The French Islands

fort napoleonWhen Koukla dropped anchor in the small port of Deshaies on the island of Guadeloupe, an ominous, dark cloud hung over the bay.  Here on this French island we would be up against an obstacle we had never come across before; a language barrier.  My father and I both knew a little French, but it was very little, not even enough to communicate really, so this should be interesting.

At first glance, Deshaies was an outwardly charming little fishing village, with cute little shops and a bakery with a multitude of scrumptious looking things.  But, we were unable to enjoy them because we first had to exchange currency, because no one would accept our American money.  Up until now, we had never had this sort of a problem. Everyone was more than happy to take our green money, but not here.   They would only accept francs and euros.  It was rather odd because the euro was the preferred currency and the American dollar is worth essentially the same, and is actually worth a few cents more.  It was a bit disheartening seeing all the neat things in Deshaies and knowing I could buy nothing, for there was nowhere to exchange our money.

So, we were forced to move on to Basse Terre, which was a much larger city.  But, we didn’t want to go all that way today, so we tucked in for the night off a small island called Pigeon Island.  The next morning we woke up to a customs boat puttering around, and wouldn’t you know that we were the first boat they decided to board.  Next to all the other little fiberglass boats we were quite conspicuous, and a lot of times that has worked out to our disadvantage.  But fortunately the French officials were quite cordial in their heavily accented English, and caused us no problems.  They seemed to be more out for a joy ride than out inspecting boats really.  Although, when they left they had a bit of a problem.  They seemed to think their 15-plus foot fly bridge would fit nicely under our bowsprit which has fewer than 8 feet of clearance above the water, so they rammed right into us.    It would have been quite comical if we hadn’t been a bit worried about them damaging our stays, but it appeared that they had done more damage to themselves than to us.  When they moved away we spotted a thin, blackish green scrape across their gleaming white hull.

After breakfast we continued on to Basse Terre.  It was still a bit dreary in the early afternoon when we came in to the unprotected harbor.  While we were dropping anchor we rolled to and fro with the heavy ocean swells, which never stopped.  When we were getting into our dinghy to go ashore we had to time it just right so that the side we were getting off was down next to the boat, for if we didn’t we’d be way up in the air and it would have been a bit of a jump into the dinghy.

Once we were ashore, the very first thing we did was look for a bank.  We found one fairly quickly, waited in line, and when it was our turn we were told that they did not change money there, and they sent us to another bank.  And then they sent us to another bank, who sent us to another bank, who sent us back to where we started.  We ended up changing our money at a rather seedy looking place that also sold lottery tickets and developed film.

Now that we had money we were free to roam Guadeloupe and do as we pleased.  For a place that rejected our American money, it looked pretty Americanized.  Parts of the island could have been confused for parts of New York City if the signs were in English and the buildings had been taller.  There were many American chain stores with a few French specialty shops here and there.  It was a rather interesting experience ordering food in a French McDonald’s.  My father and I stared at the menu for a good while attempting to translate it with the help of my mini English-French dictionary.  The only problem was we first had to guess what the word meant in English, then look it up to confirm that that was what it meant in French.  Fortunately, one thing I knew fairly well were my French numbers, so we were able to somehow order, pay, and get our food using broken, atrocious French and a bit of gesticulation.  To me, it seemed like quite an accomplishment.  It was very odd having something as common and familiar as a McDonald’s be so foreign and interesting.

We had hoped to see the island more extensively, for the rainforests inland were supposed to be beautiful, but we didn’t think our extremely limited French could handle finding a bus or hailing a taxi and coming back.  Although, the bigger reason was we were running out of time before we would have to start heading north, and there were still a few more islands we wanted to see.

A small group of islands called Les Saintes, (The Saints), were also owned by France.  At first sight, these islands were positively enchanting.  They had an air of French countryside meets tropical paradise.  The gently rolling green hills were dotted with red, orange, and yellow roofed houses.  This was something that added to the charm of Les Saintes, every building was white with either a red, orange, or yellow roof.  We anchored off the largest and most populated of these islands, Bourg des Saintes, which was still pretty small.  Ashore, the town square looked like something out of a fairy tale, with clock tower, steepled church and narrow streets radiating in all directions.  Most shops were filled with interesting items, but there were also your typical, touristy trinkets.  I think our favorite was an adorable ice cream shop with the most delectable crème glace we had ever tasted.  We walked along the tidy streets, past boutiques and patisseries, and into humble villages.  For the most part, the houses were small and simple, yet neat, and most had a sort of 1950’s style.  As we walked farther inland we came across a pen of bleating goats.  They were beneath the shade of a large tree that was raining pink petals.  Inside the pen there wasn’t a flower to be seen, yet outside the ground was littered with them.  Whenever a flower should chance to fall inside the pen the goats would all scramble for it, and it was usually the largest and fastest that got it.  We stood there a few minutes watching them, and while we were standing there a baby goat came right up to the fence to look at us.  We had noticed that he hadn’t been able to get as many flowers as the rest, so we popped a few into the pen and he gobbled them up.

On our second and, unfortunately, last day in Les Saintes, we hiked up to Fort Napoleon on top of the highest hill on the island.  Fortunately for us, the highest hill on the island wasn’t that high compared to what we had hiked in the past.   As we went up we passed a tree with a skull and cross bones sign on it, and it had nothing to do with pirates.  It was a manchineel tree, sort of like poison ivy in tree form.  Even if you stood underneath it when it rains the oils would get on you and cause all sorts of problems.  So needless to say, we stayed clear of them.  At the top of the mountain stood moat-ringed Fort Napoleon.  When I first heard that Fort Napoleon had a moat I had envisioned sharks, crocodiles and piranha, yet the moat didn’t even have water in it.  Although, I wasn’t exactly disappointed that there were no vicious aquatic animals, and even without them For Napoleon was pretty neat.  We marched across the drawbridge and into the stone fortress, and explored the labyrinth of narrow passageways.  What was especially neat about this fort was the botanical garden with iguanas everywhere.  The botanical garden was mostly cacti, succulents, and other desert plants, but the fauna of the place more than made up for the flora.  The iguanas were everywhere, almost to the point of annoyance.  In fact, one was near the path we were walking on, and my mother, who isn’t too fond of reptiles, wasn’t happy about this and wanted it to move.  So, she sprayed a little water from her water bottle at it hoping it would go away.  Well, it moved all right, but not in the direction that she had wanted.  It quickly came towards her and she ran away, but it only went a few feet to get its point across.

After our legs had grown tired from exploring we headed back down the mountain and back to the boat.  In the glorious sun of the later afternoon I floated around in the warm, still water.  As I looked out over the glittering turquoise water at the red-dotted, rolling green hills I thought to myself, what could be better than this?

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