Arriving in La Réunion as a fresh-faced, pale English boy is a confusing experience. A tiny volcanic island poking jaggedly out of the Indian Ocean between Mauritius and Madagascar; I had no idea what to expect my life would be like half a world away from chilly Britain. In truth, Réunion is a lot closer to home than geography implies. The boulangeries and tabacs, cafés and bistros dotted along the palm-lined streets reveal Réunion for what it is: a sunny little nugget of France, nestled off the east coast of Africa.
Réunion island is a ‘département’ of mainland France, a bit like what the Isle of Wight is to England, except 9,000 kilometres away and with good weather. As a result, life here can strongly resemble life in the ‘Metropole’: croissants for breakfast, baguettes for lunch, a silly amount of paperwork for simple tasks – it took me 2 months and 18 visits to the bank to set up an account – and everything stops for 2 hours at lunchtime. Most importantly, the official language is French, meaning I could con Edinburgh into letting me spend 8 months here as a British Council language assistant (i.e. chatting to kids in English and being paid for it).
However, while appearing very French, the reality is totally different. Prior to colonisation, Réunion was uninhabited, and so the population derives from the slave trade and the importation of indentured workers. This mash of backgrounds led to the development of the local creole language, as well as a flamboyant creole culture with influences in every aspect of life from all over the world. Street stalls sell samosas and spring rolls, alongside stuffed chillies and beignets. Sega music blasts from colourful shuttered windows, as people sip rum punch flavoured with local passion fruits, lychees, pineapples and mangoes.
Réunion is home to some truly spectacular landscapes, perfect for hikers and outdoorsy people (which I am when it’s warm, and with an average 28 degrees, it really is. Sorry Edinburgh). A real bummer: the sea here is not as open to swimmers and surfers as it was a few years ago, given the recent sudden increase in shark attacks, but the green volcanic slopes and the enormous ‘cirques’ in the largely uninhabited centre of the island, criss-crossed with rivers and waterfalls are where you find the real paradise. Essentially Jurassic Park minus the dinosaurs.
Although the pace of life here is ‘relaxed’ to say the least, I’ve managed to keep myself fairly occupied: I’ve bought a motorbike, learned to ride a motorbike, climbed one of the most active volcanoes in the world, swum in waterfalls and snorkeled in the lagoon, been to Mauritius (twice), hiked and camped in the mountains, eaten goat and tenrec (hedgehog), and made my own fruit rum.
Réunion really is its own incredible place a world away from Europe, but if I’m tired and someone asks “Where did you do your year abroad?”, to avoid the explanation, I’ll just say “France”.