Saturday, September 26, 2009


Up at five. Tiny airstrip at six. Flight at seven fifteen. A half full tiny airplane isn’t nearly as claustrophobic as a full one. Although the sound of an angry rubber band engine as you’re traversing the ocean might not be for the squeamish.
Amazingly enough, the bag arrived and the connection was successfully made. The four days in Montserrat had refreshed me, and I was able to look forward to Guadeloupe with some energy. I would need to.
So far, all the islands, whatever their putative ownership, had been totally Americanized. In a good way. The products were all familiar. TV channels were an exact replica. Everyone had most of their families already living in the States.
At the same time, whatever the putative ownership, the Caribbean culture was far more important. And unitary. Virtually everyone I met was originally from some other island than the one they were working on.
I was now going to be entering a foreign world. One controlled by France. Actually, Guadeloupe was treated as an equivalent of one of our states. Everyone said that going there was like going to France.
After the eighteen minute flight I began to find out for myself. Oui, the airport was pretty European, although in a small, tropical kind of way. I made my way over to the row of rental car companies and made my deal.
I was soon taken to a tiny, silver Citroen. My bag barely fit in the back. No trunk. At least they drove on the right here. I slowly made my way out into traffic. This was all way more developed than the English Caribbean, but not overwhelmingly so.
My first order of business was coming up with a hotel room for under $100. All my research on the internet had produced one possibility. No website, but a recent review was from a few months ago, so as long as they were still in business… I headed the ten miles or so to the beach resort area.
It wasn’t much of one. And I was already getting tired of shifting gears on the narrow, congested French roads. At least they had signposts. If not street signs. Now if I could just find the rue that the place was on. Ah, there’s an advert for another business, and it’s the right road! Not too long of a one, either. I turned onto it.
And couldn’t find the hotel Les Flamboyants. Of course, being French, the street was so narrow that it was almost impossible to turn around and extricate myself. Okay, back to the turnoff. Find someone somewhere and ask. Although I haven’t spoken French in years and they all go gobble, gobble, gobble.
Okay, back to that street. Still can’t find it. Turn around. Repeat. Repeat. Finally, after forty five minutes a nice gentleman explained slowly that Les Flamboyants was no longer in existence.
Screw it. I didn’t like this town anyway. I would just start my drive around the island, and figure out lodging later.
Guadeloupe is shaped like a butterfly. The eastern wing, Grand Terre, is actually flat and relatively uninteresting. The other side, Basse Terre (Low Land), is heavily mountainous. Go figure. I was already on Grand Terre, so I continued on along the coast.
The climate was overbearing. 95 and horrible sticky humid, like Louisiana in July. The a/c was laboring away to not much effect. Lots of traffic, and twisting and turning on a two lane road. I didn’t remember this many billboards in France. In my grumpiness I concluded that Guadeloupe was a lot more like Louisiana than France, down to the cheesy roadside stands and white gravel on the shoulders.
I pulled into a gas station mini mart for a cold drink. $3.50 for a can of coke! All right, I had known that this was going to be expensive, but now I really went ‘eep’.
I was a little frazzled from the congestion, so I turned off inland on a side road. It immediately became more rural and pleasant. At a town ten miles along they had a sandwich special for $5. A little refreshed, I kept going towards the northeast.
Pleasantly kind of flat, with fields of sugar cane and other peaceful scenes. A couple of turnoffs to not special but still okay beaches. Always deathly humid, however, whenever I got out of the car.
But I had gotten as far away from civilization as possible, and now I had to turn back towards the airport/capital complex. And I had to start dealing with my little accommodations problem.
I had been hoping that I would have seen cheerful little signs for gites (a cross of cabins/guesthouse) on my drive. Nothing. Well, why would there be any over here on the side that tourists wouldn’t want to go to? Better head over to Basse Terre.
By now it was around five. There is a famous cross-mountain road that cuts across the middle of the wing, so I headed up it. A short stop at an obligatory waterfall (why the hell do we always stop at waterfalls when they all basically look the same?). Then continuing on to the west coast.
On my internet search in Montserrat, I had run across a gite that had gotten rave reviews. And its website made it look idyllic. It was $90 a night (double eep), but, hell, at least I could kick back there with folks who spoke at least a little English. All I needed to do was find it.
Once again, this proved nearly impossible. Their location was just the name of a town, and it had a big environs. Not to mention that no commercial establishment seemed to have a directional sign taller than six inches.
Just as the last light was fading I finally found it way up a steep hill. The lady took me to a cabin from 1945, and opened a door to an oven. No, no a/c. It was immediately obvious that the glowing reviews had been faked by the owners, and of course the website had been a complete lie. And now I was supposed to find another gite in the dark. And on top of that even if I found one it would probably be closed here in September.
To cut the story short, around eight thirty I was back on the east side of Basse Terre trying to find a small hotel recommended by the LP. Why wasn’t it here? I went into a pharmacie and asked. The lady said, mais oui, this pharmacie used to be that hotel! When she saw how exhausted I looked, she helpfully added that there was a gite about a mile or so down the road over here.
Amazingly, it was where she said it was. And they had a room. For $90. But it was clean and modern in a rustic way, and the a/c worked. Moreover, they had a little restaurant, and could sell me a veggie pizza for only $16.
An hour later I was relaxing in cool comfort chomping on my pizza. At least these French knew how to make really tasty food.
The next morning my only problem was finding out about the ferry.
There are two companies that go to Dominica and on to Martinique. Company 1 was shutting down service on Sunday for a month, which had totally affected the whole rest of my trip schedule. Company 2 implied that they had continuing service, but they never answered my email. Company 1 had a ferry at 8 am Friday, which would mean getting up at five again. Company 2 supposedly had one at 1. But I needed my hotel person to call them and confirm.
They never answered the phone.
I had finally steeled myself to drive all the way into the capital and hassle with trying to find their office. But if they hadn’t answered their phone, what if they weren’t open? Just as I was leaving I noticed that the gite owner was now here, and he tried calling them again. No answer. So he tried Company 1 and confirmed the 8 am sailing. Now all I had to do was get up at five again. But at least it was taken care of.
And now I could get into some serious touristing. I was now in the center of the east side of the west wing (look on a map), and was heading south to faire un circuit of the entire Basse Terre. The four lane road didn’t last that long, but traffic wasn’t bad. And I was also in great luck. The mountains at the southern end were completely free of cloud cover, something that hardly ever happens in a place with 300 inches of rain a year.
I took a one lane road up into the mountains towards, you guessed it, some waterfalls. The trip, though, was quite a trip. The lower levels were banana palms and tropical flowers. And all that rain creates about as dense a jungle as there is in the world.
When I got to the top there were two, count ’em, 400 foot waterfalls. But the national park guide said that if I walked to the closer one I wouldn’t be able to see it, since they were working on something. So I looked from a distance and then descended.
About fifteen miles further on there was another one lane road turnoff. This went twisting and turning up and up to the base of Guadeloupe’s active volcano, which last exploded in 1976. On the way there was a spectacular view of the cloud free summit, looking very ominous and volcano-y. When I got to the end of the road, the sign said that there was an ‘easy’ 25 minute trail. It went step by step up and up and up. At its top there was an even better closeup view of the volcano. But the first clouds were coming in, so I was free from any obligation to keep climbing on the next ’difficult’ trail.
Then it was a drive back down the mountain. And now I was squarely on the west coast of the west wing. A road that truly twisted and turned along the crooked seacoast. With the brilliant green tall endless mountains to the east of me. It was all rather special.
By late afternoon I was on the north side, at a relatively empty and relatively large beach, maybe Guadeloupe’s finest. And regretting that I had forgotten to bring along my swim trunks this morning. Oh well, I just would have ended up wet and sticky.
And then I continued along the north shore, back amongst the traffic and the sugar cane fields. A cut across on a back road, and as the light faded I was back at my gite. Turn on the a/c and order that pizza…


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