Thursday, 1 February 2018

Vanilla: the book

Vanilla: travels in search of the Ice Cream Orchid is a book by writer, journalist and broadcaster Tim Ecott that was first published in 2004. It explores the history and current cultivation of vanilla, the world's most versatile flavour, and traces its story from its natural origins on the Gulf Coast of Mexico to Madagascar, Tahiti, Reunion, Seychelles and around the botanical collections of Europe. As someone who lives in Reunion, not far from La Vanilleraie, and who has also translated texts for a vanilla plantation, I was sure the book would interest me.

cover of Vanilla: travels in search of the Ice Cream Orchid

The book intertwines fact-finding mission, travelogue, natural history and biological detective story. I learnt a number of things about vanilla:
  • There are over 25000 species of orchids, and counting. Of all the orchids the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop
  • Vanilla is the most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world.
  • Unlike other agricultural crops, the amount of vanilla beans available each year is comparatively small - approximately 2000 metric tons.
  • More than half the world's vanilla beans end up in the United States. Half of those are used in the dairy industry.
  • Under the right conditions, an established vanilla vine is capable of long life in the wild, perhaps 1000 years.
  • Vanilla is the only economic area in which Madagascar has an opportunity to influence a world market. The island consistently accounts for half of the world's vanilla production.
The book follows a roughly chronological history of vanilla, starting with four chapters set in Mexico, then after a chapter in the botanical collections of early 19th century England, there are a further four chapters set in Reunion, where he discusses Edmond Albius' contribution to vanilla. I found this especially interesting as although I knew of the 12-year old slave who was the first to discover how to pollinate vanilla flowers had died in poverty, I knew little else about him. After a chapter in Tahiti the final four chapters take place in Madagascar, albeit with most of one of the chapters examining vanilla's importance in the US food industry. 

Edmond Albius (source)

References are also made to the Comoros (... notorious for its tally of coups d'état and mercenary-led invasions. 19 coups in less than a quarter of a century is still something of a record, I believe), and the Seychelles where the author lived for a time. He explains he chose this latter destination as he had developed an obsession with scuba diving and I enjoyed his remark "underwater I could always escape the claustrophobia of living in a society where everyone knew everyone else's business". He also refers to the south-west Indian Ocean as a region that "other English-speaking journalists didn't bother with [at the time] because they considered it too peripheral to world events. Whenever I made repeated visits to the islands, colleagues would sneer slightly at the idea that I was 'reporting from the beach again'."

vanilla flower, seen at St-Philippe

The author knows how to write and makes his subject matter very readable, however I did find some digressions less interesting or wonder whether they weren't just padding. In the penultimate chapter he also makes an amateurish mistake referring to cyclone wind speeds (almost 200 miles an hour) as the speed at which a cyclone (Hudah in this particular instance) was travelling. However all in all, a worthwhile book for anyone with an interest in the subject and destinations discussed.

Reunion's coat of arms shows a vanilla vine

Further reading:

wild vanilla growing at St Philippe

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wild vanilla growing at St Philippe


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Grande Comore

To get to our diving holiday in Moheli we had to travel via Grande Comore (Ngazidja), which you can reach via a 2-hour direct flight from Reunion. We spent a night there before and after our Moheli flights as it is advisable to have leeway of at least 24 hours either side of your flight, owing to schedules changing at the last minute due to inclement weather or overbooking.


Our last trip to Grande Comore was in August 2000 (see below), and on our outbound trip we revisited the capital, Moroni, to see how much it had changed in eighteen years. I would have liked another look at the stuffed coelacanth at the Centre National de Documentation et de la Recherche Scientifiques, but unfortunately the museum was closed for renovation. I've been told the coelacanth is still there, just with a bit more dust.

Photo of the coelacanth that I took in 2000

My other memory of Moroni was auditive, from the small harbour in front of the Old Friday Mosque: I remember hearing the sound of material being hammered into the spaces between the hull planks of the  wooden dhows that were used to unload merchandise from larger ships offshore. However these dhows have now been replaced by more modern fibreglass boats and so the sound has disappeared.

Old Friday mosque ("Badjanani Mosque") built in 1427

Not far away from the harbour is a sign proclaiming Mayotte est comorienne et le restera à jamais ("Mayotte is part of the Comoros and will always remain so"). This references the fact that the fourth island of the archipelago, Mayotte, is contested. It was the only island of the four that voted in referendums in 1974 and 1976 to retain its link with France and forgo independence (with 63.8% and 99.4% of votes respectively). A draft 1976 United Nations Security Council resolution recognizing Comorian sovereignty over Mayotte, supported by 11 of the 15 members of the Council, was vetoed by France. However since 1995 the subject of Mayotte has not been discussed by the General Assembly.


After Moheli on our trip back we had a car and driver meet us at the airport, and heading northwards our first stop was at the "Sceau de l'Islam aux Comores" a site dedicated to the first Comorian to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

wood carving above doorway, Sceau de l'Islam aux Comores

On leaving the site we came across a number of men making galawa (pirogues), and we stopped to watch and ask some questions.

making a galawa boat 

The next day, on our way to the airport, we saw some fishermen out in their galawa.

out fishing in galawa, just north of Moroni 

Our next halt, appropriately enough, was at the site of the former Galawa Beach hotel, where we stayed in 2000 and which at the time was the islands' best hotel. This is an aerial view of what the hotel used to look like:

former Galawa Beach Hotel

However despite being successful it was knocked down for political?/economical? reasons about ten  years ago, and now there is virtually nothing left.

looking over where the swimming pool used to be

beach at former Galawa Beach Hotel site

Our next stop was the Lac Salé (Salty Lake) or Niamawi Lake to give it its proper name. This former volcanic crater is located in the far north of Grande Comore, and is reputed to be bottomless :-)

salty Niamawi Lake

We carried on down the island's east coast, stopping to look at the attractive Chomoni beach, before heading back to Moroni by cutting across the island on the RN4.

Chomoni Beach

Once again we were destined not to visit Mount Karthala, the island's highest point (2631m/7746 feet) and an active shield volcano - the most recent eruptions were in 2005 and 2006. On this occasion it was due to lack of time, in 2000 it was because of the lack of organised visits available (which may still be the case). Perhaps we'll get to climb it one day on another visit.

Skipjack tuna for sale at Moroni harbour market



Further reading:


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Monday, 22 January 2018

Moheli

We recently spent 11 nights at a hotel on the southern coast of Moheli, Moheli being the smallest (211 km2/81 sq mi) and least populated (38,000 inhabitants) of the three islands forming the Union of the Comoros. It only sees about 400 to 500 visitors every year.

view from the beach looking up towards the hotel bungalows

Hermit crab on the hotel beach

As the hotel is located opposite Moheli's Marine Park we mainly went for the diving (see separate blog post) but we also had time to relax, read, sleep and generally unwind. The Marine Park encompasses seven islets.

sunset over another two of the islets

looking towards the hotel beach from further afield

The hotel is on a beach enclosed on either side by a headland, which virtually makes it into a private beach, and there is a another small beach (barely visible on the photo above) which is accessible at very low tide. A short walk away is the long public beach of the town of Nioumachoua, Moheli's second town with a population of approximately 6,000.

a small part of Nioumachoua's public beach

We took some strolls through the town (which is really just a large village) and were intrigued to see a grand mariage was taking place, which is a traditional wedding ceremony performed in Comoros. It involves an exchange of expensive gifts between the couple's families as well as a festivities lasting up to 9 days for an entire village, and can cost as much as the equivalent of US$50,000. The most elaborate sometimes require more than 3 years of planning. Only by participating in the ceremony is a Comorian man entitled to participate in his village's assembly of notables and to wear the mharuma, a sash that entitles him to enter the mosque by a special door. 

part of grand mariage celebrations 
women dancing as they take the dowry to the bridegroom's home,
part of grand mariage celebrations

We could have gone to see turtles laying eggs on the beach at Itsamia, a 90-minute drive away, but as that's something we'd already experienced in Oman, we preferred going to see the island's endemic Livingstone' fruit bats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the species as critically endangered, and as of 2003 (no more recent figure seems to exist) the total population in the wild was estimated at 1,200 individuals. Due to their imperiled status, the bats have been identified by the Alliance for Zero Extinction as a species in danger of imminent extinction.

a Livingstone's fruit bat

We had to hike for an hour and a half through forest, but our reward was getting to see these magnificent 'flying foxes' relatively close. The bats are only found on Moheli and neighbouring Anjouan, and only 15 roost-sites are currently occupied in Anjouan and six sites at Moheli.

Livingstone's fruit bat with wings spread

Although the bats are predominantly nocturnal there is some activity during the day, so we were able to hear and see the bats fairly easily.

flying Livingstone's fruit bat

teck tree near Livingstone's fruit bat roosting site 

skink in the forest

Longhorn beetle (Coleoptera cerambycidae)

a deserted beach near Ouallah on the island's west coast 

Moheli is about 10° further north than Reunion Island, and while most of the vegetation was familiar to us, some of the dishes served in the hotel were not. 

Mkatre Wa Foutra - a flatbread made using yeast, eggs and flour

Kuskuma - another type of bread

Madaba: moringa greens mixed with coconut & some fish. A Comorian staple.

fried breadfruit, served as a savoury accompaniment to a main course

fried banana, served as a savoury accompaniment to a main course

I also asked whether there was a Comorian equivalent to the ranon'apango (rice water: water boiled in the pan in which rice has cooked) that I enjoy so much in Madagascar. I was served this dish, which was more akin to a rice soup; I don't know whether that's the way it's served in the Comoros or just the hotel.

Comorian rice water ?

At the time of writing getting to Moheli entails a domestic flight via Grande Comore (flights between Moheli and Mayotte are not currently operating), and it is advisable to have leeway of at least 24 hours either side of your flight, as schedules can change at the last minute due to inclement weather or overbooking.


a member of the passion fruit family


Further reading:

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Sunday, 21 January 2018

Moheli diving


The Comoros is not a well-known tourist destination, and Moheli, the smallest of the Union's three islands, is even less so. Even in Reunion friends and acquaintances would look at me blank-faced when I mentioned where my next dive destination was. To be honest with a total of only 400-500 visitors per year the island is definitely off the beaten path. At the time of writing getting to Moheli entails a domestic flight via Grande Comore (flights between Moheli and Mayotte are not currently operating); Grande Comore can be reached with flights from Reunion, Mayotte and Madagascar and from Europe via Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam or Addis Ababa.

Laka Lodge dive centre (on a windy day). As it's on the beach we patted down
our wetsuits every time to make sure no insect had taken refuge inside!

Unless you bring all your own equipment, any diving you do on Moheli will take place from the Dive Centre of Laka Lodge, a 3-star hotel located on the south coast of Moheli opposite the Marine Park of Moheli. The Park was created in 2001 and covers practically the entire southern coast of the island and encompasses 8 islets. 


sunset over some of the Marine Park islets

Diving is possible all year round and groups of up to 6 to 8 divers can be accommodated, although when we were there it was only ever just my husband and I or one other diver. All dives are without decompression for reasons of security as the nearest decompression chamber is in Mayotte. Depending on when you visit you may be accompanied by a dive master as opposed to an instructor, so try dives and training may not be possible year-round. We were there in January, but I believe September is actually the best time of year to dive Moheli in terms of weather conditions. Humpback whales can be seen from July to October.

map of Moheli showing the main dive sites

Below are a few photos from the nine dives we did there on six different dive spots. We also saw - but don't have decent photos of - barracudas, a small nurse shark, octopi and various mantis shrimps.

General view of the reefs, Glass Reef 

Moray eel, Glass reef

Leaf fish, Glass reef 

me looking at fan coral, Ras Kanzoni

me and a green turtle 

at Magic Rocks

at Mtsaka Point

Box fish, Mtsaka Point

at Mtsaka Point

rock shrimp, Magic Rocks

at Magic Rocks

cowrie shell with mantle, Masters 

scorpion fish at Mtsaka Point

Blue-spotted stingray, Masters

juvenile ribbon eel, Masters 

Guineafowl pufferfish, Glass Reef 

Lobster, Glass Reef 

Oriental sweetlips, Glass Reef

Coral, Glass Reef

two mangrove whiptail rays who had just finished mating

Puffer fish, Tombant des Phantomes 

Moray eel, Tombant des phantômes 

more lobsters, Tombant des Phantomes

The Comoros are of course well-known as being home to coelacanths but we had no such luck as of course we weren't diving that deep!



See also:



Further reading: