Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Keeping ahead of the storm

I was back in Haiti only a couple of months later.  Jean Luc had secured us rooms at the Kinam Hotel in the heart of Petionville at one side of the main town square.  Again I could not reach there in one day from UK so had to overnight this time at Orly Airport in Paris.  Once more I got the “wood between the world’s” feel of a clean functioning Hilton hotel in the airport grounds with all the buffet, housekeeping and well stocked bars that any European traveller expects.  My route was even more complicated this time as it involved another stop off – in Guadeloupe.  For all my travelling up and down the Caribbean Islands over the previous 15 years, I hopped over all the French territories except St Martin.  So although I only had a few hours to kill in the airport it was worth it just to say I had been.

We were now in mid August and the hurricane season had got close to its peak.  As I had arrived in Orly from London City the night before an Air France official had been waiting for me at the baggage reclaim.  I expected her news – the flight to Guadeloupe would leave one hour earlier in the morning.  A large storm had brewed in the Atlantic was heading straight to Guadeloupe.  It would be named Hurricane Isaac before it reached.  I was OK about the arrangements at Orly – my hotel was a five minute drive from the terminal and I ensured I got back to the terminal early.  What concerned me more was that I was due to stay in Guadeloupe for five hours before heading onwards to Port Au Prince.  Would the storm have reached before I was able to take off?

Flights from Paris to Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Martin, or to indeed any of France’s overseas territories, are counted as internal.  That means you have the odd sensation of flying for 8 hours without having to go through all the immigration and customs rigmarole.  As a transit passenger in Guadeloupe,  I simply walked up a gangway from the plane, peeled off from the holidaymakers and returnees who went to grab their bags, and within a few moments was sitting in the roomy departure lounge.

There was not a lot to do but read my book and watch the airport activity.  A couple of other flights left.  I looked out over the runway.  It was already raining heavily and frequently; the tarmac and concrete looked soggy and sad.  There was some bustle over by the hangers – doors being secured, windows boarded up.  As I looked up in the sky the clouds were tightly packed against each other and moving briskly in one direction.  But the wind speed was not too much yet.  I looked at the departures board; my flight to Port Au Prince was the last live flight showing – the others were all cancelled.  It was a Saturday – a popular day for the large charter flights to come in with holiday makers.  As well as another Air France flight, a CONDOR jumbo jet came in, discharged its load and sucked the departure lounge almost empty before scurrying back to France ahead of the storm.

As far as you can go – Napoleon’s Tomb

Napoleon died on the 5th May, 1821, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories as to the method of the demise.  Some blame the arsenic used to make the wallpaper in his rooms.  Others wonder whether he was poisoned by one of the staff.  Or maybe it was the bad weather.  Or was his spirit just broken.  Officially it was recorded as stomach cancer, which could certainly have accounted for his death at the age of only 51.  Whatever the situation, a tomb was created in the forest and he was buried with minimal ceremony.  On my return to Jamestown, I stopped off on the road and went to take a look at the tomb.  The spot is in a valley, called Sane Valley, and is well marked by one of the ubiquitous white fingerposts in both English and French.  I descended a stony path through the pine forests till I reached a grassy clearing.  In the centre, the tomb is railed off, and an arrangement of flowers and endemic plants of St Helena for a picturesque little garden.  Of all the Napoleon sites, this is the most pleasant.

The tomb itself is empty.  In 1840, France negotiated a return of Napoleon’s body to Paris and he was given a hero’s welcome and state funeral.  While on a much smaller scale, I did find the reverence given to Napoleon on St Helena a bit duplicitous.  As I’ve said, he was public enemy number one, St Helena was his prison, he was a reviled figure in the British Isles.  In many circles in France he was also seen as a villain, both in domestic policies and international bungling that killed thousands of his soldiers.  But undoubtedly he is a figure of both historical and international importance, almost to a state of legend.  And for St Helena he is a rare and valuable portal for the world to know about the island.  All the tourists who had travelled on the RMS were making it a priority to visit the sites.  And many people make pilgrimages to see the place where he died.  But there still is that uneasiness within me that this was a prisoner, someone brought down, and yet he is revered in this way.

I think he also distracts from the island’s natural features and other history; the sailing ships, the other exiles, the submarine cabling and of course the lovely people.  But, I suppose, if it gets the punters in and the island noticed, it was worth preserving.