Palms and Patisseries

I couldn’t keep the silly grin from spreading across my face.

There we were, speeding down Guadeloupe’s main highway, wedged in the back of a pick-up truck with a family of strangers… one of those contagiously kind families that spreads generosity like germs. In my opinion, that’s what travel’s about.

the water

Just seven hours earlier, Veronica and I were standing in BWI airport when we struck up a conversation with some fellow travelers. I assumed they were tourists from France, but we soon discovered that Claire and Tanguy actually lived in Guadeloupe.

As the four of us began to discuss navigating the Caribbean island, the mother and son confirmed that public transport was not dependable. But then Claire surprised us with an offer. “We will take you to your Airbnb,” she said in her soft, broken English.

And they did.

After we landed in the capital of Pointe-a-Pitre, Claire’s husband John-Philippe met us, and the sweet family blessed us once more. To save us from paying exorbitant fees, Claire directly exchanged euros for our dollars.

mural

Then, we hit the road. Although it was dark out, the French territory channeled obvious European flair. But when we traveled farther from the airport, Guadeloupe’s Afro-Caribbean vibes began to appear. The perfect blend of the two lent the island instant charm, which only intensified as the week wore on.

“Guadeloupe: the land of French charm and Caribbean sun. Where palms and patisseries coexist, and baguettes are spread with guava jam.”

As we chatted in the car, the Cremoux family gave us tips for our stay and jotted down their contact information in case we needed anything. Then arriving at our stately Airbnb, Claire gave us each a hug and the family departed. Veronica and I were truly overwhelmed with their kindness.

beach pic

And we were in good hands for the rest of our trip. Our host – a native islander with an enormous grin and a big heart for helping – greeted us with enthusiastic attempts at English. After we settled into our room, he gave us directions into town and we took a moonlight exploratory walk. Dinner consisted of a freshly made savory crepe, procured at a roadside food truck. Veronica and I giggled nervously as the usual patrons of said food truck surrounded us, speaking non-stop French. (Probably good we couldn’t comprehend.)

flowers

After a refreshing night of sleep, we woke to a morning of brilliant Caribbean sun. Throwing open the dark walnut shutters, we discovered to our delight that we could see the ocean from our room, with the faint outline of the volcano – La Grande Soufrière – hovering just beyond. Bright magenta bougainvillea tumbled over our neighbor’s gates, while creamy plumeria and vermilion hibiscus dotted the lush green yard.

 

A breakfast of bananas and baguettes awaited us in the airy kitchen below. Seated there were an attractive, sun-tanned French couple who were occupying the room next to ours. Since Veronica and I had not rented a car, I thought to ask our new friends if they had made it to the volcano, and if not, could we hitch a ride? What ensued was a hilarious attempt to communicate, facilitated by smiles and Google translate. When our point was finally comprehended, the two informed us that they were heading home after breakfast. Alas.

Although we never did make it to La Grande Soufriere, our trip was not lacking in adventure. Our days were much the same, consisting of morning runs, afternoon sea-bathing and evening jaunts into the city, but the vacation was peppered with plenty of unique experiences. We sampled vibrant spices in the open-air markets, soaked in the beaches’ pristine waters, and ate wonderful food. We people-watched on crowded buses, bouncing along island roads to Caribbean tunes. We shopped for groceries in the town supermarket and prepared amusing meals for our daily picnic lunches. One such repast piqued the interest of several islanders. “Where did you buy that?” they asked us, seeing our chickpea, carrot and cucumber concoction stowed in an old venti Starbucks cup (we called it inVENTIve salad.) One vendor even offered to season it for us with her special Caribbean spices.)

inventive salad

As we walked through town on an afternoon jaunt, a dress shop particularly caught our eye. Browsing the beautiful European and African creations, we noticed a bright-eyed young girl pop out from a room in the back, while an older woman followed close behind. Language, as usual, was a barrier, but the child’s smiles were clearer than any word could be. As we sought to communicate, the girl’s face lit up when we said “English.” Putting her finger up as if to say “wait here,” she hastened to the back room and returned with a notebook. “English!” she repeated excitedly. It was her school notebook.

“Language, as usual, was a barrier, but the child’s smiles were clearer than any word could be.”

At that point, I decided to venture some French: “Je m’appelle Sarah.” Our new friend’s eyes lit up again. “Je m’appelle Sarah,” she repeated, pointing to herself and excitedly flipping through the pages of her notebook. There, in beautiful script, were the words: “My name is Sarah.” What a sweet moment of connection.

sarah

Throughout the rest of the week, communication proved a bit more difficult. For the first time ever, my status as a monoglot cost me more than my dignity. We took the wrong bus… several times. We enjoyed pizza at a Parisian restaurant with live entertainment… only to discover that we had been charged for the “concert” (apparently this fact was stated in French on the sign out front).  I was struck then and there by the blessing of knowing English. Although it didn’t help us in Guadeloupe, our language makes extensive travel possible in a way that few languages do.

By Friday, Veronica and I agreed that the vacation had been relaxing and lovely, but relatively tame. (Following my prior escapades in Africa, that wasn’t such a bad thing.) Yes, there were several superlatives already achieved – the worst sunburn and bug bites of my life – but I was itching for a real thrill. The impish spirit in me urged at least one adventure that would make my mother squirm.

banana

I had my eye on the small island off the shore of Le Gosier’s Datcha beach. Claire and John-Phillipe had told us that swimming there was possible, but most who did so swam with a group, or at least with the aid of neon floats. I had neither, but I was determined to make the trip all the same. Veronica thought I was a bit unwise, but I donned my mask and dove in.

That aqua journey was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding I’ve ever taken. While out in the waves, I simply avoiding imagining what was beneath me, though I’m not sure what I would have done had I seen the ominous shadow of a creature lurking below. But without incident, I arrived 20 minutes and a few hundred meters later on the sands of Ilet du Gosier’s beach, and the satisfaction was enormous.

the island

Catching my breath, I took in the view of Guadeloupe’s brightly colored houses perched on the clifftops of the shore. To my left, I saw the faint outlines of the peaks of Basseterre. Exploring the small island barefoot, I walked through quiet, shady groves of tropical trees before arriving at the other side. There stood a poppy red lighthouse. Hair blowing in the wind, I climbed the structure’s steps and drank in the scene before me – waves crashing on the rugged rocks and the wide open sea beyond.

After circling the perimeter of the island, I hit the water again for the return swim. What a trip it was.

“But without incident, I arrived 20 minutes and a few hundred meters later on the sands of Ilet du Gosier’s beach, and the satisfaction was enormous.”

On our final night in the city, Veronica and I walked downtown to visit the bright and bustling Friday market. As we passed vendors hawking their wares, smells of roasting meat and baked goods assailed our nostrils. Residents picked over fish and produce while tourists lined up for freshly made crepes and coconut ice cream. Excited voices mingled with the tunes of street-side musicians.

After we browsed the offerings and selected a snack (being the odd person I am, I chose smoked herring), we moseyed down to the pier, awash in moonlight. There’s nothing like the caress of a night-time breeze, accompanied by the music of lapping waves and the reflections of light on the water. Ilet du Gosier stood just offshore, the ruby-red beacon of its lighthouse blinking reassuringly. Next time, I thought devilishly, I’ll swim to the island in the dark. 

After our final walk through the streets of Le Gosier, Veronica and I laid down with full and happy hearts. But as we were about to drift off to sleep, a sound caught my ear. I nudged Veronica. “Do you hear that?” I whispered excitedly. “Listen – I think it’s an American accent!” And sure enough, it was. As the latest guest in our Airbnb walked up the stairs with our host, Veronica and I tiptoed to our door and cracked it open.

gate

“Hi! You’re an American!” I boldly stated. The man looked rather surprised. “Sorry, it’s just, we haven’t met any Americans for the whole trip.” And truly, we hadn’t. It had been challenging and eye-opening to be monoglots in a Parisian paradise. At the end of the day, the experience embarassed me so much that it inspired me to learn another language.

As we three Americans chatted, we lamented to Sam how we’d been unable to visit the volcano. “Shucks, I could’ve driven you there!” he exclaimed. Indeed, that would’ve been ideal. But now, I simply have a reason to return. And maybe then, I’ll be a polyglot.

wine on beach

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