Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Martinique, Feb 2010 - St. Pierre, North Island

We do find a funky old hotel for the evening, just south of St. Pierre. Before the 1902 debacle, St. Pierre was the bustling capitol city with a sophisticated European bent. Most of the city was lost and not re-built when the bulk of the remaining population moved safely southward to Fort de France, but there is still a very Euro flair to the area, giving it a different feel from other island towns. Our hotel is the perfect example - tucked into the shade of a northern hillside and towering trees, its massive stuccoed walls, single-room width with 18' ceilings and 12' solid wood doors located opposite one another for simple cross-ventilation keep the building quite cool. There is fabulous original tile, and a giant (unused) bathtub, and some updates -- like a slightly more contemporary outdoor kitchen in the garden where one can "take their cafe" in the morning. There are, of course other updates - like AC units, and throwbacks - roaches that surely claim pre-Peléan heritage.

St. Pierre is a good-sized town with, what seems the requisite two one-way mainstreets running parallel to the beach. As with much of the island, houses and townhouses are quite compact. Due to the terrain, it's fairly common to have both beach- and volcano views. Although nearly all of the buildings remain shuttered against the sun - with, perhaps, 60% actually seeming to be occupied. There could be a higher number of abandoned buildings in St. Pierre compared to elsewhere, but it's difficult to tell.

Martinique, Feb 2010 - North Island

We bust out for a little excursion to the north portion of the island - home to the notorious Mt Pelée and rainforests. As Martinique is only about 50 x 25 miles at its largest points, making the area about the same as 1/3 of Rhode Island, the trip is not a big one, but we decide to make an overnight of it. (This maybe would be island-style, as 2 hours is considered a long ride - oh la la - and there are still children attending grammar school in the tiny village around the point who've never left town. This, according to their teacher, whom we met, who concedes they are the loveliest, most polite students ever.)

The ever-precarious roads are even more roller-coaster-esque in the switchbacks of the pietons. And there are lots of fabulous views to distract: dramatic, vineladen & lush valleys, enormous ferns, leaves and tropical flowers.... The scale is so grand and ancient, it's quite easy to imagine being some tiny critter occupying an inconsequentially minor link of the prehistoric food chain.

Martinique has been wise enough to dedicate large portions of their precious, yet varied land to parkspace: rainforest, more arid regions hosting beachfront cactii, mangroves, and reef-protected peninsulas. Throughout the island are beautifully cultivated farms over rolling hills, endless fields of sugarcane and banana plantations. And goats and chickens. And cows. Cows seem to be everywhere - very often chained right next to the roads and highways. Moo.

In the middle of the pietons, we stop at an arboretum that hosts a delightfully cool fresh waterfall and swimming holes. There is a short path through mahogany wood and other loveliness before we climb down for a pool-side picnic....

Saturday, February 20, 2010

February 2010 Martinique - Carnival! Dimanche, Lundi & Mardi Gras Parades

Carnival! There is some dissention about the meaning of the word itself, but most definitions point to some version of "carne levare" -the removal of meat, or "carne vale" - farewell to meat. During Lent, one is meant to say goodbye to 'the flesh' both literally and figuratively... so go go big or go home!

Why celebrate for only one day, when there are infinite opportunities for parades?! Most of the towns in Martinique have individual celebrations throughout Carnivale. The capital city of Fort de France has the largest versions of each, but we enjoyed the festivities in our town of Diamant. (And we were cautioned somewhat against Fort de France being over-the-top, in the same way that you might not consider a New Orleans Mardi Gras entirely family-friendly. Deeply alcohol infused wild rumpussing...!)

The 14th was "Vidé Populaire" - just an all-around costume parade - lots of boas, sparkles, wild wigs and costume of all manner. The 3pm start time is exceedingly broad - island time interpretation translates to approximately 430/5pm. This is widely understood by all except the tourists (us.)

We start to have mardigras-car sitings: apparently near-death vehicles are saved up for Carnival season. They are spray-painted and decorated for the occasion, sometimes with extra generators mounted for sound and/or motion to be able to make the trip. Doors & hatchbacks are removed so that people can freely move about the 'float' as it makes its last maneuvers through a glorious ride to ritualistic burning/abandonment/scrapyard status...!

Monday, the 15th was "Vidé in Pyjama" at 5am -- we did try to find this one, even accounting for the island time variance, but were clearly out of the loop - and/or it is some sort of February Fools' joke (haha - suckas!) It is also 'burlesue wedding' day with parades full of wild- mostly male - cross-dressing. The male cross-dress was a favorite theme throughout - lots of incredibly athletic, muscley babes with boas, huge, colorful afros, heels and sparkles!

Mardi Gras - actually "Fat Tuesday" is the "Vidé Rouge et Noir" - the Red & Black parade. Red devil day - horns & masks. Little children hate this one, and some of them are dressed as angels for contrast. Simple themes, so anyone can play along - participants & attendants alike - many of the schoolfriends & townsfolk show up eventually....

Wednesday - Vidé Noir et Blanc. Black & white attire for the effigy burning of "Vaval" the (evil) King of Carnival. Our parade ended in a bonfire at the beach. With drums. And conch-shell trumpets. Mais bien sur!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Feb 2010 Martinique - Habitation Clement

We were told that if there were only one distillery to tour on the island, Clement would be it - so we went with BJ & John. The gardens were indeed spectacular - with what seemed every kind of palm species, ponds, tropical flowers and happy birds. The tour wound past the "chais" - enormous storage sheds packed with hundreds of barrels of aging rum. Stepping into the doorway of a chai overwhelms the olfactory with a rich, thorough infusion of moist, woodearthy, raisinsweet rum perfume. The "angel's share" - the amount of rum lost to evaporation - is practically visible, as it reaches the maximum amount of about 10% in the tropical heat. Clement has piped in piano jazz, the sort heard in high-end hotel lobbies - to all of the storage buildings. Perhaps the music affects the overall quality of the rum--- adding a certain "je ne sais quois" to the flavor...?

The processing of the sugarcane is about to happen over the next week or so. The harvested cane has to be quickly processed or it begins to spoil within days - rendering it useless for rum. The cane is crushed in massive machinery, then the resulting "bagasse" is stored in enormous vats- each the size of an extra-deep hot-tub for ten - for the fermentation process before moving on through the still. The process is unchanged for centuries.

The original homestead of Habitation Clement is perfectly situated atop a small hill, to capture breezes and vistas through the shadetrees & hibiscus toward the sugarcane and banana trees. (And possibly, also the errant fumes from the distillery smokestack.) The house is a fantastic open layout of porchlike spaces around a central livingroom with two bedrooms on the upper floor and multiple sinks for washing off the tropical heat & dust. The kitchen, nicknamed the "gossip cottage", is a separate building, and there are stone demarcation posts as segregation area reminders. Apparently a common practice that - if breached - could be cause for whipping or worse. A slave at the plantation of Josephine (future Bonaparte) was shorted of her ears to serve an as an example for what happens when one literally strays from her designated path.

We followed our tour path properly, like good tourists, perusing contemporary art gallery buildings on a latter portion of the trail, and ending up at the tasting room. In the case of Clement, there was an almost bar-like atmosphere of underlit counters and great modern architectural elements housed within a centuries-old stone foundation. We went straight for the rhum vieux - 4- and 6-year-old, in this case, and quite lovely, although we did buy older vintages for future sampling...!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Feb 2010 Martinique - Ash Wednesday does follow Mardi Gras, after all

Hey- it could be considered something significant. I just think it's pretty interesting stuff.... Check out the cool satellite photo. Montserrat is the little island covered in a cloud of ash, then, toward the south, Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique in the lower right. Weather reports are saying the clouds went primarily east, and not toward other islands, but the dustlayer coating EVerything here, almost 400 miles away, says otherwise.

At least it is not our local volcano, Mt Pelée - which, you may have heard, had it's last crippling effect in 1902 - May 8th, in fact (hmn.) The eruption is considered the most devasting of the modern era, claiming nearly 30,000 lives.

From www.explorevolcanoes.com about Pelée. It's always about the politics:
If this had happened in modern times then evacuation and close monitoring would have been organised but in 1902 the Martinique government had more pressing matters to attend to. The elections to decide who controlled the island. The ruling Progressive party wanted to maintain white control of the island and were being rivalled by a black candidate from the Radical party. In St.Pierre a the Progressive Party had won but not by a clear enough majority so another vote had to be organised for May 11.

On May 2 the volcano rumbled and showered the countryside with ash a glow was seen at the summit. People came to St.Pierre to escape the worst of the ash. A Martinique newspaper assured residents that there was no real danger and even organised a boat excursion to see the volcano on May 4.

On May 3 and 4 people watched the fireworks from the volcano. Food and fresh water were running low but the residents stayed on because of the election and reassurances that all was well! A mudflow engulfed a sugar mill and killed 23 people . When it entered the sea it caused a Tsunami which inundated the water front area killing 68 people. Soldiers were now brought in to prevent people leaving the city! The local population turned to Voodoo rituals for help.

On Wednesay the 7th, Nuee Ardent clouds flowed down the mountain but injured no one as the villages were by now empty. The Italian ship Orsalina sailed a day early leaving passengers behind.

On the Morning of May 8 at 7.50am, as people were going to the Ascension Day services, a black cloud raced down the volcano at an estimated speed of 600km/hour and engulfed St.Pierre. A giant eruption cloud covered the sky for a 50 mile radius. The city was probably destroyed by a thin and rapidly moving Pyroclastic surge which came out laterally from the volcano. The blast was composed of gas,steam and dust and was probably around 1000 C.

Toasty food for thought. or to put in pipe and smoke it.

Feb 2010 Martinique - School Kids' Parade + Some Volcanic ash

There seem to be a number of Mardi-Gras prep events connected with the school - one of them is a parade - of course. Schools in towns all over the island each have their own version which happens on the last actual 'schoolday' before vacation - it's a party day, and some of the students just leave at lunch to be with their families. Others stay for the parade. At 2pm - It's. Hot. But the energy & music is pumped!
L'Ecole Dizac has a world theme this year, with classes representing various countries, the younger ones (K-3) are just majoring in cuteness. They dance through the streets of town for 1 1/2 hrs - past the town square, the church, Rue Barack Obama (which, I'm told, was immediately installed in Nov 2008)and back to the school - encouraged by parents & onlookers dancing & singing along.....

An interesting sidenote: we've been having some interesting MardiGras confetti - volcanic ash. The dome of volcano on Montserrat (about '3 islands north') collapsed a few days ago. There were no injuries that we've heard of, but the cloud of ash apparently shot some 50,000 feet into the air, and is being distributed on the crazy Caribbean winds. The whole island needs a major featherduster. (So, yes, I feel for you, California....)

February 2010 Martinique schoolfieldtrip - La Savane des Eclaves

On the last full day of school before the Mardi Gras holidays, Finn & I go with his class on a fieldtrip to neighboring Trois Ilets to the "Savane des Eclaves" - a village reproducing the lifestyle of slaves who sought to live in the freedom of the Martinique wilds. There are beautiful, traditionally-constructed huts with woven twig walls (such as European builders might have used as lath to support plaster) and bound palm-frond roofthatch. The larger, community kitchen hut had a vented roof to allow smoke escape, but the deep overhang of roofing to about 2' above ground would have still kept the occupants quite dry in tropical downpours.

We were given a cocoa processing demonstration...! (My understanding is from the French presentation - please forgive errors.) The cocoa pod is ready for harvest from the trees when it turns yellow. The seeds are then removed and let dry in the sun for a couple of weeks, then briefly toasted. The ceramic barbecue used was a hybrid of a smaller hibachi-style stove and a chiminea - small and precise coals that wouldn't add extra heat to the hut.

The toasted "féves", seeds, are then dropped into a carved out stump mortar to be mashed with a small-log pestle. It quickly turns to a gorgeous cocoa powder, which can be used as such, or, with more pounding, turns to a fabulous mud - beurre du cocoa (coca butter!) The kids all got a chance at pounding to the count of ten. The non-participating students counted aloud: "un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq..." When it was Finn, turn, as if on cue, his classmates shouted "one, two, sree, four...!"
We were able to sample both the feve seed and the finished butter - no sugar added - it was a lovely, dark toasted-coffee flavor with chocolate finish. Finn didn't care for it.

The cocoa butter would then be rolled into approximately 1" thick sticks in a banana leaf - like a cocoa sushi roll - then let dry. The sticks are sold in exactly that form in the markets today (although sans leaf - saranwrap instead.)

Other wild tropical fabulousness that would have been cultivated are also, of course, still part of the creole cuisine, including: manioc (a flour-like staple, and a separate demonstration) cassava, peppers, guava, bananas, sugar cane....

February 2010 Martinique - á l'ecole!

The kids are both giving school a go - en Français - quite bold, considering neither speaks French. Or attends school. They achieve a minor celebrity status on the first day out, although some language discrepancies have slightly altered their names- - perhaps you know our children, Mary and Phil from New York? (It was sorted out, but we giggled about it for days....)

School is pretty much school everywhere. First rule of thumb: complain about it. Maddie isn't into wearing a 'uniform' as bland as jeans and, horror of horrors, a white polo shirt! And, of course, the getting-up-early bit. Finn ends up quite tired at the end of the day due to inability to communicate, but has fun overall.

The schedules are great: Finn has classes from 8 - noon with three 15 minute mini-breaks. We pick him up for a two-hour lunchbreak, and he has time to hang out and go for a swim before returning from 2 - 4. There's no school for the under-12 crowd on Wednesdays. Maddie does have to start at 7, to her dismay, and has a Mon - Fri schedule, but with the same 2 hour break mid-day for eating & socializing (at school) and some days end early, with only a couple of classes - similar to a college schedule. (In fact, the high school level is referred to as "collége".)

We've adopted some low-maintenance pets to go with our very traditional lifestyle - the neighbors' cats and dogs stop by; we have a yardful of geckos, and a guardcrab - so watch your toes...!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Martinique, January 2010 - Diamant Errands & Fort de France

Ambitiously, we thought it would be fun for the kids to try school in our town of Diamant. We had contacted the property owner ahead of our visit, and they had done some initial introductions, but we did spend the larger portion of the morning straining our brains to understand some realllly, realllly simple instructions. Finn will start school on Monday, and Maddie is in the works...
And, so we're also experimenting with AppleTV, which includes really simple & understandable instructions in English, and we brought it with us to be an economical cinema option. However, we neglected to bring---- the remote. The lovely & accommodating folks at Finn's school also helped us to look up the local Mac store which is in Fort de France. Through dumb luck, we eventually stumbled on that as well. Stupid touristes!
As we wound our way through town, Maddie captured some shots of the city which ambles up the hillside from the pier in buildings no taller than a half dozen floors.

Martinique, January 2010 - Trois Ilets

Trois Ilets - new excursion, same overall point of land, west side of Martinique, south of Fort de France. The smaller scale of the map & island takes some getting used to, and what we assumed might be a half-hour+ drive really only takes about half that time. Trois Ilets (named for the three small islands just off the coast) is a larger, swankier town with a bit more commerce dedicated to the tourist trade.
Everything seems to warrant a photograph: the church where Empress Josephine (of eventual Napoleon pairing) was baptized; a defunct water pump; a statue at the wharf; a traditional cottage. We wander a bit further afield to the Pointe du Bout section of Trois Iles which is on a peninsula opposite Fort de France. The kids were intriqued by jetski rentals to tour the harbor, but at a whopping 60 Euro (US$90) per half hour, we stayed on the beach to check out shells and awesome treetrunks....
As with much of this blog, photocredits to Maddie. Finn took the statue pic.