The Reunion Island Fascination Continues: CAST YOUR VOTE!

accelerated degrees

Whether this is your first time visiting, or you followed along with me from the very beginning, please take 5 seconds and vote for my blog to win the 2012 Fascination Award for an English Teacher Blog.  Voting ends April 23 at 11:59PM.

Meci a zot ! Thanks!

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Au revoir, Reunion Island (made in France)

Believe it or not, this is my final week in the South Seas.

In just a few days I’ll be beginning the long journey home to the US, figuratively and literally speaking.  Although rather than taking what is officially the world’s longest “domestic” commercial flight between Reunion and Paris (more than twice the distance between New York and LA), I’ll be making stopovers on neighboring Mauritius Island, Johannesburg, and Abu Dhabi before arriving in Chicago.  My brother is totally jealous because I’m going to be having dinner in Johannesburg at a place called “Carnivore” where every kind of meat you can imagine comes served to your table on a Massai spear on an all you can eat basis until you literally raise a white flag in the middle of your table in defeat. Seven months of bananas and mangos and I’m ready for some red meat.

Before I leave though, allow me to bring you up to date one last time on some of the latest Reunion banter I hear about in the teacher’s lounge.

The Prime Minister of Mauritius recently made some strong remarks about the people of Reunion, including accusations that Reunion could not exist were it not for the assistance of others.  It’s a fact.  The most expensive highway in France runs along the west coast of Reunion.  Roughly 30% of Reunion’s labor force is unemployed, living on generous social benefits from the metropole.   Generally speaking, Reunion produces very little in exchange for all that it consumes from the French Republic.  Yet coming from the Prime Minister of Reunion’s sole sister island (soul sister island? that too), it struck some serious nerves.

The local paper included the following quote from the PM’s speech: “Sarkozy a demandé aux Réunionnais pourquoi ils n’agissent pas comme les Mauriciens. Pourquoi doit-il à chaque fois verser de grosses sommes d’argent pour les Réunionnais.” (Sarkozy has asked the people of Reunion why they won’t behave like Mauritians.  Why does he have to dump great amounts of money on the people of Reunion all the time?)

Mauritius, on the other hand, has had to pull itself up by its own bootstraps since it became independent from the United Kingdom in 1968 and has done well at it.  Let’s just say they’re proud of the fact and not afraid to point out the distinctly “made in France” approach of their neighbors.

Moreover, the island of Mayotte is now officially the 101st département of France, reigniting a heated regional conflict with the Union of the Comoros, which still claims the island with UN backing.  How Mayotte, with its strongly Islamic culture, will coexist with the recent anti-Niqab legislation applicable on all French soil, is beyond me.

In any event, the French have been in the Indian Ocean for centuries.  In a few days, there will be one less American.  It has been a wild and exciting experience living here, and I hope to find truth in the Malagasy proverb that I will not attempt to transliterate but instead paraphrase that “the world is round, and as such, if you leave a place, you’re bound to come back full circle at some point.”

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Just how far away is Reunion Island? Actually, it depends.

Of the many daily frustrations encountered by expats living in faraway places, none is more absolutely appallingly confoundingly bizarre as the mystery of international mail.

In the US, we are all used to the rites and rituals of collecting and sending personal mail.  It’s relatively simple.  Lick the envelope, slap a first class stamp on it, drop it in the mailbox, and it will be in the hands of your addressee in a matter of a couple days.

With some minor differences, the postal system in Reunion is the same.  Yet, don’t forget that Reunion is part of France, so strikes, nonsensical business hours, and general capriciousness are all fair game for unexpected delays.  Refer to this December post for evidence.

But what happens when the two systems collide, when they are forced to interact with each other,  dare I say, cooperate on deliveries between them?  This is the aforementioned “mystery of international mail”.

Here are some examples of my correspondence with the outside world via post. (All mail from Reunion goes through Paris.)

REUNION –> MAINLAND FRANCE takes under a week.

VERMONT –> REUNION takes 2 weeks for letters and packages of all shapes and sizes.

REUNION –> VERMONT normally takes 2-4 weeks for postcards, or 6 weeks if you are a very important acceptance letter to a summer employer.

INDIANA –> REUNION takes 3 weeks for letters, 5 for packages containing Christmas gifts.

REUNION –> INDIANA averages 2-5 weeks for postcards and letters.

PERU –> REUNION took only 14 days.

REUNION –> PERU took just under a month.

REUNION –> YEMEN never made it.

These are the curious little inconsistencies that make mail an ongoing adventure.  But don’t we have to wonder where exactly our mail goes when it “goes” across oceans?  Why do some things inevitably take weeks longer to get somewhere?  What differentiates a speedy letter from a lethargic one?  And what happens to mail just never shows up?

In general, I have it good.  Friends of mine in other parts of the world have long since given up on mail to or from their respective countries.

Right at this moment however, French postal workers are on strike citing discontent with the “general dehumanization” of their service.  Sorry, but get over yourselves.  I think we can all agree that the mail is still a very “human” process.  If there were fewer humans involved (especially French ones), our mail might actually get places efficiently.

No offence, Alex Blair.  I’m talking more about France than the US.

Anyhow, here’s a song to remind us of all the humans in postal uniforms around the world.  The song is about the guy on the Mafate route in the interior of the island where there are no roads and villages are accessible only on foot.  Warning, French/Creole ahead.

One last little curiousity this topic reminded me of: Saint Expedit, the patron saint of Reunion.  I promise it’s related to mail.

According to Wikipedia:

Saint Expédit has a significant folk following on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Stories about the origin of his veneration there follow the typical formula: a mysterious parcel marked with expedit arrived as an aid to instill pious virtues in the people.[5] However, another version of the story maintains that Expédit acquired his name through his expeditious help in placing vengeful curses. Decapitated statues of the saint are often found, the defacement inflicted in anger for a request not carried out or in order to break an existing curse.[5]

Road-side altars dedicated to Saint Expédit can be as small as a box containing a small statue of the saint, or as large as a hut, containing multiple statues, candles, and flowers. In all cases, these altars are painted a bright red.[5] Also common are ex-votos thanking Saint Expédit for wishes granted and favors received.

In Réunion, the cult of Saint Expédit takes the form of a syncretic cult, mixing Roman Catholicism with other beliefs from Madagascar or India. Saint Expédit is a popular saint, revered by Reunionnais regardless of age or religion. It is difficult to say how many people visit the island’s ubiquitous altars, since the worship of Saint Expédit is considered taboo – people do not generally visit the altars in the open.[citation needed] Even so, the altars are widespread on the island and obviously well-tended.

Apparently they were unfamiliar with “expedited” mail.

And that, my friends, is how far away Reunion Island is (from both the rest of the world and from rationality) but I still love it.

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Le voile intégral à la Réunion en question

The debate surrounding a public ban on the “burqa” continues to intensify as the date approaches when the law will go into effect in France and its overseas departments.  Reunion is home to a sizable Muslim minority, consisting not only of recent immigrants from other islands in the Indian Ocean region where Islam is more widely practiced, but also of families who have lived as French citizens on Reunion for generations who, along with the Tamils, Malagasy, Chinese, and other East Africans, contribute to the unique patrimonial métissage for which the Reunionese are so proud.

Mainland France, on the other hand, is experiencing a frightening wave of xenophobia as it’s population becomes less homogenous, due in large part to immigrant flows from Africa, the Maghreb, and eastern Europe.  An educational campaign launched by the French government entitled “The Republic without a covered face” and featuring a stoic and ethnocentric depiction of French Marianne as its cover girl will accompany the Burqa Ban in April.

The law is expected to directly affect the lives of approximately 250 Reunionese women who regularly wear the full veil in public and will demand as retribution either a 150 Euro fine ($200) or participation in community service seminars for each offence, beginning in July of this year.

Sorry to the non-Francophones who will have difficulty understanding this news segment, but listening to the tones of the speakers voices is compelling enough.

Original text article can be found here.

Some revealing (troubling?) comments from online readers:  (my own translations…)

“Fuck off and let these people wear what they want.  I don’t see what the matter is.  And stop telling us we’re French, its infuriating.  This word “French” is just on paper.  Open your eyes; we don’t have the same benefits as those in mainland France.  We’re Reunionese.  Just something to think about.  You’ve been warned.”

“Its time to stop saying that we all live in harmony in Reunion already, since in terms of community [diversity], each group sticks together.  Next, we are on French soil and the law is equally applicable here in Reunion, which is above all, a French territory.  It’s exasperating to see that integration only goes in one direction, meaning that when we step foot in any Arab country [we have to assimilate to local customs and practices regarding appearance] but not the other way around.  So, PLEASE, stop pontificating and may our dear politicians shed [our society’s] so-called “woven fabric” so that this law might be as effective as any other.  You’ve been warned, my dear compatriots.”

“Of course, the Law must apply to everyone in the same fashion.  La Reunion is French, just like Mayotte.  Moreover the Mahorais (residents of Mayotte) voted to remain a French department, along with all the obligations which it entails, first being to respect French law.  Its also astonishing to see the energy generated over 250 veiled women in Reunion!  And lastly, who will pay for these community service seminars?  Those who aren’t wearing the veil, of course!  Adaptation, yes, but laxity, no.”

“This woman is a perfect example of [someone] lacking reflection.  First of all she is incapable of discussing a subject without making reference to God.  We have the freedom of religion, but the majority of us also have the capacity to speak and reflect on a subject without having to systematically resort to the word of God.  She is incapable of understanding the faults in her logic.  I’m not judging the Islamic culture, but you have to acknowledge that certain precepts are astounding and make women endure masculine domination.  Lastly, it’s not my problem, but in my store, you won’t come in with a face hidden behind a veil, or else you stay at home!!!!!”

“On particular airlines flying between Paris and the Arab world, flight attendants dress normally at takeoff from Pars.  Then when the plane returns to its country of origin, they put on their veils.  Even though they might not all be Muslims, they respect the customs, religion, whatever… but also they respect our law when they arrive in France.”

“Apply the law to the letter.  Wearing a veil is a provocative gesture to our secular Republic and its inhabitants.  It’s an ostentatious symbol of belonging to a group and a form of resistance.  There’s nothing special [about the Muslims] here than in any big urban area in mainland France, like Marseille, Lille or the crown of Paris.  We’ve been talking about the veil for years in France.  There’s no element of surprise here, like normal, we dare to apply the law.  With exceptions?  No.  A true specialty of France, that “we wouldn’t dare” threaten a segment of the voters.  When you get off the plane in certain Islamic countries, no one gives you a “transition period” to put on your veil or not.  Obligation is immediate.  250 women in Reunion?  I doubt this number is correct.  Concerning Muslim policemen, they are under oath to serve the nation and not a religion, and in the proper execution of their work, they serve the secular Republic.”

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Creole kids on carbon fiber: WHAT?

When I heard there was a “bike race” in the next town over, I knew it was something I had to check out.  The only other sporting events I’ve ever heard about in Reunion have all been somewhat absurd, for example the 150 mile jungle run from one side of the island to the other known as the “Grand Raid”.  I also have a poster hanging in my apartment advertising the 2010 Reunion Paragliding Championships.  I don’t even know how you compete in paragliding.

Anyways, I showed up to the scene of the alleged “bike race” with low expectations.  I knew there was a bike culture on the island, but I thought it was limited to the old geezers from mainland France who cycle around their second homes on the resort-lined west coast, creole high schoolers who ALL know how to ride through town busting wheelies, and bike-commuters, such as myself.  I was totally wrong.

Have you ever seen a road bike so tiny?  The helmet on this scout reads “Kiddy”.  WHAT IS HE DOING WITH A BETTER BIKE THAT ME?

Turns out the Reunionese take road racing pretty seriously.  There were events for kids of all ages.  I even ran into one of my students, a 6th grader, pedaling around after his race.  WHAT?

The most advanced category competed in a grueling 2h criterium around downtown Saint-Louis.  I had to restrain myself from jumping in.  It looked so intense and brought me back to my days wearing the Middlebury jersey at intercollegiate races on the East Coast.  Then again, considering the swaying palm trees, the warm sun, and the lack of freezing rain, this was anything but a New England road race.

On the subject of weather, I have been meaning to publish several drafts I’ve written, but I’m going to blame the fact that I haven’t gotten around to it on the weather.  February was BRUTALLY hot, and I just couldn’t be bothered to write anything.  Once the calendar flipped to March, it was like Mother Nature decided to just turn on a fan she had been hiding from us for months, and the island was invaded by nice, southerly breezes bringing in cooler, drier air.  At that point, it was too nice to stay inside.  So I ventured out again, and unfortunately for my blog, continued to abstain from writing.

Nonetheless, I find myself on vacation, yet again, and the extra time is affording me a moment to write again.

I am looking forward very much to a visit from my brother, mom, and dad next week.

Next project?  Get the volcano to start erupting again in time for their arrival.

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Filed under Bikes, Créole

Hot off the ironic press

Sorry Mom if you are embarrassed that I am quoting you for the whole wide web to see, but the irony was just too much.

Yesterday being my birthday, I got an email from home containing the following excerpt:

Dad told me you were having a BBQ with lots of friends on the beach.  Glad you stayed out of the water… don’t need any shark stories in your blog! :-)

While at the beach for said birthday BBQ, we also received rumors of the following true news story developing on another beach about 45 mins away:

http://www.clicanoo.re/11-actualites/16-faits-divers/274042-un-requin-arrache-la-jambe-d-un.html

The headline is: “Shark rips off surfer’s leg”

I’ll let your imaginations or French skills tell you the rest of the story.

Update and side note, I am using the word “ironic” now because of my new ironic hipster moustache.  Photos to follow.

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The hunt is on

This week, the Elmer Fudds of Reunion celebrated the season opener of the one and only endemic mammal living on the island that I’ve ever heard about: (no not the “wabbit”) the tenrec.  They are small, ugly, and maybe blind as well, rather like a shrew.  As far as animals go in this region, Reunion got the short straw.  Madagascar has lemurs, Mauritius has antelope (and had the dodo), the Comoros have flying foxes, and Reunion has what?  The tenrec.

Wait, but that doesn’t mean there are no NON-endemic species.  Au contraire.  Reunion has feral dogs like mad.  You’ll see big packs of them running through the city late at night, little dogs, big dogs, cute dogs, nasty dogs, all living happily together, as diverse and yet as harmonious as the people of Reunion claim to be.  There’s one dog that always chases me on my bike in downtown Saint-Louis where one of my middle schools is located, and usually he catches me by surprise, choosing different street corners to leap out at me, barking and going mad like I’m the mailman or something, and give me an unwelcome early-morning panic.  But yesterday I was prepared.  Entering Saint-Louis, I preemptively unsheathed my secret weapon (water bottle) from it’s holster and prepared for the sudden attack.  This time the dog had foolishly put himself in one of his most predictable spots, and I saw him from a mile away.  Bottle ready, aimed, and fire!  Right into his mean, feral eyes.  It was one of the most gratifying early morning bike rides I’ve ever had.

Back to hunting, I am on the hunt as well.  Job hunting.  It’s a weird process to be undertaking from 10,000 miles away.  Not to come across as a little desperate, but if anyone comes across any interesting job, internship, or fellowship opportunities for a recent college grad who knows a little political science and economics and speaks French and German, drop me a line!  Ok yeah, I’m desperate.  Kind of.

To close this post, I leave you with this sweet map that offers an interesting geo-political perspective on Reunion and the Indian Ocean region.  I love maps.  Sorry it’s in French.   

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