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Reunion Island: Tranquility Among the Sharks

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All photos by Olivier Cauras.

I flew across Africa to La Réunion, the tiny French island in the Indian Ocean, to surf, regardless of the island's reputation of having shark-infested waters. Within a day, however, it became clear that the fact that sharks bouffent (chow down on) a surfer a month here is not something locals take lightly. "The shark chomped on Matthieu's leg, just six meters from the shore, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him!" said one man dolefully over dinner.

So even though I had prepared myself by knowing the alleged various techniques to ward off an unwanted shark (pound him in the nose, speak to him like a dog, do not show fear and perhaps trail an electrically charged wire behind your surf board), I decided to go to a lagoon instead.

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Forget surfing. To explore the sea-floor is a reason in itself to come to La Réunion. The sea-bottom is rough with brain-coilly coral, thick twisted snakes, snarly black worms (cucumber fish), poissons-pierre (who shoot out stingers and paralyze) and something called orsans: prickly sponges with stiff needles that stick in your feet. One does not walk in the ocean barefoot, but with plastic shoes.

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I found myself in the middle of a hundred zebra fish, swimming among them between the coral, in a silent blue-green glow, the black slugs coiled on the sand below. I saw thin barracudas, yellow surgeon fish, a school of bright flat fish and one particularly plump fish with a bright blue necktie, which I followed for a long time as it dipped between the rocks, into the coral, to take little bites. Then, stalking one regal fish with a leopard stole flung on its flat back and a fringe of a crown, I inadvertently caused a traffic jam: The fish I was pursuing banged into a school of silvery thin fish with yellow twirls coming out of their foreheads.

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The lagoon -- created by a coral reef -- is a long ten mile strip that runs from the surf spot of Trois Bassins nearly all the way to the hopping town of Saint Gilles. The sharks cannot get through this reef barrier, so it is the only place on the island to swim. But even though the water is an eerie periwinkle, blue and flat, one can still hear the ocean waves breaking beyond the coral reef, at least from my beach-front hotel in Salines les Bains: The Maison du Lagon, considered by locals the best on the island for its quiet simple atmosphere, its fountain and pool among the palms.

The baby-warm water sparkling with blue light is lullingly peaceful, with the sound of chirping birds in the filoaos trees along the coast.

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Réunion is an unusual mix: a melting pot of the descendants of African slaves, Indian indentured servants, Chinese entrepreneurs and the original French colonialists, nicknamed Zoreilles (ears), because of the fact that the French could not understand their slaves. It is said that today the distinguishing characteristic of La Réunion is that everyone respects each other and gets along well: The only tension coming from the 30 percent unemployment rate, which caused a spur of economic riots in 2012.

"Racism here?" grinned the Indian taxi driver who drove me from the airport. "Not at all! We each have our religion."

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Réunion is also very French: the supermarkets on the tropical streets are the ones I see in the Metropole, back in Paris: The upscale white homes with colored shutters have a pristine Creole charm. Except here on the island, indigenous small pineapples abound, as well as tiny sweet bananas, and a tendency to over-use the local spice "vanilla" in everything from fruit punch to crème sauce.

The advantage of this island? The beach sports an occasional restaurant, but no built up coast-line, or big hotel or resort. A highlight is eating grilled ostrich steak imported fresh from South Africa (nearby), with a glass of French rosé, while watching a little girl dump sand from a pail, as the sea glitters a foot away. Réunion is still, according to the French, sauvage, unlike the neighboring English-speaking Seychelles or Mauritius, whose coasts draw tourists in hordes with mega-hotel packages.

Most people, however, do not come to Reunion for the sea, as I did, but for the internal landscape, unusually cragged with mountains and an imposing active volcano. The typical Reunion vacation is to rent a car and take a week to drive inland, from the unusual "cirques" (sunken mountains) to the world-famous Piton Fournaise volcano whose crater looks like the moon, staying in "chambre d'hotes" (family run bed and breakfasts) at about 50 euros per night, or in inexpensive gites.

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So I left the sea to do the same.

The challenge was that I did not have a car -- and was told it was impossible to travel without one.

It is very easy in fact. Car Jaune buses circle the littoral coast, while a few also cross the interior near the island's major sites: the Volcano and the Cirque. And when I missed the last connecting bus to get to my southern-point destination, I just hitchhiked with an Indian Réunais, a gentleman with a tall white turban who was closing up his electronics shop to go home.

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He drove me along the coast, explaining that the Indians had come to Reunion more than a century ago, for the coffee plantations. His own father had come by boat, leaving his Indian wife and family behind, to then marry a Mauritius woman and have ten more children. Only once had this man been to India, to some part in the south (he could not remember where). There he met, with some embarrassment (because of the linguistic barrier), one of his half-sisters left behind.

The Indian man left me at my hotel with a present of a mango. "Eat it cut with salt," he said.

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The next morning, I took a bus from St. Joseph, the southern tip of this island, all the way to St. Benoit, on the east: A Disney ride through an astonishingly colorful world, with fluorescent bright green leaves, huge red flowers, pink blossoms, mango and papanga trees, and throughout, the sea crashing below (with sharks). The cliffs were jagged with volcanic rock, the lava hardened from the eruptions of the Piton de Fournaise, that volcano which created this island millions of years ago. I stopped at a two-tabled restaurant along the road, to have the local Réunionnais specialty: Creole curried gambas with rougail rouge (spicy pepper sauce).

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Then I continued east.

Few tourists go to the eastern side of Reunion because of the volcanic black beaches and the incessant rain. "It is REAL Creole," said the owner of the Maison du Lagon. The major city is St. Benoit, a multi-cultural feast. The local bakery sports Chinese pastries, Indian samozas and French croissants. Sitting on benches at the bus station are people of mixed Indian, African and Chinese origins. The old men wear dignified plaid hats; the ladies have flowered dresses. Some wear saris; some African robes. In the street, I passed two huge red dragons and a marching band of drummers. It was the Chinese New Year.

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Then off to the Plaine de Caffres, the base town for visiting the famous Piton de Fournaise....

The word "friendly" does not do justice to the local Reunionnais' approach to the tourist. In the gite, I stayed at in Plaine de Caffres, my jolly host Pascal offered me hot tea and advised me on the best hitchhiking strategies to get to the volcano, while he stood in his garden of oversized flowers. Then, as the sun fell, I set off determined to find the duck farm, where every edible item on the menu of its restaurant has some form of duck in it: duck livers, duck magret, duck confit, duck pate, duck soup.

But walking for miles under the stars on a lonely dark road, I began to despair of ever finding this farm, and stopped in another restaurant, anxious to find the way. The redheaded waitress threw her hands on her apron, in great consternation that I was wandering in the dark, put down the platter she was serving, and drove me to the other restaurant. There I sat at a long table with all the local Réunnais (including a little baby who sat in my lap), indulging in duck -- with, as usual, the traditional vanilla spiced punch to finish. Following which, my new waitress took off her own bib, led me through the spic and span metal now duckless kitchen, and she too invited me to her car and drove me home.

The highlight of Réunion -- for most -- is to wake up the next morning at five and then hike five hours through a volcanic wasteland of burned shrubs and rocks to see the crater of the Piton de Fournaise, the active volcano. The earth is -- for as far as one can see -- a grayish moon rock, with black sparkling lava hardened where it once flowed.

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The highlight for me, however, was hitchhiking back from the volcano with a couple of transplanted French people, the man explaining, as he yanked open the broken door of his pick-up, that their relationship was new and "so far, so good," and the woman, a doctor, telling me how she treated her patients with both yoga and pharmaceuticals back in St. Denis, the capital city. The man apologized for the sawed-off stick shift: "It's not a Mercedes," he said.

Another highlight was having a meal in a local African restaurant in this tiny quiet mountain town, where I and just three other guests sat around a fire (it is cool in the mountains), eating a freshly fire roasted cock (cooked in that very fireplace), and listening to the young owner's native "Cora" music from Mali. On the fire mantle was a pointy hat and a Senegalese harped instrument -- and a twinkling Christmas tree.

"We like to hold onto the Christmas tree for a while," said my Mali friend in his colorful pointed hat, inviting me and another woman (a local social worker) to sit before the fire and drink hot spiced wine, until way after the restaurant closed.

Then he drove me home.

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My final stop in Réunion was to Cilaos, the sunken cirque, which is usually the first stop for avid hikers. The three "circles" in the center of Réunion are miles of paths in virgin forests.

A non-hiker myself, my favorite part of the hike to the waterfall was the sudden downpour of rain which drenched me for hours. Soaked, I indulged in a hot volcanic bath in the local springs hospital, a place geared mostly to the elderly, who -- thanks to the French social security system -- have a right to free daily spa treatments in rust colored steel traps of bathtubs. I saw more spigots and hoses than I ever imagined, each geared towards shooting at limbs ridden with rheumatic pain.

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One more night in the posh Hotel Bois Rouge -- a boutique hotel made completely out of tamarind wood, with a private balcony overlooking the mountain town below -- and I jumped back on a bus, down the winding sun-shined roads, to return to where I started: the lagoon.

The owner of The Maison du Lagon welcomed me like a long-lost daughter and, sitting very calmly in her blue turquoise dress on a bench before the pool, she took out a needle and cut the coral out of my feet. Her daughter-in-law, an ever cheerful springlike girl, always laughing as she served breakfast on the lawn, took me to the famous market in Saint Paul to buy vanilla and fresh flowers and strange vegetables like chou-chou and spiked cucumber.

"Oh don't buy this one!" she said cheerfully -- sniffing one vanilla stalk. "This comes from Madagascar, not the Réunion!"

Vanilla is very expensive -- a euro a thin stalk -- because the vanilla plant, exported once upon a time from Central America, needs to be cross-fertilized by a fly which could not survive on the island. Hence a specialized technician -- nicknamed the "Fertilizer" -- has to go to each vanilla plant and perform artificial insemination: transferring pollen to the stigma. The result is a dreamy scent of sweetness.

I swam once more with the fish. One surprised me from behind and pecked at my leg.

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The only "shark" I was ever to meet in Réunion.

A thank you to Olivier Cauras for sharing his photos.