Monday, April 6, 2009

Carousel tails - Waiting for luggage at Fort de France in Martinique

With all the short inter-island flights, Caribbean travellers spend quite a bit of time hanging around in airports. Once, these were tiny wooden sheds, with overhead fans spinning...‘squeak, clunk, squeak, clunk’ - or just sweltering silence - but now all but the smallest airports have an air-conditioned departure lounge.

This time, in the early Nineties it was, I found myself in the old inter-island terminal at Fort de France in Martinique. Actually I was not waiting to board a flight, rather waiting for my luggage, which seemed to be taking an age to reach the baggage hall. I was the only person who had got off the LIAT flight in Fort de France, so I imagined it abandoned on the tarmac somewhere, just lost in the system. My imagination began to run away with me. Perhaps, this being France, the baggage handlers were on strike (it’s one of the habits that the French West Indians have happily picked up from their metropolitan counterparts). I approached a person in a window and asked gingerly what was going on.

‘Trente minutes!’ (Thirty minutes) Thunk. The window closed, as though that was explanation enough.

There are times when you huff and puff in frustration at this sort of thing, and demand to see the manager, but good things happen to those who wait around in the Caribbean. So I found a plastic chair and sat down to wait. It was a fairly typical Caribbean scene. The two short carousels were surrounded by piles and piles of luggage, stacks of the things that you see so regularly in the islands, the odd car tyre, massive cardboard boxes tied up with twine and addressed to people with wonderfully exotic names like Hypolite Louis d’Or. And then those woven sacks of red, white and blue plastic, with spiky pineapple crowns sticking out of them.

As I looked around I realised there must be something going on, with all this luggage stacking up. But there was silence, extreme inactivity. It could have been a surreal French movie. The minutes ticked by. No other flights arrived, so I sat alone. An occasional security man or porter came in, scratched his head in confusion, and left. I sat, having generally dreamy thoughts, punctured briefly by volcanic bad-temper that then subsided soon enough.

Then a man arrived, in tropical French uniform, long socks, pressed shorts, powder blue shirt and the paraphernalia of officialdom, gold epaulettes, pistol, possibly even a képi cap (the memory is too distant now). At his side was a sniffer dog, a delicate, bright-looking thing about the size of a spaniel. Perhaps I had been unfair to the baggage handlers. Perhaps they weren’t on strike. Perhaps this was a hunt for something particular.

The two of them began their rounds, lead paying in and out as they negotiated the piles of bags. The dog trotted happily from one pile to the next, sniffing carefully around the suitcases, occasionally hopping daintily onto the carousel to test the air. The tension was building. Sniffer dogs are trained to sit when they smell something. Perhaps there was a massive stash in the pile of luggage. I waited for it to go quiet and settle back on its haunches.

But suddenly the dog changed. It became uppity, a little too keen on a certain pile. The stash must be massive, I thought, to generate this sort of excitement. He buried his nose under a couple of awkwardly stacked bags, then pulled back and hopped onto the suitcase above, lunging too keenly and slipping as he made his way forward. The tension was unbearable. A whole suitcase of Colombia’s finest must be right there, in that pile. The dog was straining at his lead now and his minder was having to hold him back.

Suddenly, there was a cat. It leapt vertically out of the pile of luggage, within an ace of the straining dog’s jaws, danced over the uneven bags and sprinted, at about ninety miles per hour, along the rubber of the carousel. The dog was onto it like a shot, paws scrabbling at the suitcases, straining at the lead, throttling itself in its effort to get away. But the cat dived through the plastic flaps at the end of the carousel and was gone.

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