February 29, 2000 to March 11, 2000
It's really incredible how hard it is to actually sail around here. Last week, when there was, at long last, a perfect sailing day, with winds neither too fierce nor too lackluster, Gary asked whether I wanted to go out for a sail.
"Are you crazy?" I asked. "We've got people coming to clean and fix the boat. We have no time to sail."
Well, we missed our window, because now, after weeks of 30-knot winds, were encountering almost no wind. As we sailed with Joan & David from Antigua to Guadeloupe, the most we clocked was maybe 10 knots, hardly an exciting intro to sailing for our landlubber friends. But they didnt get seasick, though. Maybe because we stuffed them with Bonine before sailing. The result of that was they fell into a deep, relaxing Caribbean cockpit sleep during the trip. An excellent tonic for the working class.
Montserrat, which we passed en route, about 25 miles off our port, blew us away with its eerie beauty we saw 4 deep tracks of smoke, looking like gray ski runs converging at the peaks top, which puffed plumes of soot directly into a giant matching color cloud that stretched horizontally out for miles -- as if the volcanos job was to create the clouds themselves.
We considered detouring but knew it would be a rolly anchorage, unfit for novices early in a sailing trip. Jackie and Mel did go and pronounced the devastation virtually unfathomable: homes buried up to their eaves in ash; huge lava boulders strewn into the sea; part of the island lush, the rest a science-fiction movie set. The volcano also seems to be making noises lately rumbles and grumbles as if announcing its coming back soon to finish the job. We hope to get back to the area next year to see it first hand. But, for Jackies excellent eyewitness report, go to our website --www.ot.com/~strutin/lulu -- and click on the link to the Feisty website its the FeistyNews dated 3/5/00.)
We continued on to Guadeloupe and arrived in Deshaies (pronounced Day-Hay), a sleepy little ribbon of a town along the water. No sooner had we hoisted our Q-flag than we were boarded by 3 French Customs agents, who seemed far more interested in getting a look at our boat than searching it for drugs. They told me I was a good housekeeper -- just the accolade Ive been waiting for all my life. They then hung around in the cockpit with us to watch the sunset, predicting it might be one of those elusive "green flash" nights. The green flash, which we have yet to see, is apparently a rare enhancement to the tropical sunset where a green spot seems to shoot out from the rapidly sinking rim of the setting sun, just at that mysterious last-glimpse moment, where you wonder where its going and whether its ever coming back.
I traded niceties with these young French officials while we waited, which eventually made me feel if I were a decent hostess I should be offering them a Pernod or even a Crème de Menthe to match the upcoming natural wonder. But I didnt have either and, besides, David told me one never offers liquor to someone packing a gun.
As soon as humanly possible we dinghied in to town, craving good French bread again. We walked Deshaies weatherbeaten street: a 2-baguette stroll, but that was only because the village is so tiny and because Gary dove into a tarte aux pommes (the flakier French version of an apple danish) and David kept valiantly to his macro diet, which permits no white flour. This left Joan and I free to tear apart the bread like untamed animals.
The four of us rented a car and toured Basse Terre, the western half of the Guadeloupe butterfly. Guadeloupe is more like two islands joined by a tiny isthmus and its size 650 square miles -- surprised us after so many smaller ones. Topographically, its also quite distinct from other islands weve dropped in on. Tall mountains insure good rainfall -- a wall-to-wall carpet of green vegetation and strikingly colored flowers attest to that good fortune. The snaky road along the coast, with its surprise twists and sudden views of aqua inlets far below transported us back to similar drives along the Riviera, except here the coves and beaches wear thick necklaces of big-fronded palm trees.
The roads are newly paved, smooth black ribbons, an advantage of its French protectorate status, and refreshingly unlike the bumpy, pebbled or downright rocky roads of relatively newly independent former British colonies like Antigua. In these islands, frequently corrupt governments rarely fork over sufficient moneys to build a proper infrastructure. A Big Daddy like France lurking in the background has its advantages; though most of the people weve met, especially the blacks who still carry the slavery- and low-status grudge, champion the benefits of their recent freedom.
Guadeloupe seems far more French than the more cosmopolitan St. Barth. We hear that as well as see it -- wherever we go we rarely find an English sentence spoken. Visitors seem to be solidly middle-class French, not the moneyed international chic set or the more polyglot, elderly overweight tour groups that come in a multitude of flavors: German, Dutch, English, American, a smattering of Japanese.
Guadeloupians dont always offer us a warm reception. Parisians may have learned to tolerate Americans or occasionally even enjoy us, but here it takes a lot of smiling and not getting annoyed when were obviously being handled rudely or even rebuffed. My rudimentary French and willingness to fracture it in public seems to win us some better treatment. David, who dispises, and Mel, who simply dislikes, the French, are far more reactive to the chilly receptions.
We were an hour behind our planned itinerary the whole first day because we had to check in with Immigration. Immigration and Customs here seem to keep a relaxed schedule called "Maybe well be in today, but maybe we wont. Keep checking. Sometimes we leave a note when well be here next, sometimes we dont. But you need to register and for your sake, before we catch you. Cest la vie, Gringo."
This and other red-tape delays made us late for lunch at Bananier -- the nouvelle Creole restaurant Id picked by cross-referencing all my guidebooks -- because the long lunch/siesta closing times are adhered to rigorously throughout the Caribbean. We also arrived at 5PM for the half-hour climb to the Chutes de Charbet an impressive 3-tier waterfall in the midst of a national park. Impending dusk, plus the added darkness of the impenetrable rain forest wed be traversing, rain-checked any climb. It was almost satisfying enough to just see the frothy white falls from a distance, sluicing through russet rocks and green foliage one narrow, jagged stripe, amidst the vastness of the mountains.
Guadeloupes terrain runs the gamut from lush rainforest to crashing surf against volcanic coastline. Homes can be anything from one-room, wooden Cannery Row hovels to small middle-class Creole-fronted houses to gated villas whose backyards are the white-capped Caribbean Sea. Weve driven through beachy towns with honky boutiques and souvenir shacks, as well as bustling New Orleansy cities and luxe tourist areas with designer hotels and Robert Trent Jones golf courses.
We hit the Cora hypermarché, a cross between your basic Sears and a luxury supermarket. Maybe it isnt luxury at all (except for the prices); but rather that pates, foie gras, lardons and triple cream cheeses are just the way the French eat normally. We never recognize a brand name: though I did come upon Ritz Crackers, they came in a box the size of Animal Crackers. Its really annoying not to be able to find comfort foods like Heinz Ketchup, Wheat Thins and, especially, Frenchs Mustard when were after all in French territory.
The highlight geographic anyway of our week was Les Saintes. Translation: The Saints. First named Los Santos by Christopher Columbus when he happened upon them on All Saints Day in 1493, they are 8 small, mountainous islands that seem tossed off by the mother island, not so far as to become a schlep but distant enough in location and spirit to almost seem foreign. Only two are inhabited, with a combined population of 3260. The largest of these, Terre en Haute (high land, I think) boasts an enchanting town: Bourg des Saintes (translation, the burg or burb or city of the Saints.) which is about 3 blocks long, 3 deep, and backs smack against the mountains.
Bourg is lively and fresh without being honky-tonk, despite the fact that its become an active ferry stop from the mainland. I imagine residents hate the daily influx of tourists and the noise of their rental scooters I know I did in the 3 days we were there. The narrow main street is clogged with a combination of pedestrians, scooters, tourist vans, sidewalk cafes, plastic restaurant chairs, women churning ice cream, and vendors hawking everything from hot meat-stuffed brioches to barbequed chickens, beaded bracelets and straw hats.
But by Capri standards it doesnt add up to real throngs and its still unspoiled. When the last ferry leaves at around 6, the pace ratchets down considerably. The streets are still filled with sweet, fragrant aromas of the days worth of Creole stewing and grilling. Restaurants however, so crowded at lunch, are almost empty. Families come out after their suppers to the picket-fenced triangular park or the cafe-fronted central square at the harbor. Little girls play hopscotch, the boys crash into each other on trikes, while the adults chat and enjoy the cool night breeze.
Walking the hilly streets, we hear music that pulses onto the street with an insistent, foot-stomping rhythm. Made by a combination of basic native instruments and more space age electronic keyboards, its a cross-pollination of steel band, reggae, jazz, rock and whatever Paul Simon has added to the mix. When we find its source we hang over a wooden fence and believe were watching a private party in the small, crowded yard below where everyone seems to be a musician. At dinner overlooking the harbor, we hear the same beat outside and come rushing out to find a band of teenagers energetically beating their drums, jamming and rapping as they take over the street. "Carnival?" I ask. "No, just Friday night," Im told.
Most of Bourgs small buildings are Creole style -- a simplified more casual, countrified Caribbean interpretation of gingerbread Victorian and curlicue New Orleans. Some are in tip-top condition, others are flaking like theyve suffered a bad sunburn. This contrast is refreshing. But its the profusion of colors thats truly captivating.
I subtitled Bourg "Homage to Benjamin Moore." The paint king himself, I decided, once swept through town and, utterly charmed, sent a shipment of paint: gallon after gallon of discontinued shades. And then the village elders gave each resident three colors to experiment with -- four by special petition.
The results are a happy, haphazard delight. Used in combinations that can only be called imaginative, the colors are neither South Beach pastel nor parrot garish. The predominantly white homes all have contrasting color trim on balconies, banisters, doors and shutters of. One will flaunt, say, coral and indigo; while next door might be moss green and sunflower gold. Or aquamarine and burnt toast. There are shades neither Crayola, nor Benjamin Moore himself, had names for.
The unifying elements are the ubiquitous "Z" shaped barn-door moldings on doors and shutters and, the roofs all corrugated tin which are painted terra cotta. Except for the tallest building - the cobblestone fronted church with its tin roof of rusty orange and acid green. Even Bourgs otherwise Plain Jane park benches are painted a Caribbean Sea-inspired aqua.
But Bourg is also a fishing village. So adding to the profusion of architectural colors are the colors of the fishing skiffs. Stronger, gayer colors: orange, royal blue and lemon yellow. Egg-yolk gold, kelly green and red. Each with its pile of cobalt blue fishing net speckled with bright orange buoys.
Sunsets complete the picture. As if obliging an order to be more vivid, they give us a nightly display of cobalt sky streaked with watermelon and vermilion, completely dwarfing the larger mass of Guadeloupe itself in the distance, which appears lavender, indistinct and misty, as if veiled.
The four of us shared a remarkable time together. Although we referred to Joan and David as our charter guests -- as in, "the charters" want breakfast, "the charters" are taking too many showers -- they were in fact not like company at all. We enjoyed as many easy silences as belly laughs. Relaxing dinners aboard and on land. They helped us cook, vacuum and clean up. (Although, its true, the French customs agents who boarded gave them neither gold stars nor accolades for the neatness of their private wing of the boat.)
We had worried whether theyd be bored. This life seems endlessly fascinating to us, but the sun might have melted our brains into a bland pudding. However, except for sailing, sunsets and sleep, they had barely 15 minutes to spare. We actually had to squeeze a snorkel in on the last day.
They got to socialize at dinners with some of the couples weve met -- a genuine polyglot of people -- and as we dinghied from one boat to the other saying goodbye before leaving Antigua get a sense of the cohesiveness, the supportiveness of our new community.
They got a sense of this new life, even beyond Garys frequent exclamations of, "I love this life! I love this life!" They understood its not just aimless floating around, its a real life, in a variety of settings (no, every island is not alike, as Id once thought). Each day has a new purpose even if that purpose is just trying to get a car rented. Whatever new product we need is a challenge to our creativity or becomes a mission or adventure. Whats missing is the anxiety quotient. Whats added is the satisfaction factor. I think of it as the Sunset Effect.
Or, said another way, by 12-year-old Matt Neri on Calvin: "What we can't understand is how anyone can come down on vacation and only stay for a week. We used to do it, too, but now our perspective has totally changed. Down here, in a week, we usually collect e-mail and that is the week's project."
Yet, "its an intense kind of retirement," as David said, referring to the daily foraging for food, for boat fix-its, to find immigration or decide what harbor or island comes next. Joan found watching us allayed her fears that retirement was equal to vegetating, becoming meaningless and unfocused. As a result, both of them could better envision a life after work for themselves. Not, to be sure, boating too many small spaces, too many broken things to contend with. But something else.
March 11, 2000
We extended our vacation break. Since the Schulmans left we have barely fixed anything, cleaned anything or washed a single thing beyond ourselves. Instead we continued touring Guadeloupe with Jackie and Mel in a rental car, logging a lot of miles poking into its nooks and crannies, its peaks and valleys. We accomplished the trek to the Charbet Falls, which was partially a descent, paratially a climb and a long walk through spectacular terrain.
It was my first rain forest and I now know what the fuss is about. Tarzan vines and leaves the size of eight-year-olds. Thick, gnarled tree roots as high as your knees, polished to a mahogany shine by a constant stream of people using them as stair treads. Trees Id never even seen the likes of, not even in pictures. An awareness of how unnecessary are people in the real scheme of things -- and how we really need to keep that in mind much more than we do. A sense of primeval, primordial, timelessness. An extraordinary feeling of the mystery and the continuity of life.
Reaching the falls themselves was the icing on a sensational cake. The waters crashes down noisily, on an almost perfect vertical, in two levels the first from 410 feet down to the ledge of mountain we climbed to, at 360 feet, where it seems to gather more strength to continue its endlessly repetitive journey. Between the steaminess of the rain forest and our immediate proximity to the torrent, we emerged dripping wet. What a place for a poncho concession, we thought. But, being retired, we leave it to some enterprising entrepreneur.
Moving along, I dragged a decidedly lukewarm threesome to Basse Terre for the last night of Carnival. They took the stance "lets indulge her or shell drive us all crazy," which I totally ignored, and they did manage to drop their early reluctance and get into the spirit of it.
All the island towns and cities choose a theme, design and sew their own costumes, some simple, some elaborate. The costumes always include elaborate hats or tall headdresses. Sometimes theres a lead float, featuring a queen whos bumping, grinding, wiggling, bopping or otherwise throwing her body around. Theres a strict marching order for the entourage that follows her: young girls, teenage girls, women, all in matching costumes, prance and dance down the street, followed by the men of the village, who form the band and wear coordinating outfits. They provide the beat by shaking maracas, blowing on trumpets, playing keyboards and banging on everything from washboards to drums.
One village dressed itself like an updated Carib Indian tribe in fringed, black iridescent leather skirts, leaping barefoot through the street, cracking whips and staging a war dance. Another town came in multicolor satin ball gowns and wore enormous satin fruit-basket bonnets they couldve stepped right down from a Busby Berkeley set. Still another which obviously considered itself the islands gourmet center -- designed skirts that pouffed out at right angles from the waist, forming tablecloths, actually set with glued-down plates and glassware. We had no idea what the premise was of the village that carpeted their black body suits in an all-over motif of shredded white plastic drinking cups, but it did make the shimmying noisy and interesting.
They poured down the street, one group after the other next, weaving their way through the the lit up squares of government and cathedral, each town singing its song, not one word of which we understood. Not that we cared.
We moved over to Pigeon Island, where there is a Jacques Cousteau marine preserve and some superb scuba diving. We found ourselves a local guide named Jazz, a good looking black man with blond dreadlocks, whose approach to diving was both soothing (he took me by the hand underwater, leading me around till I calmed down enough to stop shooting to the surface like a yo-yo and become neutrally buoyant on my own) and scary (he never even asked to see if we were certified divers). The coral garden lurking beneath the now-familiar aqua surface of the Caribbean was an astonishing tapestry of brilliant colors, with fish and shells to match.
Then we sailed back to the Saintes, to sop up more of Bourg, this time with the Cohens. We let them do their own trek up the mountain to Fort Napoleon, a remarkably well preserved 18th century fortress and why not, since no shot was ever fired from its ramparts. Its moats, now dry, are, however, populated by a colorful array of iguanas. The 360-degree views of all the Saintes, plus Domenica in the distance take your breath away. Its museum features a multiple dioramic replication of a sea battle over the Saintes a remarkable display in its own right, but even more so because it celebrates a fight where the English admiral, using an innovative naval tactic, absoloutely trashed the French fleet.
Despite a great sense of accomplishment, I now REALLY need a vacation.