Friday, January 16, 2009

Cruise '09 F


Today: Martinique.

I feel a little bad, since this is the island which should be most interesting to me. I was here once, some 35 years ago as a lad of 11 or 12, one of several stops on a family sailing trip. But the combination of having gone ashore for all of the past three days, plus having only a half day here today, and our being quite overexposed to the sun from yesterday--we're both in a bit of pain today--finds us back on ship already before noon. We had breakfast and went ashore about 8:30, and spent a couple hours roaming around the town of Fort de France. But without a car to take us places, there's not much but the tired downtown shopping area to be reached on foot, especially if one is trying to avoid exposure to the sun.

I have the vaguest recollection of where we dropped anchor and where we came ashore 30-some years ago after my dad had cleared customs for us, but nothing is even remotely familiar after that. Even the visits to the three islands before today's stop tend to cloud what few memories I had, since there is a certain sameness in the islands even as they are distinct in their details.

The town of Fort de France itself feels much more like a city than any of the previous island places we visited. This is probably because a full third of the island's population of 360,000 lives here in the city. But it's also because the city is not really equipped from its ancient origins for this crush of humanity. The streets are very narrow--New Orleans French Quarter narrow--with just enough space for one lane of traffic and one line of parked cars and very narrow sidewalks on both sides. The guide book we were reading last night said that it's almost impossible to make any headway in a car, and indeed the city was in near-gridlock for the couple hours we walked around it. Given this, and given the small size of the island, I'm surprised to see so many cars, and so many nice cars, in the town. One would think that we have the perfect setting for good public transportation to take hold here. There are a limited number of roads, a small number of settlements, and a few well-placed bus routes should do the trick. There is city bus service, in neat 3/4 scale heavy buses with tiny tires. I'm not sure how effective these bus routes are, though there were plenty of people standing around the bus stops we saw at 9 in the morning; but there seems every alignment of planets for people tired of gridlock to effect their solution. Cars are all quite small, and suddenly one finds all the cars of Paris plus a few that one sees on the other islands. Peugeots and Renaults and Citro├źns are the predominant makes here, plus some Mercedes and BMWs and a smattering of Japanese. No American cars at all (I guess I did see one Chevrolet Traverse type thingie). Odd that not a single one of these French carmakers was found on any of the other islands.

One other thing. God help me if I sound like one of those knuckle-dragging Amurricans who can't understand why other people won't speak fucking English!, but I do find it odd that Martinique seems to have made so few concessions to its tourist trade. The guide books say that the place is like a suburb of Paris, and the island is even administered from Paris. Everyone speaks French (or, I feel like I must add, their own Creole version of the sacred language), and Euros are the currency of the day. Well and good, but the island is a long way from Europe and I wonder how many visitors have Euros on them naturally (I suppose Europeans are a substantial part of the cruise trade, but maybe 10-15% substantial). And, to be fair, the alternative is, like the other islands, their own currency--which would be correct for NO cruisers. But the other islands happily took dollars and expected that a majority of their visitors would be paying this way. Everybody we asked on Martinique originally said no, they did not take dollars, and then (almost like they had never considered the idea) they scrambled to figure out a dollar amount they WOULD accept for an item. It actually felt a little like theater, a little game they play with visitors.

It's certainly not that I think the world is under some imperative to accommodate Americans, but it just seems a savvy business practice to accept the currency that's in the pockets of most everyone who gets off the cruise ship; asking people to change currencies must automatically reduce their sales substantially, I think. I don't want to lose in the exchange, and lose again changing the remainder back, or to find myself at home with $20 worth of Euros I couldn't get rid of. So since we didn't spend enough to use our Visa card, instead we just refrained from spending at all.

Likewise the signage. Everything is in French, which is sensible for the residents. But to not offer a translation of things--public safety signs, art exhibits, theatre schedules, etc.--in the tourist areas just seems stupidly stubborn. I absolutely don't think the world needs to speak English, and I've never had a beef with bilingual signage in my own country--the increase of the Spanish-speaking part of the population is simply what it is, and the demand that these people must speak MY language just seems neanderthal and ill-informed. But most people visiting the island of Martinique will either be English-speakers or have English as a second language, and to not accommodate them just seems like saying 'fuck you' to the people whose money you need to make your economy go.

Maybe I have it all wrong; maybe the natives would be happy to see the cruise ships leave and never come back. In that case, I apologize for presuming to advise.

(An old hotel now converted to a theatre.)

(An open-air market in the center of town.)

(The old fort, and private yachts at anchor.)

(A library, designed by the Eiffel Tower's designer for the same World Expo; disassembled and shipped here.)

(People returning to the ship as our departure nears.)


LizTW said...

Thanks for the 'real people' travelogue! Fascinating as per usual, and the photos are a wonderful pairing. Great reading for wintry days like we're having!

wunelle said...

I'm happy to oblige!

(I'd be happier to oblige from another week or so on the verandah...)