Voyager Sans Peur

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

Embracing the sun at Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

Welcome to Sans Peur! Here I will be recording my many journeys across the globe. Sans Peur is French for “without fear”. I truly believe that the best way to see the world is without hesitation,  diving into the unknown, and learning as much as you possibly can. I waited a number of years to travel, wanting to feel comfortable when I did it. But that’s the best part of traveling – it’s NOT comfortable! It’s out of your comfort zone, and you know what? That’s glorious. A healthy dose of caution is of course necessary, but you should never let fear prevent you from experiencing the plethora of gifts this world and it’s people have to offer you. Alors, voyagez avec moi!

 

 

 

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Red Devils and the City of Treasures

It was Friday –  the day I would see two oceans in one morning by way of the Panama Canal Railway. Zach and I woke up early and hopped on the metro.

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A metro train in Panama City

The metro in Panama City leaves me with very mixed feelings. The first and only line was completed just a year ago, meaning it is very new and clean. The trains come like clockwork, and the stations are big, open, and airy. It’s easy to feel safe as there is usually an armed guard at either end of the trains, and there are always guards at the ticket turnstiles. (Panama had some rough gang violence for many years, though things have calmed down recently.) However, some aspects of the metro did allow for some head-scratching. Large screens seemed to be advertising something exciting coming soon, but Zach explained to me that all the large screens were built but no contracts for advertisers sent out, so they were all blank. Of course. The trains are all far too short for the platform, almost as if they didn’t have money for more cars on the trains. This means that during rush hour, the trains turn into veritable sardine cans. To make matters worse, Panamanians aren’t afraid to outright shove, and they will gladly do so, since the train doors open for mere moments and don’t account for peak hour traffic. Hopefully, with the addition of the second line currently being built and longer cars, there will be less crowding. But it is interesting to see a metro culture in it’s infant years.

We arrived at Albrook Station, a massive commuter hub as well as a mall, and the crowd blossomed out of the trains to go catch connecting buses. We crossed over a large pedestrian bridge to get to the mall where we would find a taxi, and I looked out over the sea of Diablo Rojos and more official looking city buses. What is a Diablo Rojo, you might ask? I was soon poised to find out.

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Our taxi cab, lacking in seat belts and with an overabundance of check engine lights

Zach hailed a taxi that would take us to the nearby train station. I climbed into the backseat, mindlessly reaching for the seatbelt and coming up empty. Of course – in Panama, seatbelts were only required by law in the front seat, and for some reason only known to the Panamanians, backseat seat belts were consciously removed. At least, they were removed in every taxi and car I encountered in the country. So, I sat, unfastened and bouncing, as the taxi sped down the highway with salsa music blasting and the check engine light proudly shining from the dashboard. I held up the Dunkin Donuts coffee I had purchased at Albrook like some sort of holy relic, helplessly watching as the nut-brown elixir shot out the hole in the lid like some sort of misplaced, pathetic geyser.

The taxi whizzed by some landscapers mowing the lawns of office buildings using weed whackers. Yes, weed whackers. Inexplicably, Panamanians mow their lawns with weed whackers, resulting in incredibly closely cropped grass and the befuddlement of many a tourist. I will say, they are very dedicated to their lawn care.

Soon enough, we arrived at the Panama Canal Rail station, and after haggling our fare with the taxi driver, boarded the train. The Panama Canal Railway train is a freight and passenger line that runs between Panama City in the south and Colón in the north, connecting both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It runs parallel to the Panama Canal, and you can glimpse the canal through the trees at multiple points during the journey. It is incredibly strange to see a massive cruise ship sitting amongst the thick jungles inland, but that’s a wonder of the world for you. The cars themselves were pretty swanky, and what I would call “old world”. Zach and I got a booth to ourselves (not too difficult, considering how empty the car was) and sat on the left side of the train for the best views of the canal. A lady came through with a cart offering complimentary coffee, and I suppose that’s the closest I’ve been to the Hogwarts Express…so far.

 

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A staff member serves coffee on the Panama Canal Railway

 

The train chugged through the forests at a good clip, and lush, tropical vegetation came right up to the windows. Every now and then, I spotted small, rough shelters on the side of the tracks, and several of them were surrounded by men standing in the light rain, silently staring up at the train as it passed by. There were “smoker balconies” in between the cars, but most of us went out onto the balconies to feel the fresh air and get better views of the scenery. I held onto my Panama hat in the strong winds, but my jovial hat salesman from the day before was right, and the smaller size faithfully stuck to my pate.

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A cruise ship in the middle of Panama – crossing the Panama Canal

Soon enough we arrived in Colón, known as the second city of Panama. Colón is incredibly poor, and considered one of the more dangerous cities in the country. It is advised that tourists don’t go there, and if they do, spend as little time there as possible. Daylight muggings on main streets were said to be common.  Although I was quick to take the advice of passing through quickly, the rumours made me sad. There are fiercely proud people in Colón that would love to share their city with the world, and tourism can bring a lot of economic benefit to the city. The government built up a Free Trade Zone in the city in the hopes to spur some more development, but unfortunately many people that work and shop there come up for the day from Panama City and return there at night, leaving Colón right where it started.

Zach and I walked from the train station to the bus station, neither of us holding our phones out for directions. The streets were muddy and full of potholes. We passed tenement-style buildings, colorful laundry hanging on ropes out of almost every window. We reached the bus station, which was bustling with morning activity. Locals and tourists alike ran to catch their bus, drivers shouted out destinations, merchants sold trinkets and individual candies from tables in the middle of the sidewalk, and travelers grabbed breakfast from food booths emanating sizzling heat and the thick aroma of grease. Stray dogs twisted in and out of the crowd, and accompanied the sleeping homeless in dark niches. An official looking man pointed us in the direction of  bus to Portobelo, and my visual senses were overwhelmed with color. Although the bus system in Panama is fairly extensive, it’s only within the city that you see buses you’d expect. Out in the country? This was the land of the Red Devil.

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Some of the Diablo Rojos in Colón, Panama

Diablo Rojos, or Red Devils, are retired American school buses that get sold and shipped down to Central America, where they are painted in stunning patterns and colors and outfitted with enormous smokestacks in the back. I’m shocked the drivers can see anything, as the windshields are covered in elegant graffiti broadcasting the bus route. The safety of said buses may be questionable, but they are ingrained into society, since in many cases they are the only means of transportation between cities for folks living out in the countryside.

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Aboard a Diablo Rojo

Zach and I boarded the bus and took seats near the middle as we waited to depart. A mistake, we soon found, as the closer to the back you get, the more the suspension is a distant memory. The bus was covered in mold and the windows took every muscle in my arm to close as the unseasonal rains started to come down. The Diablo Rojo thundered to a start, and we were off towards Portobelo. The bus driver went impossibly fast, and didn’t even bother shutting the front door as he went. At most of the stops people hopped on and off with the bus still rolling – clearly, contrary to everything we had seen or would see in Panama, time was money on the Diablo Rojo. Safety was quite secondary. Though I did notice that most drivers will always wait at a full stop for women and children to be seated before tearing off again. We raced down twisty and narrow roads along the Atlantic coastline, brushing past other buses, to the point where our driver would casually reach out and pull in his side mirror every now and then. I focused on the waves to my left – this was the second ocean we saw that morning, since you could see the Pacific from Zach’s building.

Due to the harrowing speed of the bus, we were quickly at the town of Portobelo, allegedly named by Christopher Columbus 1502. It is also said to be the resting place of Sir Francis Drake, among other rich histories. It was established in the Spanish Colonial Period and used as a stopping point for the Spanish Treasure fleets. The Spanish built extensive fortifications in the natural harbor, the ruins of which can be explored today.

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A glimpse inside the Church of the Black Christ in Portobelo, Panama

It was quite overcast and rainy in the small town. We walked through the wet streets to the famous Church of the Black Christ. Cristo Negro, or ‘Black Christ’, is a highly venerated wooden statue that washed up on the shores of Portobelo in the 17th century. Every time there was an attempt to remove the statue from the city there was a great storm, so there the statue remains, a source of pilgrimage from all over. Alas, a sign at the door of the church asked for those in shorts and short sleeves to refrain from entering, so I made do with glimpsing the statue from afar as Zach walked in for a better picture.

Sadly, the treasure house was closed for renovations, so Zach and I continued on to explore the fortifications of San Lorenzo and San Jeronimo. The fortifications were in ruins, but the walls, watchtowers, and cannons were left intact. We schlepped through inches of mud and climbed up to the little watchtowers for views out into the harbor. There were many boats anchored in the harbor, and Zach and I were very curious to see several boats that looked like they were straight up sinking. Yet no one seemed to be in a panic, so neither were we. Determined to see everything there was to see, we walked down dark staircases and turned on phone flashlights in dark tunnels, but none of them went very far and nothing greeted us except an exceedingly strong smell of must and mold. I did brave a foot of water to go look into a small enclosure – I expected only about six inches, and got a nasty surprise when my foot immediately plummeted deeply into silt and dirt. The amazingly fascinating view of absolutely nothing was, perhaps, not quite worth it.

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Exploring the town and ruins in Portobelo, Panama

We walked back to the center of town to find a place to eat, and ended up at Casa Congo, a restaurant right on the harbor. We enjoyed garlic shrimp and Ropa Vieja, a flavorful cuban meat dish. Along with Panama beers, of course. After the meal, feeling like we’d seen just about all there was to see of the city, we decided to start the journey back to Panama City. Luckily, buses ran every thirty minutes through the town back to Colón, and we only had to wait a few minutes at the bus stop outside a convenience store. Though it was enough time for me to watch a man go into the store to do some shopping, his pump action shotgun in hand. Like you do.

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Our fiercely decorated Diabo Rojo that took us from Portobelo to Colón

The ride back from Portobelo was no less hair raising. That particular Diablo Rojo had brakes that positively screamed when in use, which, incidentally, didn’t seem to be as often as I would have liked. I’m not sure if the Red Devil was the bus or the driver, and I am ashamed to say I gripped the seat in front of me quite hard with white knuckles. I felt like a jumpy tourist, as no one else was bothered in the least. Some were napping, others chatting on their phones, and children and chickens walking on the side of the road were nonplussed as the Diablo Rojo roared by.

In Colón we switched from the Diablo Rojo to a coach bus. It was already almost full by the time we boarded, and I was separated from Zach for the ride. I sat next to a Guna woman, and between her, a man standing in the aisle next to me, and the woman in front of me who joyfully discovered that the seats could recline, I became the poster child of claustrophobia. The bus driver’s assistant squeezed up and down the aisle, advertising Doritos and water for sale in impossibly fast Spanish. Despite my 20 square inches of space, the ride back would have been uneventful, but about halfway through, a woman seemed to be incensed that the bus route changed, shouting and raving from the middle of the bus that the driver was “loco”. The argument grew heated enough for the crowded bus to stop on the side of the road for the argument to finish, and it would have been tense if not for everyone chuckling quietly to themselves and shaking their heads. Luckily for my squashed self, we were soon on our way again, and thanks to Zach’s quick thinking, we managed to alight at one of the first metro stations we passed rather than go all the way through the city at rush hour, saving us an hour of time. Good man.

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Zach thoroughly “enjoying” the unique exercise contraption in a park in Panama City

Christine met us at Albrook, and despite thinking we could maybe attempt the Amador Causeway, my energy levels ran out and we returned to their neighborhood. After more of  Zach’s delicious lasagna and The Simpsons in Spanish, we went out for batidos (milkshakes). Batidos were a close second to palatas as my favorite dessert in Panama, and I enjoyed such flavors as cherry, passionfruit, mango, and even avocado. I never thought I would have an avocado milkshake, and its unique flavor was strangely addictive, and easily deceived me into thinking I was being healthy. Which I totally wasn’t. Luckily, that night on our walk home, we found a local park with all sorts of exercise contraptions, and burned off perhaps a tenth of our batidos. Indeed, from an old world train to delicious milkshakes, it was a day in Panama well spent.

 

 

Bienvenido a Panamá!

 

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Lights from the ships waiting to go through the Panama Canal

I think one of the most remarkable things about flying into Panama City is seeing all the ships out in the harbor waiting to cross through the Panama Canal. Yes, the skyscrapers are incredible with their unique architectural designs, dizzying heights, and sheer numbers. Yes, you saw the Atlantic a heartbeat ago but now you are over the Pacific. But the ocean dotted with the hundred lights of lonely ships in good company makes you feel so small as you come in for a landing in this small but powerfully placed Central American country.

This was my first trip to Central America, and my first trip somewhere I didn’t speak the language. Despite my conversational French  and few weeks of Duolingo Spanish, I was still pretty helpless, and my struggles getting through border control, collecting my baggage, and getting through customs was a harsh foreshadowing of some trials to come. But thanks to friendly strangers who can recognize a poorly concealed look of bemusement following airport announcements and the timely response of my friend Zach with his exact address I’d be staying at (which border control demanded even though Panama seems to severely lack specific addresses for just about everything), I was out the airport doors and into the thick Panamanian humidity.

I would be spending my first few days in Panama City staying with Zach and Christine, friends I met in Wisconsin and who are living in Panama for 10 months while Christine teaches English. Zach picked me up from the airport, and I’m very grateful that he did. Even just figuring out how to get to the buses was a trial. If you’re trying to catch a bus from the airport, you need to follow a sidewalk between two arbitrary buildings, cross an official looking parking lot, follow a walkway that seems impossibly long after getting off a cramped plane, and race across the same road twice…or was it three times? Welcome to Panama.

Declining to hop on the smaller “chiva” buses that sped by with men hanging out the doors calling out their destinations, we boarded an official bus that would take us to the metro station. I felt dwarfed as we sped across the Cinta Costera, a highway that juts out into the Pacific and gives a fantastic view of the massive condominiums in some of the swankier parts of town. We switched over to the metro to complete our journey to Zach’s apartment, and I admit I was impressed, but that’s for another blog post. Once we arrived, I enjoyed a heaping portion of Zach’s famous lasagna and met their kitten Arriba. Arriba is a wild little cat that was rescued from an elevator, and Zach and Christine are watching her during their stay in Panama. I’ve never met a more energetic kitten!

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View from Zach and Christine’s apartment in Panama City

Despite the unseasonal rain, I was able to enjoy the fantastic views from Zach and Christine’s apartment when I woke up for my first full day in Panama. The city seems somehow more vast in the daylight, and being up on the 21st floor certainly helped. After a quick breakfast, Zach and I took the metro to Cinco de Mayo station, which was the closest stop to Avenue Central, a main street with tons of shops, loud music, and people touting their wares on individual microphones and speakers out into the street. It was hard to ignore the massive anti-American mural painted onto the wall at the metro exit. Many Panamanians don’t take kindly to the American ousting of Noriega, their president in the 1980s, as was made very obvious by the large graffiti-style artwork.

 

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Anti-American Artwork outside Cinco de Mayo Station, Panama City

 

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Entrance to a tunnel of artisans, Panama City

Avenida Central was packed, and apart from tourists and local Panamanians, I spotted several women from the indigenous tribes of Panama, set apart with their beautiful dresses rife with color. The sun was hot, but we were temporarily relieved from the heat as Zach led me down a closed-in market to see more of the local crafts. Shops sold lacy dresses and tembleques, which are beaded hairpieces that many Panamanian women wear in their hair, especially during festivals and holidays. Many artisans were working on their craft right there in their booths, and it was a delight to watch them work so skilfully. 

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Enjoying my first paleta – guava cheescake!

For my first Panamanian lunch, I enjoyed fresh ceviche and a passion fruit cocktail at Tantalo, and we satisfied our sweet tooth with paletas. I absolutely adore paletas – they fast became and remained my favorite treat in Panama. Paletas are essentially ice cream treats on sticks that come in a vast array of flavors and toppings, a few of my favorites being nutella, guava cheesecake, and strawberry with condensed milk filling. The day they come to the US en masse can’t come too soon.

 

We continued to explore Casco Viejo, the oldest part of the city and a dedicated UNESCO world heritage site. This was a gentrified part of town, and from the main square you could see many restored colonial-style buildings. Mere blocks away was some of the poorest parts of town, the line of demarcation so blatant that a pristine building was next to one literally crumbling into ruin. But I would be entering those areas later – for now, to explore Casco Viejo. For it being January, it was wondrous to be so warm and surrounded by flowers. We walked through several green spaces with towering trees and brilliant flowers, then explored more artisan booths out on a coastal walkway. I admired the molas, hand stitched panes of fabric made into colorful designs by the Guna people, and little figurines carved out of palm seeds, also known as palm ivory.

 

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Obelisk commemorating the failed French effort to build the Panama Canal

The intricate skyline of condos was ever present along the coastline, and it was slightly surreal to be browsing the art of the indigenous peoples while the towering and architecturally absurd buildings remained in view. Zach and I briefly admired a much smaller tower – an obelisk dedicated to the failed French effort to build the Panama Canal, years before the Americans did. Mildly depressing, but hey, lessons learned. On our way back to the central part of Casco Viejo, I decided to buy an iconic Panama Hat. When in Panama, right? After browsing several shops for one with the right fit and the color hat band I wanted, we were finally sold a hat by a beaming man who was absolutely convinced one size down was better for my head, casually jamming his knee into the hat to stretch it out. Sold. I love it.

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My jovial Panama hat salesman (Photo Credit: Zach Heise)

 

After enjoying a coffee in a cafe that was experiencing a power outage (evidently quite the norm, as explained by the cafe worker as he untangled a spaghetti bowl of extension cords to share power with his neighbor across the street), Zach and I discussed the merits of taking public transport to the Amador Causeway or just heading home. The Amador Causeway is a long strip of land made from the rock taken out for the canal, and sports a scenic walkway and many shops. However, it was getting late and the traffic was picking up, so we returned to the apartment for some rooftop swimming and panoramic views. We were even graced by a triple rainbow over the city.

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For dinner we enjoyed arepas with pulled chicken and pork rind. Arepas are sort of like thick tortillas made out of ground maize or cooked flour, and they’re most prominent in Columbian and Venezualan cuisine. My dish came slathered in sauce, a common theme I would soon find. We ended the evening meandering back to the apartment as I enjoyed one more paleta. No shame – it was vacation, and this was Panama.

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The joy of patacones and sauce. All the sauce. All of it.

The Northern Lights

I was already drifting off as the tour bus pulled away from the hostel, my head bouncing against the cold window. I was arguably insane for attempting to see the Northern Lights that night – the last 36 hours had included flying across the ocean, a walking tour of the city, riding across lava fields on a surprisingly fiery Icelandic horse, and absolutely no sleep. Fatigue was beginning to harden in that particularly soft place behind the eyes, and the cold was settling into my bones. But the Northern Lights are unpredictable. There are so many factors that go into them appearing. The weather, the cloud cover, the light pollution, and dumb luck. I would never forgive myself if the only night they were visible was my first night in Iceland and I didn’t go.

The excited chatter of the other tourists decrescendoed as the tour guide picked up the microphone. For the next hour or so, as we drove out of the city into the wilderness to find a place with minimal light pollution, she would regale us with everything from the early mythology of the Lights to the modern science explanation. I closed my eyes and listened to her tell the tale of ancient peoples revering and even fearing the Northern Lights, as they believed it was an opening to another dimension. As she spoke of Thor and Odin and the mythology of old, I slipped into a dream state, those old gods becoming giants in my consciousness, never making it to the scientific explanation.

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Where we saw the Northern Lights

The tour guide announced that we had arrived, and I woke with a start. We were, for all intents and purposes, at the ends of the Earth. Outside the window it was dark, and I could just make out the lava fields stretching out on all sides. We were on a peninsula that shot out of the south western coast of Iceland into the cold Atlantic. Sleep was thick in my mouth as I bundled up and stepped off the bus. I could hear the waves crashing onto the shore in the near distance, but other than that, there was nothing but the loud sound of an empty cold. I looked up and could just make out a thin, fuzzy green band crossing the sky. Our tour guide excitedly called out that we were in luck – they were out. She instructed us to take care walking over the lava rocks, and suddenly, as if on cue, the buses all turned off their lights, and we were plunged into darkness.

The Northern Lights clipped into focus. Long, pale green waves crossed the midnight sky with an otherworldly glow. I stumbled across the lava rocks to get away from the mass of people, and made my way to the point farthest away from the group, out on the lava field and closest to the sea.

The Lights played with us, alternating between smooth undulations and little tickles stabbing downwards. They danced in whorls between the clouds, and as we stood and watched for those few hours, they would come and go, fading away every now and then but suddenly coming back sharper than ever before. I had the strange thought that the Lights looked like what happens when you throw a handful of flour, or powdered sugar. The flour or sugar bursts forth and seems to hang in the air, then slowly falls to Earth at different rates making up thicker lines in some places. It may be a hint that I bake far too much, but I was struck by the similarity.

You could see thousands of stars, and the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. There was a plethora of shooting stars as a meteor shower began, and you could watch them shoot across the sky behind the Lights. I can see why people of old believed the Lights were an entrance to another world. The way they shone with a power of their own, and how they peeked out from behind dark clouds over the sea. Having slept through the scientific explanation, I was seeing them as the ancients did. No explanation, just magic. At one point, the Northern Lights swept towards us in a great wave, looking as it they were falling out of the sky down to Earth. Directly above us, one ray of Light pierced the sky, and as the greater wave came to join it with the motion of a cracking whip, we were immersed in the universe, looking up through a tunnel to God.

We stood staring up into the sky, the sound of icy waves at our backs, for over two hours. I stamped my feet in futile attempts to remain warm, and wrapped and re-wrapped my scarf around my face. My mind wanted to stare into the universe forever – this great unknown that was Heaven touching down on us. My body knew when to quit, however. That shockingly effective survival instinct is difficult to ignore, and I soon found that my subconscious was leading me back to the buses. And not before time – each step felt like a shooting dagger of ice on my numbed feet. My back and neck were screaming in protest, having been frozen in place looking straight up for so long. When I finally differentiated my bus from the rest of them, I found my tour guide beaming and exclaiming that this was one of the better shows she has seen. Given she was an Icelandic native, I was elated that I too had seen it.

As we trundled back to Reykjavik, the fatigue that had plagued me hours before was temporarily vanquished by the memory of dancing Lights. I kept going back to the idea that the Lights look like throwing flour, that something so spectacular and magical and heavenly could look like something so mundane and … ordinary. Or is it that something so ordinary can look like something so magical? I see flour in the Northern Lights, and I see the Northern Lights in flour. It’s like the universe is repeating itself, giving us a taste of miracles in everything we do. Just as we are fascinated by the fascinating, we can be fascinated by the mundane. The entire universe is in it. The universe repeats itself, and it is in the ordinary everyday that we can see it.

Porcelain Flowers and Farewells

Tuesday morning – my final hours in Martinique. I packed up my one bag and said goodbye to the little flat and cat. I drove north a bit to the Jardin de Balata, the national botanical gardens. I figured it was an easy visit for my last morning. I made it there after some harrowing suburban driving at the top of a mountain – I’ll never understand why Google thought it was a good idea to take me down single lane rows where the brick walls on either side could scrape my mirrors. At one point I immediately lost the suggestion of a face off with another driver down one of these roads. I quickly acquiesced and let her through by backing up several hundred feet.

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These flowers looked too perfect – like they were made of porcelain

In any case, I made it to the gardens. Perched on the side of a piton, there were views of the rainforests in the distance and the most beautiful flowers right in front of you. I knew that there were beautiful flowers in the world, but it’s one thing to see pictures, another to see them growing right in front of you.These bizarre and beautiful things are real. Roses that looked like porcelain, snaking leaves that were covered in “fur”, little shrubs that looked like they grew their own pots to sit in. I’d never even looked that closely at the base of a palm tree – the 

thick trunk looks like it’s hiding hundreds of tiny “feelers” that peek out at the bottom. Sort of like the end of a shaving brush. There was a tree top walkway that make me really feel on top of the world – rickety wooden bridges and rope railings, people walking far below.

After the gardens, I went to the little gift shop next store. I bought a dress of traditional Martinique fabric (madras) and sat at a table to drink an Orangina. The older French couple who owned the store sat with me a bit. They expressed their love of Martinique and the gardens and were (surprisingly) impressed by my quite basic French, which was a confidence booster.

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View from the hillside of Le Jardin de Balata

And just like that, my trip was over. I drove to the airport, returned the car, and flew away. Needless to say, Martinique has a special place in my heart, and I plan on returning. I learned so much on that trip. A love of hiking, a real (foolhardy) sense of adventure. My next goal? Hike Mont Pelee, the famous volcano of Martinique. Ever onwards, ever upwards.

Hiking off the beaten path into a rainforest

On Monday morning, I decided I was brave enough to go on a hike listed in my new Martinique hiking book. I entered what I believed to be the address in my phone and set out. Soon enough I was out of the city and on the winding forest roads of the pitons, getting farther and farther from civilization. Luckily there were plenty of joggers and walkers out, so the few people I hesitantly asked in French were able to point me forward.

I reached the end of the road after what seemed an eternity. I had nothing but my little purse, walking shoes, bathing suit, and sense of adventure. I locked my car and set out down the path. The path ended at a river, but I had been told that this river was the path, and I had to wade up it into the rainforest.

My ears were full of the sounds of the water tumbling over the rocks and birdsong. There were hundreds, thousands of bird flying and chattering around me. The cliff faces on the sides of the river rose up steeply, and every now and then I found a mini-waterfall, but those were not my ultimate goal. I got further and further from humanity, civilization. My knee was smarting from a bad fall on the rocks, and my heart was pounding due to exertion and nervousness. I had no map, no cell service. I just had a snack and a bottle of water. No one knew I was there. I was miles from home, from anyone I knew.

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One of the many rock cairns along the river

Every time my fear bubbled to the surface, I found a cairn – a rock sculpture that someone before me had left behind. You could see that each person on the path had added a rock as they passed, and each twist in the river sent me a new glimmer of hope in these rock sculptures.

It was hard to be too fearful – my surroundings were breathtaking. The banks of the river rose so high and steep on either side it feel like the rainforest was swallowing me up. The vines from the trees reached down from an impossible height as if to shake my hand. Little lizards jumped across the rocks in front of me, seemingly baffled by such a large, blundering creature in their midst.

And suddenly, a final twist in the river, and the banks opened out to reveal the falls. The falls themselves were tucked back into a cliff, so the only way to reach them was by swimming. I threw my things on the bank – no fear of thieves that far in no man’s land – and dove in. I waded and swam the thirty or so feet up to the falls. The water was crystal clear and chilly – a delightful contrast to the warm, humid air. And just before the waterfall, a boulder, peeking up through the crashing white bubbles from the falls.I sat there for ages. I watched the falls, breathed in the air, listened to the birds. I was completely alone.

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Swimming in a waterfall in the heart of the Martinique rainforest

I returned down the river, hopping down the waterfalls on my way back. My shoes were soaked, and I did drop my purse into the river for a hot second. Just before I reached the car, I met a man embarking on his own hike. We shared the quiet nod of adventurers.

I only learned later that what I did wasn’t actually a hike. I had, of course, read the book wrong. I literally just walked up a river in the rainforest in Martinique. That explains the solitude, and the distinct lack of trail. And yet, I’d do it again in a heartbeat, hopefully with just as much luck the next time. Onwards to St. Anne and Les Salines.

I hadn’t planned on going to Les Salines, which is a picture perfect beach front in the south east of Martinique. However, Sara and Yanis wouldn’t hear of me missing it, and insisted I go. I drove around the pitons of the south, and managed to see a gas station with no line at all. I was absolutely taken advantage of by the workers. When one man came up to the window and said “how much?” I knew I was out of luck. “All?” I hesitantly respond. “Tout?” I finally just gave him 30 euros and he got the message. In any case, it worked, and I had gas.

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This was honestly the most delicious meal I had in Martinique

I ate lunch at a quiet beach side restaurant, with seemingly only one employee and perhaps a chef in the back. I asked for whatever the most authentic meal was, and although I have no idea what exactly I ate, it was the most delicious meal of my trip. I had an appetizer of what seemed to be fritters of some sort. For the main meal, I had chicken with what I think was papaya sauce, and what looked like mashed potatoes but was actually a banana gratin, soft and flavorful. For dessert, a fruit salad, with such bright and sweet flavors it made fruit back in the US seem like shadows.

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Nothing like that Caribbean blue – off the coast of Les Salines

I picked another hike from my book and set out to Les Salines. This was definitely a more popular beach, but I luckily found parking. The landscape was familiar – almost like that on Presqu’ile de Caravelle. Thick mangrove forests up until the beach itself. But this beach was beyond compare – pristine white sands, palm trees leaning out over the beach, and the water itself – clear and calm and brilliant blue. This was a true Caribbean paradise.

There were more people than I’ve typically seen on a beach, but not crowded by any stretch of the imagination. French families and friend groups, with Martinique locals pushing carts of tropical frozen ices down the sandy paths. The trail began here, and followed the coastline around to the west. 

This was an enjoyable hike, though nowhere near as exciting or breathtaking as Caravelle. (That will forever be hard to top). I walked through mangroves, found more sky high cacti, and definitely stumbled upon some unsuspecting European bathers, if you know what I mean. When I returned to Les Salines, I laid out on the beach a while and felt safe enough with several families nearby to swim in the ocean and dive into some waves. I drove home with the taste of salt on my skin.

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A sandy beach picture of toes is essential for millennials, right?

Trois Îslets, Beaches, and Rum

I woke up on Sunday morning to the sound of church choirs singing. There are a great number of church-going folk in Martinique, and as I had my breakfast on the front steps with Cali the cat, I could hear their hymns echoing up the valley. Sunday was my day in Trois Îslets, a piece of the island rich with history and museums.

My first stop was to the sugar museum. I wasn’t sure how it would be different from any of the other sugar plantations or rum distilleries I’d seen, and I was never to find out. A hastily scrawled sign on the outermost gate informed me it was closed for the day, no reason given.

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La Savane des Esclaves

Windy country roads then led me to La Savane des Esclaves, a reproduction slave village up in the hills. Like most every touristy museum in Martinique, it was tucked away. I accidentally bought tickets for the tour in French, but the guide was friendly and didn’t have the tendency to speak French at lightening speed that literally everyone else on the island had (at least, that’s what it felt like). The village huts were small, with straw roofs and rudimentary furnishings and tools. There was a working Creole garden with herbs and vegetables, and goats and chickens roamed on the outskirts. There was a host of cats napping under the broad leaves of the tropical flora, no cares in the world.

The exhibit itself was sobering. Slaves were so mistreated in Martinique, as I imagine they were everywhere, and in any time. Torture tools filled one hut, illustrations showing how they were used. I will never be able to understand or even begin to imagine how any human can treat another human like that. If the islanders truly believe that Josephine brought back slavery to the island, then I cannot blame them for hating her. The majority of the current population of Martinique is made up of descendants of the slaves brought over from Africa hundreds of years ago – ancestral memory runs deep.

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The ruins of Josephine’s birthplace – Musee de la Pagerie

My next stop was the birthplace of Josephine herself. The first wife of Napoleon and empress of France was born on Martinique, and in such relatively humble beginnings, compared to where she ended up. Le Musée de la Pagerie has tours, but I asked if I could just wander about since I was the only one there, and after a French tour at the slave village, my head was about to explode. A man who I believe was a security guard walked me about so I could look at what was left of the foundation of the great house and the sugar mill. The old kitchen was still standing, and the inside was made into what looked more like a museum. Porcelain dishes, furniture, and even a lock of Josephine’s hair rested inside. I tried to make conversation with the gentleman, but his English was non-existent and he never got louder than a whisper, though he was friendly enough. He did express his surprise that I was alone touring Martinique, as most people I encountered did. I didn’t know what to think of that surprise, but maybe I was shattering stereotypes, and I’ll run with that thought.

IMG_5222For lunch I drove to Anse Mitan, a popular beach in the area. I had an early lunch at a beachfront cafe. The bartender tried to convince me to come back that night for the music and dancing, and if I had an ounce of courage with handsome men, I would have. I downed my tropical fruit cocktail and headed across the pitons to Diamant. The beaches of Diamant offered views of the Diamond Rock, an enormous boulder-like island that jutted out of the sea, that evidently used to house the forts of the English. It is abandoned by all but birds now. After about five U-turns, I found Anse Caffard, a somber memorial to slaves of Martinique and all over the world. They are great white statues in a triangle formation, pointing out to 110 degrees. The formation symbolizes the triangular trade, and the direction is where a ship carrying slaves came from one fateful night, crashing on the rocks just out a few hundred yards. No one knows where the ship actually came from, or where it was going, but all died, including the slaves all chained together.

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Anse Caffard – a haunting memorial to slaves

I wandered into a few shops in Diamant, but the town was pretty empty. I bought a French book on hiking in Martinique, figuring I may be able to fit in a few more hikes the next day since I’d had so much fun the day before. I bought some coconut ice cream and laid out on the beach with the book to do some planning and tanning. I was in the Caribbean – beach time had to happen at some point.

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Diamant out off the coast

The beach was sparsely populated. I was near a pier that went out into the waves, a fisherman sitting out on the tip. I watched to young boys leap off the pier into the waves below, right next to the sign that said “danger: absolutely no jumping or swimming”. My heart spent a good amount of time in my stomach as I waited for one of them to be thrown into the pillars of the pier by the strong waves, or to lose energy in the frantic swim back to shore. And yet, neither scenario happened. Miraculously.

Thoroughly cooked through by the sun, I saw that I had a good amount of time before sunset and nothing left to do, so I decided to drive to Habitation Clement, a rum distillery and plantation in the center of the island. I hadn’t planned on going since it was so out of the way of all my other activities, and I’d seen a rum distillery or two at this point. But I had time, and I’m glad I did.

 

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Thousands of barrels of rum – their sweet scent permeating the warm air

Habitation Clement is inland a bit, surrounded by fields of banana trees and sugarcane. Like the other distilleries, the air is fresh and smells slightly sweet as the rum evaporates from the barrels in the warehouses. I bought a ticket for the tour. After a jaunt through some botanical gardens, I walked through the distillery itself, with all the giant and complicated machinery. You can walk up in the rafters and really feel like you are just another cog in the wheel, so to speak. The vats were huge – I’d love to see them in action. Continuing on, you can see the storage houses with barrels upon barrels of rum stacked all the way to the ceiling, each stamped with the Clement symbol. The smell is stronger the closer you get to the barrels, and makes you thirsty. The second part of the tour is the plantation houses themselves, restored to in their Creole glory. The stables, kitchens, outer houses, and main house itself. I just love how the Creole style houses are so open to the outdoors – just shutters on the windows, and large, open, airy rooms so the sea breezes can sneak in carrying whispers of rum. The bedrooms on the upper floor are my favorite. The linens on the bed look fresh-pressed and so white. With the windows open and the sugared landscape visible, I felt transported to a different era and life.

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The plantation house at Habitation Clement

The tour concludes with a tasting room and gift shop. My favorite rums were dark and tasted like liquid gold running over my tongue, but unfortunately they did not come in airplane bottle size. I got a few tiny bottles just for the sake of it, then hopped in the car home.

For dinner, I bought a pizza from the restaurant down the road. I wasn’t brave enough to go farther than that in the dark, and besides, I never knew what would be open. I ended the evening with drinks on the balcony with my hosts.

 

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My lovely hosts – Sara and Yanis!

Sara and Yanis are filmmakers. They both have family ties in Martinique that go back years and years, though also spent time in France itself. They seemed delighted to be able to practice their English, and when they did speak French, they forgot how green I was and slowly sped up until I asked them to slow down again. They were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and mixed me several rum drinks to try (very small drinks, of course! Just a few sips each). It was then that I found out why the gas lines were so long and scary looking. There was a gas strike going on, and people were getting what gas they could before it ran out. Yikes. The last thing I wanted was to be stranded somewhere without gas, so I made a promise to myself to get gas at the next opportunity. We said our good nights, and they promised that should I return to Martinique, I was always welcome to stay with them. A promise I certainly may take them up on!

Waterfalls and Coastline Hikes

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Yanis and Sara’s cat, Cali

On the morning of April 1, 2017, I made coffee in the kitchen area of the room using the Nescafe I’d purchased the night before. I put together a meat and cheese sandwich and went out to sit on the front steps to eat breakfast looking out across the bay. Cali, Sara and Yanis’ cat, came to join me, meowing hungrily and invading all of my personal space. Her friendly demeanor was very welcome, though I suspect it was a ploy just to get food out of me. I pet her goodbye and hopped in the Volkswagen to make my way across the island to Les Gorges de la Falaise, a waterfall hike I didn’t know too much about but seemed like an interesting adventure.

This would be longest drive so far in Martinique, and I was appropriately nervous. I’m sure there are plenty of countries where the drivers are far more insane, but as this was my first exposure to foreign driving, it was no joke to me. First, islanders drive fast. They don’t mess around. Not only do they drive fast, but they drive fast on narrow, windy, steep roads that make up about 90% of the roads in Martinique. And if you’re not going fast enough, they have no hesitation in letting you know, coming right up on your tail and flashing their lights or honking their horns. In those situations I would quickly let them pass – I had far more patience than they. Second, I only saw one stoplight, once, on the whole island, and that was due to a lane closure from a landslide. Every intersection was a roundabout – even those on the highways. Imagine driving on I-66 and suddenly having a roundabout. Let’s just say I got really good at them really quickly. Third, I had no idea what was going on with the street signs. Posted speed limits would be 90 or 30, I wasn’t sure since the signs were basically next to each other. Was one a minimum? That’s quite a speed difference, not that anyone paid attention to the signs. My favorite sign was just a triangle sign with “!” on it. “!” what? What am I “!”ing about? I never actually knew. Finally, you never knew what you would encounter around the next bend. People take parking where they can get it on an island, even if it means right on the road, or even straddling those impossibly deep ditches. I’m honestly surprised I never saw a cow or goat on the road itself. They tended to wander aimlessly, though evidently all had owners despite looking wild. On top of it all, I had a constant hum of panic that I wouldn’t be able to get gas due to the gas strike and impossibly long lines at the stations, so I’m as surprised as you I got through the trip with nary a scratch.

As I drove across the island, I decided immediately that I liked the eastern side of the island more. Still in the shadows of the pitons, the east is less crowded and more quiet. It seems to me it’s the real Martinique, though that’s never a fair statement, because no place can be a false idea of itself. I drove for over an hour, listening to my American music on my phone as well as Google’s horrible directions. I learned to take Google’s advice with many grains of salt, since clearly it was confused by the roundabouts and often would cheerfully say “turn left” when in fact, it meant turn right at the roundabout. Eventually, I ended up on a very bumpy dirt road that tested the limits of my car’s suspension that led into sugarcane fields, in all appearances the middle of nowhere. “There is no way this is right”, I thought, bouncing up and down over the potholes. I was surrounded by sloping farmland and sheep. If not for the sugarcane I could have believed I was in Ireland. And yet, I persevered, and lo and behold, at the end of the road, a sign for the hike. Never underestimate the landscape of Martinique – it can change on a dime.

I parked in the empty lot and walked up to the desk out in the open air. A man with dark skin and bulging muscles greeted me. He seemed a bit past middle-aged, with a brace on one knee and severely limited English, yet I could tell immediately he was the real deal. He confirmed I had to leave all my belongings in the car, and I was soon ready with nothing but a bathing suit. My guide graciously allowed me to wear his water shoes, since all I had were my walking shoes (though their blissful dry existence would only last two more days anyway). He pointed to indicate I should follow the young French couple who had just arrived down into the forest, and to then wait with them at the “cottage”.

I approached the tree line and found the entrance to the hike – easily missed, past some coops with chickens that had perfected the side-eye. The trail began with steep stairs leading down into the rainforest – so steep and huge, I had to hang on to the rope and pipe railings to ease my way down. I was plunged into a raw wilderness. The towering cliffs on either side made me feel small and insignificant, in good company with the tiny lizards that scuttled away from me as I made my slow descent.

I soon caught up with the French couple and fell in behind them. They were silent, as adventuring French couples usually are. We soon came to the river itself at the bottom of the valley, and heard dogs barking at us through the trees – large, rough ones by the sound of it. Whistling pierced the thick air to call them off – the source of which was a man in a rough white shirt and pants who looked like he was born of the the rainforest itself. The “cottage” was a rudimentary shelter and not much else – just some tables and a barbeque pit. A rest area for the tour guides, I imagine. He said something in fast French to the young couple which I couldn’t understand, so I followed them onwards to stop right where the steep cliff sides became the gorge itself – narrowing intensely to meet the river before a sharp turn.

As the young couple sat on a boulder to wait, I peeked ahead around the corner. I was overwhelmed – an unreal sight before me, something I could only dream of, or at least just see in movies. To my left and right, the gorge rose four or five stories. Sunlight trickled down through the foliage brave enough to stick to the rock, creating an unearthly shimmering on the water and rock wall sides below. Birds, loud and musical and numerous, flitted back and forth all the way up the cliffs as they went about their business. The crystal clear water came up to my knees, and I could see several mini-waterfalls tumbling down before me before the next turn. It became clear to me – this was the hike. No trail, no path. Just up the river. I was ecstatic.

Our guide soon joined us – the one who had loaned me his shoes. He himself was barefoot. He wasn’t much for talking, simply indicating with gestures we were to follow up the river. Not that talking made much difference, really. The crashing of the river soon drowned out most other noises. The three of us hikers made our slow way up the river and over the small waterfalls. Our guide rarely stuck to the paths that we took – in fact, several times he clambered over us on ledges mere inches wide, or even laying himself out across the gorge and using the leverage of his hands and feet on either side of the river to shimmy his way over our heads. The water got deeper and deeper, forcing us to swim at some points. The waterfalls we scaled grew larger and larger. At one point, we had to climb a ladder tied to a boulder next to one of the taller ones. The ladder was lashed to the rocks with thick ropes, yet still loomed precariously out into the air with the cold falls crashing down right next to it, making the rungs slick.

I remember thinking at one point that I could choose to be afraid. These was unlike anything I’d ever done before. It was dangerous, unknown, and I was alone. I had fear, of course. I leapt headfirst into this trip with a certain level of apprehension. But I felt I was at a turning point. If I chose to be scared in this moment, it meant fear would decide my adventures. Nerves would crush opportunities, and erase memories before they happened. So in that moment, as I glanced at the ladder, I pushed off the rocks to swim towards it with hardly a second thought. I chose, in that split second, to not be afraid, and that would define my remaining days on Martinique.

After a solid amount of wading and climbing, the gorge suddenly opened up into a cavernous space, the falls before us. These were the largest of the hike, and insurmountable. Most of the sky above was covered by the gorges jutting out over us, but a good amount of sun came through – more than enough to make the water droplets look like diamonds tumbling down. Our guide gestured that we each needed to go walk beneath the falls three times – whether this was tradition or all he had patience for, I’ll never know. The young couple hesitated just enough for me to take the plunge and go first.

I clutched at the the sides of the gorge and made my way under the crashing waters. It was painful – it felt like being pelted with hundreds of cold, wet tennis balls, and the force was so great I could hardly breathe. And yet, it was powerful and free and beautiful. I did it twice more, making a wish for good measure, in case it was actually a Martinique tradition.

We made our way back down the river. I wouldn’t say going back was any easier- especially going down the waterfalls. Our guide indicated that we could jump off of one into the pool below. He firmly gestured that we only had one spot we could land in – anywhere else would be bad news. Of the couple, the man took the leap, the woman the ladder. My turn – the guide turned to me and asked if I was afraid “Avez-vous peur?” I smiled and said “non”, firmly. That was the first time I saw the guide smile. “Ah, bon” he said and pointed. I leapt off the rocks and plunged into the cold water, as if catapulted by the waterfall itself.

We arrived back at the hut, where billows of smoke suggested the other guide was starting their lunch of smoked chicken. He and our guide waved us onwards to go back to the entrance, eager to get to their meal. I changed quickly, got contact info from the young couple in hopes of getting some of their Go Pro footage (which they did actually send!), took a deep breath, and pulled up the address of my next stop, adrenaline pounding through my veins.

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Holy banana batman

I drove half an hour through rolling sugarcane fields and banana plantations to the Banana Museum, which was tucked away in the center of the island. I was still a bit dazed from my morning experience, but slowly wandered through the park that had hundreds of types of banana trees on display and soaked up the atmosphere. I’d never even seen a banana tree before, let alone so many different varieties. I appropriately ate a banana for a snack and headed towards my next stop – Presqu’ile de Caravelle, a peninsula on the east side of the island that housed Chateau Dubuc, the ruins of a sugar plantation and manor house. I took a gamble and pulled off onto a narrow road that led down to a beach in search of lunch, and found the Cocoa Beach Cafe, where I ordered lunch. Of course, my French is already dubious, and my knowledge of seafood even in English is bad, so I stupidly felt safe ordering cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are, in fact, not normal looking fish. Lesson number a million on ordering in a foreign country. Naturally, I ate it, and I’m glad I tried it, but I shan’t be doing that again in a hurry. I dipped my toes in the ocean in front of the restaurant just because I could, then continued towards the end of the peninsula to reach the Chateau Dubuc.

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This was…not what I expected. Cuttlefish from the Cocoa Beach Cafe

 

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The ruins of Chateau Dubuc

Like at the start of most of my great adventures in Martinique, the road I was on became rather tumultuous. I drove up the dusty, unpaved road, following the twists and turns and signs for Chateau Dubuc. I reached a slew of parked cars and left mine with them, walking down the hill towards the historic site, passing one or two tourists along the way. The site itself was, I suppose, your typical historical ruins site. I purchased a ticket and audio log from the front gift shop and meandered through the rough stone buildings, which included the manor house, sugar mill, stables, (suspected) slave dungeons, warehouses, etc. From the top of the hill where the manor house sat, I could see a lighthouse perched on a piton off in the distance, surrounded by forests further down the peninsula. I enjoyed the well that had been completely overgrown by a tree, so it seemed as if the well was built into the center of it. The plantation was right on the coast of the bay, and the weather was clear and hot. Not humid though, which I appreciated, as it would have made the sweat already creeping out of my clothes even worse.

I wandered down to the tree line by the coast and discovered the old canal channels built for ferrying the sugar out to the bay. Across the plantation, as I came upon the giant rum vat (?), I encountered my first moving ground. I think of it that way because if you unfocused your eyes, it seems as if the ground in front of you is shifting. In reality, the movements and the scuttling noises are coming from hundreds of crabs of all different colors and sizes scurrying out of the way and back into their little holes.

I made my way back towards the exit, a little at a loss on what to do next. It was mid-afternoon, and I’d done all on my agenda for the day. I wanted to squeeze more in while there was sunlight, since the day before I had learned that once the sun set, it got lonely and a bit more questionable. But what was there to do?

A giant signpost outside the gift shop caught my attention. Completely in French, (of course), it was a map of hikes that one could do on the peninsula. There were two options, a 1.5 hour hike and a 3.5 hour hike. The sign indicated that the trails were marked. I glanced at my watch – exactly 3.5 hours until sunset. I knew once it got dark I wouldn’t want to be out on a trail, but I figured I could make the call where the trail split, and besides, I was in shape. It was just a walking trail. I bet I could do it even faster.

I purchased another bottle of water from the gift shop and set out. I had my walking shoes, a bottle of water, some guava pastries left over, and my little travel purse. I felt as prepared as I could feel heading out into the wilds, thought that’s not saying much.

For the first half hour of the hike, I could almost believe I was back in Virginia. It was like any woodland trail. However, the soundtrack of rustling leaves was caused by the numerous crabs, not an errant squirrel or fellow hiker. Every now and then the tree tops above me buzzed with a strange fervor – I never hung around long enough to find out exactly why, but I’m guessing it was with insects I’d rather not meet. Yellow and blue dots were painted on random trees indicating that I was still on the right path, and had yet to make my decision. So far the hike was pleasant and calm, so when I reached the split, I decided to go the long way around. I wanted to see the coastline, not just woods.

The landscape slowly became more unfamiliar. The trees became thick, with trunks that split into roots at waist height and pierced into the soil like tentacles. The ground became moist, loose. Instead of walking on the dirt trail, I was on a wooden walkway, with signs warning hikers to stick to the raised walkways. I encountered several clearings that looked…suspicious. Devoid of trees or plants, they looked like giant patches of dirt, but branches would be sticking up every now and then, as if they had fallen into the earth. My brain worked to convince my heart that it was just wet, unstable soil, and not the quicksand we’re taught to fear as children.

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The pathway into the mangrove forest

I had entered the mangrove forests, and unknowingly chosen the longest path. The trees with the stilt-like roots became so thick, they would be impossible to cut through if I had left the path. The ground they were covering turned into shallow water, and it rippled and shimmered beneath the roots with the movement of wildlife. The rustling of leaves turned into the drip, drip of the water and the crash of distant waves, hinting that the coastline was near.

Excited to see the ocean from a hiker’s perspective, I soldiered on. Suddenly, the path broke out of the thick mangroves onto a narrow ledge that I was to follow directly on the beach, overlooking a bay. I had to watch my footing, as the ledge was covered in white pumice stones. Brilliantly, (read: stupidly), I picked up a pumice stone that reminded me of something right out of a Miyazaki film and put it in my purse, using the empty ziploc bag that had housed my recently eaten guava pastries. So, keep in mind, I now had a rock in my purse, with about 2.5 hours to go.

I continued down the coastline, still headed towards the eastern tip of the peninsula that jutted out into the Atlantic. I had yet to see another soul since the path split. There were some boats out in the bay, and as water carries sound so strongly, I could hear shouts and laughter of those on board. A giant, dome-like island loomed up at the entrance of the bay, blocking most of my view out into the Atlantic. It looked completely devoid of human activity, but lush with greenery.

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Removed from humanity – waves crashing on the Caravelle Peninsula, Martinique

The tree line soon disappeared, and I was at the Atlantic coastline at the end of the peninsula. The path quickly turned from relatively stable and straight to extremely rocky and narrow. The blue dots showing the way were now few and far between, and more than once did I become nervous that I was not actually following the correct trail. With all the rocks strewn everywhere, it was so hard to tell. But the scenery was breathtaking. The ocean crashed into the rocks on my right, and I was at the first of several small inlets that would characterize the coastline of the peninsula. By this time, the sun was beating down hard on my shoulders. I was thirsty, but my water was almost completely gone. Sweat drenched my shirt and shorts and dripped down my face. My hands would burn each time they had to touch the rock to help me over a particularly difficult ledge. I had never felt more alive.

But it was at this point I began to worry a bit. This was no easy jaunt through the woods – this was getting treacherous. I had no cell phone service, my water was almost gone, and I had greedily wolfed down my pastries in the mangroves. If this was the landscape I would be stuck in when the sun went down, it did not bode well. I picked up my pace a bit, though I still felt as if I was picking my way through the rocks so slowly.

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Cacti? In Martinique? My education never ceases

The trail began to climb, as did my anxiety level. Yet suddenly, a voice. “Bonjour Madam!” I spun around, swinging sweat droplets in a neat arc, to see a man casually jogging up the steep incline towards me. Before I even registered, he was past me and continuing up the hill. He had barely broken a sweat. I stood there a moment, mouth agape – what a poor showing I was making, with my exhaustion and nerves. But how could he be that in shape? Was I hallucinating? This fear of hallucination wasn’t made any better when I encountered my first thirty foot cactus. “There are no cacti in the Caribbean!” I mused, drawing upon my extensive ecosystem knowledge of this foreign land. 

I made it to the top of the cliffs, which is what I found out I was climbing. I was much higher than I thought I was, and at this point, because superman had gone well ahead, I was completely alone. The Atlantic pounded the rocks of the cliffs below with the deepest blue waves I’d seen yet in Martinique, and behind me, the island stretched out into the horizon. The sea wind felt so good on my sun-soaked skin, and I felt on top of the world. There is nothing else that I can say to describe that experience, except that there is a unique beauty in solitude and wilderness.

Off into the distance I could see that same lighthouse I had first spotted at Chateau Dubuc. It looked no closer – in fact, it looked farther away (it was), and I anxiously recalled that I would need to pass it before getting back to my car. Mild panic, as the sunlight was shifting to that deep gold that meant its source was beginning to sink lower.

I’m not exactly sure how I made it down that rocky coastline in such a state. I remember rushing over volcanic rocks, eyes wide whenever I saw signs touting the dangers of the cliffs and sheer drops into the rocky sea, from which there was no protection. The volcanoes had left strange rock formations – one boulder looking like a joystick right out of the ground, and others were out at sea in bizarre shapes, one called the “devil’s table”, perhaps because it would be so easy to sail into and resulting in shipwrecks. My favorite sight, that I wish I had more time to appreciate, was an inlet where the incoming waves had created a sort of oceanic cave into the cliff. It looked like it was right out of a pirates movie. If I could climb down the cliffs and into the caves, I’d find some lost city or trove of treasure. But this was not the time. I remember thinking that this whole situation was how hikers died on their travels – it does happen. No water, no cell service, no clue. The blue dots were so far apart – my anxiety levels reaching new heights every time it had been a while since I’d seen one, then the relief washing over me whenever one popped up unexpectedly on a random stone or branch.

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The gorgeous coastline of the Caravelle Peninsula

The sun was setting on the other side of the island and I was in shadows now. Another hiker came up behind me at one point – a lone Frenchman in a yellow shirt. (Strange what details you remember). My fear of being caught out after dark overruled by fear of strange men in the middle of nowhere, and I asked him if he thought I could make it back before sunset. He looked at me and replied that I might be able to, but if I hurried. And then, hesitantly, “Are you foreign?” I nodded. He seemed shocked. “Why are you out here alone? As a foreigner?” I thought to myself, “wow, I have absolutely no idea, this is insane”, but responded aloud that I was “looking for adventure”. He inhaled deeply, paused, then shrugged, probably thinking “well, you found it”, or, more likely, “crazy Americans”.

He continued on at a quick clip and I upped my pace so I wouldn’t be too far behind him – some human contact had made me a bit more bold, and I didn’t want to lose it. The light was fading quickly. I tripped more than once over the rocky footing, and the thought of twisting my ankle and losing valuable time made me slow down, but not too much. Suddenly, over the crest of a hill, and the road was paved. This was the place I’d been looking for – the straight road that led from the old weather station across the mountain, past the lighthouse, back to the car park. I momentarily debated going to look at the weather station, but a cursory glance told me that it was pretty off limits. The rusty gates at the entrance made me feel like I was part of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot – the setting certainly fit, and I felt a bit like Lara Croft, if only in my optimistic, delusional exhaustion.

Although the road was paved which made my footing much surer, the path still climbed upwards. My thighs were screaming. I thought I was in shape, but this three hour trek was no joke. I cursed gravity until I remember that because of gravity, the hill had to eventually end. Someday. Somewhere. That positive thought kept me going.

I began to pass more and more people, either on their own casual walks or jogging. I suppose that many people come to park their car and just walk or jog up and down the paved path that makes up about 1/6th of the whole hike. They all seemed fresh as daisies, out for a calm evening stroll. I must have looked a picture, pouring with sweat and huffing and puffing as I passed by the other way.

I approached the turning for the lighthouse, and figured I’d made it this far, so I could afford to veer off a bit and see it. I climbed up to the top of the hill that jutted out of the forest where the lighthouse was placed. The lighthouse itself was closed, but I followed the steps that led around the back to the lookout area. Lo and behold, my yellow-shirted hiker friend was there to greet me. He seemed pleased that I had made it, but he couldn’t have been more pleased than me. We stood staring out over the island together for a while in silence, watching the sunset in the distance, the entire island between us and it. I rummaged in my pack for my phone for a picture, which he offered to take for me. He must have noticed my empty water bottle, and asked if I was thirsty. Immediately, visions of crystal clear water teased my imagination, and I would have given my left arm for a sip of water. Yet out loud, I mumbled “a bit, but I’m almost back to my car”. He offered me an entire water bottle. I tried to politely refuse, but he must have seen the deep desire in my eyes and didn’t take no as an answer.

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Exhausted, sunburned, and thrilled. The view from the lighthouse on the Caravelle Peninsula. Photo credit to my savior.

That yellow-shirted man probably saved my life. That was some of the sweetest water I have ever tasted in my life. Just remembering how good that water tasted and how thirsty I was has me sipping cold water right now as I write this, just relishing the fact that I have water right here with me. An entire glass of that precious resource, which I’ll never be stupid enough to bring only a small bottle of on a three hour hike again.

I returned to my car and drove back to eat at the restaurant I had stopped at for lunch. I was more careful ordering dinner – no cuttlefish this time. I suppose I could have found a new eatery, but I didn’t think I could handle any more adventure for the day than was necessary. I had a glass of wine, coconut chicken and salad. My next test for the day was driving back home in the dark. It was a Saturday night, and drunk driving is a real problem in Martinique. Not to mention most of the drive was in the country, and pitch black through banana and sugarcane fields. With much holding of breath, I made it back safely, seeing several accidents and police chases en route.

And my final adventure of the day was in simply attempting to take a shower. I hopped in, at my most vulnerable (as you are when about to shower), and remember thinking how odd it was that part of the shower wall was moving. And there, swimming terrifyingly into focus, the largest cockroach I have ever seen in my life. Attempts to drown it in water was futile. The drops just bounced right off the exoskeleton as a minor annoyance. I had no desire to be brave, immediately caving and messaging Sara to come help me. She graciously came downstairs, saw the roach, and whacked at it a few times with her tiny flip flop. As it scurried away, she grabbed it with some toilet paper and took it outside. Her bravery next to my cowardice was laughable, but I suppose she must have been used to it. I’ll at least tell myself that. And I’ll be glad that the one obstacle I could not overcome that day was a roach in the shower, and not anything else out in the wilderness.

The Old Paris of the West and Fort-de-France

 

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The view from my AirBNB – looking out over Fort-de-France

Friday was my day in Fort-de-France, as well as the day of my Karambole tasting tour. I woke up on the early side of 6am and threw open my door, excited to see Martinique in daylight. I was not disappointed. The view from my doorway looked down onto the bay of Fort-de-France; I was perfectly perched, and could see out across the city and bay to the sea. I hopped in my car and made my way into the city, a bit braver now that there was sunlight. Driving during the day was slightly less terrifying than during the night, but only slightly. I only had to change my route once, so I definitely didn’t get as lost as I thought I would. It helps that this city is incredibly small compared to Paris or DC. It’s closer to the size of Madison, Wisconsin if nothing else. I kept my fingers crossed for a parking space, and was lucky to find one right on the pier side, not even having to parallel park. I was rather early for meeting up with my tour guide, so I got out to explore a bit and find breakfast.

I should always just expect that my first meals in a foreign country are going to be an learning experience. The city still seemed to be sleeping, but I found a little pastry shop. My brain had absolutely not shifted to French mode, so I ordered a cup of coffee and naturally got a tiny espresso. The French don’t really do coffee to go… I drank it in two sips, munched on a raisin pastry and moved on.

 

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I’ll keep my head, thanks

I walked around a bit and stumbled upon the headless statue of Josephine in La Savane Park. The locals here don’t like her much – hence the missing head. They blame her for bringing back slavery to Martinique after it was abolished the first time. Her head was knocked off twice, so now the replacement stays in a museum. I suppose she had enough admirers (including myself) so I don’t feel too bad for her.

I walked to the hotel designated as the meeting place and met Chrystalle, our guide. We picked up a mother and daughter pair, Americans Anne-Marie and Maris, a French-Canadian couple (Sylvie and Jean-Claude), and two Hungarians (Gertrude and someone who’s name I don’t remember but was decidedly Germanic, like Hans or something). Anne-Marie and Maris were talkative and seemed excited to find another English speaker. Sylvie and Jean-Claude were gently sweet and more than obliging to take pictures for me. Gertrude and “Hans” had a bit of a language barrier, though I did discover that Gertrude was 81! I’ll admit I couldn’t believe that given how adventurous she was.

Chrystalle filled the time driving in between stops with stories of the history and culture of the island. We were on the Pile et Face tour, that took us north of the city. Our first stop was a church built in the likeness of Sacre-Coeur in Paris, to my surprise. It was built following the eruption of Mont Pelee in 1902, since the people believed the eruption was punishment for their sins and the church was their penance. It offered beautiful views of the capital city and bay, and inside it was a simple sanctuary with older ladies methodically cleaning the altar. I offered a candle prayer, then met up with the group again for a tasting of banana wine and banana and guava pastries. We hit the road and continued up (and down and side to side on the crazy mountain road) past the Jardin de Balata – a botanical garden to which I’d return on my last day. Our next stop was a river in the rainforest. Legend says mermaids live in the rivers in Martinique, not the ocean. We ate some traditional bread and drank some Creole-style hot chocolate as we walked about.

I was in awe of the rainforest. So lush, bursting with birdsong, the vines reaching down from impossibly high tree limbs. Some old stone steps led straight up into the mountain and I wished I could take a hike and follow them up – my first clue that maybe hiking was going to be prevalent on this trip.

Continuing with the water theme, we stopped at the waterfall Saut Gendarme. Steep steps led down from the road and across a stream to the waterfall. The water was cold and clear, and several of us took off our shoes to wade in the pool made by the crashing falls. The temperature of the water contrasted sharply with the humid, hot air. Chrystalle gave us some candied papaya to chew on as we waded, and as some light rain began we piled back in the van and approached St. Pierre, the old Paris of the West.

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Saut Gendarme

The landscape in Martinique is incredibly varied for such a small island. Here in the north, the ‘pitons’ left behind by the volcanoes tower over you to impossible heights. They are covered in the richest shades of green, and on some of the smaller ones, colorful houses sit precariously on their slopes like dropped gemstones. The valleys cut deep, and white plumes of smoke drift gently up through the trees as some of the locals prepare their noon meal, usually of smoked chicken. The clouds cast shadows over the forests and create shades of blue mixed in as they float by on the sea breezes. Chrystalle gave us more of the history of Mont Pelee as we soaked it all in. Mont Pelee is not the type of volcano to have slow lava flows – it erupts in an explosion of ash and rock and gas, killing those in the vicinity almost instantly. Although it gives warning signs in advance, the government administrators of Martinique in 1902 did not want to reschedule a legislative election at the time and refused to let people evacuate. On the morning of the 1902 eruption, the governor sent a chilling telegram declaring the island completely safe. Two hours later, he and his family and 30,000 others died within seven minutes of the explosion. The seas surrounding the island boiled, and ships and houses caught fire. The air was thick and choked everyone as they tried to breathe. St. Pierre, the Paris of the West, was destroyed, and to this day has not fully recovered.

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Hands down the best fruit juice I ever had, and a bit of sunscreen on my nose

St. Pierre is still a gem worth visiting today, however. It is perched right on the deep blue sea in the shadow of the volcano. My tour group and I visited the ruins of the theater and prison, the latter of which supposedly housed one sole survivor of the eruption, since he was so locked up. By the time we were exploring the ruins, the midday heat was sweltering and reflected up off the burnt Italian marble of the theater floor into our reddening faces. Chrystalle bought us all fresh-pressed exotic fruit juices, and it was unlike any juice I’d ever tasted. The fruits at the juicers were enormous, thanks to the fertile soil of the volcano. Grapefruits as large as my head – I’m not exaggerating. We followed that up with some pork pastries and washed it all down with Punch Coco, a delightfully creamy rum drink that I immediately fell in love with and made me regret I had no checked bag to take some home in.

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What is up with the ditches?! As if driving wasn’t scary enough!

To make that regret worse, our next stop was the Depaz rum distillery. The plantation sat up on a hill looking out over the landscape and coastline. Once we stepped out of the van, we were awash in the sweet scent of rum. We walked up past fields of sugarcane to the big Creole style house, though unfortunately we’d long past the office to purchase tickets to go inside. I love Creole style mansions – they look so beautiful and formal yet integrated into the landscape, with nothing but shutters for windows and flowers and palm trees outlining the foundations.I can only imagine what it would be like to live in such a place – I admit, I’m tempted.

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Call me captivated – Depaz Distillery, Martinique

I walked back down the hill and through a water collection exhibit and peeked into the distillery itself, but there wasn’t too much to see from the tiny doorway. Especially compared to Habitation Clement, which I’d see later. I did some tastings in the gift shop, and a man swooped in to give me a taste of the most delicious golden rum I’ve ever tasted. It was smooth and slid down my throat like butter, though I could not find him again to ask which variety it was. He had disappeared into crowd as quickly as my little tasting cup was emptied.

Soon our tour was off to the final stop – a quiet beach right off the roadside, with a tasting of a Martinique beer. The beach was devoid of other people, a common theme of the island I would find. Maris convinced me to have a dip in the water, and I’m glad she did. We swam in the shadow of the volcano, and the water was impossibly clear and calm. It’s a delight to leap into the ocean without fear of sharks or jellyfish, or even sharp rocks. I suppose that’s another reason this is paradise. After a short time, we climbed out, dried off, and got back into the van to head back to the capital city. I loved how my skin tasted of salt long after I’d left the water – I felt like a creature of the sea.

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Swimming in the shadow of Mont Pelee, the volcano

We arrived back in Fort-de-France and it was time to part ways. Having issue with my credit card payment, I had to pay with all my cash, so Ann-Marie and Maris walked with me to find an ATM, bless them. I had no desire to be completely devoid of cash. We passed a market that was just about to close, and finally made it to the centre commercial (mall) where I was able to get some euros from a bank. Sensing their impatience, I said my good byes and pulled out my walking tour, finally truly alone in the city.

I made my way back to La Savane, the park that I’d designated as my starting point. I paused briefly for a quick sandwich and guava juice at a local cafe, and was eaten alive by mosquitoes despite my bug spray. So much for Zika protection. My first real stop was Fort St. Louis, a historic, active military fort overlooking the bay. I was intrigued by its imposing silhouette. This fort was the site of several battles, and even housed France’s gold reserves during WW2, protected by the Americans. I walked up to the booth in La Savane to get tickets, and the ticket seller asked how many in my group. “Um, just one?” I answered uncertainly in French. He gave me a disbelieving and pitying look, and informed me that the minimum group for tours was, in fact, two. The trials of traveling alone. I sulked a bit, rallied, and soldiered on.

 

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Found my better twin at the Musee Ethnographie!

I stopped into the Schoelcher Library that looked out onto La Savane, then La Musee Departmental, which included exhibits on the history of the island and it’s people. The St. Louis Cathedral, my next stop, was being restored, and I was too chicken to enter the side door at the front near the altar, or I just didn’t care enough to. I made my final trek to the Musee Ethnographie, probably my favorite stop of the tour. Although not allowed to take pictures, I took quite a few, since no one was watching and that’s my highest form of rebellion. I did feel slightly guilty as the gentleman at the counter had let me in for free, but once I saw the first exhibit of historical figure dolls made of banana leaves and vegetation (including Queen Elizabeth), reservations were out the shuttered window. I walked through reproduction Creole rooms, studied Martinique traditional clothing styles and headdresses, and ogled some exquisite golden jewelry that may or may not have belonged to prostitutes, I couldn’t tell.

It was still relatively early when I left the museum, but the sun was beginning to set, and the nerves that came with being alone in a foreign city at night began to set in. I needed to eat before I went home, but in the French style, most of the restaurants wouldn’t open until 7pm for dinner. I was at a loss, lonely, and unsure of myself. I meandered back to La Savane and sat at the root of a towering palm tree, half wishing for a coconut to fall on my head just for the story. I called home, as one is wont to do in these situations, and my mother suggested I find groceries to prevent this annoyance in the future. Not a bad idea.

That led to the conundrum though – where on earth do people buy groceries in Martinique? I couldn’t remember seeing one grocery store. I wandered aimlessly for a bit, and was confronted by a local man. He seemed keen so I gave my usual lie that I was visiting my father who worked for the university. He was nice enough and pointed me in the direction of a grocery store, right back in the same centre commercial that had the bank. I bought some guava pastries (if you can’t tell, I fell quickly in love with guava), bread, bananas, cheese, salami, caramels, and of course, chocolate. Groceries in tow, I headed back to sit on the pier to wait for my chosen, top-rated, and affordable restaurant to open.

Children played in the park on the dockside, and I watched friends meet up for the evening. Several couples hopped in their dinghies roped to the pier and rowed out to their yachts out in the harbor for the night. This was probably the most alive I’d seen the city – it usually just seemed so closed off. As 7pm approached I walked towards my chosen restaurant. Most shops were shuttered and closed, and the streets were almost empty and dark. It was so unlike an evening in an American city or Paris – it made me slightly uncomfortable. I walked past my restaurant twice in the hopes that it would open, but alas, it never did, and I’ll never know why. I walked back to the pier and went to the Black Pearl, a touristy restaurant near my parked car that was open. I ate marlin and rice, with a passion fruit ice cream for dessert. As the restaurant began to fill up a bit more, I quickly paid and left, making my way home.

Honestly, I can’t say that I enjoyed the capital city overmuch that afternoon. After Paris, this city felt so tiny, and the museums just an afterthought. I didn’t come to Martinique to see the city and its museums anyways, but I figured I might as well see the capital once and what it had to offer. I’m glad that I did, but it felt so lonely, even with people around. It was like a twilight zone version of Paris; simultaneously touristy and empty, making me very uneasy. I’m glad I didn’t devote more than an afternoon to it.

I arrived back to my AirBNB and took a shower in the tiny shower area. I fell asleep to the sounds of the island forests with sweat on my brows.

Landing on a colorful jewel

I had wanted to go to the Caribbean for a long time. Mostly, I admit, due to a fascination with pirates. I wanted to see the true Caribbean though, not the touristy white sand beaches (though a pretty beach or two would be nice). Martinique is known as the Island of Flowers, and is an island in the Lesser Antilles that is part of France. It has a fascinating blend of French and West Indian cultures, and most of the population speaks French as well as Creole. I ultimately chose Martinique because it’s French, and I had recently binge-watched Death in Paradise, a British crime show that is filmed in Guadeloupe, a very similar island to Martinique. This trip would be very much out of my comfort zone, and I relished the thought.

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Approaching the island of Martinique

I became more and more excited as our place came into the approach. The ocean stretched out endlessly on all sides, and I kept peering at cloud formations, trying to determine if they were islands. The clouds themselves were tall and fluffy, towering into the darkening pink skies. Then suddenly, mirroring the towering clouds: mountains. Lush, verdant, sharp mountains bursting up out of the water, dotted with lights and buildings on the impossibly steep slopes. Martinique. I had no hope – I was instantly in love with the magical landscape. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for the transatlantic explorers to see this otherworldly island after weeks and weeks of sailing…how incredible.

I got off the plane and through customs rather quickly. It was a tiny airport, unsurprisingly. I went to the rental car counter and picked up my key for an automatic car. I was brave enough (barely) to drive in this island nation, but not brave enough to do so in a manual. I headed outside to wait for the rental shuttle, and was hit with the soft heat of summer. Palm trees dotted the landscape, and a cat strolled casually by amongst the hustle and bustle of airport arrivals. 

The shuttle arrived and I sat in the front seat, and we were off to pick up our cars. Just the drive to the lot was eye-opening – drivers in Martinique are not kidding around! They’re fast and sharp, and my mouth went dry knowing I’d have to drive my rental to my AirBNB in the dark that night. Horns blared and cars swerved, including our shuttle. Pedestrians walked into the street without warning, one even pausing to tie his shoe in the lane of a busy roundabout. Absolutely bananas.

We were dropped off in the Avis lot and I located my car – a little white Volkswagen. I threw my stuff in and attempted to start it, pleasantly surprised with how silent it was. I pulled up Google Maps and located my AirBNB, a mere 15 minutes away, but my nerves made it seem like the other side of the island. I said a prayer and put my foot down to back out my car – and exactly nothing happened. A nice gentleman saw my distress as I wandered about the lot aimlessly looking for some help, and indicated that I needed to press down the brake pedal to start the car. No wonder it had been so silent. Good start.

I’ll never know how I made that drive from the airport to my host’s house. I was exhausted from travel, in culture shock, and in the dark. Not to mention it was my first time driving in a foreign country. I quickly discovered that in Martinique, speed limits are suggestions. There are roundabouts, not intersections. There are essentially no merge lanes. And I had absolutely no idea what any of the road signs meant. “Ditches” on the side of the road are in fact sharp two foot drop offs, and the roads are impossibly narrow, so avoiding them is a constant battle. And all of a sudden, the road can drop straight down the side of a mountain, as I discovered as I desperately drove around the neighborhood trying to locate my host’s house number.

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My quaint AirBNB in Fort-de-France

I definitely drove the wrong way on a road or two, but I made it. Sara and Yanis, my hosts, came out to meet me and show me my room. They were very friendly and welcoming – they spoke English, but not too much. My room was simple and perfect, with nothing but netting and shutters over the windows so the sounds of the rainforests came in. I would fall asleep to the sounds of the island. I was already in a dream. I turned on the fan to help beat the heat and dropped into bed, not even bothering to figure out how to open out the couch into a bed.