Keeping an eye on Bingiza

Among the many (many) ridiculous moments that comprise an average day in the life of an American in Reunion is the quick international weather check.

When I visit, I have it programmed to display current temperatures and weather conditions in three cities at the top of the homepage: Northfield, Minnesota, where my brother Sam is at college; Noblesville, Indiana, home; and obviously, Saint-Pierre, where I live.

Today’s weather is a particularly absurd example of what I usually see.  Check out those numbers.


But don’t let the 88 and partly cloudy fool you.  The weather here at this time of the year can turn nasty.  Already, MeteoFrance has detected a tropical disturbance that is expected to develop into a full-blown cyclone in the next 72 hours.  Apparently, the delegates of Malawi were given the “B” when it came time for the Indian Ocean Cyclone Naming Committee to convene and form the 2011 season list, for which they chose “Bingiza”.  While it might be early to predict Bingiza’s future trajectory, present models vary between a crash course with the eastern coast of Madagascar, in which case Reunion would be mostly spared, and a straight shot south, in which case Reunion will definitely get splashed.

Colleagues at school have advised me on cyclone preparation.  As soon as MeteoFrance issues an “Orange Alert”, schools close and you are expected to prepare for a potentially dangerous situation.  You fill your bathtub with water (I don’t have one), or use whatever voluminous containers you may have fit in your luggage from the United States (are you kidding me?), to have a fresh supply in the event that there’s no running water.  A “Red Alert” is more serious, and everyone is required to stay indoors, or risk a 90 Euro fine from the police and the possibility of being swept into “pirate ridden waters of the Indian Ocean”.

In any event, my weekend hiking plans will likely turn into cribbage and movies at home, but in the meantime, you can check out some sweet satellite imagery here.

And Jean, the Alaskan gubernatorial contender’s name is Rob Rosenfield.  Sorry it wasn’t your guy.

I’m gonna go kick up the A/C.  It be hot.


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January Scrapbook

Above:  the volunteer house in Tulear, where I helped out a local NGO called “Bel Avenir” (Bright Future) focusing on educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth, community development, and environmental awareness.


Tulear is reputably the driest (and poorest) region of Madagascar, but sudden and strong rainstorms are not uncommon.  This one dumped heavy rain for some 10-12 hours straight.  I got wet.


The dusty streets became Venetian style canals, with the rickshaws rather than gondolas.


Travelling north with two other Americans living with me on Reunion, our driver stopped to buy literally BUCKETS of mangos, which gave the car a sometimes overwhelmingly fruity aroma for the remainder of the four day trip.


Street scene in the Malagasy capital, Antananarivo – or Tana, which is less of a mouthful.


The view from our bungalow on the north coast of Grande Comore in the Comoros.  We were the only guests for nearly our entire stay.  Interestingly, this region of the island hasn’t had power or running water since 2001.


I really dislike taking pictures of people, but I got this one clandestinely at the Mitsamioulli market to show the sandalwood mask many women in Madagascar and the Comoros wear to protect their skin from the sun.  The guy in the plaid is the famous Zorro.


“Mayotte is Comorian and will remain so forever.”  Mayotte is the fourth Comorian island but has belonged to France since the other three became independent along with the rest of the French colonies in Africa.  The UN has repeated called on France to return the island to the Union of the Comoros, but the Mahorais (citizens of Mayotte) refuse to give up their French passports and so the island is becoming further integrated into the French Republic.  In March, it will be given full “departement” status, putting it on the same administrative level as Reunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and New Caledonia.  We were supposed to travel to Mayotte… but… got stranded on Grande Comore.  Whatever.


“En Afrique quand un vieillard meurt, c’est une bibliotheque qui brule.”

“In Africa when an old man dies, it is a whole library that burns.”


And for the grande finale, here’s a link to a video of chasing Indri Indri lemurs through the jungle.


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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

The petrichor is in the air

For the first time in three months of living in Saint-Pierre, today it rained.  For an island which holds world records for rainfall (several feet of rain in 48 hours), it has been conspicuously dry, meaning that the conditions were just right for a fresh whiff of petrichor.

Over the summer, I worked with a Lebanese guy about my age, who always asks English speakers what their favorite words are.  It makes for good airplane conversations and helps build his vocabulary.  One of his favorite words gleaned from English-speaking travelers is “petrichor”,  or the pleasant scent that accompanies the first rain after a long dry spell.  You know that smell, of dewey vegetation, earthworms, and puddles.  The sudden coolness of heavy air, stirred by a shifting breeze.  This is petrichor, and it is still wafting about me as I type this from a random WiFi spot on the sidewalk along my street.  (Our internet has been out for over two weeks.)  I really hope it doesn’t rain while I’m sitting here.

Now you know the word too.  Put it to use!

Sidenote, today was my last day of work of the semester.  I have 6 weeks of vacation ahead of me.  Paid.  This job is absurd.


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Well, well, well

As expected, eruption number THREE of 2010 began last night, and lava continues to spew from the volcano’s northwest slopes today.  (Read about the new eruption and exercise your French geology vocabulary in this article from the local news).

And just in time for the weekend!

UPDATE:  Less than 24 hours after it began, the seismic activity and spurts of lava have already died down.  The eruption is over, and my hopes for an exciting weekend dashed!

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I’m dreaming of a red Christmas

Due to renewed seismic activity at the Piton de la Fournaise volcano in the southeast of Réunion on Thursday morning,  authorities have issued yet another imminent eruption alert, preempting what could be the third volcanic event of the year and the second since my arrival in September.  Will I be waking up to lava on Christmas morning this year rather than snow?  Stay tuned…

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