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.


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