Home Again

It has been three weeks since I left Réunion but I haven’t been able to update my blog with the details of my last outings.Leaving Réunion was a bigger wrench than I could have ever imagined and I hope that I will be able to go back soon! It’s hard not to feel nostalgic looking at this selection of stunning photographs, I hope you will enjoy them!

Bassin Boeuf, Sainte Suzanne

Le port, Saint Gilles

Views from an ocean boat-trip with the Grand Bleu company (We were hoping to see some sealife but the weather wasn’t in our favour, unfortunately.)

An afternoon game of boules at Le Barachois

Tortoises at the Kélonia Tortoise Museum

An old English menu for a dinner held by the King of England for the King and Queen of Afganistan, with Turtle Soup for the soup courseCoconut water in Saint PaulAnd that concludes my Erasmus year abroad in Réunion Island. It may be miniscule compared to England but there are thousands of places to see and activities to discover, and I feel privileged to have been able to live in Réunion and explore its diversity like a native.

As they say in Créole: La Réunion, mi aim aou!

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Ten Days

I only have ten days left! My brother is here to visit and the time is just flying by. We did a little hike in the west during his first week here, on a paved trail called Le Chemin des Anglais (The path of the English).

We took the Car Jaune, a bus network that operates around the periphery of the island, to get to the beginning of the trail. Once you get the hang of it, the Car Jaune is agreeable and easy to use, although you have to be alert during trips because there are no buttons to stop the bus, you have to clap to let the bus driver know when you want to get off!

The trail itself isn’t difficult to follow but the rocky path slowed us down a little. As we steadily walked up, more experienced hikers speeded past, and then came back again before we had even got to the summit!

Salazie, one of the three cirques of Réunion Island, can also be discovered through hikes but we took a spontaneous drive one afternoon to see a waterfall called Le Voile de la Mariée (The Bride’s Veil). Apart from the physical resemblance between a veil and a waterfall, there is also a story behind the name. My Créole teacher told us the story during one of our lessons and all that I remember is that it involved forbidden love, as most legends do. It’s winter in Réunion at the moment, which basically means it gets a little chilly in the evenings and of course, the higher you go, the colder it gets. La Montagne offers a scenic view of Saint Denis which was worth the shivers. These pictures were taken at Le Site des Trois Bancs (The place of three benches – not so pretty in English!).

Our next excursion took us to La Vanillerae in Sainte Suzanne, a pretty vanilla plantation attached to a boutique selling its produce. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron. During our guided tour, we were shown vanilla pods which had developed a frost of small glinting crystals over a period of several years; they cost 500 euros per kilogramme! Vanilla grows as a vine which is cultivated by vanilla farmers to eventually produce the spice that is used in cooking.This plantation still uses a traditional technique discovered by a créole slave in the 19th century.

This last picture speaks for itself – another perfect day at the beach.

La cueillette des goyaviers

I’ve got to admit that a little holiday boredom has been sinking in over the last few weeks but yesterday I got a reminder of how wonderful it is to be here. I spent the day with my family in La Plaine des Palmistes, a lush green mountainous area where it also gets pretty damn cold (by Réunion standards).

This is the only place in Réunion where I have seen autumnal trees with yellow and orange leaves, filling my English heart with contentment.

After our picnic lunch, we took little buckets to pick goyavier fruit, or strawberry guava in English. It was a bit of a dangerous business as it is quite muddy and steep around the goyavier trees and yes, I did slip and yes, I did get mud on my bottom. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun. The fruit itself is a little sour, Wikipedia describes the taste of red strawberry guavas as a mix between passionfruit and strawberry. It can be eaten alone or in a salad, or it can be made into a juice or a jam.

In other news, I swam without floats for the first time during my last swimming lesson. I’m very proud of that little achievement! It’s hard not to dwell on the fact that I only have about five weeks left on this idyllic island but the adventure’s not over yet!

Mayday

It’s been a while since I last blogged, mostly because it’s the exam period and I haven’t done anything worth blogging about! However, since yesterday was Mayday or ‘La fête du travail’ (International Worker’s Day), I went for lunch to a Réunionnaise Restaurant with my family.

We made a little detour on the way and stopped at Manapany on the Southern coast to check out a beautiful natural swimming pool – it’s the pool of water you can see  surrounded by rocks.

The restaurant we ate at is called Cap Méchant, in an area of the same name in the town of Saint Philippe, and the food served is typical of Créole cuisine. We started our meal with a Salade Palmiste (Heart of Palm Salad), and a Gratin Palmiste, two dishes made using heart of palm, an expensive vegetable harvested from the core of certain palm trees.

To follow, we were served with rice, carry camaron (prawn curry), haricot beans, chop suey (which has made its way into Créole cooking!), and a fondant chocolat for dessert. It was a lovely meal!

Cap Méchant is part of an area called the Le sud sauvage (the savage south), owing to its natural beauty.

Before heading home, we stopped over in Saint Joseph and found a little spot for tea and cake. I love that on an island as small as Réunion, there are millions of hidden scenic views just waiting to be discovered. Only here would you find yourself on a football pitch next to a cliff overlooking the sea…

Live and Let Live

I feel like I’m in London at the moment. Yesterday it rained nonstop all day so I stayed at home simultaneously revising for an exam and watching series. I’m not sure if it’s a revision technique that I would recommend! There’s slightly less rain today but it’s still very grey and I think it’s going to stay like this for a few more days. I hope the weather will get brighter soon, I miss the sunshine and the swimming pool!

Last week, I visited the Noor-al-Islam mosque, the main mosque of Saint Denis which is also the first mosque ever to be built on French territory. Due to its historical significance, the mosque offers guided tours so I went along with some classmates from university. I was so cheered by the warm welcome we received, and the beautiful, light and airy space we entered into. The mosque was built in 1905, just before the French law separating religion from the state was put into place. The Grande Mosquée de Paris was built around 20 years later!

The 33 metre minaret is a wonderful part of the view from my bedroom balcony. During the fasting month of Ramadhan, the minaret is illuminated daily at sunset when the fast can be broken, and at the beginning and end of the month when the crescent moon is sighted.

One of the most interesting things about Réunionnese society is that it does not reflect the secular ‘laïque’ model of mainland France. As the Imam of the mosque pointed out, the society here resembles the communautarian, multicultural model that can be found in London. The various religions, cultures and ethnicities coexist relatively peacably. The main religion here is Christianity, followed by Islam imported by immigrants from the Indian state of Gujarat and Hinduism bought here by immigrants from Tamil Nadu, also an Indian state.

Alongside these ‘mainstream’ religions can be found ancient beliefs inherited from slaves that were bought to the Island from Madagascar and East Africa. These beliefs involve veneration of deceased ancestors through long-practised rituals and traditions. Healing is also important – sickness is treated with herbal infusions administered by healers who have a special gift for preparing these concoctions. Essentially, believers have faith in the power of both good and malign spirits. To avoid the latter, specific advice must be followed. For example, cutting your hair at home is thought to bring ill fortune.

Each religion has its paticularities and each has its own place in Réunion. Can you imagine going to a French city and hearing the Muslim call to prayer at sunset? Here, it is a part of daily life. The Qurbaani, the sacrifice of an animal for the Islamic festival Eid-ul-Adha, takes places in the courtyards of Muslim homes every year. These rituals are accepted, as are sacrifices offered to Malagasy spirits or Hindu deities, and other ceremonies which are even marked on the calender. ‘La marche sur le feu’, for instance, is a yearly firewalking ritual where hot embers or stones are crossed barefoot by those of the Hindu faith.

Every religious or ethnic group has a particular name in Créole, these names would be considered as pejorative in many other societies but they used in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way in Réunion. Islanders of French origin are called ‘zoréy’, descendants of African slaves are called ‘Kaf’, Muslims from Gujarat are confusingly labelled ‘Zarab’, while Hindus originating from South India are categorised as ‘Malbar’. These are just few terms that are used, there are myriad of others that I won’t list!

The level of tolerance and acceptance in Réunion is genuinely heartening but as the Imam also mentioned, such an equilibrium between coexisting cultures is always fragile and delicate.

For those of you who may be interested in holidaying in Réunion or Mauritius, I came across this article which you may find useful: http://www.handbag.com/relationship/romantic-breaks/twin-break-mauritius-reunion-island.

Great Expectations

Why is the idea of a year studying or working abroad so appealing to a 20 year old? It isn’t just because we want to immerse ourselves in our chosen language of study, although of course, this is the primary goal. It is quite simply an opportunity to experience new things: being away from home, from family and from friends, dealing with all the independence that this entails, and experimenting with the different aspects of the place in which you find yourself.

These are the same expectations that most students have before starting university, especially in England, where our freshers are basically boozing hedonists making the most of the freedom, the parties and all that Student Finance money pouring in. Not everyone is the same but that’s mostly what happens! However, for people coming from a religious and cultural background like mine, all the same constraints continue to exist. It’s inevitably a struggle to fit into university life when there are such glaring differences between the experiences available to you, and the ones available to your friends.

Everyone is different, and everyone will deal with the situation differently. Some will stick with people who share their background, their opinions or their outlook. I can understand why because this makes things much easier, but this option has never appealed to me. Life is just more interesting when you are meeting people who open your eyes to new ways of life and new perspectives. And just because you share the same country of origin as someone else, or the same way of dressing, it doesn’t mean you will have everything in common.

Another way of dealing with the situation is just keeping to yourself, accepting that there is an unbridgeable gap between your lifestyle and the lifestyle of the ‘other’, and so not making the effort to create real, personal relationships with your classmates or your colleagues. It’s a bleak prospect but then, for the truly religious, this isolation is just one of the sacrifices to be made along the spiritual pathway that brings us closer to God.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I’m here on this stunning island, having a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with this niggling feeling that I am not completely making the most of it, struggling with the same confusion that I experienced when I started university. As the only Indian Muslim in my Erasmus class, everything that I can not do is particularly apparent to me. I think I have managed to find a middle path, as I have made some wonderful and generous friends, with a kind of unspoken acceptance of the fact that I can’t socialise with them very often outside of our lessons.

This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been having new experiences. I have done so much here that I wouldn’t have done at home: paragliding, going to the beach, random things like playing laser tag, things that I mention on this blog and things that I don’t because I’m not quite sure if I’m comfortable about having done them. What I have come to realise is that the concept of ‘new experiences’ is different for everyone. While my classmates are going scuba diving and snorkeling, I’ve only just started to learn how to swim (yes, I know, I know, it’s crazy that I can’t swim at my age). But that’s okay. Instead of continuously torturing myself thinking about everything that I can’t have, I should focus on what I do have, which is alot.

Finding a middle path between two cultures is always difficult, and being plonked into a new culture in Réunion has made things even more confusing. Most of the time, I feel like I have a jumble of conflicting thoughts in my head! I have done things here that I might not have done at home, but this didn’t necessarily make me feel better about myself. I will always be trying to decide which part of each culture I can adopt as my own, and be okay with. I don’t think I will ever completely fit in anywhere, but it doesn’t matter – the most important thing is that I myself feel content with the decisions that I make.

The Salty Pond

The longest beach in Réunion is called L’Étang-Salé, which literally means The Salty Pond. Unusually, the sand is a volcanic black and so burning hot during the day that your feet are a painful, blistering red if you manage to walk across it. It’s a popular spot for surfers and I understood why as the waves were particularly immense on the day that I visited the ‘Pond’ with a few of my cousins. They were the kind of strong waves that can pull you out into the sea if you’re not careful, so we sat on the shore and let a few waves lap over us, which inevitably made us feel like silly, carefree children splashing in the water. A day at the beach is always somehow therapeutic, even if this particular day left me with a mass of black sand all over that took an age to wash out!