I hesitated when the young handsome man handed the keys to the hire car, “When you have an accident.” were the words he used, not, “if”.
I had insisted on a Renault Cleo sport, as if that would make the slightest difference to my driving experience.
I suddenly wondered if I was doing the right thing driving round La Reunion, a volcanic island on my own, its main star Piton Le Fournaise was only too active.
I had a vision of myself in the little Renault Cleo desperately racing away from a red hot lava flow, round hairpin bends, the heat and flames melting the rubber on my back tyres.
But I managed to brush his words aside as I began my journey.
Dotted at various stages along the roads I noticed shrines depicting a saint in wooden frames painted in vibrant red and decorated with the gaudy plastic flowers that only people from Catholic nations could love. Candles and what appeared at a quick glance votives were placed by the boxes.
“St Expedite.”, the receptionist at the 1st hotel told me as I checked in, “The patron Saint of roads. The families of loved ones who die on the roads make shrines to him.”
The number of these shrines suggested to me there were more accidents then I wanted to think about.
St Expedite, even the name conjured up a sense of finality, no going back, no chance of redemption.
Later in the evening in the restaurant I asked the young receptionist a bit more about the Saint.
“Who was St Expedite? I don’t remember there being a saint by that name in the Catholic Church”.
The young girl smiled, “Oh no, he was not a real Catholic Saint. A group of nuns had set up a convent near the town called St Paul. And they were waiting for a statue of their own St Paul to be sent over from France. When the box with the statue arrived it was stamped with the words St Expedite, the nuns thought they had been sent a statue of St Expedite by mistake.”
I laughed, “Oh I see.” Saints always look the same, I thought, even to nuns. The porcelain white and pink features and the same benign look on their faces.
“But how did he become the patron saint of roads then?”
“Voodoo.”, she hissed at me, “If you want to get rid of someone you don’t like quickly then he is your saint.”
I arched my eyebrows, “Oh really. I’d better hope I don’t upset anyone whilst here then.” I said.
Before leaving for a drive the next morning, the receptionist who I had now found out was called Maria, advised, “Go off road and see the real island.”
So at the first opportunity I veered off into a sugar cane field. The cane was over six foot tall, probably soon to be harvested. I followed the well-worn tracks of the ox carts that still transported the harvested cane.
Huge heavy blossomed geraniums covered the wooden shack homes that Maria had called “cases”. Everywhere there seemed to be an influence of the Creole culture and I started to unwind and enjoy the drive.
Suddenly from out of the forest of tall cane a pack of dogs rushed with frightening ferocity towards the car. It was if the hounds of hell had been unleashed. They began snarling and snapping at the open windows, their teeth inches away from me.
I began to desperately close the windows, whilst trying not to slow down. One of the dogs jumped onto the bonnet of the car. He appeared to grin with his huge jaw, through the windscreen at me. And then he began to jump backwards and forwards, sparring like a boxer through the glass.
Knowing that moving forward was becoming a hopeless task; I put the car in reverse and began manically backtracking through the field of cane. And as quickly as the dogs had appeared they suddenly disappeared back in to the tall green forest.
I began to breathe more easily. If St Expedite didn’t get me on the roads then his fiendish four legged assistants would get me in the fields I mused.
At the first opportunity I turned the car round and headed back to the main road, any main road. Still slightly un-nerved by the canine encounter I continued down to a place near to St Paul, called the French Caves, where St Expedite received his sainthood.
There was a shrine to the rather dark saint with a statue of him in his full glory. Looking at him, I had to admit he cut a dashing figure. He didn’t look like your average saint, more like a Roman Gladiator. He was dressed with a silver breast plate and a red tunic. The warrior like aura was enforced by him brandishing a sword and underneath his feet he was crushing a black raven. He certainly was not a benign saint.
I left pondering on just how the heck the nuns had taken this St Expedite as their saint. On second thoughts it was obvious, he was saintly sexy.
I started to enjoy my drive round the island. The people were very friendly and seemed amused by my strange French accent. La Reunions mother tongue is pidgin French, known as Creole. My slow precise French was as alien to some of the villagers as them trying to speak English to me.
I stayed down at Boucan Canot for a few days, the St Tropez of La Reunion.
I then prepared myself for the infamous drive to the Cirque De Cilaos.
There are, depending on which guide book you read, between 300-400 hairpin bends on this road. And reputedly each year there was one death per hairpin bend.
I had contemplated making an offering to St Expedite to ensure myself a safe journey, but decided against it. Many travellers had done this journey and survived. The guide books were overreacting.
I have to say driving is in my blood, my father was a taxi driver. I could do this with my eyes closed; I didn’t need a saint for this journey.
The drive was exhilarating; driving to a height of over 3,000 meters, and looking down was really spectacular.
But as I pulled in to the hotel car park, I did breathe a sigh of relief, I had made it safely. St Expedite had looked after me; perhaps he was the same patron saint of taxi drivers back home.
I had decided that from here I would go to the star of La Reunion, Piton Le Fournaise. When I checked in at the hotel there was sign saying that the volcano was in the early stages of an eruption and helicopter flights were highly recommended. I booked immediately.
The pilot was French of course but said he would try to speak English if I wanted. But words were superfluous to the experience. My stomach churned as the flight started but once we were over the caldera it was fantastic, smoke billowed out and there was the faint red glow of the lava as it trailed down the mountain side. Again St Expedite was on my side. Who from my family could actually say they had flown over an erupting volcano?
My final stop before returning the car was La Hermitage, a destination for fussy French holiday makers. I was staying at the best hotel on the island. After the jungle of Madagascar this was my luxurious treat and I was ready for lobster and champagne. Oh and just annoying a few of the French holiday makers. My grandmother had taught me well.
As I made my way through the small town of Hermitage Le Bains towards the hotel I considered the traffic as rather annoying, perhaps I was too laid back, too careless, or perhaps it was time for St Expedite to receive his dues, who can say?
I pulled round to go passed a parked lorry; suddenly there was a sickening crunch of metal as the top of the car concertinaed. The windscreen of the car shattered and imploded. I had driven into the low loader of a lorry.
I have to admit I started to shake and sat dumbfounded. A crowd began to congregate round the car. People were peering in at me with concern. I eventually stopped shaking enough to attempt to get out of the car, the door opened partially and I squeezed through.
Within a split second my French had gone from mediocre to absolute zero. Trying to communicate was absolutely impossible. Eventually I managed to spit out, “Where is the police station?”
An elderly man motioned for me to follow him and we arrived at a small parochial station. The man explained what the stupid tourist had done. And with mutterings of St Expedite from both of them we returned to the scene of the accident.
Everyone was most helpful. Phone calls were made and the whole situation was resolved in what appeared to me to be minutes. The main thing I remembered was thank God I had ignored the hitchhikers along my route, because if anyone had been sitting in the passenger seat they would have been decapitated. St Expedites’ more unholy followers would have had a human sacrifice for the arcane rites.
I was driven to my hotel by the local gendarme. The hotel provided me with sympathy and a bottle of champagne. That was enough for me.
The next day a bouquet of lilies arrived at my door. “Nobody has died. I don’t really need these.” I said to the girl who delivered them. She smiled graciously and left.
Later there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and saw the Hertz man from the airport. I was for a second flummoxed, what was here doing here?
“I hear you had the accident, do you want a replacement car?” he smiled.
“No, I have had enough of driving. I will spend the last few days of my adventure here.” As I went to close my door, he smiled again.
“Perhaps I could drive you for your last few days?”
His smile was enticing; I had some last souvenirs to buy so I acquiesced.
As I walked to his car I remembered his words at the airport, “When you have an accident.”
I smiled at my misfortunate accident; surely it had turned out to be in my favour. We drove back into town and he pulled up at my first port of call, Lena’s Gold, a jewelry shop.
As I purchased my gold earrings, I looked across at my driver sitting waiting patiently outside in his car – he was cute!
How strange this St Expedite was.
I still have the box for the earrings, with one earring, miniature gold St Expedite! I will never tell how I lost the other one, but I always pay my debts even to a sinner of a saint