For the MLK long weekend, I was looking for somewhere to go. I recently discovered that JetBlue flies a number of routes to the Caribbean from New York. When scouring the routes, I realized that the cheapest flight to a destination not requiring a quarantine was to Guadeloupe.
Guadeloupe is a French island in the Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean. It consists of a few islands, but the two main ones are Basse Terre and Grand Terre. The islands are so close to each other they are functionally a single island.
Guadeloupe is an overseas department of France. This means it is an integral part of France, in the same way Hawaii is part of the United States.
January 15, 2022: Pointe-å-Pitre
The flight from New York to Guadeloupe took an easy 4 hours. With the time change, I arrived at 13:00. Immigration was a breeze. The rental car ended up a bit difficult to obtain. The normal rental car area was converted to a vaccine center, so to pick up the car I had to call the rental company for a shuttle. Glad, I had an international phone plan.
The car immediately had issues with the transmission, but I brushed it off since I was short on time.
My first stop was the Memorial ACTe, Guadeloupe´s museum on the history of slavery. The museum was built by the French government as an act of reparations. It opened in 2015 at a ceremony presided by French President Hollande and attended by 19 heads of state. The museum is also part of UNESCO´s Slave Route Project.
The museum tells the history of slavery from its beginnings in the earliest human civilizations. However, the institution of slavery changed drastically due to the discovery of the New World. The Spanish were able to effectively use the indigenous populations, but in the areas colonized by other European kingdoms, the indigenous peoples were wiped out due to disease, overwork, and warfare.
The fertile tropical soil of the Caribbean was perfect for growing sugar cane, which could not be grown in Europe and was in high demand. With a high demand for labor, but a short supply, the Europeans resorted to importing slaves from West African. Yes, there were African slaves in Arabia and elsewhere in Africa already, but nothing on this institutional scale. Between 1601-1900, more than 10 million African slaves were taken from West and Central Africa to the Americas. Most of these slaves were spoils of war or political/personal enemies of the ruling African kingdoms (the Europeans could not go inland due to the threat of diseases such as malaria so they had to rely on their African partners). At its height, at least 2/3 of the French West Indies population was enslaved.
Life on a sugar plantation was brutal and the French-owned colonies were the worst. The average slave lived for just 3 years. The terrible conditions were one of the causes of the large number of uprisings in French colonies including a famous one in Guadeloupe in 1802. The only successful slave revolt in the New World was in Haiti in 1791. Additionally, many slaves escaped into the jungle and created communities of fellow escapees called Maroons.
Slavery in the French Caribbean actually ended twice. It was first banned during the French Revolution in 1794. However, Napoleon brought it back from 1802 and it lasted until 1848.
While life was noticeably better for the former slaves post-emancipation, it still was not good. They still faced horrible racism and few economic prospects beyond the work they were previously doing. Despite this, the former slaves and their descendants managed to create a strong culture that we now describe as Caribbean culture.
The museum did not hold back on the brutality of slavery and the evilness of the perpetrators. Many of the words used would be considered too “woke” or “controversial” in the US to be included in a museum, so I found it interesting that this was all built and run by the French government. The museum definitely took the side of the oppressed and was not neutral. If the purpose of the museum is reparations, why should it be neutral?
I then walked around the center of the town of Pointe-å-Pitre, the largest city in Guadeloupe. It reminded me of a modern, less pretty French Quarter of New Orleans. The wet tropical weather has taken its toll on the buildings. Additionally, due to the strict COVID restrictions and the weekend, the place was a ghost town. I got a late lunch at an Algerian shawarma shop, the only place open. Even KFC was closed!
The only signs of life were a few vendors in the spice market and a group of people picnicking in the middle of a pedestrian street.
My car was continuing to have problems, so I drove back to the airport to get it looked at. The rental car employee originally thought that the issue was my driving since few Americans can drive a manual car. However, after the man took the car for a test drive, he finally believed me and swapped it for an identical, yet functional, replacement.
I then drove to a Soviet-style apartment building on the outskirts of town where I checked into my AirBNB. My host´s name was Jerome. Jerome was super friendly and spoke English. There was another guest- a lady from Quebec which I suppose makes sense because both places are French-speaking.
Jerome invited me to a party at his other apartment. I had nothing better to do, so I said yes. We left at 19:15 and arrived 5 minutes later. In addition to our group, we were met by Jerome´s Swiss girlfriend and two other guests from Quebec.
I stopped at a street food truck to try a bokit, a sandwich unique to Guadeloupe with Creole roots. It is basically a savory egg and meat sandwich with savory funnel cake as bread.
We then drank ti´punch, a local cocktail made of rum, sugar, and lime juice.
While drinking we discussed the COVID situation in Guadeloupe. While metropolitan France has a high vaccine rate, only about 50% of the population of Guadeloupe has been vaccinated against COVID. There are a few reasons but one unique reason for the skepticism is the history of experimental treatments being used on the locals. The French government has had strict rules on the unvaccinated all over France. However, the restrictions have had little effect in Guadeloupe because the locals were so anti-vaccine. In fact, the people recently stormed the parliament. As a result, the government imposed a 20:00 curfew…that is somewhat being enforced.
We also discussed the large number of tourists from metropolitan France. While there is just a single flight each day from the US (either New York or Miami), there are at least 5 widebody jets landing each day from Paris. Many locals do not like the French, because the mainlanders think they are better than the locals. Racism and income levels certainly play into this.
While driving home, Jerome asked if I wanted to go hiking with him tomorrow morning in the north of Grand Terre. With nothing better to do, I said yes.
January 16, 2022: Le Nord de Grande Terre
The next morning, I woke up at 6:00 to prepare for the 7:00 hike. Jerome´s girlfriend arrived at 7:00 and we left on time. Jerome drove. The drive to the north part of Grand Terre took about an hour. The countryside was beautiful. The road infrastructure here was top notch and was identical to that of Europe. The French government really did a good job.
After parking, we walked over to an inlet called Porte d´Enfer, the gate of hell. The name stems from the perpetually stormy sea conditions just beyond the bay.
The three of us then hiked eastward atop the cliffs above the coast. In addition to spectacular ocean views, I we saw a few massive sinkholes.
Eventually, we reached a peninsula where we walked down the steep cliff. At the end of the peninsula was a blowhole! Wow!!! Jerome actually touched the blowhole.
On the way back, we passed by a lot of tourists hiking toward the blowhole. Good thing we beat the crowds!
Once back at the car, we drove 10 minutes to an idyllic beach for a quick dip. The water was colder than El Salvador, but still quite nice.
The air temperature was a perfect 28 C and I enjoyed all the vendors peacefully selling food. This is exactly how a beach should be!
Back at Jerome´s house, I picked up my rental car and drove to the airport to get my COVID test to head home. They had a terrible system where you wait in an hour-long line to enter a pharmacy. In the pharmacy, you can buy a voucher for the COVID test which is administered by a nurse outside. Why the nurse can´t just accept the payment is beyond me. Once you get the test, you then have to go back inside the pharmacy to get a voucher for the parking (luckily, they let you skip the line this time). So inefficient.
Finally, it was time to head to Basse Terre.
So far I am really enjoying Guadeloupe. The French infrastructure in a tropical landscape is really throwing me off, but I like it. Pointe-å-Pitre is not the prettiest city but is worth a stroll. The slavery museum is a must.
I have heard that there are some lovely beach towns on the south-central part of Grand Terre such as Ste. Anne. With another day, I would have headed there.