Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Day 4: The Arrival, the Drive, and Dinner at Sunset

The flight was a short one as the distance between the two islands is a mere 134 miles but as we took off from Mauritius I was left speechless as to the shades of blue in the ocean below. I may have flown over the oceans many times but from 30,000+ feet it’s hard to see anything, but the reefs and lagoons and whatever other words are used to describe this downright sight of pure beauty was, well, I said barely audible, “oh, my, goodness!”

 As the engine changed pitch I knew we were getting close and from my seat in 1A I could see the island approaching on the horizon and I felt very much as if this was some sort of scene in a movie when the main character realizes a long time dream is about to come true. My first impression was that the island was much bigger than I imagined. Not that I imagined it to be small as almost a million people live here, but compared to the behemoth neighbor of Madagascar this island is but a mere speck. However, as we touched down and I could see the mountains covered in a low ceiling of fog and houses all along the side it was obvious this place was certainly big enough and I was ready for whatever was about to come my way which was, well, something certainly was coming my way.

            The bags came out and I wondered what awaited me the other side of the customs door. Would this be a repeat of the tip monsters from Antananarivo or would I be able to navigate in peace and carry my own bags which I’m very much capable of doing? The answer was that there was no one which was an odd contrast. The airport wasn’t up to the 21st century marvel that Mauritius had but I appreciated the low key atmosphere and it was, if anything, exactly how I envisioned this airport to be.

            I now had to find my rental car and I asked a couple people but English wasn’t spoken which I tried three people and this meant I, for once, came across a place that English absolutely isn’t a foregone certainty in that you’ll easily be able to find a person who speaks it. In Norway the ONLY person I came across that didn’t speak was the waitress in the Hammerfest episode so this added to the goal I wanted on this trip on feeling alone and isolated.

            Frustration started to set in and I was in my favorite position of having to figure it out on my own as the social option wasn’t an option and then, I finally found it which it had been there the entire time. The top of the painting on the building was in French but below it, in as plain as English as one could hope, read, “Rental Cars.”

            The lady at the rental car place barely spoke English and I didn’t understand most of what she tried to tell me and I think she didn’t understand a word she said. I asked about full insurance to which she simply stated that, “liability is limited to $800 but will not cover coconuts that fall.” Knowing my luck, thus far, a severe coconut watch has been issued which means conditions are ripe for coconuts falling on unsuspecting drivers.

            So I got my keys and exited the building, made a right and went to spot 29 where I met my friend for the next week, a VW Up. I’ve obviously heard of Volkswagen but never the Up. I did an inspection for damage and all the marks previously noted were there but nary a spot more. I got in and froze because this was a stick shift and I, outside 30 minutes with my friend Travis 15 months ago, haven’t driven a stick shift since 2003. This could be, well, being a former race car driving instructor the last thing I would want to do is stall and create a miniature jam and have angry drivers blaring their horns at me. During this frozen bit I stared at the gear shifter and tried to remember if I needed to hold the clutch in to start, or if only in gear and I remembered that it’s all good when it’s in neutral so I turned the key and the VW came to life.

            Now that the car was started I could worry on the major matter at hand; there was no GPS! I had positioning, in a way, by a static view on my phone which even in airplane mode it knows where it is, but I couldn’t load the full roads nor could I get turn by turn directions. Also, when I began, it didn’t move so I choose the way I thought was west and I started to drive.

            Quickly I merged onto a road where the speed limit was 110kph and I said aloud, “110! I’m not ready for this!” and as I tried to merge I learned that the “Up” in the car title makes no reference to power as I was truly foot to the floor and the car barely had anything to make it to a speed that was safe to merge. “We are off to a grand start!” I told the car.

            Reunion Island, as mentioned with its population, also has a high amount of car traffic as there aren’t that many roads and as I got to the heart of Saint-Denis on the N2 traffic was gridlocked and was stop and go. My left leg got a workout on the clutch but I never stalled it but one thing that puzzled me was that there’s no tachometer in this car which makes knowing when to make a proper shift rather difficult. There is a suggested gear indicator but its suggestions often were counterintuitive to what I wanted to do.

            Finding my hotel, the La Nautile Beach, was going to be difficult. I knew I had to take the N2 to the N1 to a smaller road named D100 but that wasn’t for another 40 kilometers and in this thick of traffic this looked like it was going to take a while, but as I turned the northwest corner of the island the traffic thinned and it became pure motoring with the almost micro car I was driving and cliffs to my right and the Indian Ocean to my right. Freedom was being experienced in full force.

            In the midst of enjoying this freedom driving in a foreign land I managed to miss my exit, or maybe there was never an exit because I never saw D100 so I drove, and drove, and drove some more. There were no exits, no off ramps, but I could see down below about half a mile to my right the road I believed I wanted, but how to get there? I glanced down at my static map of the island and could see that there was a road, the D12 I believe, and I took the off ramp from the N1, which I need to say is very reminiscent of an established highway in the US (not quite to interstate code) but when I got to D12 things got real different in a hurry as the road was narrow, twisty, and off each lane was a deep gap for rain water which meant the slightest of error would result in either a head on collision with oncoming traffic or one destroyed corner of the car by falling into the man-made storm drainage ditch. Oh, and I forgot to mention, all the while from when I began from the airport motorcycles are passing on both sides between cars. They also do this when it’s just one lane in each direction! This raises the stakes as a mistake could be catastrophic so with every lane change I made I checked thrice for motorcycles.

            The D12 led me to Route de Saint-Pierre which was the road I needed so I followed it until I got to a roundabout but I was sure I took the wrong direction because I was now headed up a hill and my hotel is on the beach so I glanced down again and I was on the express road to the N1. “Oh, this is just swell!” I all but screamed but I saw a car in front of me duck off to the right so I followed it onto a rather narrow side road with no ability to turn around. I did attempt to turn around but now had I gone any further I would go up a rock embankment surely doing damage to my car. I needed to move my car as soon as I could because I was now blocking this side street so I tried to put the car in reverse but it wouldn’t go. “I know it’s right below fifth gear because it says “R” and there’s nothing lost in translation, that means reverse so why… won’t… you… shift!”

            It just wouldn’t go so I tried to let the car roll back but as I did that it rolled towards the rock pile but with full lock steering to the right I avoided it so I went down this side street and it looked as if I had enough room to do a U-turn but once again as I tried it I’d have had a collision had I followed through. Now there was nothing that would work except the reverse gear which seem to be simply a myth. At this time two people that were running ran past my car and the women laughed as she passed as she could see me having this physical struggle with the gear shifter. It was probably funny from the outside but if another car were to come by I’d have some rather angry motorists because I couldn’t move my car.

            The anger got the best of me and I slammed down on the shifter and I felt a click and all of a sudden the car was in reverse. It turns out you’ve got to push down on the shifter so as not to accidentally shift into it when you don’t want to. This would’ve been awesome to know ahead of time but now that I had it figured out I did about a ten point turn and headed back down the way I came to the road by the ocean.

            I was now worried because has hard as it was to find this right road it was going to be even harder to find the exact location. I didn’t want to ask anybody for help because I feared a language barrier but I motored along and eventually say a sign for La Saline Les-Bains which, from my memory of where the hotel was, I was now close, but as fast as I entered town I saw the town sign that signifies that you’re leaving town (a sign with the town name and a red slash through it… It’s a really depressing sign) so when I got to the roundabout I did a, well, I did a roundabout and came back the other way. On a whim I turned to the right and followed the narrow roads and just as I was about to give up and ask the nearest person for help I looked up and there it was! The hotel Le Nautile Beach. I had made it after over 70 hours in transit.

            Emotions ran high for me because this trip was now seeming real. I checked in, walked to my room, and couldn’t believe that the ocean is no more than 100 yards from my window. I looked out and simply stared off into the horizon and the waves crashing at the start of the lagoon and allowed myself to once again say, “oh… my… goodness!”

            The emotions may have been flowing but so to was the sensation of hunger. It was 6:30 in the evening and I walked down to the dining area which is outside right by the pool and learned dinner is served from 7:30 to 9:30. As hungry as I was I stayed in the area but then a pink haze was noticed to the west so I quickly walked from the pool, through the building my room is in, and out onto the beach where I was graced with one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. I took a picture and then stood their motionless.

            How did I get here? I mean, yes, I flew 10,000 miles but how did I, a person who was all but hopeless 10 years ago, end up on the shore of the Indian Ocean on a little known island graced with such immense beauty? I was flooded with memories of what was, what could’ve been, and what might just be to come, but as I turned around I noticed something; I was the only person alone here.

            Thankfully I got back to the dinner area in time to make a reservation and they sat me 10 minutes early just as a duo of a woman and a man were starting the entertainment for the evening with acoustic guitars and vocals (it was odd to hear songs in French then John Denver’s “West Virginia” song. I wouldn’t have put that as a likely song to hear here) and it was all so perfect; that is for someone on a vacation but this trip is a trip of self-discovery and self-discovery came as I ordered a new food, this time it was swordfish, and as I finished I looked around and once again I was the only person alone. Granted, yes, that’s to be expected when one travels to a resort type of place, but to visually see it and have it be a reminder of how I feel regardless of where I am is of a highly somber nature.
            The duo continued singing and some Fleetwood Mac songs were being sung when I retired to my room and started to write but exhaustion set in and I fell asleep in the middle of writing this but as my eyes closed I didn’t think, “How did I get here?” but instead, “I made it and what a story it’s been!”

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