Friday, February 26, 2016

Day 6: 33! And the Road of 420 Bends

The day I loathe above all others came and because I’m 10 time zones east of home it came earlier this year (yay…?) and I was amazed at how fast it felt routine to go outside to the courtyard where the pool is which is also the dining area to have breakfast. This time I was on sparrow watch and got my drink before my food much to the display of the group of sparrows that were watching me hoping that I didn’t learn my lesson. Well, take that sparrows! No breakfast on my account on my birthday!

With my foot healing at doctor’s orders to stay off it the best I can and also stay out of the ocean for two days I was left at a loss as to what to do today. My first thought was to sit in my room and sulk all day on everything that isn’t and all that I’m not but that quickly seemed unproductive so I decided it was time for a road trip. I had never heard of the destination which was a town called Cilaos but it was at the end of a roadway with the name of N5 and from the roadmap the road looked to be a fun drive so out the door I went with a minimal amount of preparation. All I knew was to get on the RN1 to the N5. How hard could it possibly be? I mean, in America, interchanges are essentially information overload with sign after sign after sign.

My phone gave me directions for the first six turns I needed to do and I made it onto the RN1 and I knew the N5 started in the town of Saint Louis. What a coincidence seeing that I come from Saint Louis but I’m sure, here, it’s pronounced much more French like which I’d opine is the proper way. Anyway, the signs counting down Saint Louis went from 40km to 25 to 15 to… Um? Somehow I missed the exit and thankfully it wasn’t 20 kilometers like the day I got here before the next exit so I exited, did a U-turn, and look diligently for a N5 sign but no sign came and now I was through Saint Louis again. How did people live before turn-by-turn navigation?

Again, I exited quickly and turned around and got off in Saint Louis and was quickly greeted with proper city traffic with stop and go but then I got to the most confusing intersection of all time; it was a four way go. Four way go? In America we’ve got four way stops where all cars stop and in a chaotic way it works as cars take turn going but here, on a four way go, it’s much like a poker game where you’ve got to bluff your way across the intersection. No really, if you wait for a car to let you go, or rather had I waited for that to happen I’d still be there waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I wasn’t in a waiting game and I didn’t know the proper rules, as I’m a rules stickler, but when there are no rules chaos ensues, and it somehow works, but I went for it and made it through and at the next intersection there was a sign pointing left with the town name of Cialos. I only knew of one road that went that way so I took it and a mile, ahem, about a kilometer-and-a-half down the way I saw it, the N5 had begun.

The locals call it the road of 420 bends and it started off tame alongside an empty river bed. Many signs warned of the dangers of this empty river as the signs, and they were in English which meant the signs meant business, stated that flashfloods can occur even on a sunny day. I tried to figure this out but it was English and I’m not from here so I took its word for it not that I had the urge to go playing on the large rocks that formed the river bed.

I did mention it started off tame but the speed limit end sign, which is a sign with the kph with slashes through it much like the end of town sign I said in a previous post, was shown and this confused me because as that sign came the road began to twist, turn, rise, and dip with the likes I have never encountered. If you’ve been to the Black Hills in South Dakota there are some twisty bits there but this was, this was driving nirvana! However, I was scared out of my mind and was more nervous taking on this road. At one point I pulled off and wondered, “Is this really worth it?” as the lanes were just one car width wide and at some points there was only one lane and I’m in a rental with a manual transmission. Do I have any business trying to climb this mountain? Actually, walking up seemed an easier proposition.

I felt up to the challenge so I got back in my car and I’ll admit I was nervous because this road required 100% concentration. If any driver’s concentration ever waned there are reminders everywhere on the consequences as memorial crosses can be seen every mile or so. There’s no margin for error and at some points in time there’s just this flimsy one foot high stone wall separating you from a several hundred foot straight down drop. Oh, and this also is in the midst of a blind corner with only one lane. Perfectly safe, right? The locals drove this road as if it were Daytona with, what I swear, was reckless abandon as it seemed they never slowed down. I’m white-knuckling it and they’re driving this road as if it’s main street of any small town in America with no dangers lurking.

Not only are other cars a factor but gear selection also is a major part of working this dance that is the N5. I really wanted a co-driver like those that race in rallies have with the co-driver saying, “3 left into 2 right into hairpin left” as I had no idea what was around each bend which is why I drove with such caution. Each time a car came up behind me I would, when there was actually a chance, peel off the road to let them by and each time the driver of the passing car waived at me because they could easily gather that I was unfamiliar with these roads and I would try and stay with the car that passed me but after a minute they were gone. I just didn’t like the prospect of having a head-on collision.

The gear game was getting rather old and in this series of back-to-back hairpin, and when I
say hairpin it’s quite literally a 180 degree corner and as I would turn in to a right hand hairpin I was looking out the rear passenger window to view where I wanted to go. However, I had three cars behind me at this one hairpin and I forgot to downshift to first gear and I stalled the car. It was the first time I stalled it outside of my awful time trying to find the reverse gear my first day, but the car behind me honked at me and I said, “Yes, because I want to stop on a narrow road and cause a scene!” which obviously they couldn’t hear but the string of cars passed me and I was once again, after restarting the car, back on my way.

Every so often a small village would be passed and at one point there was this town in this valley that I’d have loved to stop and take a photo of but there was no place to pull off to do so. I had stopped previously in the road to take a picture of a hairpin but that was when I knew I had at least two minutes of time between myself and the potential next car, but here visibility behind was nothing and the locals drive this road, as I said, at Mach 3. Yes, it seemed the higher we got the faster they drove.

It just kept going! The N5, which I was now calling special stage Never-ending 5 just kept going and with mountains on both sides of me I had no ability to judge my progress. It was upshift-downshift-up-down-down-up-up-down-turn-turn-turn some more and it was all great fun but this was more intense than any race I had ever been in. Now maybe had I been in my car, in the states, it would’ve been different, or maybe if I knew the road, but the last thing I wanted was to deal with wrecking a rental car on foreign soil.

When I thought I was near the now all but mythical town of Cilaos there was this 90 degree corner with the sign for tunnel. What the sign didn’t say was that this tunnel was just barely one car width wide and was about 100 yards long. “Oh, lovely!” I said with the greatest sense of sarcasm possible, “How does this work?” A car was coming out so I focused to the light at the end of the literal tunnel and I proceeded and just as I did a car made its way on the other side. I frantically tried to figure out how to turn my headlights on but it wasn’t in the space that every car I’ve driver had them, but thankfully the brights were the same so I blared the high beams and the other car stopped, reversed, and blared their horn at me the entire time I was in the tunnel. “Yes, thank you, I’m not from around here” is what I would’ve said but that driver was angry and I wanted to proceed.

Seriously, where was this town? Another tunnel, more hairpins, some construction cleaning up a fallen boulder (that’s reassuring!) and some landscaping were seen but Cilaos remained this mythical town up in the clouds but as I rounded one last turn there was the town sign. I was there! I had made it! I’ve always had the dream of going to Germany to drive the Nurburgring but now I don’t know if that track will have the same mystique as the N5.

Now that I was in Cilaos I had to figure out what to do. Do I just do a U-turn and leave? I figured I’d drive for just a bit and then do so, but as I got to the high point of town there was this church as well as some clouds coming off the top of the mountain which made for an incredible photo op so I found a parking space and got out. I then saw, over to my left, the start of a hiking trail. I didn’t bring my hiking boots but did bring a liter of water so I figured my injured foot, which was the foot that was constantly working the clutch pedal, needed a break from clutching so what better way to rest than to do a hike, right? I’m not good at taking orders it would seem.

My inspiration for this hike was a waterfall that I could see so I started down the trail and it wound down, down, and further down. With each step I knew I would have to walk back up and after 20 minutes, when I got to a paved road and on the other side the path split into four ways, I figured that was my sign to turn around and walk back. It was at this time that I finally realized something; this was my birthday! The fact of this had slipped my mind with all the twists and turns and being scared out of my mind but for the first time since I was little I was having a blast on my birthday. Granted, this was because I forgot about it, but that’s okay because, well, it just is.

The hike back to my car sucked. No, really, it sucked. I don’t know if it was exhaustion from all the travel (have I actually rested on this trip?) or the energy exerted from swimming in the ocean the day prior, but each step up felt like a 1,000 foot journey. I said aloud, “I’m too young for this!” which then reminded me that today was my birthday and the joyous mood dropped for a moment but I got back to my car and mentally prepared for the return trip.

Going down the mountain was easier than going up although I did have a couple close calls with the public transit busses but I made it back to Saint Louis and ended up taking a wrong turn and had to endure the four way go again and I just went and it seemed to work and no one honked and on my way back to the hotel I took four more wrong turns (oh, GPS, how I miss you!) but eventually I made it. I had been gone just five hours but those five hours were filled with literal twists and turns and when I walked into my room I didn’t think, “I’m 33” I instead thought, “Oh, my, goodness, what a ride it’s been!”

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