Map: Rodriguez Island.
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Once safely into the expansive Mathurin Bay we dropped sail and motored for the dynamited inner channel leading to the tiny port. It seemed incredible that after a two week passage, four yachts would arrive together. We actually had to queue-up to enter.
“Jenny pointed obliquely into the water, broad on the starboard bow. "Foul ground!" she screamed.”
Entering the inner channel, Suka found herself gripped in a strong current that began sweeping her toward a submerged coral reef - her skipper unawares. Clearly, this was an enactment of the old story of letting up one's guard too soon. Conning from the bowsprit Jenny pointed obliquely into the water, broad on the starboard bow. "Foul ground!" she screamed, "Foul ground!" I swung the helm hard to port and gunned the engine, and the fiberglass hull narrowly averted the reef.
Once in the tiny port, all sailboats shuffled position in order to allow the larger ones to lay against the cement quay, such that the progressively smaller vessels could then be rafted abreast them. Suka was one of the larger, so we went in first. Reaching our allocated place required careful maneuvering, and while backing into position alongside the quay I felt as though I was parallel parking an 18-wheel semi. All the while a crowd of indigenous people stood nearby, gaping at us new arrivals.
Surprisingly, the passage times of the members of our Rum Line fleet, which comprised many differing types and lengths of yachts, showed little difference. There were, however, two notable exceptions. Michael Stuart, a Golden Hind 31, carried a mast shortened several feet - a re-design prompted when the original spar had carried away while tousling with stormy Coral Seas. And at the other extreme was the Italian yacht Spirit of Victory, Lola and Julio Gargallo's 75-foot, high-tech racing machine, which was built to vault across the high seas with zeal.
Hefting a massive tuna, Jim grinned, "Look what we caught last night! There's enough here for everyone; I'll divvy it up and pass it around."
After the long vigil we deemed it lunch time. Jim apportioned big chunks of tuna, and one of the previous arrivals distributed fresh baguettes (loaves of locally baked bread). Jenny lightly pan fried our chunk of the finny prey in a dab of safflower oil laced with seasoned pepper. Then she boned and crumbled the fish, and added finely chopped onions and pickles, celery seed, and a few dollops of mayonnaise. And after placing a few slices of the bread onto her homemade coffee-can toaster, she produced fresh tuna sandwiches fit for a royal family, or at least a couple of weary sailors.
Ray, Jim, Jake, Nancy, Liz; photo by Jenny.
A uniformed sentry arrived, and in broken English informed us that because the day was a Sunday we would not be able to clear with customs until the following day; moreover, until properly cleared, our vessels were not allowed to remain at the quay. We looked at one another incredulously. If he were to fetch the militia, I thought, they could move us bodily; otherwise we were staying put. "We have a few things to do down below," I turned and mumbled to our friends. "Talk to you later."
Left to himself, eventually the officer went away. But not long afterward three locals stepped from the ever present gawking crowd, and one of them requested permission to come aboard. "Who are you?" I asked, bewildered by his unabashed approach.
"I'm the Port Captain," he replied. Then gesturing toward his companions, "and these are the officers of customs and immigration. I was getting ready to go fishing this morning when I saw your boats approaching, so I telephoned my friends here and asked them to meet me at the wharf."
"Thank you very much," I replied. "and please step aboard!"
Rodriguez Island lies somewhat off the beaten track, mainly because it offers little to the jet-borne tourist. The island is festooned with small, modest houses, such that a topographical map of it resembles a heavily peppered fried egg. The population of 29,000 imposes a considerable ecological strain on its scant natural resources, but the way the inhabitants co-existed was unique. "We're like one big family here," the Port Captain told us, and after our week's stay we could certainly attest to the concord.
The following day, we report back to the authorities. Jan Hed (Crypton), Jenny, Jim and Liz McCane (Michael Stuart), Nancy and Jake Claridge (Mestizo), and Britt Hed (Crypton).
In a letter to her family, Jenny wrote:
"We're rafted alongside the other boats at the Port Mathurin wharf. There is usually a crowd of islanders, day and night, standing on the wharf and staring at the sailboats, and at us, as though we were creatures from outer space. They don't see many outsiders, and wherever we go about the island they treat us special. The Rodriguez islanders are a blend of Creole, Chinese, Indian, Madagascarene, and probably other extracts. Most can speak a bit of either French or English, so we can converse well enough, especially as a simple exchange of smiles is so universally understood. The island is green and lush, yet it has a different feeling than those of the tropical South Pacific. Each ocean seems to give its islands a special character; we are finding that the differences between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans are quite pronounced.
"Port Mathurin is a fun place. The best buy in town is a scoop of homemade ice cream for 2-1/2 rupees, or about 25 cents. A freshly baked loaf of bread is 3-1/2 rupees. At six this morning we went to the market. The butchers had recently slaughtered a cow, and the fillet I bought was still warm.
"We've been doing some serious hiking, training our bodies physically for the overnight hikes we would like to do on Reunion Island. Now my legs are really aching!"
Shifting to make room for an incoming freighter.
Following a trail into the mountainous interior.
We had gone for few long walks into the steeply mountainous interior, and one morning, after passing the last of the little tin-roofed domiciles we were following a trail into a steepening gulch when we met a Creole fellow who spoke English with reasonable proficiency. Lelio Meunier, as he later introduced himself, was tending his small herd of goats in the rugged canyon when he saw us go by. He told us that his was the hovel farthest up the draw, the one we had passed last, and he asked where we were going. We explained that we were simply out for exercise, and wished to see some of the island. He said that the way ahead was blocked by a cliff, and he offered to accompany us there, as guide.
Lelio Meunier gives us a tour of the interior.
As the three of us walked along the stream, Lelio expounded upon the medicinal uses of the various plants encountered. He was practicing his English. Most of his examples we found plausible natural remedies, but one I felt was mainly psychological. "These big leaves," he explained, "are for headache." Demonstrating, he plucked a leaf measuring some 12 inches in diameter, and removing his hat, he placed the leaf onto his head, before replacing the hat. How we Westerners take for granted our aspirin.
Eventually we reached an impressive amphitheater featuring walls 300 feet high, and a thin waterfall. "Beautiful for photographs," Lelio beamed.
Backtracking a ways, we carried on up the steep and bushy hillside. And once above the waterfall we continued farther into the draw. Lelio seemed familiar with each rock and tree, and we asked him how he knew the area so well. "I come here every day tending my goats," he explained. Crossing the stream, we climbed out of the ravine, and eventually came to a spring where a few women were laundering clothing. Some had come for water, and were returning home, each carrying a large tin pot balanced atop her head.
We passed through an agricultural sector sporting small hand-worked plots of maize and potatoes, then we followed a path leading down the mountain. Lelio accompanied us through town and back to the wharf, and we invited him aboard for a sandwich.
"OK," Lelio announced. "Where you want to go tomorrow?" He seemed anxious to accompany us on another hike, and we were pleased with his company.
“From his sack Lelio produced three glasses and a bottle of La Cloche wine. Also, he shared with us a loaf of bread; a dish of dried, spicy fish; and a salad of tomatoes, scallions, cucumbers, garlic, and chili peppers.”
At the appointed hour of 8 a.m. Lelio arrived at the wharf carrying a plastic lunch bag. The three of us walked north along the shoreline for six hours, and reached Pointe Cotton (ku-tone') where we stopped for a picnic. From his sack Lelio produced three glasses and a bottle of La Cloche: a wine that sells locally for about 40 cents. Also, he shared with us a loaf of bread; a dish of dried, spicy fish; and a salad of tomatoes, scallions, cucumbers, garlic, and chili peppers.
Hiking along the coast.
Our feet had become sore, and before setting off again Jenny and I switched our beach sandals: left one to the right foot, and visa versa. "It's our custom when returning from a journey to switch shoes like this," we jested with Lelio. Pondering a few moments, he shrugged his shoulders and switched his sandals also.
From the coast we walked along the road leading into the mountains, admiring the interesting scenery. Along the way we met a number of islanders who proved most cordial. Whether an affectation, a local custom, or perhaps genuinely, Lelio acted like he knew most of them.
In the middle of America, can you see the ocean on both sides?
At a high vantage we sat resting, and gazing at the sea both eastward and westward. Lelio asked, "In the middle of America, can you see the ocean on both sides?" I assured him that one could not, then asked whether he traveled much. He related having been off Rodriguez Island only twice, both times for brief visits to nearby Mauritius Island, which he considered deplorable. "Many bad man in Mauritius," he explained. "You can tell an evil man by looking in eyes."
As we traveled, the three of us discussed a variety of subjects, and I found this fellow surprisingly sagacious considering his modest way of life. We spoke also of religion and customs. A devout Christian, Lelio followed the Bible's teachings. Also, he held to a number of beliefs handed down through generations. I had asked him about the cyclones, which are well known to frequent the area. "Now we have radio that gives warnings," he related, "but when I was young my father taught me to predict when cyclone was coming by boiling [a type of tree] leaves and watching them."
We reached a place high in the mountains aptly named Grande Montagne, and here our fatigue suggested we board a bus, that then whisked us back to Port Mathurin.
The following day we invited Lelio and his family aboard for dinner. He and his wife Jocelyn, and their children Pascale and Ketty arrived dressed in their Sunday best. They pressed us with gifts: a small basket with 3 eggs from their chickens, and a bottle of homemade salsa. After a pleasant evening they reciprocated, inviting us to their home the following afternoon.
Lelio and his family and their house.
With Pascale's help, Lelio did his cooking on this outside fire, sheltered from the rain.
Pascale in the kitchen.
Pascale, Lelio and Jocelyn, and Ketty.
Lelio enjoyed acting as chef on special occasions such as this, and he admitted to having spent much of the day preparing the feast. Jocelyn had obviously cleaned the little house stem to stern, for it bristled. In the back yard stood a small shelter where cast iron pots hung over a wood fire. The house featured a kitchen area with thick wooden shelves and a wash basin. Behind the basin, an open window allowed one to reach a spigot, fed by a length of pipe leading to the nearby stream.
The entrée was a chicken, previously a member of the family's brood. Removing the cooked bird from a pot, and placing it onto a plank, with a heavy machete Lelio chopped the fowl to shreds, bones and all. This he served as is. He complemented the chicken with boiled pork - smothered in rice and drenched in a spicy gravy. The salads were, firstly, a mix of beets and potatoes drenched in vinegar, salt, and pepper - a dish known locally as Russian Salad; and secondly, watercress with seasonings. A bottle of La Cloche wine capped the sumptuous bill of fare.
I remarked that chickens were not in evidence about the place, and I asked Lelio how many he had. Like the goats, Lelio explained, the chickens are mostly wild and roam freely about the canyon. "I had about 50," he related, "but now only about 20."
"What happened to the others?" I inquired.
"That's terrible," Jenny and I said, offering our condolences.
"No, I know those men. They were only stealing to feed families. And God will give me more chickens."
Lelio and Jocelyn withdrew their photo albums, which contained a surprising number of pictures, mostly of weddings. Then they produced a bucket of sea shells, pouring its contents onto the floor and imploring us to take what we liked. We admired the collection and chose a few specimens, but only when they insisted the more adamantly.
Well past dark, we assured our hosts that we could find our own way back to the wharf, but before leaving we presented them with a few small gifts: a fancy pocket knife and an Arkansas sharpening stone for Lelio, a bottle of fragrant hand lotion for Jocelyn, and a pair of school jackets for the children. Lelio worked the night shift at the Ministry of Health, so he would be following us into town shortly.
Reluctantly, after a six day sojourn we departed Rodriguez Island. We could have lingered several months, but the onset of the northern Indian Ocean cyclone season was fast approaching. While there was time we were eager to explore some of Reunion Island, renowned for its mountain hiking trails.