Mayotte and the Comoros

I´m still so confused as to how I got to France in the middle of the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Madagascar and Mozambique, but not quite the Comoros. Because of some referendum, Mayotte became a part of France in 2011, and thus a part of the EU, but remains the poorest part of France and the outermost region of the EU. There is a large influx of ex-patriots and metropolitans from France, but the local people identify as Maore, speak a language similar to other Comorian dialects, and are almost 100% Muslim. There is a history of Arab invasion and Malagasy pillaging, and the mix of African and Asian features under their colourful clothes takes you worlds away from anywhere European.

The sight of homeless orphans was a painful reminder about what Europe means to the surrounding, third-world, independent islands – it´s better to take your chances as an illegal refugee in Mayotte to give birth so that at least your child will get a European passport and thus, better healthcare, education and opportunities. But the truth is, when their mothers get sent away, they become parent-less and often homeless, and even contribute to crime and other illegal activities. Being Europe in the middle of the Comoros also affects shopping opportunities – French cheese, wine and even vegetables are imported and sold at Parisian prices, and the local produce of tomatoes for example, though much much cheaper per kilo, is grown with an abundance of non-EU approved pesticides, so the ones who are educated enough to know about the harms caused and wealthy enough to have the choice, don´t buy local produce.

Moya beach

I couchsurfed in Mayotte and two of the Comorian islands – Anjouan and Grand Comore. There were only one or two active couchsurfers in each place, and somehow my dates were perfect, but little travel information or tourism appeal made me totally underbudget my time on these islands. I thought 3 days would be enough, on islands only a few hundred square kilometers. But, despite having small populations, centered mostly on villages around the coast, there was endless ecotourism possibilities – volcano and crater lake hikes, beaches only reachable by pirogue, mountain peaks to summit thru the jungle, and wildlife viewing on the way to boot. Mayotte has an endemic type of fruit bat that fills the skies every evening, and their specific breed of lemur is affectionately called a ´maki.´

on the top of Mont Choungui

In Mayotte, I visited the Dziani Crater lake, walked around it, and dropped down to the Moya beaches (theres Moya beach 1, 2 and 3 I think) on Petite Terre. In flipflops I summited the second largest peak in Mayotte, Mont Choungui, 594m. The French guy who I was hiking with did the same, but one of his flipflops broke on the way down, which actually proved its easiest to do it barefoot, slowly. The beaches aren´t that beautiful around Mayotte, but Sakouli beach is a black-sand beach with an inviting beach bar under a huge baobab tree.

Mutamudu from the citadel

In Anjouan, the capital city Mutsamudu has a quaint bazaar/central market and an old medina with a few salvaged mosques and old hand-carved, wooden doors. The citadel, who´s walls overlooking the city double as some sort of public toilet, has a beautiful view over the city and port, and consequently the garbage dump that piles up beside it, always in a steady, smoky, burn. The most private, peaceful spots to take in the view had, to your dismay, also been used as toilets, so the smell of human faeces and piss took away from the serenity. Trying to walk past the piles of diarrohea wasn´t as hard as avoiding one of the buzzing flies from it landing on you, so it was more enjoyable to get as far away from the city as possible to find unspoiled nature views. I spent one day hiking to a sacred lake near Dindri, which lay somewhere on the edge between mountains and valleys, and earth and sky.

wooden hand-carving, especially doors, is one of the Comoros´ oldest trades

Domoni was slightly smaller and cleaner, with a medina winding around beside the sea, between 4 mosque towers. Anjouan also has its own Moya beach, with one hotel and restaurant on the cliffs behind the yellow-sand beach where you can pre-order a lobster lunch or dinner overlooking the sea. Just be prepared to be the only one there, unless you brought some friends. For wildlife sighting, the endemic Linvingstone bat, the largest and rarest of all Comorian bats, is also called the Comoro Flying fox, and usually be spotted at dusk. Sadly, this was also a time many burn their garbage, and the coast was a popular place to pile heaps of trash so large, a smoking bank of garbage becomes the divider between the road and the beach. Some rivers naturally become waste dumps because people assume it will take it down to the beach where the rest of it is, and free-ranging goats and rats the size of cats stick to these water ways for scrounging.

Anjouan was the least developed and most underkept island of the Comoroian archipelago. It was also the cheapest, and buses and taxi rides often cost less than a dollar. It had only a few hotels (only 2 on the island that I would recommend) or touristic sites of interest, and their one UNESCO world heritage sight was a large Baobab tree on the side of the road between Domoni and Moya. The other potential UNESCO sights were the ruins of old mosques and palaces that were hard to distinguish from construction sights, since both end up looking like grey, crumbling, half finished buildings fighting the decay and growth that a humid, tropic climate brings on any man-made construction.

In Grand Comore, I couchsurfed with and Indian guy, who was born in Madagascar, raised in the Comoros, educated in Paris, and then somehow spoke Swahili but I think he never lived in Tanzania… but I’m not sure. He thought French cheek to cheek kiss greetings were disgusting and probably had a mild case of germophobia, but he was one of the most hospitable couchsurf hosts I´ve ever had.

trying to rent a boat in Chindini

With a group of his friends, we piled on to the back of his flatbed truck and drove to the southern tip of the island. There, we rented a boat and a driver, put his engine on it, along with some fish and beer, and drove out to an isolated beach which we were promised to have all to ourselves. When two other people showed up from nowhere (landside), we just laughed and carried on acting as if we were castaways in an episode of Survivor.

the man and his zebu

On Grand Comore, there were beautiful beaches, and a lot of hiking that I missed out on. I did visit one crater and hiked around the brim, but only made it half way when I met a crazy farmer who must have been in love with his bull zebu. He kept stroking it and smiling at us when he spoke about him, and then showed us how to arouse a Zebu erection. I wished I had stayed the whole 10 days just in Grand Comore, especially since the supposed 3 hour ferries between islands actually take 12 with delays and waits (don’t trust a word the SGTM Ferry says and give yourself lots of time to travel with them!).

Planning a trip to Afghanistan

Traveling to Afghanistan has a lot of barriers, both mental and physical. Before going, you ask the inevitable question: is it safe? And everyone has a different answer or a different experience. Once you make a plan to go, you have to decide how to go – by road in almost any direction is risky. By air, you have to go thru multiple security checks just to enter the airport, and again before you enter the plane – to get in and out of Afghanistan. It’s hard to know what will happen even after you know how you’ll go.  Explaining to the Afghan consul in Tehran why I wanted to go as a tourist was as difficult for me to explain as it was for him to understand. So even after I finally had a plan and my visa, I still didn’t know if it would work out or be okay.

I made a plan to enter overland from Iran. I was going to couchsurf, but all I had was the names and numbers of people I had no idea where they lived, how they lived, or with who. So even though I kind of know where I was going, I didn’t have any idea how to get to the exact place. The border was fairly straightforward, but they never gave me a tourist registration card (which I found out later I needed to leave Afghanistan). I got to Afghanistan, and my host in Herat told me he doesn’t like living here because every time he leaves his home he’s not sure if he will come back home. Very reassuring…

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

We did get home, all three days, and spent a lot of time with him at work in a cell phone shop, since walking around was always a little stressful. I noticed an immediate change in the people, they were more intimidating, but though the people were taller and dirtier, they were somehow more handsome. There were no visible signs of danger – only a few armed guards – but the strange looks on peoples’ faces who saw us never allowed us to relax.

I was traveling with a fake husband, Michael from Germany, mostly because its unusual for females to move without other members of their family or a husband. He wore traditional Afghan clothes, and I was covered in black, but the way we walked probably gave us away. But every day, after we returned within the safe walls of his family’s home, we were surrounded by 12 or 13 family members (almost all female), and taken care of with a kind of hospitality even my own family wouldn’t give me. But every kind person we met still advised us not to trust anyone, even the next kind person we met, so we hesitated to ever fully enjoy all our positive experiences.

Kabul from afar - a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Kabul from afar – a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Leaving Herat by plane, but only to Kabul, caused the KamAir flight attendant who greeted us on board to flash us a worried look, so after boarding was completed he decided to upgrade us to first class and we sat in the first row with a hot meal – but no champagne. We relaxed a little, but still couldn’t understand why Google maps said Kabul Airport was permanently closed even though we were sitting on a plane bound for it.

If you’re planning a trip to Afghanistan, do trust people, and enjoy Afghan hospitality. Get your visa, if you can, and enjoy being one of the only tourists there. Travel by plane if you can afford it, and Kabul International Airport is open and has many direct flights daily. Don’t try to check in less than 1 hour before departure because they will leave you behind. And take into consideration there are about 5 security checks or searches before you even enter the terminal. If you want to overland into Afghanistan, the road is apparently only safe between Mashhad and Herat, and also one or two roads to Tajikistan might be passable.

Getting a visa is tricky for some (a German backpacker was denied a few days after me in Tehran) and I had to take a blood test against HIV, Hep B and Hep C. I tested negative for all of the above, thankfully, so I got my visa. Other countries need a letter of support, and other countries (mostly in the west) simply don’t give tourist visas anymore. Read more about the visa application process at the Afghan Embassy in Tehran at the Caravanistan website.