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Archive for the ‘FWI’ Category

St. Pierre and Mont Pele

Posted by: melissa

In the late 1800’s, St. Pierre was referred to as the Paris of the Lesser Antilles.  As the cultural and commercial center of Martinique, St. Pierre was also considered the prettiest city of all the Caribbean with its hillside red-roofed buildings, cobblestone streets, and seafront promenade overlooking a magnificent bay.  With a population of about 30,000, the modern “Little Paris” enjoyed prosperity with electricity and telephones and theaters and industry.

Mont PeleAlas, legend has it that as the European settlers murdered the last of the indigenous Caribs in 1658, they invoked the horrible curse of Mont Pele (known to them as “the mountain of fire”) to take revenge.  No one can be sure about the curse, but unbeknownst to the fancy Creole society women with their midday parasols, and multi-millionaire plantation owners of the inland plains, and the French sailors escaping the home land for Caribbean adventure and indulgence, Mont Pele was one of the most violent volcanoes in the Caribbean.

Quiet for the first 200 years of St. Pierre’s existence, Mont Pele rumbled in 1851 covering the town in ash and creating a lake in the crater.  Towards the end of April, 1902, Mont Pele demanded to be heard.  A research party investigated the peak and found that a cauldron of boiling mud had replaced the lake.  The surrounding rivers became sulphurous and poisonous, killing the fish.  Rumblings, plumes of smoke, and showers of ash continued.  On May 2, 1902, plantation owner Pierre Laveniere went to inspect his crops with a group of workers only to be swept away in an avalanche of boiling mud.  On May 5, 1902, an eruption of effluent mud and lava estimated to be one quarter mile wide and 100 feet high destroyed the Guerin Estate (one of the richest in the area).

Even with this clear warning, all but about 1000 Pierrotins opted not to evacuate.  St. Pierre’s mayor delivered reassuring proclamations despite the recent deaths.  The local newspaper, Les Colonies, publicly ridiculed evacuees as hysterical and panic-ridden.  Word came from St. Vincent that Mount Soufriere had blown which would “relieve Pele’s pressure.”  Additionally, the new Governor Louis Mouttet was thought to be overwhelmed by the idea of a mass evacuation and wished the whole situation would just go away.  Influential business owners further persuaded Mouttet against evacuation to avoid financial losses.

On May 8, 1902, Ascension Day, as Catholic residents sat in church to take Communion, the mountainside glowed red and Mont Pele split open releasing more energy than an atomic bomb.  The Mach 3 shockwave of fiery and poisonous gas was followed by pyroclastic molten flow traveling at a shocking 250 miles per hour.  In two minutes, St. Pierre was vaporized and approximately 30,000 people burned to death, carbonized where they lay.  With temperatures of 750 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas and lava proceeded into the ocean transforming the harbor into a smoldering cauldron with ships engulfed in flames and capsized by the resultant tidal waves.

Almost nothing was spared, and survival stories are sparse and freakish.  One of two survivors, Auguste Cybaris, was in the jailhouse which provided protection with thick stone walls and only a small, grilled window.  Cybaris was in jail for drunk and disorderly (or for murder — depending on the source), The Ruins of the Jailhouse Which Spared Auguste Cybaris from the Devastating Volcanoalthough the minimum security jail was typically used for short term sentences, so you can decide for yourself.  Cybaris made a career out of his ordeal by joining the Barnum Circus and appearing in a replica of his life-saving cell until his death in 1955.  Leon Leandre, a cobbler, survived the disaster by skipping Ascension Day church services and working in his cellar.  The one surviving ship, the HMS Roddam, limped into the harbor at Castries, St. Lucia, later that day with the Captain severely burned but still at the helm.  Much of the crew burned to death on deck or jumped ship to certain death before a tidal wave broke the ship’s mooring loose.

Mont Pele continued to rumble for several months, and in November of 1902, a glowing spindle of solidified lava emerged from the crater eventually reaching a height of 800 feet until it collapsed nine months later.

Needless to say, the 1902 eruption of Mont Pele was a cataclysmic disaster from which the glamorous city of St. Pierre never recovered.  Currently, only 5,000 people inhabit the city, and though the volcano has been quiet for a very long time, researchers and vulcanologists monitor the mountain carefully.

Many ruins still stand, with blackened walls, occasional modern add-ons, and climbing, flowered vines.  The skeletons of the old theater (a replica from Bordeaux which must have been spectacular) and the neighboring jailhouse (including Cybaris’ own cell in fact) are by far the best of the ruins.  Originally built in 1635 by the very first settlers, pieces of the fort still remain as well.  The small Musee Volcanique contains old pictures of the fabulous, pre-eruption St. Pierre as well as post-eruption artifacts including beautiful china cups and saucers fused together in stacks from the heat.

When avoiding cheesy things like the tram (just walk, it’s only like two miles), the Melissa and the Theater Staircasehydraulic bumping low rider cars in the significant traffic congestion, and the inevitable T-shirt shops, St. Pierre is eerie and ghostlike.  Standing alone at the top of theater’s double staircase, looking out on the sparkling blue water of the strikingly beautiful bay, imagining the parties and high life and culture of St. Pierre, it’s impossible not to be affected by this very distant, but catastrophic, tragedy.  More Pictures

Fort de France, Martinique, French West Indies

Posted by: melissa

After Mont Pele destroyed the thriving and fabulous St. Pierre, Fort de France emerged as more than just a backwater town with the title of official administrative capital.  Fort de France is strategically located (as are all pretty much all the capital cities of the Caribbean) on the island’s leeward side with a naturally protected harbor and the ominous and historically busy Fort St. Louis, established in 1639.

After parking the car, we opted against visiting Fort St. Louis as the walk to get there reminded us both of Frogger.  Across from the Fort, the Savane is Fort de France’s central park, and unfortunately, the whole area was cordoned off with chained-link fence during our tour day.  This park houses the statue of Josephine, who, as I mentioned previously, is Martinique’s famous, but not-so-favorite, Josephine's Monument in the Savane (Central Park), Fort de France, Martiniquedaughter.  Under normal circumstances, the statue would face her beloved home of Trois-Ilets, located across the Fort de France bay to the south.  However, in 1992, the statue of Josephine was beheaded, her trunk splashed in red paint, and the accompanying signage either covered in angry Creole graffiti or all-out destroyed, in an obvious political statement.  Josephine’s head has Vandals Protest Josephine's Posted Biography at the Monumentnever been recovered and, more relevant to one’s understanding of Fort de France’s vibe, the monument has never been repaired nor removed.  There she stands, Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte the Great, cousin of Aimee Dubuc de Rivery (also known as Sultana Valide and adoptive mother of Emperor Mahmoud II), headless and symbolically bleeding and desecrated for more than a decade, and nobody seems to care.  More Pictures

Near the Savane lies the Schoelcher library, which was built in Paris in 1889 for the World’s Fair.   After the exhibition, the entire building, a baroque The Schoelcher Libraryassortment of iron arches and fretwork, was dismantled, sent to Martinique, and reassembled to house Victor Schoelcher’s personal book collection.  The old part of this working library is quite beautiful with its floor-to-ceiling stacks of antique books, stained glass domed ceiling, and exhibits of local artists.  More Pictures

We then headed to the Palais de Justice, which is the Palais de Ugly, and Hotel de Ville, which is mildly interesting.  Rounding a corner to find the beginning of the famous, and supposedly haute couture, Rue Victor Hugo, we also stumbled onto a nice square with a nice statue of Schoelcher … and a port-a-potty.

The guidebook says:

Fort de France, the capital of Martinique, is the largest and liveliest city in the Windwards.  It is a great place for people-watching, and shops and restaurants abound.  The central Rue de la Republique has been turned into a delightful pedestrian street.

How much time do I get for rebuttal?

Andy and I stood in Martinique’s “center of the universe,” the intersection of Rue de la Republique and Rue Victor Hugo (just the names of the streets alone insinuate their importance), blinking and confused.  No bars anywhere.  No street musicians.  No sidewalk cafes.  No pushcarts selling baguettes and espresso shots.  Indeed no restaurants of any kind, except one … KFC.  Of the very few open shops at 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, not one interested us.

Fort de France's Charm-Free Urban Sprawl  What the intersection does have is loiterers … locals, by the hundreds, doing nothing … many staring in an unfriendly way.

    As such, we got in the car and left … even though we knew it meant another crappy meal at Mango’s, the marina restaurant.  Not only was there nothing to do, Fort de France felt threatening, and I didn’t want to see it at night.  More Pictures

The Cricket World Cup

Posted by: andy

The Cricket World Cup began today, as hosts West Indies convincingly blasted a pretty-darn-good Pakistan team 242-187 (I realize that may seem sort of close, but much like college basketball, cricket matches tend to be really close or not close at all – this game was among the latter).

Of the 16 teams in the tournament, there are only eight that have any chance at all of winning.   Pakistan is pretty clearly the 8th-best team in the tournament, but they are much closer to #1 than to #9.  They are 14-1 odds to win the tournament.  The #9 team (Bangladesh) is 300-1.  Accordingly, this was actually a very nice win for the “Windies.”

Much like Olympic basketball is the United States vs. Everyone Else (Everyone Else having done pretty well lately), the Cricket World Cup is Australia vs. Everyone Else.  After going nearly five years without losing a single game, the Australians have played terribly lately (getting beaten three games in a row by a New Zealand team that no one thought was any good, which, confirming those suspicions, subsequently lost to Bangla-frickin-desh).  As a result, Australia has gone from less than even-money to 9-4 as the favorites of the tournament.  Everyone knows their quality and expects them to sort things out in the tournament.  If I were a betting man, I’d take Australia at 9-4.  I’m heavily rooting against them (as I do in every sport in which Australia is involved), but they are clearly the most talented team.

Since I brought it up, here are the current approximate betting odds (all rounded off “to 1”):

(1) Australia – 2.25-1

(2) South Africa – 4.5-1

(t3) India – 7-1

(t3) Sri Lanka – 7-1

(t3) West Indies – 7-1

(t6) New Zealand – 9-1

(t6) England – 9-1

(8) Pakistan – 14-1

We’re thrilled to be in the right part of the world at the right time with a chance to see at least two games (and with good tickets to four) of the tournament.  Am I a big cricket fan?  No, but I almost completely understand and greatly appreciate the game, and I’ll be thrilled to be there in person to see it played at such a high level. 

This is one-day cricket, also known as pajama cricket (for the colorful uniforms), as opposed to test cricket (with white uniforms), which would be near-impossible to contest in a World Cup format despite it being “proper cricket.”  There will be Yorkers, doosras and googlies aplenty (but probably very few Chinamen) as we watch England play New Zealand on Friday, March 16 and then head to Trinidad for Sri Lanka vs. India on March 23.

Where do our loyalties lie?  We are rooting hard for Sri Lanka.  Not only are they a loveable team, but we have very close friends that are Sri Lankan, and we hope to be adopted Sri Lankans for the tournament and beyond.

Part of what makes the Sri Lankan team so likeable is the presence of two of the world’s best players, Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya.

It is easy to make baseball comparisons regarding Muralitharan (“Murali”) – he is the Greg Maddux of Cricket — simply the greatest off-speed bowler of all time.  Under the rules of one-day cricket, he will be limited to 60 balls (20%) of the pitches thrown by Sri Lanka each game, but he remains Sri Lanka’s big advantage – he is the odds-on favorite to win “Best Bowler” honors for the tournament (this is largely because Australia’s Shane Warne – for whom I’ve been mistaken more than once – retired before the tournament).

Jayasuriya was the MVP of the 1996 Cricket World Cup, won under controversial circumstances by Sri Lanka.  Now 37, he is the elder statesman of a team that is full of young players.  If he and Murali play well, Sri Lanka can beat anyone.

Final Disappointing Thoughts on Martinique

Posted by: melissa

Set the scene:  On March 11, we arrived in Martinique after a dreamy and event-free 48-hour trip down from St. Martin.  Thanks to semi-cooperative wind, we were able to sail the boat more than 60% of the time, and it felt great.  Everything worked (including us), and it was nice to be reminded why we chose to be boat owners and short-handed sailors.

We were really, really, really excited to reach Martinique.  There is no place in the first half-year of our trip that we more expected to fall in love with than Martinique.  As you can probably already ascertain, we have been extraordinarily disappointed by our experience.

But, in the interest of being well rounded, and frankly, charitable, I will discuss the things I liked first.  As mentioned, Martinique has beautiful natural scenery, as you can see on the Photos page.  Another highlight, the amazingly beautiful Rocher du Diamant rises sheer from the water to over 500 feet.  Martinique also has some of the best rum distilleries in the world.  As avid wine-tasters, we jumped at the chance to rum taste although it’s a little more difficult on the palate (on my palate, anyway…).  The people at Trois Rivieres were especially nice and the historical tour at Habitation Clement was splendid.  Even better than local rum straight up is Martinique’s local drink, Ti Punch, made with 4/5 white rum, 1/5 a special cane syrup, and small slice of lime.

The guidebook says:

Martinican food has a traditional French flair and is considered by many to be the best in the Caribbean. Here, you can make your holiday almost entirely gastronomic, as there are cafes and open-air restaurants to linger in at every turn. You will find traditional cuisine gastronomique, but also its Caribbean or Creole equivalent. Lovingly prepared, the dishes are often spiced, and of course, it is all in the sauces.

I must call my website host to increase our bandwidth to provide a proper and comprehensive rebuttal.

The food has been nothing short of terrible.  Excited to hit land after such a great sail and eager to love Martinique, we ordered the first croque monsieur possible.  It arrived on sliced generic white bread with an un-melted slice of jack cheese and a slice of cold grocery store ham.  Undaunted by strike one, we scoured the guidebooks and the Internet for the savory French goodness we’ve heard so much about.  After such a great experience in Grand Case, French Saint Martin, we were very excited to dive into Martinique cuisine, the crème de la crème of the French Caribbean.

Sadly, we never located a meal even in the same ballpark as Saint Martin.  We never even found a restaurant with an actual wine list or any thoughtful, skillful preparations.  We had a decent (but no better) Creole lunch at Restaurant Josephine in St. Pierre consisting of stewed curry chicken, but that’s about it.  We went to supposedly the best French restaurant in the best eating town of Martinique, and it was inedible and cost about 100 Euros.  We then had to leave to go eat again somewhere else (which was also pretty bad).

This food discussion is not an exaggeration, and sadly, it symbolizes what we feel is the problem with all of Martinique … a lack of effort and a “who cares” attitude derived from unconditional financial support.

Martinique tenuously enjoys its French-dom … and honestly, what’s not to like?  The economy is based primarily on French government subsidies (way more than even tourism, its second-biggest source of revenue).  It is more affluent, cleaner, and infrastructure-ready than almost all of the other Caribbean islands.  Yet, island purists yearn for total autonomy even while enjoying parliamentary seats and equal voting rights.  As such, the supported colonization model can go one of two ways:  the best of France and Caribbean, or the worst of France and Caribbean.

In our opinion, Saint Martin is absolutely the best of both worlds … French, Caribbean, Creole, no matter the culinary style, all food, from a roti on the street to foie gras and blanquette de veau in Grand Case, is prepared with care and pride.  The sophisticated style of Paris is totally evident, as is the friendly and carefree Caribbean attitude, both melding together into an exquisite vibe that translates into distinctly local architecture, customs, carnivals, and of course, food and wine and service.  The standards of French tradition stirred up with Caribbean flair makes for a marvelous combination.  Even the small things — like horn-free, courteous driving (in Peugots, and Citroens of course) and yielding to pedestrians — feel uniquely French Caribbean.

Martinique lacks this thoroughly enjoyable, best-of-both-worlds vibe.  There is vague sense of menace about the place.  Actually, that’s being too nice.  There is a palpable sense of menace about the place … wild and lawless and angry and resentful.  Indeed, we had our first back-alley “run in” here, which might have become fairly ugly had our would-be assailant not been so drunk.  Sure, an altercation with an obnoxious drunk could happen anywhere.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen anywhere, it happened here in Martinique.  All over the island, you can feel the racial tension barely suppressed.

Fort-de-France could be really great, with its ocean-front promenade, the Canal Levassor, the Savane, and the roughly seven-block square “centre ville.”  Instead, it is a threatening and dumpy city that feels unsafe to walk around in broad daylight.  And even if it felt safe, there’s nothing to see or do.

So there you have it.  The wasted potential of Fort de France, the overall lousy food, the drunk guy looking for a fight, and Josephine’s headless statue … nobody cares.  No pride or effort on display in any aspect.  And really, why bother putting forth a little effort?  French subsidies aren’t going anywhere, and the most French-ness that Martinique embraces is being affected and obtrusive and arrogant.

We don’t need highfalutin cuisine, pristine beaches and umbrella drinks to have a good time.  Indeed, we like our destinations to be a little bit shabby and run down.  We loved the Dominican Republic (and not the touristy parts).  But we’re not “package tour”-type travelers, and Martinique is a package tour kind of place, a place for French (and I mean ONLY French) tourists to jet in on chartered flights from Paris and be whisked off to the various well-fenced all-inclusive resorts to soak up some sun, have a few planteurs, maybe take a distillery tour or go see Little Pompeii, and get back on the plane with a couple of bottles of rhum agricole.

St. Lucia

Posted by: melissa

One of the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, St. Lucia is located midway down the Eastern Caribbean chain north of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, northwest of Barbados, and south of Martinique.  The island is 27 miles long and 14 miles wide and is generally shaped like an avocado.  Saint Lucia is named after Saint Lucy of Syracuse, patron saint of the blind, and one of only seven women commemorated by name in the Roman Canon of the Mass.

Volcanic in origin, St. Lucia is more mountainous than most other Caribbean islands.  The island’s highest point stands 3000 feet above sea level at Mount Gimie; however, St. Lucia’s number one claim to fame is definitely the Pitons, which are two volcanic plugs standing majestically on the southwestern coast overlooking the spectacular Soufriere Bay.  Also a World Heritage Site, the Pitons make every list of things to see before you die from Conde Nast to Oprah Winfrey.  Emerging from lush tropical rainforest complete with huge ferns and banana orchards on one side, and incredible sparkling blue ocean on the other, the Gros Piton soars to 2619 feet and is slightly south of the 2461-foot-tall Petit Piton.  It’s difficult to adequately communicate the beauty of this area.

Like most Caribbean islands, St. Lucia’s colorful character is largely derived from the struggles between ancient indigenous populations, the slave trade, and conquering European forces.  Settled by Arawak Indians, a culture later eclipsed by the Caribs, St. Lucia was called “Hewanorra,” meaning “Island of the Iguanas,” since 800 A.D.  Erroneously thought discovered by Columbus in 1502, St. Lucia was more likely discovered by lesser known explorer and former Columbus navigator, Juan de la Cosa, in either 1499 or 1504.  The island’s first official European presence was established by Peg-Leg le Clerc‘s enclave on Pigeon Island used to pillage treasure-laden Spanish galleons.

The first legitimate European settlement was founded by the Dutch around 1600 at Vieux Fort.  In 1605, an English ship bound for Guyana (ironically called the Olive Branch) blew off course and went aground off the coast of St. Lucia.  The sixty-seven passengers safely waded to shore and found coexistence with the Caribs to be impossible.  In less than five weeks, only 19 of the original party remained due to violence, disease, and exposure.  Another English colony was also wiped out by the Caribs in 1639.

During the 1700′s, St. Lucia played an interesting role in the political and economic processes of the eastern Caribbean.  With the French headquartered on Martinique and the British headquartered on Barbados, the centrally located St. Lucia looked quite attractive to both parties, and both frequently worked to exert influence on its future, particularly the extremely lucrative sugar cane industry established in 1765.  After many violent battles, the British won out.  France permanently ceded control in 1815, and slavery was abolished in 1834.  St. Lucia was incorporated to the central government of the British West Indies, eventually achieving full independence in 1979 following a Constitution in 1924 and universal suffrage in 1951.

St. Lucia’s population is overwhelmingly of African descent due to the huge slave trade; however, the French influence is palpable right down to the Creole language.  The capital city, Castries, was founded by the French in 1650.  Originally called Carenage (or Safe Anchorage), the city was renamed Castries in 1756 after the commander of a French expeditionary force to Corsica.

Local chefs frequently combine fish dishes with the island’s abundant tropical fruits including mangoes, papayas, pineapples, soursops, passionfruit, guavas, and coconuts.  Another typical dish is callaloo soup made from a leafy green vegetable similar to spinach which, if not cooked appropriately, can be poisonous.  Beyond cuisine, St. Lucia’s cultural influence includes two Nobel Prize Winners:  Sir W. Arthur Lewis (Economics in 1979), and poet Derek Walcott (Literature in 1992).