Guest blog: The road to Hell-Bourg and back


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While I was away in ‘the Congos’, Rachel was also in Africa. Below she shares some of her experiences and impressions from quite a different part of that vast continent. Next week I’ll be back blogging about my trip to Sierra Leone. All the best, Mark

Reunion (Or Mascarin as it was first known), was colonised by the French in 1642. It became known as Bourbon under the monarchy and as L’Ile de la Réunion after the French Revolution. Coffee, (cultivated by slaves) became one of the main crops of the island, followed by sugar cane and vanilla. A period of prosperity continued until the 1870s when the opening of the Suez Canal meant trade declined as trade ships bypassed Reunion.

Technically part of France, in 1946 Reunion became a “Departement d’Outre Mer”, with all the state support and parliamentary representation that goes with it. Today the island’s economy depends mainly on tourism and sugar exports and although there is a high level of unemployment (29.1% in 2011 according to INSEE), the island remains one of the richest in the Indian Ocean with very low levels of poverty or homelessness (mainly owing to the fact that the unemployed are eligible for the same unemployment benefits as mainland France).

Pedestrian shopping zone

Pedestrian shopping zone, St Denis, Reunion

I arrived to collect data early on a Monday morning in St Denis, only to find that all the shops in the town centre were boarded up and the streets were empty! Fearing that the recession had hit the island hard, I was very glad to discover that the shops were simply closed for the day. It turns out that, like some parts of rural France, many shops choose to close on Mondays, preferring a working week of Tuesday – Saturday, although the business working week remains Monday-Friday. I’ve worked in rural France so the concept should have been familiar, but given that St Denis is the the administrative centre I was still somewhat surprised. Luckily, I knew that the supermarkets on the outskirts were open, so I simply rearranged my plans.

On my travels I’ve discovered that opening hours really do vary drastically from country to country and can be one of the hardest things to find out in advance (we’re lucky if many places we visit have an entry on Google Maps, let alone a website!) and there are always local variations, so local knowledge is invaluable. It did strike me as one of the many small cultural adjustments that expatriates need to make; adapting to local opening hours and learning that you CAN’T just get a bottle of water at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon in the middle of St Denis.

Roland Garros, the famous aviator, was from Reunion

Roland Garros, the famous aviator, was from Reunion

Opening hours aside, I was genuinely amazed by how much good quality produce was available. Given that Reunion is a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I was expecting there to be limited availability of some items. To my surprise however, the supermarkets (including big chains like Carrefour and Leclerc) are almost indistinguishable from their counterparts in mainland France. Most items are imported from there anyway, so common expat brands like Bonne Maman jam, President butter and Lavazza coffee are all freely available, but Reunion is also doing its best to encourage its “Green” reputation and sell as much local produce – of which there is plenty – as possible. In the supermarkets, many of the fresh fruits and vegetables are grown on Reunion, as well as much of the meat, but it’s also possible to buy quality local brands of more unexpected items like beer (Bourbon),  coffee (Le Lion), yoghurt (Piton des Neiges), sugar and chocolate (Mascarin). Interestingly, it seems that many expatriates do prefer the local brands to imported ones. Obviously, I felt that for research purposes it was necessary to test some of these local brands and I do have to say that the chocolate was rather nice!

Post office in Hell Bourg

La Poste in Hell-Bourg, Reunion

wanderingmark has been to Reunion and highly recommended taking the mountain road to Hell-Bourg. The winding road, full of impossibly steep hairpin bends, was gorgeous; passing through stunning mountain scenery, past the famous Voile de la Mariée waterfall and actually THROUGH a different waterfall, giving me a shock when water hit the windscreen!

It really does feel like you’re leaving civilisation behind as the lonely road winds higher and higher, so it’s quite a surprise when you suddenly emerge into the pristine village of Hell-Bourg. Encircled by mountains with an amazing view of the Cirque de Mafate, the village (Named after Admiral de Hell rather than any reference to what the French might call “l’enfer”) is officially one of the “plus beaux villages de France” and well worthy of the accolade. It was quite surreal, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, seeing houses with pristine grassy lawns, the “mairie” proudly flying the French flag against the mountain backdrop and the familiar “La Poste” logo on a gorgeous red and blue wooden hut in the Creole style.

Road to Hell-Bourg

Road to Hell-Bourg

My guide book also recommended a visit to La Maison Folio, a “Creole Bourgeois” house built by the Folio family in the 19th Century and now preserved as a museum.  I could only follow about half of the tour guide’s phrases (an energetic Creole lady speaking very quickly) but it gave a colourful insight into the island’s history and I saw some unusual items, including an early version of hair straighteners, a bamboo baguette holder and a pirated bed!

On my final night in Reunion I decided to eschew fast food in favour of the local cuisine and try a traditional Reunion “carri”. Faced with a menu full of words that challenged my belief that I can speak French, I threw myself on the mercy of the waiter’s recommendation and chose a “carri de Baba Figue au Boucané”. The waiter explained that “Baba Figue” was the Reunion word for “Fleur de bananier” (Banana flower) while “boucané” refers to a meat that has been smoked. Interestingly (to a word nerd like me) the latter is apparently the origin of the English word Buccaneer;  originally  men who sold meat they’d smoked, the modern meaning of the word developed after their discovery that piracy proved more lucrative.  Anyhow, I knew I was trying a dish that I simply wouldn’t be able to find at home, even in London where I thought you could find everything! I can imagine life as an expat on Reunion would be quite isolated, but there does seem to be a successful compromise between decent availability of your favourite home comforts and the opportunity to benefit from your exotic surroundings.

Reunion truly is a beautiful place, although I’d imagine living there has certain frustrations. Quite what the future is for this small island I don’t know. With an ever-growing population straining natural resources, Reunion hasn’t remained entirely untouched by the global economic downturn but with a consistent tourist trade and assistance from the mainland, it is better placed than many other countries in Africa.

As for me, it’s off and away from this “ile paresseuse” (cheeky literary reference; author on a postcard please) to discover “real” Africa for the first time. My visa issues having finally been successfully resolved, my next blog should find me reporting on the trials and tribulations of expatriate life in Luanda, Angola.

Rachel is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (www.eca-international.com).
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