14 February, 2018: Carnival in Martinique is something else! I have always dreamed of getting to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and reckon being on a French-speaking Caribbean island is the next best thing. The countdown begins in January, as decorations are put up (See post on St Anne's - click here), and parties happen all over the place, but the principal celebrationes are from Dimanche Gras "Fat Sunday" where puppets called "bwa bwa" are carried about and les nègres-gros-sirop (revellers covered with coal tar and sugarcane syrup, caricatures of the rebel slaves from Africa as opposed to the Creole islanders) playfully spook the crowds, to the quasi-mournful Mercredi des Cendres "Ash Wednesday". Each day has a different story behind it and I was very grateful to Charlotte (see previous post) for flagging the different dress codes. Monday was the cross-dressing Mock Wedding burlesque day where men dress up as brides, often up the duff, and women as reluctant bridegrooms. Tuesday was a red letter day as the scarlet Devils run amok in Mardi Gras. We queued for about an hour at the ferry dock among a whole riot of costumes, but at the last minute couldn't get on. Well, actually Isabelle managed to slip on ahead but we were stopped from joining her by a grumpy ferryman, and Xav nearly came to blows in protest while the ferry pulled away and I managed to haul her off in the nick of time. That was enough drama for the day.
Still, there was always Ash Wednesday. As a child, our annual Ash Wednesday "parade" would involve processing behind two dozen Southern Irish Catholic nuns in black and white habits from school to the local church, sitting still on hardback pews for a *very* long time, and having crosses of ashes marked on our heads at the end of Mass. Fast forward to Martinique and the dress code was once again black and white, but there the similarity ends. The day is dedicated to the joyous "pleureuses" (mourners), the sultry Devilettes calling for the death of Vaval, the Carnival King, and the focus is much more on play than pray. This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine's Day as well, so there were a very few streaks of red in otherwise monochrome costumes. Vaval is a huge papier maché figure paraded around, and each year satirically represents a figure in island life to be mocked, and a vent for frustration, and at the end of the day, gets burned in a giant bonfire. It reminded me of the Fallas celebrations in Valencia. This year, Vaval was the man who designed Martinique's non-existent bus service - I'm glad we took the ferry over!
When we arrived in Fort de France we found a number of stalls selling a whole load of carnival tat. I was already in my element in the froufrou skirt from Charlotte, having added in eyeliner a few Pierrot style tears under my eye for good measure, but we all had fun stocking up with masks and head gear for good measure, like a family of magpies, except for Francis, as it wasn't really his scene - "how about I just hold the camera, Mum?!"
We grabbed lunch in a local bar that served only drinks and the catch of the day, served with black beans and rice creole style in a polystyrene takeaway box. It was delicious! Xavier and I each had the Valentine special - a potent raspberry mojito to die for that we watered down with Francis’ lemonade! It was only after we finished it, I remembered that I was meant to be giving up alcohol for Lent. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
We sat on the bleachers for a good half hour waiting for the parade to start (penance enough for the kids), and met up with Charlotte too. When it got started it was great fun people watching and seeing all the characters, and pimped up cars doing a lap. I particularly loved the carnival dancers who followed Vaval, all spritely women of a certain age in traditional dress waving laurel branches, and throwing out good throaty laughs. I also loved catching a wonderful pole dancer on one of the carnival lorries later, who just exuded an infectious joie de vivre. It was not the most penitential of Ash Wednesdays maybe, but what an education for us all!