Category Archives: Holidays

Wait, its February?

Its 4:15 AM on January 4th, and I’m taking my seat on the A bus from Saint-Pierre to Saint-Denis to catch a morning flight.  Thanks to an unexpectedly diabolical strike by the power company on most of the island, the streets of Saint-Pierre are drowned in a sort of post-apocalyptic darkness, illuminated only by the disconcerting flashes of emergency lights in shop windows and the violet-blue bursts of heat lightening over the ocean.  This isthe beginning of my month long trip to Madagascar and the Comoros:  dark, terrifying, and tired.

Four weeks later, I’m dozing off in the backseat of my German housemate’s car as we drive south on the coastal highway from the airport to Saint-Pierre, as if no time had passed at all since my departure.  I’m sure it had.  Afterall, I had chased Indri Indri lemurs (described as four year olds in panda suits by Lonely Planet) through the jungle, enjoyed morning swims in the warm aquamarine waters of the Mozambique Channel, met a legendary Comorean activist/philosopher/chef named Zorro and a globe-wandering former Alaskan gubernatorial candidate in the same weekend, given in to the pressure of veteran gem sellers in the Malagasy highlands and ended up with a box of rubies, tasted organic Zebu steak doused in a white (Vermont?) cheddar sauce (in Madagascar), watched the floodwaters rise to my doorstep during a rowdy tropical rainstorm, spent four days in a Peugeot literally overflowing with mango, taken donkeys for walks through a red, sandy desert studded with enormous baobabs, ridden colorful rickshaws in the pouring rain, and made jokes about the witchcraft that Malagasy and Comorean story tellers loved to tell us about and consequently missed our flight back to French soil and spent three days stranded on a rain-soaked Comorean island.  I had done things.  But could this sudden deja-vu be proof that I had actually traveled through the fourth dimension and island hopped around the Indian Ocean without the friction of time slowing me down, as a Malagasy host had explained happens to normal people on a daily basis, and especially at the Antananarivo Airport?  I had left Reunion, that much is for sure, but had I left the world of time as well?

Sounds insane, but drawing an example from a conversation I had with airport security in the Comoros in which I explained the contents of my backpack (a sweatshirt) and they thought I was sneaking a live chicken out of the country (in French, a sweatshirt “un pull” and a hen “une poule” are tragic phonetic cousins), I’ve long since given up on sanity.

My trip was less vacation and more initiation to folklore, legends, prejudices, superstitions, and mysteries of the large and small islands of the Indian Ocean, and it was becoming more and more evident that I had been paying attention to it all.  But as I reintegrated back into my Reunion life of biking, teaching, and watching Latin American telenovelas dubbed in French with the AC blasting, all the mystery of January evaporated away, leaving behind the normalcy of December and November and all those months I’d already spent in Reunion, altered only by the arrival of unending downpours that so characterize the summer rainy season to become February.

So in short, that explains the lack of posts between New Years and Super Bowl Sunday.

I’ll put some pix of Madagascar and the Comoros up after I get back from the beach.  It’s so hot!



Filed under At four in the morning, EXTREME, Holidays

Joyeuses fêtes et bonne année 2011 zot tout!

“Zot tout” is Creole for “à tout”.  You see, my Creole is improving, word by word!

Joyeuses fêtes is plural for a reason.  Since I last wrote, Reunion has celebrated not one, not two, but three massive holidays: Christmas, New Years, and the one you may not have guessed, Fête Kaf on Dec 20 to commemorate the abolition of slavery on Reunion in 1848.

Here’s a brief and probably incoherent summary of the past two weeks in photos.

Jumping from these cliffs is a popular past-time.  A friend of mine just fractured a vertebrae doing it.  I was there for the phone call: “Mom, I’m alright, so don’t worry.  But… I broke a vertebrae today.”  She’s recovering and won’t jump from as high next time.

Pétanque is the bocce of the Francophone world, and some neighborhood dudes invited me to play a round during their Fete Kaf tournament.  I have not been invited back.

Christmas dinner German style: I celebrated Christmas with 5 Germans and an Austrian high in the mountains where the temperature differential from the balmy coast made us feel more Weihnachtlich.  It was probably still 70 degrees.

Our Advent Wreath, or one of its candles, suffered greatly from the Saint-Pierre sun.

A quick visit to the local turtle sanctuary in Saint-Leu.

Lychees are inseparable components of Christmas on Reunion.  Street corner vendors began selling them for upwards of 5 Euros per kg at the beginning of December with the first harvests of the season.  By the end of the month, you can get 2kg for 1Euro50.

Twin lychees, like these, are the object of an odd Creole tradition.  The person who finds the twin lychees chooses a partner to wager dares with.  Once the players have agreed on each other’s dares, each player grabs a lychee and breaks the pair.  The following day, the first player to shout “Philippine” at first sight of the other wins the game and is immune from his dare, while the loser must face up to his own.  I won the  game and spared myself from singing the French National Anthem in front of all my colleagues in the teacher’s lounge.

The road to Cilaos where I celebrated Christmas and hiked the Piton des Neiges, the highest point on the Indian Ocean, for New Year’s.  I had to go through this tunnel on my bike.

At the 10,069 ft  summit of the Piton des Neiges.  Not pictured: extremely heavy backpack.  Daytime high: 65 degrees F.  Night time low: 50 degrees F.

Watching every firework show around the island burst and flash simultaneously from it’s highest mountain was one of the greatest New Year’s Eve spectacles I’ve ever seen, only made better by a coinciding meteor shower and the sunrise over the neighboring volcano (see eruption posts from October).

The shadow cast by the Piton des Neiges onto the tropical haze below on a brisk, 45 degrees F New Year’s morning.  All things considered, it was still probably the warmest New Years of my life.

Island fever is setting in, so I’m leaving Reunion for three weeks starting Jan 4th.  (Although I’m only jumping from one island to another right next door.)  I’ll be in Madagascar, the Comoros, and Mayotte until the end of January, so best wishes for 2011, and I’ll be back (on the blog) in February!


Filed under At four in the morning, Créole, EXTREME, Holidays

You know it’s almost Christmas when…

…lychees appear at the market!

My students often ask me if I have met any of “the stars” in America, meaning of course, celebrities.  Coming from Indiana, I have to disappoint them with an honest “no” every time. (I could lie and become an instant hero, but it’s time they learn that America is bigger than New York and Hollywood.)  However, today as I was navigating the stalls at the Saturday market, eyeing each vendor’s pile of lychees to find the reddest, ripest ones, I bumped into a “celebrity” of sorts: the Slam Poetry Champion of India.  No joke.

The night before, I was one of maybe two dozen people on the whole island who knew about the Slam Poetry Championships of the Indian Ocean and thought it might be worth checking out.  In short, it was AWESOME.  The best slam poets from twelve countries around the Indian Ocean (Madagascar, Mayotte, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, India, Singapore, Australia, the Seychelles, and of course, Reunion Island) convened in Saint-Pierre with original poetry in their native languages.  Pretty cool.  The Champion of India did not go on to win the title of Best Slam Poet in the Indian Ocean (the Australian and Reunionese tied for first), but she rocked, and I recognized her immediately in the hustle and bustle of the outdoor market.

OK she’s definitely not a celebrity, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.

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Filed under At school, Holidays


I wish I was talking about surfing.  Not yet.

On the other hand, this is what Lonely Planet says about biking on Reunion:

“The traffic, the haste of most motorists, and the steep and precarious nature of the mountainous roads means that those considering cycling as a form of transport in Reunion should be prepared for some hair-raising and potentially dangerous situations.”

This explains the incredulous looks I get from pretty much everybody when I explain that I bike to school every day from Saint-Pierre.

To get to the point, I had my first “hair-raising and potentially dangerous situation” on my bike today.  I was descending the switchbacks from my middle school, which is at about 900 feet of elevation above the coast, and a truck coming up the mountain took one a little wide and forced me onto the shoulder where my wheels caught loose gravel and I sideswiped the concrete wall at the edge of the cliff.  I felt kinda like a Nascar sliding out and smashing into the wall on a turn, except that there was no shower of sparks or flying debris, and I was going about 180mph slower than a Nascar.  But you get the image.  A couple bandaids to the calf and I was ready to roll again.

In other news, the government has designated this weekend as an occasion for anti-mosquito initiatives and awareness campaigns to prevent bug-born diseases, like Chikungungya, which is both a mouthful to say and something you really don’t want to catch.  Everyone keeps complaining about how bad the mosquitos are, but I literally have only been bitten once and rarely ever see them.  My German housemate insisted on installing a mosquito net above her bed, which is just absurd.  Mosquitos here got nothin’ on our American suckers.

There’s something to be thankful for.

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Filed under Bikes, EXTREME, Holidays

Happy End of Some War A Long Time Ago Day

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, a piece of paper was signed in a small French town bringing peace to Europe and the World from “the war to end all wars”.  Armistice Day is celebrated in France as an official holiday (no school!), although much to my disbelief, I keep hearing people here say rather confidently that the holiday commemorates the end of the Second World War, instead of the first.  This is shocking to me.

In some of my middle school classes we have been trying to learn about American holidays.  I admit, we have some weird ones.  Groundhog Day will never be understood by any of my students.  But perhaps the fact that they don’t have a solid grasp on their own holidays, I can rest easier at night when I think about how they don’t understand mine.

Like on other holidays in Reunion, everyone goes to the beach.  Here’s my favorite beach, a few miles from Saint Pierre.

Reunion is certainly an isolated place.  Even if its only exposure to the rest of the world is limited to the perspective of mainland France, where all of Reunion’s TV channels come from, all of its news, and most of its income, I am sure that there were Reunionese soldiers who fought in World War I.  They really ought to know why they celebrate Armistice Day.


Filed under Holidays

A tale of two activists

Sunday was October 10, 2010 (10/10/10) and the organization, founded by Middlebury scholar in residence Bill McKibben, declared an international day of action for the environment.  Sure enough, there happened to be a community project in Saint Pierre organized by an American and former Greenpeace volunteer.  About a dozen of us got together and cleaned up the city beach.  Here’s what we found:

Altogether, there were more than 7,000 events held in 188 countries for the global work party.  I couldn’t believe Reunion was one of them.

To contrast the 350 Day of Action, October 12 has been declared a national day of rallies and protests against a retirement reform bill being pushed through the French Senate.  I attended the local “grève” (strike/rally) in Saint Pierre with about 700 loud, spirited labor union members.

The French LOVE their grèves.  For instance, the largest port in France (Marseille) has been on “grève” for over a week, meaning almost no ships have been allowed to load or unload their cargo.  Many stores have had shortages of goods, and the ship traffic around Marseille is a mess.

5,000 miles away in Saint Pierre, the demonstrators are asking for retirement benefits starting at age 60.  The reform currently going through the Senate aims to push that age back from 65 to 67.  They might be asking for too much.  Considering all the social assistance available to residents of this country, their demand is absurd.  Even I, for instance, will be receiving over 150 Euro a month from the government in housing assistance.  Whatever, parades are fun.  There should be more parades in the world.  (10/14 Edit: I misunderstood.  It is currently at 60 and will be pushed back to 62.  Their demand makes more sense now.)

No news on the volcano.

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Filed under Holidays, On strike