By Kevin Finley
It may have been Gertrude Stein who wrote, “To lead a life of any interest, one must first spend time in Paris. It’s a place that defines and shapes like no other; its Aphroditic nature can overwhelm or inspire, but it can’t leave you indifferent.” It’s been about ten years since I last stepped foot on Réunion Island and each time I think about being there, I’m reminded of this quote. Réunion Island is easily the most fascinating place I’ve ever seen and it having a piece of Paris is just a sliver as to why it was a place that shaped and defined me. Not many people know Paris has a long lost sibling in the southern hemisphere called Réunion Island and, yes, the name does tie back to a reunion of sorts. Réunion was the name given to the island in 1793 by a ruling and after the fall of the House of Bourbon in France who named the island after themselves, Bourbon. Why the name Réunion? The name commemorates the union of revolutionaries from Marseille with the National Guard in Paris, which took place on 10 August 1792. This reunion is where the piece of Paris comes from. Parisians would bring parts of their Paris lives to the island and over time, Réunion became a sliver of Paris. The piece of Paris is like the top of Crème Brulee because it is the first thing you see. And just like a Crème Brulee, there is a lot more beneath the surface. When you crack into Réunion’s interior, there are several components that don’t make a lot of sense. There is confusion and uneasiness about certain areas. All of it shaped and defined me.
Why most people have never heard of the island is one of the layers beneath the surface. Réunion Island is within a few hundred miles of being the southernmost piece of inhabited land in the Southern Hemisphere. The location contributed to a blend of cultures from Africa, India, China and of course France. France has the strongest cultural influence on the island, but culture is only one piece to the complicated puzzle that makes the island diverse. Part of the islands present and history is extremely poverty stricken areas. The history is linked to slavery and the present is because the island hasn’t evolved to completely free itself from the past. In America, we would call these poor areas third world. Juxtaposing the third world is a first world that would make a place like Beverly Hills blush. These two worlds co-exist much like the cultures. They are intermixed and part of the fabric of the island, but they are divided in every other possible way.
When I arrived on the island, I was in my mid-twenties and too old to being doing what I was doing, which was I why I was there. I wanted to figure out how to stop hanging around bars as much as I did and make a decision on what I was going to do with my life. I was so used to getting by on what I knew and never having to step outside of my comfort zone, so I never felt the need to figure out what I was going to do with my life until I was about 24. I was floating through life and by that age, I was tired of not going anywhere. Floating through life with no direction and never going anywhere were why I went to the further possible place to start doing something about my lack of direction. That and I had a girlfriend living on the island. I figured the further I was away from routines and comforts, I would have no choice but to figure out what I was going to do. I never expected to be so uncomfortable that I was in state of shock for days. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what I was seeing. In this state of shock, there was also a small bit of excitement as I realized I was going to need to work to make it on the island, so no more floating through life. Having my American girlfriend on the island with me was my one safety net. She found the island first as she was doing research for her PhD, so I would have never gotten to the other end of earth without her. We said we were in love, but looking back I’m not sure if our needing each other to survive forced us to be in love or if we genuinely loved each other. It is tough to tell the difference when you’re literally trying to survive and whether we were or were not, it doesn’t matter. We have the memories of what and who we were for those few months. It was hard and there were fights, but we made it and that is what I remember most. She was on the island for nearly the opposite reason. She had her life planned and figured out and was there as part of her PhD education. We could not have been in two more different places. One of us was getting a PhD and the other had no clue who they were much less what they wanted to do with themselves. But we were there together and together, the screw up and PhD candidate took on the island.
The shock I spoke about started with the extreme poverty, which grabbed me by the shirt collar and made me stand up straight. I couldn’t believe the conditions people were surviving in. I couldn’t wrap my head around many facets of the island upon arrival, but the poverty grabbed me first and never let go. I’ll never forget my first thought upon seeing shacks and the depression spanning the space. Words can’t do justice to the pain you feel for those people and the disgust you feel in yourself for even thinking for a second that you had it bad. I saw an entire demographic of people that had no voice in every possible way. Even the poorest of the poor in the “Land of the Free” have a voice. They can speak their mind, get help and have a fighting chance of getting out of their circumstances. These people had none of that and all it took was one look to realize that fact.
There are complicated components as to why they have no voice and the convolution starts with most of the world not knowing the island even exists, therefore has no idea the struggle happening. The island is a couple hundred miles west of Madagascar and there is nothing until Australia to the east. Madagascar and Réunion run parallel with one another in the Indian Ocean where water easily out numbers land by thousands of miles. Both islands are nearly the last pieces of land on earth, but this distinction goes to Madagascar’s neighbor to the west, South Africa. Though if you are ranking how forgotten these three pieces of inhibited land are, Réunion runs away with this distinction, which is why from the moment I stepped foot on the island, I considered it the end of earth.
Being a lost land is fine for the Beverly Hills demographic as they have chosen to live a quiet life, but for those that have nothing and need a voice, it’s an issue. Thinking back that there were these two worlds co-existing on a 950 square foot island still amazes me and it’s the people without a voice that has me writing about Réunion Island. We may not have spoken more than a few words too each other, but they are who defined and shaped me and they are why it is The World’s Most Interesting Island.
When I moved to the island in the spring of 2005, I had very little French under my belt—I quickly learned the art of observation. The first thing I observed when I got off the plane and stepped outside for the first time was paradise. I was greeted by palm trees, a stunning mountainous landscape and had the Indian Ocean’s tide rolling about 100 yards from the airport. The ocean’s blue was such a perfect blue, it didn’t look real. Nothing around me looked real and why I thought I was in paradise. I would soon discover that this is how the island is made up. One minute you could be on a white sanded beach or in a chic French restaurant and the next, you might be surrounded by slums. It’s jarring to say the least and my first glimpse of it was just the beginning to what I would absorb from being on the island. Once you see how the other side of the world lives, there is no way you can’t be changed. This is for both paradise and the third world. They are both Réunion and what makes them The World’s Most Interesting Island. At this first glimpse of each world, I still didn’t know where I was going in life, but I knew I had a chance to figure it out.
The island’s location and cultural diversity are only the start to what makes Réunion unlike anything else in the world. The fact that you can go from the capital of Réunion, Saint Denis to lava fields to coastal towns to the mountains and into forests by driving a few hours was always surreal to me. Being able to hike volcanos and into places called cirques which are tiny villages set inside a mountain were experiences that leave only room to shape you. I tried to cherish each moment I had on the island because I knew unless I came back, what I had was never going to be replicated anywhere else in the world. I had all the time in the world to think about these types of things because I couldn’t speak the language good enough to have more than a few word conversation with people so I spent a lot of time in my head. I had a couple of friends, but most days Martha was the only person I had conversations with, which was isolating and how I grew. Being alone and unable to speak helped me find a new side of myself that was resilient. When you can’t speak the same language, you truly appreciate basic aspects of life. I had to teach myself how to order things like an expresso and each time I got it right and had a hot expresso in front of me, I was thankful.
The World’s Most Interesting Island is also the last place on earth regardless of South Africa being a little further south. I say this because most maps don’t even mark it by name and some maps don’t even include a small spec of land where the island exists. This omission is symbolic as it represents the history of the island and the state it might forever be in—a lost island with lost souls. I was one of those lost souls during my four months on the island. I’m forever grateful to have been one of those lost souls and to the girlfriend that took the journey with me. She and the island are all part of the story and now it’s time for people to hear about this interesting island. I believe they have a story and voice we can all learn something from. I’m also hopeful there is someone who resembles who I was back then that reads about the island and they are able to take away even a sliver of what I was able to discover inside myself.