Those who follow us on Facebook (if you don’t, what are you waiting for?) already know that a few days ago, our outboard engine was stolen off the back of our dinghy in Anse Mitan, Martinique. It happened in the middle of the night, while we slept 10 feet away. There were two big stainless steel padlocks on the dinghy – one locking the engine to the transom, and one securing the dinghy to the big boat.
We are thankful that we were not boarded by the thieves and that nobody was hurt. It’s only money. And hello, #firstworldproblems. I believe all of these things sincerely.
With that said, I’m steamed. Fuck the assholes who did this. We rely on our dinghy the way that most folks rely on their family car. We went to extremes to get an engine that was just right for us – made an otherwise unnecessary 28 hour passage from Miami to Nassau just to buy it. And getting a new one? Big, expensive pain in the ass.
But, there is a silver lining – we were totally blown away by the kindness shown to us again and again by strangers who didn’t understand a word we said, and vice versa. As we muddled though the epic poem that was getting to the right place with the right people to file a police report (and home again!), the lovely people of Martinique were eager to help us, and for that we are so grateful. Here is the story:
We’d been getting by with our tiny collection of French pleasantries and transactional phrases (not to mention all the food and wine vocab from culinary school) in more continental spots like St. Martin and St. Barts, where, the tiniest effort to speak French (Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?) is rewarded with a sympathetic switch to English by French-speaking locals. Once we realized we didn’t need much French to get along, we lost our motivation to learn more.
This system was working perfectly for us, until the robbery.
Ashore in the tiny town of Anse Mitan, it took us three tries before we were able to find a local who understood that we were looking for a police station (we have no internet and no Google Maps), even though the word “police” is the same in both languages. A kind old man finally nodded in acknowledgment. Through his broken English, our piss poor French, and lots of hand gestures, we ascertained that the police station is few towns over and we’d need to catch a bus. This old man, an amputee in a wheelchair, looked at us with pity and gestured that we follow him up the road, and around the bend all the way to the bus stop. We complied, saying “merci, merci” on repeat.
Interesting side note, most locals waiting at the roadside bus shelters don’t take the bus. Instead, they use the bus stops as weigh points for hitchhiking, and the bus as a last resort.
While Brian ran over to the bakery to change a 50 Euro bill for bus fare, I watched for a police car, hoping to spare us a trip to the station. Twenty minutes later, an SUV with police printed on the side rolled by and I flagged it down.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” All three officers inside the car shook their heads. We tried to describe what had happened with hand gestures and the couple dozen French words we know. It’s at this point it dawns on me that we never bothered to learn the French word for “boat”.
The officer at the wheel handed me a pen and paper and waved his hand – go on, write it down.
We live on a boat. Our boat engine was stolen last night. We need to file a police report.
The officer riding shotgun typed my words into a translation app on her phone, and read the French translation to her fellow offers. They made a call. The words les Américains and gendarmerie were being thrown around. It turns out that the town and station where we were heading was not the right one for this kind of robbery (how frustrating it would have been to get all the way there and discover this!) and that we needed the gendarmerie instead. We had no idea what that was.
Thankfully, they gestured for us to get into their car. Together, we drove at breakneck speed through the twists and turns of the Martinique countryside. The officer seated next to me had internet connection and a instant translation app on his phone. We passed his phone back and forth, having a silent conversation all the way to the gendarmerie, whatever that is.
Twenty minutes later, we were in a bigger, bustling town of Riviere Salee, standing outside a metal gate decorated with barbed wire. Nobody at the gendarmerie – which at this point we’d guessed is another branch of police, one related to the French military – spoke English, so one of our police officer friends did the talking. We just stood there, smiling and nodding, looking embarrassed. “Merci marci! Merck merci!” we said. Silly Américains.
We sat on a bench in the station for an hour or so. The place was bustling with officers coming and going from the back offices into the reception area. We grew concerned that our case was being avoided because nobody knew what to do about us.
Eventually, an officer of the gendarmerie came and fetched us. He seemed twitchy and nervous to be handling our case, but he was also smiling and patient. Together we tackled the report, question by question; he muddling through the questions with gestures and the occasional English word, we writing down answers for machine translation. We muddled through words that we should have known, like boat and home and words we never would have known, like inflatable and horsepower.
When we were done, we asked where to go to find a taxi to take us back to Anse Matin. He pointed out the door and to the left. “Merci, merci!” We said.
We walked out into the street, but we didn’t see any taxis, just a big line of people waiting on the sidewalk outside a bakery with bread tucked under their arms. Every couple of minutes, a bus would pull us and a few people would leave the line and get on. The bus system in Martinique is vast and complicated for the non-French speaker. Nobody in the line could understand us, but we had better luck with a bus driver when we told him “Anse Matin”. He pointed down the road to another bus stop. We started walking, and a moment later, he drove by, picked us up, and took us to the bus stop, free of charge. “Merci, merci!” We said.
At the bus stop, there was a lady (hitchhiking) who insisted we take her spot under the shelter when it started to rain. She didn’t speak a word of English, but she still was very determined to be friendly and conversational. She chattered on and we nodded and smiled. “Merci, merci!” We said.
And when the bus finally came, the driver agreed to take us, even though Anse Matin was not on his regular route. We were delayed for 20 minutes or so on the side of the road when another passenger refused to pay the whole fare (at least we think that’s what happened) which escalated into a loud shouting match. The perpetrator sat down, refusing to leave the bus. The driver called the police and we, along with the other passengers, waited patiently for them to arrive. I hoped that it would be the same officers from the start of our little adventure – I wanted to see the looks on their faces when they saw their favorite Américains were mixed up with the law for the second time that day. But before we could find out, another bus came along and our driver ushered us over to make sure that we understood.“Merci, merci!” We said.
Rowing our sad, denuded dinghy back to the boat, we reflected on all of the generosity and kindness we’d been shown by total strangers. Having all those people helping us from point A to point B gave us something to be grateful for, on a day that otherwise would have completely sucked. I think we’ll be resuming our French studies now.
Note: I wish I’d gotten more photos of the people who helped us that day. It just didn’t feel appropriate to be snapping photos without asking, and of course, I didn’t know how to form the words.