Carried away by music

Cameroonian band and owners of Le Massai restaurant

Yesterday at 1PM I was invited to play some music in an African restaurant called Le Massai, a 5 mins walk from my hotel residence. When I showed up with my guitar in hand, a band of Cameroonian musicians were sitting round a table waiting to have a short jam session. The friendly owners of the restaurant introduced me to them, and told me to sit between them and, music maestro! I felt a little overwhelmed as I wasn’t at all sure what we were going to play together, but after 2 or 3 mins of tinkering around, we found some common ground and improvised harmoniously all together. It was great fun, entrancing, pleasing, different, exotic for me, and seemed to please the clients and the owners too, who requested ”more!” as soon as we finished our first song.

The owners of the restaurant had seen me with my guitar the previous evening – I had met Rachel and Grace there for dinner at Le Massai before going to Rachel’s house for a BBQ party. They were instantly very enthused by my apparent musicianship and immediately invited me to come to the restaurant the following day to play for them. After the jam with the musicians, I chatted quite a while the two owners who were very pleased with the performance, they offered me a drink, and I was even told come to the restaurant whenever to hang out or eat for free. I spent the earlier part of the afternoon with them, helping them close for lunch and speaking about all sorts of things, such as the benefits of travel, the release music can offer people, etc…

The band also were very enthused by this different sort of jam session, gave me one of their CDs, and insisted on having photos taken of us all together. They were a trio – two percussionists, and one guy played what I can best describe as a hand made mini steel guitar. It made a fantastic sound – unfortunately I do not remember the name of the instrument as it was very difficult to pronounce! Anyway, what a great afternoon full of new discoveries and musical treats!

Goziéval, the carnival in Gosier

I went back to the room to put my guitar down, and could here the drumming and energy of the Goziéval, Gosier’s very own carnival beginning to sound from the town’s streets. I headed out there late afternoon, watched the parades, followed some, went up and down the town’s center… The West Indies carnivals are full of stands which sell sweets, bon-bons, popcorn, candy-floss, lollipops, sodas, beers, and these special cold treats which consist of crushed ice and colorful flavored syrups served in plastic cups. And of course, there are the famous snack stands, which sell Agoulous, regular sandwiches and the infamous Bokits – very filling and delicious sandwiches made with deep fried bread. All these stands sell their treats at incredibly low prices, and people munch on the snacks as the groups parade by. I have never in my life been to something so unique.

The groups that parade by are always full to the brim with energy, rhythm, sound, percussion, lively dancing, incredible costumes. One large group which I followed with much enthusiasm boasted recycled costumes – hats made with plastic bottles, belts made with bottle caps. I thought this was very representative of island culture. If the beat of a particular group really gets you going, you can decide to follow it and let yourself be carried away by the music.

BBQ party

These past days I have met Rachel’s housemates and fellow ERASMUS friends – all doing really interesting things like medical studies, english teaching jobs, being part of travel associations… It is really nice to meet fellow keen travelers and hear their takes on cultural differences, political observations, fun tips and advice on what to visit, who to meet, what to do with your spare time. It is also heart-warming to see all different types of cultural backgrounds and nationalities blend together so well – this is one of the things I appreciate so much about our generation: the eagerness a lot of us have to travel, communicate, understand and learn about each other.

I have another week left in Guadeloupe – next Monday I fly to Martinique, the final destination of my incredible tropical journey…

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Ça plane pour moi!

These past few days have been unbelievable. Last Thursday, I treated myself to two nights in La Caravelle, a Club Med resort, as there was no more room on that Thursday night at the Canella Residence. I was warmly greeted with a cocktail and a refreshing towel, and escorted to my spacey room which gave on to the beautiful views of the club’s beach. As soon as I arrived I whisked out my bikini from my luggage and stepped outside to explore all the club’s treats.

During my very short stay at the club, I did some yoga, stretching classes, pool and ocean aqua gym, archery, danced, participated in games, I even won a medal which I picked up on stage. The club was surprisingly full of people, mostly families, making the most of the sun and warmth of the Caribbean. There was all sorts going on at the club, including the usual games and competitions, and themed nights with lots of alcohol a-go-go (especially rum, of course), and dancing until 1 in the morning.

Arnaud came to pick me up on the Saturday afternoon at the club, and was amazed at the pretty surroundings. We whisked off to the private side of Pointe-à-Pitre’s airport, and met up with a colleague of Arnaud’s who is a pilot. We walked over to a little airplane which we were going to get into and circle around the neighboring islands of Guadeloupe called Les Saintes. The pilot did all the necessary checks around the plane, noting and jotting down all the information into the black booklet. He asked us to check if the front and back lights came on, and other things like wing movements. After about 30 to 40 mins of checks, I hopped into the back of the 4 person plane, fastened my seatbelt and began gazing at all the different switches, buttons and monitors on the deck. After Arnaud got in, the pilot switched on the corresponding radio, and began interacting with the command tower. It was so exciting hearing and being part of the communications, let alone being in this authentic little plane in the Caribbean, about to jet off to circle around little islands.

The take-off was excellent – the pilot revved up the noisy engine, speeded down the runway, and all of a sudden the plane felt like a feather and was floating above the ground getting higher and higher. We left the island of Guadeloupe and approached Les Saintes, which are a combination of little islands with magnificent bays and lagoon waters. After circling them once the pilot turned over to the co-pilot and myself and said ”Shall we go around again?” with a grin, and we nodded with much enthusiasm. We thus went around them once again, this time a bit lower to better observe the lands. After that we cruised around the coast of Guadeloupe, on the Caribbean ocean side, which was a little more turbulent, but much fun. You could see the volcano craters so well, which is what inspired me to go and take a closer look at Guadeloupe’s main volcano ‘La Soufrière’.

I filmed the landing, which was a bit unnerving, especially as it was the first time I was able to see the runway approaching and getting bigger and closer by the second. In the end the landing was smooth, and we parked the plane back to its original space. What an experience!

That very night, we went to a small Saturday carnival hosted in Sainte Rose, where a few groups marched up and down the streets, dancing and sounding drums along their way. They were essentially warming up for Sunday’s big main event. We ate delicious Bokits, Guadeloupian hot sandwiches, and watched until the festivities ended.

The following day we had planned on going to Marie Galante, another neighbor island. But having arrived at the busy port, we were informed that the return boat ride was much later than we had anticipated, and would mean us missing the main carnival. We therefore decided to visit the Soufrière volcano, and being rather unprepared for the idea, I hiked up part of it in flip flops! It was a very steep, difficult and long hike up, but was worth it when arriving at the Savane des Mulets, a part of flat ground which gave on to superb views of Guadeloupe’s Caribbean coast.

The day continued with visits and coastal cruises around Basse Terre’s upper part. We stopped at the Réserve Cousteau, an ideal spot of diving fanatics. A grey sand beach welcomed us, as well as lots of little boutiques, shops and many diving schools offering guided dips and lessons. Apparently this area is where you can see the best sea life, which convinced me to take a look myself. I got on to a small boat of fanatic divers, and I was the only person on board getting ready to snorkel! When I jumped into the waters, I was astonished by the diversity of color and amount of fish I saw.

There were coral reefs of all shapes, sizes and colors, and enormous tropical fish in groups or solo picking at bits of coral, or just aimlessly swimming around. I spent 1h gazing at all the sea life, discovering another fascinating part of this planet which I often tend to forget exists in such vast amounts. I saw gold scale fish with red tales, giant turquoise fat fish, trumpet fish, blue, yellow, and black tangs, and maybe another 20 or 30 types with no exaggeration. I also saw one of my favorites – a really long (about the size of my arm) box fish airing around, which I followed for quite some time. However, I got a little unsettled when I suddenly spotted about 10 meters away from me, a giant Barracuda, longer than myself, starring at me. It frightened me and so I stayed very still. It eventually swam away, and I was later told that a lot of solitary male Barracudas have a tendency of hanging out in these shallow waters, and can be quite startling…

The day ended with a visit of a pink sand beach, and a lovely gaze out towards the sunset near Sainte Rose. We directly went to the carnival, which had started at 2PM, and watched the more animated and louder groups parade by. This was a more ‘serious’ carnival, as apparently there were judges who would note all the passing groups. There was more of an observant atmosphere in Sainte Rose’s crowds than a participant atmosphere which was very present in last week’s Pointe-à-Pitre festivities. But this was definitely a larger carnival which had demanded much more organization and practice.

I am now back at Canella Residence, and have been moved to a master room with a very large bed. I have another 2 sunny weeks left here in Guadeloupe…

Rum, Bananas and the Carnival

One week has flown by since I arrived on Caribbean territory, and what an adventure it has already been! I must admit that the contrast between Pacific and Caribbean lifestyle and culture has come almost as a shock, but I have really been enjoying noticing all the differences that will often manifest themselves spontaneously and unexpectedly.

I am staying in what is called a hotel residence in Gosier, a touristy and populated area. I have a small studio with a little kitchenette, which from all places is outside on my little balcony. If I tilt my head a little to the right when leaning over the terrace, I see the beach and sea, and hear the waves from my bed at night. Like in a hotel, a maid comes in every day, and gives me new towels, and cleans everything from floors to dishes, which is definitely an added bonus. I found this place online as it offered very interesting discounts for people wishing to stay for long periods. I am very happy to have chosen this particular place, as it also comes with a pool, a private beach, a jacuzzi, a bar, a restaurant, and breakfast included! What more could I ask for in terms of accommodation?

However, one must note and understand that Guadeloupe isn’t the safest place for a young solo girl to freely hang out in, especially at night. I had read and was expecting the island to be a bit dangerous before arriving, so I have my wits about me on a daily basis. Before landing late at night in Pointe-à-Pitre, I phoned the residence up to make sure they would organize a pick up for me at the airport. Admittedly the pick up driver was a bit scary, and was giving me instructions to meet him the following day to cruise around the coast. I believe his intentions were good, but his manner was forceful, and when dropping me off at the hotel, he even urged the receptionist to get him a room – the receptionist shoed him out of the hotel. Twice, because he insistently came back.

The island of Guadeloupe has been hit by a few crisis, and it is visible especially in the Gosier area. The first crisis happened a few years ago when a Guadeloupian strike resulted in a lot of expat European French people having to be shipped back to France. A tourist crisis has also seriously hit the island, as a lot of people nowadays do not have the financial means to get transatlantic flights and exotic hotels. All this is very visible and palpable when walking the streets of Gosier – many hotels stand abandoned, dilapidated, broke, empty, many shops and boutiques are closed, or only open a few days a week at 4PM. There is a sense that Gosier is bitterly nostalgic of a time when things were more lively, colorful, productive.

There is a hotel not far from my residence which is visibly dead, but what is shockingly striking is the fact that there is a lonely cow just outside grazing the hotel’s front lawn – a cheap way of keeping the grass from growing too much whilst the dusty hotel reminisces on better times.

But it is not all doom and gloom, and thankfully so – the island is full fruit fields and plantations, beaches, bountiful sea life, delicious treats, and what I consider as most important, rich musical talent. Traditional Guadeloupian music is called ‘Gros Ka’, which consists of strong drum percussion and vocals. People, men mostly, will hang out and jam together spontaneously on sea sides and in villages. One often sees groups of 15 to 20 men drumming, singing and dancing together, oozing with energy.

Just when I thought I was in need of some sort of a body guard to be able to fully explore and make the most of my discoveries around the island, I met Arnaud, a hench tall French chap who is also temporarily staying in the Canella Residence as part of his job. He is also a keen traveller, and we have been exploring as many local environments together as possible. We have been to restaurants, bars, beaches in Sainte-Anne, Baie Mahault, Le Moule, and yesterday we circled Basse-Terre, which is the lower part of the island of Guadeloupe. I got to see waterfalls, tropical jungles, black sand beaches, enormous banana plantations, many many sugar cane fields and their neighboring rum distilleries, and I even visited a coffee museum.

But the real cherry on the cake was attending last night’s carnival in Pointe-à-Pitre. It was absolutely amazing, full of rhythm, life, color, children, adults, costumes, instruments, and was very much a local situation as Arnaud and I were part of the rare white people airing around the city. From 7PM to 10Pm the streets were full to the brim and different groups stampeded around, appearing from different lanes and roads. Percussion, percussion, percussion – this was the main theme, and thus lots of dancing. It was literally difficult to stand still, you had to move and nod your head to the incessant vibrant rhythm of the night. What an evening! We followed the remaining group at the closure of the festivities, shuffling our feet, banging our heads, clapping and laughing as everyone around us did the same, just focusing on one thing: following the music. 

And that is exactly what I have come here for, and what has motivated me to travel from the outset.

Tahiti, Miami, Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe

cocktails at the Sofitel bar!

Despite having prolonged my stay in Tahiti from 10 to 14 days, time flew by and I tearfully left Papeete airport Sunday evening. It is so easy to get used to the Pacific laid-back lifestyle and beautiful surroundings, but even more so when you share it all with someone you love.

I had an unforgettable time in Tahiti, and what I discovered, saw and learnt during my short stay was fantastic. Granted, it was strange not being with family on Christmas day, and weird not being near home for New Year’s… No snow, no fondue, no fireplace, no snowboarding – but instead sunshine, Mahi Mahi, Tahitian sashimi, Marquisian dance shows and snorkeling. We did however get a bottle of Moet Chandon and some foie-gras, for these delicious traditions are difficult to avoid…

We spent quite a lot of time alongside Marie and Flo, who are friends and fellow students at Geneva’s hotel school which Alex goes to – they are also working in Tahitian hotels as part of their internships. On Christmas day we went out in kayaks and snorkeled in the turquoise waters nearest to Alex’s hotel. We had a Christmas dinner together a few days later, as Flo’s parents had sent him some top notch foie-gras and champagne from home, which we shared with a nice home-made meal. Last Saturday we rented a car and circled the island of Tahiti together, discovering all the coast’s treats – great surfing spots, the tallest largest waterfalls I have ever seen, black sand beaches, breathtaking coastal views, and we ate in a very tasty French restaurant.

giant waterfall on Tahiti's east coast

The last days I spent there were surprisingly wet and rainy – it showered from Friday through to Sunday non stop, flooding the streets and cooling the temperatures. However, it added a wintery touch to our Christmas together, and Alex and I especially appreciated it on the Friday evening when it commenced as we were shelter under an enormous parasol facing a lit up pool – the pouring rain was almost torrential, and we were snug under our shelter for two watching it get more and more intense.

I even got to play a concert with a band one night, as one of Alex’s colleagues kindly offered I’d play with the band on that particular evening. A lot of Alex’s fellow interns showed up, with some of their friends, and we had a big table in front of the stage. I was nervous at first about playing with a band, because I am used to playing solo, but the bassist, guitarist and percussionist followed my every move and I didn’t have to worry about anything. It was great fun, and I played two sets, and in total, about 15 songs. It actually went so well that all the drinks ordered on our table were given for free, as the director of the bar was happy with the performance. And I overheard the director of the hotel had come especially to watch, and personally told Alex the following day at work that he had enjoyed the performance. Thumbs up all round!

concert with Acoustic Party band

You can understand why it was so difficult and sad for me to leave Tahiti, but I did and eventually got to Miami where I spent one night in a snazzy/hip/modern hotel slap back in the middle of Miami Beach, called ‘the New Hotel’. It was very comfy, and had a strange yet cool vibe to it – I arrived in the night, and there was lounge-y music playing quite loudly out on a lit up pool, couches, candles, an open cocktail bar, red lights, blue lights, a projector screen just above the pool replaying that night’s American football game. The concierge brought my heavy bags up to my room, and told me I could order a cocktail on the house in order to relax. I had a strawberry mint Mojito which was delicious to say the least. The hotel room was very nice, the bed especially soft and snug – perfect for resting after two long flights: Tahiti-LA, LA-Miami.

strawberry mint Mojito @ The New Hotel, Miami Beach

And yesterday I flew to Puerto Rico, waited there for 3h, and eventually got on to a plane to Guadeloupe. The wait in Puerto Rico was a bit frustrating as I have never visited this country, and being stuck inside the airport with the gift shops selling shirts and souvenirs I felt was a bit of shame. What was amusing was the plane ride to Guadeloupe – one of the oldest, smallest planes took us there. I could see the giant propellers from my tiny window seat revving up, and making an incredible noise. But the cherry on the cake was the fact that all of the chaps at the front of the plane had to relocate to various parts of back and middle of the plane, for balancing reasons! I was the only remaining person at the front, exempt from moving as I was the only lady at the front from the outset. The plane made an absolute racket the whole way from Puerto Rico to Guadeloupe, and thankfully I still had a pair of ear plugs in my bag from my Air Tahiti Nui flight.

I have now arrived safely in Guadeloupe. I haven’t had much time to explore yet, as I have just come back from breakfast, which I ate on the beach front. There are interesting Caribbean treats such as coconut jam, banana jam, fresh guava juice… And I’m sure so many more exciting Guadeloupian discoveries are on the horizon for the coming next weeks!

Ia Orana Tahiti!

I left Hawaii a week ago in a limousine to the airport, and flew once again through a rainbow on my way to Tahiti. I had such a great time both in Maui and Oahu, and I will remember those islands fondly, but time for a new country and culture…

Tahiti is similar to Hawaii in its Polynesian culture and atmosphere, except less American and more French, …which makes sense! But that feeling is very present, much more than I had expected. Tahiti is a French territory so all road signs are like the ones back home, and the supermarkets, food brands, car makes are those which I am familiar with. I have enjoyed going to Carrefour and being able to buy things I like to get back at home like goat’s cheese, millefeuille desserts and foie-gras. Of course, one has to be careful selecting wines, as there are good bottles to choose from, but it is best to avoid the older ones as they have probably been sitting in the wrong temperatures for way too long…

The Tahitian language seems to be much more alive and spoken than Hawaiian language in Hawaii. Tahitian is translated from French almost everywhere, and I do hear from time to time some people speaking it. It is very similar to Hawaiian as it I suppose it shares the same Polynesian roots: ia orana = hello, nana = goodbye, manuia = cheers, maruru = thank you, … And my personal favorite: nene = transvestite (!) Yes, much to my surprise, this seems to be a popular phenomenon here in Tahiti – many men chose to dress as women on a daily basis and a lot of them work as hotel maids, cashiers, waitresses. It is very surprising, and adds a little quirkiness to the island!

The most exciting thing for me though has been reuniting with my boyfriend Alex who is working at the Maeva Sofitel Beach Resort here in Faa’a. He works as the assistant to the hotel’s director of finances and administration. We have celebrated Christmas and New Year’s together and have done a bit of traveling together during Alex’s time off. On boxing day we took a catamaran to Tetiaora, also known as the ‘Island of Birds’, which was a stunning private island, a 3h30 boat ride away from Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. The boat ride was very choppy, and unfortunately a lot of people were sick on board. And I must admit that usually I am not sea sick but this long catamaran ride was tough. When we arrived on the island, we walked around it and its beautiful lagoons, saw some extremely rare birds of all shapes and sizes, snorkeled around the shallow waters and swam with some of the most colorful fish I have ever seen. We ate a traditional Tahitian lunch on board, and head back to Papeete in the afternoon.

Our second trip, my favorite of all, was on the 30th December, when we took a ferry to the island of Moorea. Alex had booked us in the Sofitel on that island, and because of his affiliation with Maeva Beach Resort, he got us a wonderful room for a discounted price. The resort in Moorea is picture perfect: a long stretch of real beach, pilotiers, infinity pool, beautiful cocktails, stunning rooms, really comfy beds, tranquility, Tahitian shows at night, a great bar on the beach – it was an ideal honey moon type place. Alex treated me to an 1h massage at the spa as part of a Christmas present, which was excellent. I was blown away by the quality of our room which was honestly one of the best hotel rooms I have ever seen.

The following day we walked around Moorea for an hour or so, saw a lot of crabs, market stands, fruit trees and more stunning beaches, before taking the ferry back to Papeete. Moorea is even more tranquil and laid back than Tahiti, which is sort of difficult to explain as Tahiti is very relaxing as it is..!

I have already witnessed a few traditional musical treats since my arrival – we went to see a Marquisian show at the Intercontinental hotel (our neighbors) which was full of energy, percussion and lively female and male dancers. We also got to see a lot of Tahitian tamouré dancing at the Moorea resort at the restaurant at dinner time. There are some Tahitian dances which are very similar in style to hula, but with more energetic moves, kind of like their alphabet which unlike Hawaiian contains the letter ‘r’ which gives it more oomph. The costumes the dancers wear are also generally a bit more fierce looking – more natural colors like green and brown, more traditional accessories like bamboo, wooden bracelets, more tribal make-up. The women also shake their backsides much more than hula dancers, and with much more rhythm and energy.

The internet is very slow here so it has been difficult for me to upload photos, check emails, keep in touch and write as much as I was in Hawaii where its USA internet connection is speedy and easy to access. I am going to have to get used to this slower and less modern lifestyle in the French islands which I am finding fascinating and enjoyable…

What is really interesting is this sensation that I have returned home because of the French cultural aspects that are so present, yet I am further away from home than I have ever been in my life… Nana!