One is in Guadeloupe, a French territory in the Caribbean. In fact, he is in his final few days. As time is short, one shall be unusually laconic.
The biggest complement one can pay Guadeloupe is that it is a land of extreme topographical beauty. It is both stunning and scenic. From verdant mountains and fertile forestry, to pristine palm fringed beaches buffeted by the clearest blue seas, indeed, it is poetry in the form of nature.
At present, one is based in the relatively rural hilside district of Bois Malher where he taken residency in the home of his host. The view from his veranda is a sight to behold. To the left, in the distance, are two thicket-covered mountains reaching high into the clouds, known as Les Deux Mamelles, or in English, The Two Breasts. On a clear day the reason for the aforesaid moniker is obvious, such are the contours of this magnificent force of nature. To the right, the vista is also one of remarkable splendour. Out in yonder is the most magnificent crystal blue seaview. For it must be seen to be believed.
The immediate environs of Bois Malher hark back to a Guadeloupe of yore; where the crow of the cock wakes one up at the break of dawn and ends up on his plate in the evening, where bananas, mangos and other tropical fruits can be plucked and eaten as nature intended, where old women till the land in the morning and carry the produce away on their heads by the afternoon. Despite the aforementioned scenery and all its associated agricultural ruralism, Bois Mahler is no backwater. Unlike many rural areas in the tropics, infrastructure and housing is generally decent and one has not seen what one would term “hardcore” poverty and destitution.
Given the region in which the country lies, you would be forgiven for assuming that Guadeloupe is a developing nation. However, you would be mistaken. In fact, Guadeloupe is not even a sovereign independent nation. It is considered a French “Overseas Department” and as much a part of France as the region of Brittany or Alsace – despite being several thousand miles away (one would contend that it is a colony, but that is by-the-by). Thus, the French influence weighs heavy, both in Guadeloupe in general and the urban areas in particular. The throwbacks of the likes of Bois Malher are somewhat of an anomaly.
The two main cities, and associated urban sprawl, are Pointe a Pitre and Basse Terre. Take away the palm trees and one could almost be in urban France; typified by a brilliant road system, the ubiquitous Carrefour supermarkets, patisseries, gendarmeries and the housing estates that proliferate the French banlieus.
Despite the well-developed infrastructure and decent standard of living enjoyed by most of the populace, courtesy of large subsidies from France, there is a caveat – Guadeloupe is expensive, more expensive than France (as a point of interest, one is told wages are lower). As Guadeloupe produces virtually nothing of note – bar tropical fruits – virtually everything consumed is imported from “the mother country”. Hence, this raises the price of everyday items, 5.50 Euros for Nivea shower gel for instance.
Both the cities of Ponite a Pitre and Basse Terre are nothing to write home about in essence. With the exception of a few interesting museums on the history of the islands, there is nothing remotely remarkable about said cities, good or bad. They are not exactly hotbeds of culture or hives of activity, commercial or otherwise. One can walk around the city centre during the day in midweek and find half the shops closed and the streets akin to a ghost town – no hustle, no bustle; rather odd. That being said, Poitre Pitre and Basse Terre do rouse from their slumber at night and, if it is so desired, one can dine, drink and party to the heart’s content at the plethora of restaurants, bars and clubs. But, to travel this far and base his activity on the aforementioned would be a wasted journey. The real delights of this archipelago that is Guadeloupe, lie outside the urban areas.
The two main islands of the archipelago are Basse Terre, which also gives its name to the capital, and Grande Terre. Joined together by a narrow strip of land, when viewed on the map as an entity, it has the shape of a butterfly. Grande Terre, the eastern wing, is a bit of a tourist hotspot, notable only for its resorts and beaches, albeit stunningly beautiful beaches. In fact, they are among the most beautiful one has feasted his eyes on – white sands, turquoise seas and palm trees. But the appeal of this only lasts so long. For it is on Basse Terre (the island) which makes a trip to these parts worthwhile. Unlike its eastern counterpart, which is largely flat, the topography of Basse Terre is hilly, mountainous and verdant, replete with plantations of various varieties – sugar cane, banana, coffee, cocoa etc. A highlight of the island is the vast Guadeloupe national park, where one can find an array of indigenous flora, fauna and wildlife, including a few big cats, most notably jaguars. However the piece de resistance, personally, is the La Soufriere volcano. Imposing in stature and just short of 1500m, one hiked his way to the summit through the thicket of rainforest in a 2 hour slog, stopping at various points to take in the spectacular vistas of Basse Terre island. Granted, this does not match the feats of Tensing and Hillary, but this was one’s personal Everest! As one reached the summit, the malodorous smell of sulphur pervaded the air, reminiscent of decomposing rubbish, causing offence to one’s olfactory senses. However, turning back was not an option. The reward for this was a view inside the steaming crater and its rather moon-like terrain, which in itself was impressive.
Basse Terre indeed does offer the adventurous and active a plethora of activities, many of them water based. From jetsking, to kayaking to snorkelling one can indulge in water activities to the point of satisfaction. Taking a kayak from Malandure Beach to the small rocky island known as Pigeon Island, about 800 meters away, is a strenuous (if one is not used to rowing) but rewarding trip. From Pigeon Island one can snorkel in the surrounding sea, taking in the awesome spectacle of schools of tropical fish, resplendent in their variety of colours and patterns, glorious in their beauty.
In addition to Basse Terre and Grande Terre are several significantly smaller islands that make up the archipleigo. One only had time to pay a visit to one of them, Terre-de-Haut, which is a one-hour boat ride from Pointe a Pitre. The aforementioned island is the largest of a group of islands known as Les Saintes. For what it is worth, it is a place of twee picturesque charm (nice beaches), but no big-wow. There is a rather impressive old French fort, imposing in stature, but that is about it. Despite the uphill winding roads, it is rather pleasant to explore by bike and take in the vistas.
One thing that was of note in Terre-de-Haut, is that the populace is largely of European or mixed-ancestry, in contrast to the rest of Guadeloupe which is largely of African descent. The explanation, one is told, is that the terrain was not suitable for sugar plantations, therefore slavery never really gained a foothold. Thus, hues of blond and red hair is not uncommon, evidence Gallic genetic pool of the early colonists.
It was said earlier that Guadeloupe produces nothing of note with the exception of tropical fruits. This is slightly disingenuous as it also produces rum, lots of it – dark, white and various liqueurs and punches that are based on the said spirit. One did pay a visit to one of several rum factories. It was rather interesting observing how sugar cane is crushed, its sap fermented and distilled and to become that rather potent of beverages. On a point of interest, one was not previously aware that white rum becomes dark rum when it has been aged in a barrel for a period of time. Well, you learn something every day.
One is knackered. Thus here he ends his ramble. As he said, he shall be laconic.