The one thing I like most about traveling is that you never know what to expect. In a matter of thirty-six hours, we transitioned from drinking champagne and watching movies on demand in the business class of an intercontinental flight to sleeping on the floor of an overpopulated and smelly piece of rust that serves as inter-island ferry in the remote archipelago of the Comoros.
As night falls and we leave Grande Comore for the outer islands, all around me on this boat is amassed the “Africa” that one can only imagine, or see on a Discovery Channel documentary: live goats and chickens, baskets of bananas, bags of onions and manioc roots, one old used car, various pieces of furniture, truck tires, planks of rough wood, bundles of trade goods, and hundreds of human beings. Squeezed together on the steel deck between a young local girl and two dozen of her closest relatives is a tall white guy who happens to be non other than veteran surf traveler Randy Rarick. The rest of our group is nearby, wedged into any available space and trying to sleep.
I try not to pay attention to the loud screams that come from all over the upper deck. As soon as we reach the open waters of the Mozambique Channel, and the overloaded ferry starts rolling at every set of the long-period southern groundswell, the whole crowd aboard falls into a trance-like state of panic that spreads in a matter of seconds. “Sachet! Sachet!” they all scream at the top of their lungs while one guy literally runs over bodies from one end to the other of the deck giving away plastic bags.
It doesn’t take long for us to realize that sachet means “plastic bag” in Comoran French, and all we can hope is that no one within close proximity claims one, but they all do. I look over to the corner of the deck where I last saw the rest of our crew and spot photographer John Callahan, traveling journalist, Mike Kew, and Frenchman surfer, Erwan Simon, squeezed between a big refrigerator, half a dozen other passengers, and several piles of empty Coke cases. Almost instinctively a quote from one of Callahan’s latest emails pops out of the blue as the perfect caption for this sight: “We’ll take the boat. We like to mix with the locals.”
Fifteen hours later, we’re a little wobbly and stiff, but finally on dry land, and in the process of clearing another round of customs as a fat lady and a heavy looking military guy in mismatched camouflage inspect our board bags and passports looking for an evidence of our supposed mercenary status.
Oddly enough, getting from one island to the other in the Comoros requires a special visa and clearing customs procedures repeatedly even if the separate islands are still part of the same country. There’s a current political conflict over one of the islands’ declaration of independence from the rest of the archipelago, and a long history of mercenary-led coups d’etat.
Taking care of business in troubled Africa requires patience, time, and money, so it’s not surprising that on our third day into the trip we still haven’t seen a breaking wave nor surfed once. But as we drive along its beautiful coastline and across its stunning valleys the feeling that we’re right on track to finally get some good surf becomes more tangible after every bend of the tortuous road. If it weren’t for the chronic lack of basic infrastructures and the extreme poverty of its inhabitants, this island could very well claim the status as one of the last paradises on earth.
Every square inch of the black lava mountains is covered by lush tropical vegetation, with coconut trees and enormous Baobabs growing ‘til the water’s edge to meet the Caribbean like turquoise waters of the placid lagoons. High up on the mountains and deep down its valleys, the air is permeated by the delicate scent of the Ilang Ilang and Frangipani flowers: should paradise have a distinctive scent, then it would definitely have to be a mixture of these two fragrances.