Indian Ocean Commotion

starGrand Prize Winner in the 2012 WanderWomen Write Travel Writing Contest!


By Judith Campbell

Grand Comores“YOU WANT TO GO WHERE?”  The manager of the Galawa Hotel shouted his shock at me.

“I want to visit one of the other islands,” I repeated.

“But WHY?  NOBODY goes to the other islands!”

“Well, I want to.”

He stared at me and must have read determination in my gaze. “Where is it you want to go?”

“Anjouan.”

It was the prettiest, most populous of the Comoro Islands, four tropical specks scattered off the north coast of Madagascar.

The manager sighed. “It will be expensive.”

“Fine.”

Next morning, I was en-route to the airport. The road ribboned along the jagged, volcanic coastline, pounded by the breezy turquoise breakers of the Indian Ocean. The hotel driver sped along, happy to have the open road ahead.

“Car!” he shouted excitedly. Traffic was rare, but sure enough, a white van was approaching, its occupants flagging us down. As it drew level, I noticed “Comoro Tourist Office” painted along the side panel.

A squat man stuck his head in the window. “You the one going to Anjouan?”

“Yes.”
He thrust an envelope at me. “Can you take this to Mr. Kamal?” I was to stay at Mr. Kamal’s hotel in Anjouan.  

“What’s in it?” I asked, suspiciously.

“A check,” the man said.  “A LARGE check.”

“Why do I have to take it?”

“Only locals go to Anjouan and they can’t be trusted. We’re taking advantage of you.”

I put the envelope in my bag.

Karthala CraterThe plane, dismissed as “unreliable” by the Galawa manager, succeeded in taking off and I was just admiring the view of Mt. Karthala simmering at the main island’s southern end when the plane banked sharply. Snatches of white, blue, green veered crazily by as we lifted and dropped and cantilevered crazily above the ocean. Through the open door of the cockpit I could see the pilot grappling with the controls with one hand while restraining a baby with the other. I closed my eyes. It gave a whole new meaning to “Let’s get this baby off the ground.” Not for the first time, I cursed my sense of adventure.

A lifetime and 40 minutes later, the plane descended through heavy rain and bounced to a halt on a bumpy landing strip. First out, I swatted away the transit card offered by a small man with a large badge that read “airport manager” and set off across sparse grass towards a small concrete building. There was no sign of Mr. Kamal, so I stood outside beside a red earth road that was overhung by dripping palm trees. Two women in colorful batik sauntered along, banana leaves held over their heads in guise of umbrellas. The only sound was that of the rain and the flip-flop shuffle of the women.  For being the Comoros’ most populous island, Anjouan seemed unusually dead.

“Are you looking for a hotel?”  A middle-aged white man had materialized at my elbow.  Crumpled of face and clothing, he came accompanied by a smell of unwashed hair and alcohol. I recognized his accent as Belgian.

“No, thanks. I’m staying at the Al-Amal.”

“The Hotel Al-Amal?”  He sounded skeptical.
“Yes.”

“But Madame …” He stepped round to face me.  “…the Hotel Al-Amal is on Anjouan!”

We stared at each other, mouths and eyes widening in horror; the realization sudden and synchronized.  

Small AirplaneIt was the Belgian who reacted first. “STOP THE PLANE!” he roared, arms waving like a wind turbine gone haywire. Half-panicked, half-laughing, I started to run, the Belgian panting at my heels. The plane was accelerating. We tried to run faster, but I was hampered by my bag; my companion by alcohol. We stumbled on, tripping, cursing. We were close now; the pilot saw us, but already at the point of no return, he had no option but to lift the plane into low-hanging cloud.  

“Too late,” the Belgian said, needlessly.

We trudged in silence back to the concrete building. Suddenly, I stopped.

“I hate to sound inquisitive,” I said, “but can you tell me where I am?”

The Belgian assumed a grave expression.

“Madame, you have arrived on Moheli.”

It was the smallest, most undeveloped Comoro island. I was just digesting this information when the manager came huffing up.

“WHY DIDN’T YOU TAKE THE CARD?” he cried, inserting himself clumsily between me and the Belgian, brandishing his handwritten ‘In Transit” cards accusingly in front of me.

“Nobody TOLD me the plane made a stop before Anjouan.”
He recoiled, shocked perhaps that anyone could be prey to such incompetence. He adopted a gentler tone.

“The plane will not return until tomorrow.” I shrugged.

“WHAT TO DO?” His cry was directed heavenwards.

“She needs a lift into town.”

The response came not from God, but from the Belgian, but having thus received guidance, the manager set off briskly to accomplish his mission.

Once again the Belgian and I stood beside the red earth road.

“I could take a taxi,” I suggested.

“There is no taxi here,” the Belgian said, gloomily. It was a while before he spoke again.

“Moheli is good for three days only.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Too long.”  

His response seemed to depress him and he fell silent, watching a column of ants negotiate his dilapidated shoes.

Women of Comoro IslandsA 4 x 4 pulled up, spraying mud. A young Frenchman jumped out and introduced himself as Roland. “Our agriculture expert here will drive you to town!” the manager shouted, bustling up to effect redundant introductions, officiate at the stowing of my bag, put the stamp of authority on my departure. As I prepared to climb in the jeep, the Belgian suddenly grasped my hand, making a sandwich of it with his own.  

“Thank you,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “Every morning I come to see the plane and in 23 years I’ve never had excitement like it. I can’t thank you enough.”  
And giving my hand a final squeeze, he turned and hunched off slowly into the rain.

It was a short drive into town. Along the road, thin women wielded picks, breaking the stones that would serve as its paving, their spirits seeming as broken as their backs. I averted my eyes. The rain grew heavier as we drove into a large village where goats and chickens foraged on towering rubbish heaps. Huts of woven palm and thatch straggled along the road. I was shocked to hear Roland announce, “This is Fomboni, the capital.”
 
We stopped at the far end, outside a long one-story building. No sign indicated its status, but it was the hotel – as in the only hotel. Inside was dim, but I could make out a linoleum corridor gleaming faintly and emptily.  

“Anyone there?” Roland called into the gloom  

A shape materialized at the far end and shuffled towards us, revealing itself finally as a bored-looking young woman.  

“Do you have a room available?”  

“All rooms are available.”    

“Number 5,” I said.

Room No. 5 had a bed and a table boasting a damp mosquito coil and 18 cigarette burns. At least there was a bathroom. Checking the water supply, I watched the few drops that emerged bring to life an impressive variety of insects resident in the drainage hole. I decided that showering could wait. The girl hung by the door.

“Fine,” I said.

“Then I will send you the chef.”

“The chef?”

“You will tell him what you want for lunch.”
After settling on grilled fish, sticky rice, spicy cucumber and tomato salad, and melon for dessert, I sat down on the bed and sank into the sag in the middle. I idled in the hollow,
watching the torrential rain sweep in over the ocean, the horizon lost in grey. I smiled to myself, feeling a deep sense of contentment. I was having an adventure.  

Moheli Beach and MountainsLunch, served on the hotel lawn among grazing cattle was an exquisite feast of freshness and flavor. The sun had come out, transforming the setting from drab shades of grey to parrot-bright blues and greens. I sat back in the gazebo, enjoying the view of the magnificent sweep of chocolate-colored sand fronting Fomboni. A beat-up car raced the length of the beach, delivering bunches of bananas to cargo boats. Clanging sounds came from a dhow under construction, its wooden ribs stark against the new blue of the sky.  

Suddenly, shouting erupted in the hotel. I heard my name mentioned and “Galawa.”  After a few minutes, a handsome middle-aged Indian crossed the lawn and introduced himself as the hotel manager. He handed me a note.

“A runner has come from the post office with this message for you.”    

I unfolded the cheap paper on which a hand had laboriously written, “Phone Galawa. 2 pm. URGENT.”

It was then that I remembered Mr. Kamal. He must have phoned the Galawa, frantic to know what had become of me. I laughed out loud.

“I will speak to Banana,” the manager said.

“Banana?”

“Banana is a useful boy. He will drive you to the post office to telephone.” There were no secrets on Moheli, it seemed.

Banana was a brash 20-year old, with greased hair and eyes permanently narrowed in suspicion. I climbed into his rusting, windowless Peugeot, reaching for a seat belt that was not there. He spat out the window in greeting.

Outside the post office a donkey dozed. I skirted it and entered a spacious room shaded haphazardly by broken Venetian blinds. The clerk was writing slowly in a ledger with the stub of a pencil. I waited for him to finish, aware of his need to feel important.  

He eyed me calmly. “You have come to telephone?”

“Yes.”

He produced a phone card from which an orange-eyed lemur stared. I paid for it and he indicated a cabin marked “International” behind me.

“Do you know how to operate a telephone?”  

“We do HAVE telephones in Europe, thank you.”

I disappeared into the phone box with my lemur. Within minutes I stood again in front of the clerk

“Yes?”

“Which button do you press when and for what reason?”   

“I understood you knew how to operate a telephone.”  

“I was mistaken.”

Pressing Button B hard to make myself heard, I got the manager of the Galawa on the line.   
    
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING ON MOHELI?”

“How do you know where I am?”

“The pilot said someone like you got off there. WHY DID YOU GET OFF THE PLANE?”
“YOU DIDN’T SAY THERE WAS A STOP BEFORE ANJOUAN.”  

Moheli Waterfalls“Oh.”  

A silence.  

“Mr. Kamal is very upset.”

“I suppose he is.”

“Do you still have the check?”

“Of course.”

“Then the pilot will fly you to Anjouan tomorrow, although it’s not his normal route.  Mr. Kamal will meet you at the plane. ANJOUAN IS THE FIRST STOP!”

I hung up and went outside, wondering what to do next. Banana leaned against the car, arms folded.

“Would you like to drive round the island?”  

It was the perfect meeting of supply and demand.

We drove south first of all to Niuamashoua Beach, perfect as a travel poster, and got out for a walk. Banana told me that turtles came here to lay their eggs, although now was not the season.  

“The local people shoot the turtles, you know, to sell the flesh. Not for much, but we’re poor here. Not like you in Europe – and Mayotte.”  

He spat at the mention of Mayotte. In the independence referendum of 1975, Mayotte had been the only island that voted to remain French, so that now its inhabitants enjoyed advantages, such as EU passports and unemployment benefits that were deeply resented by those on the other islands.
“Can’t you move to Mayotte?”

“I’m banned,” he said proudly, “for smashing a local with a broken beer bottle.”

“OK, let’s go.”

“Already?”

“Yes.”

“Pity it’s not the time for turtle eggs – they make great omelettes.”

Moheli SunsetWe continued north. With one ear half-tuned to Banana’s whines about the islands’ political situation (chaotic), the employment situation (nepotic) and the economic situation (catastrophic), I tried to concentrate on the beauties unfolding outside the space formerly occupied by a window. Leafy English-type lanes gave way to dense, magnificently forested hillsides. The valleys and lower slopes were luxuriant with exotic blooms, coconut palms, coffee and cacao trees. Every bend in the road offered some new delight – a waterfall cascading into the sea, a makeshift ylang-ylang distillery, glimpses of deserted beach and glittering ocean. There were no other cars, the road populated only by women walking, as they do all over Africa, vibrant splashes of color against tropical green, flashing shy smiles as we passed.

The road did not quite make it round the island – it fell short by 500 meters. When we reached its abrupt end, I got out to admire a spectacular view of reef and lagoon. There could be no doubt. Moheli was a little paradise.

After the two-hour tour, I took a walk along the Fomboni beach. Towering clouds in the west had turned deeply pink, reflected in the wet sand. A long line of villagers hauled in a cargo dhow newly-arrived from Anjouan. The cooking fires had been lit outside the huts at the back of the beach and the women were grilling fish brought home by their men. I sat on the warm sand and closed my eyes, wanting to reflect on the good fortune that had brought me to the island.  

“Please.” I opened an eye. An elderly man stood in front of me, extending a shriveled arm, festering with sores. His eyes pleaded for help. I had nothing to give, so I shook my head, gesturing regret as best I could. He turned away, but not before I had caught the look of hopelessness in his face. The mood was gone and I walked back to the hotel.    

Dinner was served under a panoply of stars. I had never seen the southern constellations before and they whitened the sky, glittering to infinity. Some hung low like fairy lights; red, yellow and diamond bright, so big and so close seemingly, that I stretched out a hand to touch them. Shooting stars streaked across this shimmering backdrop, leaving their evanescent trail. Only the mosquito spoiled the beauty and magic of the night and so I retired early, along with the electricity, at 9 pm.   

Woman at Comoro BeachTwelve hours later, I handed Mr. Kamal his long-awaited check. Obsequious in his gratitude, he expressed loud dismay that I had missed out on the charms of Anjouan. It was clear that he included himself among its attractions. Prizing my hand from his clammy grip, it had been a relief to escape his oiled and perfumed presence.

Back at the Galawa, the manager pulled me into his office. “What a commotion! People will talk about it for months to come! Of course, I will reimburse part of the ticket and the hotel to make up for your dreadful experience.”

“Yes, it was too bad,” I lied.

“So tell me – how is Moheli?  I’ve never been there.”

“You wouldn’t like it.”

“I thought not.”

I smiled and walked out of his office. Moheli would be my secret.

*****

Photo credits:
Grand Comores: Patrizio Severini
Karthala Crater: Daryl Wallace
Small Airplane: Jim Sher
Women of Comoro Islands: Reizigerin
Moheli Beach and Mountains: Daryl Wallace
Moheli Waterfalls: Daryl Wallace
Moheli Sunset: Daryl Wallace
Woman at Comoro Beach: Caitlin

 
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