Nancy Lyon was marked for adventure at 13 when her mother, a bored Indianapolis housewife, took the family station wagon and her four daughters off to Acapulco for the summer with no man, no plan, and no Spanish. Nancy has tried to top that rollicking rite of passage with travels from Tunisia to Malaysia, Ireland to Australia, a 1970 VW Westphalia “Dame Gitane” and various lives in Manhattan, San Francisco, Switzerland, Dublin, and now Montreal, Quebec. Her stories and photos have appeared in GEO, New York Magazine, Ms., The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Saturday Review, the Chicago Herald Tribune, the Miami Herald, In Dublin Magazine, the Montreal Gazette, and US alternative newsweeklies.
I’d promised myself an I-hate-Christmas getaway to a hot tropical island. No gaudy shopping malls. No merry muzak. No hysterical spending matches. No sad rehashings of Dysfunctional Christmas Pasts. But what’s this? Am I discovering that I actually like the holiday? At least the way they do it in Créole, in the French West Indies on Guadeloupe, one of the few Caribbean isles under-trammeled by tourists.
While all of North America is rushing to the malls, the people of Guadeloupe are out singing. All over this lush, butterfly-shaped island south of the Tropic of Cancer, where Christmas is as humble as a string of colored lights in a palm-fringed village square, there are esctatic displays of communal faith in music and laughter.
On the steps of the old stone cathedral, in the cobbled village square of Basse-Terre, we’re slapping our thighs and singing Creole-flavoured Chantés Noêls . A skinny brown Santa in droopy red flannel is serving paper cups of strong coconut punch, sweet as candy. The moon is milky and voluptuous. The air is hot and sultry, yet a tender innocence fills the island night.
Shoulder-to-shoulder, in straw hats and flowered dresses, T-shirts and blue jeans, we’re swaying to these old cantiques that began in France as ethereal Renaissance airs, and with plenty of rum and lusty Caribbean heat, burst into erotically-syncopated paens to Christmas even a pagan would love.The feverish tropical rhythmns,the jivey island beat, the bongos and cheeping tree frogs, maracas, native gwo-ka drums and guitars have us all, villagers and visitors, leaping off the cathedral steps to dance in the streets. Is this Christmas?
After singing for a few hours, I stumble up the cathedral steps of Notre-Dame du Mont Carmel to see the midnight mass. At 1:30 a.m. the old church is packed to the rafters for the annual “crèche vivante” pageant reenacting the manger scene in Bethlehem. The plain wooden pews fill with buxom grande-mères in straw hats and white gloves fluttering fans; little girls in frothy lace and white anklets with hair plaited into corn rows, and gawky teens in over-polished shoes.
All eyes are riveted on the “set,” a hanging white bedsheet, and the young shepherds, angels, kings and Mary and Joseph, whose costumes of madras plaids, satins and velvets gussied up with sequins, beads, feathers show off hundreds of hours of hand-stitching. The organ booms and a teenage Magi with a fake moustache and a tinfoil crown inches down the aisle, trailing a 20-foot long purple velvet train. For all the 25 minutes he takes to reach the crèche, moving with stilted care not to trip, every eye is upon him.
How to spend a rum-hungover December 25th in Guadeloupe? Guadeloupe’s beaches are tempting confections of sugary white, pearly grey and volcanic black sands fringed with sensually arching coconut palms. Like beaches on the French Riviera (Guadeloupe is an overseas department of France) topless and nude bronzing are pretty usual. Stripping to the buff on a silvery beach had a certain appeal. But climbing a live volcano seemed a more perverse way to celebrate Christmas.
La Soufrière volcano is the magnificent center piece of Parc Nationale de la Guadeloupe, a cathedral of blooming orchids and flamboyants, wild pineapples, tangling lianas, towering tree ferns and redwoods- 42,750-acres of rain forest and high altitude savannah. It’s also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the habitat of the world’s largest insect -the ferocious-looking seven-inch long Dynastes Hercules beetle with diabolically- serrated choppers like hooked saws.
I awake at dawn Christmas morn with one of the island’s thousands of crowing cocks. Just in time to make the 4,800-foot ascent up the rumbling volcano before late morning clouds and fog obscure the panorama below. La Soufrière has been smouldering for 13,000 years and erupted disasterously between 1976-77. But local seismologists say its temper is predictable enough to render it safe for Sunday hikers.
I drive to the tin-roofed village of L’Habituée and am hit by the – ugh! – smell that reminds me of very rotten Easter eggs. A wee boy is peddling bananas by the side of the road. Before I know it, Tusçon Joassaint and his school mates have lured me out of my rental car to dance a crazy improvised béguine to Chantées Noëls blaring from a blue-painted corrugated shack. Then they give me a tutoring in Créole, the lilting West Indian tongue that originated with African slaves on the sugarcane plantations in the late 16th century. It’s a spicy broth of French expressions, Arrawak-Amerindian, Hindu, Spanish and Portuguese words, African syntax and Caribbean rhythmns and sense ofhumour..
In Basse-Terre I had bought some comical postcards with Créole sayings, hoping to imbibe some of the local wisdom. “Trop pressé ka fé chattes ” (More haste, less speed) and “Faut toujou ou ba crabe bien mangé pou ou mangé-I apré ” (Feed the crab well to eat it afterwards). But as I hear the language spoken by Tusçon and his little friends, “Ka fé nwé ? ” seems a far cry from the French “Comment ça va?” (how are you?). And “O-la ou k’alé ” doesn’t sound anything like “Ou vas tu?” (Where are you going?)
I am going up the volcano, I say finally.
I hike down La Soufrière and follow another steep path to the waterfall that Christopher Columbus in 1493 described as “a jet of water falling from the heavens.” I stretch on a rock in front of the highest of the three Carbet Falls, inhaling the steam of the hot springs and the heady spray from the falls. My gaze follows the silvery ribbon of water as it sashays 400 feet down to the churning pool where island kids are splashing and singing more Chantées Noëls.
The Parc Archéologique des Roches Gravés at Trois-Rivières is only 12 miles away. I spend the rest of the afternoon creeping through the forest and the eerie tumble of giant volcanic boulders overrun with Strangler Figs– called Evil Figs– looking for Arawak petroglyphs. Without a guide, it’s a real treasure hunt trying to find these symbols carved in 300-400 A.D.by the first inhabitants of the Antilles, subsequently decimated by the violent Caribe tribes.
In the days that remain, I zip around Grande-Terre, the flat wing of this butterfly-shaped island, getting happily lost on back roads and exploring Créole fishing villages. I browse for hand-crafts in Sainte-Anne, gawk at exotic root vegetables at the market in Pointe-a-Pitre, sample tazard and other fresh seafood in Saint- François, and drive to the rocky presque-ile of Pointe des Chateaux, to catch a last fabulous sunset. Wherever I am, I can’t shake the catchy melodies, spicy syncop and sweet lyrics of these Chantés Noels. Al-le-luia! Kirie elie son….!