Chapter 1, in which I arrive at Aimee Cesare Airport
Bienvenue en Martinique!
Frederique Mondesir meets me at the airport. My flight arrives at 9:20 pm. Monsieur Mondesir and his wife run L’Oliveraie, the guesthouse in St. Joseph where I will be spending my first two nights and day on the island. While I had grudgingly accepted that I would have to rent a car to get around, I couldn’t face renting one late at night and driving, tired from my flight, alone, in the dark, navigating a half-hour’s worth of unknown terrain, and with no GPS, to boot. (Google on my ancient Samsung Galaxy S3? Please. Even the offline maps I had downloaded to get around spotty wifi abandoned me.) This turns out to have been a very good call, as you’ll soon find out, when I talk about the roads in the island’s mountainous interior where St. Joseph is situated.
So when reserving my room, I had asked the Mondesirs if they might suggest another way to get there. I figured they may advise a taxi, and thank God they didn’t, because the next night I in face did need to take a taxi to their place from the airport, and it was nearly $50!!
Anyhow, I was tremendously relieved, and deeply grateful, when Mr. Mondesir – a wonderful, curious name meaning “my desire” – offered to come collect me at the airport, despite my late night arrival, and the airport being half an hour away.
After passing through customs – IS IT customs? what you go through when you arrive in a foreign country? – which took all of five minutes, line included, I wandered the airy little arrivals area, which felt like it was outdoors, such was the twilight look and warm, gently humid air. Because I assumed he was somewhere in the arrivals lounge and I did not want to keep him waiting, as he had been so kind as to offer to come pick me up, I kept approaching middle-aged local men asking if they were him. None of them was. After the third or fourth non-Mr. Mondesir, I sat and chatted with an older gentleman who was waiting to welcome cousins coming to visit from la Metropole, as Matiniquians refer to France. (Martinique is a “department” of France, and as such, is considered part of France. I have no idea what the American/English equivalent of this is, perhaps territory? Like Puerto Rico?)
When the real Mr. Mondesir and I finally connected by phone, we rendezvous’ed outside the airport, in the pick-up lane. We shook hands and I finally broke out my broken French – much more rusty than I realized after lying largely dormant for 18 years – which I had been waiting to surprise him with upon meeting in person, having kept our email communications to English. He loaded my bags – yes, bags, I way overpacked, a result of packing oh-so-last-minute, the very morning of my flight, something I NEVER do, which left no time for “editing” and repacking to achieve a sensible quantity of items in a suitable number of bags, so I had a 22-inch rolling carry-on, my green and mint North Face backpack, and my smaller, chic-er, black Travelon backpack, to serve as purse and day pack. Traveling with two backpacks and a suitcase is not ideal, and I neither recommend it, nor plan to repeat it. In any case, he loaded my bags into the back of his rustic (not rusted) blue SUV. The little trunk reeked of mildew. I silently hoped my bags would not absorb the smell during the ride home.
We opened the windows and the night was deliciously warm and humid. We wound through little rotaries and then onto winding mountain roads. Martinique, on the main roads, at least, is full of little rotaries, which is wonderful thing as it means that if you didn’t have time to read the signs on your first go round, you can just take a second lap.
Martinique is also full of winding and frighteningly steep roads, curving and zig-zagging at the edges of its mountains and mornes. Morne is the French word for an ambitious hill clearly making admirable strides towards its aspirational goal of mountainhood. These roads become even scarier in daylight, when you can see the sheer drops and hairpin turns, and the fact that the two-way road is really only big enough for one vehicle, traveling in one direction. I soon observe that the smarter drivers coming upon one of the multitude of blind curves give a gentle honk to announce their approach to any oncoming traffic that might be zooming toward them around said blind curve.
Monsieur Mondesir is an extremely pleasant, easygoing man, somewhere in his early 60s, as best as I can tell. He is very easy to talk to, though our conversation is like a bumper car clumsily negotiating a path between my rusted French and his small but respectable English vocabulary.
Tune in soon for chapter 2, in which I arrive at L’Oliveraie.