Landing in Guadeloupe in the early afternoon came with a muted feeling. We didn’t need to think as we were herded onto buses and into a shell of a building that looked like an unfurnished departure gate. We were processed by the Croix Rouge that had a line of desks across the entrance. A make shift Maginot line for filtering unknown souls onto lists of names.
The atmosphere was calm but busy amongst the feeling of chaos. None of us knew our destiny. The Croix Rouge were briefed only on the processing and knew no more than any of us. It was understandable that some individuals were giving them flack but none of this was their fault. They were just following orders… if they had any. Given the situation, the leaderless Croix Rouge foot-soldiers were calm, helpful and empathetic.
Milling about the ‘warehouse,’ I felt like a sheep at a cattle market, dunking charitable biscuits into benevolent tea with the underlying urge to know what was to happen, coming and going like waves on a windswept shore. “This too shall pass.” Time seems to slow proportionally to progress made.
Patrick was fluent in French and was a real asset to our small team of refugees. Patrick discovered Laidi Ben Haddou, a Guadeloupe local drifting around the melee. Laidi had seen the TV news of St Martin and came down to the airport to see if he could do anything to help. Four hours, he had been there without any information about how that might be.
Laidi had space for four people at his home and generously offered us shelter. Since there was no information about flights ‘home’ or anywhere else, for that matter, and perhaps only twenty camp beds at the far end of the warehouse, our small band split in half and notified a Croix Rouge official that we were leaving with Laidi. The official told us that they were not authorised to release us from the airport. We left anyway. Patrick, Vanessa, Lucy and I gladly piled into Laidi’s Renault.
Half an hour later we were standing on a veranda, facing the trade wind looking across the treetops and the water to sunset over Marie Galante: a stark contrast to the last week. Laidi and Cecile’s children playing in the pool, electricity, fresh water on tap and internet access. The ‘come down’ was starting; this sanctuary cleared a space in which emotions began to bubble through the surface of awareness. There is no word to describe the feeling, not sadness, not grief. Neither was it relief or gratitude. Yes, I was grateful for this family’s generosity, and for my own survival, but this was a feeling of tears and butterflies, an automatic reaction that had no label.
Lucy was sitting in the chair next to me and spontaneously began to cry. She is more sensitive than me. I could only guess how she was feeling. Laidi noticed before any of us and asked Lucy to help out in the kitchen: a successful strategy for distracting her from her suffering.
Patrick and Vanessa seemed to be coping well. Looking over at them they were inscrutable. Vanessa didn’t say much and Patrick was talking in ‘shoulds.’ I remained on the veranda and fired up the PC for two reasons: one, take away the flame from beneath my own simmering emotion and two, reassure my friends and family that I was OK and on my way home.
A late afternoon swim rinsed away the sweat, dust and sorrow of St Martin. This cool immersion was as soothing for the soul as it was refreshing for the body.
As darkness fell, the table was set with food and wine, and we toasted good health and fortune, feeling humbled by such generosity and guilt that others back in St Martin were not so fortunate. I wondered what the locals were doing now, still in darkness, short of food and water. All I could do was choose a brighter thought. My own suffering would serve no-one, and so I purposely became present and focused on the ‘now’: the company of friends.
It was getting late and this transition from survival to recuperation left me exhausted. Yes, there were beds for four guests but they were doubles in two rooms. Patrick and Vanessa were business partners but virtually a couple, which left one bed for me and Lucy. I couldn’t have thought of many situations more comforting than sleeping next to Lucy, but I opted for the hammock suspended by the rafters of the moonlit veranda, cooled by the tropical Atlantic breeze. I thought of Debbie. If she had been still alive then maybe I could have drifted away in her comforting embrace.
I’d read in the book, Papillon, that if you sleep diagonally in a hammock then you can lie flat. And sleeping in that position was pretty comfortable but the netting isn’t particularly windproof. At 4am I was chilled out… and not in a good way. Suspended by netting in a breeze wearing shorts and T’shirt doesn’t offer much insulation. Even so, I was too tired to get up and look for a blanket. I soon fell back to sleep: out cold, so to speak; and drifted off into a vivid dreamscape, as usually happens with a broken night’s sleep.
Just before dawn, I was wide awake. It would already be mid-morning in the UK so I logged onto email and Facebook and caught up on unread emails and messages. I had missed social media since Irma took out the utilities in St Martin. It’s my prime source of social contact since I became an itinerant nomad – maybe even before then. Wherever I go, my friends are always with me, WiFi permitting.
The house was stirring into life just as my battery was dying and after a leisurely breakfast and unsuccessful attempts by Patrick and Laidi telephoning for information, we packed our bags into Laidi’s car, who then drove us to the airport. Apparently, some evacuees managed to get a flight out in the early hours of the morning but nothing else appeared to be scheduled between now and Christmas.
The Croix Rouge seemed a little more organised now and were even distributing Pizza donated by local businesses, much to the irritation of Patrick who thought that food distribution should be the government’s job. It is what it is… no use complaining.
Lucy, Vanessa and I found some seats away from the busy entrance. An announcement was to be made at 3pm and we waited patiently for whatever news that would provide. The announcer was surrounded by a huddle of people. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and even if I could I didn’t speak French. Suddenly there was an uproar and a woman was bellowing at the unfortunate messenger. Crowds: not happy ‘without’ information; not happy ‘with’ information… Thursday, a flight would be scheduled for Thursday. That hadn’t gone down at all well, poor bloke. Today was Monday, maybe Tuesday, the days now all felt the same since Irma.
That night, Lucy insisted we switch and I have the bed. She wouldn’t have my protest so I had the bed plus a mosquito net. Not that mosquitoes were a problem last night in the Atlantic breeze. The bed was comfortable but hot lacking the cooling breeze of the veranda. Lucy cheated the hammock by sleeping in the lounge on the sofa, feeding the mosquitoes. I guess that’s what self-sacrifice gets you.
When I awoke, it was daylight. I had slept well but didn’t want to get up until there was movement in the house. I checked the date on the computer. Tuesday 12th Sept. A full week had passed since I joined the shelter for Irma. It seemed longer somehow. Only one week and these new friends I had not known until Irma already felt like family.
Over breakfast, we discussed whether it would be worth trekking to the airport since the ‘Thursday’ revelation. Laidi had some business down by the airport anyway so our plan was to go to the mall to get some clothes for Vanessa and whatever else we needed then continue to the airport.
Patrick suggested he cook for the Ben Haddou family and that we all chip in for provisions. It was the least we could do. I felt there was not really enough we could do to repay their generosity. In reality, it was Patrick that provided the most payback as he was confined to the kitchen, slaving over a hot tagine while the rest of us socialised outside on the veranda.
We were living like kings. Three nights of good food and good company in the midst of disaster. I usually didn’t live this well in my normal life and the feeling didn’t sit comfortably.
Tonight I was back in the hammock. I had learned my lesson and taken a sheet from the bedroom to mitigate the wind chill. This night was windless, warm and humid. Kicking off the sheet invited the mosquitoes to a buffet and I quickly wrapped up again to sweat the night out.
Wednesday morning, day four in the Ben Haddou retreat. Laidi received a call that there was a flight out today. We were to be at the airport by 4pm. There were no other details so we relaxed at Laidi’s until 2pm then set off to the airport leaving time in hand for Murphy’s Law.
As usual, nobody at the airport seemed to know anything about this mysterious flight but we eventually found out which check-in desks we should watch. The flight would be 9pm; a five hour wait. time would tell whether this information was accurate…
Lucy, Patrick, Paul, Laidi, Vanessa