she wore a huge tutu-like sparkly skirt. Loved it. They would race up to the palm trees planted near the middle of the plane, the older two children pretending to be running all out, and then let the baby win.
There was another family where the boy was playing around with his horn, the father on his self-phone. He must have been keeping an eye on the kids though, for he was just in time to snatch away the horn as the boy prepared to blast it right into to the ear of his blissfully unaware little sister . . .
Eventually we got tired of waiting, and decided that it looked as if people were moving in a general direction, so we decided to follow them. We did, for a while, but as nothing specific cropped up we turned back, bought a brown-paper cone of peanuts, and decided to ask someone. The first time we tried, the person didn’t speak English, of course, but general hand signals and the idea of ‘Vaval’ came across, but to our dismay it seemed as if the burning had already taken place. Not wanting to give up just yet, my dad opted to ask at least one more person. So we approached a lady standing still, waving a flickering light in her hand. Our attempts at communication was answered with a “my husband speaks English, just wait.” In a few moments her husband had popped up (the light vanished) and though his English wasn’t excellent, it was much better than our French! We asked about Vaval, and his return was yes, he would be burned some time that night. Where? O, somewhere – he didn’t really know. Where were all the people going? Anywhere they wanted to. Mostly where the music was loudest.
In general, it seemed that the burning of Vavel wasn’t a great highlight of the evening, so we gave it up and headed home. Next morning the newspaper declared that Vavel had, indeed, been burned on the waterfront, with a big picture on the front page. It must have been very late though, because we would have been able to see it from the boat, had we been awake. As it was, we didn’t.
Somewhere in that week was my mom’s birthday. Uncle Ricardo’s birthday is on the exact same day and they were born in the same year, but unfortunately they hadn’t joined us in time, so we couldn’t celebrate together on the day. When they joined us, we did celebrate the birthdays, and we were planning to head over to St Pierre ASAP. The Yoshimas wanted to go visit a big shop inland in Martinique, which was more accessible from Fort de France, so they only joined us a day or two after.
Another thing that we did in Fort de France was Maintenance.
Franci and I attacked the rust spots during the day, chipping away like mad at the bubbles of rust, causing chips to fly everywhere. Yes, it does feel a little strange to be hammering away at one’s boat with a sharp hammer, feeling as if you’re going to make a hole, but so far the deck has been keeping up pretty well. ^_^
The process basically involves us chipping off the excess rust from the surface of the boat, and then applying rust converter to the exposed metal. After this has turned any remaining rust black, we slap up some base. Then some more. (This is the stuff I’m mixing.)
We also had one day from Fort de France that we took a bus inland and visited a botanical garden . . . well, sort of. It was a private garden with a LOT of diverse species of plants. Very interesting, some of those plants.
We mostly enjoyed the effect of the garden, and just strolled along.
Now we get to our St Pierre stay at last!
Actually, it isn’t all that structured – we did a lot of diving, and some sightseeing. The dives were mostly deep ones (I think we only did one shallower one) so Karin and Sophia wasn’t really able to join us. Franci and I, however, did our very first decompression dives! There are quite a number of wrecks there, due to the mount Pelee explosion a hundred years ago, of which the Roraima is my favourite. (Also the deepest.)
The first really deep dive we did was on the Roraima – 45 metres deep at least, and I now know what it is to have the “drunkenness of the deeps”. It was really cool to experience that, because we had heard so much about it. It made up for not ‘rolling’ on land after a sea voyage. 😉 My dad briefed us very well (at the time I confess I doubted that I would feel any different, but was glad of the thorough briefing during the dive, since nothing was unexpected).
When we first swam down, it felt like a slow-motion free fall, and as I watched the particles in the water accelerate past me, I suddenly had a flashback to our dive-attempts in Ilha Grande, where the visibility was close to being non-existent. For a moment I was a little panicked, but as soon as I realised the visibility was normal, I relaxed again. We had planned to stop for a moment when reaching the bottom, just to make sure that everyone was okay, and how Franci and I were handling the depth.
Just as we were reaching that depth, I had a sudden thought of “O, yes! We’re diving deep – I wonder if I’ll get nitrogen-narcosis?” Just after thinking that, I began to giggle uncontrollably – I just couldn’t stop! Franci joined me a little. 😉 I was perfectly conscious, and delighted at the fact that it had actually worked (the whole “drunkenness of the deeps” thing) but I just couldn’t stop laughing! Whenever my dad asked if I was okay, I would show him the ‘okay’ signal, but just to be sure he started doing “2 + 2 = 4” with his fingers, so that I would know what he was doing, and then asked me what “1 + 2” was, or something similar. At the time I was desperately trying to get my laughing under control, so he could see I was still all right and wouldn’t abort the dive, but it kept bursting out every now and then.
At first I didn’t understand the hand-signals, but once I did, I answered promptly and satisfied my dad that I was still fit to dive, so we headed on to the wreck.
We didn’t’ explore much of it, but it was interesting nonetheless, and I was still smiling the whole way. It was interesting to note that there were quite a few reef fish around the wreck, and I can remember making a point of being “very aware” to compensate for being a little drunk, but I think the only real result was that I was extremely pleased with myself every time I noticed something, or remembered to check my gear properly. ;P
It was lots of fun, and we did quite a number of dives at St. Pierre. Uncle Ricardo joined us on most of them, especially the deep ones (which were almost all of them) since Karin and Sophia are still too young to be diving that deep, and the first time my mom went that deep, she didn’t like it at all. She says the nitrogen-narcosis just makes her depressed, not happy at all.
Our St Pierre stay wasn’t all just diving, of course – we had to do school and my dad worked in the mornings. We also did one or two excursions to the land to go and look at some of the destruction due to Mt. Pelee in 1902.
Before I continue, I have just realised it is necessary to give a short summary of what had happened on Martinique. (As remembered by me.)
Before the explosion, St. Pierre had been regarded as the “Little France” of the Caribbean. A lot of trading happened there, and the countryside had many rich plantations.
When Mt. Pelee began to give signs of activity, the people were encouraged by the governor to stay put. There were a few hundred who fled to Fort de France, but mainly it was thought that St. Pierre was relatively safe.
This assumption had been made because a little before the explosion there had been a mudslide that had wiped out an entire plantation estate. The plantation had been in a valley, and the mudslide had followed the valley, curving away from St. Pierre and running to the sea.
Many people from the surrounding countryside actually fled to St. Pierre, believing it to be safer from the volcano. There was ash and gas everywhere, and still people remained. The governor and his wife also remained, to help build confidence in the nervous town.
It was on a Sunday that the mountain erupted – actually, it was an explosion. The side of the mountain was blasted away, and a huge cloud of super-heated burning gas, ash and boiling mud was catapulted toward the town while the church service was just about to start.
They could actually see the cloud coming, but could do nothing to protect themselves against it in the 2 seconds it took to reach them.
We read a few eyewitness accounts of people who had been on the Roraima at the time of the explosion. The Roraima had arrived at St. Pierre just an hour before the explosion, and had anchored farther out because the Captain had been unsure of the volcano. One of the witnesses had been the nurse working for a family on the Roraima. She had been busy helping the children with breakfast when the explosion hit them, and the skylight rained boiling mud and burning ash down on them. They were plastered in mud, and the baby died very quickly. When they were dragged out of there by someone, I think only the nurse, the mother and the older daughter was still alive. The mother died before the survivors could be rescued from the Roraima by another vessel.
The eruption had killed about 30 000 people in a few minutes.
The most famous survivor, of course, was the prisoner who had been in a poorly ventilated cell with very thick walls. He still got severe burns though. We went to visit the site, and also the ruin of the theatre that was built right beside the prison.
He later joined a circus in America, and his story was “Sentenced to die, he was the only one saved”. Although that wasn’t really true – prisoners sentenced to death weren’t sent to that specific prison, so he had probably been in solitary confinement due to some misbehaviour.
There is one little museum that has a lot of things that were found after the explosion – sagging wine-glasses, vases and assorted glass objects, disfigured from the heat that they had been exposed to during and after the explosion. Also various food products, turned to coal and maintaining their shape perfectly. (Some coffee beans, a bowl of rice – we don’t have photos, unfortunately, since cameras weren’t allowed.)
There were also a lot of old, fuzzy, black and white photographs taken from before the explosion and after. At the time there had been very little known about volcanoes, so after the eruption a scientist came and took a whole series of photos in his investigation to find out what had happened, often using his wife as a scale next to object. (Yes, long dress and umbrella is featured quite a lot.)
We did one excursion to Morne Rouge, as we had hoped to find the beginning of a walking trial to the mouth of the Volcano. Maria joined us, and the merry party went up the hill. Unfortunately, we were a little late in getting away from the boat, and only on getting off the bus did we find out that the last bus would come back at around 12 noon – we had no time to go find a hiking trail, much less walk one.
So we decided to visit a volcano museum to be found in Morne Rouge. Only, it seemed for us, it could not be found. We tried to ask directions – several times – but we kept ending up in the same street (into which the big sign showed there must be a volcano museum) and yet we did not find it.
In all our walking up and down, Maria and Sophia made up a delightful song to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it” with some variation. It’s words run something along the lines of “If you fiiiiind Marike on the street, (you will poke her) if you fiiiind Marike on the street, (you will poke her) if you fiiiiind Marike, if you fiiiiind Marike, if you fiiiiiind Marike you will? Poke her!”
Of course, to their delight, I made all kinds of threats and ejaculations, so they still sing it when bored and just adapt the ‘on the street’ to fit whatever situation we might find ourselves in. 😉
On the way back from the volcano museum (after a taxi had picked us up again) the driver kindly took us along a route that included an interesting ruin – apparently the ruins of a barracks church. We had a lot of fun playing around there.
Uncle Ricardo delighted in hunting lionfish. While in Fort de France we had found a nice big ‘spear-ketty’ with which we could hunt lionfish. We have used it quite a few times now, helping the Caribbean waters a little each time that we take out some lionfish. It was always Uncle Ricardo who did the cleaning and the cooking. ^_^ He really really enjoys hunting those fish!
Before heading to the next island, we went back to Fort de France, because from there it was easiest to access a big shopping mall. The Yoshimas had some things they wanted to get, and we mainly wanted to go, because we knew we would be in Dominica with Sophia’s birthday – and there are no properly stocked shopping malls to frequent.
Here is a house that the younger kids built on the beach (they would frequently swim to the beach from the boat)
After that, we sailed away to Dominica.