Wednesday, February 16, 2005

In the Loupe, Chapter 17

Well, Carnaval is finally over. At least until the end-of-lent party and then black and red day, whatever that might be. For right now, though, it's over.

The big night parade was kind of a bust because it rained, though that seems to be tradition for Carnaval. It was cloudy and threatening rain all the next day, for the big Mardi Gras parade, but the party gods smiled on Guadeloupe and it stayed dry. And relatively cool because of no sun, so spectators and paraders alike were grateful for the breeze.

This was the fourth parade I saw and definitely the best, as there were some very exciting costumes and choreography and floats and of course the music is amazing. There were odd things as well, though, such as the group of motorcycles that drove by, at least twenty of them, revving their engines. No music, no costumes (at least be Hell's Angels or something), no special bikes, classic or co-ordinated or otherwise. Just a bunch of dudes on ugly motorcycles filling in a gap in the parade.

There are lots of independent people who wander between groups wearing masks and makeshift costumes, either monsterish, hobo-ish or women's clothing. They clown around and dance funny, flirt with the ladies, annoy the crowd. One guy had a funny sign about being out-of-work and this little goat dressed up as a market lady. Perhaps he didn't know that there would be a bajilliion food vendors and most kids would have popcorn, cotton candy and a greasy McMuffin-type thing called a Bokit in their laps. Needless to say, the goat - clearly unconcerned with his health - made a beeline for all this artery-clogging food and caused many a tear among the front-row kiddies. All hell broke loose when he went for a little girl's ear and she was so scared she peed, and then the goat man made fun of her and her dad almost punched him out. Woo!

The hobos and clowns were actually really good, funny dancing and exaggerated body language and so on. Can I tell you something, though? I don't think I like masks. The facial expression doesn't match what the body's doing and I find it very unsettling. There was a group that stuffed big beer bellies into their suit-and-tie costumes and had masks of Bush, Clinton, Chirac, and especially Saddam Hussein. (Which is vaguely offensive, isn't it? I can't put my finger on it but there's something weird there. I'm pretty easy to offend, though, so I'm not a fair judge.) But with the unmoving facial expressions and then this crazy pelvis-based dancing, it was very, very uncomfortable to watch. Funny, but uncomfortable. When people talk about the heebie-jeebies? I had them.

I also saw that kids CAN dance and play and be rhythmic and co-ordinated, they just have to be Caribbean. Eva's school is in an area where all the government workers live, so all the French people who come here for a few years send their kids to Saint Claude. All the kids I saw who tried hopelessly to follow the dance captains and ended up crashing into each other and falling to the ground? Foreigners. The kids who have grown up on the island, raised on Carnaval and local drumming, can MOVE. They shake it for all it's worth and they're right on, and in their tiny little costumes it's really something. I'm sorry to break it to you, all you non-Caribbean folk who try to loosen up and shake it: we'll never get it right. They do it like they breathe and the well-meaning non-islanders who try to fit in stick out like big hairy sore thumbs. What are you going to do.

The saddest thing about each parade group is that the least attractive ladies are always stuck way in the back. You get used to oohing and aahing over the hot stuff front-and-centres, then settling in to a sympathetic smile for the girls who just aren't feeling it. The costume doesn't quite work, the dance steps aren't happening... you kid yourself that you'd be in the first row, maybe you'd even be chosen to wear the huge and sparkly bird costume, but really you know that you'd be back there with the strugglers, making snarky comments about Miss Universe up there in the hideous feathers. (It seems that hideous and over-the-top costumes are the most popular and get the biggest positive response from the crowd, even though the result is flying papier mache in the ugliest possible colours.)

While I loved an African-themed group (with, obviously, the best drumming) and the all-female steel band group dressed up as breasty and intense amazon women, I didn't so much like the groups that drove a truck with speakers on it, no costumes, just a giant thug posse yelling thug posse-ish things at the crowd like they're the next Snoop Dogg (a big seller here.) I also didn't like the kids with giant whips scaring the bejeezus out of the babies near the front. It represents slavery and the rest of the group is really good, but the kids walking in front and cracking these things all over the place - maybe Carnaval will be less fun when you're on your hands and knees looking for the eyeball you just whipped out of some kid's face. How about NOT giving large whips to the teenage punks who aren't good enough to be drummers for their group, so now they have something to prove and lots of testerone to burn. Really now.

What I found most interesting was how eager all the men were to jump into a lady's dress, usually with a stuffed bra and lace stockings. There was one all-out drag queen as well, lip-synching as she was driven by in a fancy car, and she was the hit of the parade: the crowd went wild and the women whispered excitedly about how beautiful she was. Most of the dance captains were gay, even Fabulously so, and winked and flirted with the crowd, including the men. And the men - get this - DIDN'T BEAT THEM UP!! In Guadeloupe! Macho, homophobic and misogynistic as a rule, and all of a sudden they're open-minded and fun during Carnaval? Does that mean progress? Or just extreme intoxication? Hard to say, my friends. Hard. To. Say. Either way, thumbs up from my side.

For the end of the vacation, Franck and I were going to go to neighbouring English island Dominika, beautiful and mountainous and super cheap, especially when you're bringing your euro up against the Caribbean dollar, which is even weaker - and you have to believe me on this, impossible as it may seem - than the Canadian one. Weaker than the loonie, my good people; I would have been queen of the island and bought piles of English books since I've run out again.

However, this being Guadeloupe, the travel agency in Basse-Terre, one of only two cities on the entire island, was uninformed that there were technical difficulties with the boats in Point-à-Pitre, the other city. I guess when you have two whole travel agencies on an island, it's difficult to keep each other up-to-date on such insignificant problems as the three-times-a-day-route-that-goes-to-four-other-islands being out of order. Understandable.

Having hitchhiked our way to P-à-P, though, as there are no buses during Carnaval, we refused not to go on a trip. We waited all day and then took the 5:15 boat to Marie Galante, a small dependency island South of Guadeloupe. After a shaky boatride - either you sit inside and vomit or you go out on deck and the wind turns your eardrums inside-out - we docked in the middle of the Black and White festivities, where everyone wears black and white and bangs on drums. I don't know if it would have been as unexciting in Guadeloupe, if that's just the nature of the event, or if it's because Marie Galante is too small to have both participators and spectators at a parade, so the effect is mostly lost. All I know is that the hundred or so people involved walked around and around the town square from 6:00 p.m. (or maybe earlier) until 1:30 a.m., when they finally burned the damn end-of-Carnaval puppet and put the drums away.

Our hotel happened to overlook the square, is why I had it up to here with the drumming. And by "hotel," of course, I mean "the attic of some guy who charged us 30 euros for a non-functioning toilet, a curtainless and baseless shower that automatically drenched the bathroom and flooded the hallway, and the sheets of the guy who had slept there last night, potato chip crumbs and all, conveniently located above the seven-and-a-half-hour parade." While Marie Galante is a huge tourist destination, you see, there is not a single hotel in the town where the tourists actually arrive. Go figure.

After a bizarre half hour of wandering around lost (this entire town is the size of a grocery store - I can't explain how it happened and I'm still ashamed), we had a nice dinner beside our luxury hotel. I was particularly pleased that the waitress was the exact twin of my mom's friend Elisabeth. I was even happier when she confirmed that the cd playing was Cyndi Lauper, thus winning my bet and a day at the beach from Franck, who was convinced it was Madonna. (Not only "Time After Time" and "I Drove All Night", but "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"! Where is this guy COMING from?) (Dave, if you judge you can't love.)

We upgraded to an actual hotel the next day, in the next town, excessively uphill but with a nice view, air conditioning (no mosquitoes) and - most importantly - silence. We rented a car to tour the island, saw the most beautiful beaches imaginable and realized that Marie Galante is off its rocker. Everyone tells you the people there are open and welcoming, but it turns out they're hostile and don't like tourists. They also don't like Guadeloupans, and let's not even talk about mixed couples. It was a real treat. Our only moment of kindness was when Franck forgot his bag at the hotel and a lady drove down to catch us before we left and give it to him - except that 80 euros were missing. Warms the heart, such kindness.

As far as being a tourist, it's not easy: nothing is marked or explained. There are attractions on the map such as "Black Lake" or the intriguing "Devil's Hole," so you drive around in circles looking for sideroads you might have missed, then finally ask a fruit seller on the side of the road who falls off her chair laughing. This is Black Lake. "But where's the lake? This is a dirt road." Yeah. It's Black Lake.
So it turns out that these must-see attractions are actually just the names of neighbourhoods. Decrepit, sad, empty neighbourhoods.

On our third time past where the path to the famous Etretat-type cliffs was supposed to be, the frustrations of the past few days caught up with me and a bad joke of Franck's threw me into a laughing fit, full-blown hysteria, which made it necessary for me to pull over so as not to crash our already-barely-functioning '91 Twingo into the bushes. It is thanks to this puilling over that we saw the sign we had missed the first two times: a rectangular piece of dark wood, the size of a piece of computer paper folded lengthwise, at knee level, with small black hand-painted letters: Gueule de Grand Gouffre. Black on dark brown, see? Almost on the ground, in the bushes, slightly bigger than an envelope. To the most famous attraction on the island. What happens to the tourists who can control their laughter? No Gueule for them.

The sign they do have a lot of is "Slaughterhouse," the best-indicated site this side of Niagara Falls. If there's one thing they want you to see before you leave, it's dead animals. (In case you can't read, there are pictures of cows as well; no discrimination here.)

We took comfort in the fantasy beaches until it rained, then decided to turn in the car and get the next boat. It was hard to drive in the rain, as neither the windshield wipers nor the headlights worked. This was unsurprising, though, as the passenger side door didn't open, the trunk didn't close, the radio didn't work, the rearview mirror was non-adjustable and set for someone of about 6'2" (makes sense in a backpack-sized car) and the whole car sounded like it was on a set of very creaky bedsprings. This was the good car, though, as they first gave us one that wouldn't start unless you pushed it; they found our insistence on changing cars unreasonable and only grudgingly gave us the Twingo dream car when we said we wanted a refund.

It was a relief to get on the boat, nausea notwithstanding, and bid farewell to our newly-dubbed Marie Galère (Marie pain-in-the-ass, roughly?) and return to comparatively highly-functioning Guadeloupe.

Carnaval: check.


Monday, February 7, 2005

In the Loupe, Chapter 16

The problem is that the first thing I want to tell you about is one of the single funniest things I've ever seen, and I can only hope that you're all good at visualization so that you'll see it too.

As you know, I get hit on a lot here - a lot. Well sure, you're thinking, I'd hit on you too; you're a stone fox. Which is nice of you to say, but actually it's just because I'm discernibly female; I've seen some pretty hideous women get whistled at, which obviously let the air out of the Tire of Overconfidence I'd been steadily inflating since I got here.

However, my no longer being flattered makes the attention no less constant, especially as I'm white, "blond" (I swear I've been described that way more than once - I love this place!) and often walking alone. From construction sites, leaning out of cars and trucks, down the grocery aisle, in front of the church - everywhere, the men whistle and make kissy noises and hiss this hideous "tssst" sound that makes me turn my head every time, an infuriating reflex. They invite me to the beach, for a drink, to bed. They tell me I'm beautiful and say I've bewitched them with my mermaid eyes, or - and this is obviously my personal favourite - they lick their lips and tell me they like "round" women. (Next guy who says that one gets it in the nuts, are you with me?) So I figure I've seen every possible wink, heard every comment, witnessed every display of ridiculous machismo, until:

I'm walking home from school when a 20-something guy passes me on a motorcycle. He "tssst"s at me and then looks so satisfied with himself that I laugh a little, which he apparently interprets as "yes, I'm interested." Understandable, as only a fool would try to resist the power of the "tssst": so subtle. So original. So... romance.

He circles back at the next roundabout and stops across the street from me. I couldn't help but notice, blah blah blah, how about a bit of dinner tonight, blah blah blah. I politely decline, then less politely when he insists, and I move on my way. And this is when the magic happens.

Whether determined to go through with the seduction or just to make sure I realize what could have been mine, our young hero comes through with his one-two-three punch, knock-out pick-up strategy, well thought-out and brilliantly executed.

First he shows me that he is persistent - perhaps alluding to his stamina? - to the point of creepy, by coming back up the hill for a third go. Second, he shows that he is sensitive, eloquent, a man of this century, by yelling "nice ass!" A key move. Finally, his moment of glory, he displays his mature, adult side by pulling his bike up into a giant popper-wheelie.

Unfortunately, unfamiliar with the physics of uphill-biking, this giant among men overshoots said popper-wheelie, falls backwards onto the road as traffic screeches to a halt behind him, and watches the tail end of his bike crash into the pavement and shatter, motorcycle parts flying in every direction. It happens so fast -- by "nice ass" he's already solidly into the popper-wheelie - and is so fantastically, hugely stupid, that the entire street freezes in shock. Eventually a couple of people step out of their cars to help him to his feet and to reassemble the bike parts, and I duck into a side street so that I can fall to the ground and laugh. By the time I have recovered (and wiped the tears from my eyes), my sweet Romeo has left the scene - probably walking his bike to the nearest mechanic - and it's as if nothing every happened.

Another story, not mine and not very funny but pretty amazing: Franck leaves work last Thursday and hitchhikes, as per usual, to get back to Basse-Terre. Everything's going fine until the policemen doing a routine road check find bags of crack, cocaine and whatever else in the glove compartment, as well as thousands of euros in the guy's pocket. Man, thinks Franck, this is as bad as it could get. Little does he know, however, that the policemen, looking under the blankets in the back of the truck, are going to find half a dozen Haitians being smuggled into Guadeloupe. Ka-POW.

Franck spends eight hours in jail as the police check his story and call various employers to make sure he's not an accomplice as they thought. He's released into the night at 2:00 a.m. and told to come back as a witness when it goes to trial. How wild is that? Wild, let me tell you. WILD, even.

Meanwhile, back at the bat cave, Carnaval is now in full swing, including kiddie parades on the last day of school. Karine's daughter Eva invites me to join her school's parade, so I don the carnaval crown she made me and dance down the main street of Saint-Claude with the four neighbourhood schools. Needless to say, it is mass chaos. It "starts" at 1:00, so it starts at 2:45, and the sun is whack down on our head: hundreds of little kids wearing heavy cardboard costumes and marching in the afternoon sun? Yes, please!

They start all peppy and excited, showing their fish/turtle/coral/whatever cardboard cut-outs proudly and shouting along with the music. As the arm straps cut into their skin, though, and the music from the huge speakers in front of them starts giving them headaches, and the same three songs play in a loop for 90 minutes - a Creole version of "Brazil," this annoying helicopter song that includes backsteps and all sorts of complications, and the highly irritating "Dominique-nique-nique" on trumpet - and their make-up begins to melt in the heat, and other kids are stepping on their heels because they're all bunched together despite renewed and useless efforts from the teachers, well, there's a lot less pep by the end.

The standard intro to every song, and then it happens a few times throughout, is a "ba-da, ba ba, ba-da da - oué!" The drums do the ba da ba ba part, which I realize means nothing in writing, but kind of follows the rhythm of the sentence "tigers don't like molasses." Then everyone shouts "oué," which is "yeah". (Pronounced "way" but without dip-thongs.) By thirty minues in, the "oué" is already half-hearted; by an hour it's a group groan.

There are kids falling over from exhaustion all over the place, with a bus driving behind the parade to pick them up. I see one boy who gets to the parade late, already a funny pale green colour, his mom explaining apologetically that he was sick and it was hard to drag him out of bed. Slap on a costume and some glitter and he's good to go: she pushes him in through the "rows" until he finds his "spot," then hisses something in his ear about doing Mommy proud, before heading out with her camcorder to capture the magic. Ten minutes and he's passed out in a fellow turtle's arms.
Ba-da, ba ba, ba-da da - oué!

My favourite things in the parade:

1. Two women are up in front leading the dance moves, and can they ever move. Then I look to the children themselves, stumbling along in confusion and trying to copy this sexy hip-swinging, inaccessible to six-year-olds at the best of times, not to mention with large pieces of cardboard strapped to their tiny selves. When they try to turn around, costumes crashing into each other and always at least one kid falling over, it's my favourite thing in the world. Kiddie bumper cars.

2. A roped-off group of pre-schoolers leads the parade to set the pace, adorable in their little insect costumes. Every single one of them is bawling by the end, most of them carried by their irritated parents, and this crazy lady who is walking with them, dressed in an outlandish fairy costume - and too small, as she has a formidable bosom - is generally displeased and keeps yelling "mais c'est de la MERDE, ça!" over the little guys' heads.

3. One little bumblebee, the first to reject the parade, sits down in the road and has a tantrum while the hundreds of kids stop behind him to wait. He does this three times and is finally taken out of the parade, inspiring other bumblebees, ladybugs and dragonflies to follow suit. The group quickly disintegrates as tired little insects go home: a successful coup d'état.

4. Teen-agers show up along the parade, I assume to mock the event and try to sabotage in some way. I'm wrong, it turns out, as they dance along and shout encouragement at the kids to tell them they're doing great. All thugged out, chains and hair-combs and pants with crotch-at-the-knees, and they're unsarcastically cheering on the kiddie parade.

5. Rather than block the road, management lets people discover there's a parade once they're stuck behind it. Snaking up behind the pass-out bus is a long line of frustrated traffic, moving at a hot three-year-old's walking pace and stopping every four minutes when the parade pauses for a child down, a rebelling bumblebee, what-have-you. The parade lasts an hour and a half; that's a whole lotta slow driving!

There's a parade on the street as I'm writing this, a warm-up for the big parade tonight, and the place is hopping. All of a sudden, people in Basse-Terre: amazing.

Ba-da, ba ba, ba-da da - oué!