I’ve been travelling a lot this summer. I’ve been magnificently blessed. I’ve also travelled with my eyes open, and something unusual has caught my attention: Quite separately from my natural antenna keenly tuned to signs of social upheaval, it seems that every place I’ve visited has been in the throes of a political drama.
I’m not expert in international political analysis, but I swear every stop involved someone explaining that something wasn’t working normally as a result of protests.
Before you write me off as some leftwing fantasist seeing the revolution everywhere I go, here’s what I mean:
1) Martinique: Petrol Strike.
Firstly there was the question of whether I could leave for my adventures in the first place. A week before my anticipated departure, there were talks of yet another petrol strike. Two days later it was confirmed and began.
As usual in Martinique, the petrol stations were blockaded and the island came to a swift, choked standstill. In a petrol strike, business meetings are postponed, schools lack teachers and pupils or close, services – including health and police – effectively shut down because key personnel can’t get to work. The state doesn’t appear to have reserves in these eventualities/make provisions for ‘key’ staff. Riots don’t break out because the would-be opportunists/discontented are also conserving whatever petrol they have left. Thus it was that all movement in the country halted days – hours really – before I hoped to begin the adventure of a lifetime. ‘Off island,’
C’est pas possible! I fumed.
No one knows how long it will last. Although the petrol strikes in the last year have always lasted five days or fewer, everyone remembers how it was a ‘mere’ petrol strike that started the historic 40 day national strike/protest of 2009. The discontent which fuelled that moment remains widespread – particularly the social complaints – so I’ve often heard Martinicans say they expect another such outbreak, with some rather apocalyptic predictions of a violence which will be markedly different from the last period of protest.
On the Friday before I was due to leave, the worst happened. My ride to the airport phoned me to say she’d run out of petrol; if Coralie couldn’t get some the following day, I’d need to try and find somebody who still had petrol, and who loved me enough to use the little remaining petrol they had on me. She might be able to take me the 10 mins to the port with what little petrol they had left, but not the 30 min drive to the airport. Boats and planes had the fuel to get me off Martinique to St Lucia, where a flight would take me to London and my summer adventure would begin. But could I get to the port or airport to board?
As luck would have it, on Saturday night I got another phone call; after ‘only’ two hours of queuing at one of the handful of petrol stations on the island which had been opened to the desperate public, the tank was full. I had a ride to wherever I needed to leave from.
This was inconvenience number one in a summer where the common feature of my travelling would be masses of discontented people expressing themselves.
2) Next Stop, St Lucia: Teacher’s Strike.
Safely and with a welcome little extra hangout time with my sister girl due to an hour’s delay to my flight departure (silver linings and all that) as the air hosts and hostesses were apparently unhappy, I landed in St Lucia Monday lunchtime. EC$25 got me a ride from Vigie airport to the Vieux Fort bus stop, ie the bus stop in Castries for buses going to Vieux Fort. I’ve heard people bemoan the cost of travel between St Lucia’s 2 airports. EC$200! I’ve also heard about them complain about the distance – an hour! Personally, I think they’re whingers.
If you don’t want to pay that, ask for directions for the Vieux Fort bus stand. It is walking distance from the port, and a five min drive from the airport, and St Lucians are perfectly willing and able to give directions. I’ve done the journey a million times and would estimate that it takes an hour and 15 mins on a slow day, 40 mins in a personal car if the person is really bombing it, 50 mins on average.
The road mostly winds through some of the most stunningly beautiful countryside you’ll ever drive through, valleys upon valleys of coconut groves, peaks lined with brightly coloured flowers and palm trees, it’s lovely, lush and green and just before you hit Castries (when you’re going South to North) there’s a five min drive through actual tropical rainforest. It’s not a quick interchange, but it is most definitely the scenic route.
It’s never happened to me before, so it took me a while to realise the bus driver was trying to rip me off with dodgy maths: If a seat costs $8 dollars, and I pay for an additional half a seat, and then give you a $20 bill, how much change am I due? This was only my second experience of this worrying con – worrying because it’s a con based on the assumption of adults having shockingly poor numeracy skills and I can only wonder, does this work usually? Nevertheless, correct change given, within an hour I’d arrived at my destination: Sandy Beach, Vieux Fort.
Cos that’s how I like to roll. With all my luggage for a summer of transcontinental travel, I get off the bus, step on the path to the beach and stroll up to the bar, rucksack on back, suitcase in hand, like it’s not a thing. Except on this occasion, it’s a public holiday, the longest white sand beach in the South is teeming with curious St Lucians, and actually, it’s exactly a thing. I order a Piton Shandy, unload onto a table, and stretch.
An hour later, my cousin arrives. We head to our usual spot, and settle down to catch up. It’s been a solid few months since we last chatted like this so we don’t really pause for breath. We move, oh-so-politely when the American Peace Corps crew ask us if we can budge over so they can use the beach volleyball net.
We don’t roll our eyes and force our eyebrows not to arch. I’ve watched and played volleyball here with my cousins for years but now, as middle age means we’re taking a little break, they’ve decided they own the court? ‘It’s like that now huh?’ a friend slightly taunts someone who used to play frequently with him, but now is playing with the Americans. ‘Gassa y’all not playing again’ his former team-mate responds truthfully. The truth hurts. We smart and try not to be annoyed by the balls which whizz across our eyelines. The Americans are nice and don’t know they’ve got on our nerves. They can see they’ve encroached but the other – empty – volleyball court doesn’t appear to appeal to them for whatever reason.
Despite a long afternoon of gossiping, there never seems enough time. Luckily, that evening I discover that we’ve got all day tomorrow to catch up too; the teacher’s union have just announced a strike so my cousin has the day off work. My flight to London’s not until the following evening so more silver linings are mine.
From what I can gather, St Lucia’s teachers are in a row over pay which has been ongoing for some time. Something to do with loans from the IMF, tax receipts, pay rises and cuts, and belt-tightening. It continued for a week after I left apparently, and they’d been striking on and off for the best part of a year. However, I can’t help but start to feel a little self-conscious at this stage – another strike? Is revolution in the air in the Caribbean? Or do I have a superpower I don’t know about?
The following day me and cuzzie hang in our pyjamas for far longer than I ought to admit, but there’s lots to discuss before we head to the airport. Plus she’s a busy working mum and could do with a duvet day. I’m just a lazy chatterbox.
We make one stop to an auntie’s and I suddenly feel a bit dim; when I land in London tomorrow morning, the first thing I will do is check in with her son who’s also travelling. We have one day together and I’m only now asking if she wants me to take anything for him. He lives in Canada and won’t be home ’til Christmas most likely. Just tell him to call, says my auntie. She knows I’m a bit scatterbrained and does not hold my thoughtlessness against me. I like my family.
45 mins before bag drop closes, we dash to the airport. Thankfully, as we’re already down South, it’s only a 15 min drive away. Another delayed plane – vex baggage handlers – gives me time to call my mum in a panic; I seem to have left my keys in Martinique and won’t be able to get into my house – will anyone be home?
This has never ever ever happened to me before. People laugh, but I always travel with my house keys. I do not presume that someone will pick me up from the airport, or will be home when I arrive. I am thus extremely disconcerted. It’s been years since I landed in London without house keys and enough Oyster credit to get home. I’ll worry about how I’ll get into my padlocked luggage later.
An unusually uncomfortable flight follows, but I arrive safely into Gatwick. I am transitting in London. I’ve enough time to meet a newborn nephew, and obtain a visa for Ghana and that’s about it. Less than a week. Given that in this contracted period my laptop also breaks and is fixed, it’s a far more productive transit than I could have dreamt of.
On day one however, it’s the same story again and at this stage I am starting to believe I might be the common denominator.
3) London – Taxi protest.
I have one day to give my cousin who is in London for the first time, and who has shown me such a good time so many times in St Lucia, a short tour of my town. He’s also flown across the Atlantic to be here and is on a crazy Eurotrip/rowdy uni reunion. He arrived a couple of days earlier and has already managed to do a few things, including taking in a performance of Derek Walcott’s Omeros at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. For a proud Lucian, this was always going to be a treat: watching an internationally-renowned St Lucian actor (Joseph Marcell aka Geoffrey from Fresh Prince) perform the masterpiece of a Nobel prize-winning St Lucian author. That it was at Shakespeare’s Globe, ie the theatre for which Shakespeare wrote his plays, set on the illustrious South bank of London’s river Thames are bonuses. He loved it. He went to the last night and I missed it by a day.
When I got to London, I linked up with my cousin and we headed to the bus stop. The train is quicker, but it’s a double decker bus in London, red and iconic, and offering a much better view of the city. It’s also cheaper. The walking tour, however, will be slightly longer than anticipated (not a good look on a walking tour) because London’s cabbies are protesting.
I can’t believe it – again? This makes 3 protests in 1 week! Have I been gifted with the ability to foment physical manifestations of social unease simply with my presence? The driver informs us that the bus will terminate at Elephant, whereas we were hoping to start walking from Waterloo. Ah well, nothing to get the adrenalin up like beginning at London’s Most Dangerous Roundabout for Pedestrians.
I don’t have any empirical data, but the roundabout by Elephant and Castle tube station/Nandos always feels like a deathtrap. There’s a subway, but it’s really long and lined with more unsavoury types than a young black girl necessarily wants to encounter in a dimly lit subway. I always considered it a choice between a rock and a hard place. Over the years I’d simply forgotten the subway was actually there. We make it across alive and wander up to lovely Lower Marsh, and then more hazardous crossings. I’m determined my cousin will take in Big Ben the right way even if it kills him. And the way I cross roads, it just might.
And yet it doesn’t. We stroll over Westminster Bridge and then, suddenly, Big Ben is in front of us in all its glory. It’s impressive when you view it from this angle. It takes you by surprise. One minute you’re round the grotty arse end of Waterloo station, the next, you’re in front of the Houses of Parliament. Any other angle and you see it for ages before, or your view is blocked, it’s a bit of a let down. My cousin did it properly. South to North, over the bridge. We took photos from a millon angles. Got a bit swept up in the moment.
And then carried on.
We crossed the bridge eastwards and wandered onto the Southbank. If you only have one day in London, the best thing you can do if you want to take in the sights is to head to the Southbank. It’s the cultural heart of London and takes in the most sights in the shortest time; Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, London Eye, River Thames, all the mime artists, National Theatre, Southbank Centre, the humungous Mandela bust, the Southbank Skateboarders’ hangout, National Film Theatre and British Film Institute (home of the incomparably amazing Mediatheque = free film watching), the second hand book stall, Royal Festival Hall, the E4 Udderbelly events in the summer, Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern, St Paul’s Cathedral, Millenium Bridge (opened 1st Jan 2000, closed the same day as it was declared unsafe. Great start to a new century!), Southwark Cathedral Tower, Bridge, City Hall, Tower of London. You can also see the building which we say is Mi5 headquarters, but with age I’ve grown a bit sceptical about the likelihood of the intelligence service’s headquarters being so well-known and highly visible. But you never know.
There’s cafes and bars all the way along this stretch of river and although some of us remember when it was less…commercial…it remains a pleasant place to chill out and there’s an extraordinary amount to free stuff to see and do. We finished the day with a lovely meal at a favourite Southbank spot of mine, Tas, just opposite the Globe. Gorgeous ‘Turkish Anatolian’ affordable food in respectable portions. We trundled home exhausted and my cousin left for Amsterdam the next morning. I began my Epic African Adventure a few days later.
As I made a clumsy attempt to traverse the Dream Continent, I would discover that unrest and security concerns were not unique to part one of my journey; indeed, social upheaval was to be my constant companion as I headed off on this summer’s adventures. Either that or unbeknownst to me I am Revolution Girl? And everywhere I go people start embracing collective action and fighting for freedom and justice and stuff! Maybe? Either way, I’ll save those stories for another day.