Sun, Sept 25, 2005
Rough seas continued during the night, and we spent so much time sleeping upside down that we've got callouses on our heads. It has calmed down somewhat, though.
The folk wisdom on board has it that porridge is good for seasickness ("It coats the stomach, eh?") and Robert decides to try some, although we're not entirely sure what it is. Laura insists it's oatmeal, but Robert thinks it's something different (like corn or wheat) because it sure don't look like any oatmeal he's ever eaten.
It's a beautiful mild sunny day and we're now ashore on the Iles de la Madeleine, or Madeleine Islands. These islands are distinctive for two reasons:
They catch lots of lobsters here, but only during May and June, so we are out of luck if we think we'll be chowing down on cheap lobster. About as close as we get to the lobster industry is seeing lots of lobster pots in people's yards.
The Madeleines are a series of islands that are joined together by shifting sand dunes. They have now built a road and nailed down those shifting dunes (as much as dunes can be nailed down, at any rate) but for most of the time they were separate.
It's apparently pretty treacherous navigation around here, because more than 500 boats have crashed here since 1750 (the most recent being the Nadine in 1990). Two things would happen when a boat crashed: the locals would rescue the sailors, causing the sailors to be pretty damn happy and more often than not they'd stay to settle; and the locals would salvage the cargo and the ship and put it to good use (i.e., building things).
There are no trees on the island, but everything is made of wood. All of this wood came from shipwrecks that were scrounged by enterprising islanders.
We are on a bus headed north (we parked the boat at the south part). Our guide, Sebastien, is a local (he points out his house and the bar he owns as we drive past). He explains that there are 12 islands, but only 8 of them are populated. Only one, Entry Island, is still separate, and within a couple of hundred years, it too will be joined to the rest by the shifting sand.
Lobster is the main fishery, but they also hunt for seals. Back in the dark ages, this is where the cute little harp seals would get their heads bashed in by the hunters. These days, they have to wait until the seals aren't cute any more and then they can shoot them.
When the seals are in the cute phase, you can catch a helicopter that drops you off on the ice and you can go up and hug and pet and care for the cute baby seals, because they can't run away. Apparently, this is a popular activity with Canadians, as many of them do it.
There are four types of seals: common, gray, harp (the ones with the cute babies), and hooded (rare).
The fishing industry, mainstay of the islands' economy, also includes mackerel and scallops. Tourism is second, and we sincerely hope they keep them straight, as we have no desire to order a cup of coffee only to find a hook in it...
The people here are kinda French—they are actually Acadian, which is a subset of French. Apparently, way back in 1755, Britain got control of this whole area. To avoid the inevitable local uprisings, they deported the natives to all over the world, including New Orleans (Cajuns are Acadians).
As you might expect from a people that cheerfully eats snails, Acadians were not so easily dissuaded and many of them made their way back here. The Acadian flag is the French flag with a little yellow star on it.
The houses on the island are all painted bright colors, such as yellow, and red, and purple and orange. Nobody seems to know exactly why, other than that it is traditional. Some theories have to do with using paint from shipwrecks, others say they are brightly painted to serve as navigational guides for fishermen ("between the green house and the yellow house").
In any event, Robert is quite pleased to find a people who share his housing esthetic ("Cool! A lime green one!").
We have arrived at a Roman Catholic church, St. Pierre, which is the second biggest wooden church in North America. It was built entirely using wood from shipwrecks. The first year they were building it, it fell down twice and was struck by lightning (once). So, the priests went through and sprayed holy water on all the wood (we have visions of priests with water tanks on their backs going through stacks of lumber waving their spray hoses).
After this holy wood treatment, the church quit falling down and has stayed up nicely since then.
The inside is very elaborate and gorgeous, as one might expect from a Roman Catholic church. You can also tell they are French, because above the altar, right next to the Virgin Mary is a statue of Joan of Arc.
We know that we are back in civilization when we spy a Subway shop. There are actual car dealerships here, and shopping malls and lots of bars.
We pass by a former convent and we hear its story: they had a hard time getting teachers over to the island, because, well, it was way and the heck in the middle of nowhere. So, they decided to set up a school for local girls in the convent and train them to be school teachers. By 1970, regular teachers weren't so hard to come by, so they closed down the convent, and a guy bought it and turned it into a bar.
The very next year the church in front of the convent burned down and everybody said that "the devil took up residence in the convent." The bar is still open, so apparently, the devil is a good tenant.
We stop at the sole remaining smokehouse on the Madeleine Islands. For a while, it was closed, but the owner's sons came to him asking him to show them how to do it. So he came out of retirement and showed them young pups how to properly smoke herring so as to make for the proper delicacy.
There are four steps in smoking a herring (in case you ever need to know)
And, presto! You have something that doesn't taste quite as good as smoked salmon. But, then, if all you've got is herring, it tastes pretty good. Most of the smoked herring went to poor folks in tropical countries who didn't have refrigeration, because it would keep for a long time, since it was not, technically speaking, a food substance.
Robert notices that now that he is off the boat, the ground has started swaying back and forth and up and down. Presumably, if there were an earthquake, he'd feel steady...
We are driving around looking at things, and one of the things we look at is cows. These are not just regular cows, they are "Canadian Cows" and not because they say "Moo, eh?" Nope, this breed is smaller and tougher and gives less milk. But the milk that they do give is high in fat, which makes it ideal for making cheese from.
And cheese is a good thing, eh?
As we turn off to Fatima, we find out that the islands were privately owned until 1952, so nobody there actually owned the land the lived on. Then Quebec bought the islands and gave the land to the people who were living there.
Nowadays, there are about 12,000 people who live here year round, with a whole bunch more who show up in the summer, because they have such nice beaches. They also have lots and lots of wind, which makes them one of the top 10 spots in the world for wind sports, such as wind surfing and kite surfing. Today (of course), it's not very windy at all, so we don't get to see anybody doing any of these things.
We are back in the town of Pointe Aubert, where we landed and have located a French cafe with an espresso machine (!). There, we get our first actual cup of coffee in many days. Ah!
Between the waiter's English and our French, we manage to order lunch (which is really breakfast, but we're so happy we finally got a decent cup of coffee, we'll eat anything!). It's a smallish cafe, like a real coffee shop (one wall devoted to books and magazines that people can grab and read), and it's rapidly filling up with locals and folks from the ship.
One of the local guys gets up and starts playing the piano (which is pretty much in tune). He does French Jazz arrangements of various American songs. Robert, of course, can't let the French have the last word on music, so he plays his three song set, and we are suddenly best friends with Jean-Micque and are swapping snail recipes and everything.
After lunch (or breakfast, part 2), we head to the local Maritime Museum, which is decorated with various broken propellers scavanged off some of the ships who crashed into or off of the islands. The museum isn't very large, but it does have a map of all the shipwrecks, their locations and dates.
After the museum, we wander through the town, injecting money into various local establishments. (Although Laura refuses to buy cute hats that say "Ilse de la Madeleine" just because they were made in China.)
We're waiting at the dock, thinking about moseying on back to the boat. Mike the Labradorian says that Newfoundland dogs actually come from Newfoundland, but Labradors they named that way "so's that everybody would love them, 'tis true."
Talking to the locals, we discover the guy who runs the Internet cafe (more accurately, one of the people who has the key to the Internet cafe) and he opens it up. We're so excited about getting a glimpse of the 'net that we can hardly wait.
It turns out to be a dial-up connection (yikes!). Well, at least Laura can check her e-mail.
But the guy can't remember his password to log on. He tries a few different ones, then wanders off to ask somebody. He comes back and tries a few more, but they don't work, either. So he goes away a third time and this time when he comes back, it works.
Connected to the net at a blazing 56K, Laura quickly checks through her mail and signs off. By this point, the guy has wandered off, and nobody seems to know what he charges. One of the locals says "Ah, just put a toonie on the counter and he'll be happy."
[It just occurred to us that we haven't explained about Canadian money yet--mostly because there's been no place to spend it. The one dollar coin has a picture of a loon on the back, so it's called a "loony." The $2 coin is made from two different metals--copper colored inside and a silver ring outside--so, it's called a "toony."]
During the evening recap, we find out that 20% of the people on the Madeleine Islands make their living from art.
There's also a reunion for our tour on October 2 (about three days after we get back). It's not just for our tour, it's for all the tours they've taken out this year. It's sort of too bad we can't make it, because it's at the home of the guy called "Father Goose" who teaches geese and ducks how to migrate. (He's the guy featured in the movie Fly Away Home.)
Apparently, pretty much every Canadian knows every other Canadian, eh?
Robert & Laura