Climbing the Montagne du Vauclin: Good Friday in Martinique

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The path was slippery as we set out early in the morning on Good Friday, and the many feet that had already trod this path had done nothing to make it more manageable. But, like hundreds of other Martinicans, we were determined. We began to climb.

By the time we left Leyla’s house at six in the morning, a small crowd had already gathered at the peak of the Montagne du Vauclin, where a small shrine and white cross had been built. It is a tradition here that on Good Friday families and friends gather to tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection at the fourteen stations of the Cross built into the mountainside.

In the olden days, people would walk from as far as Francois and perhaps farther (and Francois is a good 15 km away from the base of the mountain) to climb the Montagne du Vauclin on the Friday before Easter. Fortunately, Leyla lives close to the base of the trail, so I parked my car at her house and we walked from there.

Leyla’s family had kindly invited me to join them as they climbed the mountain. And though I am not at all religious myself, I could see that there was something beautiful and sacred in this rite.

In a day and age when many communities are now digital and people seem more attached to their cars and their smart phones than to time spent with family and friends (and this is just as true in Martinique as in the United States), climbing the Montagne du Vauclin gave me a profound sense of the community I had around me in this country—a community that somehow, I have become a part of in the last six months. It was challenging, at first, but I have seen firsthand how generous and welcoming people can be. Leyla and her family, and Sylvie and her son Corentin have given me a taste of Martinican food and culture but also a feeling of home away from home.

As we walked, we greeted friends and neighbors and strangers alike with a simple Bonjour and occasionally traded words of encouragement or a hand to help someone up the path. When we reached the first cross, Leyla’s little sister read a passage and then continued to climb. Leyla’s aunt took out a candle and struck a match. The tiny flame flickered in remembrance of someone gone but still loved.

Leyla’s mother told me that she only climbs this mountain once a year, even though it’s so close by. She likes to climb with other people, she said.

At each cross, one of Leyla’s cousins read out a passage from the Bible.
There were rough patches on the trail, of course, but we all made it up the mountain and were greeted by a magnificent view of the island. There is nothing like standing on the top of a mountain looking out over the Atlantic Ocean to make you understand how vast and how small the world can be. Some people on this island will never have the chance to leave it—their whole world is Martinique. I know that this is the case for some of my students but I hope that one day those who wish to will be able to glimpse for themselves what I have seen in Martinique: a beautiful place with people who have shown me kindness and taught me about their culture. Traveling here has been one of the most isolating and scary experiences of my life, but it has also been one of the most rewarding, one that has taught me invaluable lessons about life and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

I climbed a mountain on Friday, and the view was beautiful. But what made the experience extraordinary were the people who climbed it with me.

leyla and her family

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