Friday, October 22, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 6

The best part of our official welcome to Guadeloupe - other than the fact that they told us about it the day before and so we spent a sunny Saturday on the bus only to be told at length that we were right, there's no curriculum - was the fact that it was three weeks to a month after most of us got here, having stumbled our way through bank accounts, red tape, creating a curriculum... Welcome to Guadeloupe, they said: you will discover that the island is a butterfly-shaped archipelago consisting of two parts... Really? They do bananas here? And sugar? Really? There's Créole? And different races? IT'S AN ISLAND???!!! Get out. Get. Out.

The chairman of I'm-not-sure-what-but-he-talked-for-over-an-hour was pretty hostile, sure that we were going to get swept up in gangs and do him shame. He was warning us, finger-shaking and all, about this one guy last year who overdosed on something or other and trashed his room and apartment building, then streaked naked through town and ended up in a strait jacket being sent home to the States. Now, and I mean really now, how likely is it that this could ever happen again? Some guy loses his mind, so now we're all going to freak out and destroy Guadeloupe? He wants us to take advantage of local customs and get out and do lots of stuff, but don't wear short skirts or fall in with pot-smoking islanders who will be our undoing. Meet people, but please be careful not to meet people.

He's also one of these people who has to know something about everything, so when he did roll call he had to comment on every single person, and I'm not exaggerating. They'd stand there uncomfortably while he rambled on about his feelings toward their hometown: "ah, Boston - does anyone know the name of a famous Boston university?" - as if half the crowd isn't American; as if we've all been living under a rock - "ah yes, Arizona - lovely Savannah." "Actually, I think Savannah is in Georgia" says the guy from Arizona. "No, no, it's definitely in Arizona" says Captain Geography from Guadeloupe. He was very excited to meet the lone Canadian and told us all about moose. Don't worry, they're peaceful creatures.

The good thing was making contacts for eventual week-end visits, as everyone's pretty isolated and desperate for English-speaking company. The bad thing was that of all the assistants, many fun and exciting, the girl living closest to me and with whom I spent two and a half hours on the bus (starting at 6:10 in the morning, when I'm up for very little to begin with) is the most irritating person you've ever met. Other than the chairman, but he doesn't live near me so it doesn't matter. And she's Spanish, so I couldn't even finally speak English. She talks in circles about nothing - nothing! - and your eyes glaze over, and then she asks you a question and you have to snap back into reality and figure out where the conversation has led to. What are you talking about? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? Then you feel really rude - not that she notices, she just keeps on truckin'. You know, one of those people.

On the other hand, meeting other assistants sometimes made me realize how lucky I am; some are living on this little paradise beach island, Marie Galante, that you go to for a peaceful week-end of sun and sand. But you go there because there are things happening in your life and you want a break. Living there... not so much. As well as no hot water and being made to teach extra classes - at a different level - as rent, they have nothing to do, ever. They spend ferry money every single week-end and come to Guadeloupe, clawing their way into a restaurant or someone's living room or even just to sit at the bus depot, because at least there are people. So they want us to go spend week-ends there as much as possible, which is awesome for me, and hopefully they'll have more people to hang out with in Guadeloupe now and things will be easier.

Meanwhile, amazing things keep happening here. Moderately amazing was the fish I ordered at a marina restaurant, having not realized that the entire fish would be placed before me, eyes, tails and everything included. The thing was huge. Disgustingly amazing was a piece of flagrant injustice in one of my classes. It happens to be the loudest, most frustrating group of kids I've ever met, but it was still unfair. The principal - who's a pretty uptight and nervous-making lady - showed up with an older kid (my class was grade three) and asked if anyone knew who had stolen his cards. No? Does anyone have cards? So Gary says yes, he has his Yu-gi-oh cards with him, the collection he started in grade one. Principal takes them from him, ignoring the cries of the classroom members who have seen him playing with them for years. If she finds the kid's cards, she'll give them back. But is the kid who stole them really going to stand up and say "yes, they're in my backpack this very moment"? Obviously she won't find them, and obviously Gary's cards are his, not stolen.

I don't have any proof myself but I did talk to her about it, because the whole class was really traumatized and angry - she told me that I didn't understand how things worked here and I shouldn't get involved. And there you have it. No, I don't understand stealing some kid's cards without any proof - could you maybe call a parent? or ask the first kid to say which cards should be in the pile and then check against it? - or smacking rulers down on desks or slapping kids' hands as if it were a one-room schoolhouse in 1892. Definitely don't understand.

So now I'm the caped crusader for the class and they all hang out with me at recess and tell me their woes. Gary said that if he gets the cards back he'll give me one as a thank you for trying to help - the last thing I want, pretty much ever, is a Yu-gi-oh card, but I guess it's the gesture?

Definitely less cool at another school: there's a two-and-a-half-hour lunch break and all the teachers go home, so I guess it's rare for them to use the washrooms. Not even rare, it just doesn't happen - so me coming out of the washrooms is an amazing concept for the kids to figure out. They're usually co-ed (with the urinals right at the entrance so everyone can see the peeing boys from the hallway - designed by practical jokers rather than architects) but one school just isn't. Not marked anywhere, though, you're just supposed to know; needless to say, I created quite a scandal by using the boys' side. A teacher who wasn't even there has since made a joke about it, so I guess it's the talk of the town. That Canadian girl - not so cool anymore. Oh, how the mighty must fall.


Friday, October 15, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 5


Cinette and I have taken to hanging out all the time -- we're a couple of happening ladies. A funny outing was to a documentary screening, part of the multimedia library's exposition on the Indians who came to Guadeloupe 150 years ago. Cinette's a librarian and was helping them with it, and I thought it would be a good movie - oh, how wrong I was! Crazy movie, crazy, all fuzzy and 1968 - despite being from 2002 - with terrible historical re-enactments of courtroom dramas and such.

The exciting thing was that every single man had a moustache, no exceptions. Also exciting was that one of the actors was at the screening - a celebrity sighting! - to lead a stab-myself-in-the-eye boring post-screening discussion. But most exciting of all: he had hideous glasses in the movie, but really hideous, and now he has nice ones. I think he saw the film and said "what in HELL am I thinking?", booted it to LensCrafters and now looks quite handsome, something like Omar Sharif. It's nice to see when someone figures something out.

We also went together to a season-opening gala at the arts centre (called the Artchipel, for those Frenchies among you who enjoy a little pun) and the best part was Cinette's gorgeous sari, blue and green and silky, plus a fresh-picked rose in her hair. Needless to say, everyone whispered and pointed as we came in, some people even reaching out to touch the material. She was the belle of the ball (and I was her entourage - dammit!)

The concert itself... a bit bizarre-o. The tenor had a lovely voice, even nailing Nessun Dorma, but winked and pointed at the audience like he was Tom Jones. Not that I don't love a little Tom Jones in my life from time to time, but really now. A tenor. And the soprano was gorgeous and had fantastic stage presence and emotion, but a voice so shrill and flat it could burst entire glass buildings. Bay Street: gone. I didn't know what to do, part wincing and part hating myself for being a hideous snob. But then she would take that bad opera voice, see, and stick in on jazz, on Gershwin - what was she thinking?! The pianist was awesome, way too cool for the scene and clearly a jazz guy, between his flat-fingered playing and his on-stage sunglasses, and I wish him better gigs in the future.

I liked that the singers gave each other high fives on the way on and off stage. I also liked how, as the Phantom of the Opera, the tenor just stood there, smiling at the audience and saying "seeng, my angel; seeng, my angel of music" as if he were saying "yeah, I like red beans." The sad part was that after they sang "Tonight," I had a very sudden and very desperate urge to go to a large-scale musical, preferrably West Side Story. It didn't pan out.

On the mutt front, Ariana, Cinette's mom's dog, was lost, but now she's found. Not unlike Amazing Grace. (If she had been blind, now she'd see.) And so she's staying at Cinette's place. And, more importantly, she's the ugliest little thing you've ever seen - super friendly, but you don't want her touching you. After a good shampoo and haircut she still stinks and is eternally dirty; just as a pinetree never loses its needles, so Ariana never loses her filth. Thumbs up for perseverence, I guess.

Walking her around the neighbourhood is kind of embarrassing, as well as stressful, as all the local horse-size dogs rattle their chains and foam against the gate, filthy little dog flesh on their mind. I'm sorry to say it, but I wish them the best of luck.

Just for your big fat information, I finally saw the actual temperature and it's 36°c, over 40 with the humidity and with the sun. It's really brutal, and it will pass, and I wasn't exaggerating.

Mom's worried that I always sound boy-crazy, so I thought I should tell you that I'm not, I just joke. And if ever I was before, I'm certainly not after my dip into the Gwada dating scene: since all anyone does is hit on
you and ask for your number, I decided that a) I must really be hot stuff, and b) I should just go for it, see if I'm right to be suspicious.

Without going too much into detail, let it be known that treatment of women has a ways to go here. I'll take "I'm not a piece of fucking property, stop showing me off to all your friends" for 500, Alex. Even going to a soccer game, my favourite, was stressful and humiliating. The good news is that I found religion, as we all imagined would happen one day: just as I thought, standing in the sea with this nutbar, "oh my God - what am I doing here? Am I a total idiot?", a bolt of pain shot up my left leg, hip and arm. Stung by a jellyfish - hoo-ah! The burning welts kept me awake all night from the pain, but at least they zapped some sense into me: I realized that I didn't owe the guy anything, I didn't have to be nice, I didn't have to stay around so as no to hurt his feelings. I took the car (that's right, he had rented me a car, without asking me, so I could stay the week-end on our first date - nothing intense or creepy about that) (or about being introduced as his FUTURE WIFE!!!) and got the hell out of there, stopping at a fire station to make sure I wasn't dying and then pacing the night out through the pain. See? God came through. In the form of a viciously painful sea creature, but whatever.

Better than religion, I found Franck, who was waiting for the bus with me after I dropped off the rental: lives just up the street and is a good friend of Cinette's son. So far he's hooked me up with a guitar and a mattress - I can now sleep without futon boards digging into my back and hip through my towel-thin mattress - and has shown me the beautiful mountain-source hot water basins in the jungle-y wilderness. See? I learned >my lesson AND came out ahead: thank you God. Thank you India. Thank you providence.

And yes, thank you disillusionment.


Friday, October 8, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 4

So I had my first taste of Guadeloupan red tape. They told me I needed to get a "carte de séjour" (work permit) to replace my temporary one. Who are They, you ask? I have no idea. But that's what They said. Now, I have a French passport, which makes this not only unnecessary, but, according to the French consulate in Toronto, illegal. You can't have a work permit and a passport. I say this to Them but They're not sure - a little nervous, I should just get it checked out.

So I take the morning off work and Karine and I go to the préfecture - some kind of government building dealing with passports and such, and I don't know what the word is in English but have a sneaking suspicion it sounds just like préfecture and I'm betraying my worldy ignorance - making sure to get there before 8:00 to get a ticket, because after that it's busy - there will probably be a good 35 people in line.

Get out of the car at 7:15, wander around looking for a sign or some indication that we're in the right place, and there's nothing until we turn a corner and there are no fewer than 300 people sitting outside a building in the sun, mostly frustrated Haitians, and the building is closed. Are they in a line? No. Does anyone know what's going on? No. What will happen when the doors open at 8:00? There is a limited number of tickets and then they shut down, so we imagine there will be a mad rush for the door and we (by which I mean "I", as Karine takes one look and says I'm going in alone!) will get crushed to a desperate, hot death. So we leave.

Back at the inspection office everyone is agreeing that, indeed, a passport negates any need or even right to have a work permit, this is ridiculous... but if They said it, then it's better to make sure. Don't worry, says someone, I have a friend at the préfecture. A confusing telephone call ensues and I have committed Wednesday, my day off, to meeting some lady at some building and talking about my passport.

Wednesday: climb the hill to the préfecture - ah yes, those hills - and wait in the meeting place until 12:00, our meeting time, until 12:10, 12:20... what is going on? Wander around the building but the info desk is closed from noon to 2:00. Stand there kind of like an idiot and finally decide to leave, and some nice lady asks me what I'm doing there and takes me to find this Dominique. We find her, and she has absolutely no recollection - it was less than 24 hours earlier! - of our phone call the day before, plus I don't know the name of her friend and it's all very confusing...

We finally get upstairs to the lady who's in charge of foreigners. I present my problem: I have a French passport, so I don't need a carte de séjour. She agrees, Dominique agrees, I should be good to go. But first she has to explain to me that I don't need a carte de séjour. I know, I say. I kind of figured that. So is there anything I have to do? Any paper I have to fill out and send to someone? Photocopy my passport? Good idea, she says, and photocopies my passport. Because, really, I don't need a carte de séjour and a passport, she explains again - in case I missed it the first three times, or in case I'd forgotten since I suggested it myself. Then she shows me my name on a list of foreigners who have yet to apply for their carte de séjour - can I be taken off this list? I ask. Oh, no, that's impossible. Why is it impossible? It just is. But it's not like you need a carte de séjour....

Thirty minutes later, exhausted from trying to keep up with this absurd conversation, I am finally on my way out the door. I have learned nothing that I didn't know going in, I still don't know who They are or how to settle my business with Them - Karine said that you need a carte de séjour in case you get stopped and asked for papers by the police. And I can just show them my passport. And apparently that's all there is to it.

Good times in Guadeloupe!

But it doesn't matter, first of all because in perspective, with those hundreds of stranded and poor Haitians, I've got good luck coming out of my ass. And second, because school is awesome. The kids are amazing, minus that one class, eager and fun and bright and they can even sing. AND they think I'm a rockstar. I told you about the kids running up and excited? Nothing next to my first day at Circonvallation, my favourite school with the best two teachers. I arrived at the end of the lunch break and they knew who I was from our initial introduction day, so a few kids came up and said "hello! my name is...!", really cute. Then all of a sudden the other kids came to see what was going on, and then EVERY SINGLE KID on the playground, which was about seven classrooms' worth, were standing in a mob around me, yelling their names and anything they know in English, trying to touch my hands. And with my heavy bags and all the pushing, I actually was pushed down to the ground! I was there on my knees, laughing and laughing, surrounded by kids in English class hysterics, until the principal broke it up. I saw them again on Thursday and they were excited but I think the mobbing is over. But let me tell you, it marked me. English class is their favourite time of day, and I am walking into a very good situation. They'll do anything I ask them: sing any song, play any game, repeat anything; they're so excited, all the time.

Let's hope it lasts...


Monday, October 4, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 3

Hello all,

Maybe I should be spacing these things out a little better, but it's raining again (ah yes, they told me, it's the rainy season) and I'm enjoying the dry shelter of the cyber cafe. So are my missionary friends, who are back and in serious computer action -- don't they have anything better to do? Isn't there Jesus love to spread around? I mean, really now.

I started teaching today and it was very exciting. Not so exciting the 20-minute uphill climb to school - I'm going to dish out the extra 40 cents for a second bus, since being sweaty and gross first thing in the morning isn't so much my bag - but definitely a party once in the classrooms. Man, are these kids ever happy about taking English! I saw that on Friday when I went around to meet the teachers and kids in my three schools, and as they saw Karine and me walking towards the classroom, they all started yelling "eenglish! hello eenglish! hello mees! I speak eenglish!" and I was like the Rolling Stones. No, I WAS the Rolling Stones. If these are the greetings you get in daily life here, I really see no reason to leave.

The first lesson was all about English around the world and Canada, and all four classes (I start with the other four tomorrow) sat either in rapt silence, or oohing and aahing as I showed them pictures of Canada. Eventually they applauded, and Niagara Falls and the CN Tower got standing ovations. So did Hallowe'en (so those of you who were at Dave's house for last year's Hallowe'en, you also are the Rolling Stones) and everybody, across the board, loved totem poles and traditional Six Nations dancing and teepees. You know what else they loved? Snow as seen from my front door. That killed them.

And their accents! You could just eat them up! So I think it will be good. I spent the week-end inventing a curriculum and drawing lots of flash cards of colours and food and clothes - not so much in the way of teaching materials or suggestions here. Except for this crazy cd that Karine gave me, nursery rhymes and songs and whatever - it's so bad! I don't know how to tell her: please don't sing these terrible songs with the kids; they will hate English forever. And I think the singer is Irish but her accent is all weird, and she has this really slow kid with her who repeats the songs in mangled English afterwards - why? how does this help anyone? - and really bad rhythms and tunes. It's really bad. Especially when she attempts an American accent during the short shorts blues and her voice goes all low and weird. Why couldn't they get an English-speaking kid? They couldn't shell out an extra ten bucks?

On the less successful teaching front, I "helped" neighbour Manon with her math-in-English. It's a Euro-Caribbean program, kind of a French immersion idea, and her mom thought that I could help because of the English - turns out there are four words in English and the rest is grade ten graphing. Grade ten was the year when Mr. Bissylas thought that enhanced meant doing grade twelve trigonometry, and he mostly hung out with math-smart Corey and Trevor. And I don't know what I did get to that year, but I sure as hell never touched graphing, which I remember from looking in panicky rage at the exam, having not even realized it was a unit. (I told him he had screwed me over and he said "what grade do you think you've earned?" and gave me the 85 I claimed. The guy was a champion.)

So English tutoring ended up being me saying "right, right, I see what you're doing there; you are on the right track; gotcha; keep up the good work" as Manon explained grade ten graphing to me in French, and then we looked at pictures of Carnaval on the internet and then I stayed for dinner and they drove me home. I'm the best teacher ever.

It's still raining really hard but I don't have anything else to say... it rains at least twice a day in every region, so I've been caught and soaked through many times.

Oh! It's not mosquitoes eating me alive, or at least not only mosquitoes. Ants! Little tiny buggers that you actually can't see unless they're moving around on a solid-coloured surface, and even then it's not so obvious. And they're in everything, and there's nothing you can do, and you might as well stop complaining about it, is the basic deal. So I will be hideous all year and I need to just accept that.

Exciting creature story: it's hot at night and I sleep with the doors open for a cross breeze. Once a cat came in and I shooed it out, but when I tried to sleep with the doors closed I almost died. I actually almost died. So Saturday morning I wake up and I hear a swishing in the room. I don't have my glasses and the mosquito net makes it fuzzy, but as it leaves, I realize it's an iguana! About half the length of my body, this big fat iguana hanging out in my bedroom. Hopefully eating some of the damn ants. How cool is that? There are a bajillion tiny little lizards (kept thinking mice were streaking across the porch, but now I realize they're lizards) and sometimes they jump on your arm and sit for a bit before taking off again. It's all very exciting.

Okay, that's it. I guess I'll just get rainy; one of the missionaries saw my English computer screen and I can tell he's eyeing me with salvation on his mind. Time for me to leave.