Friday, 21 November 2008
Living in the Caribbeans: Finding Accommodation (Part I)
Since I spoke about my plane-flight to Martinique, I'm now going to discuss what it was like to actually live there, down in the Caribbeans, for the year-abroad of study leave which I had. Let's pick up from the point we had left it, that is to say, my landing. That ok? Good. Glad we got that sorted.
Right. I had been offered a week's worth of accommodation, during which time I was supposed to look for a place to live - a full year on campus they couldn't afford to give to me, it seemed. I thought that was OK, and one of the reasons I took it in my stride so lightly was that I expected the campus rooms in the Martinique university wouldn't be that great. But as it turned out, my expectations came well short of the reality. I was expecting ill, yes, but what I was offered for that transitory week was something beyond that. To put it in the simplest of terms, it was the worst accommodation that any human being has ever had the misfortune to set foot in short of political prisoners walking into death-penalty wards in Italian prisons under fascism.
My first impact wasn't that bad – because it took place by night. This is what happens: at the airport, I take a taxi to the university and put my bags down. I then start looking around myself, wondering what to do next: it is deep into the night, and I can't see much or orient myself very well.
The immediate milieu around me looks more like a boot camp for Che Guevara's troops than a university, so I'm a bit afraid that I am going to get lost if I set off on my own to look for the accommodation offices. Fortunately, and despite the late hours, there seem to be quite a few people around. So I ask for directions to the first local I find. The student turns out to be very kind - which all the inhabitants of Martinique are, as I would discover later - and he personally guides me to the accommodation office. The place is not very encouraging in terms of providing an introduction: the lighting is intermittent and feeble, there's puddles in the corridors, and the doors are falling apart. It looks like a setting from Alien 3. As far as establishing expectations goes, this is right up there with setting barbed wire fences over a platoon of angry goats' horns and then placing them in formation right before you.
Though there were people walking around in every single place I've seen so far, the accommodation office is more deserted than Tutankhamen's tomb. Well, that's not entirely true – while we wait for someone to come over, I have the opportunity to make two acquaintances: 1.) A pretty pleasant German couple, standing there with a mountain-chain of suitcases in the exact same situation as myself, and 2.) a rather less pleasant grasshopper which must have been the Incredible Hulk of grasshoppers by its size and which flings itself in punitive raids against all the present, in the apparent conviction that the three corridors plus atrium and office in which we find ourselves belong to it by right.
Once the battle with the grasshopper is over (not to her defeat, alas, though I'm restive to say we didn't put up a good fight), a dwarfish Martiniquian finally appears and leads me out. In a classic example of disarming Martiniquian kindness, and despite my protestations, he carries my enormous luggage all the way. We walk out of the office and towards the accommodation blocks. We get to some sort of a cliff and, lo, my breath is taken away: the blocks are not campus blocks but in fact skyscrapers, huge things which would not look out of sorts in Manhattan! 'I'll be damned,' I tell myself, 'how can the rest of the university look like a such a wreck when the campus could well be a residence for Bill Gates?'
When we walk into them, I find out the answer.
I'll pass on the fact that, in order to get to them, we have to descend the cliff through the tropical foliage, on a doubtful iron staircase which seemed built by the Incas right after they discovered Spanish liquor. Rather it's the inside of the place which gets to me. My guide leads me through a ghoulish corridor not unlike the one we'd met in, then stops at what is meant to be my room for the next week. The moment that he opened the door, two gigantic cockroaches dashed off towards the corners with the air of someone surprised in the middle of something intimate - a little wounded even. (These may have been the Tristan and Isolde of cockroaches, so chances are I really did ruin something special). The room is sparsely furnished, but rather spacious, with light-yellow walls of a rather pleasant colour. Despite that, I walk in feeling decidedly nervous (when I say the cockroaches were gigantic, I do mean gigantic: if they had come out of the most primeval ages of the world, I wouldn't be surprised). It then turns out that the lights in my room aren't working – we might as well be in the middle-ages by this point – so I have to rely on a table-lamp to see anything. I'm beyond caring anyway, so I take the key from my friend, thank him heartily, and go to sleep.
I woke up and - but that's all part of Part II. Give me until Monday!