Martinique

– visited October 2013 –

I take a shared taxi to Saint-Pierre, formerly the biggest and most important city on the island. In 1902, the people thought a valley would save them from the lava flows of the erupting Mount Pelée. They didn’t know the concept of a pyroclastic flow that would just traverse the valley. When the flow came, nearly 30.000 people died and the sole survivor (at least this is how the story goes) was the prisoner Ludger Sylbaris. He had to spend the night in an underground dungeon that proved to be the only secure place in town. Sylbaris ended up being the first black man to tour with the circus Barnum and Bailey’s as an attraction showing him in a replica of his cell. Bad taste is not a new invention. The town of Saint-Pierre was totally destroyed and has never regained its former size, Fort-de-France became the new centre of Martinique. A few ruins are still visible but I’m too late for the volcanology museum (Musée Franck A. Perret). The rain gets heavier and I decide to head back to Fort-de-France. After sunset, the capital city of Martinique is dead, I have never been to a city as closed and empty as this one. It is 7 p.m. and even the restaurants are closed, I am in France and have to eat at McDonalds as this is the only place that is open in the centre. The crack epidemic killed this city, says the guy in the hotel, back in the 90s. First came crack, then the criminality and after that emptiness.   

Martinique is expensive. The cheapest bed costs 45€ a night and as I visit a supermarket I begin to understand why. Essentially the same products as in Europe are available but at twice the price. Martinique is an overseas department and therefore an integral part of the French Republic. I am right in the middle of the Caribbean but I am also within the European Union. The rules here are the same as in Paris. Martinique looks more developed than other Caribbean Islands, but also with a wider gap between rich and poor.

I wander through a cemetery, take a bus out to the Sacre Coeur de Balata, see the volcanoes in the clouds, rain, I come back to Fort-de-France. I take the boat to the beach at Anse le Mitan, a rainbow shows, the sun is low when I come back to Fort de France. I walk up to a cemetery on the hill, the crucified Jesus is watching over the city. I eat at McDonalds again.

Next morning, I enjoy a last walk through the city. The Bibliothèque Schœlcher and the Cathédrale Saint-Louis de Fort-de-France have been constructed at the end of the 19th century. Made out of metal, prefabricated and shipped complete from France, they look weird in their tropical surroundings. The bibliothèque more art-nouveau, the cathédrale more neo-romanesque.

Seen from the sea, Martinique is as beautiful as on land. But turn around, another beautiful island is waiting, Saint Lucia, I am coming.