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Caribbean Narrative Personal Essay Travel

Martinique

The best ideas happen around 3am. That’s my experience, at least. They tend to be superlative decisions if someone in the decision matrix is inebriated or otherwise compromised by more than mere exhaustion. Hence, when my inebriated host suggested I take an early morning ferry from the monastery in Saint Lucia where I was staying to Martinique, I replied with deep enthusiasm.

“Yes! I can take the rust off of my French,” I said.

That the ferry left in the early morning was no deterrent. “I’ll just stay up all night so I don’t oversleep.” My host suggested his brother, who lived on the island, could be contacted for a tour and hospitality. The plan was set.

The next morning I found my seat on the ferry and basked in the warm burble of voices. It was dark. I was hungry. But hospitality waited just an hour across the water, of this I was certain.

Landing in Martinique was a jolt. The rustic charms of Saint Lucia were replaced with the infrastructure of a French colony. The port glistened; it made my exhausted eyes hurt. I donated to the “Telecom Exec retirement plan” and placed a call to the brother. It was 7am. I knew he worked construction, so he should have been awake, right?

An hour passed, then another. I’m generally ok with Island Time (+1-2 hours), CPT (+1-4 hours) & African/Mideast Time (+4-8 hours), but the airport didn’t have eateries and the monastery didn’t have their breakfast spread before I left at 5:30am, so I was peckish.

Finally, I received a call. I didn’t understand a word the caller said. I blamed it on lapsed French and hunger. Turned out, he wasn’t speaking French, so that died on the vine.

Willow was a young version of my grandfather: cheery, tall, scattered. Since we had a language barrier, I indicated I would go to sleep and wake up when we got where we were going. This, perhaps, was not wise.

Our first stop was a rum plantation. It opened at 9am and we were the first customers of the day for a rum tasting. I’d lived in Wine Country and spent my youth swilling korbel on lunch breaks (took the edge off of the job I hated). I understood tastings, but I must confess I was uninitiated in the art of pre-breakfast hard-liquor consumption.

I understood tastings, but I must confess I was uninitiated in the art of pre-breakfast hard-liquor consumption.

I asked if there was food, perhaps a little bread? “Mais non! And ruin the rum?”

Of course. Why ruin the rum?

A rum tasting is a wonderful affair; after my third glass of rum at the plantation, I didn’t mind my hunger, fatigue, or lower back pain any longer. The tasting crew called in some plantation workers who didn’t mind joining us as we sampled dark runs, white rums, tasted sugar syrup, and sipped medium rums.

We tottered off, waving and smiling. We settled into Willow’s truck and he suggested there might be food at our next stop.

Indeed, the next rum plantation did have food, but there were two rounds of tastings before the kitchen opened. I tried not to contemplate my blood/alcohol ratio; I studiously avoided the idea of Willow’s condition as my driver.

When food was finally presented, I fell upon it like the hungry girl I was. Then, another two rounds of tastings because workers kept it coming in and it would have been rude not to drink to their health and praise their hard work.

The third plantation was majestic. Situated between rolling hills of tall grasses that swayed in the midday breeze—it was a gleaming white monument to colonialism, slavery, and a certain way of life one seldom witnesses in person in the U.S. Its majesty wasn’t lost on me so much as I wished it would quit spinning and dipping so alarmingly. I indicated to Willow and the plantation host that I felt unwell. Naturally, they suggested a rum tonic to calm my nerves and stomach. Damned if it didn’t work. I spent a couple hundred dollars on rum gifts and shipping in misplaced gratitude.

Our departure from the third plantation was mated by the return of my nausea. I hung my head out of the window and prayed for traffic. The roads were wide open and getting narrower as we veered toward the coast. Soon we were on a dirt path, up a mountain, in the woods.

I confess, I felt alarmed. I was drunk in a car with a man I didn’t know from Adam’s housecat and testing the extent of the kindness of strangers. Willow gave me the thumbs up when I looked at him, queasy and questioning.

We pulled up to a dilapidated shack. I’m flexible about accommodations, but a shack in the woods, up a mountain—it was entirely too “insert horror story here” for me. Willow gestured jovially. I heard voices erupt as he walked in the doorway; there wasn’t a door so I peered hard. There appeared to be a gathering inside. Not ideal, but Robert Frost nailed it when he said so often in life the best way out of a situation is through.

I walked in and found myself in a cramped bar, populated by wizened old men and a tough-looking woman. There was some ceremonial gesturing and many, many warm smiles as a clear bottle of clear liquid was presented and placed in front of Willow and a glass placed in front of me. Willow looked serious as he poured homebrew rum into the glass and watched expectantly as I took my first sip of moonshine rum. It was smooth, delicious, and mind-alteringly potent.

The rest of the crew sent up a cheer, relieved, I imagine, that I didn’t pass out. I’d passed the test: I now was a drinking buddy. They all had glasses of the brew and I contemplated the sky, the sea, the symphony of waves meets rocks and birds in the trees in glorious harmony.

The rest of the crew sent up a cheer, relieved, I imagine, that I didn’t pass out. I’d passed the test: I now was a drinking buddy.

Somehow I ended up outside, leaned up against a tree, enraptured by the leaves on a tree. Eventually, Willow called to me. The day was fading and I had a ferry to catch. My French, under the influence of rum, made Creole much more accessible, so we chatted like old friends on the way to the ferry station.

Unfortunately, the ride back to Saint Lucia was not pleasant. The sea was angry and tossed the ferry to and fro, sending young mothers and grown men dashing from waves and rain. I have a deep dislike for vomit, so I patently refused to toss my one meal of the day—and all that fine rum—just because we were going against the tide. Turns out we were trying to beat the landfall of a storm.

I finally made it back to the monastery around 9pm. A young nun opened the door and assessed my condition slowly. “I’m not feeling well from the ferry,” I slurred in explanation of my sunburnt, disheveled, wet appearance. “Yes, I see.” She replied, mild as milk.

I ventured a request, “Is there any food from dinner available?” In a Benedictine monastery they are dedicated to hospitality, but generally, I hated to bother the nuns. I’m not Catholic and never attend the mass at daybreak despite repeated invitations.

“Certainly,” she said. Score! I went to sleep in my simple room, full of bread, butter, and papaya. I said an especially fervent prayer for Willow and the very nice nun who fed me.

The next day, I saw my angel nun and thanked her again for helping me with the after-hours food request. “I was awfully sick,” I explained. “Oh,” she replied, “you just looked drunk to me but I’m glad you’re feeling better!”

By Camille Williams

Traveler, lover, writer, entrepreneur, coach: Camille Williams contributes to blogs and edited for The New York Times.