Friday, January 28, 2005

In the Loupe, Chapter 15

So I'm walking along on my way to school, humming happily to myself about Napoleon and his soldiers (a good walking song, but I don't know the end so I have to sing it in an irritating three-line loop), and I cut through the dirt path shortcut where you have to be careful not to slip and tumble down on the rocks. Not quite careful enough, I lose my balance but can't fall backwards because my guitar's on my back, so I jump down a few steps and hop here and there until I land with solid footing, at which point something catches my eye: there is a cat a foot and a half away, and it's not moving. Why isn't the cat moving, I ask myself; is it asleep? Isn't it weird for a cat to be ----- and then a wave of nausea rises up in my apparently weak stomach as I see the flies and the rotting bits and the bloated bits and I run out of the path so quickly that I actually - literally, as in a Hollywood romantic comedy - collide with Jean-Louis, the school custodian who thinks I'm too nice with the kids. (Why do you have a guitar and not a striking rod? Crazy foreigner.)

Interestingly, what impresses the kids is that I could be so white; they've never actually seen the colour drained out of someone's face. The dead cat, which most of them passed on their way to school (as well as the other one which was apparently further up the path - aren't dead cats pretty rare? What the hell is going on here?), doesn't faze them in the least. Do they have zero sense of "that's really disturbing," after their pig-killings and similar, or am I just excessively wimpy? At any rate, add "carcass removal" to my ever-growing list of Jobs-That-Just-Aren't-For-Me. (And add 'carcass' to my list of Words-That-I-Just-Don't-Think-I-Ever-Spell-Right.)

On a brighter note (brighter than dead cats? the hell you say!), I have finally seen that there is, in fact, night activity in Guadeloupe, contrary to my first impression. I realize, of course, that being often anti-social and preferring quiet candle evenings to having strangers bump and grind against me in a sweaty club, I am entirely unqualified to comment on a place's nightlife. Just as you won't ask a vegan if there's a good showing of steak houses in town, you won't ask Captain Tea-and-Cards for the latest hot spots and their passwords.

However. If you go out after 6 pm on a weekday or after 2 pm on the week-end, you will be alone. As in the beginning of an apocalyptic, secret-killer-disease-got-everyone-but-the-hero-and-the-bad-guy movie, the streets are empty and look recently lived in but certainly not welcoming. A stray piece of paper blows quietly across a roundabout, somewhere you hear a door slam. The all-night zouk parties and carnaval celebrations are the obvious exceptions, but as they happen in somebody's house, they don't inspire people to wander the city strees, so that if you walk the dog at 7:30 pm, people worry that you're a young girl walking alone so late.

There are big tourist towns, though, like Gosier, where there are strips of hotels and casinos, bars and restaurants. Franck - a pianist - was playing in one of these clubs with a cranky reggae group - seriously, a more crotchety bunch of old rasta men you will not easily find - so I had my first taste of a full parking lot and young people socializing. And guess how I felt about it.

I live in such a sleepy town, and I like to make fun of how it's so dead at night, but yowza! Keep those tourists away from me! If there's one thing I hate, it turns out, it's a bar full of drunk tourists who are trying to be cool and island-vibey and hit on - oh, I don't know, let's say, FRANCK. (Though, honestly, I didn't pay too much attention to it because I was too busy peeling men's hands off of my own body to worry about the slimy just-want-to-get-laid-in-the-Caribbean ladies who were prowling around Ol' Blue Eyes) (so named after Frank Sinatra, who couldn't be any further from Franck if he tried - don't you think that's PARTICULARLY funny? I think it's the best thing I ever came up with, but no one else seems to care.)

And all the fake air-kissing, and the irritating hippie dancing... luckily, Franck and I got our babyfoot (fooze-ball?) asses kicked by a pair of smarmy Spaniards, which made us both feel great. And even MORE luckily, his ex-girlfriend showed up and he was completely freaked out and moody and playing badly and man, it was the best night ever! I can't wait to go back to Gosier, if only for the memories. Hooray!

Fortunately, the next night's gig was in Bouillante, as sleepy as Basse-Terre and then some, so the crowd was a whole bunch of locals who heard the music and came down to see what was going on. (No ex-girlfriend in sight.) They played better and with much more variety than they were allowed for the tourists ("do you know any Bob Marley?" "hey, do you know any Bob Marley?" "you guys are awesome - listen, do you know any Bob Marley?") so there was lots of soca and zouk and beguine and it was a moving and shaking kind of night. Half the crowd played with them at some point or another, either reggae-rapping into the mic or hauling a ka drum out of the car to join in (rather than First Aid kits or spare tires, the general Gwada population always has an extra drum ready for action), and by three o'clock in the morning, everyone was dancing and singing and crying. Really, lots of crying - drunk? Moved by the music? Dead cat behind the bar? Hard to say. Either way, a good, good time.

And-that's-what's-new-on-my-end. (Since it's such a hyphenated entry, why stop now, you know?)


Thursday, January 20, 2005

In the Loupe, Chapter 14

This isn't going to be very exciting, so get your hopes down before you even start.

I wasn't planning to write but am killing time to see if the rain stops so I can go swimming - which is funny, because to look at the plant life around me, it's definitely the dry season. Everything's limp and suffering. So how can it be raining so much? What is going on? Apparently the weather's mucked up in Toronto and California and all the rest as well, so Gwada's in on the deal.

And why am I writing on a Thursday, you might be wondering, since I have school all day? (Let's be frank, you couldn't care less about my personal schedule and it didn't even cross your mind. But let's just say you were wondering, so I can explain.)
It turns out there's a strike today. As I've mentioned before, there are more than a dozen unions to which teachers can belong, so a strike never means that school shuts down or anything like that, but just that select teachers make a statement and everybody's schedule is disrupted. As it happens, three of the unions are on strike today and they include five of my six Thursday teachers; the sixth is on maternity leave and her replacement is a teacher-in-training, so he has to be there but I don't.

Which brings me to my new Guadeloupe anger: I am the only primary-level English assistant in Basse-Terre. Not just the city of Basse-Terre, but the actual region, province if you will, half of the island. (Like Quebec and Quebec City, yes?) There are two other English speakers and they do high school here and in another town, and that's it. So there are only three schools, you follow me, in the entire bottom half of Guadeloupe, with an actual, home-grown, native English speaker in them.

So now tell me. Why, but why, are the teachers-in-training who (as part of a new and experimental program) must do their own English/Spanish/whatever language they sort of mangle-speak, put in my classes? Seriously, why?

There are two young people doing three weeks in my teachers' classes - where the teacher doesn't have to be anywhere in the room, or even in the school, so I don't see how it's really training, is it? - and one of them asked me how you say "sit down." Okay. Maybe you're not going to know words like "disillusionment" and "incorrigeable." But "sit down"? Can you actually teach English to nine-year-olds without being able to say "sit down"? And that means that I don't have them for three weeks (one of my least favourite classes, so I guess that's good, but also one of my all-time angel classes) plus the week and a half of Carnaval, so by the time I get them back, all our routines, our songs and games and morning greetings: out the window. Out the window! Like I was never there!

And at first I told myself, you're overreacting, you should enjoy the fact that you get extra time off. But I don't really, because I still have to get to the school for the other classes, so then I have to kill time during their mangled new English class until it's my turn again. And also I just found out that the Inspectrice had the fantastic idea of just sharing me around to make up the hours. We're so lucky to have a native speaker, she says, that everyone should have a class with her and learn all about Canada. We hear she brought pictures. But it's not like I can slot the new classes into my old schedule, because I'm still at the school waiting. So now I have to go in on a Saturday or a Wednesday afternoon or whatever, haul ass to one class somewhere in Basse-Terre to show them the Rocky bloody Mountains. I'm not happy about it. And the snooty new teachers, with their teacher's college methods and their "well I would do it THIS way," and the kids are complaining to me at recess that their new teacher's a jerk and they keep having to write lines.

This place sucks! Get your act together!

What a jerky e-mail, but I'm out of time and I'm sending it.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

In the Loupe, Chapter 13

Forget it, stop the music: I have become a real-live Guadeloupan. I'm haggling at the market, I'm cold at night when it's 18 degrees, and yes, I have danced in a carnaval parade.

Carnaval itself is a week in February, but since Christmas has been over for, what, almost two weeks? everyone agrees that it's time for a new party. So every week-end from now until Carnaval, plus a few afterwards (to tie us over into Easter parties), there are just-for-the-hell-of-it parades in select towns. My landlady sisters are the big bosses in a parade group called Magma, and Jacqueline said I should come along to Sunday's big bash in Trois-Rivières. My private calendar told me I wasn't going to be feeling great that day (ladies, are you with me?) but couldn't think of an excuse fast enough, and then suddenly she was dropping off my fruit seller's dress and giving confusing and vague instructions and that was that.

It turns out that a Carnaval parade is a very complicated procedure, with specific steps to follow. If everything goes according to plan, it can run like a well-oiled machine. Here's a rundown:

1. No one tells you what time you're leaving because no one knows for sure what time it starts - also because everyone here talks in circles around you and never actually answers a question directly, so that the answer to "what time are we leaving?" is something like "you see, I'm in charge of our parade, so I have to be there on time" or "you understand, it's better to be early than late" or even "we need to be there either in the morning or in the afternoon," until you say "okay, great! see you then!" - so Jacqueline shows up at your door at 2:30, throws a petticoat at you and yells, "the bus is leaving! go, go go!"

2. You drive at German highway speeds through town and chase down the Magma bus, then sit on some burly trombone player's lap because there are no more seats.
--> 2b. You smile politely as Burly Trombone Player makes racy comments about what you might be selling other than the fruit in your fruit basket. Hilarity ensues.

3. The musicians play and sing until you get off the bus, then again when you all get back on to go to the correct meeting spot.

4. You look at the other women in your group and admire their flattering costumes, extravagant make-up and glittering jewellery, and you think, "wow - look at all these curvy women! Traditional market ladies' dresses sure are sexy!"

5. You look at yourself in a car window and discover that in your too long and too big tablecloth dress and no make-up, you look flat-chested, short, flabby and pale, a sort of demented Bo Beep, and you consider getting back on the bus.

6. You strap on your straw hat, take your enormous basket and join the rest of your parade group, standing in the parking lot and waiting for the start signal.

7. After 45 minutes of standing in the sun in your long-sleeved tablecloth, you hear a rumour that it's starting, so you shuffle into parade formation in the street and get ready to begin.

8. You wait while the Magma bosses go find half the musicians, who went to a bar when they got tired of waiting.

9. Once reunited, and after three false starts, a broken drum strap and a last-minute pee break for Burly Trombone Player, you're off!

10. After about five minutes, you stop and clear to the side so that a parade group representing slavery - wearing newspaper scraps all over, with dirt-stained faces and huge terrifying whips that no one has told the children not to use when they're in the middle of a crowd of, say, US - can move in behind you in line. Parade resumes.

11. After about two minutes, it's decided that the slaves' drumbeats are conflicting with those of Magma and the other groups, so you clear to the side so that they can move back in front of you. White tourists along the side of the road turn off their camcorders again and make comments about folkloric charm. Parade resumes.

12. You remember too late that life in Guadeloupe is uphill, including parades. Carrying your car-sized basket and swinging your swaddled hips, you parade up and down through town until you get back to the starting point.

13. And then you do it again.

14. And you haven't had a washroom break in three hours.

15. While loving the exciting rhythms provided by the musicians who are walking behind you and watching said hip-swinging, you become suddenly and intensely aware of your shyness at dancing in a parade in front of hundreds of spectators. Your being the only white person in the entire affair - not counting the camcorder-wielding tourists giving you enthusiastic thumbs-up from their hotel balconies - doesn't help, as you are the hot topic of most conversations around you and the fact that you're wearing a traditional island costume, rather than the costume of the period's colonizing bastards, feels like a huge sham.

16. When it begins to rain halfway through the first circuit and you think, "too bad, I guess we'll have to pack it in," you are wrong.

17. When the rain becomes an all-out downpour, Carribbean buckets-from-the-sky style, and the spectators run for cars and bus shelters and the curvy ladies' soaked white lace dresses reveal the cleverly-chosen black bras and panties underneath and the rain distorts the sound so that you can't hear the beat from the twenty-five musicians who are three feet behind you and you think "okay, joke's over, it's more than time to pack it the HELL in," you are wrong.

18. In the end, though, with the musicians playing louder and faster in the rain, spectators screaming encouragement and honking car horns, and the ladies practically jogging to keep up with the beat, you start to feel like a real do-or-die Carnavaller. Wicked.

19. You find you have a new and overwhelming respect for women who can sexy-shake their booty AND walk at the same time, which is not so easy after all, even if you have more than enough of the booty itself. Ahem. You pray you don't look as stupid as you feel and make a mental note to practice when you get home.

20. By the end, wearing a big, wet and heavy tablecloth, your straw hat melting over your face and your bare feet aching because your wet shoes were too slippery and you couldn't keep up, you suddenly realize that you're shaking your ass for all it's worth, singing in Creole and winking at the die-hard-even-in-the-rain spectators who are screaming from under their umbrellas like you're Madonna in the Pride parade. You get to the end point, over three hours from the initial departure, and you think, "what, over already?"

21. Snuggling up against your new best friend, Burly Trombone Player, you sing along with the musicians the whole bus ride home, where you have a hot shower and a cup of tea and go to bed, only to shake your booty all through your dreams.


Monday, January 3, 2005

In the Loupe, Chapter 12

Hey everyone - I hope you had warm, fuzzy holidays and that you're full of chocolate and cookies and all that stuff. I, myself, having become essentially candy-free over my time under the Gwada sun, have fallen off the wagon since the arrival of Christmas packages including peanut butter chocolate cups, homemade cookies, jelly beans and my own personal temptation hell, Twizzlers. I can't resist those strips of plastic goodness, try as I might.

While the kids wore singing Santa hats for two weeks before Christmas (don't worry; it wasn't EXTREMELY irritating or anything), there wasn't much in the way of school-wide concert activity. The one exception was at my third school, where I was asked to prepare something with each of my classes for the big party on Friday, where every class would perform.

And prepare I did.

We sweated, we swore, we hacked our way through "Silent Night" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" until Santa rolled over in his grave (I assume he's dead by now; his heart can't have held out this long) and we had something more of less presentable for the school. "Do you have something ready for the concert?" the principal kept asking me. "Let's all wear red for the concert," suggested the kids. Ooh, the concert, the big concert. Well, it turned out the concert was: Us. No one else did anything. This zany (and I do mean zany) three-man troupe of children's performers did a Christmas play, then the kids ran around for forty-five minutes, and only when I asked the principal "so.... are we singing or something?" did they round up the kids and plunk them down in the courtyard, where we sang our stupid carols and I went home. For this I went to school on my afternoon off.

The play was fun because:

a) it was in Creole and I understood most of it, so I felt like a million damn dollars. (My dad thinks it's because there were a lot of actions to go with the words, but I know it's because of my heretofore unrecognized linguistic genius);

b) it was about a pig being raised for Christmas, when its throat is slit (in fine Gwada tradition) so that its roasted self can be the centerpiece of the Christmas feast - which led to all my students crowding around me after the show to tell me, in gruesome detail, their families' particular methods for killing their own pet pig in honour of the Baby Jesus;

c) with ka drums and whistles, the troupe performed a rousing medley of carols, including a rhythmic party version of "Silent Night" which made me look like a big wuss, what with my kids singing the same song, solemnly and peacefully, to quiet guitar accompaniment.

There's nothing peaceful or solemn about Christmas here: you dance, you sing, the parties blast on through the night, you visit from house to house and eat giant pigs. When I was in Lyon and spent the holidays with my family in Le Mans, it was enough like my regular Christmases that the differences made me homesick. Here, though, beaching and eating, tropical carols playing in town where tinsel hangs on palm trees, it is so definitely unlike Christmas in Southern Ontario that it feels as though I've skipped the whole thing.

A few days into the holidays my father came for a visit. There were no cars left in Basse-Terre for me to rent, so he had to wait a few hours and then take a bus - except there was no bus. I still don't know why, and the locals waiting at the bus stop also had no idea, except that the retired taxi driver who drove Papa to Basse-Terre said it was because it was the first official Sunday of the holidays. Not actually a holiday, of course, but the first Sunday since the last day of school, or the last Sunday before Christmas, or some other "what the hell?" explanation. When he finally got to Basse-Terre, he discovered that I'd gone shopping too late and the stores were closed, so all I had to offer was my standard fare of cous cous and canned peas with water. Welcome to Guadeloupe, Papou!

Other than that, it was a touristy week, as my dad enjoys a full schedule and we saw every beautiful sight on the island. It kind of makes you wonder what I've been doing this whole time... The only bad day was Day Four, when we finally attempted La Soufrière, Basse-Terre's sulphurous volcano. You're supposed to go early, so we'd been leaving the house in the wee hours of the morning for three days, finding it cloudy and unwelcoming but "taking advantage" of being up by heading out on whatever Plan B adventure was available. (I tend to take advantage of being up early by crawling back into bed, which probably explains why I hadn't seen any sights.)

So on this sunny December 24th, a Friday that will go down in my personal history as "Never Again," we found the Grand Lady Soufrière to be clear and inviting, and up we went. Since the earthquakes, though, in which huge strips of mud and rocks tumbled down the mountain, the road up is blocked and you have to climb to the mountain-bottom parking lot on foot. I wasn't into it, the safety bells clanging furiously in my head, but off we went up the winding road, climbing over enormous piles of road-blocking debris. This brought out the nagging and knitted-browed inner Kathryn, a Kathryn who says things like "this isn't a good idea, you guys" and "I always hoped to die peacefully in my sleep, not suffocating under a landslide"; a very unpleasant Kathryn.

We finally made it to the top - by which I mean the bottom - and started up the actual volcano. Now, I know I'm not the only person who gets into "a mood" and can't shake it, but I think I get exceptionally crabby. I was never into the Soufrière thing in the first place, so I felt hard-done-by and sullen and mostly sulked my way through the initial - and very steep - climb. I knew I was being a jerk and souring my dad's dream activity, but it was bigger than I, my friends, and I was powerless to fight it. In the words of somebody important, "every party has a pooper, and this party's pooper is you." And Franck's "you can do it" encouragement only made things worse, as I became increasingly bitter about everyone around me. "Ooh, look at me, I'm a French tourist! I have spiffy hiking shoes and a handy backpack! Ooh!" All rosy-cheeked and enthusiastic - give me a break! Get offa my cloud!

So I spent half the climb telling myself to snap out of it and stop acting like a child, and the other half trying to find philosophical reasons for not being mountain-bound so that I wouldn't have to face the reality, that I'm lazy and out of shape and volcano-climbing's a bitch. I toyed with theories of being grounded, or being a water sign and so sticking by the sea - though Scorpio isn't a water sign, is it? Dammit! Foiled again! - but I was fooling myself and I knew it.

After hours of climbing (actually 45 minutes, but isn't it Einstein who said that time is relative?) we made it to the "col," for which I don't have an English word. Kind of a plateau between mountain peaks, and from there we could go up fo the crater. Unfortunately - really, I was devastated - the fog had come rolling back in and we couldn't climb up, both because it's not safe and because we wouldn't see anything, so what's the point. We waited a minute or two but it was clear that my morning's fog dance had worked and it wasn't going to clear: back down we went, me suddenly chipper and tossing jokes around, chatting with the tourists on their way up (who were huffing and puffing much more than I ever did - it's not just me! it's a damn hard climb!), basically being an asshole. I think Papa hated me.

I'm considering getting a t-shirt made with "Soufrière '04" on it so I can full-out live the lie; something to look into.

From the volcano, of course, we continued onto another hike, an hour or so in the forest to take us to a waterfall, but it was raining so we sat in a cave and ate our sandwiches before heading back the way we came. Scraping my legs and face as I climbed through the forest, I was tired of trying to control my breathing so they wouldn't hear me gasping for air. I decided to swallow my pride (it went down easy; there wasn't much left) and march along, breathing as loudly as I needed to. I soon realized, however, that my twig-snapping and mud-splotching footsteps were louder than my breathing, so I started stomping and kicking rocks around as I went to really do the deed. As far as what I heard on my end, I sounded like a fit and fabulous wild adventurer who shows no mercy to the forest at her feet. I don't knw if that's how the others interpreted it, but I guess I don't really care.

Otherwise, Christmas in Guadeloupe went fine. My dad seemed to get along with Franck, so worlds collided with less KABOOM than I had feared.

We saw gorgeous things that I couldn't have seen without a car. One highlight was the scandalously-named "Madame Coco's Hole," which turns out to be a sort of inner-cliff cave where the waves tumble in, wild and impressive. (I'm sure many a frat-boy tourist left disappointed that Madame Coco was actually a rock face.)

A near-highlight was the magnificent Chute du Carbet number two, as the others are off-limits since the quakes. But this one, gorgeous and rain-forest tropical, can really only be seen from a suspended bridge, and they didn't bother telling us that said bridge was blocked. So we stood on tiptoes in the rain and imagine how the waterfall looked - kind of a bust.

A definite lowlight was the journey to a very pretty waterfall and basin, accessible only through a mud forest. Actually like skating, as we slid our way down like a group of otters. Actually, it was super fun - I just wanted to say "lowlight". But then I flashed my bum to the group of mud-climbers behind us! Oh no! As in, hands in the mud and butt in the air flashed - a low moment. FORTUNATELY, I redeemed myself within seconds by saving my father's life.

Yes, you read right, I saved his life.

I planted my feet and pulled him up a muddy hill before he plunged to his certain death, trench-style mud-drowning. I single-handedly saved him from being buried alive. Or at least from putting his knees down in the mud, and that's still something.

We got to play a lot of my favourite game, "guess when I last swept the floor?" The answer is always "three hours ago," even though the pile of dirt makes it seem like weeks - the game gets really old, really quickly. I can't wait to have another guest so I can play again.

The year ended with a splash (of champagne, actually) as we stepped back into the posh existence of St. Martin. Thoroughly spoiled and having soaked in the luxury of luxury, it was a rude awakening to step through Gwada customs and find out that our flight's luggage didn't come (plane was overloaded) and I'd have to wait five hours at the airport until my suitcase came in on another flight, then hitchhike home in the dark. (Don't worry, I lived to tell the tale.) Is this normal? Does this shit happen at home? Didn't they realize the tickets they sold included luggage? What the hell?


Happy New Year and all the best,