Island Education by Lindsey Clark

Cilaos town shot surrounded by mountains with lake in middleYou’re doing it wrong! a brassy voice informs me, en français. I turn from the stove to find an elfin Creole woman with four gold teeth and bright red lipstick watching me, hands braced disapprovingly on her waist.

Non, non, ça va, It’s fine, I reply, smiling, shrugging, and turning back to my stirring.

Yesterday, my first in the town of Cilaos, on the remote Indian Ocean island of La Réunion, I’d purchased a quarter-kilo of locally grown lentils at the market. Now I am cooking them into a hodge-podge stew in the communal kitchen of the hostel where I’m staying. I’d been sort of proud of my concoction until a moment ago.

Here, I’ll show you, the woman persists, flashing a challenging smile and reaching to snatch the spoon from my hand.

Non, merci! I tell her cheerfully, drawing away from her grasp. I am overly sensitive to any insistent “help” at the moment. For nearly two years, I’ve been living and working as a Peace Corps volunteer in a tiny village in southern Madagascar. The well-meaning women of the village constantly tell me everything that I do wrong, from the way I build cooking fires to how I haul water, do my laundry, dress, eat, and speak their language. It’s been so nice, since I arrived on La Réunion a few days ago for a two-week vacation, to do things exactly as I please without any comments from anyone. This Rhode Island-sized department of France is less than a thousand miles of water away from my Malagasy village, but it feels like a different planet.

My would-be cooking instructor frowns, possibly unaccustomed to people resisting her.

But you’re doing it wrong, she insists.

Je sais, I know, I try to mollify her, But I’m doing it my way, and I’m almost finished.

She gives me a skeptical glance, then rolls her eyes at someone standing behind me and pulls out a chair to sit at the kitchen table. I twist my head around, and a portly white man grins at me, clearly enjoying the proceedings.

In truth, I would love to learn the traditional Creole way of preparing lentils, and I immediately feel stupid. I try to make up for my rudeness by engaging her in conversation, despite my Malagasy-mangled French. Her name is Élogie. Like most of La Réunion’s 750,000 residents, she hails from the northwest side of the island. Above the sunny beaches of the coast, a triad of staggeringly steep-walled cirques—including Cirque de Cilaos, which cradles us now—constitutes the western highlands. These vast, glaciated, bowl-shaped valleys have eroded from the flanks of a volcano now extinct. Piton de la Fournaise—one of the world’s most active volcanoes—and its eerie moonscapes dominate the eastern side of the island.

Élogie’s companion introduces himself as Daniel, her Parisian boyfriend. They are visiting Cilaos on a weekend get-away from their home base in Le Port. We talk for nearly an hour, Élogie warily eying my lentil stew and declining my offer to share. I tell them about my life in Madagascar, and they tell me more about the Réunionnais, a dazzling mélange of mainland French, Indian, African, and Asian descendants, most of whom have an ancestry so mixed that they identify simply as native Creole. By the time I finish lunch, the three of us have decided to hike together to a nearby waterfall called Bras Rouge.

Promptly at eight the next morning, we set off down the main street of Cilaos. It is a crisp, pristine October morning in the belly of the southernmost of La Réunion’s cirques. The sky is so blue, and the towering ridgeline of Cirque de Cilaos cut so sharply against that blue, that it is nearly unreal. Just a wisp of a cloud teasing a peak to my left convinces me I am not dreaming.

Tourist shops and small groceries are just opening their doors. A clicking sprinkler draws my attention to a small garden of onions and lettuce tucked alongside a square of park benches surrounding a fountain. We aim for the stark white steeple of the town church before cutting left between two restaurant patios to the trailhead for Bras Rouge. This path goes all the way up the cirque wall to the town of Marla and a view of Mafate Cirque, but hikers fit and ambitious enough for that journey left at dawn.

Daniel and Élogie are both bursting with energy. Élogie, clad in incomprehensibly tight jeans and tank top, takes the lead with a Travolta strut. She is small and muscular, her thick neck dropping straight down from her head and her narrow hips dropping straight from her waist. Daniel is not much taller, but his round, jolly persona buffers her showy toughness. We begin descending stone steps into a ravine with a concrete-walled water canal, near what was a therapeutic hot spring until a 1948 mudslide.

Do you know how you can tell that Madagascar was once a part of Africa? Daniel asks me abruptly. I’m not sure if I am understanding him more easily than I am Élogie because of his cleaner French accent or because he makes a special effort to speak clearly and slowly for me.

How? I play along, more inclined to wonder why anyone could believe Madagascar was not once part of the African mainland.

Nile crocodiles! Daniel sounds triumphant and awestruck. How else, he continues, Would you have the same crocodiles in Madagascar that swim in the Nile?

As the dirt path crosses a shrine to St. Expédit, Daniel swiftly changes gears to explain that this is the most popular saint in La Réunion. I’ve read, though, that no such saint ever existed. According to some historians, French nuns assigned to the island accidentally invented him by misinterpreting the label espedito (“sent”) on a box of relics received from their sisters in Italy. When I suggest this to Daniel, he looks amused and admits he has heard the same thing. Élogie has no clue what I’m talking about. Daniel shrugs good-naturedly.

People have strong beliefs, he says, and we walk on.

Soon we encounter a locked white gate, blocking us from the footbridge across the ravine and the continuation of the trail. To one side and up a flight of concrete steps is the paved road for motor traffic through Cirque de Cilaos. Élogie and Daniel struggle to open the gate while I backtrack to see if we took a wrong turn somewhere. I find a set of stone steps down into the ravine, and eventually, the gate unyielding, we descend the stairs. Ten minutes later, this path dead-ends at a steep drop-off. We throw up our hands, re-climb the steps, pass the shrine of St. Expédit for the third time, and return to the gate. Élogie sprints up the steps to the paved road and turns back to look down at us with her fists on her hips, tapping her foot impatiently, a Creole reincarnation of Mary Martin as Peter Pan. As soon as Daniel and I catch up with her, she points a finger in his face.

I told you! I told you it was this way!

Her feigned antagonism and his mischievous barbs are clearly a favorite game in their relationship. She begins lecturing him rapidly and with great attitude. I cannot understand a word. He grins at me and turns up his palms: neither can he. She is speaking in the local Creole dialect, which is essentially incomprehensible to a European Frenchman. The Réunionnais refer to the mainlanders as les oreilles, “the ears”, because they are always leaning in, cupping their ears as they strain to understand the Creole.

Élogie suddenly reverts to French and starts complaining how men are always going ahead without listening or looking, starting when they are little boys. Daniel laughs. I walk ahead a bit and discover the continuation of our path just 100 meters up the road. When they finish their mock argument, they catch up with me and Élogie confidently resumes the lead. We begin another gentle descent, into a canyon. The foliage is thick, birds chirp enthusiastically, and we weave in and out of the lingering morning shadows on a path carved from the mountainside. Élogie and Daniel stop to remark at each point where the path narrows and the drop-off is steep.

It’s too dangerous! they both exclaim, appalled. At the third or fourth exposed section of trail, Élogie stops and holds up her hands like a crossing guard until we halt, little ducklings, in her wake. Then she ceremoniously picks up a large stone and flings it over the edge of the path with such vim I fear she may lose her balance and follow it. We are clearly supposed to listen for it hitting the bottom of the ravine, perilously far below—and to imagine, instead, ourselves falling, heads smashing the boulders. But the rock gets caught in the roots of some trees growing from the mountainside. She tries again, and the same thing happens. Daniel steps in, picking up a fallen tree branch large enough to seriously injure one of us if he botches the release. Thankfully, he lets go at the perfect moment—though with imperfect trajectory. His offering is also snagged by the trees clinging to the slope.

They give up and we continue on, their wonderfully childlike fascination transferred to the trailside erosion caused by rain runoff. It seems danger is everywhere.

Did you bring your cell phone? Élogie demands of Daniel.

Yes, of course! he answers, pulling it out of his pocket to check the reception.

Good, me too, she says, flashing hers at us. This reminds her of a topic from our conversation yesterday: the unforgivable folly of my habit of solo travel. I had to reiterate and elaborate endlessly, over my lentil soup, that I had really come to La Réunion alone. When she finally understood this was true, she had looked at me disapprovingly, pointed skyward, and said: You better give thanks that you are still alive.

Now she starts up again.

Where is your cell phone? she asks me.

I don’t have one, I reply, and she scoffs.

You walk alone and you don’t have a cell phone. What do you think will happen when you get hurt?

I explain how I usually find a temporary walking buddy or stick to higher-traffic trails where someone could help in an emergency. She raises the problem of criminals who pretend to be hurt on the trail and assault and rob anyone who stops to help them. Do I want that to be me?

Daniel tries to calm her: This is rare and he is sure I am careful, discreet. He understands this conversation is not actually about hiking protocol.

You don’t know the Americans, he explains to Élogie. They are optimists! They don’t expect bad things to happen, and that is why September 11th surprised them. They are independent and they like to have adventure. Like the Europeans, also. We do not have a collective culture like you!

I’d never thought of it in terms of optimism, but I do not disagree with him. Élogie spins around to face Daniel, blocking the path and bringing us both to a grinding halt. Her chin juts out and she uses an index finger to jab him in the center of his chest and then point to her own bicep.

What are you talking about? she snaps. Look at my muscle! I am strong! I go places alone, I like to see new things!

Daniel chuckles. Her eyes glint with a suppressed smile as she turns away and we continue down the trail.

Yes, he persists, But it is not the same thing. You would not just go by yourself to live in a different country.

Non! she agrees with a snort.

That is the American optimism, he repeats.

It is too much risk, she says, lighting her third cigarette of the hike.

Most things in life that have value involve some risk, I pipe in.

Oui! shouts Daniel. After a thoughtful pause, he continues, You can’t be like Michael Jackson and just stay in your house because you are afraid of germs!

Then he turns to speak to me over his shoulder, in a confidential tone.

What you have to remember, he says, Is that when Élogie was a child, there weren’t even cars here. The island has developed so quickly, and so to her many things are still strange.

Élogie hears this but doesn’t respond.

And anyway, he adds with a wink, We have to listen to her because this is her island.

Oui! Élogie interjects emphatically, And look at me, here I am, a guide to these two oreilles!

As the trail continues to descend, Élogie scampers down a steep shortcut while Daniel and I follow the more gradual switchbacks.

After eighteen years of coming to La Réunion and staying longer and longer, he tells me, I am still an oreille!

He teaches economics one semester per year at a Parisian university but considers La Réunion his adopted home. Even so, he will never be considered Réunionnais by the locals.

Oui! confirms Élogie when we reach where she has popped out on the path in front of us, And if we had a child, it would still be only partly Creole and partly oreille.

Even if it was born here and lived its whole life on La Réunion? I ask.

Oui! she insists.

Okay, then what if that child grew up and married a Creole and they had a baby…would that baby still be part oreille?

Élogie considers this.

Non, she proclaims finally, That child will be one hundred percent Creole because after all, the name of our island is La Réunion and we must bring everyone together in the end.

Abruptly, the path spills out onto a bed of boulders. To our right, a tiny stream trickles over a six-foot drop and continues pleasantly on its way. Two French hikers are resting on a dry rock. Daniel, Élogie and I regard each other with raised eyebrows. Can this be it? Daniel consults the hikers and they affirm this is Bras Rouge. Underwhelmed, we find our own dry rocks, sit, and take out some fruit to snack on.

Élogie says something to Daniel about one of her children, too quickly for me to understand.

How many children do you have? I ask her.

Three, she beams. My daughters are thirty-two and twenty-nine and my son is twenty-six. And I have three grandchildren.

How old are you? Daniel asks me.

Twenty-eight, I reply.

I’m fifty-eight, he confides. How old do you think she is? he asks, tilting his head at Élogie.

For a moment she grins at me expectantly. I sense that they have played this game with new friends before and it is a favorite of hers because she looks far younger than she actually is. But then her face drops.

Wait! she protests, I just told her how old my children are, so now she knows how old I must be!

Come on, how old is she? Daniel prods.

Fifty…two? Or fifty-three? I guess.

Yes, she is fifty-three, Daniel confirms.

But I’ll be fifty-four in four months, Élogie tells me, hoping to wring a compliment from the botched moment.

Daniel laughs: Yes, and I’ll be fifty-nine in ten months!

Élogie is distressed.

Hold on, she persists, How old would you have said I was if you didn’t know I have a daughter who is thirty-two?

Forty-seven or forty-eight, I promise her, and she seems mollified.

When we finish our apples and oranges, we walk a bit upstream to look for the hot springs described in Daniel’s trail guide. But the rocks are slick and the water is disappointingly cold. Élogie calls off the search. Having feasted our eyes on the falls plenty long already, it is time to turn back.

On the return trip, Élogie is feistier than ever. She and Daniel are speaking too quickly for me to follow most of their conversation. At one point he is clearly teasing her and she responds sharply.

His eyebrows shoot up and he tells me, That was Creole and I won’t be the one to translate it.

Instead, Élogie gleefully obliges. With a couple of graphic and unmistakable gestures, she demonstrates the term she used could be translated as “eat me.” Their banter continues on so rapidly I give up trying to follow, falling into a lazy and dangerous coping technique of nodding and saying oui whenever they glance at me. I use this cop-out when I am too lazy or brain-exhausted to follow conversation in a language other than English. But I try to do it only a last resort because I am always eventually busted at this game.

This time, I am caught out when I reply oui to a question from Élogie that I take to be rhetorical, and she whips around in surprise. It seems I have told her that, yes, her hair is a mess. Luckily, she decides I am kidding. In fact, her hair is cut to a centimeter long, gelled, and dyed into an immoveable henna-red helmet. I don’t see how a force less than a cyclone could make it look any different.

Tu me moucat, she says.

Quoi? What? I ask.

It’s a Creole word, explains Daniel. Moucat: to criticize someone, to give them a hard time.

It also means “sperm,” says Élogie.

This is news to Daniel. And there is a third meaning that she explains repeatedly but I cannot quite understand. It has something to do with death and decomposing.

It’s strange, she says, Because you think of sperm as good, but this third meaning is not good at all. Creole is complicated like that.

We lapse into silence for a while, concentrating on the climb. Even Élogie speaks only to point out dangerously narrow parts of the path. Then, Daniel stops to observe a bird perched on a branch just a few feet from us.

You know, he says, This is good information for you. In the high altitudes of La Réunion, there is a bird that shows lost hikers the path. What is that bird called? he asks Élogie.

They can’t remember. But they agree it is very small, with a white belly and gray back, and that it will flitter ahead of you on the path to show you where you should go. Sometimes it leads to what you were looking for, and sometimes it takes you on an adventure. Sometimes it will even perch on your shoulder as you walk.

You should get one of these birds to be your trail companion, Daniel tells me. He winks provocatively at Élogie before continuing, Then you will never get lost or hurt.

We walk a bit farther before Daniel recalls another natural wonder of La Réunion: the biblical full circle rainbow in the sky.

It has been seen here, he says.

God’s crown, clarifies Élogie.

They are trying to remember the seven biblical virtues that correspond to the seven colors in a rainbow when we round a switchback and I realize we’re already at the start of the trailhead.

Our guide has done well, Daniel says, smiling at Élogie.

We look once more down into the ravine before turning back into town. Along a cross-street, the weekly market is in full swing. We stroll among stands selling those infamous local lentils that I do not know how to properly cook—plus cheeses imported from France, handicrafts, honey, flowers, and tourist souvenirs. Daniel buys a kilo of bibas, a small, fleshy fruit that looks like an apricot but has a citrus tang. I watch Élogie peel off and toss away the rubbery skin before eating hers, but when Daniel sees me doing the same, he corrects me.

Non, non, you eat the whole thing!

All three of us look at each other in confusion. For the first time all morning, Élogie does not seem to have or to want to give the final verdict.

Back on the main street through Cilaos, the whole town seems to be promenading down the sidewalks or cruising by in compact cars with the windows down and music throbbing. The beat vibrates straight through me. People watching, and being watched, is clearly a popular pastime for the locals when they are not adventuring outdoors. In the space of twenty minutes, we see no fewer than four people walk by in arm or leg casts. Eventually we are all looking with deference up at the steep walls of the cirque looming above us. Élogie stares at me pointedly, knowing of my intention to hike the cirques in the coming days. Daniel just smiles and continues gazing at the mountain ridge.

It is such difficult terrain, he says, But beautiful. So beautiful.

Lindsey clark on hikeWhen pressured to choose a career path, Lindsey Clark realized all she really wants is to experience as much of this crazy planet as she can before croaking. A Wisconsin native, Wellesley grad, Teach For America alum, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, former grant-writer, yoga teacher, adoring auntie, passionate world traveler, and dedicated vagabonder, she has lived in Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, Colorado, Italy, Morocco, and Madagascar—along the way exploring upwards of 50 countries on six continents. A book about her nine-month, shoestring voyage through Africa has been gestating for most of the past decade and should soon be born.


IMAGE CREDIT: Wikamedia Commons

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