21 Martinique Revisited

Those who visit foreign nations, but who associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs; they see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds.

- Charles Caleb Colton

Across Islands

Atom's sails bent to the thrust of the trade wind, comfortably surging and rolling along her 3,800-mile course towards Martinique in the West Indies. Again, my Triton and I worked together as one. We stepped lightly over these gentle seas of the South Atlantic and I breathed deeply from the same fair wind she caught in her sails.

Life settled into that familiar sea routine that makes the days pass easily. Morning twilight found me scanning the skies for a round of sextant star sights. Soon after my position is plotted on the chart the flaming sun emerges and instantly another warm tropic day is born. I scan the horizon for some familiar sign of human life: wisps of smoke from a passing ship or airplane contrail overhead. Nothing appears. We are truly alone and I find it comforting. Usually for breakfast I have cold oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon and a few spoons of powdered milk all soaked in water. For a change of taste I fry up a cornmeal pancake instead and top it off with my last mashed overripe banana from St. Helena.

On these fine days of settled weather, hours drifted by as I sat leaning back against the shaded side of the mast, watching Atom's progress through the water, sometimes writing in my journal with notes from the islands in our wake. My midday meal these days, as on so many days before, was often a sandwich of sprouted mung beans and sliced onion smeared with a mustard and pepper sauce on cornbread.

Twice each day I rechecked the sails and rigging, which at this point in the voyage, were deteriorating rapidly. A few stitches added to a seam before it opened up further carried me through another day.

If clouds or sleep caused me to miss the morning's star sights, I'd shoot the sun twice in the afternoon. Across the South Atlantic, the noon-to-noon log invariably noted 100 to 120 miles of progress. In late afternoon's waning heat, a saltwater bucket shower followed a vigorous exercise session. Lately, while they lasted, my favored evening meal was a dish of rice and curried vegetables.

In the evening I read by oil lamp, then watched the swaying stars overhead until sleep came. Yes, I recklessly slept through most the night in these serene and empty waters. A few hours before dawn I'd look out the hatch to see my old companion, Halley's Comet. Its fifty million-mile-long trail continued to mark a parallel course to mine, though pointed in the opposite direction with its tail streaming out towards me and its head pointing to the lands I'd left, as if to lure me back.

At 10 degrees South latitude and 10 degrees West longitude, I sailed through an area unusually thick with shoals of flying fish bursting into the air attempting flights of record length. Several times a day I heard the thump of a flying fish stranded on deck and I moved quickly to throw them back to the sea. At night, when inside the cabin, I suspended lifeguard duty and left them to their fate. One morning I counted thirty-four fish had sacrificed themselves on the deck. Atom could have fed a crew of a dozen cats on this passage.

In this region, I was visited by flocks of birds that considered Atom a resting station on their migration route. Except for being of a brown and gray color, they resembled crows, especially in their bold, thuggish disposition. At night they perched everywhere in the rigging and all over the deck where they screeched and bickered with each other ceaselessly. On the second night of their occupation, one even flew in through the open hatch. In a scene nicely suited to an old horror movie, I struggled with the demented bird flapping about my head until I abandoned the cabin and he followed me out.

On deck the birds showed no fear of me, which they demonstrated by flying around my head, crossly shrieking their annoyance at my presence. I tried chasing them away by flailing my arms and shouting like a madman only to have them circle the boat once and land even more ill-tempered. Exasperated and a little frightened, I snapped a towel at one hovering in front of my face. It fell into the cockpit, flopping about with a broken wing. His shipmates eyed me now with more respect. I felt ashamed at my violence as I knocked the injured bird unconscious with an oar and dropped him into the sea. Now these innocent creatures knew humans were dangerous animals. By next morning they were gone and I was alone once more.

Across IslandsNearing the northern limit of the Southeast Trades I encountered squalls of rain and gray, overcast skies. One memorable but short-lived storm struck during the night, catching me asleep and laying Atom on her side. In a rush to reduce sail, I nearly stepped on deck without my harness, then thought again and clipped it on at the companionway. On the slanted foredeck a breaking wave slapped the side of the hull, showering the cobwebs from my mind. As I disconnected the whisker pole it came loose from my grip, knocking me into the lifelines with my feet dragging over the side in the warm sea. Some skin scrapped from my knee was the only damage as I pulled myself back to the deck and finished reefing down.

This brief storm marked the beginning of a long trial. My progress slowed from one hundred to ninety, then under eighty miles a day. Showers and shifty winds arrived hourly. I could have spent all my waking moments adjusting course and sails to best advantage and perhaps saved a day or two on this leg of the voyage. Instead, as long as I was moving in the right general direction, I tended to let things ride as they were. I'd learned many times that a course error frequently corrected itself with the next squall and wind shift saving me the trouble of resetting the sails and steering. In any case, I had no reason to brood much over a slow day; a day saved here likely would pay no greater dividends than one spent anywhere else.

In the logbook I recorded:

April 1 – DOLDRUMS! 2 degrees South, 31 degrees West. Drifted into the Doldrums today. Heavy rain and shifting winds. A ship passed heading towards Brazil – the first sighted on this passage. Today we are sailing past Arquipelago De Fernando De Noronha some one hundred miles to our southwest. It's a big name for a group of islets so small they are barely indicated on my chart. Got laid over by a sudden gust of wind this afternoon and my plate of carefully tended bean sprouts was tossed to the floor.

April 2 – Last night again I awoke to a howling windstorm. I clearly had too much sail up, yet I stayed in my bunk hoping it would all settle down. It must have been several minutes before I made the decision to get up and reef sails and by that time both sails had ripped and the mast was shuddering under the load. Today I was hit by at least twenty rain squalls. But only one in four brought enough wind to require a reef. I find myself more and more waiting until the last minute to make a decision for action. I'm growing tired of this game and ready for some settled weather.

April 4 – We drifted across the equator sometime last night, crossing into the North Atlantic at 33 degrees West longitude. I must be just barely across the line, having progressed only about ten miles in the past twenty-four hours.

The oppressive heat was confirmed by my bulkhead-mounted hydrometer, which consistently measured humidity over 90 percent. The steady drizzle was only contrasted with heavy downpours. I stood naked in the rain to cool myself, moving as listlessly as the sails that caught the fickle zephyrs of wind. Sails and sailor hung slack in mutual lassitude. I longed to hear the sweet song of rising wind in the rigging instead of just the hiss of rain droplets hitting the sea. My old mainsail and jib flopped side to side with the boat's roll and seemed to say, “We've come so far. But give us a wind and we'll show you we have many miles left in us yet.” Still we hung there, together in the sultry air beneath a glowering purple-tinged afternoon sky. On the close horizon a black cloud released a charge of lightning. I held my breath in anticipation of its thundering voice rolling over the sea.

A long time later the sea surface stirred. As slippery as a fish after the thorough bottom-scrubbing I'd given her in St. Helena, Atom cut a wrinkle across the glassy waters. The push of a single hand could send her moving as easily as this barely detectable wind. At first we moved silently and level as an iceboat sailing a frozen lake. I sat motionless so as not to break the spell. Though barely perceptible, after twelve hours I was confident I'd emerged from those interminable Doldrums into the realm of the Northeast Trades.

Within a few days Atom was again averaging her top speed running beam-on to the wind. The bumpy ride among the curling white horses on the wave crests was jarring after so many days of flat water, but the thrill of the unaccustomed speed made me press on with all the sail she could take. I looked at the straining sails and thought, “Now, show us what you're made of, my old friends.”

On my chart I noted the coast of South America slowly slip by 300 miles away off the port beam. First Brazil, where the mouth of the Amazon flowed in a vast unending exhalation from the heart of the continent, carrying its earthy waters undiluted as far as a hundred miles offshore. Then French Guiana, Surinam and British Guyana fell astern as well. Even the rum-soaked island of Barbados, when its turn came, we passed unseen at a safe distance of fifty miles.

When the cloud-capped mountains of Martinique pierced the horizon, I felt the emotions of coming home after a long absence. I had last seen Martinique's green mantle of rain forest from this very deck some two and a half years earlier on the return leg of a voyage from Bermuda to Trinidad. Now in familiar waters with familiar land in sight, I longed for the smells and sights and sounds of the tropic island, from the spiced air and Creole chatter of the marketplace to the hidden creatures of the forest.

As the island jewel drew closer I recognized its features. It was a gorgeous day of puffy white cumulus, flying fish taking wing, and the air filled with the cries of tropic birds. Along the south coast we rounded Diamond Rock, a tiny but tall islet that at one time held an English fort that peppered cannon shots down on French shipping.

On the sheltered west coast of Martinique, I was finally out of reach of the rolling Atlantic swell. As the ocean current carried me along, my eyes feasted on the greenness. I drew deep breaths of the aroma of growing forests mixed with the perfume of island spices. Around a point of land emerged a sandy bay where a fishing village centered itself around a white church steeple. Pulled up on the beach were several high-bowed gommiers, the outboard powered fishing boats hacked out of a single gum-tree log. One was visible on the west horizon. Soon he would be “A Miquelon” as the locals say when their boat is out of sight of land and they feel they have gone as far from home as Miquelon, a French island off Canada.

In mid-afternoon I released the anchor among a crowd of some fifty yachts in Fort-De-France Bay near the stone walls of Fort Louis. From on deck I watched the chaos of activity along the waterfront's main boulevard with detached interest. Happy to be here, yes, but not yet ready to join the bustle of society. Instead of rushing ashore, I prepared a meal and then fell into undisturbed sleep.

Across IslandsOn Sunday I awoke to church bells and later rowed ashore to check in with the customs agent at their waterfront office. I then went for a long walk around town, reacquainting myself with its narrow streets and tropical Parisian atmosphere. The locals here are all French citizens and generally regard themselves more French than West Indian. If there were pro-independence feelings, they were not visible during my stay here. The Martinicans are too busy enjoying the prosperity of French rule to disrupt their lives with the radical ideas of self-rule the neighboring islands demanded of their standoffish British masters.

Sidewalk cafes are daily filled with people watching the passing scenery and sipping punch vieux. I read somewhere of an old sailor who claimed that any land looks good and every woman fair after a long sea journey. It is doubly true when the landfall is Martinique. The women are distractingly beautiful, dress in the latest fashions and carry themselves with proud elegance. It's enough to bring any sailor to heel, especially if he speaks French.

Walking through town I hoped it wasn't too obvious how I stared at the long, dark ladies parading by. In some way, I saw the island girl I had loved in every woman that passed me on the street and found myself imagining they were her. The reality was that I received no smile of recognition from these strangers. My romantic or erotic visions did not overcome my shyness, nor did any girl here express the slightest interest in me – just another tourist, or worse – a sailor with empty pockets.

Like most French territories, the prices here are out of this world and I found myself as poor as a Haitian refugee swimming ashore at Miami Beach. Fortunately, money and women were not my chief concern as I planned my exploration of the last island I wanted to visit before returning home. My earlier visit to Martinique had been brief and I had not gone far into the interior. Now was my chance to correct that mistake.

Before setting out to walk across the island, I strengthened my legs for several days by running along the waterfront at dawn and then again in the evenings. By studying a guidebook and detailed maps, I settled on a route along the mountain roads that lead north to the volcano peak of Mount Pelee and then back to the coastal town of St. Pierre.

I shouldered my pack, cinched up its straps, and began my walk through the daily traffic snarl in Fort-De-France, which on this day was compounded by a street protest march. This was no anti-colonialism protest but rather hundreds of striking government workers blocking the narrow streets carrying signs demanding higher wages and benefits. A man at the head of the mob whipped up enthusiasm by roaring his age-old complaints into a bullhorn. “Give us more money for less work,” was the demand to a colonial government asking for just the opposite.

Along the River Madame, I passed the outdoor fish and vegetables markets where a Creole band of brass horns and bongo drums played a lively session. The hectic town apparently behind me, I walked Route De Balata as it steadily climbed towards the mountains. Unfortunately, it seemed everyone in Fort-De-France was leaving town on this route and there was just enough width to the road for two small cars to pass with precious little curb for a pedestrian to squeeze by. Cars even climbed the curb when trucks blasted by with blaring horns and noxious exhaust in their wake. I'd not want to walk this road again but there was no other road or path available heading north through the center of the island.

Along this tiresome route I met Bernard, a local unemployed electrician who had missed out on Martinique's prosperity. He was returning on foot to his village after a visit to the welfare office for his monthly check. We walked together, dodging traffic and getting acquainted, until we arrived at Balata Village. At his apartment we shared a bowl of salad, bread and cheese while Bernard looked over my map, pointing out the scenic areas, freshwater springs and campsites ahead of me.

Beyond Balata, traffic became scarce and less threatening and I enjoyed walking under shady trees adorned with mosses and vines. Fragrant flower and perfume plantations drifted by and reminded me that the island's original name was “Madinina” (Island of Flowers). All around me were heady scents and the colors of hibiscus, oleander, flame-red frangipani and bunches of anthuriums. Rows of papaya trees draped leafy branches over ripening fruit. Women carried armloads of flowers back to pastel-colored homes. Flowery, clinging vines decorated delicate fences. Like in Bora Bora on the other side of the world, long sticks of French bread hung out of mailboxes. Martinique fully awakened my memories of the other French islands I loved so much.

Under each bridge on the road was at least one family picnicking alongside a splashy stream. I stopped frequently to converse and always received the same warnings: “Be careful of thieves. Watch out for snakes.” As for thieves, I carried little of value. The snakes I believed, could watch out for me, as they always had before.

The road tunneled through the mountain at Duex Choux and emerged at the entrance to a wide valley. A footpath led to the top of a hill where I made camp for the night at an open-sided shelter in a public park. Before me I enjoyed a view of forests of banana fields and in the distance, the lower slopes of Mount Pelee, whose peak lay hidden under the dark clouds. At day's end I unrolled my sleeping bag and lay myself out on the wooden picnic table. Lightning bugs decorated the darkness and the wind soughing through the trees combined its voice with distant waterfalls, or perhaps another fast, rock-bedded creek.

By dawn I was back on the road in a gray rain that persisted through the day. Banana fields spread across the valley. Along the muddy trails, tractors pulled wagons that workers loaded with bunches of the green fruit. I couldn't resist singing… “Come, Mr. Tally Mon, tally me banana (Daylight come and he wan' go home).”

In the country village of Morne Rouge, I stepped into a shop to buy bread and vegetables. Greeting the woman shopkeeper in French brought a continuous light-hearted rapid-fire Creole patois, the meaning of which was lost on me. To be sociable, I mutely nodded yes or no when it seemed appropriate until she turned to chat up a more conversant customer.

Outside town I turned onto a road snaking its way up the base of Mount Pelee. Eighty years earlier, this volcanic mountain abruptly blew its top. Within minutes, over thirty thousand people in the villages below perished under hot lava and poison gases. These days the mountain is again at rest, with its flanks only lightly repopulated.

Where the road ended, I followed a path, in a teeming rain, that by now had me soaked through. Progress was slow and none too steady on the wet, moss-covered rocks and muddy holes. Wood stakes and signposts marked the trail but they were not at all needed for I easily found my way by following the trail of litter. If I took more than ten steps without encountering a piece of trash, I knew I was off the path. How sad to see, throughout this otherwise beautiful island, the trash strewn every place people had passed.

The trail leveled off and from what little I could see through the fog, I determined that I had reached the summit and was walking the rim of the volcanic crater. Along this ridge I found a tin-roofed rest house with walls built of stone blocks. I entered the one-room shelter through an open door to wait out the rain. Inside were a wooden table and two hard bunks with room to take four steps in either direction – such unaccustomed mountaintop luxury.

A cold wind blew in through the swinging door and a broken window. I fortified myself with cups of tea heated over the meager flame of the solid fuel tablets I carried. Lacking a watch or the sun to look at, I guessed the time by the way the gloomy afternoon sky gave way to a dark and stormy night.

The blackness of night gave way to another chill gray morning. The corners of my roof wept from the endless light rain. As I lifted open the unhinged door a cloud rolled in to lay its damp hand on everything it touched. Strange to say but I was at home in this cloud-wrapped haven, despite the harsh environment and minor discomforts.

With long hours of little else to do, I worked, as I did at sea, to cultivate a freedom from anticipation – that urgent thief who steals the minute-to-minute awareness of life. I was content to stay another day in the good company of raw nature and a book by Thoreau. The philosophic adventures of Walden where Thoreau homesteaded in a forest cabin outside his New England village in the 1840s took on an entirely new dimension from the quietude of this dewy mountaintop stone house. I reconfirmed here a lesson I'm condemned to learn over and over again: our days are stolen by our constant grasping at the phantoms of future happiness as we think about living – rather than living itself – trapping us in our yesterdays and tomorrows. If children are not burdened by the knowledge that our pursuits may end in sorrow, that love may end in separation, that birth gives way to old age and death, then why should we dwell there if we are no less intelligent than a child?

For two days I strolled in mist and rain around the volcano's rim or just sat thoughtfully on my mountaintop porch, letting the world rush by unheard and unseen below me. I indulged my thoughts, as a disciple of Thoreau, somewhat out of step with the majority of society and feeling the better for it. Little by little, the silence of the mountain revealed it was not silent at all. On my first day alone here I perceived the silent spaces between the music of the wind and rain on the grassy slopes. By the second day my nerves and senses were restored to the point where every common thing becomes exceptional, as if the world was created anew with every sighing draft of wind. I thought of the native American concept of existence as a dream state, as expressed in the Aztec poem:

It is not true, it is not true
that we come on this earth to live.
We come only to sleep, only to dream.

The clouds never lifted from my mountain perch, yet I was spiritually recharged as I jogged down to lower elevations on the road back towards Morne Rouge. There I joined another road toward the coastal town of St. Pierre. Down in the lower valley I emerged into sunlight and looked back at a mountain still enveloped in that cloud of secret gifts. This road to the west continued through banana fields, bordered by straight rows of coconut, royal palm and giant bamboo. I noted mango, orange, pineapple, avocado and custard apple fruits all flourishing alongside the houses and giving the valley the appearance of a life of perpetual fruit gathering and ease.

St. Pierre is a town facing the sea with its back up against a tempestuous volcano. I entered through the rear, walking down the narrow streets and alleys towards the waterfront. Once considered the center of civilization in the Caribbean, St. Pierre was devastated by Pelee's eruption in 1902. It now has the feeling of a town half resurrected. Much of the debris of former buildings still lay about in heaps and piles. The current buildings are built on top of the broken foundations of earlier buildings.

A story goes that the city's sole survivor of the volcano was found when rescuers pulled a man from an underground jail cell where he was protected from the tremendous blast of heat. Of the ships anchored in the bay, all were sunk at their moorings by the tidal wave that accompanied the eruption except for one ship that was getting underway. Her deck crew perished but the captain, choking for breath, managed to steer his ship away and bring news of the disaster to the outside world.

It was Saturday, which in St. Pierre means market day. The main street along the waterfront bustled with people crowded around the vendor's stands selling fruit, vegetables and fish. The gommier fishing boats were hauled out of the sea by volunteering hands and a bucket brigade that moved the day's catch from boats to vendors. On the beach I sat on the sand with my pack as a backrest, mentally retracing the steps of my last walk across my last island on this voyage.

My return to Fort-De-France was in a shared taxi – the preferred method of transport between towns. This was my first car ride in several months and if I thought the local drivers reckless as they passed me while I walked, the moment we took off I wished I were back taking my chances on foot. Our driver drove like he was in a life or death rally. Small towns passed us in a flash of buildings and narrowly missed chickens, dogs and pedestrians. The dark Frenchman next to me was surely a longtime veteran of this route, since he fell asleep minutes outside St. Pierre and was undisturbed by the sudden stops and starts and finally had to be shaken awake by the driver when we arrived an hour later at Fort-De-France.

Back aboard Atom in Flamingo Bay, I watched from deck as an island sloop, barely 25-feet long, skillfully tacked into the anchorage being sailed alone by a black West Indian. When close by, he lowered his patch-worked sails and stepped forward to release a homemade grapnel anchor. I called him over for dinner on Atom and that night I learned Joe Brown was a preacher and native of the nearby island of St. Lucia. He told me of his numerous passages between the islands in his old wooden sloop, carrying light cargos of island goods. Besides being a proselytizing Rastafarian – he brought his bible with him to dinner – he also brought over a thick, roughly finished clay bowl from which he ate my rice and vegetables. Shunning plasticware, he only took food from his earthy-tasting bowl.

On this trip to Martinique, Joe carried a cargo of vegetables and had contracted to deliver a motorcycle back to St. Lucia. The next day, after unloading his perishables at the dock, I assisted Preacher Joe in disassembling a 500 CC motorbike and loading the parts aboard his boat. When we finished the job the bike's frame, engine and wheels took up all the available space within the small cabin where it was partially protected from the ocean spray.

On May 4th I walked to the airport where I met my mother, Helen, who had flown out from Detroit to meet me for a one-week vacation. I was relieved to see she had brought some cash from my bank account, since I was down to my last ten dollars. It had been a long two years since our last meeting. After so long an absence, I convinced her to stay with me aboard Atom where we could see each other all day, instead of me on the boat and her miles away in an expensive tourist hotel. To accommodate her, and her hard luggage, I cleared away the accumulated sailing gear, Zulu war clubs, gramophone and other semi-precious cargo from the cramped forward cabin, which then became her suite.

We rented a Renault car to tour the northern part of the island, tracing the same route I walked the week before. This time we followed the road beyond Mount Pelee all the way to the last fishing village at the tip of the island. The road ended here between cliffs that wedged in the village of Grand Riviere so tightly it looked as if a good hard rain could wash the houses into the sea. We watched as fishermen returned to the half circle cove in their gommiers after a day at sea. Using long oars, they maneuvered the boats backwards through the surf. When close enough, a dozen lean men rushed waist-deep into the water, grasping the boat's gunwales and pulling it onto the stone-covered beach. Logs were laid under the keel and, by force of muscle, they rolled the boats stern-to above the high tide mark. A few paces above the landing they weighed their catch on scales and dropped the fish into their customer's bags.

Across IslandsOne morning we sailed Atom out the harbor to explore along the island's south coast. That afternoon we approached the anchorage at Grande Anse d'Arlet. The wind was fickle as it came over the hills so we entered under power. The motor quickly overheated. Smoke from the engine room was already pouring out the cabin hatch as I let go the anchor among a tightly packed group of newer yachts. The smoke and the rattle of our anchor chain awoke our lounging neighbors who were mostly French charterers lying naked on deck to soak up the sun. A few stood up and glanced over at our intrusion with an air of mild annoyance and I was dutifully embarrassed at our less than peaceful entry. “Are those people naked?” my mother asked with wide eyes.

That night the wind shifted to onshore and a choppy swell rolled into the anchorage. By dawn we had been long awake from the extreme rolling and the snatching of the anchor chain against the bow roller. I now saw we had drifted dangerously close to the beach and most of the charter fleet had already fled under power. I hastily lifted the anchor aboard and tacked out to sea even before serving our morning tea.

I had gotten a bit careless here and my mother no doubt wondered how I managed to get nearly round the world unscathed. For several more hours we pounded into strong rain-laden headwinds. On each tack, Atom heeled sharply and the sea often crashed aboard, soaking us thoroughly. I hooked a harness around my mother's waist and she wedged herself into a corner of the cockpit where she remained without complaint until we gained the protection of Flamingo Bay. Atom took the day somewhat worse with seawater soaking into the lockers and a new rip in the mainsail.

To make up for the rough treatment she received under sail, I took my mother out to dinner at one of those high-priced, small-portion French restaurants. As we walked back to the harbor down a dark street she asked if this was a safe place to walk at night. “One of the main differences between the French islands and her neighbors,” I explained authoritatively, “is the very low crime rate….” Before I could finish my lecture, a scooter raced up behind us carrying two teen-aged boys. At the last second they swerved towards us and the passenger reached out and nearly snatched my mother's purse away, but she was too quick for them.

It was perhaps not the vacation experience she had imagined, but the next day her visit was over all too soon. Although we did not speak much about it, my mother was obviously relieved that my long voyage was nearly finished, and equally relieved I had not make a hasty decision about marrying a girl from the islands. I wanted to tell her about the ways the voyage had changed me, to explain how, as the nautical miles remaining of the voyage decreased, the mind miles separating me from home increased. When faced with the inexpressible, nothing need be said.