We were supposed to go to the Sugar Cane Plantation museum. But it turned out everything was closed the day before Martinique’s 170th anniversary Independence Day celebration. So our tour guide, Tony, turned the day into a nature tour. It started with a journey up a winding mountain road — there’s plenty on the island, damn near nothing but. The road led to a nearly hundred year-old church. Built in one year (1923–24) by ten men, it’s nothing if not a testament to the strength and endurance of the African spirit and flesh it took for them to haul all those massive cinderblocks up the mountain to put the church together. It wasn’t the same kind of impressive as the old colonial churches I saw in Bahia a few years ago — a lot less gaudiness and flair, less colorful and more goth, no gold laden altars that I could see from outside (I didn’t bother going in) — but nonetheless commanding.
A hundred feet of towering grey stone topped off with a Jesus statue, arms spread wide embracing the sky. Just like Touchdown Jesus in New Orleans. A dome in the middle reminiscent of the Washington Capitol and a small tower of a building on the side. The whole thing looked like a medieval castle. But surrounding it — the most tropical and foreign flora I had ever seen. A tree with limbs that pushed upright, perpendicular to the limbs that shot outward form the trunk.
Another with leaves luscious enough to eat — looking like they gave the color green its name. A sea of abundant foliage rolling over the mountainous hills cascading downwards from the peak where the church sat. Kinky tufts of tree tops looking like a million green afros crowning the top of the little island. The crown bejeweled in wildly colored flowers like the magenta plumes that lied just beyond our backs at the guardrail of the hill. Martinique means little flower. That morning reminded me why.
Our next stop — tour the rest of the three mountains. “La Croix, Alma, et La Boucherie,” Toni tells us. Which means The Cross, The Soul, and The Butcher. “A good metaphor for colonization,” I tell him. Alas, triggering names aside, nothing can rob this wild terrain of its unkempt beauty. Tamed by modernization at some points tho it may be. Drive up a winding road en route to the river Alma. Take pride in the road. It was built by (enslaved?) black women, Tony tells us. A fresh water spring shoots from the side of the mountain. People come here to fill up. Mountains ascend dramatically upwards into a density of tree and bush and invisible roadways. Maroons used to escape there. Imagine the ingenuity, the courage, the genius, Baba Leon keeps reminding us. Or more precisely, “those had to be some baaad brothas and sistas! To come up here and plot the revolution for their freedom!” Indeed, a slip on on any one of these rocks, particularly before the roads were paved, could’ve meant certain death.
But amidst it all, definite paradise. We arrived at the Alma River. It rumbles with a gentle fury. Pushing along some of the clearest, most pellucid waters I’ve ever seen. Dip toes in it. Traverse the slimy rocks. Submerge feet then ankles. Then fuck it — why not half a leg. We all go. The women of the crew lead — already stripped down to swimsuits. In! I run back to the car and change into mine. Return. Submerge. All but the head. Cradle myself in a natural cove of a seat where the cold waters gather fiercely enough to give you a back massage. “A natural cacuzzi,” Toni says. Indeed. The river rages through my skin, its waters fondling muscles to ecstasy. I scream like a child in dangerous joy. Like a city boy that don’t know nuttin’ bout this kind of magic. I’m in love. Martinique. River. Baptism. My comrades hear me scream. But are busy releasing their own shrieks of shared and private joys.
Leave the river. Climb stairs to the mountain to pee. Feeling all nature boy with it. It’s Avatar meets Life of Pi and I’m starring in the movie. Return and the comrades are gathered around Toni’s friend, Maka. A Rasta Man who shows mad love and in his struggling English insists on the brotherhood of us all. Maka means weed. But today’s hustle is coconuts. Large green and orange coconuts for everyone. Three Euros. That’s six times the price I paid in Bahia (where 2 reals = 50 cents), but good for Martinique. They’re still on the French standard. Gotta get it how you live.
Next stop is the waterfall. It’s known as Saut Gendarme aka the waterfall of the fallen cop. Five policemen came here once and one fell to his death trying to climb the waterfall. All I see is beauty. “This what God feel like!” I sing to the mountains. Kendrick’s bank account ain’t got shit on this. I’m flying. We descend the winding steps to the waterfall. A journey all its own. All things green and water and stone and falling, deeper to the grounds leading towards this hidden treasure trove. Get to the basin. Holy water. Sacred liquid. I thought I’d had enough.
But then a comrade dives in like a fish returned home. Then another. I finally give. My body… in to the water. Then traverse deeper… deeper. The basin is only torso high. But the rumble of the thunderous waters, dropping against the shallow basin — it is celestial flood and holy righteous thunderclap. It is voice of God calling. It is holy Jesus hallelujah god almighty what the fuck. Ancestors calling. Orishas too. Maferefun Yemoja. Maferefun Egungun. Stand under the descending waters and yell it a dozen times. Closest to God I’ve ever felt. Now insert cliché about how it’s better than drugs, better than sex. And it is not cliché. It is fact.
No heaven without hell, right? On the way back to the hotel in the center of the city, I ask Toni about the “N-word” in Martinique. What’s its use? Placement? Context? In a French speaking predominately Black country. “None,” he replies. Maybe used casually sometimes amongst black folks but if white folks say it that’s another story. Typical. But I get the feeling it’s not even said much amongst black folks. Richard Pryor comes to mind. His whole “there are no niggers in Africa” epiphany after going to Kenya in 1979.
Imagine, a world run by us without the scars of what was done to us. At least on the surface, that’s what Martinique’s been serving me. From the all black staff at the airport to the black owned tour company that’s been taking us around everyday, to everything in between, this island feels like it’s own little Caribbean Wakanda at times. Almost. As I mentioned in my last entry, Martinique is still a French colony. After Toni navigates down hills in the profuse rain, making his 10-seater van feel more like an extension of his actual consciousness on some Avatar shit, he brings us to a restaurant named Le’ Josephine. Named after Napoleon’s wife. Ahem…yeah…
So about that colonial part. While there is a long history of struggle and resistance against white supremacy and colonialism here, that has yielded the world greats like former 4-decade long mayor Aimé Cesaire and his student, intellectual vanguard of Pan-Africanism himself, the great Frantz Fanon, the stain of imperial rule is still present on the landscape. Resilient as the people are, they’ve clapped back in the form of defacing, or more accurately, beheading the statue of Le’Josephine Bonaparte, that sits in the park directly across from the restaurant.
They’ve also, as I showed in the last entry, stamped their mark with statuary that represents their history of resistance in the form of the Neg Mawon (Black Maroon), countless depictions of Aime Cesaire, and other figures. Nonetheless, what’s a former plantation without its Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder? Which brings me to the restaurant.
Le’ Josephine: never go here. Never ever. At least not until they fire Gina. I mean like daaaaamn Gina! Mami was mean muggin’ and bootin’ us up since we stepped in the door on some “What the fuck you [insert French term for ‘Gringoes’ here] doing at our $25 per entreé bourgeoisie soireé” type shit. The digs were an attempt at fancy French colonial era restaurants like some of those old legendary joints in New Orleans’ French Quarter. But like any 3 star trynna be a 4, this joint didn’t quite hit the mark. Err… we’ll never really know. We waited thirty minutes to even get water or have our orders taken as Gina was visibly perturbed by our lack of French speaking skills.
By the time an hour had passed and we’d watched other customers get their food and leave, while Gina perpetually passed us to clown (presumably about us) with the majority South American tourists at the adjacent table, we knew the score. And wondered if we could even risk staying here without our food being spit in. When we finally placed orders and one of us asked for silverware, she responded by dropping all of the silverware she had in her hands on the table. Exasperated. At that point, we decided it was time to go. Gina had the nerve to look shocked when she came back and caught us mid-exodus. Complaints filed with the managment revealed that this is not the first time Gina’s cut up.
We went across the street and patronized Ms. Bernadette with the lintels and hot peppery fish at the Caribbean (read: African) looking stand for less than 10 euros a piece and got right. Ole’ Miss Bernadette ain’t speak no English either but instead of looking down her nose at us for not knowing her colonizer’s tongue, she spoke through her gold teeth glinting smile and twinkling eyes, slipped some love in between the seasoning and even took pics with us when it was all done. My mom went to France back in the eighties and told me they were snobbish about Americans not knowing their language. But Gina seemed to pour it on with extra venom. Classic case in when Western elitism meets internalized black self-hatred. Yuck.
We closed the night by bringing it black home at a small music, dance and fight festival in the Martinician hood. Every (Caribbean) country I go to, my second greatest interest after the food is the music. I’m always looking for that evolutionary trajectory to mirror the Black American musical experience of spirituals to blues to jazz to R&B to hip-hop. Or more succinctly — jazz to hip-hop. What I basically wanna know is, what was your correlate? In Bahia, it was Samba to Bossa Nova. In Trinidad it was Calypso to Soca. In Cuba, Rumba to Salsa then Reggaeton (poured in from Puerto Rico).
Here in Martinique, it was Belé Belé to Zouk. The former, a music and dance style created by the enslaved ancestors who first arrived on the island in the 1600's, was the closest to an indigenous form of African music Martinique (and maybe all of the Caribbean or the Americas) knows. The latter, a fast upbeat carnival groove, is the more recent manifestation that came about in the late 70's and 80's.
Which is to say Belé Belé is to Samba is to Calypso is to Jazz as Zouk is to Bossa Nova is to Soca is to hip hop. Chronologically speaking anyway. The real breakdown isn’t quite so linear, considering Belé Belé is far older and less modern, less hybridized with European elements and more African in its aesthetic than jazz or Samba and even Calypso for that matter. I’m talking a polyphonic complexity to rival the most layered 16 piece or more jazz or classical orchestra but achieved with African drums and percussion only. Some even played with the feet as did one of our local guides Jacque’ aka Mr. Martinique, who had welcomed us to the airport the day prior.
The fest started with a film — all in French — about a young sista, presumably a college student, on some sort of journey of self-discovery. She interviewed several elders about a fighting form called Damye Ladja, that all of them practiced. The fighting form was similar to Capoeira or mixed martial arts, as two lean, fit men would spar in the middle of a circle of folks as they cheered on wildly from the periphery. The whole ritual was anchored by the sounds of the Belé Belé drums so the fighting style looked as much like a dance as it did combat.
Rooted as it is in tradition, the sister’s research yielded more than mere knowledge about a fighting form or its accompanying music. It served as a gateway to ancestral study and communion. When the film ended, life imitated art as the space opened up to a live Damye Ladja battle with local practitioners and concluded with a Belé Belé dance off. Now here’s the part where I break the fourth wall and tell you the film was a metaphor for our whole trip. As all the visual and physical phenomena we roved our eyes and hands over, constantly yielded a goldmine of history beneath the surface, new treasure at every turn.