Ken seeks peace — and back health — in Guadeloupe.  Illustration: Steve Murray.

By Ken Hegan

The worst sleep I’ve ever had was in a Honda hatchback. In the months leading up to that brutal night, I was broke, newly separated, hemorrhaging money on a mortgage I couldn’t afford, and going insane from insomnia. I suddenly decided I had to flee Toronto.

So I rented my loft to a buddy — completely furnished, TV and all. I no longer got to sleep on my big beautiful box-spring bed. That was for his vertebrae to enjoy now, and as my friend pointed out, “I’m happy to take over your identity, Ken.”

I flew back to Vancouver where I bounced around with no fixed address. For the next year, my back pain got progressively worse as I crashed on broken-spring mattresses, busted Murphy beds, half-deflated air mattresses and my mum’s basement pullout couch.

My lowest moment was when I slept in a borrowed Honda by the river. A winter storm pounded the roof like my bookie demanding his weekly payment. I tossed and turned all night. My spine barked and my dog groaned because I was using him for a pillow.

Come sunrise, I hobble-walked my dog on the rainy beach. And that’s when I ran into the very last person I wanted to see: my ex-girlfriend’s dad. Fifteen years ago, I’d broken his daughter’s heart. He wasn’t thrilled to see me, especially when my mutt humped his fancy dog’s leg. But even he looked shocked by my condition. I was bent, haggard, shivering and shuffling like a wounded vet.

“Do you need money?” he asked.

Whoa. He thought I’d become a hobo.

At that moment, I vowed to heal my back and fix my life. My goal: Fly to the Caribbean, fall asleep and then wake up weeks later with a relaxed and happy spine.

So I searched for the perfect island, somewhere pretty and hot, but not stabby-crazy-earthquake-y (oh hi, Haiti). Then I discovered Guadeloupe. Its tourism website, myguadeloupe.ca, featured a bikini babe floating ecstatically, as if the green water was making sweet beautiful love to her.

Further research uncovered these fun facts:

– Guadeloupe is an archipelago in the French West Indies comprised of nine white-beach islands. When you see it from outer space (and why wouldn’t you?), it looks like a butterfly in flight. The first white guy to visit was Christopher Columbus, who discovered the pineapple here. And I’m sure the natives were eternally grateful.

– Guadeloupe is mainly known for sugar, hurricanes and rum that feels stronger than a gut punch. Starting in the 1600s, sugar plantation owners made fortunes off the sweat of African slaves. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848. After that, other than sun, fun and cholera, nothing much happened in Guadeloupe until 1946 when it became an “Overseas Department of France.”

– Ninety-four per cent of the tourists are French and the local currency is the Euro. So: not a super-cheap vacation but Champagne is affordable. There are 453,000 Guadeloupeans, who consume a total 1.2 million bottles every year. I’m no mathematician, but that means three bottles each … and a lot of tipsy toddlers.

What finally sold me on Guadeloupe was its indigenous pepper plant called pimentier. Plantation slaves used it to ease their lower back pain by wearing a belt made from this plant’s bark. Apparently the pepper would get absorbed into their pores to improve their health by helping their blood flow.

Perfect! So I flew to Montreal, then boarded a four-hour Air Canada flight to Guadeloupe’s port city of Pointe-à-Pitre. I took a shuttle to an oceanfront hotel on the south side of Grande-Terre. The Auberge de la Vieille Tour hotel is “four-star” but it’s more like a retro ’80s lodging with a sweeping view of the Caribbean.

I booked a guide to show me the back-healing plant. Then, to help me sleep faster, I drank some fine white rum called Chopin. WARNING: It’s 100-proof. Don’t chug it all by yourself, or you could black out, then wake up running naked down the beach, screaming, “I have just discovered PINEAPPLES!” Trust me.

The next morning, I met my guide Alain. He’s wiry, relaxed, Paris-educated, extremely wise and can MacGyver his way out of any situation. Before he showed me the plant, he took me on a multi-island tour. Highlights included:

– Drinking lunchtime Planter’s Punch, a cocktail that’ll knock you on your butt. Picture 2 ounces dark rum and ¼ ounce grenadine, mixed with pineapple or orange juice. Note: Guadeloupeans don’t get drunk; they “take off.”

– Easing into a Japanese hot tub in the forest at Tendacayou hotel and spa near Deshaies. As your back unwinds and brain cells turns to mush, all you hear is bubbling water, forest crickets and chuckling frogs. The stilt-cottages are hand built, brightly painted with nautical artwork and boast wicked ocean views.

– The ferry from Grande-Terre to the gorgeous bay of Terre-de-Haut. Sit on the top deck so you can laugh as the surf spray soaks your face.

– In January, Guadeloupians celebrate an event called Epiphany. The locals (and their kids) satirize the olden slave masters by wearing ape masks and Michael Jackson hair, then they parade through crowded streets while viciously cracking 12-foot whips. Truly amazing/terrifying. Bring the kids!

Here’s how I knew I was in France: I didn’t see any Americans. Upside: sure was quiet. Downside: If you get in a bar fight, you’re on your own. Plus, on Guadeloupe’s beaches, bikini tops are optional (or, if you will, “toptional”). Also: French men sure love their short-shorts.

Finally, Alain took me to the Jardin Botanique (Botanical Garden) in Deshaies. It has 1,000 types of cacti, baobob, bamboo, banyan, orchids, ferns and other plants, many of which the local Creoles use for cooking and medicinal purposes. I was briefly interested in bois bande, a bark-based aphrodisiac for men and women (which Alain says is why Carnival in Guadeloupe lasts so long).

But I’d come for the back-saving pimentier pepper plant and Alain did not disappoint. He broke off a little pepper and advised me to rub it all over my bare lower back.

I followed his advice back at the hotel. And here’s the thing: First of all, when you rub a strange fiery foreign pepper on your lower back, WASH YOUR HANDS AFTERWARD. Because if you forget, and you go to the bathroom, your private parts will experience an unholy hurricane of pain that feels like a Honda drove over your crotch.

Second of all, I’ve slept in peaceful resorts in the Cook Islands and the Kenyan savannah, but I have never slept so well as I did that week in Guadeloupe.

The night after applying the pimentier pepper, I slept 14 hours. The rest of the week, I averaged 10 hours a night. I slept like a coma baby being fed whisky through an IV drip. My back pain vanished, I looked 10 years younger. And I drooled so often and so much, if you saw the damp spots from outer space, they’d look like big wet beautiful butterfly wings.

Follow Ken on Twitter @KenHegan Ken was a guest of Atout France

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