Tuesday, November 30, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 10

Hello, hello.

On my way to the internet place I thought I had a bajillion things to talk about, but now all I can remember is that there's this one crazy street in the middle of town, a connecting street between two one-way streets, that is suddenly traffic-on-the-left. You're walking along, hurrying to school and distracted by the cookie jar song running incessantly through your head, and you suddenly step in front of a moving car because you forgot you were momentarily in England and looked the wrong way. What the hell is going on? I guess they want easier left-hand turns from the one-ways, but let's not lose our heads here. It's like this one round-about where priority is suddenly to the people coming in, rather than heading out. So if you don't know and you've been driving successfully around town for hours, you suddenly get t-boned because you didn't know to stop. You know? It's crazy.

Meanwhile, I'm moving tonight to my very own apartment. I'm really excited. Packing last night was hard, though, because I suddenly could imagine very clearly how I'll feel in July when it's time to pack up for good - I have to stop acting out my fantasies, because I was pretty devastated. I should tell you that I decided not to spend the 18 euros to get the post office to forward all my mail, so I'm counting on you to stop sending to Cité la Diotte, because I don't want to have to spend a lot of time hanging out with Cinette (koo-koo!) while I collect my mail. The new place is walking distance to two of my schools and the supermarket, and downtown if I'm feeling hearty. And there's a futon for any visitors, and it's even further up a hill than the last place, so I'm going to get fit for real this time around. For real, guys.

Onward and upward! See you later, Stinktown!

My favourite activity these days is hanging out at the river. There's hardly anyone there, and the clean, cool water - it's amazing. I'm getting used to hopping up the rocks while I look for a sunny spot, so I like to think of myself as some kind of jungle baby. But then I met these friends of Karine's who were over for dinner: first came Kristel, a cute and little woman who seemed sporty enough but nothing excessive. Then came Fabrice, about 5'6" and four feet in width - built a bit like Spongebob Squarepants without the sponge. Or the squarepants. He's huge, so huge, and his number one hobby is "combat libre," which I guess is freestyle fighting. Wrestling, boxing, that kind of thing, but there are no rules - THERE ARE NO RULES!! You can grab where you want, hit, kick, bite, pull hair - chances are you can pull out a machete and nobody complains. You go in this ring and the whistle blows, then you tear the other guy to shreds. Like "Fight Club" without the interesting story line.
And you know what he did for three years? Commando. Not commando like no underwear, but rather secret mission for the army, crawling through the jungle with a knife between your teeth and killing people. I don't think he actually killed anyone but you know what? He could. He's trained to. He showed us all some wicked good self-defense moves, and now Guadeloupe is at my mercy. The pinky finger under the nose - sounds dorky, works like a charm. A killing charm.

I was with Karine and the kids in the forest, walking along the rapids - here's where I connect back to the jungle baby paragraph I started, in case you were losing track - when we bumped into Kristel and Fabrice again, dripping wet and covered in scrapes. Do you want to know why? I'll tell you. It's because they were canyoning, which is this: you drop one car off at the bottom of the river, as in the sea, and you drive the other car to the top of the mountain. You put on running shoes and knee pads and you leave your sense of self-preservation behind, and you start down the rapids. On foot. You jump into water holes when you have to, you slide down on your bum when you have to, you do whatever it takes to get down to the car. Are these people crazy? And they had asked me if I wanted to join them. Before describing really what it was, their first question was if I had good insurance coverage - that was my cue that canyoning and I weren't meant to be. Hopping along rocks and trailing my feet in the water: that's plenty enough adventure for me.

Let it be known, however, that even my wussy river existence impresses some people. I was heading to the beach and took the short-cut that goes over the river, except the bridge gave out during the rainy season and the earthquakes made it worse. So people along the road tell me the bridge is out and I say that's okay, I'll just cross through the river. I'm halfway to the other side when my foot slips a tiny bit and I hear a crowd of gasps. Looking up, I realize that the roadside people have followed me to see what will happen, the guys fixing the bridge have stopped working to watch and the children playing on the other side have put their bikes aside to see if I drown. Worst-case scenario, I slip and my dress gets wet. Really, worst-case - what are they all worked up about? But I get to the other side and climb up and the crowd breaks into applause! For me! Kathryn! Jungle baby!

Other than hopping, dancer-like, along the rocks, and of course the full-body massage from sitting in the rapids, my favourite thing is putting my hand in the water to block the flow and watching the Moses-and-the-red-sea effect it makes. It's like I'm Moses, and that's pretty cool.

On the school front, we're doing conversations and greetings, and I taught the kids things like "what's up" and "hey - what's going on?" as well as the more standard (read: boring) "hello" and "hi." So I love watching their dialogues, as they butcher their way through these expressions, putting in attitude arms and head nods and so on. (I told them they had to up-nod - like heading a soccer ball - when they say "hey," and they thought I was really cool. If they only knew what it's actually supposed to look like...) And with "what's up" came the beer campaign "wazzzzzzap" that's in a song they all know, so then it was like I was answering their dreams. Not only does she speak English, but she can explain where our weird slang comes from too!

Kathryn: 1. Guadeloupe: 0.

I guess that's it. The strike's still going, and now we're out of fish because the earthquakes freaked them out and they all left. Fishermen are coming home with nothing, and I don't understand exactly where the fish went. Will they come back? Does this happen a lot? How far can they go? So we're down to bananas and avocadoes, and the three bags of cous-cous I very smartly bought when I found out what was going down. I'm nothing if not prudent.

Think of me tonight, sleeping in my apartment without anyone prying into my room, without anyone chanting yoga mantras ouside my door and, most importantly, without the tv blasting Psychic Friends' Network and the French Sally Jesse Raphael for hours. I am so psyched.


Tuesday, November 23, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 9

I'm not sure if I should even write about my delightful week-end in St. Martin, since I just read Clara's latest sub-continental adventure e-mail and I feel like exactly the kind of cushy Tourist who irritated the legitimate travelers on her mountain hike. But don't forget that last week-end I was climbing mountains with a heavy backpack while pale and sweaty tourists were bused directly up to the fort, and I didn't complain once - I even did arm curls with the water bottle to maximize my exercising potential - so I think I've earned a few days in paradise.

If you've been wondering where you should go on your next vacation, you need wonder no longer: St. Martin. My Fairy Godmother, cleverly disguised as a regular godmother, invited me to spend the week-end with her on this small and beautiful island, in her gorgeous house with a gorgeous view, near gorgeous beaches with gorgeous food to eat in-between. (Can food be gorgeous? I thought I was onto something.) I think I may have gained about eighteen pounds, not only because we ate like newlyweds at the all-night China Buffet King in Vegas, but because I wasn't sweating profusely at all times.

In the Caribbean and not sweating? How is this possible?

Well, my good people, it turns out that excessive heat and humidity, partnered with excessive mosquitoes and mold, are a purely Guadeloupan phenomenon. It's all the lush vegetation, it's all the mountains. Now, I love driving through the jungle and breathing in fruit trees everywhere I walk, but it sure was a nice break to have sun and a breeze and sit comfortably enjoying the palm trees and turquoise water. I shouldn't talk it up too much because then everybody will go and it won't be so small and lovely anymore - but it sure was hard to come back here, living among mere mortals in the sticky heat. Once you've gone posh...

As it happens, it was a whirlwind week-end: not only did Kay and Pascal's friends have a baby (the night before she went into labour, biggest belly ever hanging over her tiny dancer frame, Yordanka had us over for dinner - she started in on the gaspaccio at 9:00 that morning - and was in and out of her chair a lot more gracefully than I, not nine months pregnant, have ever been), but there were earthquakes in Guadeloupe. Earthquakes! I take off for one week-end and the whole country falls apart!

The most damage was actually in Basse-Terre, which happens to be where I live, so I couldn't go home Sunday night as planned because the roads were blocked from the airport - flooding and trees and so forth. We changed my flight for Monday morning, and after a lot of detours and a long, long ride, I made it back to Saint-Claude. There was no school yesterday or today, as they're making sure the damaged schools won't collapse, and the quakes haven't stopped yet. There were some more after I got home yesterday and again last night - it's very unsettling. And I'm not the nervous type, so I just feel unsettled and then get on with it, but some people are really freaked out, really scared to go in their houses... it's a bad scene.

In another fun coincidence, Les Saintes, the islands which Franck and I visited last week-end, were hit the hardest and are a total mess now. So how's that for somebody-up-there-loves-me? I go the week-end before the islands are devastated by earth quakes, and I miss the ones at home because I'm sitting on a beach enjoying the palm trees and the cool breeze. I mean, really now.

So for any of you who heard about the quakes and were worried about me, I'm fine. For those of you who weren't worried, this friendship is over.

I'm out of time and out of stories. Off to the beach. Suckers.


Friday, November 19, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 8

Hey there,

Things at school are much easier after the holidays, as my tightening the reins (having been too nice in the first place) and the kids having some breathing time have made a much calmer and more focused classroom situation. For the most part. My favourite thing: we do the weather every day, and it's either hot and sunny or hot and rainy, by definition - easy for vocabulary, if nothing else. So it blows me away when, the temperature having dropped from 32° to 29°c or there being a slight breeze, they refuse my claims of hot and sunny - we're all sweating here - and insist it's cold. Warm? I ask - no, cold. Cool? No, Cold. It's 29°c and we're bloody freezing.

The song that's had the greatest runaway success is "Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar." I'm sure you all know it - those who don't, you haven't lived. What's interesting is that these Guadeloupans, who have grown up among ka drumming and roca dancing and a permanent Carnaval existence (either doing Carnaval or preparing for it; the wind carries their rehearsals up the mountain to Saint-Claude, so I speak from experience) and who, by age eight, can drum out beats that would leave your average non-Caribbean drummer scratching his or her head, can't keep a basic four-beat to this song. I expected percussive wizardry, but tapping along on the desk isn't even a go. Who knew.

What they lack in rhythm, though, they more than make up for in theatrics: every "who, me?" (or rather, "yew, me?" since they just can't make the "h" happen) is cried with such indignation. "Yes, you!" shouts the rest of the class in unbridled glee. The tension mounts as the taunting continues, until the accuser finally stands up, wild and sweating with the fervor of the cookie jar song, points at a trembling classmate and yells "LUCY stole ze kooky from ze kooky jah!" And the saga continues. It's very exciting - you don't know what you're missing.

A little less pleasant is the political scene here. There's a lot of mounting racial tension as we see more and more strike action against the government, a bunch of white men in Paris making decisions for Guadeloupe. There are things to be said for both sides, and I'm obviously just finding out about things so I'm in no position to make an analysis, but there are stressful possibilities. Things got especially tense throughout the in-jail hunger strike of Michel Madassamy, freedom fighter and martyr and Gwada hero, and the country was divided into for and against. Then with the stuff going on in Ivory Coast... it's an interesting time to be here, and my position as a white person but not a Métro (Métropolitain = French person) (well, white French person) is kind of ambiguous.

Interestingly, while trying to reject France and its influence on the island, Guadeloupe often out-Frenches the French. We've seen the chaos of admistrative red tape, we've seen the farce of the post office - well let's talk about strikes. France, I see your bus strikes, airport strikes, mail strikes and, yes, hairdresser strikes (apparently they cut hair for free and scattered it along the Champs Elysées in protest) and I raise you banana workers (since March), construction workers (the beautiful new bus station, set to open in April, sits unfinished and waiting), people - I'm not sure what their strike is - blocking roads and bridges, water treatment workers, and, most importantly, the workers of the Point-à-Pitre port. Keeping in mind that this is an island and 90% of supplies come in by boat, about 80% of things supposedly aren't getting in. There's the tiny Basse-Terre port and there are planes, and I've heard theorized that the port isn't as blocked as they say - scare tactics as political leverage - but as far as the grocery stores I've been in, it's pretty apocalyptic. Pasta, meat, rice, fruit, water, hot chocolate, cheese, toothpaste, kleenex... gone. Lots of canned peas, though, and I love French canned peas, and lots of hair accessories. My hair's long enough now to make my neck hot but too short for easy tie-up, so I appreciate a good hairclip find.

You can't go hungry because there's all the fish and fruit from the island - there are bananas for cooking here that are the best thing I've ever tasted (hm, says Kathryn, why aren't I losing any weight? All I eat is starch and fat - what's the problem?) - but I think that a steady guava-and-avocado diet could mess up your system. But nobody complains because they're also on strike so they can't call the kettle black. If your car's busted, the part you need isn't coming in anytime soon. If the pool filter is busted, the pool shuts down and your kid doesn't learn how to swim - you'd think they'd have extra on hand because these port strikes happen every one or two years, but you'd be wrong.

You know who isn't on strike? Mosquitoes. No unions, no sense of injustice. And thank God, because the last thing I want is to stop seeing swarms of mosquitoes around my head. Thank. God.

Franck and I went to Les Saintes last week-end, the cluster of mini-islands a few km from (and dependent on) Guadeloupe. About 30 minutes on the boat, to give you an idea of distance. It was freakishly hot and that made our power-hiking difficult, but what a lovely place. Very picturesque - though touristy, and no one likes a bunch of tourists - especially not this tourist - with gorgeous beaches and countless beautiful postcard views from the mountains we climbed. (Mountains, plural - you read right. I'm amazing.) The people are descended from Britons and have gorgeous eyes. Franck said that before we went and I figured he was talking out of his ass, or at least generalizing in a big way, but they actually do have beautiful eyes, all over the island. Mostly white, though (the people, not the eyes; they're sea blue) and not very open to black people; Franck was the lone representative other than the Gwada soccer team who went over with us on the boat (they beat Les Saintes 8-2; take that, Whitey.) He tried to give the French tourists a legitimately Caribbean experience, speaking Creole and spontaneously drumming, but we decided that when it's just one guy, it's not cultural so much as creepy.

What I liked was how everyone walks around barefoot. There are very few cars because everyone has scooters, and they scooter barefoot. There are also iguanas everywhere, really gorgeous ones - often looking like giant versions of Charlie the cameleon; Bob, I salute you - and Franck bought bananas to lure them. Which made the tourists really happy because or else the little guys are pretty shy. So he turned out to be a Caribbean hit after all.

I also ate the best crêpe of my life, a life not lacking in crêpe-eating. I don't know how she does her batter, but it was so good I almost cried. Moved close to tears by dough and nutella? Now that's some good crêping. (She said it was good because it's made with love, but I think it was the cinnamon. Love or cinnamon: definitely one of the two.)

So there you go. Becoming increasingly aware of my skin colour and its implications, enjoying the rain and the rain-some-more. And I think I found an apartment, so things are on the up and up.


Wednesday, November 3, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 7

The last update got cut off, but I don't remember what else I had written so I guess it wasn't that important. I had definitely forgotten the most exciting event of the week, which was that I found religion, again! I'm so lucky to keep meeting people who want to share their religion - if there's one thing I hate, it's keeping your religion to yourself. Why, when you can turn around and impose it on others?

The thing is, it's this guy who did me a huge favour, as he works in a music store where I went to buy a case for my guitar. And his order is coming in a few weeks but he had an old case lying around that a student had left, so he gave it to me. Which means that I don't have to buy one, which means that he lost business, which means that it was really nice of him and I had to stand there and look interested as he told me all about becoming a Master of Ascension and the holy light within him and the way it's changed his life, and how to meditate to find your space with God and no one can tell you what to believe or how to go about it, but here's a beginner guide and accompanying workbook for only 36 euros...

Masters of Ascension? What the hell is going on?

(An aside: the Spanish and island-music version of "On Broadway" is on the radio right now and is possibly the best thing I've ever heard - all this time, I was missing the key to musical happiness).

There's a guy doing some electrical work for Cinette who keeps coming around when she's not home to ask me out and tell me all the amazing things he could do for my life - tempting as it is, I've managed to politely decline for three weeks running. So yesterday I was hanging out with Cinette's grandson (took him to the beach and to lunch, then we played superheroes and he said I had to be Captain Canada and snow on my enemies) and this Géraud of my heart comes around. And it's the same story, this and that: destiny, love, soul mates, and he's always wanted a white girlfriend. (He sure knows how to sweet talk a girl! Golly, I've always wanted to be loved for my skin!) And forget about Franck, he's probably married and he doesn't appreciate my beauty... and then suddenly it's about God. And he's so upset to find out I'm a heathen -- not upset enough to drop me on the spot, mind you, only just enough to begin serious attempts at conversion. Even offered to give me a Bible. So I was thinking of inviting him and those missionary guys over for coffee and letting them get all ecstatic together while I drink pineapple juice and paint my toenails. (The ladies here all have beautifully painted toenails and I'm getting inspired).

Also, I had my first yoga experience and can now officially say that it isn't my thing - though I was bullied into it and it looks as though it won't be the last time. Cinette is an instructor and said I should come out sometime, so I said something like "we'll see," a non-committal sentence if I ever heard one. And I keep having other plans and not going, until on Monday she said "you said you would come and you haven't yet. Are you coming tonight or Thursday?" Ka-POW. So I had to go. Isn't yoga - personal enlightenment, meditation - something that should come from you? As a guilt trip and social obligation it loses a bit of its kick, no?

It's a private class among friends, so it's on this woman's terrace, cool and breezy up the mountain with a view of the city below... sounds ideal. Too bad about the bloodthirsty mosquitoes feasting on my sorry flesh. Cinette thinks I have a ways to go in finding peace and stillness, as all my moments of calm were interrupted by frantic slapping and scratching and general hostility. What are you going to do.

I have a wandering mind to begin with, and then Cinette put on some music that was something spiritual - her approach is pretty God-centred, which is an extra bonus for me - and it reminded me of the theme of the Neverending Story. Needless to say, hard to focus my breathing with Bastian, Atreyu and the beautiful Childlike Empress running through my head - oh how I love that beautiful Childlike Empress. Much easier (and more rewarding) to act out the "Bastian! Call my name!" scene in my head and try to bring tears to my eyes for effect. (In case you're wondering, I did, and it was effective. Oh, it was effective.)

I think I'm also too cynical for yoga; I can handle the stretching and body-calming ideas, but as soon as you start talking about uniting land and sea by touching your forehead to your knee or breathing in positive energy through your right nostril and negative through your left, I have to get out of there. You've been a great audience, good night. So I have a snarky running commentary going through my head, plus the mosquito hell and the not-quite-peaceful sounds of a zouk party down the hill... SERENITY NOW!!!

The tricky thing is that no one really showed up except the lady whose house it was at, and she and Cinette were upset at everybody's lack of committment - bloody Caribbean rhythm, said these two Caribbean ladies - and thank goodness I was there. Goddammit! Now they're counting on me to complete the energy triangle this week - I said one class: ONE CLASS!! Maybe I'll wear so much Off!Skintastic that my stink will mess up their vibe and they'll ask me not to come back. One can only hope.

Otherwise a slow week because we're on Toussaint holiday (All Saints) (the religious thing, not the teen pop group from 2001) and it's the time for people to go home to their families and hang out at the cemetery, cleaning and painting relatives' graves to prepare for the big Toussaint candle celebration. I helped Franck fix up his great-grandmother's tomb (and by "helped", I mean of course that I sat in the shade, drinking Nestea and feeling bad about Franck having to sweat in the burning sun) but the candle ceremony didn't happen for the most part because it was windy and rainy and ... wait for it ... COLD! I couldn't believe it! I haven't even been comfortable since getting here; you're sweating by the time you get from the shower to your towel hanging on the wall. And all of a sudden this freak cold, to the point of my wearing pyjama pants, socks, a t-shirt and a sweatshirt. It was unbelievable. I slept so well - then I woke up sweating in the 7:30 heat - a short-lived but much appreciated chilly adventure.

I really am starting to believe in spooky things, because why would the night of the living dead be the only cold night of the year? With howling winds - howling that sounded suspiciously like the living dead, for your big fat information - and cats and toads running around nervously... I was freaked out. I'm still a little freaked out. Religious awakening number, what now, four? Five? It's only a matter of time, my friends. Only a matter of time.

A quick clarification, since a lot of people have misunderstood the chain of events and think I'm crazy: Franck is not the possessive, car-renting, jellyfish-bite-negating, future-wife-introducing psycho from the beach - that was Gilbert. I'm not so stupid as to keep seeing the guy, though I'm touched to think that many of you thought otherwise. That's what I like to hear.

Happy Hallowe'en -- and I haven't heard about the elections yet but let's just pray.
(Pray! What's happening to me? Only a matter of time...)