Tuesday, March 9, 2010


We wanted to experience Carnival! in Guadeloupe (their version of Mardi Gras) and weren't disappointed. For an island lacking access to so many resources, I was astonished at the pagentry involved. I have never seen costumes so exquisite or performances with such a high caliber of coreography, all done locally.

We celebrated Carnival in both Pointe Pitre and Basse Terre. While Pointe Pitre is the biggest city, Basse Terre is the capital and put on the best celebration. Carnival was basically celebrated Friday through Tuesday, (Fat Tuesday) when they put on a "black & white parade" to symbolize the "death" or end of the festivities.

The festivities in Pointe Pitre were more humorous than Basse Terre. We learned from this experience that the best place to see the parade is at the main grandstand area (think Herald Square). Each group is slowly filtered through this bottle neck, creating a very anti-climatic experience as you get juiced up by the drumming and dancing of one group, and then you wait around for at least 20 minutes - sometimes half an hour until the next one comes through. We've adjusted to island time, but come on! This was slow as molassess, lasting from about 4:30 PM - to after 10.

During the periods of waiting, we sampled all the local carnival cuisine, basically three types of sandwiches: a bokit (sandwich on a pita), an aroulou (French version of a hamburger on a colossal roll bigger than the patty by at least an inch around), and a baguette with thon (tuna salad), poulet (chicken salad) or jambon (ham). We learned that "fromage" means cheese and "oeuf" means egg. Complet (like deluxe) is their version of everything which is lettuce, tomato, mayo ketchup, onion, cheese and egg. Steve liked having a fried egg on his burger. This process was not without its challenges, as we find the french language so difficult, and they find communicating with us equally frustrating. It was at least adventurous, but nothing compares to American carnival food.

We were fortunate to meet enough generous, English-speaking people - mostly among the younger generation, who were able to help us find out when and where the big celebrations were. We observed that while most people only spoke French, they also only listened to American music. The evening before the first parade, the Miss Carnival pageant was held in Pointe Pitre's town square. The emcee and pageant participants carried on with the crowd in French and then one of the singer's broke out into Michael Jackson's "We are the World." In English! Then a couple came out and danced to "Time of My Life" from Dirty Dancing. "What is going on?" we were both perplexed. It seemed that our music of the 80s had just reached Guadeloupe. But not really, because everywhere I went, I heard Hip-hop and R&B currently popular in the states. A dance troop put on a performance that was all hip-hop, and fashions were definitely influenced by American mainstream. So perhaps the younger generation knows more English as a result of their affinity for our culture. No wonder we feel like the traditional French dislike us Americans so much. Their kids want to be just like us, to the point that the young males aren't wearing speedos anymore, but OP boardshorts instead! Thank god the days of the banana hammock are coming to an end.

Sorry I digressed....By the time we made it to Basse Terre, we had this Carnival thing down for the big extravaganza. We had gone through so much to get there, that we weren't missing it for anything, not even an untenable anchorage that bounced us around in our sleep. Clearly it was bad, as we were the only boat bold enough to anchor there. And so we stayed out until the very end of the celebrations...not eager to get back and fight the 3 foot rollers in our dinghy. Stephen steered us through the swells as I focused on the starry night sky above.

There were about 80 groups or more in the parade in Pointe Pitre, and there were at least this many in the Basse Terre celebration. Only a few of the groups were repeated in this parade. There were so many new colorful and artistic costumes and floats. The drumming just got livelier and better. Jam sessions consisted of coconut shakers, loud whistles, conch horns, djembes and huge drums men wore slung over their shoulders. One group would chant, make these gutteral sounds and jump high with their drums, beating them in mid-air. Stephen was able to capture this above. It seemed that at least 50% of the population was part of the pageant with this amazingly innate sense of rhythm and movement. Their pride in this tradition was evident mostly in their presence - the way they carried themselves, but also in the hard work that went into the sewing, and float design.

There were many themes interwoven into the celebrations. There were extravagant headpieces, that at times became too topheavy for the dancers. Costumes were made from materials symbolic of birds,animals and other things found in nature - very ornate and tribal. There was a lot of Caribbean plaid, red, yellow, green and orange patterns. Groups wore masks of famous French and American politicos (many Obama masks) with long-sleeved button-down shirts suffed fat around the belly so they needed suspenders. Then there were lovely ladies who donned body paint in lieu of material.

Then there was this whole monkey and devil theme where groups of mostly young men would wear monkey or white faced-devil masks with purple hair and crack very big whips on the ground right next to you. This was very startling, not just for us but for all of the spectators who seemed leary and even disapproving of these groups at times. I would like to find out more about the symbolism behind these costumes and the whips.

Then there were groups designing floats and costumes around the theme of the business they were promoting or an environmental cause. Like the tailors that rolled down the street behind a huge pair of scissors and thimble. A young group made a statement by dumping grocery carts of trash all over the street and acting out a scenario in which they all worked together to clean it up. Litter & general garbage disposal seems to be a huge problem for many of the islands.

Crowds of people flooded the streets and the main square. Even little toddlers marched with their group in miniature versions of the costumes, binkies still in their mouths, shaking their little bodies to the beat of the music. There was such a great energy, that language was no longer a barrier, as you could communicate through looks and gestures, everyone sharing the experience.

It was another late night, and this time we let McDonald's fuel us, as "Le Big Mac," is a term we understand. The menu here, was very limited though, your only options being "Le Big Mac," "Royale with Cheese (quarter-pounder)," chicken nuggets and chicken snack wraps. We went back later for coffees, thinking McDonald's would not let us down. To my dismay, the McDonald's version of coffee was the smallest I've seen yet on a French island. It was literally a shot sized styrofoam cup filled only half way. Stephen brought me two coffees. "WTF?" was written all over my face upon opening the lid.

The celebration in Basse Terre went on from after 3Pm until after midnight. Although exhausted from non-stop celebration, we were so glad to be a part of it. It was one of the most beautiful and engaging things I have experienced visually and emotionally. I can only imagine what the celebrations are like in Rio.