After a leisurely morning ashore in Sainte Pierre enjoying the pleasures of pain chocolat and café, the anchor is up at 10:50 AM for the 16-mile journey south to Fort de France, the capital of Martinique. With a population of 400,000, Fort de France is the most populated city on the island. In fact, it is the most metropolitan of all cities in the Eastern Caribbean.
The Baie des Flamands (Flamingo Bay) anchorage in the lee of the Fort St. Louis promontory is nearly full when we arrive at 1:30 PM. Cruising yachts are gathered in this harbor to witness the annual spectacle of Carnival. During the four days leading up to and including Ash Wednesday, this city is in full party mode. Carnival is a public holiday. Schools and most businesses remain closed during this period. The Customs office is closed. A few downtown restaurants and bars remain open, but most are closed. Even the grocery stores and the sacrosanct patisseries and boulangeries close their doors during Carnival.
Each day of Carnival, an enormous parade snakes through the city streets beginning around 3 PM and ending around 8 PM. Each daily parade features a slightly different theme, beginning with a general masquerade on Sunday followed by an unconventional tribute to marriage on Monday (dress code: white), a tribute to the devil on Tuesday (dress code: black and red) and ending with the execution of the king of Carnival on Ash Wednesday (dress code: white and black). Almost everybody dresses the part for Carnival. Sidewalk vendors are on hand to assist with any last minute wardrobe needs.
There are many different types of performers in the Carnival parade. First and foremost, there are the organized groups of performers in their colorful costumes that proceed very slowly along the parade route, performing their routine in front of thousands of admiring onlookers. In many cases, these groups represent a neighborhood or community service organization.
Performers consist primarily of drum corps with costumed dancers in tow. Sometimes, these groups include horn players and other musicians, but the percussionists easily drown out the musicians. Virtually every age group is represented in these organized performances. One of the best things about Carnival in Fort de France is that most of the performers play acoustic instruments without amplification. The sound of the drums and chanting is definitely loud, but not electronic. There are only a few floats and tractor trailer trucks that feature amplified performers.
Other costumed characters are free to join in the procession. Sometimes, these participants are dressed in similar costumes that reflect the daily theme of the parade. The size of these groups varies from one or two individuals to over fifty participants. Impromptu groups form during the procession and parade on streets other than the official parade route. From time to time, they cross the parade route at major intersections, causing temporary confusion.
At times, the event seems highly chaotic, but nobody seems to be bothered by late entrants or unconventional would-be performers. The onlookers are in high spirits, but quite friendly. For a crowd of this magnitude, it is unbelievably well-behaved. The street vendors are not permitted to sell alcoholic beverages, which apparently helps to keep the party in control. Other than a few women adorned in painted underwear, there is no nudity or lewd behavior. Parade organizers help to keep the procession moving, but there is not a major police presence visible at this event.
It seems that just about anybody may enter the parade at any time. One of the more popular entrants includes dented passenger vehicles that have been modified and spray painted for Carnival. Usually, these vehicles have no muffler and carry a dozen or more laughing young people equipped with noisemakers and jumping up and down on the hood, the roof and in the trunk. The driver revs the engine to its maximum RPM until it begins to backfire. The sound is deafening…similar to being on pit row at the Indy 500.
The onlookers themselves are prime sideshow participants in the parade. Without exception, everyone except the puritanical tourists dress up in interesting costumes that reflect the theme of the day. This makes for some outstanding people watching opportunities.
The theme of any Mardi Gras or Carnival celebration involves some decadent naughtiness prior to the beginning of Lent. Apparently, there is a public health concern about the temporary absence of social mores during Carnival. Posters urging the use of condoms during Carnival are displayed in public restrooms and signboards all over town. In fact, the public health organization itself sponsors a float in the parade from which condoms and t shirts are distributed free of charge.
A dominant theme of Carnival involves the pursuit of sexual freedom, including men dressed in women’s clothing. According to legend, the king of Carnival is murdered on Ash Wednesday. Allegedly, men are so distraught from this terrible news that they go to confession and put away their collection of lingerie until Carnival begins again next year. To the uninitiated, this story line seems somewhat at odds with family values. One must understand, however, that the French have few innate sexual inhibitions. This fact is readily confirmed during an outing at most any beach here in Martinique. It is not at all unusual during Carnival to see young families hand-in-hand at the parades, the father dressed in high heels, silk stockings and a bra. Vive la difference!
After five days of frivolity and dancing in the streets, everyone seems ready for a return to normalcy. The cruise boats have returned to Fort de France. The streets and La Savanne have been cleaned of litter. The shops and restaurants have reopened. The relative silence on the city streets is music to the ears. One thing is certain. The Martiniquais really know how to dress up and have a good time.
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