The long holiday line and getting through Customs at both ends of the passage between these Dominica and Martinique, mere miles apart, extend a short jaunt by an hours wait at each end. The crush of humanity, toting bundles and bags, is as variegated as the landscape. Collegiates from the States with their Jansport and Eastpaks, Europeans eager to spend their Euros in French Martinique, Dominican kids crossing over to visit their cousins, holiday parcels addressed to relatives in villages, make the journey with us. The approaching coastline reveals tropically colored highrises surrounding the capitol of Fort de France. We dock in the city and walk blocks past the savanne, looking for auto rental so we can see what the island offers.
We follow the coastal highway which here is a clean, paved road, the first of many we are to see, result of the French efforts to work with the land. The houses here are small homes rather than shanties; the villages indicate the French touch circulating through the lifeblood of the land. As we to locate a room, a bungalow, a cottage, we soon discover that the rentals are either “residences” for long-term use, or taken up by holiday travelers. Our ‘find’ of a room in an auberge dating back to the 1600’s gives us a bed hard as slats, an open window, and a climb three flights up. We pass on this one, and as we direct our tires through St. Pierre, we discover the local rum distillery, one of three on the island, and the Center for Earth Sciences, an odd
rectangular building pedastaled in the air like some strange periscope at the foot of volcanic Mt. Pelee.
After some debate, we chose to drive south toward Trois Islets and the beach area.
The only reason for debate is the unknown status of terrirtory and distance. The travel maps have no scale other than the map-specific locators. We are headed toward G-5.
The highway is beautiful in speed and efficiency, getting us to the turnoff to the village before noon. We park by the school/church complex, take photos of the rectory’s outdoor oven, the crosses on the mausoleums in the cemetery. Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, was baptized in this church, and the street bears her name. The boulangerie/patisserie, the artist’s shops, the chic boutiques distinguish this island. We are to discover a string of villages grown around ‘anses’, or coves, each with its own beachfront and streets of creole homes of many colors, predominantly white with a tropical tone, protected from the fierce sun with Provencal, wooden shutters. Our Opel Corsa brings us safely to Cap Diamant, the diamond cape heralded for its beautiful beach and dangerous coastline. The “statues of shame”, 14 figures sculpted of a mix with white sand, were erected here on the beach, facing Guinea, the home of the African slaves buried beneath. The slaveship which carried them here in the 1800’s was destroyed on the rocks beyond, and the bodies washed ashore. The masters were buried in the churchyard, and the surviving Africans, 60% women and girls, were relocated to Guyana since slavery had been illegal on Martinique since the earliest part of the century. The outlaw planters, fearing lack of production on the plantations, had defied the law, needing to replace slaves who were, understandably, short-lived. The interpretive panels, depicting shackles worn and brands used, strengthen the feelings of shame and horror at this ‘exchange’. The fact that most Europeans engaged in this trip died on the journey underscores the motivation of unflagging greed in the face of possible peril.
This was war, hellishly brutal, but the product was not petroleum but people. “People before profits”, the refrain passes through my mind as I write this, this formula taking into account the toll on the people of the islands, here in Martinique at a 23% unemployment rate as they need to cater to tourists to survive. The jump-in-your-face attitude of sellers and mendicants is absent here. The continental influence seems to have had an effect, and the merchants charm and convince. They do not try to sell something that won’t fit you; they allow you to look and compare; they are pleasant. Underneath it all, there is the same poverty. Here the homeless can sleep by the beach and the village homes are spaced apart. Flowers abound, the scent of hibiscus, flamboyant, and flora of every color and shape entwine, embrace trees and maisons creoles. The ‘bonjour’ is in the air, the smiles easy. It is not hard to love Martinique.
We decide to stay in Trois Islets, closer to our early morning ferry, so never do see the largest marina in the Antilles in Marin, or the charming town of St.Lucie. Our hotel is smack in the midst of a tourist mecca, replete with ethnic restaurants, beachwear boutiques, including a “Cape Cod” store reminiscent of Provincetown, Massachusetts. There clearly is a gay clientele, but the French tourists dominate, catered to in many ways ranging from preferred cuisine to chic dreams. Many travel with children, most do not look wealthy. They flock to the creperie rather than the pearl-and-nacre dealer; they hang at the pizzeria and amble down the piers, taking the daily cruises because they do not own boats, at least not here. It is a good life in the cove resto-bars, a great life on the beaches tucked into wooded groves. You can buy 2 bottles of Lorraine and water for a few Euros, stay hydrated all day, watching the topless bathers, the naked kids learning to swim, the kayakers in bikins. Lovely Martinique, the flower of the Caribbean, not without its thorns of memory, of forgiveness.
We leave this island with a passel of passengers, keeping in mind the difference and cherishing the small touches of civilization as we look ahead to the rugged life in Dominica backgrounded against its ever-present rainbow.