ooh la la
We left Madagascar and an hour later touched down in France. Though the glory days of its colonial empire are a distant memory, France still controls a number of territories outside Europe, which have varying degrees of autonomy. As a department, Reunion is part of France in the same way that Scotland is part of the UK, and Guam is not part of the United States. It was only when we started looking for flights between Madagascar and the Seychelles that we realized a slice of France still exists in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Perhaps it’s a well-kept French secret. After spending a week on the island, we only met one other person who was not from France, and she was French Canadian.
After a year in Nairobi, it was disorienting to walk off the plane and find ourselves in the first world. Reunion’s airport cannot be mistaken for Charles de Gaul but it is irrefutably European and a far cry from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, which resembles a bus station. Whereas Madagascar still had the unmistakable feel of a developing country, Reunion’s smoothly paved streets, precisely engineered highways, and polite drivers who would cede the passing lane to faster vehicles left no doubt that we were no longer in Africa, even if geographically we were closer to its shores than to any other continent. From the supermarkets to the quaint sleepy towns with little corner bakeries, we could not shake the feeling that a small part of southern France had been somehow transplanted to this island.
With only a week to explore Reunion and several must-see destinations scattered all over the island, we booked a rental car. However, as our plane from Nairobi to Madagascar was about to grace the tarmac, S gasped realizing that neither of us had brought our licenses. After a few moments of shock, we started strategizing and spent an hour or so at an Internet cafe on our way to Anjozorobe making Skype calls to several rental companies. Not only are automatic cars had to come by in Reunion (learning to drive stick remains on both of our to-do lists), but it was also clear we either needed a driver’s license or a police report saying it was stolen.
Luckily, S had faced a similar predicament before and remembered that Maine has an online license replacement system. For a nominal fee, Maine residents can not only order a replacement license, but also print out a temporary one. The AVIS rental agent in Reunion scrutinized the printout for a long time before finally telling us he could not accept it. “This license is not yet valid,” he clarified. S glanced at the dates, her crestfallen expression quickly giving way to a hopeful smile as she explained that in the US the first number in the date represents the month rather than the date, as it does in most of the rest of the world. That seemed to resolve the rental agent’s doubts and he handed us the keys to a small Peugot 207.
From the airport we headed to St-Leu, arriving there just before sunset. We stopped at an ice cream shop to sit down and pick a place to stay for the night. We had been missing our backpacking days, showing up in a town without a reservation and looking around before choosing our lodgings. In our travels throughout East Africa this has been impossible as each trip required reservations for everything from accommodations and vehicles to park fees and even meals. But for this one week, we made no bookings and had no plans.