Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Travel Blog #12: Devil's Island

An emaciated Steve McQueen stands at the edge of a cliff looking out at a furious sea. As he counts the waves, his lips move. Suddenly he does a little shuffling celebratory dance. He’s figured something out: the seventh wave is always the strongest. He has this plan: to lash coconuts together, fling himself into the sea and paddle his way to freedom.

You saw Papillon, right? It’s a classic movie about a man trying desperately to get off of Devil’s Island. Today we went there…on purpose.

Here’s some interesting stuff: the area we know as “Devil’s Island” is really three islands in a chain called the “Salvation Islands.”

The French penal colony was set up on all three islands: St. Joseph Island, Royale Island and Iles du Diable (Devil's Island). Today each of the two remaining islands, St. Joseph and Iles du Diable have one, that's one guard posted on each. These guys live there all alone twenty four hours a days a week, rambling around deserted prison islands. There's a great short story in that somewhere.

Prisoners were told they were being taken to Devil’s Island because if they were told they were about to be imprisoned on Royale Island in the Salvation Island chain, it didn't sound nasty enough. We went to Royale Island – where the main prison was located. But it became, and remains, Devil's Island to me.

When we arrived, the sun was hot – like warm fingers on our skin. The scent in the air was green and humid and the ground was littered with coconuts and leaves that moved wetly under our feet.

The last time I was in a place that had such a strong atmosphere about it was on Route 66. There's an undefinable something here. It's a thing you can't quite describe (at least I can't) but it's there all the same. Palpable. It’s exotic and wild and you fancy you hear a hundred voices rising up from the past, each one whispering something different.

There were a lot of people imprisoned here. A lot of people suffered here. It may just be my overactive imagination, but they seem to be here still, standing silently watching us pass by. Yeah, yeah. I know it sounds overly flowery...but that's the way it felt to me. We arrived on this island, fat and happy, from a cruise ship. We have five hours here and then we leave. The prisoners were here for four long years. Most of them would die before being released.

The only business on the entire island is the hotel, which puts guests up, primarily rich French tourists, in the buildings the guards used to occupy. They come here for two weeks at a time. The prices, apparently are higher than St. Barth's, but what a place to spend time! What a place to sit on a rock by the sea and let your imagination take you for a ride. What a place!

The Destination speaker, a guy named “Hutch”said something in his talk that I latched onto, body and soul. He said there was a children's graveyard on the island. A children's graveyard. It's the place where the children of the guards and staff who died on Devil’s Island were buried.
The idea of a children's graveyard on Devil's Island fires my admittedly over-active imagination and makes me sad at the same time. It makes me think of images from the old horror comics I consumed as a kid where whispy-white weeping ghosts in period costume come to lay their children down for the last time.

What is it about graveyards that interests me so much? It may be the fact that they are peaceful…and the older I get, the closer I come to a grave of my own. It may be that I find the things written on gravesites so awfully interesting. What exactly do people write as “lasting testimonies” for those who have died? The most commonly written word on those lonely tombstones was "Regrets" -- but I am getting ahead of myself.

There was also talk about monkeys – lots of monkeys on the way to the graveyard. These are monkeys who appear in the expectation of bananas. Yup. Monkeys are cool – but it was the children’s cemetery that fascinated me.

I admit it. I photographed the monkeys because, c'mon, you have to photograph monkeys. But I was obsessed with getting to the graveyard. I just knew there was something there for me to find.

But I am ahead of myself again. Let me go back to the "getting onto the island" part. As we got off the tender boat all the rest of the people headed left toward the building compound. We turned right on the pathway that ran alongside the sea.

Ruined buildings, many reduced to simple facades by the twin ravages of time and sea, dot the pathway. They appear at random times out of nowhere.

Sheree and I were together, creeping along pathways, until we got to the aforementioned monkeys. She loves monkeys. I think they're cute and all...but there's an actual graveyard here somewhere. No contest.

I saw Hutch, walking up the trail toward us. I asked him where the graveyard was and he jerked a finger over his shoulder and muttered something about it being behind him.

I muttered something to Sheree about going onward and she muttered something back as she concentrated on photographing the monkeys. I don't think either of us actually heard the other one as our brains were otherwise engaged.

I walked on down the island path and eventually I came to a tromped down area in the bushes to my right. Was this it? The sunlight was playing on the trees and a shadowed archway of foliage within like an invitation. My heartbeat quickened. Honest it did. I walked into it.

For a few moments, and yes I made them last as long as possible, I was living in the pages of a novel. The air was vibrant and green, full of the promise of adventure. Green plants crunched underfoot and the idea that there might even be a snake lurking inside them just an inch from my sandaled foot was as intoxicating as it was frightening.

I was alone on Devil's Island and there was a by God real children's cemetary just feet away from me. It doesn't get better than this.

I passed through the trees and saw ancient wrought iron gates. Written upon them in French were the words "Cimi..... Des enfants." (The picture is at the top of this blog.) There was sunlight dappling the graves and the far off sound of insects and the thrum of tropical life. And I was alone, for a precious ten minutes, in the graveyard of Devil’s Island’s dead children.

I walked into the cemetery, my camera hanging unused around my neck. I paused there, with my eyes closed and breathed deep. I thought about the parents – guards and their wives – carrying their children to their last rest. Maybe they wept. Maybe they stood stoically while their children were put in the ground.

Think what you want – but the magic of this place was here for an instant…a magical fragment of time. I fancied I could hear the sounds of voices long gone and the grief they must have felt.

I couldn’t keep it to myself and I re-traced my steps to find Sheree – who was still photographing monkeys.

“Come with me,” I said. “The light…the colors. You need to come with me.”

My wife trusts me and she stepped away reluctantly from photographing monkeys. I really wanted her to feel what I'd felt. I took her through the pathway I had found in the trees. I prayed the place would still be silent and crackling with atmosphere so she could feel it too. Of course it is sometimes hard for me to know what she is feeling, because Sheree lives in the moment, regardless of where she is.

This time the graveyard wasn’t the same. A man and his family had arrived while I was gone. He leaned casually against a gravestone. He chatted with his family and made jokes about the dead people planted there. His harsh voice and the braying and forced sounding laughter of the women threw a new and unwelcome atmosphere over the graveyard. Dignity fled in the face of those sounds and we were standing in a place with tourists. I sighed.

Sheree photographed gravesites…and I did too. But there was a different feel here now. It wasn’t precious and private anymore. I so wished Sheree had been with me the first time.

We spent time here and the minutes started to slide away. They became "lots of minutes" – and by the time we moved up into the Devil’s Island compound we had only an hour to make the tender back to the ship.

The difficulty was that we had no idea where the tender boat was. We'd struck off in the opposite direction upon arrival. All the instructions had been given using the building compound as a reference point and, to be honest, I had been concentrating on getting to the graveyard and hadn't really paid much attention.

We had no reference point. We had only 25 minutes to find the tender boat...not enough time to re-trace our steps around the coast of the island. Sheree was photographing what she called “cute fat little guys” – which were huge rodents native to the island. She paid no attention to the time and I had noticed there were no other cruise ship people around. Everyone was long gone. Everyone.

I went to the hotel, the only remaining business on the island, and asked the woman behind the bar for directions. She spoke only French. Despite being Canadian, the only French I know has been gleaned from examination of cereal boxes. My sense of isloation grew.

I tried showing her with my hands what a ship looked like. I tried talking very loud and slowly. (I don't know why I thought speaking slowly would make me any more understandable, but I did.) She didn’t understand. Finally she went to fetch an old guy who came around. He spoke a smattering of English. He pointed down front of the main building and then jerked his thumb sharply to the right.

We had twenty minutes. Sheree went off to pee.

I looked down the path and was reasonably certain this was the right way. I waited for Sheree and when she finally re-appeared, we had twelve minutes.

I walked down the pathway – but an old french guy called out: “De boat?”

I nodded eagerly.

He pointed down a different path and we went that way, after profusely thanking him.

We walked down a cobblestone pathway, thick green trees on both sides. It was unfamiliar territory, but we spoke reassuring words to each other anyway.

I saw the tender boat some distance away. Sheree paused to make a picture of the Pacific Princess moored some distance away. I went to talk to the irritable security guy, Allen, while Sheree finished her pictures.

As we went away on the tender boat, I felt a profound sense of loss. There were so very many places on Devil’s Island we had no chance to see…to explore – or just sit and be quiet for a long moment in.

I loved Devil’s Island. I really wanted to stay there for at least another couple of hours. But that would have ended in a very long swim through apparently shark infested waters -- so I got onto the tender boat. It's not often a place speaks eloquently to my spirit, but this island spoke to mine.

It would be guilding the lilly to say that as the tender boat chugged away from Devil's Island that I thought I saw two ghostly children standing on the dock, arms around each other watching us leave with somber dark eyes. So I won't.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

Loved your descriptive commentary! What an adventure that must have been. I've been wanted to go explore those islands for several years now, but want to first read what I can....Thanx for the input.