20 January 2020

The French Non-Connection


Our time in the French Caribbean was wonderful... mostly.  Despite being some of the most beautiful and first-world places with some of the most picturesque anchorages in the Caribbean, there are connection issues - literally and figuratively.  Linda has admonished me to be culturally sensitive in this post. She will redact the testimony if she thinks I've crossed the line.

c'est la vie


Capt. Bob

Language Connection

The thing about the French Islands is... well, they speak French.  We are both high-school level Spanish speakers (which means we are sadly mono-lingual like most Americans). However, it is surprising that even around very touristy areas (like near cruise ship ports and in big cities), there are relatively few people in shops and restaurants who spoke anything but French. Even the Customs/Clearance people often spoke only French and, by definition, they are dealing with people from somewhere else all day long.

I'm not complaining. We faced nothing on the scale of how non-English speakers are treated in mono-lingual America. Normally, our "Je parle anglais?" or "no francais" would be met with "ah, okay... I'll try".  Occasionally, it was met with an eye roll or sigh, but never a "if you don't speak the language, get out of the country" type thing.  Overall, most people were polite or neutral. Mainland Guadeloupe was an outlier as it was much more common to be faced with blatant rudeness at our lack of French. Les Saintes, Martinique and Marie-Galante seemed to be much more forgiving.

So, not complaining, (well a little) but the language barrier does make things more arduous, complicated and harder to connect.  Basic purchases and restaurant ordering is fine, but more complicated interactions can be extremely challenging if not impossible. Our few phrases along with Google Translate and generous locals trying their best with Anglais mostly worked.  Directions, numbers, technical support for a non-working Orange SIM card... that's a different story.

Us being ready with our first two questions for a Car Rental

Designated Feeding Times

Oui, it is very French here. The daily schedule takes a bit of getting used to. When not working, we like to be on the move when we come ashore and pop into different places. We like to sample "a quick bite" or a quick drink at several places or secure provisions and boat parts. There is no such thing as "quick" on the French islands. Many of the restaurants say they are "Snack" places or have a "Snack" section on the menu. A "Snack" on one menu is a Burger with egg on top, salad and frites.  Now, that's a snack!  Budget at least an hour and a half for your quick bite. And be sure to hit the shops in the morning before the 1PM shut down or between 3-5PM (which means another trip to shore later in the evening for the 7+PM restaurant feeding times).

Dinner is late by American standards and especially by cruising sailor standards (9PM is known as "cruisers' midnight"). Dinner is an event. I should say that the food itself is usually incredible, but, an American who is used to attentive service with the periodic "Is everything alright here?",  "Can I get you anything else?", "Would you like another glass of wine?" may feel quite ignored and forgotten. Don't take it personally. What amazed me was how much money is left on the table (literally) by leaving customers with empty drink glasses for the last hour of the feeding or not quickly getting us to pay and move on to open our table for waiting customers. We have learned to go to them to pay; don't wait for the check.  There are skeletons of Americans waiting for checks in some restaurants.

We can decipher menus now (mostly)

Nearly every shop and service closes for a couple (or more) hours in the middle of the day. This is when the designated lunch feeding happens. Once the lunch feeding is over, don't expect to find anything to eat until the dinner feeding time at a million o'clock. During our first time in Les Saintes a couple years ago, we had the misfortune of being starving at 5PM after a long hike and no lunch. We eventually bought a can of peanuts and a bottle of wine at a market we found open. We ate and drank on a public park bench sipping directly from the very nice bottle of Rose de Provence (screw cap).

Because our time is already very regimented by boat tasks, and day jobs and other logistical needs, these regimented feeding times and business closing times can further complicate things. But we are getting used to it and make an effort to adjust when we dinghy to land.

Data Connection

Ugh - this is by far the most difficult thing.  Connectivity is very hard to come by and expensive! Many things conspired against me trying to do my day job here. There were several work telecons that I simply had to drop off from because the connection was so bad. I found it incredibly frustrating because up until that point, the connectivity had been so great in all more third-world countries. If I didn't know any better, it was almost as if the French didn't want me to work.

Whenever I complain to people about difficult connectivity issues in the islands, I'm always met with "oh poor you... you can't work in paradise". The thing is though, if I can't work, I can't be in paradise. This lifestyle is possible for us because we are able to work. When I can't work, I get very stressed and it quickly becomes the exact opposite of paradise.

Combining data and language connectivity issues, I had an Orange Mobile SIM card left over from the previous year which I could not get working. We went to an Orange Boutique in the Martinique Capital of Fort-de-France for help. There was zero English spoken here (3 blocks from the cruise ship terminal in a huge metro city).  Google Translate slowly helped but dealing with a technical issue was incredibly difficult and time-consuming. In the end, they got me going (after I threw enough Euros at them) and I was able to finally have my data for the painful price of 15EUR per Gigabyte.  (We use more than one GB per day.  This was going to hurt!)

One of the most frustrating encounters - at the Orange Mobile store.

Google Fi worked so-so or not at all depending on where we were. I believe they are using the French Digicel (not Orange) network and that was only 3G (or non-existent) in many places.
Orange is LTE.  Digical F is NOT. (Google FI is using the latter)

But, the Beauty

Linda wrote at length about Martinique already. I would say, that this is one place I could return to and charter a boat for a couple weeks.  There are so many great spots on Martinique that you would never need to leave the island in that time.

Sitting Pretty in Saint-Pierre, Martinique
If you prefer swanky urban settings, Martinique has that as well


Les Saintes is amazing. You take a well-maintained mooring for about $12USD/day and have easy access to town. The island seems to be replacing their handful of gas powered scooters and cars with electric golf carts and bikes. We love renting electric bikes to explore the island. You can cover a lot of ground and make it up some pretty steep hills in just a few hours on one of these. If you like a challenge, there are some great hikes here as well.

The mooring field in Terre-de-Haut from a e-bike ride. Can you spot Argon?
Covering some ground on the e-bikes

Getting there was half the fun

We had a fantastic day-sail from Dominica to Les Saintes. Seas were fairly flat with moderate winds over the beam. We kept sails up right up very close to the mooring field. We arrived on Dec30 and things were already filling up for New Years Eve. When we arrived, there were three moorings left. By the end of the day, people were racing for them and fighting (in French) over them.

Sailing on a reach toward Les Saintes from Dominica


Sitting on our mooring in the popular neighborhood near town.

Lodging Upgrade

We went ashore to a hotel to try and harvest their wifi password. In general, we found that wifi was a very protected commodity in the French Islands. It is very common for them to insist on typing a password into your phone or computer so that they don't reveal it (we have the technology to thwart this). But this particular hotel would not even do that unless we were guests! It occurred to me - we're safely on a mooring in sight of this hotel. Let's ask how much a room is. We needed google translate to do this even though there is a giant sign in the reception area that says "We Speak English". So I bought a wifi-password for 160 Euros and they threw in a hotel room, shower and pool. And of course they insisted on typing in the password. Using our technical advantage in the wifi arms race, we were able to harvest the password and use it in the bullet router aboard Argon for the last couple days of our time in Les Saintes. This was a major help. The hotel let us lock our dinghy to the dock overnight (fortunately Linda found a guy who really did speak English to clarify that with).

My 160 Euro wifi password came with this free room/shower and air conditioning!

After leaving Les Saintes, we stopped for just one night in Deshaies, Guadaloupe. It is a good jump off point for a 45 mile sail to Antigua and also a Customs port. Deshaies is a very pretty little town with cool shops and restaurants. You can also rent a car here (with help from Google Translate).  Deshaies is a challenging harbor to anchor in sometimes as it gets deep quickly and the katabatic winds commonly kick things up to 25+ kts.  We were able to get in close enough this time to anchor in 24 feet of water. Not bad. People arriving later in the day (and that night) had a difficult time finding a place in shallow enough water. Often they were getting shooed away by skippers who felt they were trying to anchor too close.

Sitting Pretty in Deshaies

On Balance

This lifestyle is a balance between blissful moments and misery and everything in between.  The end of the leg south last year and the start of the leg north this year were difficult and frustrating for various reasons. Our time in the French Islands, was definitely on the bliss end of the spectrum despite the challenges. Having had the time to get used to the pace and limitations, I would go back any time!


No comments:

Post a Comment