Gunmen and Hurricanes

Dispatches from Martinique

1. Gunmen and Hurricanes

‘You want to buy something?’

‘No, I’m just looking, thanks,’ I reply, smiling at the woman who is smiling at me, scanning the tall bottles of oils stacked in what looks like a tropical makeshift apothecary’s. Avocado oil, nut oil. Then the woman screams. It all happens in a few seconds. I turn, see the two men launching themselves across the emptying market square. Under the afternoon sun in the middle of town. One chasing the other, both jumping over the debris in almost synchronised movements, the silver flash of a gun just like on TV. I turn, run, jump behind a low concrete wall carrying dirt and flowers, there’s an old woman there too, everyone is watching, waiting, half-crouching, behind us is the big boulevard but the cars have stopped and the green man has blinked on, I ask her, ‘Do we run?’ and she looks at me for a second and then says, ‘Yes yes, run, go, run!’ but she herself does not seem to run. I bolt across the boulevard and down the few streets familiar to me, here in the middle of this very small city, head away from that market square that has suddenly turned electric with danger, that whole zone now turned electric with danger, am I safe here? I keep running even though everyone is walking calmly down these central streets, heading home after Friday’s day of work.

I slow and walk, breathing deep, and I’m not shaking but there’s definitely a shake in me, a slow kind of matter-of-fact shaken. Today, getting on the bus and getting into town felt familiar, easier. I saw the market – haven’t been there. I’ll pass by on my way to the Casino supermarket, haven’t been there either. This looks nice, what’s this? Looks like an apothecary’s.

*

I’ve been in Martinique for one week. My first night I slept under a mosquito net for the first time, thought I’d feel trapped but felt strangely serene, safe under that fine mesh that made me think of four-poster princess beds.

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September is the worst for heat, I am told, and it’s fresher in the winter. The apartment where I am AirBNB-ing is a half hour walk in the sweltering humid sun to the city centre. Today I’m going to look for places to live. My colleagues Nicole and Laure (who let me sleep at her place the first night and gave me some of that world-famous Martiniquan rum) and my landlady Béatrice have all been extremely helpful and generous to me. They say my French is good, better than most assistants. I am surprising myself with my confidence in general. I think it’s because I have experience travelling, teaching, speaking words in languages not automatically living in my brain, living. I’m older. I’m not embarrassed to ask questions and say Pardon? as many times as necessary.

My trinity of guardian angels have also all warned me that as a white girl I will be the object of much male attention. It’s best not to ignore it completely, they tell me, but just smile and keep walking, or else the men might get angry and insist. ‘They insist!’ Nicole informs me, ‘They insist and insist. It’s annoying.’

When Béatrice echoes the warnings about ‘them really liking white girls’ I say, ‘Yeah, why is that?’ We have an arrangement where I speak to her in French and she answers in English, so that we can both practice.

‘I don’t know,’ she says, ‘Perhaps because Caribbean women have very hard characters.’

‘Feisty?’

‘They are very independent. And they think that white girls are more…sweet.’

‘Sweet and compliant?’

‘Yes.’

The drive-by cat-calling I can put up with, but one day I’m waiting for the bus when a car slows to a stop in front of me.

‘Where you going?’ the guy asks me, smiling.

‘I don’t speak French,’ I say in English. So he swaps to English.

‘Where you from?’

‘I’m waiting for the bus.’

‘The bus? Here?’ (At this stop, as with many, there is no sign, it is just commonly known that the bus stops there.)

‘The bus. Here.’

A car comes up behind him and he’s forced to move on. ‘Have a nice day!’ he says as he drives away. They think they’re just giving you a compliment, apparently, and why on earth would you feel offended or threatened? At home I get really angry about cat-calling and the words and intimidation you have to put up with from male strangers when you walk down the street – regardless of what you’re wearing – but here I realize I will lose precious energy getting angry.

At the bus stop I had called over to old man on the other side of the road, sat in front of his house, and asked confirmation that this was indeed the bus stop. He nodded, and when he sees the bus he calls over to me to let me know. I thank him, hail down and climb up the vehicle that hauls its way around mountain corners and into city streets.

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I wander through town. Two young men have a black muzzled dog that’s panting in the heat. They see I have a bottle of water and ask me for some to give him. I don’t understand; a man next to them intervenes: ‘Excuse me, madam, he didn’t express himself very well,’ and explains slower. I hesitate at first in case it’s some kind of scam but, I think, it’s only water, and I have my backpack tight against me. I hold out my bottle to the young guy with the dog and he takes it from me, crouches down and trickles the water into the big black dog’s panting, muzzled jaw. He hands the bottle back to me and thanks me.

I’ve been bit a bit by mosquitoes, but I feel fine, so I guess it isn’t dengue or zika.

*

Béatrice is a lab technician and single mother of Ciel and Olivier, who is ten and shy. B asks me if I can help Olivier with his English homework, and I readily accept; I can’t go out at night alone anyway, and I like helping kids learn. That’s why I’m here: for the adventure, and to help kids learn. Well, there are other tangential reasons, but those two are the ones that I make public.

The family live in an apartment right on the edge of town, next to a neighbourhood which I’m warned away from, and even the name sounds like a bad guy in a fantasy novel: Volga. Once, getting back from the centre of town by bus, I get lost between the alleged bus stop and the apartment, end up hiking up and down the hill called Volga a few times, turning back, turning back, feeling myself stand out like a knife in a box full of chalk. But the people are going about their business being people: the only person who says anything to me is a boy on his bicycle coming home from school. ‘Bonjour,’ he says.

*

Autumn. Here, rainy season is ending. The heat permeates through everything and more light shines than what seems possible, all of a sudden you look up and there’s rain shooting down, straight downwards like a huge unfolding curtain, pummeling everything into submission, except it’s soft, always soft rain. Lots of it.

We sit two days inside through a hurricane, Matthew is his name.

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When I leave the window open, the rain comes in, but I want the fresh air, so I use this towel, Hurricane be damned.

Everything stops on alerte orange, no one leaves their houses if they can help it. I stay in and do some yoga with Ciel, draw pictures of princesses and snow-drifted forests at her request. She colours in her colouring book and shows me ‘Sophie’.

‘Ah,’ I say. ‘Is she clever?’

‘Yes,’ says Ciel, ‘Of course she’s clever.’

‘Is she brave?’

‘Yes, of course she’s brave.’

‘Is she nice?’

‘Yes, of course she’s nice.’

‘Well then. Those are the most important things.’

Ciel is five. Her mother, Béatrice, is my landlady for one week of AirBNB living. She drives me around on her free days when I don’t have a bus ticket and I need to do things like find a place to live; she even accompanies me to the Young People’s Housing Centre to help do the talking-in-official-French thing. Once or twice hitch a ride when Ciel has to be taken to school anyway; one day we all go to the car together and B says, ‘Ciel, get in the car,’ as she goes to drop off some rubbish. I stay standing outside to breathe the fresh air because I’ve been shut up in the apartment for two days and it’s an oven inside that car.

Ciel sees me. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I like the air. It’s very fresh,’ I say, in my simple French.

She gets out of the car as B is walking back. ‘Ciel,’ B calls, ‘Get in the car.’

‘But there’s AAAAIIIIR!’ Ciel sings.

One day B can’t drive me and I don’t have any bus tickets, so I walk into town to meet Nicole. I’m late and she calls me and it turns out that Google Maps has totally underestimated how long it will take me to get there, and I have totally underestimated what kind of heat I can walk through because it is 37 degrees and by the time we get to the shopping mall to buy me a SIM card I feel sick and dizzy and all of a sudden it’s happening again, I go sit down and put my head between my legs. Low blood pressure. A young woman sees me from across the mall and walks over. ‘Are you okay? Can I get you a fizzy drink?’

‘Just some water maybe,’ I can barely say. My head is fuzzing over and French isn’t working in there anymore. She fetches me water as a security guard walks over, takes my name, talks into his walkie talkie. I can’t explain that this happens to me a lot, it’s just quite bad right now – French not working.

Eventually we get to the doctor’s office on the second floor. I know from experience that my face must be grey, ghost-like. I lie back and the change in temperature is drastic, rippingly cold, but that’s okay, I need the cold, to lie back, not do anything, recover, recover, recover…

The doctor comes. He’s white, so I assume he’s from the métropole (mainland France). He talks to me quickly in French and I can still understand but I can’t make the words in my head anymore. Nicole finds us and speaks to me in English.

‘Do you have any medications?’ the doctor asks.

I shake my head. A sharp instinct pulses through the fuzz: don’t mention the medication. But then he asks about my heart and I think, palpitations are a side effect, maybe I should tell him about the meds, just in case.

Nicole looks at me blankly. ‘Citalopram?’ she asks, ‘What’s that? What’s it for?’

‘Depression,’ I say. She nods. The doctor says to her, ‘Is it hard living here?’

‘No, she just got here!’

I’ve turned away to hide the tear that escapes down my cheek, probably from the whole situation rather than just having to explain about the depression, but that in part, I guess. It’s something I’d like to just say as normally as, ‘I have a heart condition’ or ‘I broke my leg once’, but for practical reasons I cannot. Don’t tell people in the workplace, don’t write about it on Facebook or even your own tiny writing blog, nothing with your name on it or potential employers will find it and not hire you and you’ll never be able to prove that that was the reason why. Don’t tell people your business. It’s not their business. People make assumptions. Don’t don’t make sure you don’t.

Nicole gets me fruit juice and eventually I start to feel like I exist again. But I’ve forgotten my EHIC card so the medical visit costs me €25. Nicole and I have an early lunch, some coffee, discuss Trump and the odd American habit of having loads of really bad coffee instead of a tiny European cup of good coffee, and then it’s on the road again to look for places to live.

*

When I wait for the bus in Fort-de-France, I see all these high-school kids in uniform messing about with each other, joking, laughing, fooling. It fills me with warmth to see that all high-school kids are the same just about everywhere. I’ll be teaching them soon, absorbing all that stuff again. I like that feeling. It takes me back to a time when I was more deeply part of a community than I’ve ever been since. And young people are great: they’re funny, they’re themselves, even when they feel like they’re not. They have so much potential. They just have so much, even when they have nothing. They bring me back somewhere simple and even, even amidst their drama and the hyper-emotion.

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Bibliotheque Schoelcher, named (as so much here is) after 18th-century French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher

I’m here for adventure, I’m here to teach, I’m here because regardless of the black pit that gaped through the winters and springs for the last two years – but since they were there, especially because of them – it is the time in my life to go out and see the world, be as much a part of the Rest Of It as I can, see what I can see. And I’m here to write.

In order to concern myself with my art I learn not to concern myself with my art but to concern myself with my life.

It struck me about a month ago that I hadn’t felt like I was living – feeling life – in that raw energized creative full-of-the-world, full way – for a long, long time. Had depression drained it out of me? Was it just the wrong time?

I’m twenty-two, I thought. Why don’t I feel that same heightened kind of exalted sense of LIFE anymore? Like I used to feel sometimes just walking back to the flat in the pouring, merciless, pummeling rain that I turned my face towards and smiled into?

One night at B’s I’m reading about Pinkola Estés’ ‘wild woman’ archetype. I guess digesting her words loosens something. I feel the need to write a love letter. I realize I have been feeling that urge in different ways for the past few days, maybe weeks, but as a nebulous, uncertain thing, and it crystallizes perfectly into a letter, those things best written in solitude. No need to worry about etiquette, the shoulds or don’t Is. Just writing. And tears catch me unawares as I write, and I realise that there have been these things, these tears, these feelings, this life inside me that I had needed to express, and it feels good to cry. It feels like something peaceful.

I had wondered if my ability to feel so deeply and passionately had had to die a little, drain out, or at least close off into a dark hidden reservoir, in order for me to get better after being so depressed for that so long a time. But that release and those tears and all of those feelings proved that wondering thought wrong, at last.

I’m back! The poet is back. The feeling is the energy.

And now I’m in this tropical island and I’m going to live in my own place and have a job and deal with bureaucracy and meet people and improve my French and maybe learn Creole and go swim in the warm, clear sea. Even if there are gunmen flashing through market squares in broad daylight after drug money, even if the hurricane chops the sea up into violence and I’m stuck inside. I can read and draw pictures and do yoga and practice everything. I can write.

 

All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.

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