Rumkommen

Travel Reports

Guadeloupe - France in the Caribbean

Mar 162017

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In the streets you see chickens instead of doves, you hear drum rhythms and whiplashes, you smell burnt sugar cane and the blazing sunshine is interrupted by short but heavy rain falls.

Always saying goodbye - Berni and Marianne sail further towards Antigua on their Jolene. When dismissing them we all realized what a beautiful time we had together on board. We always had enough space for ourselves on the boat, even though we didn't really need it, because the mood was just fabulous! I think we managed to support each others very well. That is why saying goodbye is not easy.

So Joshi and me hitchhike into the unknown: the only certain thing is that we want to go west, to reach the neighbour-island Basse-Terre, which is connected to Grande-Terre through a big bridge. But the most important task is to find a place to chill out: a real cheesy white beach with palm trees and exotic fruits.

We start with Damien and his friend. The two 18 year old boys take us a little further to the big road and give us an introduction to the archipelago's many islands. On the same parking place we hop into Ricardo and Clement's car. After telling them about today's aim they take us straight away to the crowded but marvelous beach of St. Anne. Here we doze a bit, stroll around the markets where the locals offer coconut, passion fruit, plantains, cane sugar juice and lots of different kinds of punch (fruits with rum). The offers are not cheap. We can still pay with euros but especially groceries are twice as much as in Germany. At the end of the day, we find another picturesque palm beach. After dusk there is no one here anymore so Joshi hangs up his hammock and I pitch my tent.

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We wake up at 6 am with the first sunlight and we are still alone on the beach. Now the first locals come to take a bath and until midday the beach is packed with tourists. But in the morning we already reserved a shady place under a tree, are reading books the whole day and get fed by the tourists who present us with fresh coconut. The next evening we want to sleep at the same place. Since this beach is part of a holiday resort and Joshi has been behaving suspiciously while looking for toilets and WiFi, we get a visit from a man with a torch at night. He explains that we cannot camp here, but immediately points to another corner just at the other side of the fence and says: "There is a safe place, too. If you still get in trouble, just shout out loud: sécurité!" Being in the offing of such a good alternative, it is easy to move.

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The next day another goodbye is coming. I have decided to keep on travelling on my own again. I want to explore the island "solo". Every now and again this feeling is present inside me. I don't know why but when the moment arrives, it draws me to independence. Joshi and me have an arrangement: We want to meet again on Basse-Terre, to explore the mountains together. He stays on Grand-Terre for a bit to sleep on palm tree beaches and look for a place to work for bed and board. I will hitchhike to the other island.

I get dropped off in Sainte-Rose, a seemingly unspectacular place at the north coast. In the tourist information I am asking for a map, because I want to camp in the mountains. The boss Patrice is interested in my story and asks me if I could speak about it on his local radio station. Unfortunately the show will be in four days time. Of course, I want to do it, but I tell him that I don't know if I would still be around at the end of the week. He asks me where I stay tonight. As always, I don't know so maybe somewhere in the woods with my tent. He says that I should call him tonight to come to his house. Alright then!

Unfortunately, I can't reach him with my phone, so I head off to the harbour, where it seems to be like a nice calm place. When I walk through the darkness, someone speaks to me in French:

"Are you looking for a place to sleep?"
"Err, yeah... maybe?"
"Just recently they put up a few new huts here. One of them is almost ready, just the door is missing. It's dry and sheltered from the wind."
"Wow, it actually looks really good. And it's clean. Are there no animals coming at night?"
"Animals? No no, it's all safe."
"Perfect, thank you!"

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And so we chat for a while, as far as my French goes, until the man (his name is Philipe) says: "Come on, we will go to the fishermen, maybe one of them speaks English." And so it is. Xavier has been living in London for a few years and can translate my situation to the fishermen. Without hesitation, Gracien (63 years old) interrupts him by saying: "He can stay at my place." I am overwhelmed. We don't even speak the same language and he offers me straight away to sleep at his house.

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The fishermen from Sainte-Rose.

His house is huge, but like many houses on the island it is in an unfinished state and probably will be forever. Later Patrice explains me, that it has to do with the wish of escaping from the current social class. The people have great plans which they will never be able to complete. In the end it is due to missing money or helping hands, that the houses stay halfway done. I get my own room with a big bed. Finally! After sleeping on my camping mattress, couches or half a cabin, I have a king size bed for my very own! I even get a citronella candle against the mosquitos.

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I manage to pick up some words in French to be able to communicate with my host. Since I have to ask a lot, at some point we help us out with gestures and facial expressions and seem to understand each others way better. Sometimes I get the feeling that Gracien actually speaks Creole to me, because I don't understand French anyway. He also shows me how to eat sugar cane, how to play the local drum "ka", how Haitian music "kompa" sounds like, and particularly how to fish like he does it since 50 years ago.

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In the evening we go out to the sea in his boat to drop the net. This is the easy part. But even here we have communicative hurdles to overcome: The whole time I light him with a torch (Gracien calls it lumière). When nearly the whole net is out, he shouts over to me that I should drop the lumière. Okay, so I lay it down. "No, not down. Out of the boat!" What? Should I throw the torch overboard? I look at him, desperately. He waves his arm like tossing something. I am confused. I can't just throw the torch in the water. That would make no sense at all. I look around in panic, trying to guess what else he could have meant. And then, after searching for five minutes, uncomprehendingly, I see it: he means the buoy at the end of the net. It has got a little light on top, the lumière. Aaaah!

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This is Gracien's one and only. A few times a week he goes out on this boat, doing it all by himself.

The next morning, we take the net in. That means, we just pull the net out of the water until a fish comes. Gracien then removes it and puts it in a box. After half an hour of pulling, I ask him: "How long is this net? 200 metres?" - "One kilometre", he replies. Oh shit, my arms are already sore and I can see big blisters developing on my palms. Of course, the fisherman's hands are covered with a thick layer of callus.

The caught fish is terrific! Gracien cooks it in a rich "Creole" sauce with a lot of herbs and spices. He serves it together with rice and beans.

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One evening I am invited to see the rehearsal of a carnival procession from the local group "Mangrov'la". It is a massive spectacle! Rum, smoke and drums put the arrivals in an agitated but meditative mood. But all of that is just a preparation for what is left to come.

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But before, Patrice takes me to the promised radio interview. He is asking me questions in English and my answers will be translated directly into French by David, a former long-term traveller like me. Unfortunately, I haven't got access to the recording yet. But I will upload it here as soon as I get it.

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In the same show they announce tomorrow's reggae concert by Little Guerrier in the super cool venue Espace Ksoné. This place is magical. All the houses and the stage are made of wood and have a roof made of palm tree leaves. I feel like being on a festival, but it looks like this every day! Despite the smell of marihuana welcoming me at the entrance, they don't sell alcohol here. Instead you get really nice vegan meals and juices made from cane sugar, roots, fruits and vegetables.

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Together with Patrice and his family we go to the big city Pointe-a-Pitre to see the official carnival procession. His sister Karine speaks English very well and can explain a lot about the celebration's tradition. First and foremost, they distinguish between three different types of carnival groups:

Groupe à caisse claire

These are the traditional groups, who are dancing to the music made with military drums (with artificial skins), steel pans and brass. The costume's colours are loud and they follow a strict choreography.

Groupe à peaux

The revolutionary groups are guided by Guadeloupe's history of slavery. They recall these times with whiplashes, the use of drums made with goat skin and by playing melodies on big seashells. Their costumes are made of natural materials only. They never really stick to the time schedule. But one thing is for sure: they will not start marching before sunset and there is no dance choreography. Instead, they are marching really fast to driving rhythms of the drums and chachas. Some kind of shaman is going in front to clear the way, swinging a big bucket full of smoking charcoal.

Groupe à ti-mass

This is a relatively recent movement. The groups comprise teenagers who can't afford the expensive costumes. But they want to participate, too. So the just get any kind of mask and a few simple percussion instruments and walk in free rhythm along the street. This way they can be part of the procession without having to bow to the discipline of the big established groups. The audience loves them.

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After living in the fisherman's house for one week, Patrice offers me to move to his mother's house. The top floor is sometimes used by him as an office and has got a kitchen, bathroom and a terrace. One day after moving there, Luisa (with whom I was traveling in Spain and the Canaries) sends me a message. She says, that she has just arrived to Guadeloupe and is on her way to visit me. Patrice offers her to stay in the same flat. It is great to see her again after three months, being on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. During her stay, we explore the island's mountains.

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At the end of the Chemin des Contrebandiers there are spectacular rapids waiting for us. And there is no one else around. We are alone in paradise.

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On our way back we pass one of the typical colourful houses of Guadeloupe.

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Julien gave us a lift the other day and now we climb the volcano La Soufrière together with him. At the top the wind is blowing so strong that my beard can't withstand.

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The view is a bit misty, but you can find nice scenes even in the immediate surroundings.

Then we get invited to the very last carnival procession on 1 March. The local group "Mangrov'la" tells Luisa and me to join them during their march through Sainte-Rose. They only want us to bring some percussion instrument and to wear black or white clothes. When we arrive, we get a warm welcome, some black paint on our faces and then they give us a place in the big bulk of drummers. They start shouting commands to start drumming and immediately you can feel the air moving with all the sound waves layering on top of each others. It's not possible to stand still.

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The pace is very fast, since it is a groupe à peaux. We are marching through nearly every street of the town for four hours. The few breaks are necessary to drink some water and take a breath. But when the procession is moving, it seems like being part of a big organism. You have to run with the rhythm, otherwise you wouldn't be able to keep up. If you had claustrophobia you would probably feel quite cramped in the crowd. You are surrounded by really good musicians who are drumming to ecstasiate. Luisa and me alternate using the drum and the chacha. Actually, the marching, constant playing, improvisations and women shouting in a high pitched voices lead to a kind of trance state which I can't reproduce in words, pictures or sound. But I still want to give you a little excerpt. It was at the end of the night, when we reached the Mangrov'la headquarters. These are the very last rhythms being heard before the start of carême (Lent):

I won't leave the island though, before we have a big reunion: Christoph and Anna, who were crossing the Atlantic on his 7 meter boat from La Gomera, are arriving to Guadeloupe. Together with them, Joshi and Luisa we want to see the waterfalls "Chute du Carbet". Therefore, we want to stay in a refuge hut in the mountains. On our way, nearly everyone tells us not to go up to the hut today, because there were very heavy rainfalls in the last two days.

We still dare to do it. The path is very steep and turned into a river. You really shouldn't underestimate rainfalls in a rain forest. After a few hours we get to the top of the hut, being completely soaked. Fortunately, the refuge is big and equipped with lines to hang our clothes. The next day, the sky clears up and gives us a nice view to the water falls.

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Afterwards, we even find a hot spring in the middle of a mountain river, where we relax until sunset. It is a magical place. Surrounded by the cold stream from the mountain we are sitting in a basin, whose sulphur vapours are turning it into a very cozy bath tub. It makes us forget that we should actually be heading home before it is dark.

On a Sunday, Patrice invites us to his home. Luisa suggested his wife Amandine to make some coconut milk from the coconuts in the garden. Then we could use it to mak a typical Colombian dish. So we say goodbye to our host and his lovely family with a scrumptious Sunday evening dinner. Luisa is on a sailboat to Sint Maarten and I will report soon about how I got off the island.

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I can't thank the people from Guadeloupe enough for their hospitality. Gracian showed me the everyday life of a fisherman. Patrice and his family taught me a lot about the history of the island and the inhabitant's identity issues. They came here as Africans, where used as slaves and are free now, but still very dependent on the French government. It is not easy for black people on the island to fight for their independence. There are still mainly white people in leading positions. But one day they will make it, you can definitely feel the spirit of change and one thing is for sure: They won't starve on a lush island like this with all the plants you can grow in your own garden. And the climate leads to a great prosperity.

Comments

Mary Schermerhorn01 November, 2016Wonderful hearing about your new adventures. Can't wait till the next. 🇨🇦 Mary
Leo van Straten04 April, 2017Wow Albi, I enjoyed it again reading your blog. It is so great to see how well you are doing, how you live your life. Love that you have such a great time. You also inspirate me Albi. Next month my trip to Iran starts. I am very exited about that. Love you my friend, take care and live...

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